Embarking on a journey of taste at Zengo: Test Kitchen: Hanoi-Havana

Lemongrass-Lychee Mojito, Zengo

Lemongrass-Lychee Mojito, Photo by Noah Fecks

How many times have you wished that you could be in two places at once? Well now thanks to Richard Sandoval’s ZENGO (781 7th St., NW), you can! From now until June 30th, diners can enjoy Test Kitchen: Hanoi-Havana, a special menu that was created to blend two incredibly diverse countries (and cultures) Vietnam and Cuba — allowing diners to embark on a journey of taste to enjoy the flavors of two places at once. Every few months, the Chefs at ZENGO 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.

Located in the heart of Gallery Place/Chinatown, ZENGO (located 7th St., NW) is walking distance to the Verizon Center and has a beautiful 2-level lounge and dining room, the perfect spot to grab a cocktail after work or enjoy a bite with friends. With already lots to offer, a special themed menu like this should be a no-brainer. ZENGO offers scrumptious fare for extremely reasonable prices, especially their weekday lunch menu.

Dishes on the new Hanoi-­Havana menu offer new interpretations of traditional Vietnamese and Cuban recipes; the cocktails will be crafted with regional spirits, including the rare Aguardiente spirit from Cuba. Chef de Cuisine, Graham Bartlett said, “The new Hanoi-­Havana menu offers six plates highlighting the similarities between Vietnamese and Cuban cuisine. For instance, coconut, garlic, and lime are common flavor components used abundantly in both cultures.”

Chef Bartlett added, “We took traditional Vietnamese and Cuban dishes and tweaked them a little bit to make them more approachable for people – more modernized for the American palate.” Bartlett also shared that he lives nearby and that Vietnamese food is one of his favorite kinds of cuisine. On his days off, he often enjoys dining out at Vietnamese restaurants. In fact, he indicated that Pho Bar & Grill (1360 H St., NE), known as a late night haven for Vietnamese broth, is a place that he frequents. Since chefs work such long hours, I’m not surprised.

Morcillas at ZENGO

Morcillas. Photo by Noah Fecks

On the Test Kitchen: Hanoi-Havana menu, guests are presented various options to chose from for first, second and third course, as well as, features three innovative, hand-muddled specialty cocktails, including the Lemongrass-Lychee Mojito, Cereza Daiquiri, and Boba Cafecito. Zengo was recently awarded, “Best Mojito 2012″ by the Washington City Paper, so I was not surprised that the Lemongrass-Lychee Mojito (pictured above) was a group favorite, made with Silver rum, lychee, lemongrass simple syrup, lime, and of course, mint. I have tried Zengo’s Mojito, and I agree that it is incredibly refreshing! I will definitely remember where to go in a few months when the temps rise to nearly unbearable in DC.

One of the small plate options for first course, Cangrejo Enchilado, was a big hit at our table. These Lettuce wraps, which were a Vietnamese- inspired dish, are filled with soft shell crab and shrimp, and drizzled with Kaffir lime crema. I loved their use of lettuce as a wrap; its a more healthy option, especially for those who are cutting back on their carbs. Another small plate option, the Cuban-inspired Morcillas are pork blood sausages made in-house with white bean caldo gallego (Spanish Galician Soup) and anise Pate served on a toasted baguette. I can honestly say that I detest beans of every kind, especially the waxy kind, but the white bean caldo gallego served with the sausages were absolutely delicious. With a slightly larger portion, it really could stand on its own as a dish on the menu. Also, I generally don’t like Pate due to the texture, but I really enjoyed the anise Pate. The smoky flavor accompanied the pork sausages well.

Lemongrass Arroz Con Pollo. Photo by L. Shapiro

The first of three large plate options, a dish originating in the North Vietnam region, Cha Ca Thang Long, features a whole catfish with rice noodles, shiso, and black bean chile sauce. Also a relatively healthy option, the fish was flaky, tender, and moist. Since I have an allergy to all peppers, especially chile, I treaded lightly but enjoyed the fish. Next the Lemongrass Arroz Con Pollo is seasoned with sofrito, a complex flavor combination of Cuba, and is served with coconut rice, mango salsa, and garlic chips. Arroz con pollo is widely thought to have originated in Africa; however, it is a popular dish in many Latin and Caribbean countries. The chicken was cooked to perfection and was tender and juicy. The mango salsa added a little sweet to this savory dish.

Lechon Asado Vermicelli

Lechon Asado Vermicelli. Photo by L. Shapiro

By far my favorite dish of the evening, Lechon Asado Vermicelli, a classic Vietnamese dish, vermicelli, lightly balances the tender roasted pork shoulder and tangy sour-orange garlic mojo. My mojo could be wrong, but my interpretation of this dish is that the use of sour-orange is a Cuban influence, since Cuban Arroz con pollo often uses sour-orange juice. It reminded me of Chinese street noodles, which I love!

For a sweet ending, enjoy the mini Hanoi Pandan Wafflesflavored with the traditional Vietnamese herb, pandan, and topped with coconut ice cream, lemongrass whip, and strawberry-guava coulis. Pandan comes the tropical plant Pandanus, and is used widely in Southeast Asian cooking as a flavoring. Pandan waffles, in Vietnam, are slightly green in color, due to the color of the pandan leaves, and are a popular street food made either by heating cast iron molds over charcoal or by an electric waffle iron. It was deliciously sinful and I loved every bite.

Hanoi Pandan Waffles. Photo by L. Shapiro

I highly recommend the Test Kitchen: Hanoi-Havana menu and I can’t wait til next quarter to see what they mix-up next!

Address: 781 7th St., NW
Washington, DC 20001
Phone: (202) 393-2929

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