Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Zenna Noodle Bar: French-Vietnamese Fusion with a Thai Twist

This review originally published on April 14 in the Brookline Patch

Mango Chicken Curry

Zenna Noodle Bar is one of those easy places that feel chic and comfortable at the same time—where a dish can surprise you with its innovation, or just feed you a good, solid meal. Early 20th century French colonialism in Southeast Asia makes French-Vietnamese fusion cuisine an easy find these days, but Tien Truong, chef and owner of Zenna Noodle Bar, throws an extra element into the mix: Thai flavor profiles, which strive for the perfect balance of hot and sour, of salty and sweet.

The decor within this small Beacon Street restaurant is half minimalist (no artwork on the long, mustard-colored wall that dominates the space) and half lush flower garden (glorious bouquets at the front, arranged every week by the owner herself, and a fresh rose in a bud vase at every table). Helpful servers hurtle across the hardwood floors at the slightest raise of your hand, jostling each other for the privilege of serving you.

Avocado Fresh Rolls

In a nod to our burning desire for Asian kitsch, Zenna's menu is arranged according to the four classic elements: Air (appetizers), Water (noodle based soups and curries), Fire (stir fry and signature dishes), and Earth (salads and vegetarian dishes).  The idea of eating air for an appetizer made me feel terribly suave and thin, so we began with the Avocado Fresh Rolls ($6.50), a true study in texture―crunchy cucumber and carrot, creamy avocado, and supple vermicelli all bound up in a chewy rice wrapper that makes the rolls such fun to eat. Try also the Butterfly Shrimp ($9.95), battered, fried and served alongside crunchy tempura vegetables, or the delicate Vietnamese Spring Rolls ($6.75).

Pad Thai ($10.95) and Vegetable Pad See You ($10.95) presented well-made rice noodles still a bit chewy to the tooth, and I was pleased to find the sauces not overly sweet, a typical fault of so many American-made versions. But one of the nights that we ordered them, both of these dishes came loaded with vegetables not listed in the menu description: broccoli, sweet peppers, mushrooms, slivered zucchini and yellow squash, and carrots. Objectively, I appreciate the extra nutrients, but honestly, I feel like my Aunt Zenna is tricking me into eating my vegetables by hiding them among noodles and sauce. "Try them, I know you'll like them!"

Pad Thai

Zenna Noodle Soup ($9.95) is a rendition of traditional Vietnamese pho: narrow rice noodles, cilantro, and thinly sliced chicken or flank steak in a velvety broth, with Thai basil, lime, and bean sprouts on the side, added at your leisure. The broth here is wonderfully complex, with hints of ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and lemongrass, and rolls from sour to sweet to spicy in the mouth. Chef Truong's version also includes the aforementioned vegetable medley, which rounds the soup out nicely into a full meal.

Zenna Noodle Soup

Chicken mango curry ($14.50) featured a few chunks of ripe mango and vegetables, soused in a monotonous mango-cream sauce touched with spice, with rice noodles on the side. Diners can also build their own curry, choosing from a list of proteins and sauce, or order a family-style meal along the lines of Chicken with Basil ($14.50), Steamed Chilean Sea Bass ($19.95), or the enigmatically-titled Bangkok Shrimp Scampi ($16.95), a yellow-curry stir fry of shrimp, pineapple, tomato, scallion, and egg.

If you’re craving something sweet after your noodles, Mango Sticky Rice ($5.95) is a sensory pleasure, the tart-sweet mango coupled with warm coconut sticky rice. Crowning the mound of rice is a maraschino cherry that, if left alone long enough, lends its blush to the rice beneath. But if you're like us, you won't have a problem gobbling it up before it gets that far.

Zenna Noodle Bar is open Monday-Thursday 11am to 10:30pm; Friday-Saturday 11am-11pm; Sunday 3pm-10pm. 1374 Beacon Street, Brookline. MBTA: Green Line (C) to Coolidge Corner.

Zenna Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon


  1. I just saw this review. My sister lived iin Thailand for many years and was able to cook delicious Thai food. Sometimes it was a bit too hot for me--like a soup I had in NYC. It was so hot, I thought I would die--and so did she. I never had such fussing in all my life. But the rest of the food was great -- so if I get to your area, I'll want to try that restaurant.
    G Tep