Zen Sushi

Nobody puts Buddha in the corner

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

To say I’m a sushi fan is understatement. Although it’s not recommended by dieticians, I’ve often stated that if I could, I’d eat raw fish and assorted rolls for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even snack-time.

Still, when a friend recently asked me if I wanted to join her for a dinnertime visit to Bellingham’s Zen Sushi, I almost said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

I’d visited the online urban city guide, Yelp, to find out more about the eatery, and what I discovered informed me that the restaurant—which started offering conveyer belt sushi last June in the corner space right next to the new movie multiplex in Barkley Village—might have a few issues.

Among the complaints were that the service was lacking, the prices were too high relative to the amount of fish being served, and the chef seemed to have a limited understanding of what quality sushi was comprised of. There were a handful of positive reviews, as well, but they were easy to overlook when sprinkled among the negative ones.

When I shared my reservations with my friend, she assured me that things had changed for the better since the restaurant opened early last summer. For starters, a new sushi chef with 30 years of experience had moved from Seattle to Bellingham to take over the kitchen, and issues of service and price were also being addressed.

I agreed to check it out, and a few minutes after we got there, owner Ken Tipasathien came over to introduce himself. He and his wife, Nutthinee, own the three On Rice Thai restaurants in Bellingham, and he said he’d been asked by the multiplex owners to open a conveyer belt sushi joint that would cater to everyone from couples on dress-up movie dates to families who needed to get fed before the main attraction. He thought it was a good idea, too, and plans were set in motion.

As any successful restaurateur knows, when it comes to building up a customer base, reputation is everything. Tipasathien paid attention when not-so-nice reviews for Zen Sushi started showing up on Yelp, and says he’s still working to iron out the problems.

We’d been seated next to where head chef Sinichi Miura—known as “Miura San” to his fellow staff members and to regulars—was working, and he started off our meal by placing a Samurai Roll (crab salad, salmon, tuna, tobiko, cucumber, avocado, green onion, lemon, eel sauce, rice and seaweed) on our table. The flavor of the raw fish stood out without being too overwhelming, and I chalked one up for Zen Sushi.

Customers can choose from among the rolls, nigiri, salads, hot dishes and desserts that meander by their tables on the conveyer belt—which are generally priced from $1.75-$4.50—but they can also order from the menu, which we did a couple times. I hadn’t seen any unagi (eel) or hamachi nigiri making the rounds, so I ordered those to complement the veritable buffet of sushi that was making its way to our plates and out mouths. Both stood up to closer inspection, and passed the taste test.

During the pauses I took in between bites of seared tuna and a dizzying array of speciality rolls, I took a closer look around. The space is big-city-sized, with lots of windows, sleek booths and a giant Buddha facing the verdant acreage surrounding Barkley Village. As the venue filled up with both the aforementioned families and those who appeared to be romancing each other, it seemed to accommodate both with equal measure.

As I’d been outed as someone who might be writing about the restaurant, it wasn’t a surprise that the service we got was impeccable. But, as far as I could tell, the large waitstaff was on its toes and ready to spring into action when needed.

While the cost of dinner can quickly escalate if you’re not paying attention to the price of the rolls you’re grabbing off the conveyer belt, during Happy Hour—which takes place from 3-5pm every day, as well as from 8pm until closing time—all rolls are $1 off, which makes it much more affordable.

Although I’d come into Zen Sushi with reservations, I was generally satisfied with my meal. Other than a rubbery bite of Octopus nigiri and an underwhelming serving of gyoza, I ate, and enjoyed, pretty much everything that was put in front of me (a lot was put in front of me). It’s not necessarily a place I would visit every day, but next time I head to the multiplex, I’d have no qualms about cozying up to the conveyer belt—and to that oversized Buddha.

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