- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Zentan, the restaurant in the Donovan House hotel at Thomas Circle, is full of surprises, beginning with its name. The hotel, which replaces the Holiday Inn at the corner of 14th Street and Massachusetts Avenue Northwest, is named for William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the father of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II spy-and-special-operations predecessor of the CIA. “Zentan” is the Mandarin word for “spy.”

The restaurant is a surprise, too. It was to have been opened by celebrity chef Todd English as an Asian restaurant, but that never happened. Hong Kong-born chef Susur Lee came from New York to take charge of the kitchen. Mr. Lee began his career as a teenage apprentice in Hong Kong’s storied Peninsula Hotel, where he became an expert in regional Chinese cooking.

The first impression of Zentan is of a dark cave. Black is the decor: The lounge and bar are dark, the tables are dark wood, napkins are black, the waiters wear black, and the lighting is dim.

The bar and lounge are in the front, where the chatter and music are loud. But another pleasant surprise awaits: In back there’s a quiet, smaller room lighted by candles, both real and artificial, with three semicircular booths, a few tables and two alcoves with large round tables that can be turned into private dining rooms. First-class service creates just the right atmosphere for superb cooking.

The menu is primarily Asian, with fusion elements and touches of other cultures, such as caramelized black cod, jerk chicken, grilled steak and matchstick potatoes. The chef combines classic techniques with experiments that mostly work.

The menu begins with a lengthy offering of fresh and tasty sushi and sashimi as well as daily market selections of sushi combinations. There are a dozen appetizers and 14 main courses, as well as the sushi and sashimi platters.

A signature dish is Singapore slaw, traditionally served at the Chinese New Year in Singapore. It usually includes fish, but the Zentan version is vegetarian, containing 19 ingredients, and it’s spectacularly good. Our waiter, Jim, named them all, including the edible flowers and hazelnuts. The salad is dressed with just enough salted plum dressing to moisten the ingredients.

Sichuan hot-and-sour soup is not as hot as it would be in Sichuan, but it carries a nice kick, a fine adaptation of a Chinese classic.

Crusted vegetable dumplings are unique: Four round dumplings, stuffed with finely chopped mixed vegetables, are topped with a crisp, paper-thin crust and served with a chili dipping sauce. It’s solid and satisfying, an excellent starter.

Crispy garlic chicken makes an outstanding main course, similar to glazed duck, although the deep golden skin isn’t quite as crisp as with duck. The breast slices and two drumsticks are deliciously tender, with a delicate hint of garlic, complemented by a perfect sweet-and-sour sauce. The shrimp crisps are superfluous.

Grilled sirloin steak is prepared nicely and served in a lemon-peppercorn teriyaki butter sauce. Unfortunately, the steak we tried was tough and the two slices of avocado on the side were not ripe. However, the tangle of skinny tempura vegetable fritters atop the steak was irresistible.

The menu includes a Hong Kong-style steamed fish, Hunan-style pork ribs, Cantonese marinated skirt steak, Mongolian lamb chops and a Sichuan-style half duck. Each dish has its own accompaniments, ranging from Penang peanut sauce and glazed bananas served with the lamb chops to a ginger-and-mango puree with the stir-fried jerk chicken.

Desserts are limited, but the house makes a good raspberry sorbet. Along with a varied list of wines, Zentan has an extensive list of sakes, served hot or cold.

Not every dish is perfect, but many delicious dishes flow from the chef’s deft hand. Zentan is a restaurant to revisit. You might even feel the presence of the ghost of a spy.

RESTAURANT: Zentan, 1155 14th St. NW, 202/379-4366

HOURS: Dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; on Sunday only sushi is served, 5:30 to 10 p.m.

PRICES: Sushi, sashimi, Asian crudo and rolls $3 to $120 (for the large Zentan Platter Deluxe); starters $7 to $16; entrees $18 to $38

PARKING: Street parking and $10 valet parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: McPherson Square

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