One of the fixtures of resort hotels is the grand buffet, complete with trays of roasted meats, an omelet station and artfully arranged salmon surrounded by condiments and salads. I’m not enthusiastic about buffets; many items are better when cooked to order instead of simmering in a warmer, and jostling through lines for a slab of ham isn’t my idea of luxury.
Still, I can’t deny the lure of a long, lazy weekend meal, perhaps with something bubbly to wash it down. If only someone could perfect the delivery system – say, an opportunity to order small portions of fresh food and drinks as long as your appetite holds out.
Enter Zengo, a restaurant at Santa Monica Place with an Asian/Latino fusion theme. On weekends Zengo offers a $35 all-you-can-eat-for-two-hours brunch with cocktails, delivered in a stylish dining room or covered outdoor patio. We wondered if there would be an hourglass placed on the table or orders would arrive at glacial speed. Our server Eric didn’t allow for either, and answered questions in a way that made it clear that he knew this menu and his business.
After Eric brought drinks so we could start the meal with a toast, food arrived quickly. First was a yellowfin tuna roll with avocado, wasabi-marinated flying fish roe, and a dab of mild chipotle sauce. Despite the presence of wasabi and chipotle, it wasn’t particularly spicy – the gentle horseradish went nicely with the crunchy fish roe, and the balance was delightful. It was a fine companion to the sake sangria and mango mimosa we had ordered, both of which were fresh-tasting eye-openers.
The next two items were more substantial – duck hash topped with a poached egg and a trio of chicken empanadas topped with mango salsa. The empanadas were made with puff pastry rather than the traditional dough, so despite their impressive size they were very light. There were lots of flavors and textures here, from the chunky fruit salsa on top to the bed of medium-spicy Thai curry that was beneath the pastries, and I could have made a meal of these.
As for the duck hash, it was meaty and hearty, with caramelized onion, plantain, and poblano chile lending an exotic Central American flavor to the mix. This would have been a good light meal for one and was excellent split for two, but raised the specter that we might get full before we tried all the dishes we had our eye on.
We decided on lighter fare to follow – grilled salmon, ceviche, and Thai-style shrimp lettuce wraps – along with more drinks: a lychee bellini and a bacon Bloody Mary. The bellini was delicious, but the Bloody Mary was not to my taste – it had the texture of salsa run through a blender, and the novelty of bacon-flavored vodka did not make up for this. Eric offered a standard Bloody Mary as replacement, but I demurred and went back to the sake sangria, my favorite of the house drinks. I considered something caffeinated, but oddly coffees, tea, or juices are not included in the brunch price.
The lettuce wraps were tasty with tamarind chutney adding a nice tart flavor, an old favorite well executed. The salmon was at a whole different level and was a proof of concept for the Latin-Asian fusion – it had been marinated in an achiote sauce that gave it a hint of Southwest spice, grilled so that it had a wood-smoke perfume, and was served over Asian vegetables in a sweet, citrusy ponzu sauce. This was the highlight of our meal and a dish I’d order any time.
Unfortunately the balance was off on the ceviche – the red snapper was overwhelmed in a chaotic mix of flavors, and I tasted cucumber and citrusy pepper much more than fish. There was too much going on here, too many competing ideas, and we didn’t finish it.
For our final item we decided to order Mexican-style sweet bread French toast, despite concern that it would be overly sugary. I needn’t have worried – the egg battered cinnamon bread had been topped with cinnamon whipped cream with a dash of honey and star anise, and it was delicately flavored and perfect.
We finished the meal replete but not stuffed, having had as fine a brunch as I can remember. Is it something I’d do every week? No, but I would for special occasions or when I have company and want to share a luxurious treat, and Zengo started our weekend with a bang.
Zengo is at 395 Santa Monica Place, on the third floor. Free parking in nearby lots, valet available.Open daily 11:30 a.m. for lunch and dinner; weekend brunch until 4 p.m. Child-friendly, wheelchair access good. Menu online. Phone 310-899-1000.