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Aug 17, 2010 09:44 PM

Zengo - New Santa Monica Place masterpiece

The newly redeveloped Santa Monica Place Mall at the foot of the Third Street Promenade has been spectacularly redone - if you like that sort of thing. It's a massive, multi-level City-Walk like experience - far too crowded and sensually overloading for my taste. But should you venture to the top, where the high end restaurants are located, Zengo will transcend any and all shopping mall misgivings.

Zengo is the latest iteration of a chain that was started by Richard Sandoval , a very gifted chef-visionary in Denver. The cuisine is Asian-Latino fusion, which often can be spotty and inconsistent - great dishes alongside mediocre ones. Zengo here, and I presume in their other locations in NYC, Washington DC, Denver and others, is simply amazing. It's a huge 300 seat place serving a vast and varied menu - yet every dish - and every taste component of the mostly multi-flavored dishes was spectacular.

Four of us had what we all considered one of the greatest meals of our lives. Considering that the chain's major investor is tenor and conductor Placido Domingo, I can't resist calling the sublime mixture of tastes and textures utterly symphonic in its power and elucidation. We felt, at the end, like we should be standing, yelling "Bravisimo" at Sandoval and his staff.

The dining motif is small, rather expensive, perfectly prepared plates combining Asian and Latino elements, served to be shared - the name is a Japanese concept of give and take. And believe me, the food was so wonderful we were tempted to grab dishes from other tables.

. For example, they offer tiny Peking duck tacos and a sort of Carnitas Pad Thai. A plate of black cod was simply Asian, yet as silky and mesmerizing as anything at LeBernardin. It was quite honestly the best piece of fish I've ever eaten in my life - after ordering one, we simply HAD to order another.

Sometimes the "branding" of dishes as fusion was a bit fanciful - the Churrasco Argentine skirt steak, marinated in chimichurri and topped with a chipotle dressing was wonderful- BOTH bites of it. Yes, the portions are that small - especially by Argentine standards. But it was accompanied by tempura onion rings so goooood, no great, that we ordered a side dish of same. If there's a Chowhound thread for best onion rings ( I recall that there is) these should be at the top of the list.

Sandoval's imagination is remarkable - a Hot and Sour Egg Drop soup with Foie Gras filled wontons could have been sheer idiocy in other hands. Instead, it was sheer delight - the lightest, most feathery wontons ever in a broth that only nodded to its namesakes, yet was nonetheless delicious.

For desert we had a lemony angel food cake in a mango glaze, a Mexican chocolate mousse cake with chocolate cracklings and a sublime Panna Cotta. Our friends, who spend a month in Italy every year, pronounced the panna cotta the best they've ever had in America.

We finished off the evening with some 68 year old Tequila, so smooth it put single malt scotches to shame.

I wish I was a better food writer - I simply can't do justice to the ingredients and preparation. But I can say, if you can tolerate miniscule portions of incredible food at fairly expensive prices, in a big, noisy but exciting place, hurry over to Zengo. Dinner for four (we gorged ourselves) was around $350.00 including margaritas and tip. The service was flawless and wonderfully cheerful. By the way, four or six people would seem to be optimal for the food sharing experience. But Zengo is truly something special. Bravo!.

622 3rd Ave, New York, NY 10016

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  1. Thanks so much. I am planning a food trip to SMP. plan to try as much as I can.

    1. I ate here yesterday for lunch (my 3 bosses took me out). We had two orders of the chicken tandoori, two orders of the calamari salad, a volcano roll, yukka fries, duck and shrimp fried rice, and the Peking duck tacos. My favorites were the calamari salad and fried rice but everything was delicious. Are the small portions worth the high price? Not if you're on a budget but if you have the money to spend I'd recommend going here. (The chicken tandoori consisted of a breast of chicken with some toppings on a place and it goes for $12. Insane if you think about it but since lunch was on my bosses I had no problem eating it!) I'd like to go back for lunch by myself and just order the short rib sliders - I saw plates of this go out and there are two sliders with some fries. Perfectly reasonable for 1 person for lunch, especially with the 20% off coupon I have.

      1. Went for lunch today. Very beautiful large restaurant with a really nice patio in back overlooking Broadway. The restaurant is well hidden behind La Sandia. Food had very nice flavors. I really liked the scallops al mojo de ajo with bacon-corn-edamame salsa / roasted garlic soy /
        yuzu-sriracha aioli and the short rib udon noodles shiitake / asparagus / basil / chile fresno / hoisin broth . The plates are very small and around $12 each and they say to order two to three per person so it can be on the expensive side. I'll be back.

        3 Replies
        1. re: wienermobile

          So that's where it is. Was there yesterday, and wondered about, landing at th Sonoma Wine Garden. Probably a good thing, for my wallet, anyway, that I didn't find Zengo. Will be trying it very soon.

          That yuzu-sriracha aioli sounds divine, wiennie.....

          1. re: Phurstluv

            The restaurant is really hidden. You would never know it was even there. They need a sign in front because there are two unmarked host stands and everyone thinks they both belong to La Sandia. (Zengo is one on the left).

            1. re: wienermobile

              Zengo was on the right when we went.

        2. Went to Zengo for lunch Saturday. As everyone has said, it is really hidden. The nostess stands right next to the hosts for La Sandia, and the real entrance to Zengo is a long walk back. Once inside and all the way to the back, there is a nice view of Broadway and even the Third Street Promenade. I imagine the view at night during Christmas would be amazing.

          Zengo is a mixture of various Asian and Latin flavors and concepts.

          For my wife and me, we started with the short rib sliders, which was tender and juicy, if a bit small. Definitely for two people only. The accompanying fries were perfectly fried and dusted with spices. Delicious.

          Next we had the shrimp lettuce wrap, which though good, made me wish we had ordered other items, like the wagyu teradito

          Being the light eaters that we are, we finished with the duck confit tacos. The "taco shell" was a round sliver of Japanese radish (daikon). It really worked.

          The dishes were indeed small, but, if you have the budget, it gives you the chance to try a lot of different dishes. There were so many various interesting dishes to taste, we expect to be back.

          We passed on dessert and had some Forty Carrots frozen yogurt at Bloomingdale's. After all the tart yogurts, it was interesting getting back to a more traditional froyo.

          1. Really? I'm surprised? I went to the Zengo in DC a few years back and found it to be mostly sizzle with little steak.

            395 Santa Monica Place, Santa Monica, CA 90401

            1 Reply
            1. re: EricDC

              i agree... the DC location zengo was terrible. overpriced, poorly cooked food, bland. i remember the lounge being okay for drinks... but that was it. hopefully this ones better. i still think the concept is cool.