August 8, 2013 | by Jonathan Howard
Hong Kong to San Juan
Zengo, gay news, Washington Blade, dining

Zengo (Washington Blade photo by Damien Salas)

Every few months the team at Richard Sandoval’s Latin-Asian-inspired restaurant Zengo (701 7th Street NW) features an experimental menu known as its “test kitchen.”

On July 1, Chef de Cuisine Graham Bartlett began serving “Test Kitchen: Hong Kong to San Juan” showcasing plates with the flavors and techniques from these regions. The result was four powerful plates and a few cocktails to complement them. In mid-July, I had the pleasure of being the guest of Sandoval and Bartlett to experience these dishes firsthand.

Hong Kong to San Juan is Sandoval’s fourth test kitchen menu and the specialty plates explore the fusion of these two regions with Zengo’s artful blend of seasonal ingredients and modern preparation. The four dishes that will be offered during dinner service beginning at 5 p.m. (marked on the Zengo menu with a TK) are the Adobo Sweet and Sour BBQ Pork Ribs, the Foie Gras Plantain Mofango Shumai, the Hong Kong Roast Chicken and the Whole Crispy Fried Fish. For dessert, the staff at Zengo will serve the Coconut Tapioca Pudding; the three cocktails available are the Gingered Bourbon, the Lychee Bellini and the Strawberry-Lemon Mojito.

As soon as we were seated we were greeted by our adorable, but visibly nervous, waitress M.G. She immediately admitted she had never, “helped somebody from the media before and hoped that she would do OK.” My husband and I tried to put her at ease and she seemed to calm down once we began asking questions about the dishes we were about to be served.

She recommended we start with the Strawberry-Lemon Mojito with the pork ribs and the Mofongo Shumai small plates. The freshness of the strawberry and mint in the mojitos brought the rich flavors of the paprika, oregano, garlic and vinegar alive in the adobo-seasoned ribs, which were moist and delectable. The foie gras and plantain dumplings were full-bodied and buttery and my husband described them as the “best dumplings he has ever had.”

M.G. returned to the table to check on our progress and see if we were ready for our next course. I wasn’t sure I was ready. While I had tried to prepare myself mentally for a whole fried fish to be placed in front of me, nothing could have prepared me for the beautiful but terrifying dish.

I’ve always been averse to eating food that still looks like an animal, but I figured now was as good a time as any to conquer this aversion. So with some help from our much more relaxed waitress, my husband (who has the same aversion) and I were soon devouring this boldly seasoned, rich and tender fish. The flesh melted in your mouth but the flavors continued into your next bite.

In seconds I had forgotten about the eyes staring at me and teeth threatening me as I slowly brought my fork toward him for the first bite. M.G. suggested pairing the potent gingered bourbon with the fried fish and the chicken. This was the right suggestion because this drink would have overpowered the first two dishes. I found the drink to be a bit heavy on the ginger, and my husband — not a fan of spirits in general — found it to be heavy on the bourbon. Overall, despite some trepidation, we thoroughly enjoyed this dish.

We were completely satisfied with all the selections, yet still excited to experience the Lychee Bellini with sparkling sake, to be paired with the coconut tapioca pudding. While I found the pudding to be the only disappointing and non-cohesive dish on the menu, I absolutely adored the Lychee Bellini with its sweet delicate floral flavor.

With dishes ranging from $7-$20 and drinks from $11-$12, Sandoval and his team provide bold selections to diners willing to try out new and experimental dishes. Richard Sandoval Restaurants is celebrating its 15-year anniversary and the test kitchen is just one of the myriad of ways that Chef Sandoval explores the possibilities and potential of Latin cuisine. Sandoval is definitely not afraid to play with his food.

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