Every once in a while I have a dining experience that leaves me at a loss for words. On this rare occasion, I try my best to just put my head down and churn out a review to the best of my abilities. A recent visit to the newly opened Zhang’s Grille in Holmdel (formerly Ruby Palace) provided me such a result. From start to finish, what I went through was so spellbindingly bad that I could not help but chuckle on the way out. For starters, Zhang’s has no idea what it wants to be. The menu labels the restaurant as “Fine Western Dining, Japanese Cuisine, and Self-Grill”. But upon opening the menu, you are hit with an identity crisis of epic proportions. The first two pages consist of Chinese takeout classics. The usuals, nothing wrong with that. The next two pages are sushi and Japanese items like Hibachi, Teriyaki, and Tempura. But the last page serves as the exclamation point: American or “western” food. Yes, right after the Udon noodles and miso soup you can order up some Fettuccine Alfredo, cheesesteaks, chicken quesadillas, and a tuna club. Right below the grilled cheese sandwich with avocado was the Thai section of the menu. I still did not find out what the “self-grill” was, but by the end of the night I might have taken that literally and leaped into the flames.
The waitress, who was pleasant, came over three times to see if we were ready to order. However, I was so dumbfounded at what I was reading that I could not decide what the hell I wanted. I asked her for a recommendation for an appetizer. We wanted the steamed dumplings and something else. I actually considered the quesadilla, because why the hell not at that point? Instead, she recommended something called “corn fritters”. In her words, “These are brand new on the menu. It took the chef until today to perfect them”. We went with that.
They both arrived within minutes. The dumplings were decent—no better or worse than what you would find anywhere else. As for the fritters, they were horrid. So bad I sent them back (I never do this). Three sad, semi-burnt balls of batter with a few corn kernels scattered throughout. Six bucks for something a two-year old might shit out into a diaper. The waitress apologized, then the manager, and then finally another manager or the owner who announced that he ordered the chef to throw the remaining ones in the garbage because they were inedible. He said they would continue to work on them. I wanted to say the best way to make those corn fritters would be to not make them at all. It was taken off the check. I knew I should have gotten the Caesar salad!
This night was turning into a clusterfuck of food terror. I could hear Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now whispering, “The horror…the horror”. I started to wonder if Zhang’s would have the ability to stay in business six months from now for me to give them another shot. After the entrees soon hit the table, I realized that being a captive in the Vietnamese jungle with threat of my head being placed on a spear by Kurtz’s native militia at any moment might be better than eating here a second time.
For meals, my mom and I both had the hibachi chicken. There was a reason for this. Once again, I was torn. I asked the waitress about the Yaki Udon and she leaned in and said, “Customers have complained that the dish is ‘too American’.” Not wanting to get into what the hell that could possibly mean, I went with the chicken. Looking back on it now, “too American” probably meant they used fettuccine or linguine instead of actual Udon noodles.
When it came, I was taken aback. The plate was massive—it took up a quarter of the table. One section each of the chicken, grilled vegetables, white rice, and noodles. It didn’t look bad. Perhaps the day would be saved? Not exactly. The chicken was rubbery and tasteless. It was a chore to chew it. The noodles which did taste good were cold. The veggies were the same. The white rice was white rice. I asked for chopsticks when the food arrived, and she never brought them. The soup and salad that the menu said were included with the meal also were forgotten. Fitting. It was all indescribably bad. Impressively bad. The kind of bad you could not even aim for if you wanted to get fired from somewhere.
When the owner came over to see if everything was good, I just went, “Mhmm”. I could not even begin to say why everything was not good. My vocal cords failed me. I just could not wait to get out of there.
Other things of note: considering it took nearly three years to renovate, I expected more than white walls with black lighting fixtures and booths. It’s nothing like Ruby Palace. Clean, but not standout at all. Most of the customers there were gray-haired. Maybe their taste-buds had faded…or maybe they were looking for the restaurant which used to occupy this location. Three tables sent orders back in the hour we were there. All cocktails on the drink menu were $10, even a glass of Sangria. My Sapporo beer was priced at $4.67 which is not bad. When I ordered it, the waitress needed to look at the menu because she had never heard of it before and didn’t know what I was saying. Overall, she was nice. Doing the best she could in the maelstrom. Kind of like a competent coach who has a team of scrubs at their disposal—you didn’t acquire the players, but you have to play the game anyway.
Zhang’s gets a 1.5 out of 5 stars from me. Without a doubt, one of the worst dining experiences I’ve ever had in my life, and the worst overall in New Jersey. I don’t even have to think about that. Look through my list of restaurant reviews. I’d say 90% of them are positive—overly positive. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel here. No potential. Usually, a new restaurant has problems with service and timing. When you consider the owner here also has another restaurant in Wall, these things described tonight are inexcusable. The cooking is lackluster, the decor is drab, the menu is all over the place like a chicken who just got its head cut off. The managers were walking around apologizing so much that their pedometers could have gone into overload. No one appeared to know what they were doing. This is an experience a Hollywood screenwriter could not make up. Any restaurant that has both wonton soup and a tuna sandwich on the menu is not okay in my book. I’ll be shocked if this place does not close by the end of the year.