At some point during your meal at Restaurant Zén, you will just have to let go and give in to seduction.
It may be after your first or third glass of champagne downstairs when you arrive, after you tuck in to a mound of caviar later on at your candlelit table upstairs, or after your server finishes shaving an obscene amount of white truffles over your fish.
But it will happen.
The new restaurant, a partnership between Swedish chef Björn Frantzen and Unlisted Collection is designed to guarantee just that. It’s helmed by Executive Chef Marcus Jernmark and Head Chef Tristan Farmer and seems perfectly designed to see stars.
Opened along Bukit Pasoh Road in a refurbished space that once housed Restaurant Andre, it fills the two-Michelin-starred hole that was left behind with plenty of room to spare for one more.
Zén has been designed with chic and eclectic flair by Joyn Studios Architects, the same Swedish firm behind its sister restaurant Frantzen in Stockholm.
A meal here takes place on all three floors of the shophouse, with diners being led on a tour as the evening progresses.
We start on the main floor — a posh lounge decorated with silver baubles and animal-print pillows. As you sit and nibble on snacks, your eyes will be drawn to the bright open kitchen with its marble countertop and bouquets of dried herbs hanging from the ceiling. It’s here where you’ll be given a preview of the luxe ingredients to be featured in your meal that night before being led up to the second-floor main dining room.
That dining room — with wood and marble walls, and glowing orange with candlelight — is stark, modern. In a nod to Restaurant Andre where the dining room was staid by tableside bag stands that were giant sheep, Zén maintains that animal quirkiness with candlesticks at each table in the form of mischievously posed monkeys.
When dinner is over, you will be taken to the third floor “living room” for petit fours. Along the way, the staircase features shelves of multicoloured jars in various stages of fermentation — a dramatic sight that has the same effect as a stained-glass window in a church.
Zén’s tasting menu at nine courses and countless canapes and desserts is $450++. This places it at the very top of Singapore’s most expensive dining experiences. It’s an astounding investment, but just one look at that box of ingredients downstairs in The Kitchen, and you will see where all of that money goes. These are luxe, premium ingredients cooked in a variety of French, Japanese, and even Nordic preparations that are mostly successful, and sometimes exceptional.
Plump beer-poached King crab began the evening, stuffed into a tartlet and capped with a heaping mound of wild trout roe. It’s a giant thud of a first bite that on its own would have sent anyone into a stupor, if not for the sprinkle of wild fennel flowers on top that leant a crisp licorice lick, cleaning and teasing the taste buds.
Licorice also appeared in the last canape, steeling onion purée and warm almond foam into an exciting iron knuckle punch to the palate.
Less exciting was “Råraka,” a signature bite and import straight from Frantzen, that came as a crisp bird’s nest-like cylinder of fried potatoes stuffed with crème fraiche, roe from a Swedish freshwater whitefish called Vendace that had been washed, dried, and lightly salted, and topped with red circles of pickled onion. A sight to behold, yes, but one which tasted too straightforward given everything else.
Dinner upstairs was a lavish production, with several dishes being prepared and plated table-side. One such came from an etched crystal dish filled with eight parts deer tartare and 12 parts caviar — a special prestige blend procured especially for Zén.
It was enough caviar to cause one to stop breathing, just as the pleasant shock of finger limes was enough to bring one back from that brink. A welcome, nutty swathe of argan oil turned each bite into velvet. It would have been the perfect dish, if only the taste of the venison had come through more. As it was, the tartare tasted like it was only there for texture.
“Chawanmushi” would have been better called “gumbo.” So rich and chock full of flavours and textures, but neither word could begin to capture quite how truly special this dish felt. Several lush lobes of creamy Bafun uni and plump, iris-sized ikura swirled in a synchronous orbit around grilled unagi lacquered in a horseradish glaze. It was chaos brought into perfect, harmonious order by an eggy custard seasoned not by dashi, but by a thick, earthy smoked pork broth.
