Washington D.C.’s Chinatown is a quirky little place. It doesn’t have San Francisco’s authenticity or New York’s bargains. The small, historic neighborhood between 5th and 8th Streets and H and I Streets Northwest is home to less than two dozen ethnic Chinese businesses. The souvenir shops and Chinese businesses mix in with chain stores such as Bed Bath & Beyond and the Loft complete with signs in Chinese lettering. The neighborhood is also home to the restaurant Zengo.
Like the rest of Chinatown the hip, colorful restaurant can’t seem to make up its mind about what type of restaurant it is. The restaurant and lounge at 781 7th Street NW is a Latin-Asian fusion eatery. But where Chinatown’s mix of stores comes off as identity crisis, Zenog’s comes off as creative, unique and posh. It’s the type of place you expect to find upwardly mobile twenty-somethings at happy hour. And it was here I set out to whittle away a Saturday evening tasting their new test kitchen dishes. Every few months the culinary team at Zengo develops a series of new recipes featuring the cuisine and spirits of one Latin and one Asian country. The result is a menu of specialty small plates and cocktails. Chef de Cuisine Graham Bartlett created Test Kitchen: Hong Kong to San Juan for the summer season.
The dishes and cocktails including Adobo Sweet and Sour BBQ Pork Ribs, Gingered Bourbon and Coconut Tapioca Pudding mix seasonal ingredients, modern techniques and an artistic flare to create a menu you won’t find anywhere else.
We started with the Gingered Bourbon cocktail. The drink made with bourbon Domain Canton, gingered liqueur, fresh lemon juice and simple syrup, had the bite of a dark ‘n’ stormy something I’ve been missing since we moved to D.C. And it wasn’t overly sweet, unlike so many other summertime cocktails.
We skipped the Lychee Bellini with sparkling sake and lychee puree, and instead opted for the Strawberry-Lemon Mojito with rum, muddled lemon, fresh mint, strawberry puree, agave and a splash of club soda. While, I can never resist a Mojito during the summer and the strawberry-lemon cocktail was very good it wasn’t as refreshing as I normally find a Mojito probably due its sweet nature from the strawberry.
My favorite part of the meal was the two starting dishes. Adobo Sweet and Sour BBQ Pork Ribs with papa rellena, bacon, jack cheese and chayote slaw, and Foie Gras-Plantain Mofongo Shumai with black vinegar sauce, and XO. The tender meat of the pork ribs fell off the bone and the seasoning melded the sweet and sour perfectly. The foie gras-plantain mofongo shumai wasn’t something I would have normally ordered but I was glad to be forced to try it. It was just the right amount, ideal for sharing and something I will look forward to having again.
Just because the appetizers were my favorite dishes doesn’t mean the mean courses weren’t delicious. The Hong Kong Roast Chicken with Shaoxing wine, “moros y cristianos”, Chinese broccoli and tomato salsa fresca, and Whole Crispy Fried Fish with Malanga puree, black bean vinaigrette and watercress salad were cooked to perfection and being served a whole fish is always interesting. However, I didn’t find the dishes as creative as the first course and after those dishes I was looking for something I wouldn’t normally have seen on a menu. To round out the meal we had Coconut Tapioca Pudding with lemon sorbet and guanabana espuma. A nice, light dessert for the summertime.
If you go:
Zengo, 781 7th Street, NW, 20001
Lunch: Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner Sunday to Thursday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday to Saturday 5 p.m. to Midnight
Lounge Sunday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner Sunday to Thursday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday to Saturday 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Brunch Saturday to Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m..
Test Kitchen: Hong Kong to San Juan is available until September only after 5 p.m.