Entries in Zengo (2)


NYC's Ten Most Disappointing New Restaurants of 2010

In a previous post, I listed my top ten new restaurants of 2010. Now, here are my top ten disappointments. The list ranges from those that were truly bad (Kenmare), to those that merely failed to live up to outsized expectations (Lincoln).

As before, the list is based on my actual experiences at the restaurants, not what others have said, what the chefs are theoretically capable of, or what may have changed since I visited. Some of these places will eventually earn return visits, but remember: I’m spending my own money. I usually wait a while before giving a second chance.

1. Lincoln. No restaurant opened with higher expectations than the new luxe Italian restaurant at Lincoln Center with former Per Se chef Jonathan Benno. I’ve read reports of some great meals here, but ours was mediocre, and most of the pro critics were unimpressed. The space is terrible, and that can’t be fixed, but Benno won’t go down without a fight. If Lincoln is the year’s biggest disappointment, it’s also the one most likely to improve.

2. Colicchio & Sons. Coming from a chef with Tom Colicchio’s pedigree, this place figured to be excellent. But Colicchio botched the roll-out, opening with an à la carte menu, switching to an expensive prix fixe after just a month in business, and then switching back less than a month later. Practically all the reviews were negative, except for a bizarre trifecta from Sam Sifton of the Times. The restaurant is now off the radar, and we’ve heard nothing that would justify a return visit.

3. John Dory Oyster Bar. The re-located April Bloomfield/Ken Friedman seafood place bears no comparison to the original John Dory, which was in a poor location, but was otherwise a very good restaurant. Our meal here wasn’t bad, but it’s nowhere near what this team is capable of. Let’s hope that April is able to find her mojo, as she has done at The Spotted Pig and The Breslin.

4. Kenmare. This Italian restaurant from chef Joey Campanaro was probably the worst new restaurant we visited in 2010. Given Campanaro’s track record (Little Owl, Market Table, and before that The Harrison and Pace), who would have expected it to be this bad? Was ever a “consulting” gig more phoned-in than this one?

5. Zengo. This restaurant, built on the site of four failed Jeffrey Chodorow places, is so comically bad that the critics couldn’t even bring themselves to review it. The Latin–Asian fusion concept is unfocused and poorly executed. The nominal chef, Richard Sandoval, has fifteen restaurants in five U. S. cities and three countries. This one never got the attention it needed.

6. Lotus of Siam. This is the New York branch of a legendary Las Vegas standout, which Gourmet critic Jonathan Gold anointed the “best Thai restaurant in North America.” But none of the Las Vegas staff moved to New York: the original chef spent just a few weeks training the New York staff, and then went back home. The result is a watered-down version of the original. It’s such a pity to see a great opportunity missed.

7. Bar Basque. I had high hopes for this place, despite the involvement of Jeffrey Chodorow, who builds failed restaurants at a prolific pace. There’s a serious chef here, and a number of critics have had better meals than we did. But there is no getting around the Chodorrific service and the irritating space. Over/under on a new chef or concept: 18 months.

8. The Lambs Club. This was supposed to be Geoffrey Zakarian’s big comeback, after his pair of three-star standouts, Town and Country, imploded after long declines. Our meal here did not live up to Zakarian’s talents, to the space, or to the excellent service team. On the first night of service, we saw Zakarian dining at Lincoln, which tells you how committed he is to the project. We’ll be giving a pass to his other new restaurant, The National.

9. Nuela. This pan-Latin restaurant was in gestation so long that the original chef, Douglas Rodriguez, gave up. With Adam Schop now in charge, we found an overly long menu (60+ items) with far too many duds, a horrific décor and an overly-loud sound track. This restaurant concept was sorely in need of an editor.

10. Plein Sud. Here’s another case of missing expectations. Plein Sud offers serviceable comfort food, but chef Ed Cotton (who made it to the finals of Top Chef Season 7) did far, far better work at Veritas and BLT Market.



There is no good reason why the East Midtown restaurant space at 40th Street & Third Avenue ought to be cursed. But cursed it apparently is. Four Jeffrey Chodorow places failed there—most recently Wild Salmon—before the Chod finally gave up.

Zengo is the latest to give it a shot. The hyperactive chef Richard Sandoval is in charge, but with fifteen other restaurants in five U. S. cities and three countries, I suppose I should put that in scare quotes, as in, “in charge.” In case you’re wondering—admit it, you were!—this is the third Zengo, after Denver and D.C.

With Sandoval in demand everywhere from Mexico to Dubai, he needed a solid hand in the kitchen, and he had one in former Elettaria chef Akhtar Nawab. But less than a month into the venture, Nawab took a hike. The reasons remain unexplained, but are easy to guess. Zengo is a dumb idea, sloppily executed. Any self-respecting chef would be embarrassed to be associated with it.

Although Jeffrey Chodorow is not involved here, his uncanny propensity for error hovers over the space like a death stink. A Latin–Asian restaurant that serves sushi rolls, dim sum, and tapas? Only the Chod would suggest something so obviously ill-conceived, so gimmicky, so pandering, so offensive to common sense. The menu is like something you’d find at an airport food court, offering a bit of everything without any sense of purpose. The cooking is better than at an airport, but the service isn’t.

From a meandering list of small plates in multiple categories, we started with the Peking Duck-Daikon Tacos ($12; above left), which was the best thing we tried. Thin daikon wafers passed for pancakes, which held slices of duck confit, curried apple, and an orange-coriander sauce. However, we ran out of daikon before we ran out of duck.

Braised Pork Belly ($13; above right) was swimming in a lentil sea. It is hard to overwhelm pork belly, but this plate managed it. You could barely taste the pork.

We ordered a bowl of fried rice ($8; below left) as a side dish, but the kitchen delivered it as a mid-course. At first, we thought this was intentional, but the server disabused us of that: “Your main courses will come out as and when they’re ready.”

Sure enough, “as and when” is the mantra here, often to the customers’ dismay. At two different tables, we saw plates sent back because diners had only just received their first group of appetizers. At one table, the server got into an argument, instead of just admitting the screw-up. Although the restaurant was not full, plates were shot out of the kitchen at machine-gun pace, as if the staff wanted to empty the room as quickly as possible.

We didn’t send anything back, but this was not a relaxing meal.

Neither of the entrées looked especially attractive on the plate: Grilled Colorado Lamb Loin ($27; above center), Braised Short Ribs ($24; above right). The lamb was wonderful, but we didn’t much care for the lazily-plated assortment of vegetables underneath it. The short ribs were slightly on the dry side.

Real thought went into the beverage program here. There is a wide selection of both reds and whites. At $42, the 2008 Cline Cashmere Meritage was a very good choice at the lower end of the list. There are over 400 tequilas and mezcals, and a separate downstairs lounge (La Biblioteca) in which to enjoy them.

The folks at AvroKO did their usual bang-up job with the décor, although the cavernous three-story space is bound to feel like a airplane hangar, practically no matter what you do with it. And it’s hard to imagine it will ever be full.

The opera singer Plácido Domingo is a partner here. One’s immediate reaction is that he ought to stick to music.

Zengo (622 Third Avenue at 40th Street, East Midtown)

Food: Satisfactory
Service: Fair
Ambiance: Satisfactory
Overall: Satisfactory