Zengo – Macro Mall Medley

Restaurant: Zengo [1, 2, 3]

Location: 395 Santa Monica PlaceSanta Monica, CA 90401. Tel. 310.899.1000

Date: May 20, 2011

Cuisine: Latin-Asian Fusion

Rating: Color me confused — It’s in a mall, and it’s pretty good.


As I discussed previously, this is a slightly commercialized but pretty tasty mall restaurant whose appearence has accompanied the rooflift of Santa Monica Place. This one is Latin-Asian fusion. Sort of Asia de Cuba meets Rivera.

The roof terrace is pretty awesome. I wish more places in LA had great outdoor spaces.

“Hot & sour egg drop soupfoie gras-pork dumplings / enoki / green onion.” This is one of two repeats from last time. It had a very inserting note to the sour, from tamarind I think. The richness of the dumplings too is very nice as is the texture of the enoki.

“Crunchy calamari salad, Lemongrass / Mixed greens / Orange-coriander sauce.” This was a tasty salad, mixing a nice dressing with tasty calamari. The batter was very good, with something sweet in it. The fry was a little strong, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t taste good.

“Thai chicken empanadas. Chile poblano / Oaxaca cheese / mango-curry salsa.” These were heavy little fellows, and I mean literally. They weighed about twice what I would’ve expected. They tasted good too, but weren’t exactly light.

Achiote-hoisin pork arepas, corn masa / avocado / crema fresca.” These are serious flavor bombs. The meat tastes a bit like a good short rib, and goes perfectly with the typical pairing of avocado and crema fresca. There is just a bit of heat from the chilies. This is one of my favorite dishes.

Chicken Tandoori. Masala-achiote roasted chicken / black bean dal / cilantro & mango salsa.” The chicken itself was so soft it felt (and looked) a bit like shrimp. Tasty too, but not one of my absolute favorites.

“Chipotle-miso glazed black cod. Daikon radish / pea sprots lemon-togarashi aioli.” This is a reinterpreted version of the Nobu Matsuhisa classic. It’s a tad overdone.

“Beef short rib udon noodles. Shitake / Asparagus / Basil / Cilantro / Ginger-hoisin broth.” It’s hard in this picture to see the beef and the noodles underneath, but they’re there. This and the calamari were probably my favorites of the new dishes we tried this time.

Another view of the roof deck.

While this was still a tasty (and reasonably priced) meal, we did better with our selections the previous time. Perhaps that is because we forced ourselves to order some new things when some of the other ones (that we’d tried before) sounded better. I guess we know our own taste because they did!

Matsuhisa – The Private Room

Restaurant: Matsuhisa [1, 2]

Location: 129 N La Cienega Blvd Beverly Hills, CA 90211. (310) 659-9639

Date: May 6, 2011

Cuisine: Japanese Fusion

Rating: As good as it’s always been!


Some good friends were in town who had never tried Nobu Matsuhisa‘s particular blend of Japanese Peruvian Fusion. As popular as this has become in the last fifteen years, and how every derivative restaurant in America throws a few of his dishes on the menu, the original still rocks. I also scored a Friday night reservation in the coveted and private “Omakase only room,” where his cooking is showcased to the best effect.

The original storefront.

This aged 1st Cru white burgundy from my cellar was the very expression of mature chardonay.

As you can see from the color. This wine is ready, more than ready, as it might have been a tad better two years ago. Still it had a wonderful floral perfume to it.

The private room seats eight, and has it’s own sushi bar and kitchen.

“Seafood springroll with heirloom tomato and caviar.” This is the only repeat of the night, a Matsuhisa classic.Fry is always good, but it’s actually the combination with the spicy tomato chutney/salsa that really sells the dish.

One of the private kitchen chefs working on the appetizers.

Grilling up some conch!

Different members of our party got slightly different versions of this quartet of amuses.

“Seared salmon, new style.” That is with sesame, ponzu, and warm olive oil.

Kanpachi (young yellowtail) with a bit of red peper and ponzu on a radish.

