Wednesday, August 25, 2010


A new article for the SM Observer on Richard Sandoval's restuarant ZENGO at the Santa Monica Place.


Richard Sandoval’s Classic and/or Modern Restaurants at Santa Monica Place           

Once upon a time my father was a builder (and don’t worry, he’s a building inspector now so he’s moved up in the world!).   During his time, Dad was always imparting words of wisdom about the houses that he constructed.   Growing up in a beach community he built a good deal of summer homes, and one thing that always stuck with me was how he noted that people want stability in their first home, but that they’re always willing to go more out on a limb, to be more fantastical, with their second home.   This concept popped into my head dining at Richard Sandoval’s two new restaurants at Santa Monica Place, La Sandia and ZENGO.  If La Sandia is the two bedroom, two bath than ZENGO is Falling Water (it’s even evident in the fact the ZENGO is only spelled in all capital letters).  

It might be an understatement to say that Richard Sandoval has become somewhat of a name in the food scene.  Sandoval, who is internationally recognized as the ‘Father of Modern Mexican Cuisine,’ elevated Mexican cuisine to gourmet status when he first opened Maya in New York City in 1997.  He’s received numerous awards, including Bon Appetit’s prestigious Restaurateur of the Year in 2006.  He was named one of the “Best Chefs of 2003” by New York Magazine, and Maya and Pampano (co-owned with opera star Placido Domingo) are the only two Mexican restaurants to have been awarded two stars by the New York Times. International accolades include the National Toque d’Oro, Mexican Chef of the Year, and the MENA’s Best Fine Dining Restaurant award for the experience at Maya, Dubai.  Richard Sandoval Restaurants now owns and operates more than a dozen different restaurants in Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco, Denver, Las Vegas, Chicago, Mexico City, Acapulco, and Dubai.  

“Opening two restaurants in my home of Southern California is like the fulfillment of a dream and the project of a lifetime,” said Sandoval.  Sandoval makes his first foray into Southern California with La Sandia, featuring “approachable” modern Mexican cuisine in a relaxed setting. ZENGO, on the other hand, is a Fusion restaurant – Latin Asian in this case.  Neither are completely reinventing the wheel for Sandoval since they have both have previous locations in cities such as Washington DC and Denver.  

La Sandia (which according to my friend’s eight year old means watermelon in Spanish) is the more classic of the two new restaurants. “At La Sandia, I am reaching a wider and more diverse group of diners by offering my signature flavors in an approachable setting.   The menu features my interpretation of familiar yet authentic Mexican dishes, all at affordable prices,” explained Sandoval.  Friendly service in a chic yet laid-back setting makes all guests feel welcome.” 

The menu is definitely more simply stated of the two.  The classics of Mexican food are all there: Margaritas and Mojitos, Tacos, Empanadas, and Mole.  The drinks are a mix of classic and infusions with Sangria, Hibiscus Margaritas, and Lime Mojitos being featured on the drink selection. The bar (which offers a happy hour for those with monetary issues…) offers 250 Tequilas and smoky Mezcal. Tequila tasting flights and infused tequilas are also available. 

You get what you’re looking for at La Sandia.  The Guacamole is made table side in a Molcajete (a traditional cured lava rock stone).  It was spicy (if you ask for it) and tasty, but definitely needed a little more salt.  The Chorizo Empanadas were hearty, wrapped in very thick pastry dough.   The Chicken Mole had a lovely deeply complex chocolately flavor.   Served with friend plantains and rice, which was actually good, a surprise since it is usually a throwaway side dish at most restaurants.   For an ending sweet we partook in a mini dessert sampler of Tres Leches, Flan, Sopapillas.

It was perfect if what you’re looking for is tradition.   The problem with that word, traditional, is that a lot of times people will look at it and translate it to boring.   But boring is not the case with La Sandia, instead you’re getting what you expected with reliable quality: another statement that many people might yawn at, single people.   For as a friend pointed out to me recently where this makes all the difference in the world is when you have young kid.  Young picky eater kids.  Than words like reliable, traditional, expected become Godsends.  Another bonus for the families choosing to dine at La Sandia the prices are a little less costly (for sit down dining at Santa Monica Place) with the entrees running between $11.95 - $24.95.

