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There’s a point about halfway through your meal at Zengo when you suddenly understand why your waiter, despite having served numerous courses, has never given you a fresh plate. “It’s because everything tastes the same,” noted a friend at my table. “What’s the point of getting a new plate?”
Despite an expansive Latin–Asian fusion menu that spans the culinary spectrum from dim sum to empanadas, seviche to sushi, chef Richard Sandoval’s buzzy new downtown eatery leaves one overwhelming impression: Oh, how sweet it is. Sugary sweet, that is.
Zengo is a diabetic’s nightmare: a place where most selections come brushed, dipped, or dunked in some variation of a sweet, occasionally syrupy glaze. Sometimes it’s heavy and overpowering—as with the calamari, whose crispy batter is no match for a soggy bath of orange, coriander, and lemongrass. And sometimes it’s lighter and more manageable, as with the charbroiled black cod dabbed with a mixture of smoky chipotle and miso. But either way, it’s almost always there, like a culinary stalker.
From its conception, Zengo seemed an unlikely place to be steamrolled by a single flavor. Co-owned by Washingtonian-of-sorts Plácido Domingo, Zengo is the seventh restaurant opened by the Mexican-born, New York–based Sandoval, who has earned a national reputation and a loyal following with his upscale “modern Mexican” eateries. Sandoval’s D.C. experiment in Latin–Asian fusion, preceded by the original Zengo in Denver, was to have been a culinary partnership with Chef de Cuisine and Asia Nora vet Alan Yu. But Yu bowed out early on, intensifying Sandoval’s own role in the project. Though Zengo opened last fall, the celebrity chef was still on site as recently as last week. Perched on the restaurant’s steep, open staircase, Sandoval kept a close eye on hungry patrons in the lounge below.
Sandoval’s personal commitment has paid off handsomely in a number of standout dishes. The spicy Asiatica soup, a zingy, silky red-curry-and-coconut-milk broth with gobs of tender white chicken, has both richness and kick. The crispy Won Ton Tacos—ahi tuna, sushi rice, and mango salsa—expertly blend both mild and citrus elements, allowing each to be savored distinctly. And then there’s that cod: moist, tender, and flaky, it’s cooked to perfection and accompanied by fresh, crisp asparagus.
The fish arrives, as do all selections at Zengo, when it’s ready. Appetizers, mains, and sides come out in whichever order they’re done. It’s all part of the restaurant’s shtick, which your waiter will explain to you. “‘Zengo’ means ‘give and take,’” you’ll hear. “Our menu is designed for sharing.”
At Zengo, though, “sharing” yields easily to clashing. For instance, the Oaxaca cheese mashed potatoes accompanying your braised short ribs may well compete for space on your plate and palate with the Crunchy Eel Avocado Roll. Other juxtapositions—steamed gyoza with foie gras one minute, empanadas filled with Thai chicken another—lend the restaurant the haphazard feel of an international food court.
With an only slightly more precious look. The snazzy signature of Adamstein & Demetriou, the D.C. design firm responsible for the contemporary interiors of Oyamel and Zaytinya, fails to register with Zengo. The downstairs bar, narrow and dimly lit, brings to mind a spruced-up airport lounge. The upstairs dining room fares better—with an open kitchen, seviche bar, and “chef’s table” for group dining—but the distinctly cold and corporate feel of a hotel lobby. An installation of stone-shaped masses hangs dramatically above the landing, adding some much-needed flair to the space, its resemblance to hanging baked potatoes notwithstanding.
The pattern here is one of bold intentions gone awry. Sandoval clearly has a vision for Zengo; the elaborate menu bears that out. But in straying so far from the Latin culinary tradition in which he excels, Sandoval makes little use of his own strengths: The strong, piquant flavors of modern Mexican and Central American cuisine aren’t often to be found at Zengo; in their place is that sweet “pan-flavor” to link the disparate dishes.
The sweet and tangy achiote-hoisin sauce that flavors the arepas de puerco’s pulled pork, for example, is much like the sweet and tangy lemongrass, ginger, and chile “Dragon Sauce” one finds on the short ribs. The Peking Rolls—a variation on traditional egg rolls filled with duck confit—come with three unidentified dipping sauces—“sweetish, sweeter, and sweetest,” as a friend noted. And the roasted plantains, normally an unadorned Central-American staple, drown in a thick, gooey caramel sauce. Zengo must be buying high-grade sugar. Appetizers, after all, fall in the $10 range and mains cost $20 to $30.
I had high hopes for Zengo’s dessert choices. This is an area where the restaurant’s penchant for sweetness would presumably pay off nicely. Not so in the case of the dulce de leche turtle cake, unfortunately, which—in perhaps the menu’s most baffling culinary pairing—buries the milky sweetness of this Latin-American confection deep within a Teutonic chocolate mass.
All is not lost, however, for the churros con chocolate save the day: warm and crispy, drizzled in cinnamon and dusted with powdered sugar, and ready for dipping in a chocolaty, meringue-dolloped sauce. Your moment of Zengo.
Not only are they delectable, but they also come with a set of fresh plates.
Zengo, 781 7th St. NW, (202) 393-2929. —Mario Correa
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