Nestled in the heart of Crescent Hill, on historic Frankfort Avenue, is a culinary nirvana. Zen Garden, Louisville’s first and only Asian restaurant with an all vegetarian menu offers a welcome relief from the samsara that is the local Asian restaurant scene, an uncreative wheel of birth, death, and rebirth for menu items. Not only is Zen Garden run according to Zen philosophy, with a focus on the health of the consumer, the value of animal life, and a passion for the needy (their menu clearly states “all profits from Zen Garden will go to help others in need,”) it provides a nearly perfect dining experience.
We arrived at Zen Garden at about six o’clock on a Monday night, to no wait. We walked right in and sat at a table. Immediately we noticed the peaceful décor, full of Buddhist shrines, pictures, icons and literature. There was bamboo on every table, and the lighting was soothingly dim. The light music in the background, which could be used for meditation, helped create an atmosphere of relaxation and contemplation.
Our waitress arrived at our table promptly, though we were so comfortable I doubt we would have noticed or minded if she had been late. She was friendly, and explained what she could of the menu, but the language barrier might have been a real problem. She didn’t speak English well, and I don’t speak Vietnamese well, but, after a moment of awkward silence, we learned to communicate using smiles and gestures. She was extremely pleasant, and didn’t do anything to disturb the effect of the ambiance on our moods.
I have always believed that the best environment is one that facilitates silence, and the best relationships are ones that do not demand conversations. Zen Garden is one such environment, and it encourages peaceful relationships unencumbered by frivolous dialogue. While we were waiting for our food I enjoyed the bliss of not having to speak, and not wondering what my wife was thinking. We were free simply to be. To be in love, to be at peace, and to be out on the town.
However, this peace was soon disturbed by the incessant ring of a telephone. While the lack of a crowd was good for our wait time, there was only one waitress on duty, so when the phone rang while she was taking someone else’s order, there was no one to pick up the phone. This broke the Zen spell for a moment, but after she finally answered the phone (on the fifteenth ring!) we quickly retreated back to our contemplation.
Then our first course arrived. We had ordered an appetizer – a combination of steamed dumplings and pot stickers which they were kind enough to stretch the menu to provide for us. They were wonderful. The steamed dumplings were literally dumplings, filled with tofu and vegetables, then steamed until they were soft and sticky. The pot stickers were just like the steamed dumplings, only pan fried to provide a slightly different texture. They were topped with a ginger and sesame sauce, which was both sweet and tangy.
While we were still polishing up our appetizer, greedily lapping up all of the sauce we could, our entrees arrived. I had the Egg Plant in Curry Sauce, which was Asian egg plant, fresh soybeans, shiitake mushrooms and shredded tofu in a spicy curry sauce. She had the Thai Rice Noodles, a variety of veggie meats, flat rice noodles and stir fried vegetables. Both were artfully presented on humble flatware. Mine was excellent, particularly the soft but firm egg plant, and the rich shiitake mushrooms. However, the side of steamed rice proved necessary to dose the fire from the “spicy” curry sauce. I should have considered the description a warning – it was certainly not a lie.
My wife, on the other hand, did not really like the Thai Rice Noodles. While they were beautifully presented, they were topped with a generous helping of fresh chopped mint, which she said overpowered the rest of the dish.
For dessert we had a guilt free treat, plantains in coconut sauce, topped with shredded coconut. It was as good as I can imagine a dessert being, and the sauce was well worth spooning up long after the plantains we gone.
The portions were generous, which was surprising given the modest prices. Appetizer prices ranged from $2.95 to $4.95, entrée prices from $6.50 to $9.50. We left full, but not sick, and we were able to bring a few leftovers home.
The location was gorgeous, on Frankfort Avenue, within walking distance of Carmichael’s Bookstore and many other unique local shops. It could be improved by replacing the concrete in the front with a Zen garden and some outdoor seating, but I doubt that either of those improvements would generate enough new business to offset the enormous cost. The insides, even the bathrooms, were impeccably clean.
All in all, we had one of the best times we’ve ever had eating out, which more than made up for the overreaching on our entrees. I highly recommend Zen Garden to anyone who is looking to have a good, non-rowdy night on the town. It is like visiting another world.
If you’re eager for a taste of nirvana, visit Zen Garden at 2240 Frankfort Avenue, in Louisville, KY. You can call (502) 895-9114 for directions. They don’t take reservations (you wouldn’t need them, anyway) but they will take Visa or Master Card.