Fusion Amid Confusion
At Zengo, the food is Latin-Asian, the service is suspect
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, December 18, 2005
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Smoking at the bar. Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown. Valet parking at dinner. Prices: small plates $9 to $11, large plates $17 to $27. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $65 per person.
Richard Sandoval, a New York-based chef with seven restaurants around the country, has this to say about the Washington restaurant scene: "It's really hard to find help."
I can sympathize, having eaten more than a few meals at his latest project, the Latin-Asian Zengo in Chinatown. Designed by one of the city's most prolific architectural teams and co-owned by no less a presence than Placido Domingo, Zengo lost a key player early on when opening chef Alan Yu -- the Asian part of the formula -- left for personal reasons. Yet the kitchen didn't miss much more than a beat. As is Sandoval's practice with each new restaurant, the Mexican native was in town to make sure Zengo's launch weeks went smoothly, and he persuaded Graham Bartlett, a former sous-chef at the original Zengo in Denver, to pick up the slack.
Too bad many of the waiters are not doing their part. Zengo's unique style of cooking and service requires more than a ready smile and the ability to refill water glasses. The following vignette underscores Sandoval's concerns:
"Have you visited us before?" a bubbly server asked a companion and me at lunch one day. "Zengo means 'give and take' in Japanese. It's kind of like tapas or dim sum, and everything is meant to be shared." She went on to describe a "flowing kitchen" in which the food comes to the table as it is ready rather than in traditional appetizer-then-entree fashion. And in case there were any confusion about what to expect of a menu that runs to wonton tacos and skirt steak with "dragon sauce," she offered a preview: "It's lots of salty, spicy, sweet flavors."
So far, so good. But she returned to our table in less than five minutes, failing to recognize my guest and me as the people to whom she just had just given a tour. "Hi!" she started out -- and then repeated, almost word for word, her entire spiel, right down to its adjective-rich climax: "It's lots of salty, spicy, sweet flavors." Such behavior was the rule rather than the exception every visit. After a hostess led friends and me to a table we didn't care for, the solution required lengthy negotiations with a supervisor before we landed in a more desirable spot. And when a companion asked for bitters for his drink, he was told that Zengo, which has a full bar, doesn't stock bitters or his second beverage choice, iced tea. No iced tea? In a flashy restaurant in one of the city's hottest neighborhoods? On another occasion, when I requested that a bottle of warm red wine be chilled before we continued drinking it, the bottle was whisked away -- far, far away from our table, beyond the moon, beyond the stars -- only to be seen again after we were well into dinner.
Zengo needs to work on its service.
It needs to work on a few of its dishes, too, but fewer than you might expect from such a fresh face with such an extensive repertoire. There's much to admire, visually and otherwise, on the plate, thanks in part to the nice balance Sandoval and company strike between the cuisines they're fusing.
In one delicious tango, sweet diver scallops and zesty sushi rice mate to become a "sandwich" dressed up with a fruity yellow sauce and a dark and pleasantly bitter black bean reduction. East meets West in a refreshing rock shrimp seviche that weaves jicama, lemon oil, habanero and yuzu, the sour Asian citrus, in its mix. Lobster- and shrimp-filled pot stickers are best for their sheer wraps and eye-popping sauce, fiery with wasabi and chili; the seafood itself is bland. And ordinary fried calamari is upstaged by its three-ring circus of bright accents (lemon grass, lime, garlic) and contrasting textures -- the promised "salty, spicy, sweet flavors." There's nothing tame, however, about ultrathin slices of hamachi (yellowtail) scattered with minced cilantro, chile serrano and more; each chopstickful ignites a little fire in the mouth.
Every category on the menu finds at least one treasure. "From the sea" sails caramelized mahi-mahi on a bed of garlic- and lime-jolted cubed yuca. "From the land" come terrific braised short ribs shored up with potatoes mashed with Oaxacan cheese. Of the antojitos, or snacks, I could easily make a habit of the arepas. The size of silver dollars, they come four crisp corncakes to an order. Topped with a pinch of shredded pork, a dime slice of jalapeno and a dab of avocado, they also go down in sweet flames.
The concept of a flowing kitchen benefits the cooks more than the diners. Why can't the food just come out the way most people prefer eating it, light stuff (appetizers), then heartier fare (entrees)? It's annoying to have, as I've witnessed, a single big plate come out within minutes of ordering, followed only much later by everything else you've asked for, all at once. To be fair, I was warned in my numerous introductions.
With the exception of starch-stiff litchi panna cotta, desserts play for smiles. I'm partial to the hot churros accompanied by dark chocolate sauce for dunking, and a soothing cocktail of coconut, tapioca and chopped tropical fruit presented with a sail of dried pineapple, an excellent shortbread cookie and a sesame tuile. An extra-fat straw ensures that the thick drink makes its way effortlessly from glass to lips.
The design firm of Adamstein & Demetriou has done much to enhance the dining experience in the Washington area, as anyone who has been seduced by the interiors at Zola, Zaytinya, Oyamel and Poste can attest. Zengo, bold in oranges and reds, is not the firm's finest effort. The ground-floor bar is too narrow for post-work crowds, its banquette too high. The stone stairs that lead to the second-floor dining room present the kind of trek sherpas are expected to make, not mere mortals. Suspended over the landing at the top are -- giant Raisenettes? Brown rocks? Or, as I heard someone joke, "Cow patties?" -- and a trip to the restroom leaves customers semi-exposed. I like open kitchens. I don't like bathrooms that are so visible to the world that I can see people buckling their belts from the hall and hear the staff chat when I wash my hands. Sometimes the music is played so loudly in the dining room that you imagine yourself in the front row of a rock concert.
Zengo, a server announced one evening, also means "back and forth." Which is pretty much my experience with this alternately winning and frustrating endeavor.