Tucked beside a small Oriental cafe in Union Square, the Zen Palate is one of those restaurants whose mood is so peaceful and relaxing that I felt immediately at home. The moment I walked in, I was surrounded by dim light and the slightest fragrance of incense. The hostess was polite almost to an extreme, taking all of my party's heavy winter coats in her small arms without complaint or hesitation; in retrospect, with all the layers the nasty weather forced us to wear, the journey to the coat room must have seemed one of epic proportions to her. Sometimes, visiting a restaurant that is new to you is like meeting a potential friend - you want to open yourself and give your trust without restraint, but a little voice keeps nagging you in the back of your mind and chanting "What if... What if...". Well, the reception at the Zen Palate quelled that voice almost immediately.
My party was led up a flight of stairs to a small dining area filled with low tables and mats, and then up another flight to the main dining room. We were a bit disappointed at not being seated at the low tables, but, then again, none of us thought of even asking; our next visit, we vowed, would find us there. Nonetheless, the table at which we were seated was spacious enough to hold large plates of food, yet not so wide that we had to yell at one another. The decor of the main dining room was simple and pleasing, yet not so eye-grabbing that it prevented conversation. Our waitress was patient with us as we peered through the menu, which was filled with items with names like "Dreamland". Luckily for us, a detailed description accompanied each dish.
Our orders were delivered quite promptly, and they matched their descriptions well. For an appetizer, we ordered a platter of scallion pancakes, which came with a small cup of dipping sauce. The pancakes were light and delicious. As my main course, I had a dish replete with hot peppers, mushrooms, broccoli, squid, and small balls of a vegetable mixture. The dish's sauce was faintly reminiscent of something Szechuan - spicey, red, and very tasty. As a side item, I also ordered some sticky rice, the flavor of which nicely complemented the Szechuan-like sauce. Although the plates seemed small at first glance, my stomach was completely full by the end of the meal, and with none of the usual icky, queasy feeling that MSG delivers. Afterwards, I discovered that the Zen Palate is well known for its skill in preparing food that not only tasted good, but was also good for you.
The total for our party (3 people) was around $35 before tip. We all drank water, so factor in a bit more to the price if you're thinking of ordering beverages. We did not order dessert, so I have no recommendations in that area.
If you're looking for a good Japanese restaurant with a peaceful atmosphere and great, healthy food, the Zen Palate is definitely the place to go. One caveat, though; the Zen Palate serves mostly vegetarian dishes, and the only meat I could find on their menu was squid. If that doesn't frighten you, you'll find the Zen Palate a real treat.
Zen Palate, 34 East Union Square, New York, NY. (212) 614-9345 * 663 9th Avenue (corner of 46th Street), New York, NY. (212) 582-1669