Chef Richard Sandoval’s Zengo – fusion confusion

Zengo Dubai - Le Royal Meridien - Dubai restaurants“An artful blend of Asian and Latin flavours,” is how a new restaurant import in Dubai at Le Royal Meridien from chef Richard Sandoval’s stable, Zengodescribes itself. Well that instantly confuses me, and so does the menu, despite spotting many appealing dishes. To add to the fusion confusion, one waiter says the menu is Japanese and another negates that. But the Japanese influence is obvious in the menu engineering, which even stretches to the name; Zengo translates to ‘give and take’. The chef de cuisine Akmal Anuar is Singaporean and moved across from Iggy’s, one of Singapore’s best restaurants serving modern European food.

The menu is mammoth – small plates (divided into hot and cold); salads and soups; sushi; maki rolls; robata grills; noodles; rice; and main courses. The cold small plates are largely ceviche and tiraditos so that’s South America covered. We order the amberjack ceviche with diced tamarillo, micro tomatoes and a peppering of chilli, but the ‘leche de tigre’ citrus marinade overpowers the very tender white and slightly oily fish, evident with the juices remaining in the bowl.

Zengo Dubai - Le Royal Meridien - Abu Dhabi restaurantsWe select a couple of dishes from the hot plates. Arborio rice-crusted oysters – an Italian influence perhaps? These little fried gems dipped in celery root puree and topped with tomato salsa are the highlight of our meal – so moreish we eat them like popcorn. Next up, a duck maseca pancake. I am hoping for a version of Peking duck here, but whilst the duck leg confit on small open maseca (Mexican corn flour) pancakes is succulent and delicious, and the fried shallots and rice crackers add texture, this dish is drowning in an intense chipotle barbeque sauce. Just a drizzle of this sauce and this dish would have worked much better.

Skipping the more mainstream sections (I can get my sushi and robata fix elsewhere), we move onto the noodles where an udon noodle carbonara captures my eye – again an Italian influence. It’s a little lukewarm and whilst the carbonara sauce with generous slivers of Spanish beef chorizo and parmesan has the right balance of creaminess and texture, I can’t help but crave spaghetti. The udon noodles just don’t have the richness that lets it bind so well with carbonara.

For a protein main, we choose an organic Welsh lamb chop (from Rhug Estate). Here the flavours are mostly Indian (whilst the other mains boast a mix of Chinese, Japanese and South American influences). Rubbed with a curry spice; served with a pea puree and dollops of raita; drizzled with fenugreek oil and a Szechuan pepper jus; and dotted with cherry tomatoes. Whilst the crackling is exceptional, and the lamb juicy and cooked medium-rare, the flavours are too mild and for a dish that’s priced at AED290, I expect to be blown away which I am not. Be warned, the menu has a Wagyu dish at AED900 and a New York striploin for AED580.

We end the meal with a disappointing dessert – a flourless salty chocolate cake that has the unappealing texture of tofu, served with a bland cereal ice cream – slightly redeemed though by the accompanying, excellent peanut Chantilly and piloncillo (a Mexican sugar cane) butterscotch puree. The other desserts span flavours from Ecuador, India and Greece.

So yes we have plenty of Asian (mostly Far-Eastern though) and Latino influences in the menu, but we also have an abundance of flavours from across Europe. I finish dinner even more confused than when I start. Zengo’s menu suffers from an identity crisis, and would be far better off focusing on one region and executing that well. It’s no wonder the waiters are confused when describing the menu. On that note, service is way too intrusive with a constant, annoying flow of “is everything okay”. There is one waiter though who knows his South American cuisine and cocktails. He intuitively notices our disappointment with our Pisco Sour order, and after a little banter has them remixed correctly topped with whisked egg white. Another Pisco brandy mix with tonka beans arrives prettily served in a birdcage – a reflection of pisco’s meaning.

Zengo Dubai - Le Royal Meridien - Dubai restaurantsIt’s a real shame the food does not match Zengo’s striking décor. A floating staircase takes us up to the restaurant with many intimate dining pockets, three bars, a lounge, and a terrace which is where we sit overlooking the sea – plenty of outdoor heaters keep us warm. It’s all rich, earthy leather and wood, with natural, burnished tones. But it’s sadly pretty empty and seriously lacks atmosphere. Admittedly it’s a mid-week dinner, but given the prime location and the popularity of Richard Sandoval’s other restaurants, Toro Toro and Maya, you would expect his latest Dubai restaurant would have more custom. Or perhaps everyone else is just as confused with the menu.

At AED360 per person without alcohol, Zengo does not come cheap. I don’t mind paying if a restaurant delivers on all areas of the dining experience, but with the majority of the food and service below par, Zengo is all style and no substance. Here’s to a 2.5 out of 5 FooDiva knife rating.

Have you dined at Zengo? How do you feel about a restaurant and specifically a menu that tries to be too many things to too many people?

A bientôt.

