At Zengo, Bewitching Flavors and Bewildering Lapses
There's good Zengo and there's bad Zengo. At good Zengo, the Latin-Asian fare sings (not unlike part-owner Plácido Domingo), waiters fashion pea-shooters for five-year-olds, and the conversational hum is backdrop enough for the in-the-know crowd. Bad Zengo is hobbled by culinary misfires, now-you-see-'em-now-you-don't waitstaff, a house beat on continuous loop, and epochal lags. You never know which Zengo you're going to get. Dining there is restaurant roulette–fine for the devil-may-care but not for those who want more of a sure thing.
On paper, Zengo has all the right stuff: Domingo is part owner. Adamstein and Demetriou, the husband-and-wife architectural duo with the golden touch, dreamed up the modern, bilevel space. And big-name chef Richard Sandoval, whose Maya in New York had the New York Times's Ruth Reichl swooning several years back, is running the show.
Sandoval appears to have restaurants in his DNA. His family owned a pair of upscale Mexico City eateries, and he has amassed a mini-empire of his own in this country, a string of seven chic but serious Mexican restaurants in New York, San Francisco, and Denver. Denver's Latin-Asian Zengo is the first he's cloned.
The DC outpost has its own look. A cinnamonny backdrop with retro '50s orange, yellow, and acid green swags is pumped up by artist Ann Hazels's installation of dozens of glossy baked potatoes (actually fired balls of clay) jutting out of one wall for a 3-D effect. "Boulders" suspended from the ceiling look like static meteors. Upholstered benches in the bar are cozy nooks for scenemakers, the girls with long hair and off-the-shoulder tops, the boys with moussed hair and striped shirttails. And they are much more comfortable than high banquettes that make everyone look like Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann, dangling legs and all.
The most coveted spot in the upstairs dining room is a quartet of curvy booths that the staff seems reluctant to part with at times. Request one in advance, talk to the manager, arrive with a posse–persistence pays off.
While service lapses and the house tunes are beyond a diner's control, ordering well isn't. Graham Bartlett, who helms the kitchen, is an alumni of Zengo-Denver, probably a good thing, considering that more than two-thirds of the DC menu is identical. Sandoval says he's also putting in a couple of weeks of stove time in DC every month. The kitchen appears to have overcome the loss of chef Alan Yu (Citronelle and New York's 66) in the very early going because of personal reasons.
When Zengo is good, it is very good. Fruity cocktails such as the tart mojito and the guzzle-worthy Kimono Kiss, another not-too-sweet libation of Absolut Mandarin, sake, fresh kumquats, and ginger, are the drinks of choice. There's also a serious wine list, an exhaustive tequila lineup (clear, oaky, and aged), and a handful of esoteric sakes.
Counter the cocktails with an order of edamame XO style, the pods slicked with filaments of dried shrimp and scallops and togarashi, a smoky-spicy sauce of orange and hoisin. Two other come-hither bites are wonton tacos and baby back ribs. Who knew that a fried wonton would make such an engaging little taco shell or that those tiny bits of ginger and mango would add a subtle pungency to cubelets of charred ahi tuna? With squirts of guacamole scattered about, the whole effect is a charming tease that delivers.
Another sly surprise is the unassuming stir-fry of asparagus and lotus root, where the vegetables are seared with a garlicky soy sauce. Not since hollandaise has asparagus found such a winsome mate.
This is the sort of place where a morsel of this, a taste of that is best. The grazer approach works well with entrées, too. Nab a hunk of charred black cod with your chopsticks and let it melt on the tongue. Then savor the effect as the sweetness of the fish gives way to flavors of miso and Japanese kewpie mayonnaise spiked with sake and togarashi. Or take a bite out of a mini-lambchop, the inside rosy, the outside caramelized to a near crust. Even more fun is the Oregon Kobe (Wagyu) beef, beautifully marbled with fat and sliced thin for dipping in fiery wasabi soy sauce and cooking hibachi-style on a hot smooth stone.
For dessert, churros with a cup of thick hot chocolate have become a cliché, but Zengo's ultra-crisp cinnamon-and-sugar-coated sticks are worth a go-round. So is lychee panna cotta, stiffer and more flanlike than the runny Italian cream but a winning mate for triangles of roasted pineapple. The sleeper of the bunch is coconut tapioca, really a bubble drink–a long, cool glass of coconut milk, blood-orange sorbet, tiny bits of kiwi and dried pineapple, and, of course, tapioca balls.
This is the sort of food that lingers in the mind, the sort of food to come back for–which makes the kitchen's flubs all the more maddening. Sushi is fine but is not the reason to eat here. In one overtouted roll with lobster, the fine shreds of seafood might as well be surimi for all the flavor they have. Lush-sounding mahi-mahi ceviche is bland and souplike; the mint, green mango, and achiote don't register at all. Short ribs beg for a hit of chilies or even salt to temper a hoisin-and-black-bean sauce that's a mite too sweet.
When inspired, Sandoval and Bartlett clearly have a knack for fusing Latin and Asian cooking. The most successful plates have the depth you find in long-cooked Mexican moles and the multiple hits of flavor characteristic of Asian cuisine. But too many dishes on this expansive menu smack of filler. Pan-roasted chicken exhibits both the good and bad Zengo. The sauce, a velvety purée of achiote, curry, and truffle essence, is luxurious enough to eat with a spoon. But the chicken is dry, and a mash of brownish-gray plantain beneath has all the appeal of a gym sock.
And what to make of the sometimes-on, sometimes-off staff? Waiting 20 minutes for a server to show up is neglectful. Trying to palm off lesser tables when the dining room's empty is an insult. Zengo is in need of an attitude adjustment and a bit more good cheer, starting with the hostess stand.
If Sandoval is aiming for more than just another chain with big intentions, he'd do well to prod the kitchen and the help to give more and give more consistently–Zengo is Japanese for give and take. Here's to exorcising bad Zengo and giving good Zengo a chance to shine.
Dress: Smart casual.
Noise level: Surprisingly bearable for a big bilevel space. Must be the rug.
Price range: Starters $8 to $12, entrées $18 to $30.
Best dishes: XO edamame; stir-fried asparagus and lotus root; Wonton tacos; barbecue baby back ribs; char-broiled black cod; rack of lamb; Oregon Kobe (Wagyu) beef cooked on a hot stone; churros con chocolate; coconut tapioca with tropical fruit.