Good sushi in Philadelphia is not hard to come by. Many Penn students may be wary of going farther than 37th St. for their raw fish fix, let alone traveling down to Old City. So what is it about Zento that makes it worth the journey?
It could be the intimate atmosphere, the esteemed new chef of Morimoto origins or even the artistically rendered wasabi on every plate. What really separates Zento from the rest, however, is its active effort to go beyond sushi and into the less-familiar elements of Japanese cuisine. Currently in the process of expanding their menu to include more entrees, appetizers and salads, the sushi and kitchen teams at Zento are working together to make a more well-rounded menu for their customers.
That said, the sushi at Zento is far from average. The gorgeous presentation aside, the ingredients are fresh and the sauces delectably sweet. The Zento Square Sushi — the Best of Philly winner in 2007 — with tuna, eel, avocado, plum paste and sweet and spicy sauce ($15) is rich, flavorful and portioned generously. Another must-try on the Signature Sushi menu is the Peking duck hand roll with scallion and hoison sauce ($12), a dish highly recommended by the staff. Specialty rolls don’t stray from the typical selection: the Flaming Dragon roll and the deep-fried Volcano Roll ($13) were both beautifully crafted and satisfyingly crunchy, but middle-of-the-road in comparison with Zento’s Signature options.
If you’re over sushi, the appetizer selection combines the expected (fried calamari with Thai chili sauce; steamed edamame) with the unexpected (squid pasta with garlic yuzu sauce, anyone?). Options from the kitchen and the sushi bar are presented separately on the menu. The favorite of the sushi bar appetizers was the new style whitefish sashimi with hot oil, garlic, ginger and yuzu sauce ($12). Small and delicate cuts of whitefish sit in a pool of oil and sauce covered in pea shoots. The citrus flavor of the yuzu combined with the ginger and garlic deliciously — only the heavy dose of oil on the plate kept the dish from perfection.
The centerpiece of Zento’s expanded menu is the entrée section of the kitchen menu. Included among dishes like kobe beef with asparagus tempura and mashed potato with spicy miso ($30) and seafood yosenabe (a kind of fish stew, $25) is the grilled chicken teriyaki ($18), a classic Japanese dish for the less adventurous and more price conscious. We were strongly encouraged to eat it while it was still hot, and for good reason. The not-too-salty, not-too-heavy nature of the teriyaki sauce made the dish a success. Though served with gently steamed vegetables, the chicken was what made the dish exceptional rather than average, not the accoutrements.
Zento is a tiny BYO, so call early if you’re planning on bringing a group — even then it might be tricky squeezing them all in. And though the prices are a bit on the steep side, the fantastic location and attention to detail make it a nice place for a date or evening on the town with your closest friends. If you go, top off your night with a shared portion of the tempura fried ice cream. It’s more carnival than class, but the cakey texture and super sweet flavor is a great ending to a night of sipping and sushi-ing.
Zento 138 Chestnut St. (215) 925-9998 Don’t Miss: Zento Signature rolls, whitefish sashimi Skip: Specialty rolls Bottom Line: Pricey but pretty sushi and more.