Zen E is famous for hosting visiting K-pop stars. Photo / Babiche Martens

Restaurant Review: Zen E Offers A Chinese Banquet Experience In Newmarket

Jesse Mulligan visits Zen E in Newmarket and finds a bountiful menu

Cuisine: Chinese
Address: 1/56 Broadway, Newmarket
Phone: (09) 520 7887
From the menu: Sizzling tofu in paua sauce $26; beef tripe and chilli $16; jelly fish $12; shrimp balls with salted egg $32; fried noodles $22; pork ribs $28; storm clams $30
Drinks: Fully licensed
Reservations: Accepted
Rating: 15/20
Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing, give it a miss. 13-15 Good, give it a go. 16-18 Great, plan a visit. 19-20 Outstanding, don’t delay.

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I have a friend I've never seen. She washes my hair at the salon every three weeks before it gets cut, but I've never been introduced to her and she arrives just after I lie my head back then disappears before I get up again.

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Our friendship formed slowly, but now we are old mates — sharing new music discoveries and, lately, restaurant tips. One day I'll run into her at one of those restaurants but there's zero chance I'll recognise her unless she sneaks up behind me and asks, "Been to any gigs lately?" then begins gently rubbing my scalp.

Following one of her random suggestions was how I ended up at Zen E, a Chinese banquet-style restaurant in Newmarket apparently famous for hosting visiting K-pop stars.

Zen E is famous for hosting visiting K-pop stars. Photo / Babiche Martens

I invited fellow food writer Connie Clarkson to eat with me but it became clear I should have brought along at least a dozen other people, in order that we could have eaten a small amount of lots of things rather than a large amount of not many things.

I've seen long menus before but this one is ridiculous, a huge ringbinder of numbers, prices and photographs. If you spent just a few seconds on each page it would still take 10 minutes to get through, and by then you would have forgotten the start of it. How did the chef learn to cook every dish on this menu? It’d be easier memorising The Luminaries.

Connie knows Chinese food as well as anyone in Auckland, so between her and the thousand-dish menu the ordering process was fairly intimidating. But I went for a mixture of hot and cold, noodles and rice, some offal you’d never find elsewhere and a few tasty sea creatures you could possibly find but only if you did a smash and grab at Kelly Tarlton's.

The fried shrimp balls with salted egg; The beef tripe in chilli sauce. Photos / Babiche Martens

Texture is a feature of most cuisines but in Chinese food it is everything. While a European dish might ask you to bite, crunch and chew, a good Cantonese mouthful is more of a crumble, pop, squelch.

So it was with the jellyfish, which is a bit firmer than you might imagine — like a really soft jelly lolly but clear and neutral tasting, until dressed in a black vinegar with plenty of chilli.

Tripe was not the common honeycomb-style you but book or "bible" tripe, which is close to squid in mouthfeel and shaped more like a tiny curtain rail with several frilly bits hanging off it, mopping up the Szechuan pepper sauce.

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And yes, I realise maybe only half a dozen of you will consider ordering this dish but, as your weekly reviewer, I am here to boldly go where butter chicken-lovers fear to tread. I am here to tell you that, if you can, you should learn to stomach the stomach.

Connie is originally from Singapore and tells me she always picks up salted egg — "bags and bags of it" — when coming back to New Zealand via the home country. It comes as a fine sort of powder that goes well on crisps, apparently, and at Zen E was livening up another deep fried treat: plump prawns.

The spicy jellyfish. Photo / Babiche Martens

It tasted just incredible: juicy seafood in a fatty, crunchy batter with this indescribably tongue-puckering eggy seasoning. If you ever get the chance to try it please do — I can't think of a Western equivalent but the closest might be whatever they put on the french fries at KFC.

We were having such a good time, and it was in spite of the service which was pretty absent and abrupt. They were just really busy, I think, but we had to eventually pull someone aside to get a table and if we hadn't done the same to order then we'd still be sitting there.

The food itself came reliably and fast though, so if you're there just to eat you should be happy enough once you've got your order in.

Details in Zen E's dining room. Photo / Babiche Martens

It's not all freaky-deaky — a simple bowl of noodles was fantastic too — and we left stuffed, with heaving doggy bags full of food and a a bill, which, with drinks, was under $200. The fresh stuff in the fish tank is very costly though, so if you associate luxury with expense this is a place you can literally splash out.

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But Zen E's real appeal is broader than that. It's somewhere you can find a dish which you love but which no other chef in New Zealand makes. And, if you can't tell one menu option from another, it's somewhere you can be confident anything you end up with will taste pretty damn good.

"It's my favourite restaurant!" said the Uber driver who picked me up. Could he recommend one dish in particular? "No", he said. "I wouldn't have a clue actually, my wife does the ordering." I hope he knows just how good he's got it.

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