Zaytinya: Restaurant Review

Zaytinya
701 9th St. NW
Washington, DC, 20004
(202) 638 0800
http://www.zaytinya.com/

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Last year, Jay and I kept telling ourselves that we wanted to try Zaytinya, but every time the opportunity came up, we eschewed the restaurant in favor of something else. There was always some excuse along the lines of “it doesn’t feel right” or “I’m not in the mood” or “I just don’t feel like it” or “I’d rather eat French.” Before we knew it, however, our cushion of eating money had run out, and we were thinking of ways to stretch our dollar by staying in and not venturing out to restaurants.

The weekend before our trip to Zaytinya I was in Charlottesville helping out with sorority recruitment. Feeling guilty, and also because I wanted an excuse to eat a nice meal (even though frugality is now the norm rather than the exception in our small apartment), I declared Saturday night to be date night. It was my duty to make reservations at a fun date place, but by the time Thursday night had rolled around, I had forgotten all about it, until it was too late to get a res at somewhere like Proof. Downtrodden, things were looking bleak, until Jay said he got us in at Zaytinya at 9:15 on Saturday. Perfect timing, although it provoked the ever-present question: what am I going to wear to a restaurant whose decor is mostly white and stark?

The restaurant itself is flanked in high walls of glass that overlook the sidewalks directly across from the 9th St. entrance to the Chinatown/Gallery Place metro. Outside the building housing the restaurant is an impressive and colorful modern sculpture, reaching towards the sky as the last representative of color (other than blue) that you will see before sitting down at your tidy, white-tableclothed table inside. Even the bar- and restaurant-goers inside–who I described as ranging from hip to definitively non-hip–wore subdued tones and little color, choosing white, black, grey and dark brown over bright child-like primary colors (I wore a black ruffled shirt, black sweater, black tights, chocolate brown boots, and a whitish-gold skirt). Even before setting foot into the restaurant, the size of the crowd told me that I was very glad that we had a reservation. Because we were a little early, we decided to wait at the bar, so crowded that small groups had overflowed the bar itself and were brimming into the entryway. Feeling very posh and VIP with my reservation, I sauntered up to the bar in my white Burberry coat and nonsensically large Burberry purse, and ordered a class of Argentinian sparkling wine.

I felt a little less posh when we were lead to our table, away from the room walled in glass with a 20 foot ceiling, where the lights were low and the crowd almost pulsing with a romantic hum of conversation, to a table under a lower ceiling where the lights were brighter, a little more harsh, and the views outside nonexistent. At least I had a reservation. One good thing, however, was that we were seated close to the kitchen, with a large and glistening metal bar serving as the only division between me and the world of small Greek plates being prepared on the other side. To my dismay, this open window was not where the food actually came out of, but it at least provided me with a chance to take a hurried and awkward picture of the kitchen.

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(For some reason the computer screens reminded me of Sonic, but the similarities thankfully ended there, other than Jay mentioning that the Eat Arkansas blog actually discusses Sonic. Oh Arkansas food writing, how little I miss you, but how much you seem to miss me.)

The cocktail list was fairly imaginative, but I ordered the first thing on the list, the Pom-Fili, which I had seen around the bar in tall, tapered pitchers. I was originally pulled by a drink that reminded me of a pisco sour and which included egg whites, but I went against my gut (bad decision) and ordered the tamer- but still good-looking pom-fili. Other than having a deep raspberry red color, the drink was largely forgettable and almost tasteless, although it was the cheapest on the menu. Maybe it’s good for getting you drunk, but it’s not good for drinking to taste.

Our waiter was very helpful in suggesting dishes for us to try, and although we did not go along with all of his suggestions, the ones that we did try were among some of the best of the night. Just before we came to Zaytinya, The Washingtonian had put out the new 100 best restaurants in and around DC, and I meant to write down some of the best dishes for Zaytinya (which is #37 btw), but failed to remember until I sat down and started to order. Too late.

As for the other wait staff (i.e. those who bring your food, clear your plates, etc.), for the most part they were very good and not taking away plates filled with food, or taking away serving dishes that were still being worked on. Once, however, they took away a serving dish that Jay and I were just about to scrape the exceptional sauce from, and at one point they thought we were completely done with our plates and took away EVERYTHING, including my plate that was laden with warm flatbread, ready for our hommus coming up next. Luckily for me, all was remedied with fresh plates, fresh silverware, and more importantly, fresh bread.

It took a little while for us to get our first round of bread, but after that it came in a steady succession, most of the time still finger-burning hot, straight out of the oven, fat with steam that escaped after the first rip.

Final note before delving into the descriptions: when you sit down, the waiter plops a small square bowl of olive oil and balsamic vinegar in the middle of your table. Either ours had a leak or one of us was just a messy eater, but any attempt to move it revealed a sludge of olive oil in the middle of the table. When I first saw this Italian-restaurant-duo plunk down on the table (of course with no bread, we didn’t get it until the first course and this had been sitting there for a while), a red flag went off in my head that screamed “generic,” “overused,” “unimaginative,” “tired.” To may ecstatic and wonderful surprise, however, the balsamic vinegar was excellent: well aged with a piercing sweetness that was not overly saccharine but instead counterbalanced with a woodiness, and was complimented nicely by the green olive oil. Don’t be like me and dismiss this often-seen and usually poorly imitated bread dunker without first trying the sharp sweetness of the balsamic. The only criticism I have is that it was not replenished.

