Love for the Locals: Zen Gardens

The end of my program here is drawing near, and some friends that I've made during my stay are starting to go off into different directions. Last night, we had a get together for dinner only a few days before my friend, Meagan moves away, at one of her favourite restaurants in London - Zen Gardens. It isn't unique to London as they have multiple locations in Eastern Canada, mostly in Ontario, with 1 in Quebec, and 1 in New Brunswick. However, between my two visits to the one in London, their food and service have been consistently impressive.

Zen Gardens (344 Dundas Street, London, ON) isn't my typical eatery because it's a vegetarian restaurant, but I have yet to have something there that I didn't find enjoyable. It's a smaller restaurant that seats about 40 people, with simple Asian-inspired decor. It's really easy to get to because it's on the route of the 2 Dundas, one of the most frequent busses here. The menu is comprised of Japanese and Chinese-inspired dishes with vegan and gluten-free options available. The prices are quite decent, and in cases where your meals haven't been too spread out, it's likely that you'll have leftovers. 

My initial visit was with my school project group, where one of my classmates, Andrea had a severe fish allergy. Being a vegetarian restaurant, there was no problem for her at all. I have to say that I was very skeptical at first. When I initially moved to London, it was a bit alarming to find that Chinatown doesn't even exist. As well, in the first 2 weeks that I was here for, the only other person of Asian descent that I found lived in the same student residence building as me - the one where all the international exchange students live. Partly due to an immense state of hunger, I gave Andrea the benefit of a doubt, and to my pleasant surprise, it was definitely a good pick!

So, when Meagan mentioned that she wanted to go to Zen Gardens for her farewell dinner, I was totally in.

Zen Gardens Vegetarian Restaurant in London (beside Budapest, an apparently underrated Hungarian restaurant).
Tofu and Mushroom Casserole ($14) - I had this on my first visit, and it was delicious. It wasn't exactly what I would call a "casserole", but it was more like a Tofu and Mushroom Hot Pot that you can get in most Chinese restaurants. There was a good variety of mushrooms - shiitake, button, white, enoki, king mushrooms, in addition to fried tofu, carrots, and bok choy hidden underneath. I could only finish half of it, and had to take the rest home! It made me feel like I should have come here when I was missing the authentic Chinese food I ate so often back home in Edmonton. In most cases for the first 2/3 of the year I was here, I would just wait until I visited my relatives in Toronto to eat things like this. 
Curry Steak Rice ($9) - I was feeling a bit adventurous and decided to find out what a "soy steak" was like. It didn't taste much like meat, but the texture was actually pretty similar to meat for something made out of soy. The curry was delicious - mildly spicy, with a good mix of veggies (mushrooms, peas, green bell peppers, carrots, and potatoes), and fried tofu. I would probably get it again, but there are so many things on their menu to try.
Vegetable Tempura ($10) - I had this the first time I went here and I had it again last night. I ordered a plate to get everyone at our table to try some. I'm convinced that their tempura is actually the best tempura I've ever had. There's something about their batter...there's a slight sweetness and peppery taste to it. They cook it perfectly so that the batter isn't too thin or thick surrounding each piece, and it's just the right kind of crisp. I love it. Again, the variety is impressive - potato, taro, broccoli, mushrooms (button and enoki), and eggplant. I think that the first time I had it, they used some sort of squash as well. 
If you order one of their bento box style combos, which is about $11 for lunch or $16 for dinner, it comes with a dessert and pot of Oolong tea. It was a nice way to end our evening meal. That, and the little guava candies that came with the bill.
I have to say that despite the limited Asian population in London and my skepticism derived from that, Zen Gardens is a winner. No, they don't have anything with meat and seafood that's commonly found in Asian cuisine, but if you're looking for more authentic tasting Japanese or Chinese food at a reasonable cost, this is the place for you. Zen Gardens is really worth a try - at least for their tempura and excellent service, if nothing else!


Zen Gardens on Urbanspoon

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