A zesty meal at Zengo!
When Zengo first launched in early 2015 as Mexican celebrity chef Richard Sandoval’s latest outing in Dubai, there was a lot of excitement surrounding this Latin American-Asian fusion concept. While the combination of cuisines does work (hello, Asia de Cuba), largely due to the significant Japanese influence on South American cuisine, Zengo received mixed reviews. The concept has since evolved to become more Asia-focused, with the menu simply acknowledging ‘international influences in its ingredients’. Nods to its Latin American roots remain however, with a ceviche section, and certain sauces and chillies that are used throughout.
Tucked away in a corner of a separate building housing other restaurants such as Geales, Zengo occupies a massive indoor/outdoor space; there is a separate entrance for the restaurants with its own valet parking, so don’t make the mistake of entering through the hotel lobby, which can lead to a long-winded walk.
Zengo is undeniably contemporary and smart, with a recurring geometric pattern in the form of wooden slat partitions dividing up the restaurant into semi-private nooks, a zigzag ceiling pattern, and monochromatic motifs on the sectional carpets and cushions. The outdoor section is almost as big as the inside, with a wraparound terrace offering lounge seating, as well as dining tables.
Their newly revamped menu has been updated to include more vegetarian dishes – to cater to increasing demand apparently - which was happy news for us! Most of the dishes are meant to be shared, so we opted for a selection of cold plates and hot plates to start with. But before that, we were served an amuse bouche of mojito – yes, that’s right, the cocktail is turned into a jelly-like bubble that explodes in the mouth as you pop it in. Fun and punchy!
Our first dish used the same Japanese konniyaku technique as the amuse bouche. The yellow watermelon soup with watermelon konniyaku, pistachio and goat’s cheese was a medley of textures and flavours that worked really well together. We were also recommended the vegetarian sushi option, and the combination of beetroot and avocado with a drizzle of mango salsa on top turned out to be probably one of my favourite sushis ever.
We also tried the mushroom dumpling served with a sesame soy sauce. While it was pleasant, I found it a bit one-dimensional in taste and the dumpling dough a bit too dense. Vegetarian ingredients can be so much more in a dim sum! Our next dish, however, completely redeemed the kitchen in my eyes. The signature Chefs 30 vegetables is a celebration of seasonal vegetables, cooked in many different ways, ranging from crispy kale to steamed baby corn. The presentation here is a standout. The colourful (OK, mostly green!) vegetables are artfully placed on one side of a large plate with lots of negative space to balance the busy-ness of the dish. This gourmet version of a warm salad is tossed by the wait staff at the table, in a deliciously subtle sweet & savoury dressing.
Vegetarian options for mains are a bit limited, so we had the wok fried eggplant with a Mulato chile sauce and spring onions, along with a fried rice dish. The rice usually comes with Sakura shrimps, but they obligingly made it vegetarian for us. Peppered with small pieces of crunchy, lightly cooked okra, the rice proved to be the perfect complement for the deep-fried eggplant ‘soldiers’ doused in the flavourful, sweetish sauce, and topped with spring onions. Some of the sides looked really appealing, including their take on pok choy, but we were already quite full, so didn’t think we could do justice to ordering any more food!
But there’s always extra room for dessert, so we carried on the sharing motto here too, opting for the Gula Melaka, which our waitress strongly recommended. Gula Melaka means palm sugar, and the dessert constructed out of this Asian staple consisted of brown butter poached bananas, white chocolate foam, and coconut crumbs, with the core ingredient, Gula Melaka, taking center stage in a homemade ice cream. The dish would err on the side of being too sweet were it not for the surprising hit of labneh, which provided just the right amount of saltiness needed to counteract the jaggery-like sweetness.
With a buzzing atmosphere on weekends with lounge beats and entertainment (there was a fire-eating show on the night we visited), this is a great place for a night out for nibbles washed down by cocktails. As far as high-end restaurants go, there is enough on the menu to keep vegetarians happy.
Veggie Friendly: ✔ Vegan Friendly: X
Pros: Stylish atmosphere and interesting flavor combinations
Cons: Vegetarian options in terms of main courses are limited
Price: $$$ (200 - 500 AED)
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