FooDiva. x

FooDiva Rating: Knife Rating: 2.5
  • Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort & Spa, JBR - above Geale's.
  • +971 4 3165550
  • Asian-Latin, Far Eastern, Fusion
  • Yes
  • AED 360 per person without alcohol
  • Open Monday - Saturday 7pm - 12am
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    Asian, Dubai, Dubai Marina, Far Eastern, Fusion, Hotels, Latin American, Licensed, Restaurant Reviews, Restaurants
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23 Responses to “Chef Richard Sandoval’s Zengo – fusion confusion”

  1. Dave Reeder January 25, 2015 at 9:48 am

    After interviewing both chefs I, like you, am really no closer to understanding the concept here. The closest I got was that Sandoval is the name above the door that will drive the crowds but Anuar is doing most of the heavy lifting – a nice guy with a great rep in Singapore but possibly out of his depth with such an extensive menu in Dubai. For me, it could have worked so much better as a 40-seater somewhere. Too big. Too much of a concept. Too unfocused.

    • FooDiva January 25, 2015 at 1:50 pm

      Oh dear Dave. So even after interviewing them, one is left confused! It’s so typical of many hotels here to invest in big, blingtastic restaurant spaces rather than a smaller venue with a more focused, compact menu. Let’s see how long this concept lasts before they have to reinvent it. Did you know it used to be the Executive Club room?

  2. IshitaUnblogged January 25, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    I was so looking for to this one… you think, the damage can be undone by shortening the menu?

    • FooDiva January 25, 2015 at 1:57 pm

      It’s not just making the menu more compact Ishita, it needs a one-region focus to address the quality and execution of these dishes. And then retrain the staff. But whilst the decor is stunning, it needs people to create a buzz and am not sure they will be able to fill a 350-seat restaurant.

      • Dave Reeder January 25, 2015 at 2:24 pm

        The one great thing on the menu, which you probably avoided, is the veggie special – a salad made up of whatever is best on the day with up to 20 – or was it 35? – ingredients. Such a change from the normal limp green salad option.

        • IshitaUnblogged January 25, 2015 at 4:09 pm

          350 seats? Wow! The veggies special salad sounds very different though… let’s see whether it tickles people’s fancy though… you know Dubai likes everything new.

  3. Rohit January 26, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    One word — Nekkei. Look it up and you’ll get an idea of what this fusion place is about. If you know what to look for, you’d know what to try. It’s a bit pretentious of Sandoval to expect that everyone in Dubai is going to know what Nekkei or Nobu-inspired food is all about (which is probably why there are a few rather strange mashups in the menu), but that’s the fun of trying out a new cuisine. The first thing the manager (Amanda) told me was that it was Nekkei food, and since I knew what that was, it was easy to pick things off the menu that were Peruvian-Japanese. All the other stuff is just there to appeal to those squeamish about raw ingredients and those willing to splurge on a 580dh striploin, when one could easily have the Patagonian Toothfish instead. It’s not about a one-region focus either. It’s about fusion food that evolved from the countless Japanese migrants to Peru, who took all that fresh seafood and things like corn tortillas and decided to make something uniquely Japanese (hence the use of horseradish, ginger, miso and soy) with what was available to them in Peru. Once you know that, it’s quite a nice dining experience. You should also check out Story Rooftop Lounge — they also do Nekkei cuisine at a slightly more affordable price point.

    • FooDiva January 27, 2015 at 9:41 pm

      Hi Rohit. I am very familiar with Nikkei cuisine (and Nobu’s) but this menu bears little resemblance to it in my opinion. And even if it did, there was no explanation in the menu or from the waiters. No sign of a manager either! I am also of the belief that a menu should sell itself – why do I need a ‘concept’ to be able to select dishes? Surely a menu should be designed for easy selection?

      I live next to Story…the food is a mix of traditional Peruvian and Nikkei in my opinion. Reasonably good but nothing wow. Thanks for dropping by with a comment. I always enjoy a good debate!

      • Rohit January 29, 2015 at 8:02 pm

        Cheers! It’s too bad that the wait staff didn’t guide you through. Service in Dubai is abysmal and it’s one of my biggest peeves when it comes to dining here too (few exceptions, of course). I’d imagine anyone who started a proper hospitality training school would make bank!

        I do agree that they could do away with a good chunk of their menu, but there’s a dichotomy in restaurateur philosophy that needs to be addressed. A few of them get it and try to pick a side, but most are neither here nor there, and that’s reflected in their menu, quality of food, quality of service and that buzz you were talking about. The dichotomy, of course, is ‘do I make my food the way it’s supposed to be, without trying to be a pretentious knob (good ingredients and simple recipes)?’ or ‘do I try to cater to the variety of palates, and hope that everyone will find what they want and be happy as long as they don’t experiment?’ Most managers I’ve spoken to here choose the latter because it guarantees some sort of success. Which is a shame. But I get it. Stroll down pretty much any restaurant in Mumbai and you’ll see what I mean — menus are encyclopedias: whether you want eggs and toast or chowmein or palak paneer and parathas, they’ve got it. And you’ll see a lot of places in Dubai like that too. A dire need to please everyone without really pleasing anyone in particular.

