Cafe Society

Give and Take

The kitchen at Zengo is a mess, a riot of white jackets, ice and fire. I count six, eight, maybe as many as ten cooks bouncing, spinning in place, shuffling plates and pans and sheet trays; hear raised voices -- no particular words, just the sharp cadence of a chef or expediter trying to hold together all the cogs and gears of a machine going downhill fast with the wheels coming off. I've got ears in my bones for that kind of thing still, and it sends an electric charge from my belly to the back of my throat. It makes me want to jump up and knock out those antojitos for table 54, to fry something or yell at someone. The reflex, even after years away, is strong.

There was this scene during the first season of The Restaurant, a close-up of one of the cooks -- not a star, not someone whose name came up on a key at the bottom of the screen whenever the camera focused on him, just one of the foot soldiers. A long sequence in the basement galley had just finished -- with lots of screaming and yelling about orders coming slow or not at all -- when the cameras snapped to this guy in a slo-mo cutaway. He was standing there, sweat pouring down his face, the veins pulsing in his neck, his teeth clenched like he was considering murder. He reached up to wipe his forehead, the back of his hand tattooed with scarlet oven burns, and just before the show went to commercial, he looked almost straight into the camera with an expression that clearly said, What the fuck am I doing here?

That poor bastard's face, his eyes, his scars should have been featured on all the billboards and advertisements for The Restaurant. They certainly would've been better than Rocco DiSpirito's dopey, grinning, pretty-boy mug. When was the last time you saw that little prima donna with a knife wound or an oil burn? The real story of that series -- the story of these kitchen pros living and dying under the glittering movie-star smile of an absentee chef -- was captured forever in that two-second close-up.

And the essence of Zengo lies in that view of the kitchen. Not in the resumé of executive chef/owner Richard Sandoval -- by no means the same sort of vile, prancing deadbeat that Rocco seemed in The Restaurant, but no longer cooking in the trenches, either. Not in the gorgeous nouveau-nightclub lines of the dining floor, where Mexi-melt nightclub beats overlie the tumult of laughter and conversation that fills the place, and not in the nightclub-beautiful waitresses in their matching strappy, backless uniforms and dueling tattoos, all looking like they were cloned specifically for service here. No, this is a galley story, where success or failure hangs on the ability of these few guys (bossed by Sandoval's chef de cuisine Troy Guard, late of the Hotel Raffles in Singapore) to translate into dollars and applause a menu that, on the surface, seems laughable.

Latino-Asian fusion. That's what Zengo promises, and it might as well be Vietnamese-Bulgarian or Inuit-Cantonese. It sounds ridiculous, a gimmick in an industry becoming desperate for them, a cuisine with no tradition, no historical antecedent -- just another culinary Mad Lib that's interesting only because it hasn't been previously attempted. Because why would anyone want to?

Back at the bar, I drink my beer, watch the cooks working on the bare edge of control, listen to the ruckus. It isn't panic I hear -- panic has an entirely different sound, sporadic and traveling outward in waves like sonic booms to rattle the flatware. I'd encountered real panic on an early scouting mission -- happy hour, Friday night -- when I'd fought my way through the crowd to the podium, only to be told forty minutes, minimum, even though there were tables held open. Assuming that was an attempt to spell the overwhelmed kitchen crew, I decided to come back another night.

Now the bartender delivers my fusion sashimi -- thick squares of big-eye tuna dressed in lime juice and avocado oil kicked up with pomegranate. Next, a langosta quote-unquote sushi roll. The delicate flavor of good lobster is buried in a Mexi-French habanero-chive rouille, and just as I pop the last piece in my mouth, someone in the kitchen drops a whole plate of something, the sound sharp and brittle above the noise at the bar. I decide that Zengo still isn't ready for me, pay my check and leave.

Funny thing, though. Before I make it to my car, I want to go back. I stop at a pay phone and make a reservation to return in two weeks. That night, I taste tuna and pomegranate in my dreams.

In Japanese, zengo means back and forth, give and take, yin and yang. And here, the experience is all about give and take.

Take: When my friends and I return, the place is packed. Zengo is a big restaurant, and six months after opening, every table is full, the book committed through at least three turns (which is far more Manhattan than Denver these days). We wait for our table in the lounge, sized up and worked over visually by the assembled hipsterati, chastised by a cocktail waitress who comes over, lifts our beers and slides napkins under them so we don't leave water stains on the low wood table. That's something my mom would've done, hardly the sort of rebuke I expect from a beautiful waitress-clone who scowls and stops just short of waggling a finger at me for being naughty.

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.

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.

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.

Still, even after a bad end to a good night (and another twenty-minute wait for the privilege of paying for it all), as I walk out the door I get the same feeling I had the last time I left Zengo. I want to go back. I want to try the oxtail and shiitake tamale, the hokkien noodles and the last of the three ceviches. I want to taste the roasted and honey-seared plantains, arrepas with hoisin, every fish in the sea. I want to eat my way through a menu that sounds like weird, discordant flavor poetry, everything hanging on the ability of a few overworked, overstressed cooks to make sense out of nonsense. Because Zengo's kitchen crew has sold me on this whole Latino-Asian thing.

And I can't wait to see what they do next.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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