An Empire Comes to Midtown

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richard sandoval spices things up with his newest creation

by shani r. friedman

a few years ago, i was at this exact same spot when it was jeffrey chodorow's wild salmon, the last of his multiple attempts to make the location successful. i had a great meal in a beautiful space, but it folded.

now it's chef richard sandoval's turn. perhaps the impresario behind 14 other restaurants around the world will have the midas touch with his asian and latin fusion cuisine. partner placido domingo, a friend of sandoval's, opened zengo weeks after surgery, so things may already be looking up.

when we arrived on a recent august night, my friend noted how enormous the restaurant is. there are 170 seats and three levels (the main floor, with the dark mood lighting, suspended wood beams, and wrought-iron screens, plus a basement tequila bar and sake lounge upstairs). the staff was accommodating as we tried out a table and two different booths before we found one that was just right. the two of us perused our menus at length since we had decided to forego large plates for some of the tantalizing smaller plates that showcase the different culinary cultures.

i finally decided on the ceviche tasting ($16) and the peking duck-daikon tacos ($12). the two ceviches were the rainbow (with tuna, salmon and fluke) and the corvina, a fish i was unfamiliar with. much to my surprise, the medley was not my favourite. the corvina, on the other hand, a simple preparation of onions, cucumbers and apples and shiso (japanese basil), had the perfect balance of flavors between the fish, the citrus and the rest of the ingredients. my other dish was a fun, play-with-your-food experience because you have to put the mini tacos together yourself. the tartness and crispness of the curried apples was a good contrast to the duck confit.

my friend had a united nations-style dinner and sampled the steamed buns al pastor ($12), the thai chicken empanadas ($10), the vegetarian rolls ($10) and the yucca fries ($5). he didn't love the buns, which lacked the expected release of steam and were more like stuffed pancakes, but the combination of oaxaca cheese, mango-curry salsa and chile poblano in the empanadas really grabbed him. we both dug into the fries, which were thick, a little sweet-but less so than a plantain-and a bit salty.

since there's always room for dessert, i ordered the mexican chocolate tart ($8) and he picked the lemon yuzu cake ($8), both of which looked like petite works of art. the cake was accompanied by ginger ice cream and chinese five spice custard sauce. my tablemate said he could definitely taste the myriad spices in the sauce. my tart was adorned with cocoa nibs, cinnamon whip and chili ancho anglaise. it may be the best thing i've eaten all summer! i spooned it in tiny bites so that i could savour it for as long as possible.

i could have lingered in the comfortable booth for hours and let the very solicitous waitress keep refilling my water glass, but it was past my friend's bedtime. although it was a sleepy sunday evening with just a few diners, people continued to come in as the hours passed. that's a good sign for the restaurant having legs, which means i will get to go back and hopefully find the tequila snow cones still on the menu. to the staff i say, buenas suerte!


622 third avenue(at east 40th street)


small plates ($9-$16) and large plates ($19-$27)

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