Zenzi, South Orlando Restaurant Doesn't Make Zense

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Zenzi I'd have to reach pretty far back in my memory to come up with a dining experience as disappointing as the one I had at Zenzi recently. Zenzi is the enigmatic name of a new restaurant south of downtown Orlando. I couldn't find any clue as to the origin of the name or whether it was supposed to evoke some sort of image. Is it an owner's name? Is it meant to imply something exotic in the cuisine? Probably not.

The menu, in fact, gives no clues as to the intended cuisine served here. You've got French steak au poivre, Italian veal saltimbocca, Indian chicken tikka and Caribbean grouper. I'm not crazy about a menu that tries to offer the world, but I have fewer qualms if it can deliver at least one good hemisphere. Zenzi's food train never quite leaves the station.

Now, I know these are difficult times for restaurants, and many established businesses are cutting corners or otherwise attempting to adjust or reinvent themselves. More than a few menus have been tweaked to lower food costs while maintaining quality. It's not an easy thing to do. A restaurant's regular customers expect to find all the favorites when they return.

Zenzi had the unique advantage, if it could be seen as such, of opening in the recession. It had no regular clients to disappoint if it started to cut corners. They could have begun by offering a menu that was manageable and offered quality appropriate to the price. I don't know that this is indeed the case with Zenzi, but everything about my meal had the air of trying to make something from next to nothing.

How else would you explain the veal satimbocca ($21) my friend ordered? First off, it had so little veal that it hardly warranted top billing. My companion and I were sure there must have been more veal beneath the massive mound of ham, or perhaps buried inside the stack of spinach. But no, the two tiny pieces were the lot.

That ham was an unfortunate choice. It was a mere cut above lunchmeat quality, and was overly salty. The mushroom and caper sauce rendered the dish a brown mass.It was accompanied by a small mound of rice that was pebbly in texture, and by that I mean the grains were so hard they could have broken a tooth.

My entree was the crab and brie stuffed grouper ($21) a perfectly fine fillet that was nicely broiled. But the crab and brie were minimal. The grouper was served atop a bed of lettuce, which someone probably thought would make a pretty presentation but didn't consider that the soggy greens would get in the way of actually eating the entree. And the entire thing was drenched in a sauce that looked as though it were pure egg yolk. Very yellow. The description on on the menu said the fish would be "smothered in a lobster sauce." I didn't get a lobster sauce out of it, but I'll have to admit the dish was murdered.

A friend had told me the mushroom soup ($6) was good, but the bowl I had, although showing nice meaty pieces of mushrooms, had a floury texture in the broth. And don't even get me started on paying six bucks for this small serving of soup.

The only problem I had with the crab cakes ($10) was with the name. Remove the word crab and you'd have a more apt description. And the two cakes were filled with pieces of red and green bell pepper. It's the first crab cake I've had that crunched.

After our entrees had been served I noticed that other tables had baskets of bread and we had none. I inquired about this and our server told us that bread was served only upon request. How would I know that, I asked, is it written on the menu? No, he said, some people just request it.

So I requested, and when he left I asked the people at the next table if they had requested the bread. No, they told me, their waiter (a different one) just brought it to them. I might deduce that the two waiters simply had different training manuals but that would be taking a leap of faith.

(While clearing the soup bowl from the table, the waiter dropped the soiled spoon onto the table, and even though he still had a free hand, he chose not to pick it up, and it stayed there until after the entrees were served. I'd love to know his rationale for leaving it there.)

I would have taken the issue up with a manager, but at no time during the entire meal did I spot one person I could have identified as in charge.

The interior of Zenzi is pleasant enough. There are door-sized fountains with sheets of water that cascade down glass, and several odd lamps that look either like paper Oscar statuettes or illuminated dress forms. Tables are covered with black leatherette sheets that, frankly, look tawdry.

As discombobulated as things are here I don't think the situation is hopeless. But it is going to take someone who knows what he or she is doing to fix it. And they'll pretty much have to reinvent the place, which is what they could have done when they first opened only months ago.

Zenzi is at 4120 S. Orange Ave. Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily, brunch on Sunday. The phone number is 407-855-9770.