The same could not be said of blue lobster — egregiously portioned, and drenched in a butter emulsion that overwhelmed delicate notes of yuzu pepper and sansho leaf. Such a rich, indulgent dish so early in a meal risks upsetting the stomachs of even the most experienced of fine diners.
Monkfish, however, soon arrived as redemption. It was perfectly cooked to the texture of a fluffy, meaty pillow, and came paired with its liver and an intoxicating beurre blanc-like sauce of vin jaune and blond miso from Kyoto. As if that weren’t enough, a violent blizzard of white truffles came snowing down over everything. It was so over the top, and so incredibly delicious.
Even more over the top was French toast, fried crisp and coated in a thick, savoury wave of Parmesan cream, onto which Chef Tristan placed a black truffle — an entire black truffle — that he had shaved table-side into his hand in perfect, compact layers. This knockout of a bite alone was worth the price of admission.
If only the meal had ended at the desserts. These were from another world and the most spectacular was sea buckthorn sorbet, sweetened with carrot juice, and topped with crystallised sea lettuce and tea. The sugar content of the juice gave the sorbet the texture of thick sludge, with oolong mousse like a nearly-frozen marshmallow underneath. It tasted sweet, sour, and bitter, with swirls of vegetable and fruit knocking your head every which way before pulling you in for another bite. This alone would be reason enough for Michelin to bestow upon Zén multiple stars.
It’s not that what came after wasn’t good. It’s just that it was, like the deluge of truffles earlier albeit to a much less successful degree, over the top.
Grilled pineapple tarte tatin was served upstairs before the petit fours. It was hot and brushed with 20-year-old mirin; a delicious bite of Chinese New Year in December. But having it replaced with a new one fresh from the oven, if it sat on the table for too long, left one wondering about food wastage.
The fruit was a curious sight — grapes, strawberries, persimmon, and melon flown fresh from Japan, but each was seasoned with an odd assortment from lemongrass and chamomile, to espelette pepper and even pine cone marmalade. The first bite was nice, the second not so much — one was left screaming for just the fruit, please, beautiful, perfect, and plain.
Wine & Cocktails
The wine selection here is nothing short of impressive, containing upwards of 450 labels from around the world.
But don’t discount one of the several beverage pairing options on offer. Traditional wine and mixed pairings are both available, but we went instead for the juice pairing, mostly out of curiosity to see what the kitchen could pull off.
It did not disappoint. Each was a buzzy, inventive bit of alchemy involving fruit, imagination, and a centrifuge. There was pear and gooseberry, for example, combined with koji and pandan leaf — in a delicious nod to Singapore. Another glass came bright red with cherry and tomato, with a hidden dark swirl from Arabica coffee beans. Our favourite was a purple carrot juice seasoned with smoked maple syrup, mostly because it seemed so fitting to the winter season.
Restaurant Zén is like no other restaurant in Singapore. That is both its greatest advantage and its greatest disadvantage.
At its weakest, it’s an expensive indulgence that can misjudge the local palate with dishes that are sometimes too rich or over-engineered. At its strongest, it is a sensational and unique experience, a gastronomic spa retreat or a true foodie escape.
In either case, Zén is a restaurant with tremendous potential, not to mention a bright, shining, starry future.
Opening Hours: Tuesday – Saturday for dinner only, 19:00 – 22:30
Recommended Dishes: Onion velouté with almond and licorice; red deer tartare and caviar; smoked pork broth “chawanmushi” with uni and unagi; sea buckthorn sorbet.
Price: Tasting menu (9 courses + snacks and petit fours), $450++; beverage pairings available for $125 – $250++.
Noise Level: Pleasantly buzzy with an eclectic soundtrack curated by Chef Björn and his wife. Expect “I Can See Clearly Now” followed by “Play That Funky Music.”
Service: Professional, friendly, and tempered with humor. The younger staff especially are just as excited to be there as you are.