By Reid Wilson - 10/08/09 10:01 PM EDT
Fortunately, a new pan-Asian destination in Washington is less an introductory-level class than a doctoral thesis, and with Zentan, famed chef Susur Lee has made his first mark on a city with an already vibrant Eastern culture.
Located in the Donovan House Hotel just off of Thomas Circle, Zentan’s space could hold any upscale restaurant. In fact, it already housed one.
Fellow famed chef Todd English was set to open another Asian restaurant, Cha — he even held a VIP dinner there during Inauguration festivities — but later pulled out of the deal. Donovan House might be better for it, considering the impressive cuisine Lee delivers.
Inside, faux candles flicker above a moodily lit dining room, and diners may be seated inconspicuously in a corner or prominently at a shared table with other guests. Curtains envelop several corner booths, giving the impression that Zentan is not only a place to be seen, but a place to be seen not being seen.
A large party heading out for an evening feast would be wise to secure a table that is big enough to handle the food. Fancy plates — no Ikea dishes need apply — have the effect of crowding the table quickly and, at times, unnecessarily. A line of waiters bringing out plate upon plate of food swiftly turns into a restaurant version of Tetris.
In all, the touches are warm, the noise level variable and the restaurant posh — all without being pretentious. Like the tables, dishes may be shared, as, apparently, are the servers — rarely did the same one approach the table twice, an annoying characteristic when faced with an empty glass but one that did not otherwise affect the service.
Somehow, Lee embraces two disparate theories for menus. The Singapore Slaw has 19 ingredients and is piled high on the plate, nodding to a trend of food that looks as or even more fancy than it tastes. The formidable mound is the closest the menu gets to an entree salad, with radish, carrots, jicama, plum and spices assembled tableside.
But much of the appetizer menu is simple, with a focus on small dishes done well. A pulled duck roll with goat cheese and dried pineapple excelled, flaky yet solid without being filling. An exciting medley of sauces that complement a satay trio — most notably a flavorful mint sauce — is an easy choice to make. Edamame with sea salt and tempura rock shrimp round out a continent-wide beginning to a meal.
The entrees focus on the Asian cuisine outside of Japan, and many live up to the rave reviews that are already spreading by word of mouth. A caramelized black cod with Cantonese vegetables was perfectly done, flavorful and light. Meanwhile, the crispy garlic chicken with a subtler take on a sweet-and-sour sauce was beyond anything one might find in other Chinese restaurants.
Wasabi mashed potatoes rounded out many meals; airy and fluffy while presenting enough kick to clean out the sinuses, they were a perfect complement to most meat dishes.
Mongolian lamb chops, Hunan-style pork ribs, stir-fried noodles and salmon with a yuzu-tarragon hollandaise are indicative of the chef’s wide-ranging and ambitious outlook, far beyond the normal Asian fare.
Zentan could survive, though, if the entree chef took a day off. That’s because the restaurant’s sushi menu is not only good for adventurous souls looking for a slightly updated take on traditional Japanese rolls, it’s also exquisite for palates that may be scared off by eel, oysters or more exotic fare.
“They’ve taken decadent sushi to a new level,” one dining companion said.
Every sushi lover, no matter how timid or advanced, would enjoy the spicy tuna rolls or the rainbow roll — rich yet refreshing, perfectly made and quite spicy.
More American-friendly sushi include a lobster roll coupled with sturgeon caviar, something that raised eyebrows for its depth (perhaps it should be served with a cup of clarified butter).
The more adventurous, or even those aiming to break out of the usual patterns, should try one of the several crudo plates. They’re made up of raw, sashimi-quality fish seasoned with traditional Asian dressings like soy sauce, lemon juice, ponzu and yuzu. The dishes give diners a delicate way to branch out. (This is not to mention the sashimi itself, a separate menu item and an absolutely delicious bite of fish that could make an Omega 3-heavy dining experience on its own.)
An enjoyable part of the sushi experience can be watching a well-trained master assemble a roll, and there are few better places to do so than at Zentan’s bar. The sushi bar is the first thing visitors see in the dining room, with stools for patrons to watch the master at work. As for the bar’s drinks, the cocktails are pricier than one might find at comparable restaurants, and the sake selection ranges from the affordable but satisfying to expensive, bottle-sized varieties. The wine list is limited, while the beer supply has both standard Japanese selections and more exotic, if not much more interesting, Filipino, African and Hawaiian ales and lagers.
Bringing together the wide-ranging flavors of Asia can be a difficult task, especially for the restaurants that attempt to do so in front of one diner. But the pleasures of well-executed sushi, coupled with the balanced flavors and textures of a Szechuan, Cantonese, Mongolian or Hunan-style entree, elevate Zentan far above the everyday Asian restaurant.