Dishin' With Chefs: Zentan's Jennifer Nguyen

By Rina Rapuano  |  November 12, 2013

The restaurant in Thomas Circle’s Donovan House hotel has had a bumpy road since it opened - first as a Todd English restaurant, then as a Susur Lee spot, with both celebrity chefs eventually packing up and pulling out.

But it seems as if Zentan finally found its groove when chef Jennifer Nguyen took over the kitchen in February. And while she doesn't (yet) have her own line of cookware or own restaurants in Canada, she earned her street cred in kitchens like Bouchon in Las Vegas and Morimoto in Philadelphia.

The Vietnam native chats with us about her new menu, her exacting standards, her favorite flavors and her guilty pleasures.

What kind of changes have you make to the menu?
The menu - as of the end of July - has been completely revamped. Unfortunately, we were waiting on the custom-made robata grill, so that took us a lot longer than we anticipated. At the end of July, we were able to install that and get it going. Now we’re in full swing on our fall and winter menu.

How often does the menu change?
I like to change it seasonally, even though certain vegetables we can only get for short periods of time. I just think it’s better that way. Working on the West Coast, we were able to get fresh produce all year round, and it’s just one of those things I really love.

What has proved to be the most popular dish?
There have been a couple of signature items that we’ve had: great gindara, but it’s not your typical miso-marinated cod. Here we allow the fish to speak for itself and the natural charcoal flavors bring that out. Housemade ramen - I make everything from scratch with that. Another signature item would be the uni risotto. We’ve had people who don’t generally eat uni who love it.

What would you like to implement that you haven’t already?
One of the fun things we will be doing for spring is the rooftop dinner. We will be sectioning off parts of the rooftop and doing a chefs table on the rooftop, so I’m very excited about that.

What would you make for yourself right now from your menu?
Wow, that is tricky. I would definitely say that it’s the XO shrimp that I have on my menu. A lot of Asian restaurants buy their XO sauce, but I buy dried scallops and we rehydrate them. I buy local Virginia ham and rehydrate that. I take salted fish and salted shrimp - seriously, it takes me three days to cook that sauce each time I make it! It’s one of those things that’s very dear to me. We’re doing fresh-made egg noodles that we pick up from a local Chinese restaurant here in DC. It’s just one of my favorite things to eat.

What’s your favorite fall ingredient?
I don’t know that I have a favorite fall ingredient, but I can tell you my favorite ingredient would be chiles. I love spices and I love all types of chiles. I think they just enhance and help bring out flavors in all types of food. People hear chiles and think spice, but that’s not always the case. But if I had to pick a favorite fall ingredient, we get fresh yuzu right now - possibly one of my favorite things. I ran a special with it when I got it in a couple of days ago, pan-seared halibut with grilled matsutake mushrooms and and a squeeze of the yuzu.

What’s your guilty-pleasure food?
I love pork belly, and I would say the pork belly we have on our menu is one of those guilty-pleasure dishes. We have a soft-boiled egg where the yolk is still runny when you cut into it. And I love it over a bowl of rice.