Zentan’s house-made ramen with char siu pork and sweet corn is made in the Tonkotsu style of southern Japan.
Jennifer Nguyen was just 5 years old when her parents sent her from Hanoi, Vietnam, to live in Amish country, in Pennsylvania. Growing up on a farm helped her fall in love with food in its purest form. “I’d go out picking strawberries, raspberries, grapes, and corn,” she says. “Appreciating ingredients is deeply rooted in me.”
She began hostessing at a local Chinese restaurant when she was 12, before moving on to bussing, cashiering, and cooking. But she turned away from a culinary career when she pursued—and earned—a bachelor’s degree in finance. She became a financial analyst and was just one semester away from receiving her MBA when she had an epiphany. “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing something I wasn’t passionate about,” she says. “I gave notice that day.”
Executive Chef Jennifer Nguyen fell in love with the sizzling style of the robata grill.
After starting her new career at a small Thai restaurant in Philadelphia, an impressive string of postings followed: Stephen Starr’s Pod, Iron Chef MasaharuMorimoto’s eponymous eatery, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, and San Francisco’s famed sushi spot Ozumo.
Nguyen came to Zentan at a crucial juncture. It was originally the concept of high-profile Top Chef Masters finalist Susur Lee, who amicably parted ways with the restaurant in March. Just in time for this holiday season, the incoming toque has completely overhauled the menu, though it maintains its pan-Asian sensibility. Sushi and sashimi take center stage, presented with remarkable flair and creativity. Blushing hamachi arrives with sweet orange segments and micro pieces of zippy jalapeño, while the buttery benitoro (salmon belly) gets a dappling of sesame seeds and house-made citrus-spiked yuzu sauce.
Maki with shishito peppers, mushrooms, gobo, kiwi, and lemon miso.
The custom-designed, bi-level Japanese robata grill is an able costar. The three-foot-long model uses clean burning binchotan charcoal from Japan and produces high-level temperatures perfect for quick-searing proteins and produce. It’s best appreciated by ordering a slew of skewers, such as juicy chicken thighs, blistered shishito peppers, or charred strips of filet mignon—all ideal for sharing during a holiday meal. Nguyen fell in love with the sizzling style while working in several well-respected restaurants in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. “It was amazing to watch the technique and care that they put into their cooking,” she says.
Her ramen takes its cues from the classic pork-based Tonkotsu style soup, popularized in the southern tip of Japan. After a 24-hour cooking cycle, the rich broth possesses the consistency of thin gravy. Sitting at the bottom of the bowl is a tangle of springy house-made noodles. “It’s all about the texture,” says Nguyen. “They have to be soft enough, but still al dente.”
Zentan is the only restaurant in the US to carry high-quality FukugaoShuzo sake.
One dish on Zentan’s menu that you’d be hard-pressed to find in the Land of the Rising Sun is Nguyen’s sticky, savory uni risotto. Bound together with Parmesan cheese, it’s dotted with edamame and tiny shimeji mushrooms. Another surprise is a playful take on a classic American breakfast featuring a tempura fried egg and strips of pork belly.
As she imprints the food with her style, Nguyen is simultaneously making Zentan a greener operation. In the kitchen, she oversees composting and oil recycling programs, while her menu features sustainably sourced salmon, hamachi, and Kindai tuna from eco-friendly purveyors CleanFish. Unlike many sushi spots, Nguyen will rotate offerings seasonally, presenting the freshest fare for a holiday dinner. “It’s about using what’s available, when it’s available,” she says. “Japanese cuisine is about simple flavors and allowing the ingredients to stand on their own.”
Zentan is on Thomas Circle.
The recently revamped space in the Donovan House, a Kimpton boutique hotel, reflects the spirit of change. A slinky, loungy soundtrack bounces off the tiled walls behind the bar. A raft of faux candles hangs from the cavernous ceiling, lending a dark sepia glow to the room. And well-spaced, rectangular four-tops in the back room provide romantic nooks for double dates seeking an intimate evening out.
Nguyen is excited to call the rekindled Thomas Circle restaurant her new home. On the inside of her right arm, she sports an infinity symbol tattoo. “It signifies all the hurdles that I’ve overcome,” she says, “and the endless possibilities that lie ahead.”