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Taste Test: The Zen Garden

South Burlington, VT


The Seven Nights dining guide lists a full dozen Asian restaurants in the Burlington area. Newest among them is the Zen Garden, which opened in December. It's located off Shelburne Road in South Burlington, right behind McDonald's. Owner Tom Liang, who calls his establishment "an authentic Chinese restaurant," says most dishes are either Cantonese or Szechuan. He also stresses that the food is not Americanized, but "what Chinese people eat."

After walking past a large fountain filled with goldfish, we were quickly seated at a booth in the spacious dining room. Tables were covered with royal-blue cloths, and the paper placemats on top had a slightly lacy pattern - no Chinese zodiacs here. The menu, on the other hand, included many of the usual suspects: crab Rangoon, a pu pu platter, General Tsao's chicken. I've never been to China, but given Liang's claim of authenticity, I'd hoped to find a few surprises.

The small but carefully chosen wine list featured varietals that go well with spicy food, such as Zinfandel and Riesling. The beers were mostly domestic and mass-market, but included two bottled Chinese beers and a couple of Vermont microbrews on tap. I was disappointed when my single serving of oolong tea came in a mug with a tea bag - and no saucer on which to place it. Those who ordered pots of tea received a French press full of loose leaf.

The soups were served in pretty, teardrop-shaped bowls. I was pleased with their looks but disappointed by their flavors. The wonton soup was standard, with strands of lettuce swimming in mild broth and lightly spiced meat in the wontons. The hot-and-sour soup looked thick and hearty - filled with mushrooms, tofu, bamboo shoots and feathery shreds of egg - but it was only slightly hot and not at all sour. I tasted it several times in search of acidity, to no avail.

Things improved when the apps arrived. The "Zen" pancake came with two dipping sauces: soy ginger and gentle curry. Both were pleasant and added interest to the plain pancake. Szechwan sesame dumplings, attractively presented in a white ceramic bowl with wavy edges, were coated in sesame sauce, sprinkled with scallions, and drizzled with hot pepper oil. Although the dumplings were a tiny bit overcooked, the sauce had a delicate sesame flavor and just the right amount of spice.

The "sizzling chicken with vegetables" house special hissed and steamed appropriately when ladled tableside onto a blistering cast-iron platter. The chicken itself was rather bland, as if it had been completely cooked first and then dolloped with sauce. But the tasty vegetables - carrots, pea pods, shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots - had a good texture, and the sauce itself was savory. Fried tangerine beef, served in filet form rather than in the usual slices, came garnished with crispy tangerine peel. The sticky, sweet citrus sauce could have been overbearing in larger quantity, but the portions were just right. My sweet-toothed dining partner loved it.

The waitstaff was attentive, answering our questions promptly and refilling our water glasses frequently. We left feeling satisfied but not stuffed. Eating at the Zen Garden may not be an eating adventure, but for those who want excellent service and decent Chinese food with above-average sauces, it's a fine choice.