Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Zento Contemporary Japanese Cuisine
Much has been said about Zento, the contemporary Japanese restaurant helmed by Chef Gunawan Wibisono, who trained for a year under Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. Many rave about Zento's reinvigorating take on Japanese food, using unusual ingredients and cooking techniques.
The Tuna Pizza (S$22), for example, uses a crisp tortilla as a base. It's topped with spicy tuna (made spicy by a mayo-based sauce), cilantro, tomatoes and sweetish hiyashi wakame (cold seaweed). As a snack, it's light and tasty. If you like skinny pizzas, this might appeal to you too.
Rock Shrimp Tempura (S$15), served with spicy kochujan aioli. Some Asians may find the spicy sauce too familiar, but I totally loved this Nobu-inspired dish. The rock shrimp are small but sweet like lobsters. They're imported from Japan, if I remember correctly.
Carpaccio of Hokkaido Scallop (S$25) - topped with ginger, garlic, yuzu sauce, mitsuba leaf, and doused liberally with hot grapeseed oil. The thinly sliced scallops are effectively half-cooked using this method. The savoury and gently tangy sauces bring out the sweetness of the scallops.
Toppings Sushi, not on the menu, is about S$30. This is one of those "hidden" chef specials you can ask for. Zento is experimenting with various premium toppings. Here, we have (front to back, in the order that they are to be eaten) grilled foie gras, aburi salmon belly with tomato, and wagyu beef. The salmon belly is my favourite - so creamy and rich, it will bring you to nirvana (at least for a few moments).
Soy Paper Handrolls - Crunchy Spicy Tuna with Avocado (S$12 each). Soy paper is something we have just never seen in Singapore. It's soft yet strong, chewy yet quickly solvent. The taste calls to mind "yuba" or sheets of beancurd skim (well it's soy, after all). The crunchy bits you see are specially prepared fried tempura batter. They provide most of the structure in these rolls.
Voila! This is what Zento is most famous for. Creatively delicious sushi rolls, five of them on one plate. We immediately dubbed this the "happiness platter"! (Note: they don't normally serve sushi rolls this way, this is just a spur of the moment decision to group all the rolls together).
Right in the middle is the Volcano futomaki (S$25). Shrimp tempura, smoked salmon, avocado, crabstick and masago in one deep-fried fat roll drizzled with mayo. Sounds sinful? Mmmh.
Flanking the Volcano roll is the Dragon Roll (S$22) - crunchy spicy tuna, eel, avocado and tobiko. Yet another luxurious roll, given its rich ingredients.
On the other end of the spectrum, a very healthy Mango Sashimi Riceless Maki (S$25, quarter portion shown). Three kinds of fish get into bed with mango and avocado, and the ensemble is wrapped with rice paper. Like a Vietnamese roll. The fish is really fresh, and the roll looks so bright and colourful, but it is the most bland of all presented. Well, at least it's low-carb.
Close-ups of the Monkey Roll (left) and Dragon Roll (right). The Monkey Roll (S$25) is made of a spicy shrimp tempura topped with smoked salmon and avocado.
Yes, you are seeing a lot of common ingredients. That's something to take note of when choosing your rolls so you don't end up with items that taste too similar. There are other rolls with more unusual ingredients like asparagus, romaine heart, Alaskan crab, cream cheese, and plum paste. The Kanpachi Sotomaki even features jalapeno (listed as green chili in the menu).
The wasabi for the rolls is not the freshly grated type (you get that for sashimi and sushi). Dyana the Managing Director (and the chef's wife) explains that it's because the rolls use stronger-tasting ingredients, so wasabi paste will be more perceptible.
And what's the best roll of the lot? Personally for me, it was the Wagyu Beef sushi roll (S$30, half portion shown) - shrimp tempura topped with a slice of grilled wagyu beef and Gruyere cheese. One of my top favourites here, along with the rock shrimp tempura and salmon belly topping sushi.
See the yellow pickled ginger? It's made inhouse. They brew their own soy sauce too.
Roasted Marinated Duck Breast, Zento's Style (S$48), served with foie gras and baby bokchoy and garlic rice. I'm not a fan of duck, but this was tender and well-marinated.
Chilean Seabass, miso marinated and served with sauteed mushrooms and mashed green peas (S$45). The fish is beautifully buttery, with just a hint of miso.
As you can see from the blurry photo, we took really hurried shots for the Chocolate Lava Cake (S$16). We wanted to eat it while it was still hot. Wow, this was good. The melted chocolate centre oozed out as it should. I would eat this again.
OK. I'm a kid. I love ice cream. I love deep-fried stuff. So deep-fried ice cream could not go wrong with me. Tri-color Fuzzes Bomb (S$14). I detected a vanilla ginger sauce too, drizzled over the fried batter - a nice touch.
Zento is clearly not "just another Japanese restaurant". Even its decor is trendy modern chic. It's a good place to consider if you're jaded by traditional Japanese food, or if you like the American interpretation of sushi with liberal use of sauces and some deep-frying.
Dyana admits customers feel prices are a little on the high side, which I find to be true as well. But she explains Zento places great emphasis on fresh, quality ingredients and good produce doesn't come cheap. For example, the fish used in the sushi rolls are of the same top quality fish used for sashimi. It's not the unpresentable odds and ends that some chefs chop up and offload inside the rolls.
I really like the name "Zento" - it corresponds with the Chinese words "qian tu" meaning one's future. I sure hope Zento's future will be as bright and colourful as its creations.
They now have a 9-course Family Lunch (S$150++) and 12-course Family Dinner ($220++). Ladies Night is Tuesdays, where you get a 5-course menu with glass of champagne. Set lunches are also available ranging from S$18-55. They do delivery too! But then again food like sashimi and sushi is best eaten fresly prepared, or not at all.
Read about Chef Gunawan's interesting climb to success in Jaime Ee's Business Times article. For more blogger photos and reviews, check out ieatishootipost's review and Ladyironchef's review. Thanks to Dyana for hosting us (HungryCow and Aromacookery were there too).
ZENTO CONTEMPORARY JAPANESE CUISINE
Blk 18b Dempsey Road
Tel: 6474 0378
Lunch 12.00 pm - 3.00 pm
Sunday - Thursday 6.00 pm - 10.00 pm
Friday - Saturday 6.00 pm - 11.00 pm
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