Spotlight: Hanoi-Havana Tasting at Zengo

Lechon Asado with Vermicelli

Spring is here, which means the perfect time to try something new. Zengo, a Latin-Asian restaurant owned by celebrated Chef Richard Sandoval is doing just that. It has created a special tasting menu available through June that combines flavor profiles shared by Vietnamese and Cuban cuisine. Does it succeed? Let’s take a look.

When I first got invited to try Zengo‘s tasting menu, I was thrilled. I’m a fan of Chef Sandoval, having had delicious meals at some of his other acclaimed restaurants in the city, like breezy Pampano, known for its Mexican coastal dishes and cozy Maya, known for more more rustic Mexican fare. So stepping into Zengo proved to be quite the surprise. The first thing that caught my eye was how large the restaurant’s space was. Up until two years ago, it was home to the Todd English family-style restaurant English Is Italian, until that closed down. Since I didn’t have the chance to visit it, I’m not sure if the previous tenant had a similar interior, but the present space was modern and minimalist, with wooden beams hanging from the ceiling and a large bar that stretched along the wall. On the opposite side, a wall of windows extended accross 40th street from 3rd Ave. to Lexington Ave. However, regardless of the row of windows being a good source of natural light, the restaurant was very dark. Yes, we are in midtown Manhattan, where our only access to natural light are the slivers of sky that peek out from between the buildings. Yes, it was evening and night was falling. But the dark decor created by the black tables, wood chairs, and dark floors gave the place a very solemn vibe.

But enough about the decor, let’s get to the food. We kicked off the evening with lemongrass lychee mojitos, which in theory sounded great, but like many of the dishes that we sampled that evening, were overly ambitious. I adore the musky taste of lychees and refreshing tang of lemongrass, but I found it difficult for these two ingredients to co-exist and get along. To start the meal, we had Cangrejo Enchilado, or soft shell crab on a lettuce wrap with shrimp, pickled strips of vegetables, and lime leaf aioli. This dish was a successful play of textures with the crunch from the crab contrasting nicely with the freshness of the lettuce; and, although a little salty, definitely shook up the tastebuds and prepared them for what was to come. Next up was a dish of Morcilla consisting of pork sausage, white beans, and a morcilla paté on a piece of toast. Our waiter explained that the morcilla was a different interpretation of the blood sausage that we were used to seeing at most Argentine cookouts. I respected the dish’s attempt at trying something new, but it ended up being too drab and too brown for my taste.

On to the entrees. The first dish was the Lechon Asado Vermicelli, which ended up being the star of the evening. A piece of perfectly seared and braised pork shoulder marinated in sour orange and topping a bed of vermiccelli noodles — the meat was tender sealed in a golden crisp, and the noodles sweet, tangy, and a little spicy. All of the flavors of this dish, although so different, created a perfect marriage and worked beautifully. Next was the Cha Ca Thang Long, a take on a traditional Vietnamese fish dish, consisting of a catfish filet cooked with rice noodles, turmeric, and shiso in a black bean chile sauce. I admired the attempt at trying to marry the two cultures, but the individual flavors, which are so strong in their own way, again could not fuse in the right way. The final dish was a Lemongrass Arroz con Pollo, a deconstruction of the beloved chicken and rice dish so popular in South America and the Carribean, with juicy medallions of charbroiled chicken breast infused with complex flavors from the nuoc man sofrito, garlic chips, and mango salsa. It was accompanied by an intense coconut rice, which was sweet and delicious by itself, and that I could’ve easily had for dessert served with a luscious ripe mango on the side.

To sum up, the tasting at Zengo was interesting, but inconsistent. Some parts of the evening made me so happy, and others made me so sad. I find it refreshing however, to see chefs experimenting with Latin food, studying their flavor profiles, on a mission to create something new.

Here are my top pro’s and con’s:

Pros
-Adventurous cuisine, trying to do something different with Latin food
-Great service

Cons
-With so many flavors going on, some dishes just didn’t work
-The space is too dark and too big
-Dishes were either hit or miss

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