Graham Bartlett wows at Zengo

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Photo - Graham Bartlett, executive chef at Zengo (Graeme Jennings/Examiner)
Graham Bartlett, executive chef at Zengo (Graeme Jennings/Examiner)
Entertainment,Food and Drink,Alexandra Greeley

"Bold" and "big" are adjectives many chefs use to describe their food's flavor. For some, the words have no bite. But for Graham Bartlett, the longtime chef de cuisine of Penn Quarter's thriving and trendy Zengo, these words portray exactly what he cooks -- assertive meals that fuse the fiery flavors of Latin America and Asia. The result? Such offerings as ceviche dorado with kimchee puree.

"It's how we eat and what we eat," says Bartlett of himself and his chef friends. "So the dishes we develop are with really strong flavors," he says. "Mexican and Korean food, the perfect marriage of flavors. ... We are challenging ourselves so we don't get complacent, and we are always creating new things."

Bartlett works with Richard Sandoval, who sees cooking as one grand, global adventure. Not surprisingly, Bartlett names Sandoval as his main culinary influence. "He taught me a lot about myself and about food," Barlett says. "I now see myself as a young American chef using bright flavors and light textures."

If you go
Zengo
Where: 781 Seventh St. NW
Info: 202-393-2929; richardsandoval.com/zengodc
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m Monday to Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Having worked at Zengo since it opened five years ago -- and at Zengo's Denver location before that -- Bartlett is immersed in culinary inventiveness and has learned how to meld textures and flavors for surprising results. But don't imagine that this chef does not have a firm grip on traditional French techniques. He attended the Ecole Ritz Escoffier in Paris. While there, he worked at L'Espadon, a two-star Michelin restaurant, where he received valuable on-the-job training and experience.

A native of Mississippi, Bartlett got his start in the kitchen by watching his parents, both of whom loved to cook in their native French and Cajun styles. Besides that, he says, his grandmother owned a restaurant that served good, old-fashioned Southern home cooking. And she loved to cook for others, which, says Bartlett, is probably something he inherited.

Though Bartlett calls D.C. home, he is lucky to travel with Sandoval to help set up restaurants elsewhere. As a result, he picks up influences from chefs in other cities. But he also finds that the melting-pot atmosphere of D.C. offers its own kind of inspiration. "Here you meet a lot of people," he says. "In D.C., we have an unfair advantage because of our location. Our clientele is a mixed bag, some tourists and some locals into the fine-dining scene. We have to 'read' the people from a food and service perspective."

Q&A

What is your comfort food?

We eat really simply, like chicken, beans and tacos and cabbage salads ... beans and tortillas, either flour or corn tortillas.

What is your favorite ingredient?

I don't really know. I named my dog Yuzu [for a Japanese citruslike fruit], so maybe that is it.

Which is your favorite cuisine?

Latin and Asian at any given moment. Even at work with staff meals, it will be one of those elements. A stir-fry, Mexican rice with tortillas, chicken, beans or steamed jasmine rice.

Which is your favorite restaurant?

You know, I really, really like Rasika. The chef does an outstanding job. Their flavors are so out there, so great. I eat a lot of pho on my days off, like at Pho 75.

What's in your fridge?

More often than not, besides wine, usually cheeses that don't go bad fast. I cook dinner once a week, so get nonperishable vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, and some cured meats. Mom and Dad send me lots of the preserves they make.

Asian Pear Empanadas

Makes about 12 pieces

1 ounce butter, diced

2 Asian pears (or Bartlett pears, if unavailable), peeled, cored and diced

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup apple juice

3 ounces cream cheese

About 1/4 cup sour cream

1 sheet puff pastry, slightly thawed

2 egg yolks

Flour for dusting

Canola oil for frying

Fork for crimping

Ring mold for cutting pastry

For garnishes:

Toasted white sesame seeds

Dulce de leche ice cream, as desired

Warmed cajeta, as desired

To make the filling, heat a large skillet over high heat, add the butter and immediately add the pears. Allow the pears to caramelize slightly, but do not stir too often. Add the sugar and apple juice. Continue to cook over high heat until the juice is reduced and the pears are thickened. Cool. Combine the cream cheese and sour cream in a bowl, mixing until creamy.

Lightly flour a work surface and lay out the puff pastry. Cut out small rings of pastry with a ring mold. Spoon a small amount of the filling into the center, then fold over, and using a fork, crimp the edges of the half-moon shape shut.

Heat the canola oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until a candy thermometer reads 350 degrees. Carefully fry the empanadas several at a time -- don't crowd the pan or they will cook too slowly and become oily. When these are golden-brown, after about six minutes, remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. To serve, arrange on a plate, drizzle with the cajeta, sprinkle on the sesame seeds, and top with a scoop or two of the ice cream.

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