Columbus, OH USA
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ZenCha's New World-Class Brunch
February 2006
By Karen Edwards

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It’s another winter in Columbus – leaden skies that never seem to brighten much beyond pewter; dreary landscapes that wouldn’t even inspire “Gloomy Day” artist Pieter Brugel; and people who seem to possess a perpetual state of post-holiday funk.

The one oasis on this dull scene is ZenCha, the tea salon that sits on the north side of the Short North, at 982 N. High St. With its clean, spare interior and its quality teas from all over the world, it has always been easy enough to slide into a seat, sip one of the 102 exotic teas and let yourself be transported to another place. Where doesn’t matter as long as it’s not, well, here.

And yet, here, in Columbus and at ZenCha, is where you’ll want to be on weekends, now that ZenCha owner I Cheng Huang has introduced his new brunch menu.

“The area demonstrated a need for weekend breakfasts and brunches, but I didn’t want to do a Bob Evans-kind of breakfast,” says Huang. “It doesn’t match the theme of tea. We’ve pushed ourselves to do a lighter, healthier breakfast.”

Instead, he envisioned a menu that would reflect the same geography as his teas.

For those who still haven’t discovered ZenCha, that’s a very wide area indeed. Last year, when Huang expanded his tea menu, he compartmentalized the teas by region. There’s a historic Chinese tea series, a Taiwan tea series, and a Japanese green tea series, which takes care of much of Asia. A chai series represents India, and as for Europe, there is a British tradition series, French tea lattes, and a German tea garten series. Arabic and African teas round out ZenCha’s tea world.

That’s a lot of world to represent on a menu, however, and Huang made it even more challenging by deciding the breakfast items should somehow incorporate the tea he serves. “We’re a professional tea house,” he says. “Tea should permeate everything we do.”

A worldly solution
The perfect solution, of course, was pancakes.

“Pancakes are eaten in different forms by people all over the world,” says Huang. True enough. Here in America, we may eat pancakes, but the French dine on crepes, the Russians on blini, the Germans on puffed apple pancakes, and the Chinese prefer a savory version wrapped around vegetables and pork.

Huang decided to add waffles as well, and a menu began to develop.

Alas, the recipes did not.

Although he searched the Internet, Huang couldn’t find any recipes for pancakes or waffles (or even syrup) that used tea as an ingredient. He was on his own.

In no way did that deter him, however. He went to the kitchen and began experimenting with different teas, different recipes, and within three weeks of his idea to create a ZenCha brunch, he was ready to go.
He test piloted his brunch menu the first weekend in January, and has already added a dish or two. He envisions expanding it even further in the weeks and months ahead.

Not your typical pancakes
You can certainly be assured that these are not your chain-restaurant pancakes. In fact, one look at the menu and you’ll wonder if you haven’t wandered into some chic, trendy, New York brunch hot spot – for the unique ingredients and the inventive combinations seem like they could only emerge from some big-city kitchen ruled by a European-trained chef.

If you decide to experience a ZenCha brunch, you’ll be greeted upon entering by one of ZenCha’s cheerful staff. Sit where you like, you’ll be handed a menu once you’re settled. You don’t have to order brunch, of course. You could just come for tea – but where’s the adventure in that? As exotic as the teas are, the tea-infused brunch items are even more so.

Consider some of the following choices, just a few of what’s available on the menu:

British/American style – Earl Grey tea is incorporated into the pancake batter, then the pancakes (three) are layered with meltingly soft slices of apple, baked in maple syrup and apple pie spice, reminiscent of the filling inside an apple pie. The entire concoction is covered with delicate Earl Grey syrup.

Arabian style – Waffles, so large they border on the Belgian variety, show off treasures of walnuts and dates baked right into the batter. Dollops of crème fraiche sit atop the waffles, and on top of that are sunny slices of seasoned orange, all served with orange-cardamom syrup.

Japanese style – Green-tea, the favored Japanese beverage, is incorporated right into the pancakes, then the pancakes are layered with a sweet red-bean paste and topped with roasted chestnuts swimming in spiced syrup. As if the dish needed any more enhancements, it receives a dab of whipped cream that’s sprinkled with green tea powder. “There is a reason for this combination,” says Huang. Traditionally, Japanese green tea powder (matcha) is used for the tea ceremony. In order to really taste the light bitterness of the green tea, the tea host usually serves sweets first before serving the tea to balance out the green tea flavor, Huang explains. So in this pancake combination, ZenCha has blended in ingredients that represent the tea rituals.

Tropical style – Here, pancakes go Hawaiian – and what better cure for Columbus’ gray wintertime than a plate of pancakes layered topped with a kaleidoscope of colorful tropical fruits – mango, papaya, pineapple, kiwi, star fruit? All of it is topped with decadent guava syrup which is worth the price of the dish alone.

There are chai waffles, served with carmelized banana, even a chocolate waffle, glistening darkly beneath its white-chocolate topping. But Huang hasn’t forgotten those who prefer their pancakes on the savory side. The best example is an Italian-influenced pancake that’s made with parmesan and prosciutto and served with what may be Huang’s crowning achievement: blackberry-Russian caravan tea syrup. The blackberry nicely compliments the parmesan, and the smoky flavor of the Russian caravan tea sets off the prosciutto to an advantage that no one, except Huang, even imagined possible.

“This Italian fusion item carries the passionate characteristics of Italians,” says Huang. Hence the name – Sicily.

Each item has been carefully crafted by Huang to reflect the area it represents. That’s why the British-style pancake is more subtle, more reserved than the flamboyant Arabian waffle that practically cartwheels off the plate in its exuberance.

Observing Zen tradition
The dish that probably best exemplifies the Zen tradition after which ZenCha is named is kaiseiki, named for the Zen Buddhist practice of eating the freshest, seasonal ingredients to better appreciate what nature has to offer. “They don’t just taste good,” Huang says about the ingredients, “they also reflect the harmony between human and natural seasons.”

In describing kaiseiki, which will launch in February, Huang struggled to find the appropriate English word, then finally likened it to a kind of rice porridge that can be flavored with other ingredients – say Shitake mushrooms for a vegetarian version, or with chicken or seafood.

Kaiseiki, like all ZenCha menu items, will be beautifully presented. Huang has ordered special black slate plates on which the white porridge will be placed, along with fresh vegetables, like asparagus or cabbage, and maybe tofu.

“The ingredients will follow the natural flavor of the seasons,” says Huang.

Prices range in the $9 and $10 range – don’t forget these are quality, fresh ingredients – but the portions are so generous, you can always split a dish with a friend.

Tea is charged separately, but of course is the perfect go-along beverage. Huang has placed recommendations on the menu as to which tea will best compliment a menu item.

ZenCha serves brunch every Saturday and Sunday, beginning at 9 a.m. and continuing through 2 p.m.

Whether brunch service is extended to weekdays hasn’t been decided yet.

After all, Huang is still preoccupied with other items he can add to the menu.

You know our French tea lattes?” he asks.

ZenCha lattes are creamy concoctions, based around herbs and flowers. The rose and lavender lattes, for example, are served with actual flower petals floating in the silky brew.

“Imagine a pancake with rose petals in it,” he muses.

And suddenly, you’re no longer in Columbus. You’re in Paris, in the spring or early summer, sitting on a park bench, watching a gentle wind ruffle the velvety petals of a pale-pink rose. The rose’s sweet, musky scent rises around you, then the wind catches it and carries it playfully along, perfuming the sparkling, crystal-clear day…

ZenCha, 982 N. High St. 614-421-2140. Open 7 days.

©2005 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.