Zen Sushi & Bar is an impressive visage, even from the street. Located in Barkley Village, just a few minutes from I-5 at the Sunset Drive exit (Exit 255) in Bellingham, the restaurant seems to be constructed entirely out of metal, glass and light. In its main room, a giant statue of Buddha sits cross-legged, as dainty little plates of sushi glide around it on a conveyor belt, past booths and bar seats. The restaurant seemed delicate and stylish compared to the bright lights of the movie theatre next door.
I visited on a Friday night and the place was packed, every table a hum of activity. Mellow modern dance music floated through the space, whose lighting, seats and décor are of a sleek urban design; for a moment I thought that I had stepped into a bustling metropolitan sushi restaurant in Seattle or Vancouver. Looking over the crowd, I was impressed by the diversity of the customers: young hipsters grabbing a bite to eat before a movie sat next to families with lively children, mesmerized by the moving sushi plates. Next to us, a nervous pair of twenty-somethings stumbled through a first date.
As we took our seats, we could see the busy sushi chefs, clad in green, skillfully assembling plates of sushi and carefully setting them on the conveyor belt. Aside from drinks—Zen Sushi & Bar naturally serves a wide range of drinks—the pricing for meals is incredibly simple: the sushi is served on colour-coded plates, each of which corresponds to a price point; at the end of the evening, the customer pays for the number of plates consumed. For example, a basic California roll comes on a green plate, meaning it costs $1.75, while a more exotic seared tuna roll might be on a black plate and cost $4.25. You can even order directly from the sushi chef without flagging down a server—the system is simple and incredibly efficient.
The restaurant provides a diverse selection of Sushi. I enjoyed their crunch roll—fresh eel with a light cream cheese filling and a light salsa sprinkled on top. The filling had a sweet warm note without overpowering the eel. The special that night was a tempura-battered roll with fresh crab, drizzled with a tangy sauce over the top. While the rolls were decadent, I was pleased they served classics such as Nigiri and Sashimi for the sushi purists. The menu and plates listed all the ingredients and gave detailed descriptions, allowing anyone to feel like a sushi expert. The tables were equipped with fresh sliced ginger, little bowls for soy sauce, and of course, hot wasabi paste for the brave-hearted.
Zen Sushi & Bar’s offerings are not limited to sushi: the magic conveyor brought cold sweet noodles flavoured with sesame seeds, a fruit bowl, crunchy spring rolls, and seaweed salad. These offerings help round out the meal, making the outing feel more complete, and providing something for non-sushi enthusiasts to get excited about. They even provide Japanese cream puffs as a palate-cleansing dessert to wrap up the evening.
Just like the restaurant, the bar does not disappoint. It’s separate from the restaurant, and has it’s own unique, atmosphere—sleek and sexy. Happy Hour is not to be missed: everyday from 2:30 – 5, and 8:30 to close, every plate on the conveyor belt is a dollar off with a drink purchase. The drinks are competitively priced at $3 Wells, $1 off all beer on tap, $5 house sake, and $2 off specialty cocktails. With a new patio fireplace and outdoor seating arriving this summer, Zen will be the go-to for great late night Sushi by firelight.
The real danger of Zen Sushi & Bar is the temptation: even after several plates of sushi, another beautifully plated dish would drift past and I would think to myself, “Surely I have room for four more pieces of sushi, that looks too good to pass up;” I would grab another plate, and then another. The variety and skillful combination of flavours makes every plate a dangerous siren, calling for just another bite.
No matter the reason for stepping inside Zen Sushi and Bar, it is impossible not to enjoy the infectious excitement while dining in the shadow of that giant statue. The elegant design, the feel of the restaurant and the excellent dishes provide of a slice of the cosmopolitan with a local twist.
By Riley Sweeney
For more information on Zen Sushi please visit their website at zensushibellingham.com.