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Culinary Zen

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Zentan Menu Dazzles With Celebrity Chef Lee's Showstoppers

Donovan House, the trendy boutique hotel on Thomas Circle, has resolved its restaurant woes with Zentan, which for the past few months has been offering a substantial menu of sushi, sashimi and crudos since it opened in late spring, as well as a complete menu of remarkable dishes created by Hong Kong-born chef Susur Lee.

Sleek and dark, Zentan wraps diners in deep shadows, an appropriate setting for a restaurant named after Washington’s other past time — Zentan means spy in Chinese. The décor mirrors the Donovan House’s minimalist modern look. The neutral tones of the mushroom-colored walls, beige drapes, gray banquets, dark wood tables and stone slab floors are illuminated by a phalanx of faux candles suspended from the ceiling on a platform. The dark walls are relieved with unusual mirrors half-obscured by beeswax-covered photos of pagodas. And a small sitting area between dining rooms feels like a cave beneath a cherry tree, with the blossoms silhouetted in brown overhead.

The only problem with Zentan’s décor is the lighting. It’s so low that it’s difficult to fully appreciate the artistry of the dishes, and not so easy to read the menu — which is one of the fun things to do at Zentan. It’s just so startling. You find yourself wondering how could anybody possibly imagine putting those ingredients together (Chili ponzu and hazelnuts? Lamb chops and bananas?). Then you taste them, and they are perfect — and you remember that’s why Lee is in the kitchen and you are sitting out front.

Lee in fact rushed in to fill the breach created when the previous chef left the project before the full opening. Lee had come from opening Shang at the Donovan’s sister hotel on Manhattan’s lower east side, after having established his reputation in Toronto by opening several highly acclaimed restaurants there.

Lee started Zentan’s menu off with sushi and sashimi — a wide variety, very fresh and nicely prepared. So far straightforward, but then you come to the Asian crudos — sashimi-marinated or paired up in some really interesting ways. Take for instance the tuna tartare with Asian pear, avocado, fried shallots and micro greens. Or the bigeye tuna with preserved lemon, jalapeno and soya. Or perhaps best of all, charred scallops with tomato vinaigrette and salmon caviar. This is definitely not your standard Japanese fare.

Then there are the rolls, some standard, some not so. They range from simple, single-ingredient varieties to dizzying versions packed full with almost too many ingredients. Most unusual perhaps, and our favorite, is the vegetarian Buddhist delight with tofu skin, asparagus, spinach and creamy miso.

Next up are the actual starters. One of Lee’s signature dishes and an absolute showstopper is the Singapore slaw, a traditional New Year’s dish that is a celebration all its own. This towering cornucopia sports 19 ingredients, among them: crispy and soft noodles, jicama, daikon radish, carrots, pickled ginger, sprouts (basil, cilantro and others), and sesame lightly treated with a salted plum dressing and garnished with chopped toasted hazelnuts. The crunchy, salty, sweet mélange is finished off with edible pansies that lend bright flashes of color and a subtle flavor to the dish. Or maybe it’s just the appeal of eating flowers.

Another excellent dish in the vertical category is the Yukon matchsticks potatoes — or French fries from heaven. A little greasy perhaps, but they are worth the damage to your arteries.

From now on, any semblance of traditional Asian cuisine goes out the window, as Lee brings in whatever ingredients he needs to realize his vision. Tender duck gets pulled, put in a roll, and served over spiced nuts, oven-dried pineapple and goat cheese — odd but delicious. Fat lobster and shrimp dumplings, meanwhile, get crusted with thinly sliced almonds, arranged on crisp lettuce leaves for wrapping, and partnered with a thick, sweet mandarin orange chili soya dip.

Often in a meal, when the appetizers are outstanding, the main courses seem almost an afterthought. Not at Zentan. The entrées are as inventive, well executed, and delicious as the rest of the menu. Lee is fond of hazelnuts, and they turn up in surprising places, such as the Cantonese marinated skirt steak — a long, thin dish of bite-size pieces cooked with shallot brown butter, chili ponzu and garnished with lots of chopped roasted hazelnuts.

Another standout includes the Mongolian lamb chops, crusty on the outside and perfectly deep pink on the inside, and arrayed with chili mint, bright orange carrot cardamom chutney, peanut sauce and glazed banana. The chops are tender but with a sturdy lamb flavor that stands up to the chutney and peanut sauce. A thick piece of salmon is roasted and served with a hollandaise flavored with tarragon and yuzu, an Asian citrus fruit, for a combination that redefines East meets West. The salmon also lets you taste another of Zentan’s hidden treasures, wasabi mashed potatoes. Not too spicy, but a definite kick, this is comfort food with attitude.

Light is important at Zentan because presentation is at a premium. While there has perhaps been a backlash against the excessive focus on display that characterized much of the nouvelle cuisine movement (remember the huge white plates with tiny servings as beautiful as Faberge eggs, and about as filling?), what Lee creates seems entirely in keeping with the spirit of the dishes. For example, quick-sautéed garlic shrimp, deep red with a Cantonese XO sauce and roasted tomato, nestle below a crisp golden rice tuile and a graceful note of Thai basil. Not only beautiful, it also tastes really good.

Not wanting to leave any part of the menu neglected, Lee has turned his talents to the dessert side of things with brilliant results. Perhaps the most beautiful dish on the whole menu is the Chinese almond panna cotta. Its presentation is so novel that at first you might think the wrong thing has arrived at the table because the panna cotta looks so much like palm heart. But with one bite any confusion vanishes. Partially frozen and served with crêpes like pineapple, raspberry ravioli, and chopped passion fruit sauce, the dish is fruity, light and sweet — but not overly so.

Heartier appetites and confirmed chocolate lovers have two choices. One is the stubby pastry columns filled with a light chocolate mousse and blueberry banana compote, paired with a sipping glass of frothy vanilla rice milk. For a bigger hit of chocolate, the chocolate cake is the best choice. Molten in the center, it spills out onto the cocoa crumble, matcha green tea, and Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream in oozing decadence.

Much has been made of chef Lee’s celebrity status, and some have even argued that Washington does not need another celebrity chef. But five minutes with Lee will convince you otherwise. Despite his Hollywood good looks and a deep, resonant voice to match, he is notably polite and unassuming. Coming up through hotel kitchens in Hong Kong and France and Canada, his education has been a practical one, perhaps accounting for his mastery of both the creative and the business sides of his profession. So it’s little surprise that the service at Zentan is excellent as Lee sets the tone, with quick attention to every detail that makes everyone in his restaurant feel like a celebrity.

About the Author

Rachel G. Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014