Zing! goes Zengo

I dismissed Zengo when I first tried it right after it opened in 2004. I was in my “cynical about new restaurants” phase: One more Denver hipster restaurant hooked onto all those $1.5 million, 1.5 bedroom, 900 sq. ft. condos that (after visiting one) felt cold, cramped and metallic. Really?

But forget the condos perched atop Zengo on Little Raven in north Denver. From now through December 31, Zengo’s Test Kitchen menu shows up alongside Zengo’s traditional menu and it’s one heck of a fresh treat. The “TK Menu” opts for a Peruvian-to-Malaysia list of possibilities, allowing Zengo’s chefs to feature cuisine and spirits from particular Latin and Asian regions. The result is a menu of specialty small plates and cocktails that showcase flavors and techniques.

Chef Richard Sandoval owns and runs Zengo, and his accolades include Bon Appétit Restaurateur of the Year and Mexico’s Toque d’Oro. Sandoval is known for artfully spinning Latin-Asian ingredients into colorful, beautifully balanced dishes designed for sharing. His beverage menu features innovative, hand-muddled cocktails, but I think his light shines as a guy in-the-wine know. He hires pros (for example GM Kelly Berger and Somm. Jeremiah Allen) and he not only keeps an extensive selection of wines on hand, he plays with his selection continuously.

So back to that Test Kitchen Menu. Here’s what I dove into and my immediate reactions:

  • Spicy Crab Potato “Sushi” (Avocado/malay curry/crispy corn cancha/soft purple Peruvian potato cake) – holy cow – the colors, the unexpected textures.
  •        Chicken “A la Brasa” Satay (black bean glaze/cucumber rocoto salsa/toasted peanut/potatoes huancaina) – a fresh and tangy presentation that is both light and robust.
  • Arroz Con Mariscos (mussels/scallops/calamari/shrimp/yellow curry/malay rice/thai basil) – don’t try this at home. Mussels can be boring; this is anything but.

More important, here’s what our sommelier brought to the table:

Mestres 1312, Cava

Burgans, Rias Baixas 2011

R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Gravonia, Rioja 2003

D. Ventura Vina do Burato, Ribeira Sacra 2011 and

Santa Carolina, Pinot Noir, Casablanca 2011

I won’t pretend to know all the particular of all of these wines, but that’s not the point. The point is that I didn’t have to. Chef Sandoval and Somm. Allen had already paired these wines with the lovely smallish plates so hearing just a bit – nothing pretentious or intrusive or overwhelming (often the case from over eager sommeliers) – not only charmed but ultimately turned me on to two wines I’ve since purchased and made into my favorite “house wines.”

Sandoval captured a dining trend that America embraced relatively recently: that many of us no longer want overly laden, large platters of super-sized entrees. We want to try more than one thing on the menu. We don’t hope to one day weigh twice our body size, and we actually enjoy eating ala Western Europeans — in bites of multiple flavors and textures.

I don’t know if Zengo can help sustain this smaller portion trend, and I won’t say that Sandoval’s figured out how to get reasonably priced yet exciting wines onto dining menus, but I do know that I’ve now visited three times in last six months, which is three times more than I did all of last year. I also know that I’m charmed by Latin and Asian flavors and traditional, regional techniques. I like a menu that can boast main dishes of Chinese Braised Beef Shortribs alongside Jumbo Lump Crab Guacamole and “sushi” made of purple Peruvian potatoes.

In my book, it’s about the trying and succeeding most all of the time. That’s what Shakespeare did and what Thomas Edison did and what movie director Nicole Holofcener consistently does. It may not fly out of the park each and every time, but you can count on a certain daring, a willingness to engage the unexpected on a menu (eel and Cava?!) — and you can count on and come to expect the surprising delights that come with the creative culinary stretch.

Add a moderately priced Rioja or Pinot Noir that no one’s ever heard of and, well, that’s a combo hard to dismiss.