Red snapper carpaccio, with chives, garlic, and vinegar.

A second version of the plate.

Lobster cerviche.

Tai (red snapper) sashimi, new style.

Yellowtail collar marinated in miso (a Nobu classic), baked, and then served with a bit of garlic and texture on letuce. You wrap it up and eat it like a soft taco.

Japanese baby conch, sauteed in garlic butter (escargot style).

The creepy crawly himself. Chewy and a little bitter, in a good way.

Burgundy goes very well with the Matsuhisa flavor profiles. The first time I ever went here, in 1996, I brought a Gros Frere Clos Vougeot. This 2005, Parker gives a 92. “The 2005 Clos Vougeot from Drouhin’s two parcels in that famous cru, is much more earthy and less fine-grained than the majority of their wines from this vintage, but it exhibits impressive concentration. A bone meal-like meld of mineral and meat dominates the nose and suffuses the palate along with black raspberry, plum and cherry fruit accepted by faintly bitter fruit pit notes. This is quite full and rich, but without being heavy; overtly tannic and chewy, but without being coarse. A promising more tart than sweet juiciness of black fruit mingles with roasted meat and stony, chalky minerality in the finish.”

Sashimi salad, with yellowtail, seared blue fin tuna, various dressings, and hearts of palm.

Par boiled Santa Barbara prawn with a tiny bit of salad (including hearts of palm). This was really yummy, even better than the cooked version we had last time. The meat is very sweet and succulent, delicious warm but essentially raw.

Sea bass on a bed of mushroom “risotto” with white truffles. The little spears are pickled ginger shoots.

“Fois gras, seabass, mushrooms, in a very rich reduction sauce.” Very meaty and tasty, the sauce was a pretty awesome blend of all three contributors of yum: salt, sweet, and fatty. The little red fruit is a pickled leeche.

Another very nice, red burgundy, this one (unlike the others) from the restaurant’s list. We drank more than I thought. 🙂

Grilled Toro, with enoki, aspargus, and other mushrooms.

American Kobe Beef with asparagus, garlic, and a spicy sauce and mustard. Really yummy (and rich) dish.

Each person gets a little sushi plate, there were a couple variants, this one has no shellfish.

A version where everything is cooked.

The “normal” plate for those who eat everything.

Chu-toro (medium tuna belly). Perfect!

Kanpachi (young yellowtail). Like butter.

Orange giant clam.

Uni (sea urchin).

Anago (sea eel), in the classic sweet BBQ sauce.

The pretty laquer soup container.

Inside is snapper soup. I haven’t had this one before, although it’s a classic mild Japanese fish broth with cilantro and scallions. The fish is soft mellow whitefish in this context.

My brother got a special surprise, the eye. The chef’s convinced him to try it. “Good for the sinews and joints.”

Taco (octopus). Very tender.

Japanese Sea Scallop sushi, with a bit of yuzu. Always one of my favorite sushis, and this didn’t disappoint.

Kohada (gizzard shard).

Baby squid, battleship style. They’re raw, but tossed in a kind of sweet miso-lemon dressing. Really tasty.

And we finally make it to desserts. Fruit tart with ginger ice cream. This was a total fan fave with the ladies.

Green tea tiramisu with chocolate gelato. Both were good, with the pastry having a nice creaminess and the ice cream a deep richness.

Butterscotch cream brulee with a citrus ice cream. Also really nice and creamy.

Coffee ice cream with chocolate crunch. This was great too, probably my favorite. The crunch added a really nice texture.

Shave ice. Below are a couple balls of vanilla ice cream (very good vanilla ice cream), red bean sauce, and very finely shaved ice.

Then green tea sauce (or maybe just tea) is poured over it. In the end, a very interesting (and Asian) mix of flavors and textures.

Even the urinal is cool.

The main room.

The chefs at work back in our private room/kitchen.

