NI’s 2017 Dining Awards: Best New Restaurant

Hakata Classic Ramen. (Photo by Michael Caronchi)

An immediate sensation when it opened in December 2015, Zen Asian BBQ shook up the definition of pan-Asian cuisine in the Naples vernacular. Billing itself as a rustic Japanese pub mixed with Korean barbecue and sushi, Zen also embraces Thai and Chinese cuisine within its Pacific Rim boundaries. Thai-born chef Koko trained in Japan and later with Iron Chef Morimoto and celebrity chef Makato. The result: contemporary interpretations of classic fusion.

Korean barbecue is the centerpiece of the lunch and dinner menus and of the modern, highly stylized, Asian-inspired decor. Five gas barbecue grills and their gleaming metal ductwork set a hip industrial vibe. Guests can grill their own entrées to dress up with the sauces, condiments, and side dishes waiters deliver. The kitchen also serves a different type of barbecue, one indigenous to Japan. Robata grilling uses charcoal imported from Japan. It burns three times hotter than regular charcoal and without a flame, which crisps the outside of meat and seafood while keeping the moisture in.

Zen Asian BBQ’s interior.

Kobe beef A5 on a Japanese hot stone.

Also in signature style, chef Koko’s Hokkaido ramen elevates noodles to a crab, calamari, and mussels feast in 17-hour broth with bean sprouts, egg, and corn. A newer specialty involves grilling Kobe beef A5 (the highest grade) on a hot stone tableside. Sushi, sashimi, Korean bibimbap (steamed rice, vegetables, egg, and ground beef), tempura, and pad Thai continue the multicultural tour. The green tea crème brûlée is a dessert must.

Now, about the “pub” quotient in the equation: Zen serves beer, wine, and sake. Its signature cocktail blends watermelon with soju, a Korean liquor distilled from rice. During season, solo guitarist-vocalist Tiedye Ted performs on the outdoor patio from 6 to 9 p.m.

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