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Oodles Of Noodles 

Zyng too often lacks zing

What the developers created in Birkdale Village is reminiscent of a small town main street in many of the northeastern bedroom communities. No wonder so many people from there have relocated to Huntersville. Small shops line the main street where you can park in front or in a parking deck tucked behind. During the summer, Huntersville residents take the kids for ice cream and then a splash in the Birkdale Village center fountain.

Among the restaurants which have opened this year in Birkdale Village is the 220-seat Zyng Asian Grill, a franchise operation begun in 1998 and headquartered in Canada. The Huntersville franchise, which opened in February 2005, is co-owned by Marcus Hall. (This is the second franchise in North Carolina. Another is located in Raleigh.)

One of the "new" -- to Americans, that is -- concepts of the 1990s was the noodle shop, and Zyng originally was designed to capture this market. In Japan and other Asian nations, noodle shops flourish and are known as cheap eats. Noodle shops gained notoriety in the 90s as a radical departure from traditional restaurant design: an open stir fry kitchen in which customers pick their ingredients and had the food cooked in front of them. At times, this was perplexing to new customers.

Although noodles may have started Zyng, the idea of serving "pan-Asian" cuisine is the concept which was developed and franchised. But there's the rub. The menu proudly proclaims that it features the cuisine of China, Japan, Thailand, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore -- a monumental undertaking for any restaurant. But the reality is that these dishes are far from reality.

The interior of Zyng is one of those funky yet trendy epnic (Disney's Epcot mixed with ethnic) places. Overhead is slightly twisted bamboo lashed together, while Asian calligraphy festoons the walls. Bare topped tables are charmingly set with bamboo steamers holding all the condiments and wrapped chopsticks. Fried wonton strips in martini glasses await the bar crowd. The main dining room with an open kitchen is in need of something to break up the sound. The walls do not absorb much, and Zyng attracts families with small and, at times, cranky children, as well as people talking on cell phones.

Hall said the Asian segment of the hospitality industry is the third fastest growing, behind Italian and Mexican. Further, he remarked that Zyng has positioned itself as more upscale than a Mama Fu's franchise, but not as upscale and expensive as P.F. Chang's, a publicly traded corporate restaurant.

In charge of the kitchen is Justin King, who had been a Zyng corporate trainer and with Qdoba Mexican Grill before moving to Charlotte. Hall said his store had been given the "green light" to tweak and change some of the dishes on the copyrighted menu. "We are sort of the test kitchen," he noted. Currently on the menu are starters such as gyoza, potstickers, Thai peanut noodles and teriyaki skewers. Entrees include Singapore curried shrimp, Kung Pao chicken, orange ginger chicken, Mongolian beef and General Tao chicken.

The servers introduce themselves as "tour guides," which is both pretentious and annoying. But then, our "tour guide" sat down beside me on the banquette to take our order. That was a first for me. However, there is a convivial and loose atmosphere among the regulars, many of whom are recognized by name.

You may well need a guide for some of Zyng's dishes, since some are downright confusing. Mu Shu is one of those dishes you ordered as a child to see how hilarious your macho father (long before the metro-male became de rigueur) sounded when he ordered it. On the menu at Zyng's is a mu shu lettuce wrap appetizer made with chicken, not pork, that looks like a Thai, not Chinese, lettuce wrap. But it doesn't taste Thai OR Chinese. And where was the jar of Thai chilies and Asian hot sauce?

Other misses were the Pad Thai, the legendary noodle dish of Thailand; here it was characterless and lacked the oomph of tamarind and chilies. The wonton soup's broth was deficient in the intensity. Dishes that were better were the slightly overcooked tuna appetizer and the teriyaki glazed salmon filet.

But even though this restaurant franchise has moved away from noodles, the house's strength is the virtually mistake-proof noodle bowl section of the menu. Patrons don't need to leave the table to create a bowl of noodles. Rather, bowls are ordered like pizza by choosing from the ingredients on the menu. The base roster includes jasmine and basmati rice, and udon, soba, Shanghai, lo mein, Cantonese and Banh Pho noodles. To this is added protein, vegetables and one of nine flavorings ranging from Chinese black bean to Thai coconut curry. How can you not like what you've created?

Hall, who has spent 15 years in the restaurant business, recognizes that he needs to give the people in Huntersville what they want. To this extent, he has added live jazz on Thursday nights, will open a full sushi bar and also has $5 martini nights. Already, the menu offers a $5 kids' meal.

But this is epnic food, not the familiar comforting food of the hole-in-the-wall Asian ethnic restaurant. This food is satiating, not startling. But Zyng does not aspire to replicate an authentic Asian meal. Everything here is in English.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via e-mail: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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