Last night Inspiration DC‘s Rebecca and I headed over to preview Zentan, the new trendy hot spot at the Donovan House Hotel on Thomas Circle. The new hot spot opened on June 8th, after a bit of a kerfluffle (the space was supposed to be a new Todd English spot), when Chef Susur Lee of Shang in New York stepped up to fill in. Chef Lee, who is known for a wide variety of Asian-influenced restaurants, was also the second Canadian chef to appear on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America against Iron Chef Bobby Flay. So I was excited to see what came of all the drama – would Zentan live up?
Also, if you’ll let me ramble for a moment, Zentan signifies to me the solidification of the quality I’ve come to expect from hotel restaurants in our area. This is thanks in part to boutique chains like Kimpton, who work to pair quality Chef-driven restaurant concepts with their hotels. But excellent in-hotel restaurants are certainly on the rise in DC, and I have much higher standards for hotel restaurants here than I do when I travel. I was interested to see what Lee would bring to the District, plus get a peek at the Thompson Hotel.
Totally swanky, trendy, low-light, and high heels necessary, Zentan is not for the faint of heart or those who like casual. Faux-candles sit atop hanging modern chandeliers and provide the main light for the dining room. Little bulbs randomly spaced along the ceiling light up the sushi workspace and the bar. Our chopsticks rested on figurines of sleeping women, and almost everything is black. Very New York, I suppose, but isn’t that to be expected, as both Shang and Thompson have New York presence.
The menu is much like Chef Lee’s NYC spot Shang, except with a wider variety of dishes. Price points are right at $10 for apps and $25 for entrees. Sushi and sashimi are pretty standard prices as well, at $3 sashimi and $9(ish) rolls. The drink list is a drink list, nothing blew me away, but the margarita I had was nice. The gin and cherry cocktail was my favorite, but unless you really like licorice, avoid the champagne-based cocktail. The wine selection is focused, and on purpose, we were told Zentan would never be “one of those restaurants with 200 wines.” I can respect that, as long as a place offers thoughtful wines at different price points.
The preview started with a sushi plate, my favorite being the Ever Green signature roll, vegetables wrapped with cucumber skin. Beware, though, the chopsticks are slick, as are the sushi rolls, and even though I consider my chopsticks skills to be at least a B+, I had to whip out a fork, as the slick chopsticks slid against the cucumber created havoc and Rebecca and I wound up pushing sushi around our plates before giving up. They promise, though, that they’ll be getting in wooden chopsticks within the next week, so this is an easy fix. But until next week, don’t take any dates there that you’re trying to impress with your chopsticks skills. After they switch up the sticks, I’d highly recommend the sushi. We had a lobster and eel sashimi that was also very nice, with spicy roe. I also have confidence that the Lobster roll would be good, even though I wasn’t able to try it, it sounds like a winner with Maine lobster, shiso leaf, caviar.
Appetizers are made to share, so we asked for the Lobster and Shrimp Dumpling Lettuce Wrap paired with a Mandarin-orange/chili/soya dip. On fresh butter lettuce, the dumplings came crispy and when I broke them apart, steam billowed out. I tried some dumpling without the dip, and was wary. Add the dip, and the dish comes alive and the flavors stand out. I’m not sure why they don’t just serve the dish with the dip as mandatory, but it should be. Large lobster meat pieces weren’t buried in the dumpling, either. It was fine.
They also brought over the Singapore Slaw with Salted Plum Dressing. I adore this dish. I’ll food dream about it for months to come, until I can go back and have it. In fact, if I worked anywhere near Zentan, I’d order this as takeout for lunch, it is one of my favorite dishes I’ve had in a long time. With 19 vegetables, and hazelnuts, with crispy veggie strings, they bring it to your table as seperate ingredients then mix it up for you. The slaw is where I started to notice how conscientious of texture Chef Lee is. I’m such a texture person, I will discount food on account of texture, I hate bananas, or applesauce for that exact reason. If the texture is off, even if the flavor is right, I’m not able to stomach a food. I have huge respect for Lee’s ability to pair textures together, not forgetting to balance out soft foods with crunch.
My entree, the Sauteed Scallops with Spicy black-bean sauce, vegetables, and sushi rice cake was outstanding. Again, with the texture, the crispy outside of the rice cake was great, with perfectly done asparagus and leafy greens. The scallops were done just right with a sauteed crispy top and a not-too-spicy black bean sauce that allowed the scallop flavor to come through. I loved it. I’ll also food dream about this dish until I have it again. The rest of the entrees weren’t quite as dead-on.
Rebecca got the Quick-Sauté Wild Garlic Shrimp with Cantonese XO sauce, roasted tomato, and Thai basil. The XO sauce was nice, the shrimp were cooked nicely, but the roasted tomato just didn’t do it for me. I’d try the lamb shanks, if I were you, as other diners around us seemed to be thoroughly enjoying them.
We also asked to try the Crispy Vegetable Fried Rice With Roasted Almonds, which is a conundrum for me. With all the right ingredients, including the almonds, the dish still seemed a bit bland. I loved all the different vegetables, chopped to exactly the right size (carrots, pineapple, scallions, and more), topped with chopped egg. Again with the perfect mix of textures, the veggies were crunchy, the nuts added a bit of interest, and the rice was right. Plus the rice wasn’t at all greasy or heavy, I just wanted it to have more kick. It was disappointing, because I thought that dish would be right on point, I kept eating it, hoping to find the flavor buried at the bottom of the dish. A sweet ginger or citrus brown sugar based soy might be nice, at least as a side option.
Rounding out the preview meal was dessert. I opted for the Panna Cotta after hearing how many bananas were going to be in the assorted dim sum platter. (It looked fabulous coming around, though, so if you’re a banana fan, go for it.) I’m not a huge Panna Cotta fan usually, the texture tires me out. But, true to form, even through the end, the little rounds of panna cotta spaced between little pockets of raspberry ravioli (sort of like a dessert gyoza) were the perfect amount of cream and soft to balance out the tart berries. I loved it.
Rebecca got the chocolate molten cake, paired with hazelnuts and crunchy chocolate cookie and vanilla ice cream. The side crumble wasn’t too sweet, which Rebecca said was was good since the cake was sweet, but it added the right texture to balance out the molten chocolate. She was happy.
On our way out, we asked to see the rooftop pool. Zentan will begin serving sushi at the pool bar, and I wanted to see the setting. It was sleek, and of course trendy, and overlooks Logan Circle. An adorable rooftop, that stays open as late as the restaurant does, often until 2 a.m., the manager said.
Overall, Zentan is a welcome addition to DC, in my mind. A great Thomas Circle/Logan Circle spot, with a focus on texture, I think it’s a hit. I’ll be back, for the Singapore Slaw and Scallops, mark my word.
Zentan is located in the Donovan House Hotel at 1155 14th St. NW. Closest Metro stop: McPherson Square (Blue and Orange lines). For more information, call (202) 379-4366.