Richard Sandoval's Zengo Is New, but Not Improved

Zengo’s stir-fried noodle dish is a sleeper hit.EXPAND
Zengo’s stir-fried noodle dish is a sleeper hit.
Danielle Lirette

At Zengo, Richard Sandoval’s recently retooled restaurant at Riverfront Park, meals begin not with an amuse-bouche, but with a spiel. This is your first hint that Zengo’s newfound polish — courtesy of a Dubai-based design group, with suspended origami birds, a sushi bar and seriously dark mood lighting — is only skin deep. After all, spiels don’t equal polish; they equal persuasion, and you’ll need plenty of it to believe that Zengo remains anything more than a place for bottomless brunch, which is what the onetime hot spot had devolved into before being shut down for a full revamp this fall.

Your server might start, as mine did one night, with the breathless announcement that Zengo now serves “foods of the Asian continent,” as if this were somehow progress, this distillation of the foods of four billion people into a one-page menu. Thirty years ago, when Chinese food meant egg foo young and ramen that came from a Styrofoam cup, this approach might have sounded exciting, but in today’s educated environment, the scope of the undertaking seems both tired and misguided, as though it were possible to do justice to so many cuisines at once. You’ll hear that food is un-coursed, delivered straight from the kitchen when it’s ready, and that plates are meant to share. In reality, food often comes out in clusters after a long delay, some of it no longer hot, as if it had sat around waiting for other dishes on the ticket to be finished.

The bar at Zengo.EXPAND
The bar at Zengo.
Danielle Lirette

But back to the spiel, which makes for an awkward beginning, especially when Zengo’s split from its original Latin-Asian roots is likened to a divorce. Don’t blame the servers, though: I can only imagine how confusing it is to work in a place synonymous with Latin-Asian fusion for more than a decade, only to have the concept, menu, decor and executive chef swapped out, with just the name staying the same. Then again, Sandoval has a lot wrapped up in these five letters; the prolific chef/entrepreneur and 2011 James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur semi-finalist operates five Zengos, from Denver to New York to Dubai. Of those, only the ones in Dubai and Denver currently operate with the pan-Asian focus.

The new menu has a disjointed feel and is broken into no fewer than fourteen categories. Some refer to temperature (hot bites, cold bites), while others refer to method (wok, grill) or type of dish (curry, sashimi, poke). As a result, deciding how to build a meal, and how much food to order, can be confusing. Interrupt your server’s spiel to ask what’s good, and you’ll hear examples of dishes that sell well. As any restaurateur can tell you, salmon and chocolate desserts sell well, too, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re what the kitchen does best.

Zengo's dining room has been spruced up.EXPAND
Zengo's dining room has been spruced up.
Danielle Lirette

What does this kitchen do best? I tried many disappointing dishes in my attempts to answer that question. It certainly wasn’t the new volcano roll, a sliced fried log of rice, king crab and wasabi mayo that tasted like a fish stick; nor the ahi poke, with a heap of sushi rice to bulk up the meager serving of over-marinated ahi. It wasn’t the duck-confit pancake, a soggy affair slathered with sweet chipotle barbecue sauce that masked the confit entirely. And what is chipotle barbecue sauce — not to mention wonton tacos and chipotle-glazed black cod — doing on a menu in a pan-Asian restaurant, anyway? Maybe the higher-ups recognize that wonton tacos, a vestige of Zengo’s earlier days, remain one of the highlights, with their mix of tuna, mango salsa, guacamole and sushi rice. This was true even on the night the tuna came out well done, not charred.

Pork dumplings didn’t do anything to distinguish themselves. Neither did bland tiradito, with uneven slices of sea bass — some whisper-thin, some chunky — topped with a mountainous vegetable frizzle. Szechuan beef was priced like an entree but not portioned like one, sauced with what tasted like thickened but otherwise straight-up soy sauce. Indonesian fried rice had no hint of the whitebait and sakura ebi (dried shrimp) that should’ve made it Indonesian rather than run-of-the-mill Chinese takeout fare. Squash curry, thickened with coconut milk as rich as whipping cream, could’ve used another cup of butternut. Mushroom soup was lukewarm by the time a server poured it tableside, and the coconut foam — preset in the dry bowl along with mushrooms and a lime wedge — failed to incorporate, swirling around the broth like curdled milk, the lime wedge bobbing like flotsam.

Over the past decade, Riverfront Park has grown up around Zengo.EXPAND
Over the past decade, Riverfront Park has grown up around Zengo.
Danielle Lirette

What this kitchen does best, it turns out, is a wok dish called stir-fried noodle, which happens to be one of the chef’s favorites, too. Zengo’s chef, by the way, is no longer the one tapped for the turnaround, the one of French Laundry and Eleven Madison Park fame. He left in November — creative differences, I’m told — and was replaced by sous-chef Calvin Reynolds. Under Reynolds, who helmed Black Pearl and staged for six months in Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia, this humble noodle dish becomes the sleeper hit that servers don’t tell you about. The wok-tossed noodles come with a choice of protein; choose pork belly, cured in brown sugar and red chiles, with fatty edges that crisp gloriously. On a menu of one-note sauces, the one here is pleasantly nuanced thanks to chiles and tamarind broth, and it’s applied in just the right amount: no dry spots, no puddling.

Desserts aren’t nearly as successful. Five-spiced doughnut holes came out bready and cold — a pity, because hot doughnuts are one of life’s simple pleasures. A ganache-like wedge of chocolate crémeux shared a plate with hunks of greenish cake jaggedly torn from the whole, and most of the promised flavors didn’t materialize: The crémeux didn’t taste like Earl Grey, the cake didn’t taste like matcha. In fact, what flavors did come through in most of Zengo’s desserts — orange-blossom custard with the doughnuts, for example — didn’t quite harmonize with everything else on the ambitious plates. Like Zengo itself, these dishes were trying to do too much.

Hence the spiel.

Zengo
1610 Little Raven Street
720-904-0965
richardsandoval.com/zengodenver

Hours: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday,
10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday

New volcano roll........................................$12
Mushroom soup..........................................$6
Sea bass tiradito.........................................$11
Tuna wonton tacos...................................$13
Duck pancake..............................................$14
Ahi poke.........................................................$13
Squash curry.................................................$11
Stir-fried noodle.........................................$15
Indonesian fried rice................................$12
Szechuan beef..............................................$19
Five-spiced doughnuts.............................$6
Earl Grey chocolate crémeux................$7

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