First Bite

First Bite: Tom Sietsema on Zentan at the Donovan House

By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

If everything had gone as planned at the Donovan House in Washington, Boston chef Todd English would have created a menu for a restaurant named Cha in the tony hotel, and the dining room would have been open in time for President Obama's inauguration.

But reality intervened when English pulled out of the deal. He was replaced by Susur Lee, 50, a top Canadian chef with side-by-side restaurants in Toronto named Madeline's and Lee and a third, the year-old Shang, in New York. In May, Lee launched a menu of sushi and other Asian dishes at the Donovan House in a restaurant whose name he says sounds nice and is easy to remember: Zentan, a gentle poke at the world capital. "It means 'spy' in Cantonese," says Lee.

The setting is minimalist but sexy, with bare black tables, cool tunes and soft illumination courtesy of dozens of faux candles suspended from rafters. The service is . . . chatty. Our waiter gives us his name, then tells us, "I'll be guiding you through this experience," as if we were about to embark on a foreign trip. He is quick to push bottled water and extra dishes, but I appreciate his knowledge of the menu and his many recommendations.

One of them is a plate of lightly charred scallops set off by toasted almonds, salmon roe and a translucent pool of citrus juice, soy sauce and sake. Another suggestion is the Asian equivalent of a Cobb salad. Jicama, daikon radish, carrots, pickled ginger, salty plum -- some 19 ingredients in all -- are tossed together with fanfare at the table. It's enough food for a small party (Lee explains the salad is a staple at Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore), but three of us make short work of the vivid mix. Meanwhile, the raw fish we try finds us smiling. Its quality suggests that the three-star Sushi Taro nearby might face some competition.

Lee is based in Toronto but spends two weeks a month at Zentan, which features the handiwork of Jason Zheng at the sushi bar and Jaime Montes De Oca, who served as a sous-chef at Shang, in the kitchen. When Lee's not in town, he manages his crew over the phone and online: His underlings take pictures of what he has asked them to cook, or whatever dish they're working on, then send their homework to the boss via e-mail.

Zentan, 1155 14th St. NW, 202-379-4366. Entrees, $16-$36.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company