With an influx of oriental food flooding not only the takeaway market, but also staking its claim on buffet-style restaurant dining, Chinese cuisine is undoubtedly one of the nation’s favourite cheap dinners out. When my sister suggested checking out a Chinese restaurant that she had heard about in her native Chelmsford, I was firstly filled with doubts, as it’s not really my idea of a classy night out with the girls. However, I couldn’t have been proven more wrong with the decadently extravagant oriental venue Zenxi, situated on Baddow Road.
When you first approach the restaurant, it simply oozes an alluring exclusivity with darkly tinted windows across the entire front – an earmark to its quality as it does not need to entice passing trade. Stepping inside revealed a two storey restaurant, decorated in a sleek high end black and white minimalist theme. A gleaming grand piano sat adjacent to a long bar tucked near the entrance, facing clusters of conversational lounge chairs and coffee tables. Further back in the restaurant showed circular tables draped with white tablecloths, dining chairs replaced again with soft white lounge chairs. A tricking waterfall decorated the back wall, lit with a changing colour glow from underneath. The atmosphere felt hushed, almost revered in a really grown up and opulent way. Even though it was a quiet Tuesday night when we visited, the restaurant was incredibly spacious with plenty of room between the tables, which were dressed with a stylish perfection complete with an array of cutlery and bloom of yellow flowers.
To me, Zenxi already felt unique and I hadn’t even sampled the food yet. It felt as if it were combining typical London glamour, grandeur and nightlife with super amped up Chinese and oriental cuisine that was a far cry from your normal bog standard offerings. It felt luxurious, it felt regal, yet it felt cool and funky too. I was completely taken in by the sheer class of the joint, and the table layout felt intimate and ideal for our girls catch up. Completely at ease, we grabbed at the menus to peruse the 150 dishes on offer.
We decided to pick our drinks first, wine our poison of choice simply because a bottle would last longer over the course of the meal. We settled on the French Viognier Les Salices, a 2010-2011 bottle of white with peachy, vanilla oak flavours. I have had this style of wine once before and I enjoyed it, so I knew I would once again favour the sweeter flavours and the rich golden colour. It was a gorgeously smooth wine with a distinct taste, and at £22 a bottle it was still one of the cheapest on the wine list. I suppose all of this opulence comes at a cost. There was a small black bowl of large speckled prawn crackers awaiting us on the table – the Chinese version of the smart restaurant’s bread basket no doubt.
The menu was wonderfully extensive, with choices for starters, a middle course, mains and even a tantalisingly lengthy dessert menu, which is unusual for oriental menus. We decided straight away to steer clear of anything we may sample on a takeaway menu and instead choose only foods that were stand out dishes. We decided to share all of ours, settling on a Dim Sum platter, as well as a side dish of roast duck served with mango slices. The duck was in thick slices, alternating with slices of the juicy, soft mango – the fruity freshness a perfect accompaniment to the gamey flavoured duck. The meat was tender and ideally cooked, and we all loved it with the mango. The Dim Sum platter came served in the traditional wicker box, complete with palm leaf at the bottom. We were given eight of these delicious dumpling, and if I’m quite honest, I have no idea what was in these parcels of heaven, just that we received a mixed bunch and they were fantastic. I love the gooey soft squelch of dumplings and despite the fillings being full of flavour, they were also very light to eat, so really ideal for the start of your meal.
Our plan of action for our main course was to get a meat dish each and then share some rice and noodles. Mum chose the Mandarin Fillet Steak, which was presented beautifully in a wonderfully laced looking prawn cracker cone, the saucy red chunks of meat, peppers and celery spilling out onto the black rectangular plate. It tasted a bit like a typical sweet and sour dish, but the high quality steak gave it that special oomph that we had been looking for. Jess also went for a beef dish, but she picked the Hainan Ginger Root Beef Fillet, that I thought actually had more of a Caribbean inspired flavour as the dusted beef chunks were really light to eat and had a surprising boost of coconut in the flavour that complimented the main ginger taste nicely. The succulent meat had a tropical tone. Bucking the trend, I had already decided that I was in the mood for pork, so I decided on the Mui Choi Braised Pork Belly, and it was a stunning dish. Served in its own clay pot, the tender, falling apart strips of lovingly cooked pork were surrounded by long strands of the fresh greens, all swimming in a sea of sauce, which I love. Because it was a braised dish, the skin on top of the pork was not really crunchy, but I didn’t care – this was undoubted the best Chinese food I have ever eaten. Usually with meat dishes in Chinese venues, you spend half of your time trying to find flecks of meat among the vegetable medley that pre-dominates; but nor here. The portion sizes were over generous if anything and more than enough. I couldn’t get enough of the zinging flavours and oh the meat was fantastic. I was so impressed by the quality.
Paired with our meat we had the egg fried rice with spring onions, which was light, fluffy and difficult to catch with chopsticks. We also went for the Vermicelli spicy noodles, which are the thinner Singapore noodles, peppered with prawns and vegetables. Portions of these were smaller than the meat, but also because we were splitting these three ways instead of having our own portions. To be honest, if we didn’t share side dishes the price would most likely rocket. Although the quality of the meat and the creatively combined flavours are worth every single penny, you will want to ensure you have enough of them to fully enjoy what this menu has to offer you.
Absolutely stuffed to the brim, we naturally asked to see a dessert menu. I opted for the intriguing sounding deep fried milk, after quizzing the waiter on what it actually was. Turns out, they are amazing. Stubby sausage like fritters, the deep fried milk was actually a creamy yet stodgy yet light custard, housed within a crunchy golden batter. I was presented with three of these moreish munchy delights and I wolfed them down. They tasted like fresh sugar ring doughnuts fresh from the fryer and I really loved them. Jess enjoyed the pan fried coconut pancakes, served with a scoop of ice cream. The pancakes used a thick looking batter as they seemed chunkier than the norm, and although the coconut flavour wasn’t that strong, they were still a pleasant dessert. Mum chose the deep fried ice cream – three balls of bread crumbed vanilla ice cream fried to a deep golden brown with a flaky crunch when you bit into them. Thumbs up from us for all of these.
Continuing with the surprises, Zenxi also offer specific after dinner cocktails. I wanted to try the Toblerone, containing Crème de cacao, kahlua, hazelnut liquor and cream with honey and a glug of milk blended together and topped with shavings of chocolate. Wowsers it was good! The consistency was similar to that of a slushy and it could easily have been a dessert in its own right. Completely divine. Jess went for the Strawberry Cheesecake option, containing Vanilla vodka and strawberry liqueur blended with strawberry jam and cream dusted with biscuit. The presentation of these were gorgeous, and we could tell the bartender had even impressed himself with these offerings.
I can’t speak highly enough of this fabulous high end Chinese dining experience, and it really is an experience that is a far cry from your cheap set price buffets. Zenxi offers an unexpected slice of celebrity, with excellent food, brilliant service and surroundings to die for. The only downside is the cost, as you will need a small lottery win if a large group of you want to go. However, they do offer set menu choices with a cheaper price tag, but as slightly snobbish foodies, we wanted to sample everything we hadn’t tried before, and with such an extensive menu, we had plenty of choice in this arena. Chelmsford may be more out in the sticks then some people prefer, but if ever you need a decent reason for visiting, this is it.