Monday, September 27, 2010

Zengo Gives Amazing Space, Takes Foodie Experience

With all the hype surrounding the newly redesigned Santa Monica Place, and its high-end rooftop dining (which now ingeniously allows people to enjoy the nearly year-round gorgeous beach weather!), we were very much looking forward to checking out each venue.  When LivingSocialLA recently posted a deal for Zengo, offering $50 worth of food/drinks for $25, we knew that was our cue for the first place to visit.

Though we neglected to make reservations in advance, the friendly hostess secured a table for us within minutes.

Strolling down the hallway next to the exquisitely decorated, airy La Sandia (and making a mental note that that would be our next stop), we arrived at a second hostess desk placed towards the front of the mall and the promenade - and were given a choice to be seated inside or outside.

At our table on the terrace, our waiter explained (reinforced by an intro at the top of the menu) that "Zengo translates to give and take" - referencing the small plates designed for sharing, and the kitchen culture of delivering plates as they're ready.  What we would discover in the course of dinner on a Sunday evening, is that Zengo 'gives' you an incredible rooftop terrace dining in a space with chic interior design through and through, and great service without attitude, but 'takes' away from the foodie experience that you would expect, with the inconsistent quality of its dishes.

Both the main dining room, with its sleek, black decor tempered by warm, luminous bead-shaped bulbs that hang from the ceiling, and the rooftop terrace opening out into the Santa Monica skies and overlooking the entry-way to third street promenade, are absolutely breathtaking. 

Our waiter gave us a minute to soak in the views, then tempted us with intriguing cocktails including a Tamarind-Togarashi Margarita ($11) - a tamarind margarita with a Japanese chili salt rim.  We had unfortunately already been drinking at the Abbott Kinney Festival earlier in the day, and had to pass on more alcohol - but made a note to try this next time.

Seafood Ceviche ($13)
As we were starving, we dove right in with a Seafood Ceviche ($13) starter - which came on a plate with two separate bowls, one filled with shrimp, octopus, calamari, aji panca,heart of palm, orange and serrano, topped by bonito flakes, and the other with fresh fried plantain chips.  This little dish was packed with incredible layers of flavors - the marinade for the ceviche was so good that we wanted to drink it after the seafood was gone!  The chips were also at the perfect thickness and crispiness, and was an ideal companion to offset the chewy and soupey textures of the ceviche. 

Seeing the reference to foie gras in the Hot & Sour Egg Drop Soup ($7) - in the form of pork dumplings complemented by enoki mushrooms and green onions, we had no choice but to try it. This starter however was disappointing - the key to a good hot & sour soup is balance, and this soup base was overly salty and intense (too much soy sauce and vinegar?), overpowering the flavors of all the other ingredients in the dish.  I could not taste the foie in the dumpling at all, nor the pork, and the dough wrapper was tough and chewy - telltale signs that the dumpling, or at least the wrapper, was not freshly made.  It also didn't help that the whole thing came in a bowl that was about a 1.5 cup serving size - where we could have easily gotten 5 times that portion at any decent Chinese restaurant in town for the same price - and it would have exhibited 5 times the skill in controlling the balance of flavors.

Grilled beef short ribs ($14)
Our next small plate: Grilled Beef Short Ribs ($14) with manchego cheese potato puree, hoisin-adobo, dragon sauce and huitlacoche.  The beef was tender, coming apart even as we lifted them with our chopsticks.  The sweet, salty and slightly spicy flavors were intricately woven in the different sauces, which we loved - but which also unfortunately only reached the top layers of meat.  This dish only delivered on the first few bites - once we got to the middle of the beef tower, the wonderful flavors completely went MIA.

Chipotle-miso Glazed Black Cod ($16)
 Having picked a dish "From the Land", our next plate was "From the Sea" - Chipotle-miso Glazed Black Cod ($16) with daikon radish and lemon-togarashi aioli.  This was easily the best-of-meal dish, slightly crisped with browned sugary edges, and juicy and tender overall, flaking away at the bare touch of our chopsticks.  The daikon radish added a nice crunch to counterbalance the texture of the fish, and unlike its 'land-locked' counterpart, the fish was infused with flavor throughout, and the aioli added a nice kick.

At our friendly and attentive server's suggestion (he noticed when my Arnold Palmer was finished and brought a refill immediately without me having to ask!) - we also ordered Wok Fried Rice ($8 - not pictured) to round out the meal - the rice was packed with duck, shrimp, pork, egg, carrot and scallion - and was a good complement to the other dishes, though again portion size was very small - enough for two people only as sides. But we made the choice to spend the extra $3 to get the fried rice rather than plain jane jasmine rice for $5.

Though the portions were small for the price, we did find that between the two of us, the two starters, two small plates and fried rice was enough to leave us stuffed at the end of the night, with no room for dessert.  And of course, we were happy that after the $50 LivingSocialLA certificate was applied, we only had to pay $30 extra including tip.

All in all, Zengo was indeed a give and take experience - we loved the culinary adventure in concept, with the introduction of ingredients we haven't encountered, or encountered in that combination, in other LA venues before - and enjoyed the incredible rooftop dining space, great ambience, and friendly, attentive service, but the execution of the food was uneven, and were it not for the saving grace of the LivingSocialLA certificate, we would have felt the sting of haute cuisine prices more sharply.  Zengo may serve as a great spot for drinks with friends or a date for the ambience alone - but serious foodies, at least for now (perhaps the food will improve over time), are better off 'giving' their money to other takers.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars

Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 60%

395 Santa Monica Place #306N
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Ph: 310.899.1000
Zengo on Urbanspoon

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...