This was probably the best meal I’ve ever had at Matsuhisa, and I’ve had a LOT of great ones. Because I’m jaded now, and used to the cuisine, it wasn’t utterly mind blowing innovative like the first time I ever ate here. But the cooking is as good here as it ever was. Nobu (and his sucessor cooks) still really know their stuff.

For a previous meal at Matsuhisa, see here.

La Sandia

Restaurant: La Sandia

Location: 395 Santa Monica Place 305N,Santa Monica, CA 90401. Tel. 310.393.3300

Date: March 5, 2011

Cuisine: Mexican

Rating: Tasty, but some serious service issues need working out.


I’ve been questing through the various new offerings in the retrofitted Santa Monica place. I’ve already reviewed Xino (pseudo Chinese) and Zengo (Latin-Asian fusion), and next up is La Sandia, which is a modernized Mexican.

The upscale Disneyland-style decor ain’t half bad. But we did start off on a slightly sour note. They don’t take reservations on weekends, as I was told on the phone, “because they get so busy.” This always gets my blood boiling, because it’s basically like saying, “We don’t care about you (the customer), we just want to pack you into our bar and milk a couple extra drinks out of you.” I have long refused to go to places like Cheesecake factory on this basis as they adopt clearly “non user-friendly” policies to their own benefit. I was also told there was a wait of 5-10 minutes for a table of 2, when I could clearly see empty tables.

In a place that doesn’t take reservations?

We were in a rush for a movie so I bullied the hostess past this and we sat immediately. Not my preference but I hate that kind of crap and I was already in a mood.

The PDF version of the menu is HERE. Pretty big menu here of traditional Mexican items and some reinterpreted.

Chips. Pretty typical, but the salsa was good, cooked down the way I like it.

Cadillac margarita on the rocks, no salt. This was a nicely made margarita. The lime wasn’t that nuclear green crap and I could taste the tequila — which wasn’t the cheap stuff.

Now a note here. We were in a rush to get to a movie, and the parking had taken longer than we expected, so we told them we were in a hurry. This is a bit of a stress test for restaurants. The ultimate prize winner in this category, BTW, is Ortolan who flawlessly pounded through a huge prixe fixe in just over an hour. Overall La Sandia did fine with the speed, although they made us wait 20-25 minutes and then dumped all four dishes (2 appetizers and 2 entrees) simultaneously. Why they couldn’t have brought the appetizers 10 minutes earlier (a salad and a pre-prepped pastry) is anybodies guess. As I said, we got out of there in totally reasonable time, but they could have paced it better.

“LA SANDIA SALAD, arugula / cranberry / caramelized walnuts / goat cheese /pasilla-balsamic vinaigrette.”

“BEEF & CHORIZO EMPANADAS, braised beef / chorizo / raisins / oaxaca cheese / almond / crema fresca / chipotle sauce.” Very tasty. The outside was soft and buttery, and the inside rich and meaty. The sauce and the crema cut this nicely too. Exactly what I was looking for in this dish.

“ACHIOTE SALMON, grilled salmon / mild spice-citrus marinade / chile morita sauce /tomatillo-mango salsa / sweet corn tamal / charro beans.”

“SHRIMP AND AVOCADO SALAD, avocado stuffed with sauteed citrus-adobo shrimp / corn relish / cilantro pesto / chile chipotle aioli.” This was a fairly tasty and light shrimp and avocado salad. Perfect for a light lunch. The catch is, I didn’t order it.

I had ordered the Chipotle Shrimp entree. Now the room was very loud, and even though I repeated it 3-4 times I can understand the waitress making the error. The problem was that when she set it down I told her it was wrong and she said, “No it isn’t, there’s Chipotle in the dressing,” or some such nonsense. She then scooted away.

I ate it anyway because we didn’t have time, but I HATE that kind of BS. I don’t mind an honest mistake, they happen, but don’t try to snow the customer as to what he ordered. On a separate service note, I had ordered another Margarita in the gap waiting for the food but it came 15-20 minutes later with the check — after we had finished all our food.

I don’t like to sound petty, but this is a restaurant review, and drink timing is one of my pet peeves. Why would I want to pound an entire drink as I stand up to leave?

