For the empire-building chef, there’s a fine line between thoughtful growth and cookie-cutter expansion. Richard Sandoval, one of New York’s sole marquee Mexican toques, started out at a prudent clip, building a local following at Maya and Pampano before rolling out spin-offs.
While his far-flung holdings flourished, across the board the food quality suffered, his flagships reduced to mere branches of chains. Think of it as the P.F. Chang’s effect, with menus streamlined for ease of cloning, and to appeal to the widest possible audience.
Zengo, the third of its kind, is based on a concept born in Denver in 2004. Though Sandoval hired the talented Akhtar Nawab (Elettaria) to help run the New York kitchen, Nawab left little imprint on the food and swiftly abandoned the project.
Even from a purely financial standpoint, the restaurant—Sandoval’s 15th—seems like a bad business decision. It serves a fusion menu (a dated brand of Asian-Mex) in a city where it’s way out of style, in a cavernous midtown space not even Jeffrey Chodorow—who tried three times—could tease into submission.
Sandoval’s menu is so enormous you could wear it as a sandwich board. One overly enthusiastic waiter urged us to surrender to the sprawl, ordering a few dishes at a time until we were sated.
This banquet began with soup, wan hot-and-sour with livery foie gras--filled wontons, dirty dishwater miso with a chipotle kick. Out came raw fish: soggy hamachi marinated in ponzu and sriracha; a generic inside-out tuna roll with squirts of chipotle aioli. Bone marrow steamed buns were all bread and no filling, while roll-your-own duck tacos were better—a true innovation, swapping in translucent daikon for tortillas.
The best stuff on the menu falls on one side or the other of the fusion divide. Superior fried rice is flecked with pork, duck and shrimp. A tender skirt steak “churrasco” is a pretty decent, if not terribly exciting, Argentine classic, with herbaceous chimicchuri and yucca fries. Honey-drenched plantains with crema are up to real barrio standards, but miso-rubbed black cod is a crime against Nobu, with clashing accompaniments—lemon aioli, braised daikon, Japanese eel sauce—ruining a perfectly good piece of fish.
Desserts are less constrained by the conceptual mishmash. While a few are Asian-inspired, most—a tasty, jiggly dulce de leche pudding, an elegant Mexican chocolate tart—are more purely Latino.
The decor, by AvroKO, is the restaurant’s best quality, and the only thing distinctly New York about Zengo. Ornate wrought-iron screens cover the picture windows like gates. Antique wooden beams dangle from the ceiling, and dusty vases appear as though they were excavated from a Ming Dynasty tomb.
Even if the food were more inspired, the location’s all wrong for such a clubby, high-concept restaurant. Airlift Zengo down to the Meatpacking District, however, and you might have a hit. This type of cooking is tailor-made for party snacking, the banquettes perfectly suited to bottle-service silliness.
Drink this: The drinks hew as much to the fusion doctrine as everything else, with beers from Latin America and Asia. The cocktails include a tart tamarind margarita made with El Jimador Silver, one of 400 tequilas in stock.
Eat this: Duck daikon tacos, fried rice, skirt steak churrasco, Mexican chocolate tart
Sit here: While there are cozy seats on the balcony, the prime spots are in the central booths in the heart of the dining room. For booze, head to the basement Biblioteca, a tequila bar with its own Mexican--small-plates menu.
Conversation piece: Zengo translates from Spanish as “give and take,” a sentiment that informs both the food and the decor.
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