It’s that time of year again, when acclaimed Chef Richard Sandoval’s Latin and Asian fusion restaurant, Zengo, introduces their newest Test Kitchen. This quarter Sandoval’s culinary team took inspiration from Japan and Mexico and melded some unusual flavors, not typically served together, into unique, vibrant dishes. We’ve been fans of Zengo since their last Test Kitchen, “Peru to Malaysia“, and couldn’t wait to try their newest culinary adventure. Offered exclusively during dinner service between January 2 through March 31, guests will have the opportunity to experience two cocktails crafted by Rob Day, Richard Sandoval Restaurant’s National Beverage Director, three small plates and three large plates created by Chef de Cuisine Jason Streiff, and a surprising dessert by Corporate Pastry Chef Jose Luis Flores. Just look for the “TK” marked items on the menu to know that you’re ordering from the Test Kitchen.
Overall we thought Zengo’s sixth Test Kitchen was successful. We left full, and three days later we still find ourselves discussing the dishes. Our raves by far outweighed our “rants”, and we found there was only a single dish that left us disappointed. So, let’s break down the menu and lead you through our latest Test Kitchen exploration in the order everything was served:
- We’re still saying that if you want a cocktail that is worth its price in flavor and strength then Zengo has got you covered. The Calamansi Old-Fashioned (Japanese whiskey, fresh calamansi juice, agave, bitters), was strong, a little sweet, and gave a firm handshake to its slightly more traditional predecessor. Garnished with orange and maraschino cherries, we loved it even though we’re typically not whiskey drinkers. The Shiro Margarita (nigori, 100% agave blanco tequila, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, house-made sour), was quite special in its addition of nigori (saké), and caught us a little off guard. It left strong hints that it was related to a margarita. Maybe like that cousin who looks just like you but is only someone you see at family reunions every ten years. The nigori created a crisper, lighter version of the typically tequila and syrup laiden margarita while leaving our taste buds screaming, “Arriba! Arriba!”
- The first small plate to arrive at the table was the Octopus Aguachile Tiradito (ginger green chile broth, white soy, Asian pear, avocado, nori, sesame). Let’s just say that this particular dish set the standard for the rest of the evening. The lightly cooked octopus melted away and was complimented really well with the slight kick from the ginger and spice from the green chili. The sweetness of the Asian pear, and fattiness of the avocado rounded out the dish bringing it full circle and we felt that when all components of the dish were eaten together not one particular ingredient out-shined the others. It not only tasted delicate, but looked delicate in its presentation. While small plates are often best when shared, we kind of think you’d be validated in ordering this one and keeping it all to yourself.
- The Achiote Shrimp Tempura Roll (avocado, jicama chile limon, chile toreado aioli, charred scallion) easily made it as our second favorite savory dish of the evening. While one of us wished for a little more shrimp, the other was perfectly content with the ratio. The tempura had that beautiful golden color and light crunch that denotes a quality batter that was neither under or over fried. What really stood out for us was the chile toreado aioli which added that spicy quality one comes to appreciate in Mexican food. We also appreciated and were a little amused by the use of lettuce in the roll – a simple ingredient, but a taco just isn’t a taco without it. Now that we think about it, the roll was best compared to a fried shrimp taco with nori replacing the tortilla. (Thinking outside the box here.) Eat the Achiote Shrimp Tempura Roll as is, or with a dip or two in the soy sauce provided.
- Unfortunately the third small plate was a let down. If we were playing Monopoly we’d be telling the dish, “Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Go straight to jail.” Maybe that’s because it was one we were most looking forward to. Did someone say pork belly!? However, the Teriyaki Pork Belly Gorditas “Sliders” (crispy masa, Oaxaca cheese, guacamole, caramelized pineapple, pickled chilies) were a bit of a hot mess in our opinion. The dish was presented as a set of three “sliders”, but the crispy masa hid just about everything inside leaving it looking a little unappetizing. The first bite was fair, however bland, and the crispy masa completely dominated the pickled chilies, pork belly, and Oaxaca cheese. The caramelized pineapple only made a flavor debut in one out of the three “sliders”, and we found ourselves missing the heat and teriyaki in all of them. We also noticed after taking our first bites that our fingers were covered in guacamole due to a slathering of it on the bottom. Perhaps we should have used utensils to eat them? But they’re called “sliders”… Hmmm
- The final savory dish of the evening, and another we were looking forward to thanks to photos on Zengo’s website, was the Kabayaki Glazed Lamb Shank Barbacoa (ginger, chiles, tamarind, arroz verde, pickled vegetable). The lamb shank didn’t disappoint. Cooked slowly for a few hours, lightly seared, and then covered in a delicious glaze, the meat was tender, and fall off the bone perfection. Accompanying the dish was beautiful green rice made from sushi rice, cilantro yogurt chutney, and lemon togarashi aioli. The final touches were the addition of pickled baby vegetables made by mixing together equal parts rice vinegar and sugar, and then coating the vegetables before plating. (For the recipe, and more information visit FOX 31 Denver.) This dish is why we’ve come to love Zengo. It incorporated huge, powerful variations in flavor and was the most colorful dish of the evening making for an interesting and new eating experience.
- Our biggest and most pleasant surprise of the evening was dessert. The Avocado Panacotta (fresh avocado custard, tropical fruit salad, peanut chocolate cookie crumbs) won us over after the first bite. To put this revelation into perspective, one of us dislikes nearly all fruit related desserts, and the other only enjoys custard when it has been Brûléed. And yet, it worked. The custard, a beautiful light green with a sweet, mild avocado flavor was enhanced by the sweetness of the tropical fruit salad and peanut chocolate cookie crumbs. We loved that the textures were separate and layered, and that the dish itself was reminiscent of a creme brûlée, i.e. the toppings replaced the caramelized sugar and the more typical fresh fruit and nut garnish. It was the perfect dessert to end our dinner and would recommend even the pickiest of eaters to give it a try.
We think the Test Kitchen is a fun way to experience new and exciting flavors in a relaxed yet upbeat atmosphere. The best part is that there is a new Test Kitchen every three months that will take diners away to new Latin and Asian countries within a matter of a few dishes. We can’t wait to see what the Sandoval team dreams up next!
781 7th St., NW
Washington, DC 20001
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