MIDTOWN — Vietnam is uniting with Cuba — not in some odd political match-up, but in a new menu at the Midtown restaurant Zengo.
The restaurant, a Richard Sandoval eatery that describes its cuisine as a mix of Latin and Asian flavors, creates a so-called “test kitchen” menu every couple of months that blends the distinct flavors of select Latin American and Asian locales.
Beginning this month, it’s Hanoi meets Havana.
Graham Bartlett, chef at Zengo's Washington, D.C. branch, developed this month’s “test kitchen” menu that is shared among all the Zengo locations, including outposts in Santa Monica and Denver, as well as New York and D.C.
“We just want to do something a little different,” Bartlett, 35, said in a phone interview.
Past incarnations of the “test kitchen” menu have blended Shanghai with Sao Paolo, and Lima with Tokyo, Barlett said.
For this most recent combination, Bartlett said he gave his dishes a punch of flavor but still kept them light and healthy, in keeping with the springtime feel.
The cocktails include a lemongrass-lychee mojito, with silver rum, syrup, mint and lime; and a Boba Cafecito, which blends a liquor known as aguardiente with iced Cuban coffee, Thai chili and coconut milk.
For the more substantial dishes, Bartlett concocted a lemongrass arroz con pollo, with chicken, coconut rice, nuoc mam sofrito and mango salsa. Next on the menu is the lechon asado vermicelli, which consists of braised pork belly with sour orange-garlic mojo. And for dessert, there are Hanoi pandan waffles, with coconut ice cream and warm cherry chutney.
Ironically, Bartlett said a lot of testing goes into producing the “test kitchen” menu. Some dishes may not make the final cut, and there is a lot of back-and-forth between chefs at the different Zengo locations as they trade knowledge and expertise about different cooking styles and cuisine.
But the end result is usually quite popular, Bartlett added, and the best dishes ultimately become permanent fixtures on the Zengo menu.
“I’ve never seen anybody do anything like this,” Barlett said of the “test kitchen” concept.
The recurring challenge of creating a new mini-menu every couple of months keeps the chefs at the chain of restaurants excited and engaged, he added — and always on the lookout for a new way to artfully blend Latin American and Asian flavors.
The Test Kitchen: Hanoi-Havana menu will be available at Zengo, on Third Avenue near East 40th Street, from now until June 30, according to the Zengo website.