By Gretchen Kurtz
By Mark Antonation
By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
Give: The promised twenty-minute wait is closer to ten, and the hostess-clone finds us without having to bellow over the heads of the crowd. We are seated at a good table, quickly brought a second round of beers, and talked through the menu by a waitress who doesn't hesitate to offer her opinions, good and bad, on any dish we show the slightest interest in.
Back: That waitress, overwhelmed by tables all demanding fruity tequila drinks and rounds of tiraditos, hands us off to a backup waiter, hereafter to be known as Captain Enthusiasm for his neon smile, extraordinary level of excitement over every plate we order, and tail-wagging puppy-dog ingratiation. If I'd scratched him behind the ear, I'm pretty sure he would have piddled on the hardwood.
Forth: Zengo's menu is arranged like robata -- lots of plates, multiple courses, meant for sharing. We order big and in wild profusion, getting all the highs and lows of the kitchen. Not everything is fantastic, but nothing is dull. Even when the kitchen fails, it does so spectacularly.
Bangkok ceviche: $9
Azteca ceviche: $9
Angry Zengo: $9
Langosta roll: $12
Big eye: $11
Wonton tacos: $10
Black cod: $23
Pollo Maya: $18
The yellowtail hamachi sashimi with yuzu, soy, sliced serrano chiles and cilantro comes on a rectangular white plate, swimming in serrano-yuzu-soy sauce; there's enough for two bites apiece, just a tease. It's nutty, fatty, sweet, bitter and delicious once we knock the little piles of cilantro leaves to the side. The Angry Zengo sushi rolls -- yellowfin, smooshy avocado, rice and pickled julienned cucumber dotted with a sesame-chipotle rouille -- prove yet again that sauce, no matter how well conceived, will ruin sushi.
Back and forth: The Bangkok ceviche -- with a coconut-milk sauce of mint, lime, achiote and green papaya sweetening the acid-cooked cubes of tender mahi mahi -- is great, but with chopsticks as our only utensils (no chips, no forks, no nothing), all that good sauce goes to waste. The Azteca ceviche, on the other hand, drowns rock shrimp, calamari, octopus and scallops in a spicy red broth so bungled, mean and sour with the stink of overused cilantro that we're glad to leave most of it in the dish. Ceviche is best when kept simple; this is muddled fish-market leftovers in a napalm-ammonia broth, and the only good thing about it is that the portion is small.
Next come Thai chicken empanadas, a pair balanced over a blender-smooth curry-mango salsa, and we fall on the plate like starving wolverines and finish almost before Captain Enthusiasm has faded back into the scrum of service. After that, wonton tacos stuffed with grill-black ahi tuna, sticky sushi rice, more mango salsa and pink pickled ginger that's like licking a downed power line. Next, shrimpy-porky gyoza dumplings -- who would have thought that black vinegar and chile pequín could be such fast friends? And then, one of the best pieces of fish I've ever had, a fillet of flash-broiled black cod, soft and tender and perfectly done, in a chipotle-miso broth with some kind of aioli that tastes like thickened lemon sake.
The fish is the ideal embodiment of Zengo's strange fusion experiment. It's intricately conceived and flawlessly executed, something truly new and unique, owing allegiance to no dish that has come before. This alone would be enough for me to like it, but it's also a plainly wonderful dish, which makes me love it.
Sadly, we don't stop here. The pollo Maya is a disaster, a dish without one redeeming characteristic except that it's the cheapest thing on the entree board, coming in at eighteen bucks. A single chicken breast has been sliced with what may have been a claw hammer, then tossed with eggplant, onions and plantain cooked down so harshly that they've become an oily pudding. Top this with not one, but two inappropriate sauces -- a burnt mole rojo on top, a thin coconut curry beneath -- as well as the ammonia back bite of abused cilantro everywhere, and you're just adding insult to injury. The opposite of the black cod, this is the worst possible example of wrongheaded fusion, never done before because it's simply a bad idea.
We do our best to hide the barely touched pollo from Captain Enthusiasm when he returns, pushing more beer and dessert menus in our direction. We ask him what would be good for capping off the night. Everything, he says, but in particular, how 'bout a round of forty-dollar cognacs?
We demur, and instead order Vietnamese coffees, some churros and chocolate, and wait patiently for their delivery.
And wait some more.
We should have left, because an otherwise great meal is easily ruined at the finish line by a staff that has no idea what it's doing in the dessert department. I think we may be the first table to order the Vietnamese coffee offered on the menu, because Captain Enthusiasm seems completely surprised by the sight of it. So are we: What should be a tall, cold glass of thick iced coffee over sweetened condensed milk comes out tasting like watery lukewarm Sanka bolstered with heavy cream. It's awful, and the churros and chocolate are worse.