Monday, August 30, 2010

Sit down next to me

I approach Restaurant Week with the discipline of a seasoned general and make reservations well in advance. I pour over menus and engage in rudimentary cost/benefit analysis. It's been an eventful couple of months but I figured the Dining Deities would cut me a break and let me enjoy Summer Restaurant Week with relative ease. But alas, the best laid schemes of mice, men and food enthusiasts go oft awry. I had to cancel all of my reservations and was out of town most of the week. After a so-so experience at the Caucus Room (wonderful service, but the food was nothing special) I was prepared to write Summer 2010 off. Luckily, Maria saved the day with a reservation for Zentan at the Donovan House Hotel.

Donovan House is in an area of town I rarely find myself on a weekend, and I had yet to try it. I'd heard good things about it, but its claim to fame was Susur Lee, a finalist in Top Chef Masters. I am sure plenty of people tried Art & Soul for that very reason, and his hometown of Toronto is no stranger to fine Asian food. Chef Lee's portrait is prominently featured at the entrance, and reservations at Zentan, especially late ones, will allow you to bypass the line to get into their rooftop bar (which is nowhere near as ridiculous as the line at the W, but it's a line nonetheless).

Sakuras are incorporated throughout Donovan House in dramatic pieces in the lobby and the pool, and the dining rooms at Zentan are no exception. The two main dining areas are connected by a small lounge with walls of printed, photograph-grade impressions of cherry blossoms - for a few seconds you'll feel as if you are walking around East Potomac Park at peak bloom. We were seated in the first room, where the sushi bar is, a harmonious mix of dark wood and colorful tiles. Maria and I sat at the end of a communal table, which is not to everyone's taste but that I've always liked. There are regular tables along the walls and while this might seem off putting at first, it gave me a great perch to check out the fast pace of the sushi chefs.

The Restaurant Week menu did not include sushi entrées. While there may be several reasons behind this, it was a good way to get first time patrons such as ourselves to try Chef Lee's forte, which is fusion food. After a quick inspection of the wine list we both decided to get the suggested pairings of sake, wine and port, an excellent value for $15.

For a first course, Maria ordered the Salt and Pepper Calamari with chili smoked mayo and I had the Escolar. We both love calamari, and had read good things about this dish. While the spices in the breading were balanced and paired very well with our sake, there was too much breading. I always like it when kitchens leave the feet - an hommage to the squid, of sorts. While this was fine calamari, it was comparable to many others. Maria is not a fan of mayonnaise and I could not make a strong case for its fire and temperature, which complimented the piping hot calamari. My first course was a small and lovely portion of escolar, a white fish. The pieces were delicately arranged and topped with pickled jalapeño and jicama but the standout was the dressing - the kitchen made the most of this tropical fish by dressing with with a shallot-sesame-soy concoction that was sweet without being overpowering. The escolar was a fine ambassador of the sushi bar, and made me want to try its offerings even more.

For a second course, I couldn't keep myself from ordering the Chicken Curry (intelligently labeled as a Top Chef dish); it immediately peaked my interest. Curry and polenta were interesting in their own right, but I've always like fusion food when it manages to take you on a journey. The corners of the dish had tomato jam and pineapples, topped with almonds. I started out building dainty bites but quickly figured that, as is usually the case with polenta, mixing the ingredients was key. The chicken was moist and a touch smokey. Maria tried the Cantonese Skirt Steak and quickly decided that it made up for the calamari's lack of imagination. The kitchen raised that most humble of cuts, the skirt steak, with an eye-popping presentation. The European touches of hazelnuts and the bed of mashed potatoes gave the dish texture and crunch, while the Japanese elements gave the beef brightness and heat. The citrus in the ponzu successfully re-imagined hazelnuts for me. Our wine pairing was a refreshing Spanish white.

For our last course, we both had the port, which was lovely - dense, but not overly syrupy. Maria had the warm chocolate cake, a standard dessert made more interesting by cocoa crumble and house-made ice cream. I like fruit desserts with fortified wines so I asked for the Asian Spiced Peach Tarte Tatin. This is the perfect dessert for the season. The peaches are at their peak, the one in my small tarte was perfectly caramelized, and the vanilla creme fraiche kept me guessing, as it was presented in two ways - what looked liked a dollop of creme had the temperature and consistency of ice cream, while the ice cream scoop was closer to whipped cream.

Service at Zentan is very attentive and we were able to take our time with dinner. As soon as we were getting ready to leave, the Maitre D' suggested we try the rooftop bar, and walked us over to the elevator so we wouldn't have to wait in line. While the offerings at the roof bar are rather limited in terms of cocktails, the atmosphere is lively and the views sweeping. The deck planks were murder on my heels, but one can't have everything.

I am looking forward to many late suppers at Zentan.

Zentan on Urbanspoon
Zentan at the Donovan House Hotel
(202) 379-7066
1155 14th St NW
Washington, DC 20005

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