Master chef Susur Lee glides through space as fluidly as a man performing his daily tai chi exercises. Exuding grace, elegance and economy of motion, he has replaced the traditional sword and sabre of a ninja warrior for the more utilitarian kitchen knife, his weapon of choice to create his tantalizing dishes.
During his 30-year career, Lee has studied classic French, Chinese and Japanese cuisines and developed his own vocabulary by fusing all three.
With the opening of his first since-shuttered restaurant, Lotus, in Toronto, he parlayed his worldwide notoriety into consulting for the posh Ritz-Carlton and starting his own string of successful restaurants. He now owns the eponymous Lee Restaurant and Madeline’s in Toronto, Shang in New York and Chinois in Singapore. And, thankfully for us, he has opened his latest outpost, Zentan, in Donovan House, just off Thomas Circle, where I found nirvana in his inspired menu.
Lee is on a mission to conquer the world by introducing his guests, dish by brilliantly innovative dish, to his New Asian Cuisine.
Our evening’s menu began with Singapore slaw, a stunningly beautiful tower of 19 ingredients, dressed with salted plum sauce and topped with toasted hazelnuts, daikon sprouts and scattered with orange marigolds and yellow pansy petals. Black and white sesame-crusted tuna, slightly seared and crowned with chopped egg and Thai mint, was followed by Cantonese marinated skirt steak with shallot brown butter, chili ponzu and crunchy hazelnuts. Many dishes sported two sauces, further ratcheting up the dynamic.
It was around that time that I morphed into a sybaritic diner on overdrive as we dove into Mongolian rack of lamb with chili mint, carrot cardamom chutney and Penang peanut sauce with a foil of sugary glazed bananas. There was a perfect sweet and sour soup with shards of chicken and vegetables, roasted salmon cloaked in yuzu-tarragon hollandaise, topped with avocado wedges and wasabi mashed potatoes, and a lusciously caramelized black cod that benefitted from a miso mustard sauce and Cantonese preserved vegetables, a house version of kimchi.
We tried chicken two ways. The first offering was rolled chicken breast prepared Pekin style. A technique more commonly employed with duck, it is a two-day preparation that requires the chef to blow air between the skin and flesh, and hang it to dry for 10 hours. The result renders the skin sweetly lacquered and the meat tender and moist. I imagined the accompanying delicate shrimp chips as a perfect cocktail snack. The second chicken dish we tried was Lee’s “Top Chef Masters” award-winning roasted chicken with curry. It had earned him the highest “elimination round” score in the show’s history, and it does not disappoint.
In each of the dishes I found the global influences Lee uses in designing his food, and the elements of sweet, salty, spicy, tart, juicy and crunchy that bear his unique signature and complement each dish. His mastery of technique, flavor and artistry roared off the plate, and I reveled in the most memorable Asian meal I have had since my last visit to Singapore.
This summer the restaurant has been serving some of Zentan’s nibbles and sips beside the hotel’s rooftop pool overlooking the city, where the bar scene is hot. Friends can lounge and take a dip from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. while enjoying spicy ginger martinis and grilled skewers of curried coconut shrimp, garlic chicken, Korean chili skirt steak, teriyaki pork belly, and miso and brown sugar glazed vegetables. Try the scrumptious sushi, sashimi and spicy lobster roll with shiso and caviar. On Saturday and Sunday, they grill the skewers poolside from noon to 5:30 p.m.
IF YOU GO
Where: Donovan House, 1155 14th St. NW
Info: 202-379-4366 or zentanrestaurant.com