Clubbing it is not my thing. Neither is facing off with the see and be seen set. So it takes a lot to get me into Old City – one of Philly’s centers for such things – on a Friday or Saturday night. A good band at The Khyber or performance at the Painted Bride Art Center might do it. Or perhaps a short run film at the Ritz. Once there, dinner, whether before or after, is a must on such nights. The problem is, short notice reservations at Jose Garces’ Amada are pretty much out of the question. And I prefer to avoid the dinner as theater and tourist trap spots that otherwise dominate the neighborhood.
Luckily, there are a small but slowly growing number of spots in Old City that buck the area’s clubby tendencies and offer straightforward, worthwhile dining experiences. For years my go-to spot was La Locanda del Ghiottone but it somehow lost its allure following the death of its original, ever colorful owner Giuseppe Rosselli. If time permits, there’s good food to be had at Bistro 7. The burgers at Eulogy leave something to be desired but the fries are some of the best in town and the Belgian beer list is second only to Monk’s.
Though it’s already been part of the neighborhood since August 2006, my latest sweet spot in Old City is Zento Contemporary Japanese Cuisine. Chef/owner Gunawan Wibisono, formerly head chef at Kisso (also in Old City), spent time honing his skills on the sushi line at Morimoto. He’s now turning out some of the most, yes, contemporary Japanese food in town, with a clear emphasis on modern and creative sushi rolls. While I’ve enjoyed those more creative efforts in the past, I opted to go with the simple, more traditional side of the menu on my latest visit.
Zento may just serve the largest bowl of miso soup in town. I’d love to see a bit more tofu and perhaps some seaweed in the mix but the miso/dashi balance is just right, not too salty or pungent but far from washed out, bland or muddied by overheating.
If there was a disappointment, it came in the form of edamame that had been steamed for too long. They weren’t past the point of no return, just a little less bright and snappy than ideal. We still managed to empty our bowl, as it’s hard to pass up their combination of saltiness and freshness as a starter.
My wife’s veggie rolls were well executed, with a sweet potato tempura roll just hinting at the creative capacities of the kitchen. The addictively tasty melding of firm rice, nori and sweet batter-fried potatoes made me wonder why more Japanese restaurants don’t leverage this typical tempura ingredient into their sushi roll offerings.
That was the extent of our flirtations with modernity on this evening, as my opting for the chef’s daily selection of sushi and sashimi brought the focus right back to old school, traditional simplicity. It’s good to see that a kitchen that has built its reputation on the creative can also deliver the fundamentals in a quality, focused manner. It was also good to see that the chef’s assortment did not include any of the filler portions – California rolls, omelets or steamed shrimp –common to sushi platters at far too many establishments. Salmon, hamachi and tuna sashimi were cut large and boldly, focusing the eye on the beautiful flesh of the fish. The sushi rice could have benefited from a bit more of the tang of rice wine vinegar yet was well cooked and well proportioned to the generous slices of raw fish. One of my favorite basic rolls – hamachi and scallion – completed the picture, along with a handsomely executed, tobiko-topped flower of fluke.
Zento has the added benefit, at least in my book, of being a BYOB. If in doubt as to what to carry along, all but the most dyed in the wool white wine haters shouldn’t even bother with red. The menu here screams out for high acid white wine with good fruit and clean, un-oaked flavors. Slightly off-dry sake would also be a good choice. My choice was clear though: Riesling. Based on the rich flavors and sweet sauces adorning many of the sushi rolls I’d enjoyed on past visits, I opted on this occasion for Spâtlese Riesling from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (more on that soon). It turned out to work wonderfully. If you know you’re going for straight sushi and sashimi, you could do just as well with a dry Riesling from the Rhein or Austria, or perhaps Blanc de Blancs Champagne from a good grower. Just be sure to give your glasses a sniff before pouring; mine needed a quick seasoning to eliminate some kitchen-related odors.
If you’re looking for rich atmosphere with your sushi experience, you won’t find it here. Zento is little more than a box-shaped, white-walled storefront, with a tiny sushi counter – only three or four seats – and about fifteen two- and four-top tables. Reservations are taken, honored and recommended. Service is fast paced and pleasant. And there’s not much else to it.
I’m not sure Zento will become a draw strong enough to pull me in just for dinner on a weekend (though certainly on a Tuesday). But on those Fridays or Saturdays when I’m drawn by force into the neighborhood, it’s earned a strong spot on my short list of places worth visiting.
Zento Contemporary Japanese Cuisine
138 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106