In July, the chef got her wish when Zentan installed a robata grill, a source of near-smoke-free heat Nguyen came to appreciate during trips to Japan. The grill, which she helped design, uses imported binchotan charcoal, made from oak, that burns cleaner, and for a longer time, than regular charcoal.
When Zentan opened four years ago, it featured pan-Asian ideas from the esteemed Toronto chef Susur Lee and received a 11
2-star rating for food that could delight or disappoint. In April 2012, the San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants took over the property. By mutual agreement, Lee and the company parted ways shortly afterward.
Nguyen, who last worked at Mizu Prime Steak & Sushi in Austin, brings with her time spent at the French-accented Bouchon in Las Vegas and the Japanese-themed Morimoto in Philadelphia. Her current menu is split between “cold plates” and “hot plates” with bento boxes at lunch and cooking over stones at dinner.
Missing from the action at Zentan (“spy” in Cantonese) is the popular Lee-era “Singapore slaw,” an edible mountain built from 19 ingredients, among them jicama, taro root, hazelnuts, tiny flowers and salted plum dressing. Nguyen has replaced it with a chiffonade of kale tossed with a crisper’s worth of goodies: cauliflower florets, crisp apples, halved red grapes, everything splashed with a zingy ginger-miso dressing. Like many of the new chef’s contributions, this one is lighter and cleaner than what preceded it.
Her menu offers some appealing entry points. Salt and pepper calamari is such a pale shade of gold, you worry the tempura batter might be underdone. But the fry job is on target, and the soft seafood gets a welcome kick from ringlets of jalapeño and generous cracks of black pepper. That and a squeeze of lemon at the table make for a snappy snack. Tacos in a pan-Asian restaurant? American chefs are nothing if not borrowers from other cultures. So here we have a trio of tortillas cradling fried rock shrimp, pickled red onion and cool shaved cabbage. The dish is hot and juicy and cool and crisp: a pleasure to tackle.
The chef’s banh mi has a lot going for it: a proper crackling baguette and the cool crunch of julienned carrots and cucumbers to joust with the shredded chicken, its moistener sweeter than I prefer. More to my taste is Nguyen’s Reuben sandwich that swaps duck (“my favorite protein,” says the chef) and kimchi for the traditional corned beef and sauerkraut. The combination of the sweetly seasoned duck and the fiery and funky Korean slaw between slices of grilled-striped marble rye mixes pleasure with pain. Hotheads will love it.