- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Give and take. That’s English for the Japanese “zengo.” At Zengo, the new Latin-Asian fusion restaurant in Washington’s Penn Quarter, chef-owner Richard Sandoval and his chef de cuisine, Alan Yu, dish mighty good food, taking a bit of the Orient here and giving a bit of Latin America there. But with that fine cooking, the diner has to take a lot of noise, with a capital N.

Zengo is one of a small national chain of restaurants opened by Mr. Sandoval. His partner in the new Seventh Street venture is, of all unlikely people, Placido Domingo. How is it possible that the thump, thump, thump of the background “music” — which sounds alternately like a loudly beating heart or the clanging of a machine shop — ever passed muster with Mr. Domingo? No Mozart, Rossini, Wagner, zarzuela or even Gomes’ “Il Guarany.” It’s a shame, because Mr. Sandoval’s creations deserve the white tablecloth treatment.

Voices are amplified by the narrow, two-story restaurant. The bar is on the lower floor and a long staircase leads to the open upper dining area. (There’s an elevator.) Tables are much too close together; there’s no insulation on floor or ceiling, not even tablecloths; and as the evening progresses, voices from the bar below grow louder, adding to the din that requires the waiter to bow low to shout explanations of the menu into the diner’s cupped ear.

As for what’s on the menu, it’s original and delicious. Everything we tasted was wonderful, from a small mound of crab salad at the beginning to the rich chocolate cake at the end. Mr. Sandoval has a magic touch in combining traditional Latin dishes and flavors with Asian ideas and European touches.

Zengo encourages patrons to share dishes and there are lots of first courses, called ceviches, sushi rolls, dim sum and appetizers, which divide nicely. Inca, for example, is a tuna ceviche, combining tiny squares of light and dark tuna with red onions, cilantro and mandarin orange slices in a sprightly marinade.

Barbecued spare ribs are a rich combination of Chinese spices and hoisin sauce with Latin chilis. The result is not hot, but fragrant, with just a touch of cinnamon. The ribs are literally finger-licking good (and warm moist towels, a la Orient, would be an appreciated extra touch).

Dim sum are dumplings in three variations, each stuffed with an interesting combination of ingredients. Steamed Japanese gyoza dumplings are filled with foie gras, shrimp, pork, passion fruit mustard and vegetables. Potstickers, a lacy, delicate dumpling skin filled with ground lobster and shrimp meat, scallions and serrano chilis, are served with a wasabi dipping sauce. Light, airy and delicious.

Peking rolls (why not Beijing rolls, come to think of it) are stuffed with duck confit, mushrooms, various vegetables and served with three dipping sauces. Appetizers include empanadas filled with Thai chicken, a diver scallop “sandwich” with a black bean reduction, and crunchy calamari. All appetizers except for the ribs are available at lunch, some at slightly reduced prices.

Main courses include four fish dishes and seven meat dishes, all beautifully served and creatively prepared. The simple pan-roasted chicken breast, for example: the juicy breast is sliced and served with a terrific puree of plaintains mixed with achiote chilis. A lovely curry-truffle sauce is served on the side. It’s as close to heaven as chicken can get, and the mashed plantains are inspired.

Grilled filet of beef is cooked precisely as ordered and, like the chicken, is served sliced with a sauce incorporating onions, ginger, black pepper and a little spicy chili. Delicious.

Black cod is broiled; mahi mahi is grilled and served with fried yuca and curried slaw; salmon comes with shiitake mushrooms and cabbage. Other meats are braised short ribs accompanied by cheese-mashed potatoes; rack of lamb served with a hoisin adobo sauce; and Sichuan grilled pork loin has a sweet corn salsa.

East and West are combined in almost every dish, including such side dishes as stir-fried bok choy, lotus root or asparagus; roasted plaintains; fried rice mixed with duck, shrimp, pork and bean sprouts; or rice stick noodles blended with chicken, peppers, eggs and peanuts, a Latin version of pad Thai.

At lunch, Zengo offers a “menu fijo” consisting of three courses for $19.50. Diners may choose one of three each appetizers, entrees and desserts. Desserts are exotic and seductive, such as coconut tapioca, passion fruit sorbet, and of course that lovely chocolate and caramel “turtle” cake.

The wine list is extensive, featuring Spanish and Latin American wines. Wines by the glass are well selected and moderately priced. Service is excellent, with waiters gliding in the narrow corridors between tables without bumping table or chair. They’re eager to please and do their best to accommodate diners. Especially helpful is Claudia, the Brazilian day manager, who is not averse to pitching in and helping out during the dinner hour when the restaurant is full.

Don’t go to Zengo for romance or conversation (unless you take an ear trumpet). Do go for the food and the service, both of which are superlative.

RESTAURANT: Zengo, 781 Seventh St. NW, 202/393-2929

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: First courses, $8 to $13 (lunch and dinner); main courses, $14 to $24 (lunch), $17 to $28 (dinner); desserts $8

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards.

PARKING: Difficult street parking; nearby lots $15 to $20; valet parking $12

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Gallery Place (Red Line)

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