jinzen fusion cuisine photo by meera nagarajan

First Look: Jinzen Fusion Cuisine in Clayton

The first thing that captures your attention at Jinzen Fusion Cuisine at 8113 Maryland Ave. in Clayton is the lovely interior design of the space. A predominantly light wooden interior and soft, golden light evokes a Japanese design aesthetic with wood beams crafted into intricate patterns throughout. The furniture carries the same tones, and the main dining area has beams overhead with a fabric ceiling treatment to add visual interest. Cherry blossoms, a rock garden, bamboo and bonsai bring in an element of calm – it doesn’t matter that they’re artificial, it all works to set the mood.

Jinzen opened in mid-December 2023 and is the result of a collaboration between its six owners. Overseeing the day-to-day operations are Lynn Li, and executive chef Lei Qian, who are both from China. Two of the other co-owners and chefs, Haiyan Wu and Chunli Tang, are ethnically Korean but are from an area of China that borders North Korea. The third pair of owners, who did not want to be named, are from Japan. Each pair brought contributions to the Jinzen menu, which is a collaboration of dishes from China, Korea and Japan.

From Korea, dishes like bulgogi deobap and bibimbap make appearances on the menu, but the star is the naengmyeon, a traditional Korean cold noodle soup topped with a hard-boiled egg, braised and sliced beef and spiced cabbage garnished with cilantro. This dish that is typically eaten in summer with ice cubes to keep the sour-sweet broth chilled and refreshing has easily become one of their most popular dishes despite it being the dead of winter.

“People have been loving it; so many of our South Korean and Chinese customers just come for this cold soup,” Li said. “It’s the hardest dish on the menu to make,” Qian explained. “You have to constantly taste the soup to test its flavor, it’s not like you can measure and make it taste the same every time, the temperature, the ice cubes alter the flavor. It’s very time consuming.”

Another standout menu item is the Volcano Fried Rice with fried Kung Pao chicken, peanuts, carrots, peas and onion that are served on a hot iron pan – beaten eggs get poured into the hot pan and are cooked and tossed into the rice tableside for an unforgettable touch. Kung Pao chicken is a dish Li loved while growing up in her hometown in Guizhou Province, which is very close to Szechuan Provence that is famous for that spicy dish. The fried rice is inspired by one of the meals her dad would regularly make. “I always like that chicken better the next day when you use the leftovers and leftover rice, the rice would soak up the sauce,” she said.

What further sets the fried rice apart at Jinzen is the actual rice itself. “The rice we are using is a premium-grade Japanese rice. It’s plumper rice, and you’ll notice it won’t clump to each other that much,” Qian said. “You can feel each grain of rice; it has a firm texture to it.”  

Other Chinese dishes on the menu are inspired from Qian’s upbringing in Tianjin, a harbor city where the cuisine, he explained, is influenced by the West. The black pepper-garlic steak bites, for example, use butter, which is not commonly used in traditional Chinese dishes. The sea cucumber mini dumplings are pan fried until crisp; these one-bite-wonders have a filling of beef and sea cucumber, the latter of which adds an umami punch and jelly-ish texture. 

From Japan are dishes like tempura, squid karaage, takoyaki and their signature tonkotsu ramen, the broth for which they simmer over 20 hours. Diners will appreciate the one-time-use aprons offered to protect clothes when brothy soups hit the table.

Another notable aspect at Jinzen is the vegetarian section of the menu, including a bibimbap, naengmyeon, vegetable tempura and a mustard cucumber appetizer that is a spicy, crunchy palate cleanser made with Chinese yellow mustard powder, vinegar and sugar.

Don’t neglect the dessert offerings at Jinzen either, whether the Japanese mont blanc, a chestnut cream cake, or the matcha pudding, a delightfully jiggly matcha-flavored pudding topped with whipped cream. No matter what section of the menu or what cuisine it’s based in, they are aiming to please.

The space seats 65, with a patio space that will seat roughly 15. Jinzen is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.