June 14, 2009
Volcano hot, Love is so-so
Zento's sushi rolls, concocted by an Indonesian-born chef, are mostly exciting and enticing
By Wong Ah Yoke
The label 'contemporary Japanese cuisine' is a clear warning not to expect the traditional at Zento. Indeed, there is nothing conventional about this two-week-old tenant in the Dempsey restaurant enclave.
It is an offshoot of an eatery in Philadelphia in the United States and its Indonesian-born chef, Gunawan Wibisono, trained under Masaharu Morimoto of Iron Chef and Iron Chef America fame at the Morimoto restaurant in the Pennsylvanian city.
Not surprising for a restaurant that has its roots in America, Zento's menu is aimed largely at the Westerner whose idea of Japanese food is sushi rolls. So although you do find the usual sushi and sashimi, the focus is on unique sushi rolls and maki concocted by the chef. There are also the odd non-Japanese items such as a fried calamari served with sweet Thai chilli sauce and a spicy seafood soup.
The entree section includes dishes such as rack of lamb and roasted duck breast served Western-style, except that there may be a mound of rice and stir-fried bokchoy on the plate.
The culturally confused menu will, however, not be a problem here. After all, where can you find more eclectic tastebuds than in Singapore, where people happily eat a bowl of laksa right after plates of sashimi and raw oysters at a buffet?
Besides, Zento's food is both exciting and enticing.
The rolls are delightful, each one packed with a mix of ingredients that contribute different flavours and textures. If you like other American creations such as California rolls and rainbow rolls, you will find much to please you here.
There is the Salmon Cream Cheese And Scallion ($18), which also packs in king crab, cucumber and avocado. The dollop of cheese inside is chilled so you get a refreshing sensation when you pop the piece of sushi into your mouth. And something wonderful called Dragon ($22) breathes fire with crunchy spicy tuna, eel, avocado and tobiko.
There are many more to choose from that are just as good, including Green River ($30) comprising toro, eel, avocado and plum paste, and Zento Square ($28), which is made up with eel, avocado and plum paste with slices of tuna on top.
Among the selection of futomaki, which are fat rolls wrapped in seaweed, there is the just as creatively named Volcano ($25), which has shrimp tempura, smoked salmon, avocado, crabstick and masago, a fish roe. I love it for its mix of crunchy and soft textures, which I find more alluring than Love ($26), which contains a combination of fishes such as tuna, salmon, yellowtail and eel.
The one that really bores me though is Spring Garden ($20), a riceless maki that is as healthy as it sounds. It comprises mixed greens, crab, shrimp and wakame wrapped in rice paper, all mild-tasting ingredients that need a strong dip to excite the palate. Think Vietnamese rice paper rolls without the sweet chilli dip.
The entrees are good though. My favourite is Roasted Marinated Duck Breast Zento's Style ($48), which is a cross between French and Chinese roast duck with its juicy meat and sweet sauce. It comes with a small piece of foie gras, stir-fried bokchoy and rice.
I will also go back for appetisers such as a delicious tuna pizza ($22), with slices of spicy tuna and tomato on a crisp tortilla, and scallop carpaccio ($25), thinly sliced scallop dressed in a sauce of yuzu, garlic and ginger and hot grapeseed oil.
If there is anything to complain about, it is that the staff, while friendly, needs to be more proactive. After I specified that all the dishes were for sharing, we still had to request serving spoons for each round of food that came to the table. Having to ask once is understandable. But not three times.
18B Dempsey Hill, tel: 6474-0378
Open: Noon to 3pm daily, 6 to 10pm from Sundays to Thursdays, 6 to 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays
Price: Budget about $80 a person, without drinks