Zentan’s new chef brings a little more spark

Jennifer Nguyen, the fresh face at Zentan, says she wants you to taste where she’s from and where she’s been. More than anything, the chef wants to serve customers “a perfect bite.”

Shortly after assuming the helm of the kitchen at the mod Donovan House Hotel in February, the Vietnam native added to its menu pho, her homeland’s classic beef noodle soup, and banh mi, Southeast Asia’s answer to a sub sandwich.

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.

Another memento of Nguyen’s past is the pho, the stock for which is coaxed from beef and oxtail bones and lots of sweet spices, including cinnamon, clove and coriander, a blend the chef toasts to heighten its flavor. Although the soup contains the usual suspects — folds of beef, rice noodles, bean sprouts — it’s a more muted version of the many bowls that warm the stomachs at Eden Center in Falls Church.

That robata grill, however, is a choice investment and the source of more than one “perfect bite.” There’s not one of her skewers I wouldn’t be eager to try again. Chicken thighs are succulent from their dip in the chef’s tare, the basting sauce she makes from simmering roasted vegetables, soy sauce, mirin, sake and both chicken and beef bones. Equally juicy beef filet is cooked to a blush and garnished with a crisp garlic chip. Matsutake mushrooms held together with a band of bacon make a meaty bouquet that blossoms with a dunk in citrusy ponzu.

A heady sizzle rewards diners who opt to cook their beef atop hot rocks at the table. “I want diners to experience what we do in the kitchen,” the chef says. “I love the sound of food hitting a hot pan.”

A less agreeable sensory experience is the faint crunch from the honey-glazed tofu, a not-so-hot plate that’s so sweet it could be a dessert.

Some things that have not changed from the restaurant’s early run: Nigiri sushi is still a better strategy than the overly complicated rolls; lunch remains more frenzied than dinner; and drinks continue to be a good excuse to belly up to the bar.

Little off notes unrelated to the cooking hold Zentan back. The food comes out randomly, which means you might be eating a main course before a salad, or the entire order lands on the table at once. Service can be poky. And whoever minds the mood here needs to figure out a more appropriate playlist than the one I encountered one recent weekday lunch: spa music followed by disco, neither appropriate for the business crowd with whom I sat in the moody dining room illuminated by overhead rafts of votives.

More in keeping with the theme at Zentan is the weight securing the check to its tray: a Japanese river stone — and a perfect touch.

★★

(Good)
Zentan

1155 14th St. NW. 202-379-4366.
zentan
restaurant.com.

OPEN:
Breakfast 7 to 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, 8 to 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

METRO: McPherson Square.

PRICES: Lunch plates $6 to $15, bento boxes $19 to $23, dinner plates $6 to $25.

SOUND CHECK: 71 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

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