I wasn't necessarily looking for nirvana when I drove up to the two-month-old Café Zen — mostly, I was just curious about a restaurant serving what claimed to be "a fusion of Eastern and Western cuisine" in Leavenworth.
Café Zen is the creation of two likable young owners, Alan and Julie Basa, who have very little restaurant experience. It's a charming, 50-seat bistro with menu items ranging from Filipino egg rolls to phad Thai and Singapore noodles to British fish and chips — an ambitious effort for such a tiny restaurant.
My first visit was on a weeknight, accompanied by Bob and Patrick, neither of whom trusted my sense of direction. "You'll have us in Topeka before we get anywhere near Leavenworth," Bob griped in the car. But if we hadn't been trapped by unexpected bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 70 (there was a concert at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater that night), we might have made it from midtown in a little more than 30 minutes.
"This is Zen?" Patrick muttered when we arrived in front of the low-slung building that's had many lives, including one as a barbecue joint. The interior turned out to be simple but tasteful: blond-wood floors; chocolate and khaki paint; a striking piece of art on the wall; and comfortable banquettes upholstered in a pale, suedelike fabric. The place had a spartan elegance about it and a sense of calm — probably because we were the only customers there.
That gave us plenty of time to sit back and enjoy the dishes we ordered, which were all superb. Our own little fusion festival started with crispy fried cylinders of lumpia, the Filipino egg rolls stuffed with minced pork, chopped carrots and cilantro. We dipped the crackling hot rolls in a cool-sweet concoction made with applesauce and other mysterious ingredients known only to hardworking chef A.J. Ang. We further cooled our palates with soft chunks of peeled cucumber, sleek with a sesame-soy vinaigrette and dusted with sesame seeds.
"This is the best way ever to eat a cucumber," Patrick said.
After we finished off that delicacy, Julie Basa brought out a bowl of meaty stuffed wontons wobbling in a mahogany soy broth; the menu described the dumplings as wasabi-flavored, but Julie promised they weren't potent enough to hurt us. "There's just enough to give them a little kick, you know?" she said.
Actually, they could have used a little more kick. Was chef Ang toning down the heat for the Leavenworth crowd?
"Oh, no, that's not the case at all," Julie assured me. "We have some very sophisticated diners here at the military base. They've eaten all over the world and love our variety of pan-Asian dishes."
Patrick hasn't eaten all over the world, but he does have a fairly sophisticated palate, which is why he chose the popular Korean bibimbap (called Bim Bim Bob at Café Zen), a big bowl of rice topped with tender barbecued beef in a supple chili sauce. Bob chose the grilled lemongrass steak and shrimp, which had a delicate hint of the citrusy herb. I opted for the sweet, crispy fried tilapia, served with an intoxicating pineapple-and-hot-pepper salsa.
We followed all of that with coffee and dessert: fried ice cream for Patrick, a slice of some bakery-made mousse pie called Chocolate Silk for Bob, and a slab of another commissary-created fudgy layer cake called the Chocolate Wall for little me. No one could have called us enlightened, but we'd had an excellent meal.
My next visit, a few nights later, was a completely different experience. The restaurant was much busier, which seemed odd because not all of the 11 tables in the room were filled. The lone waitress practically vibrated with stress and anxiety. I had brought along Franklin, Carrie and Judy; three of us had been servers before, so at first we were sympathetic to the frizzy-haired server's frenzy. That is, until she practically threw our appetizer plates on the table and rolled her eyes when Judy requested a glass for her bottle of beer.
Admittedly, the young woman was also cashier, busperson and God only knows what else in the kitchen; she looked like she could have come undone at any second. Still, waitressing was not her forte. Her attitude grew increasingly snappish through the night.
"I hope she doesn't kill us before the end of the meal," Franklin whispered as we all shared succulent Mongolian beef tips, one of Café Zen's best appetizers.
In this poor waitress's defense, it turned out that Café Zen was short-staffed that night. Later, I learned that a cook didn't show up, and Julie Basa, who helps work the dining room, had taken the night off. Maybe not such a good choice on a weekend.
We made it through supper unscathed, though chef Ang's fare wasn't as terrific as it had been on the previous visit.
Franklin's lemon-rum chicken was a pretty, crispy version of any standard-issue Chinese restaurant's lemon chicken. My pan-fried noodles were heaped with beef, chicken and shrimp — though I'd requested only chicken — and were doused in a more garlicky version of the cornstarch-based gravy that most Chinese joints call "brown sauce." Carrie was pleased with her miso-glazed tilapia and a mound of white rice, but Judy gave thumbs down to Café Zen's chicken adobo, which was made with chopped chicken and looked more like a Chinese stir-fry dish. "I've made adobo many times," she said, "and although there are several ways to prepare it, the secret is vinegar, soy sauce, ginger and, ideally, coconut milk."
This adobo was more of the Chinese buffet variety than the Filipino national dish, an unhappy consequence of Café Zen's effort to fuse cuisines together.
When our whirling waitress made a stop at our table, we requested dessert. "We only have the Chocolate Wall tonight," she said. I asked for a piece, and she brought out the wedge pie that Julie Basa had called French Silk only a few nights earlier. I was too intimidated by Miss Frizz to start an argument about the dessert, but the last straw for me was her response to my plea for coffee.
"The owner has shut the coffee machine off," she snorted. Then, realizing that I would be paying my bill soon, she suddenly took a saccharine tone. "But if you really want some, I guess I could brew some."
I told her to forget it as she twirled back into the kitchen, returning with a check and a pallid excuse. "I'm sorry. We're so understaffed tonight."
Giving her my most illuminating Zen smile, I answered, "Really, I didn't notice a thing."