“ Court Lane, Durham, DH1 3JS. Tel: 0191 3849588 „
Durham offers no shortage of places to eat and I seem to be determined to visit them all, with no regard for either my wallet or my waistline. To date, my experiences have fallen into three categories: places I will happily return to, those I will never visit again and those I can take or leave. Zen falls into the final category.
The first thing that strikes you about Zen is that it is desperately trying to be trendy. From its pretty-looking, but relatively information-lite website, through to the actual layout of the restaurant, a lot of money has been spent on making it look good. Glass panels and a highly trendy colour scheme combine to create a pleasant, relaxing atmosphere in a place which suggests style and sophistication, but is never garish. The modern look and feel certainly contrasts sharply with many other places in Durham, which are at pains to stress their history and heritage.
Ironically, this slightly trendy feel may put some people off. Certainly the first time I went (to meet a friend who had chosen it as the best location), I approached it thinking "this doesn't look my kind of place, at all" and, had I not arranged to meet someone, I would probably have gone and found somewhere else. Thankfully, these first impressions are misleading. Zen is not a home for snobs or pretentious idiots; it will happily open its doors to anyone - providing you can pay the bill!
Food-wise, Zen is essentially a Thai restaurant, although one where the food has been adapted for the western palette. A menu is available on the website, (with different menus for lunch and evening meals) so you can look up in advance of your visit what you might fancy. The range of food is very good and can often leave you somewhat spoiled for choice. I can certainly recommend the burgers which are slightly more unusual flavours than the bog standard ham/cheeseburger you get elsewhere. As you might expect from a Thai restaurant, there are a lot of fish dishes, but even if you hate fish, there's still plenty of choice.
Zen can be a little tricky to find. It's about a 10 minute walk from the city centre, down an anonymous looking side-street. If you don't know it's there, you're unlikely to find it by accident, so Zen relies on the staff and student population of Durham University for much of its custom. Thanks to this, it gets very busy around traditional lunch time periods, particularly during the university term.
If you are going to eat here, I would strongly recommend you go during the daytime. Zen is not particularly cheap anyway, but the pre-6pm menu appears to offer far greater value for money.
Going during the day, a typical main course costs around £6-9, although starters tend to be slightly more expensive than elsewhere at about £5. The daytime menu is perhaps a touch more expensive than elsewhere, but not horrendously so. It's on the evening menu that there is a startling price increase: the average cost of a main course leaps to around £15. Now, I admit I've never actually been there in the evening so can't comment on whether the portions are bigger or the food better, but the cost alone puts me off. If I'm going to spend that sort of money on a meal, I know of far nicer places in the area where I would prefer to go.
The quality of the food I have had is generally OK, although nothing to write home about. The burgers are tasty enough and taste of proper meat, rather than suspicious tubes and the more traditional Thai dishes are tasty too (if somewhat fussily served with funnels of rice and other such fripperies) The chips, on the other hand are delicious and definitely the highlight of the meal... but then I can get nice chips from lots of other places, so that's not really enough to justify the price or draw me back as a regular customer. Portions are not huge, either. Whilst the burgers are quite filling, I found that with the Thai dishes, I was hungry again a short while later. Since I don't have that big an appetite, this might be an issue for those who do. In short, the whole experience is pleasant enough, but I would rarely choose it myself - it tends to be somewhere I go at other people's suggestion.
Zen reaches its lowest point with its service, which is horrendously slow. It doesn't seem to matter how busy or quiet the place is, you always have to wait for an age for your food to arrive - waits of 30-45 minutes are pretty much the norm, but it can be even longer (a colleague of mine waited 90 minutes). I know that a more relaxed atmosphere is part of the Thai dining experience, but given that a lot of their daytime clientele is drawn from university staff and students who have to be back at work or lectures, the slow service can be a real problem.
It's not just the speed of service which leaves something to be desired, but the quality. You do sometimes get the impression that the customer is a bit of a nuisance by turning up and daring to pay for food, particularly if you haven't booked in advance. I always feel as though I'm meant to be grateful and that they are doing me a huge favour by finding a table - even if they're pretty quiet. Mrs SWSt even went for a meal with some work colleagues and the whole party was made to move mid-meal because the waitress had sat them at the wrong table!
Part of the reason why Zen is so popular is because it offers a 10% discount for Durham University staff or students, although I've had trouble getting this. Usually this has been my fault (I forget about it until after I've left), but on at least one occasion I remembered to present my university ID and still didn't get the discount. By this point, I'd spent so long in Zen waiting for my food and the bill that I just gave up and paid it without the 10% off.
In a city packed with places to eat, Zen relies on the fact that it has a semi-captive audience of university staff and students, many of whom don't have time or can't be bothered to walk into the city centre. It's not that Zen is bad, but the relatively high prices and slow service mean that I usually prefer to walk that little bit further in my quest for food.
Tel: 0191 384 9588
© Copyright SWSt 2009