With all that being said it is no surprise that I (being a single gal with no children) was more drawn to the fantastical elements of the Latin Asian fusion of ZENGO.   Zengo, as it was reiterated to me numerous times, means “give and take,” and with that approach in mind comes the good-humored tug-of-war between two culture’s cuisines.  “The potential of Latin cooking is endless, and by combining native ingredients with unexpected, Asian flavors, a whole new world of possibilities is born,” explained Sandoval.  “ZENGO is meant to be unexpected, playful and an experience shared amongst friends.”

The drink menu alone is like “Its a Small World,” cocktails are categorized by their main Latin-Asian cocktail ingredient: Sugarcane, Agave, Grain.   The wine list’s bottles are from Latin-American vineyards, as well as some Spanish highlight, and a good amount of Sake choices.   I chose the recently renamed Cucumber Mojito (up recently ZENGO’s signature cocktails had confusing Japanese titles).  Composed of Bacardi, Mint, and Midori it was a perfection of refreshing and cool, perfect for a hot summer afternoon (one of the only ones it looks like we’re getting this summer….).

Simple: definitely not (you need to speak both Japanese and Spanish to fully navigate the menu), fun: absolutely.  I began my United Nations dining adventure with ZENGO’s Ceviche Sampler this included both the Seafood Ceviche (Shrimp, Octopus, Calamari, Aji Panca, Heart of Palm, Orange, Serrano) and the California Sea Bass Ceviche (Aji Amarillo, Red Onion, Cucumber, Apple, Tomato Shiso) served with Corn Chips and Daikon Chips.  Go all that?   Both Ceviches were great, the latter being light and sweet, the former being my preference since it’s chewier (when I think Ceviche I just think chewy…)
ZENGO has a free flowing kitchen, it’s not coursed, so the food arrives as it comes out. Every dish was more fantastical.   The next dish to arrive, off the Dim Sum and Antojitos section, was the Peking Duck –Daikon Tacos, comprised of Duck Confit, Curried Apples, Orange Coriander Sauce.   A fun twist on a standard Asian tradition the shaved Daikon radish made up the shell for the taco.  This dish was standout, fresh, healthy, and totally tasty.  For the Asian side ZENGO offers sushi rolls.  I took my server Danielle’s suggestion and went for the Torched Wagyu Beef Roll, comprised of Tamgo, Scallion, Masago, Truffled Ponzu Sauce (but luckily not too much Truffle Oil, TO overkill is something that seems to be quite a hazard at a good amount of restaurants in LA these days).  Soft and buttery this roll is what every mediocre mini-mall sushi roll aspires to be.  The Chipotle Miso Glazed Black Cod with Daikon Radish, Lemon Togarashi Aioli was a lovely delicate delight.  But with the side dish of Roasted Sweet Plantains I had finally hit my fusion breaking point.  Topped with sesame seeds and drizzled with an excess of honey I looked and though longingly for simplicity.   
Both La Sandia and ZENGO have their shared location going for them (something that can be a little confusing when you’re trying request a table and realize you’ve been waiting to talk to the host at the wrong restaurant).   Although not seaside, the view of the Promenade, especially at night with the twinkling lights, is definitely pretty.   And if it ever gets hot this summer (thank you global warming) the breezes will definitely helping with cooling. 

Give and take, ZENGO’s namesake can really be applied to both of Sandoval’s new restaurants.  In a Ying-Yang Zen-like perspective - one restaurant is neither better nor worse than the other.  It all depends what you’re looking for in that moment:  a trip through a culinary Latin-Asian Wonderland or No Place like (a Mexican) home.    

Kat Thomas is a writer of life, sometimes focusing on food.   Check out her blog:

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