In any case, I called over the manager over the entree issue — something I do only about once a year — and he was very nice and apologetic and pulled the salad from the bill. Really I shouldn’t have paid for the second drink either, but I didn’t want to get into it. I do give him points for compensating correctly for the mistakes. He did fine by me, but the staff should NOT try and Jedi-mind-trick a customer into thinking he ordered something he didn’t.

Overall, the food here was pretty tasty. It’s owned by the same group as Zengo (which is hidden behind it), and while not as good, does maintain a solid kitchen. They have some serious service issues to work through, although it’s always possible it was a bad night. I’ll try it again at some point, I’m essentially a food based eater, and really find service mistakes to be more of an academic exercise in management problems than an actual irritation. Xino across the way had some similar problems in that we ordered about 10 small dishes and they delivered 90% of them simultaneously instead of 2-3 at a time! As someone who has eaten out at restaurants between 4 and 15 times a week for over thirty years, from taco shacks to Michelin 3 stars, I’ve pretty much seen it all.

Zengo 2 – part deux

Restaurant: Zengo [1, 2, 3]

Location: 395 Santa Monica Place, Santa Monica, CA 90401. Tel. 310.899.1000

Date: March 4, 2011

Cuisine: Latin-Asian Fusion

Rating: Color me confused — It’s in a mall, and it’s pretty good.


A month to the day after my first visit (REVIEW HERE), I went back to Zengo. As I discussed previously, this is a slightly commercialized but pretty tasty mall restaurant whose appearence has accompanied the rooflift of Santa Monica Place. This one is Latin-Asian fusion. Sort of Asia de Cuba meets Rivera.

Today’s menu. PDF version HERE. The menu is pretty much all tapas style (hooray!) where you order 3 or so dishes per person and share them all.

“Hot & sour egg drop soup, foie gras-pork dumplings / enoki / green onion.” This is one of two repeats from last time. It had a very inserting note to the sour, from tamarind I think. The richness of the dumplings too is very nice as is the texture of the enoki.

“Thai shrimp lettuce wraps, chorizo / peanut / cilantro / tamarind chutney.” The second repeat. All three ingredients are combined like most “Thai wraps.”

Close up. The shrimp has a nice crunch and texture. The sauce is tamarind, and quite sour. Overall very nice.

“Peking duck-daikon tacos, duck confit / curried apple / orange-coriander sauce.” These were YUMMY. The meat was very soft and BBQ flavored. You could hardly tell it from some good Carolina style BBQ-pork, but it wasn’t pork (duck). The sauce is light and sweet, the apple mostly for texture, and the daikon an interesting and very slick and cool (it’s wet) take on a taco.

Close up. The smoked flavor of the meat comes through strong, and it’s darn good. The other elements provide complementary notes and texture.

“Achiote-hoisin pork arepas, corn masa / avocado / crema fresca.” These are serious flavor bombs. The meat tastes a bit like a good short rib, and goes perfectly with the typical pairing of avocado and crema fresca. There is just a bit of heat from the chilies.

“Scallops al mojo de ajo, roasted corn-edamame salsa / bacon, cotija cheese / roasted garlic soy, yuzu-sriracha aioli.” Probably the least successful dish of the lot, but certainly not bad. The scallops themselves were tasty. The rest was like a slightly coleslaw’ish succotash, with bacon chunks. The bacon was really good though — when isn’t it?

“Pork carnitas rice noodles, pork shoulder / mushroom / cashew / soft egg / hot ’n sour sauce.” Another winner. The noodles are tossed first, allowing the poached egg to break an coat them with yolk — Korean style? These overall had a really nice flavor: salty savory. Like Thai egg noodles with meat, but with more things going on.

As I said last thing, Zengo is not subtle cuisine, it’s full of crazy bold flavor combos. But I’m still impressed, and doubly so considering it’s a mall restaurant. The all tapas style menu gets my vote too because I’m sometimes a more is more kind of guy, and I hate getting stuck with just two dishes.