        That said, I think a few places in Dubai really really pull it off. Bystro comes to mind — great simple food, great staff and service and a very neat unpretentious menu. If only there were more… And longwinded comment ceases here.

        • FooDiva January 30, 2015 at 11:20 am

          Sadly there are hospitality training schools here (Jumeirah Academy for one) and that doesn’t seem to help! I think also stems down to the fact that people work in the service industry because they have to rather than want to…unlike Europe and hence we see a lack of personality and conversation in a waiter.

          In terms of the dichotomy you mention, fusion can only work in my opinion if it cleverly marries two cuisines, but any more and it’s destined for disaster. There are very few restaurants here that have succeeded with complex menus. Plus we are seeing a move towards back-to-basics cuisine that focuses on simple dishes with quality ingredients. I agree with Bystro, what a great menu brimming with comforting, soul-food – and they have just started delivery too.

          I am really enjoying our discussion here Rohit, thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

          • Rohit February 9, 2015 at 4:52 pm

            Sorry for the hiatus, but absolutely! Always a pleasure to talk about food and the industry in general.

  4. JayEim January 28, 2015 at 1:17 am

    Let me see if I am getting this right?

    1- Take food dictionary or load up dictionary on Iphone.

    2- Make sure not to order a Patagonian Toothfish.

    3- Last time I looked up the Nikkei it was up 1.72%. Now I can eat it as well. My stockbroker will be pleased.

    4- Whatever happens, do not order the Striploin at AED580 unless I am not paying.

    5- Insist in having cold Udon noodles with the carbonara in which case probably they would call it Udon Gazpacho.

    6- Sharpen up on Zingo which is short for: Indo – Latino – Japano – Puriviano – Mexicano – Italiano.

    Oh well. As long as they have Masafi water….or wait they probably only serve Tasmanian water for the cheapstakes and a fusion of Finnish Veen water with Kona Nigari water to the cognoscenti like yours truly….of course you could get a bottle of Acqua di Cristallo Tributo a Modigliani but this is only available at the following eateries: Armani – Cle and Ravi?

    Could you please keep the bottle empties for me as I need something to water my hacienda of Bonsai trees 😉

    Pisco Sour hugh!…………………there goes the neighbourhood….

    • Rudy Rivas January 28, 2015 at 6:23 pm

      Dear Jayeim,
      I like the way you think. Thank you so much for calling a spade a spade. You hit the nail on the head. Wish more people in Dubai had your thoughts sentiments. Cheers to you.

    • FooDiva January 28, 2015 at 6:29 pm

      I was laughing all morning after reading your comment Jay. I do so love it when you drop in with your tongue-in-cheek words of wisdom. Keep it up. Would you like to guest review for FooDiva? 😉

  5. JayEim January 28, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    Hello Rudy Rivas

    I am please that my blurb found resonance with you.

    Thank you

  6. JayEim January 28, 2015 at 9:58 pm

    ……Would you like to guest review for FooDiva?…..

    Let me see, Monday I am doing McDonald Media City, Tuesday is McDonald Safa Park, Wed McDonald Mirdif, Thursday special McDonald at MOE, Friday is rest day so I get McDonald home delivery, Sat it will be McDonald Baniyas Square.

    Sunday is rest day so must do McDonald Chicken Nuggets (do they still do them?)

    Oh sod it. I don’t like chicken and will be running out of Salik credit anway.

    Let’s do Sunday….

    • FooDiva January 30, 2015 at 11:21 am

      Only if it’s KFC on Sunday Jay 😉 I got your email, will respond this weekend.

  7. Fusion Profusion January 29, 2015 at 3:30 am

    Ah, it’s just business as usual and so you can’t blame them for trying. “Is everything okay” has to be the most mind-numbingly inane question I get asked in restaurants. Franchised US diners are the worst offenders since staff at these places will ask you this question some 5 times over the course of the meal. And most of these characters are powerless to do anything. I mean, well actually, pal, if this is the best that my money can buy then things are very far from OK. I need to go back home, have me a cry, and reevaluate my choices. Definitely light years away from OK – thanks!!! I mean honestly, it makes the blood boil.

  8. The Man in the White Hat January 29, 2015 at 8:59 am

    Typing this from an archaeology site in the mountains of western Oman, so it’ll be brief, but I can’t help think….

    Fabulous interior design? Check

    Confusing fusion menu concept? Check

    Inconsistent execution of those fusion dishes? Check

    So it sort of sounds like Asia Asia all over again, really.

    Recent experience suggests that sticking to a focused core menu is currently working rather better for the licenced Dubai restaurant sector than attempts at self-consciously cool and funky fusion concepts.

  9. expat08 February 1, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    You are brave to try out a place like this. Traditional food is hard enough to pull off. Good luck to all the fusion concepts.

    • FooDiva February 2, 2015 at 2:55 pm

      Nature of my job I do have to be keep an open mind with all kinds of restaurants, even if fusion is not my personal cup of tea.

I’d love to receive your feedback, so feel free to comment any time.