Sunday, August 29, 2010

Zengo: Fusing the infusable

I get a bizarre sense of pleasure when I tell people I put peanut butter in my oatmeal. I love watching their faces contort with revulsion as I describe my favorite breakfast in lurid detail.

"First, I cook the oats on the stove top with dried cranberries, green apple, cinnamon and a pinch of salt." I say, as though I'm telling a ghost story. "Then, when it's nice and thick - so thick that it's almost paste-like, so thick that it could be used to spackle a wall -- I stir in a big tablespoon of ooey gooey peanut butter."

My former roommates have been horrified by this. My mom, who usually likes my various recipe concoctions, refuses to even taste it. And for some reason, this makes me love the oatmeal even more.

It's something that shouldn't work. The ingredients don't really necessary go together. And the combination should be repulsive -- not something that I crave and look forward to eating every morning.

But it isn't repulsive. To me, it's mind-numbingly good. I love the weirdness. I love all the different elements, textures and sweet and salty flavors. Even though I eat it with absurd regularity, I always feel a bit giddy when I sit down to my dining room table with a big bowl of it.

While sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who enjoys feasting on bizarre combinations, unexpected pairings are a growing trend in the dining scene. Mozza tops one of its popular pies with speck, jalepeno and pineapple. Ludo puts foie gras frosting on his chocolate cupcakes. Quinn Hatfield makes his croque madame with yellow tail and quail egg at Hatfield's. And at the new Santa Monica Place restaurant Zengo, Chef and Restaurateur Richard Sandoval fuses Latin and Asian flavors together.

At first glance, the two cuisines seem vehemently opposed. When I think about Mexican food, the first thing that comes to mind is "heavy." Followed by "cheesy." Followed by "stomach bomb." When I think about Asian food, I often conjure up images of lighter foods - sushi, stir-fried vegetables and delicate noodles. On the surface the only commonality between Asian and Mexican seems to be the abundance of rice.

Zengo Santa Monica, the fourth Zengo location in Sandoval's restaurant empire, delves below that surface with its playful menu of shared small plates. Yes, there are dishes like Edamame with XO sauce ($7), sushi rolls, and a standard Hamachi (young yellowtail) with sriracha and mint ($13) that are more explicitly Asian in nature, but there are a number of plates where the lines between Asian and Latin are more obviously blurred. There are Charred Tuna Wonton Tacos with sushi rice, mango salsa and guacamole ($12) that marry together sushi rolls and tacos. There are Peking Duck-Daikon Tacos ($12) made with duck confit, jicama tortillas, orange-coriander sauce and curried apple. And there's a Chipotle-Miso Glazed Black Cod with daikon radish and lemon-togarashi aioli ($16) that turns the traditional preparation of miso cod on its head with a tangy Latin twist.

While such experimentation can often result in muddied flavors that compete with one another, Sandoval's Braised Beef Short Ribs ($14) with manchego cheese-huitlachoche potato puree, shiitake mushrooms, and dragon sauce are delightfully cohesive -- just as comforting as the ubiquitous rendition served with stewed carrots, onions and plain mashed potatoes. Not like how mom makes them, but still the type of dish that one would crave on a cold night. The Scallops Al Mojo de Ajo ($14) -- two fat scallops served with bacon-corn-edamame salsa, roasted garlic soy and yuzu-sriracha aioli -- is more challenging in terms of the different flavors and textures, but still works. The scallops are cooked perfectly, and the crunchy bite from the corn-bacon-edamame salsa is a welcome and addictive distraction.

Of all the dishes, however, the Crispy Tofu ($11) with napa cabbage, lemon aioli and sesame chile sauce is perhaps the biggest surprise. From one perspective, it feels like a deconstructed vegetarian version of a fish taco. From another, it's a dressed-up panko-crusted tofu that is decided Asian in nature with the cabbage and sweet chili sauce. But perhaps even more notable is how the inventive plate wins over both carnivores and vegetarians alike.

Maybe that's the biggest secret to Richard Sandoval's success. Not just his creativity in fusing seemingly infusable cuisines, but in the way that fusing them creates a middle ground where diners with different palates can meet. The girl who only eats fish and vegetables and the guy who only eats meat and potatoes can both find plates to enjoy at Zengo. And the girl who stirs peanut butter into her oatmeal can discover more bizarre food combinations to enjoy-- and to repulse her friends with.

395 Santa Monica Place, 3rd Floor
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 899-1000

*Note: My meal at Zengo was hosted by the restaurant.


Anna A. said...

PB and oatmeal is one of the best things you've ever introduced me to (in addition to BM). Go on with you bad, as in good, self!

Esi said...

I need to try your pb oatmeal as I'm now eating oatmeal nearly every day. I love Asian/Latin fusion. Adding Zengo to the list (on a weeknight of course)

bagnatic said...

eating "weirdly" means not having to share. i like that. :)

stuffycheaks said...

i agree - mexican food = cheesey and heavy which is why I usually stay away. But Zengo looks like something I can handle. I saw on their menu they had hot and sour soup with foie dumplings!! ZOMG!!

The Duo Dishes said...

Ooh, the black cod. It's most often paired with miso, but the chipotle is a new one. Sounds really good.

Jenny said...

Mm, this all looks so delicious! And "weird" combos are exciting!

-Dessert Darling

Diana said...

Anna - PB and BM - I don't know what I'd do without either in my life! So glad I could spread the joy with you too! ;)

Esi - Haha, I'm almost afraid to have a normal human being try my oatmeal! You'll have to let me know what you think...

Amy - Hahaha, I like the way you think!

Stephanie - I saw that soup on the menu too! You and your organs. ;)

Chrystal & Amir - I think I actually prefer my cod with just the miso. Can't really mess with perfection, can you?

Jenny - Yes, they are! Especially weird combinations in dessert.