If you enjoyed this, check out the previous REVIEW HERE, or just across the deck the interesting Dimsum Xino.

Food as Art – Nobu

Restaurant: Nobu Malibu

Location: 3835 Cross Creek Road # 18, Malibu, CA 90265 (310) 317-9140

Date: Febuary 16, 2011

Cuisine: Japanese Fusion

Rating: Maintains it’s very high standards, and price.


In my continuing quest to eat the oceans of the earth clean in the form of sushi I returned to one of my “old” haunts, Nobu Malibu. The various Nobus represent the corporate version of the Japanese-Peruvian fusion begun by Nobu Matsuhisa at his eponymous Matsuhisa (REVIEW HERE). While not quite as inventive as the original, the Xerox job is pretty darn good. Food quality is extremely high and highly consistant. The atmosphere is fun. The only deficit is the price, which is perhaps 40-50% higher than most similar restaurants, like say Takao (REVIEW HERE). And it’s not like these are cheap either!

From my cellar, parker gives this Rhone white 94 points. “The 2006 Chateauneuf du Pape blanc (80% Roussanne and the rest Marsanne, Picpoul, and Bourboulenc) possesses classic notes of orange marmalade, honeysuckle, and rose petals, a full-bodied, unctuous texture, gorgeous purity and richness, and a stunningly long finish. It can compete with the finest full-throttle, dry whites of France as well as the world. It is difficult to find a better white Chateauneuf du Pape than Beaucastel. Much like their reds, their whites are made in a style that is atypical for the appellation. It is put through full malolactic, and one-third is barrel fermented, then blended with the two-thirds that is aged in tank. Extraordinarily rich and honeyed, it is ideal for drinking with intensely flavored culinary dishes.”

In the glass, this has a nice yellow/amber color not seen in duller (read generic Chardonnay) wines.

“Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeno.” The total Nobu classic, but it still holds it’s own. This version is as good as any i’ve had.

“Sashimi Salad.” Another Nobu classic. The dressing has this nice flavor and texture I’ve always liked, and the mildly seared tuna is succulent. The overall salad is a bit salty, but Japanese cuisine usually is.

“New Style Sashimi.” Classic again. Apparently this is very Peruvian, although I wouldn’t know directly as my closest contact to that country was an hour spent in Lima airport. However, the halibut is supremely tender, and the warm olive oil, ponzu and sesame thing gives it a toasty richness.

“Shrimp Tempura with Ponzu Sauce.” More classics. I’ve always loved these little fellows. Basically the normal Shrimp Tempura, but pre sauced, and in smaller bite sized chunks. Addictive, but eat quickly before it sogs up.

“Rosemary crusted Scallops in sweet and sour crust with cilantro sauce.” This was my first new dish of the night, and it was pretty incredible. The pseudo fried crisp on the scallops was a bit sweet, and the cilantro sauce mild, but it all went together perfectly, and inspired marriage of textures and flavors.

“Lobster Sweet and Sour.” Another new dish, and pretty delectable. Tender lobster on a spinach bed, with a subdued sweet and sour sauce and then the whatever-it-was on top adding a bit of texture.

“Austrialian Wagyu Beef, butter truffle sauce and crispy onions.” Yum. The beef was almost like candy, sweet and rich. The onion-ring-like crisps were good for soaking up the sauce.


“Miso Soup.” Classic, and as expected.

A bit of sushi.

In the front, Tai (red snapper) with shiso, toro (tuna belly). The white thing with frisy stuff on top I can’t remember.

In the middle, Kani (king crab leg) sushi.

In the back, Unagi (Fresh Water eel).

The white stuff in the middle. Ika (squid) with shiso leaf and a bit of ginger.

The yellow chunks Tamago (sweet omelet).

On the left Ikura (salmon roe) and on the right Uni (sea urchin).

Completely stuffed, we rolled out of here well satisfied. My only complaint is that Nobu is so expensive. For example the “Toro Tartar w/ Caviar” is $36 compared to $25 at Takao — identical too.