The primary axiom in real estate holds true for weekend brunch spots in Los Angeles: Location. Location. Location….well, that and bottomless Bloody Marys.
Zengo restaurant nails those two conceipts like few other brunch spots in the city. Situated on the restraint level of the new mega shmancy mall on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, the restaurant feels like vacation with a DJ spinning cool Mondrian-style vibes and gigantic open floor-to-ceiling windows that let the salty sea breezes brush your hair as you swallow Bloodys or a variety of fruit-juice mimosas.
Zengo means “give and take” in Japanese and the brilliance of the Zengo brunch concept is that you can have as many of the Asian and Latin-infused small plates as you want along with as many Marys, mimosas or sake-soaked Sangrias as you can gulp for the very reasonable price of $35 a head.
The iron-livered among us can easily take the restaurant to the bank as the everyday priced $10 drinks go down fast and easy to turn that $35 tab into a joke that’s on them. Sitting on the sun-soaked outdoor deck and watching the beautiful people bounce below is a tremendous way to spend a Sunday morning.
But then the food comes, and fun bus slams on its brakes.
The tapas-style small plates read well and clearly should be great given the restaurant’s pedigree. Chef-owner Richard Sandoval boasts over 20 differently named eateries in a handful of states and as locales far away as Qatar and Dubai. In fact, he was recently named Restaurateur of the Year by Bon Appétit.
The brunch menu, although unique, suffers from heavy-handed seasoning and flavor combos that just don’t work.
Peking duck hash with a poached egg mixes a spicy poblano with sweet caramelized onions and mushy plantains that far overshadow the gamey goodness of the diced bird. The seafood ceviche is so over-powered by the use of orange as opposed to the traditional lime-juice base that the fish was overly sweet. The achiote spice is such a strong presence that a light dusting is all that should be required on the grilled salmon instead of the shellacking this fish endures. And the Vietnamese-inspired Banh Mi sliders (sliced pork, pickled veges and a citrus aioli) actually has a rancid scent. In this kitchen Banh Mi maybe means Banned Meat.
Actually the simpler things fare better such as a yellow fin tuna roll with a dollop of chipotle crema atop beads of gorgeous green roe. The shrimp vegetable potstickers were loaded with crunchy goodness, not as succulent as your traditional downtown dim sum fare, but good enough to scratch that Chinese itch.
Regardless of the improvements the kitchen could make, this is clearly a place to come for the drinks, the view and the cool, ocean breezes. And besides, who cares what the food tastes like after a bacon-infused Bloody Mary…or five.
Zengo Santa Monica
395 Santa Monica Place
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Free valet parking on structure off Broadway at Third Street
Casual (shorts and tees are perfect)
Brunch Saturdays and Sundays from 11:30-3:00