622 Third Avenue near 40th Street, Midtown East, (212) 808-8110
Getting There: 4,5,6,7,S to Grand Central- 42nd Street
Restaurant Review: Zengo
While Manhattan has become commonplace for the pervasiveness of different fusion restaurants, few pull off the distinction as effortlessly and as classy as midtown east’s Zengo. One part Latin, one part Asian, the Richard Sandoval eatery is a colossal-sized mixture of both, fully equipped with an upstairs sake and shochu lounge and a basement level tequila bar (La Biblioteca- boasting upwards of 400 different varieties), both of which envelop the center level’s vast dining area. Flanked by a cavalcade of servers and bussers scurrying from table to table, the service is impeccable, despite an engrossing surrounding atmosphere.
The restaurant’s interior is hardly ordinary. Large wooden planks hang overhead above the main dining room, reminiscent of an ancient Church’s assembly. Below, the massive dining area seems ideal for large parties with half-circle booths lining much of the space and elongated rectangular wooden tables taking over from there. Although the restaurant is street level, the windows are patterned with ornate designs, making the view from outside all the more inquisitive. Once we had absorbed the unique setup inside, we were prepared to sample our first taste of Latin-Asian fused cuisine.
A bottle of deliciously cold sake was out to greet us first, as we perused the assortment of menu offerings. Divided by style, the small plates were broken up into “ceviches & tiraditos” and “dim sum & antojitos,” accompanied by “sushi rolls,” “noodles & rice,” and “cocas – Spanish flatbread,” before co-joining both flavors for the “entrees” portion of the menu. The “shrimp ceviche” ($14) proved to be an excellent opener- the sweet thai shrimp, coupled with bits of cucumber, fresh avocado, red onion, and cilantro was a fantastic base for our tasty, but diminutive bowl of salty chips- so small in fact, that it would be our only knock on the entire evening- We had to ask for thirds! Our concerns were extinguished immediately however as we dug into the “spicy crab guacamole” ($16), a fabulously presented rectangular serving plate topped with chunks of jumbo crab, meshed with creamy guacamole, thai basil, ginger, and cilantro, and wedged with plantain-tortilla chips. The dish looked great and was even more savory, but not necessarily as spicy as advertised, which was okay by us.
The “steamed buns al pastor” were perhaps the best value of the evening, at just $13 for three hearty buns. The insides were packed with tender braised pork belly, a thick green salsa verde, and freshly cut pineapple, for an elaborate dance of sweet fruit and salty meat. If the pork belly was the unsung hero, the tuna was the clear favorite as three of our remaining dishes revolved around the pink fish. The “charred tuna wonton tacos” ($13) were served in crispy tortillas, stuffed with fluffy sushi rice, guacamole, and a mango salsa for a true conglomerate of different ethnicities. Similarly, the “yellowfin tuna flatbread” ($15) was a revelation in that the crisp bread was topped with a generous portion of fish which paired exceptionally with smoked gouda cheese, sliced oranges, and a creamy aioli drizzle. The more traditional choice of “chipotle yellowfin tuna” ($14) was decent, yet perhaps only seemed run-of-the mill because the other courses were more inventive. We closed our meal with the delectable “braised beef short ribs” ($28) cooked perfect and tender, served over a potato puree and doused in a hoisin demi-glaze, which our party went wild for. The thick chunks of beef melted with every bite of the scrumptious, shared entrée, leaving only a smattering of sauce marking the tracks of our empty plate.
Without even dropping by the separate tequila and sake floors, we ourselves were floored by this neighborhood gem. Perhaps our preconceived notion was to continue to circumvent eating at Zengo because of the dearth of decent restaurants in the neighborhood, or perhaps the idea of fusing two different cuisines together had become passé. Either way, our ignorance proved erroneous as our experience at Zengo was both enjoyable and enlightening. The service was as phenomenal as the fare was innovative, and once our mouths closed after marveling at the eatery’s sheer size, we were able to kick back for an eclectic, energetic couple of hours.