Zengo Santa Monica
Every few months, Chef Richard Sandoval and his culinary team research and develop 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 that showcase flavors and techniques from each region. The current culinary fusion marries Hong Kong flavors with San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Wedged in a neat, peaceful corner at the top level of Santa Monica Place, Zengo overlooks the dinosaur hedges of the bustling Third Street Promenade. There is nary a more expansive, open floor rooftop lounge as relaxed and sun-kissed as there is at Zengo Santa Monica.
Getting things off to a refreshing and boozy start with this lychee bellini. Ah. This alone made my three hour bus trek totally worth it. Have I ever publicly declared my devout love for lychee? Well permit me to shout it to the rooftops: I love lychee! Lychee flavored cocktails are not exactly a dime a dozen, so you bet your buttons I savored this sparkling cocktail to the very last drop.
While I’m not big on shumai, I do love me some chicharons! Tangy and savory with a satisfyingly crunchy topping of fried pork rinds, this dim sum bite would satiate those rocking a craving for a touch of salt and a bit of meat.
I rarely indulge in ribs, and never pork ribs at that, so I feel under qualified for commenting. Still, I recognize pork ribs are A Thing for nearly every other meat eater, and I do not feel people would be let down by these ribs. The meat was fall-off-the-bone supple, and the sauce finger lickin’ good. I saved the second one for my brother, who had nothing but praise for it. The slaw was a crisp, clean and highly appropriate counter-balance to the rich meatiness.
Can you believe this bacon and cheese stuffed monster accompanied the already rich ribs? Oh, yeah. Anything even remotely related to a croquette is relevant to my interests, and this papa rellena was no different.
Time for another drink! Out of the three cocktails I drank, this was my favorite. Not unlike a booze-tastic strawberry lemonade, this drink was slightly richer due to rum rather than traditional vodka. One hundred percent liquid summer.
So when I read “whole crispy fried fish”, I was (1) two drinks in and (2) having too good of a time to really digest what that would mean. Now imagine my surprise when they brought out this big fella. I called him Bitey. In his former life, Bitey was a trout (if memory serves). Now, in this incarnation, he is my dinner. After I stopped laughing maniacally at this slightly grotesque, albeit gorgeous, presentation, Bitey and I became intimately acquainted as I proceeded to consume him. I could do without the black bean vinaigrette and malanga, but the fish itself was meticulously executed to tender, flaky perfection.
My mother joined me at this time, and after a few bites for posterity, I let her dig in. “Oh, I’ll have just a couple of bites,” she assured the servers and I. Well, a couple of bites turned into licking the plate clean, as she was so taken with this dish. Gotta say, I think this one was my favorite land meat.
Hello, I’m officially a bourbon drinker! Ginger is one of those tricky flavors that can be cloying, or like garlic for a vampire, ward people off with its intensity. Mercifully, this drink finds harmony with all of its components, elevating ginger while smoothing out the edges of the typically husky bourbon.
It was around this time Chef made an appearance to check in and see how everything was tasting. Mom’s “Can’t Talk, Eating.” face was all the answer he needed before he asked if I would like to order anything off of the main menu. Hahahha, Oh, Chef, if you insist…
Why does raw fish always reduce me to thoughts and feelings worthy of a Jenna Jameson film? Oh, luscious little slab of tuna, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways: One nom, two nom, three nom, gone! Really, I could live off of this (and other tiradito/sashimi) and be content to (eventually) die of mercury poisoning. Tiradito is the Peruvian version of sashimi, brought over by Japanese immigrants.
porn fish. Look at it; such teeny, tiny facets delicately added to each piece of yellowtail, each element assisting to bring out its full potential.
My servers kept warning me to save room for dessert, which of course I scoffed at, because c’mon. I only ate roughly enough food the average American family has in an entire day – bring it on!
The pièce de résistance according to Chef, this sinfully decadent cake could not have been more ideally suited for my chocolate loving palate. A natural friend to chocolate, the banana elements refused to be drowned in a river of chocolate sauce; standing out in their own lush and creamy right.
Summer incarnate. Though it’s difficult to resist chocolate based desserts, this fruity, tropical pudding easily holds it own next to the chocolate banana cake. Mom was a huge fan, oooh-ing and aaah-ing with every spoonful. Should I return to Zengo on another warm day, this is the dessert I would not only order, but recommend to any other diners who I overhear waffling over which dessert to try. Yes, I’m that nosy foodie girl!
The fusion of two cultures is not unlike new friends being introduced at a really kick-ass party. The classy kind, where the alcohol is served in actual glasses and not red plastic cups. Trout, chicken, pork, ribs; all staples but reinvented for the discerning palate. Whether you order from the Summer Test Kitchen menu, the regular menu, happy hour or weekend brunch, Zengo Santa Monica is for adventurous eaters; individuals who want to experience and taste familiar flavors in bold, new ways.
Summer Test Kitchen: Hong Kong + San Juan runs until September 30th!
395 Santa Monica Place
b/w Broadway & Colorado
Santa Monica, CA 90401
FTC Disclaimer: The meal was on the house, but all opinions and wording are mine.