Zen Forrest – New Port Richey, FL
Have you ever had a moment of clarity where you finally understand and realize that everything doesn’t revolve around you? No? Me neither. As food writers we yearn for attention. Not necessarily from the amount people who feast their eyes on our top-notch content, non-scathing remarks or overall unstoppable charm, but more from having our peers respect what we say and what we deem delicious. We have said this so many times it’s become something of a mission statement, we only write about stuff we really, really like. Love is too strong a word but it fits most of our restaurants of note.
I’m always honored to be an invited guest to any special occasion, and my recent visit to Zen Forrest was no exception. A few of my friends had eaten there in the past, praising the “east meets east-er”, so I trusted their judgement to guide me. I pride myself on knowing just about every worthwhile eatery within and hour and a half from my house. The key to my ignorance about this Zen Forrest was its location. To ask me to where exactly New Port Richey was, I wouldn’t know more than to say “west”. Honestly, it’s no farther for me than say, Balm, Tribly, (The Windy City) or even Alturas for goodness sakes! I literally made a handful of turns in the hour it took to reach my destination.
But this isn’t “Flight of the Navigator”. Lets get back to the most important part of the story. Me. I arrived shortly before the doors opened, as the restaurant is normally closed on Sundays. I stared through the viewfinder of my camera trying to pass the time alone in silence. You see I was attending stag, not knowing a single attendee. As we were led into the large open dining area, I was escorted to my table, catching sight of two placards bearing my name. I sat down to greet my neighbors, a very nice couple that regularly patronize the “Forrest”. I asked them about the restaurant and how long it had been in business. As far as they recall, it’s been at least ten years. Ten years?! How had I not heard of it? Blasphemy.
The table was already decorated with a slew of banchan, basically Korean condiments. The evening had been given a theme meant to showcase both the modern and traditional aspects of Korean cuisine. We got our first taste of this from the bowls of pickled and marinated vegetables, fish and tofu preparations before us. I had a feeling that my table in particular weren’t here because they were kimchi-philes. Rather, they were simply fans of the restaurant in general, which was a testament of the quality to come. For me Korean food can be a very excellent gateway from “food noob” to full on adventure eater, but it can also drop road blocks depending on your courage.
As the nice lady next to me was searching for a fork instead of her chopsticks, I asked her what she thought so far. She hadn’t taken a bite. “I don’t know what any of this is”, she said with a quizzical look on her face. So I looked around trying to find the easiest item to stomach. I spotted a bowl of traditional Napa cabbage kimchi and some cucumber pickles and handed it over. This was followed by fried cauliflower tossed in chili sauce. It appeared everything was staying down so I continued to lead her into uncharted territory. A helping of seaweed and some fermented bean sprouts coated in sesame, followed by a few pieces of Korean sushi, which was bulgogi rolled with vegetables in rice and nori. Then things got weird. I passed over a bowl of fried tofu with jalapeno, soaked in a sweet wine vinegar. I thought it was absolutely splendid, especially for someone with a disgust for tofu and tofu laced products. She kept a safe distance from the acorn gellée with cilantro chimichurri, something I thought was a triumph in flavor, yet was one of those things whose texture can play with your head. She actually did try the chimichurri on the top but wouldn’t touch its partner. Marinated sardines were also a no-go as she abhorred the thought of eating little baby fish bones. I don’t really blame her as it’s not really my “Matt Forte” either. All of that and this was just the first course!!
The chef followed up the feast of fermentation in a classic way with a couple nice ground chicken and kimchi stuffed pan-fried dumplings they call mandu or mandoo. I say man-dude those were good! My neighbor devoured the gochujang (a spicy Korean condiment) that came as a dipping sauce. After the plates were cleared she asked what that sauce was, and if it was hard to find. It is not.
Another highlight included Korean fried chicken with buttery corn cob slices. Fried chicken is a really popular item in South Korea, and they’ve put their own unique spin on the classic dish. The Korean variety has been on the rise in the States as super chefs like David Chang and Dale Talde have embraced the technique, putting variations on their respective menus.
The biggest winner of the evening had to be the slow cook pork belly and pickled radishes. So soft you could have cut through it with a wet noodle, yet the outside had a barrier of sticky-sweet charred hoisin, finished on the grill. I was served a nice mini slab about an inch thick, laced with supple, gelatinous rendered pork fat. I got started by taking swipes at the mass, incorporating a little radish with every bite. Then something horrible happened, I started running out of food on my plate!! The bites became smaller and smaller as I foolishly tried to stretch my rations to no avail. Before long it was just a delicious memory.
Finally, came the beef. Two thinly sliced short rib planks, called kalbi arrived with a crown of kimchi butter. Out of everything that I anticipated, this was the most coveted. This is where that moment of clarity comes in. When you realize the food world doesn’t revolve around you. When you understand that there are actually people out there who are creative, thoughtful and just as smart as you think you are. Whomever had the brilliant idea to write that recipe down and then execute it like a boss, I tip my brand new Montgomery Biscuits hat to you good sir or madam. I personally don’t believe in umami, but if it does exist, the kalbi with kimchi butter would be the October centerfold in the calendar
I beg the runners of Zen Forrest to make a place for the pork belly and kalbi somewhere on the normal menu. I think you have the food equivalent to blue sky meth in your kitchen. My head is starting to twitch and my skin is already beginning to itch. I’m going to need another fix before too long.