Round 1: Htipiti

(marinated roasted red peppers, feta, thyme)

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Most of the dishes on Zaytinya’s menu are mezzes, and the menu does a better job of explaining it than I can hope to do, other than mention that they are small plates meant for sharing (what you expect from a Jose Andreas restaurant). Our waiter suggested we start with a spread, and suggested this spread in particular. Our reliance on this suggestion was well rewarded: the feta really sang in this dish and was not masked at all by the roasted peppers, which imparted a very subtle (and almost missable) sweetness that only very slightly yet gently reduced the intensity of the feta notes. Rich yet light, creamy yet with a slight acidity, it was a great way to start of the meal.

Round 2: Vegetable Mezze: Imam Bayildi

(Ottoman sytle roasted eggplant stuffed with onions and tomatoes)

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Kolokithokeftedes

(zucchini and cheese patties, caper-yogurt sauce)

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I chose the stuffed eggplant, which I tried first. Largely watery, marginally tasty, and with little eggplant texture or flavor, this dish consisted mostly of sauteed tomatoes and onions, which completely dominated the eggplant. Jay resolved to attempted and scrape eggplant from the skin, with little avail. The only real flavor that came across was tomato, which was true even when I ate some of the skin. Forgettable.

On the other end of the spectrum, and which came recommended by our waiter, were the zucchini and cheese patties. These were truly remarkable and only accentuated the mediocrity of the eggplant. One of my favorite parts of the patties was that you could really see the tiny slices of zucchini in the patties–they were not diced beyond recognition. I don’t know exactly what cheese was in the patties, but it had the deep, lingering taste of goat cheese that played nicely with the fresh, crispiness of the zucchini. These patties were, thankfully, not overly fried or overly cooked and held together well. I never really got a good taste of the sauce until I took a big forkful of it on its own, and the flavors were dramatically different yet just as excellent as the flavors in the patties. Sharp, striking, sour in a good way, the sauce really hit you on the tongue with a piercing yet not overpowering flavor, which I am sure is due to the capers. When Jay discovered the sauce, we both started ripping our dwindling bread to shreds and dredging it through the sauce. Unfortunately, this serving plate looked “done” and was taken away before we could enjoy all of the sauce, and now that I write about it, I never really compared the sauce to the patties in one bight. No loss, however, for this is definitely a dish that I see myself ordering every time.

Round 3: Seafood Mezze: Octopus Santorini

(grilled baby octopus, marinated onions, capers, yellow split pea puree)

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Swordfish Kebab

(seared swordfish, roasted red peppers, red onions, parsley sauce)

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As I make the rounds of DC restaurants–or at the very least begin to scrape the surface of the multitude of eateries in this city–I’ve begun to develop a sort of mantra: baby animals taste better than their adult counterparts. This sort of general rule of thumb has manifested itself in a variety of ways across a variety of cuisines: baby pig tacos at Oyamel, baby goat at Taberna del Alabardero, baby octopus at Sushi Ko. Therefore, when I saw the grilled baby octopus on the menu here, there wasn’t even a debate about whether or not I would order it, but instead it was automatically checked off in my brain as a must.

This time around, I scored big with my choice. Sometimes nothing says love on a plate than thick, smoky grill marks, and these octopi were blesses with some of the most beautiful brandings this side of a southern cookout. The texture of the octopus was firm yet not rubbery, only providing a slight resistance without being mushy, and the crispy curls at the end of the tentacles gave an unquestionably satisfying crunch. Likewise undeniable was the exceptional flavor, the crisp reminder of the sea paired with the smoke, wood, and carbon of the grill, it was like an old memory that I never experienced, sitting on the beach at night beside an open flame, slowly grilling that morning’s catch. The octopus really tasted like the grill, like the charcoal and wood and fire, without masking the delicate nature of the octopus itself.

Equally fabulous and striking was the yellow split pea puree. The first forkful contained a little bit of each ingredient: the puree, the capers, the sauteed onions, and what I thought was bacon or prosciutto. Each ingredient sparked a different flash and a sort of waterfall of flavor, layers upon layers that sang and bubbled and lingered in a pleasing sequences of steps. Sweet bursts of capers that burst in crunchiness, deep mellowness of the puree, smokey and fatty crisp of bacon and onion. To attempt to describe it is like taking a still photograph of a moving and organic dance: you can only hint at the true experience of being there yourself.

The swordfish, although not bad, was the lackluster note behind this almost unfairly-good octopus. Immediately I noticed the good points: this swordfish was not the dry, overcooked kind I’m unfortunately used to–cooking it kabob style allowed for a shorter cooking time and for the meat to retain more of its juices. The parsley puree was unlike anything I had ever tasted and was very intriguing. As a whole, whoever, the swordfish was not very memorable, and the red peppers served more as color than as taste. This is the kind of dish you order for the picky eater that you dragged to the restaurant, the one who wants something decent but not overly imaginative.

Round 4: Hommus

(puree of chickpeas, garlic and tahini)

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Similar to my “try all baby animals” rule, Jay has a sort of “try all hummos” rule. He is his father’s son–Jay’s dad tries tiramisu at every restaurant it is served, reminding us all that it is always prepared a different way in every kitchen. This is sort of true of hummos; you never know if it will be have the texture of baby food or if it will be chunky with visible bits of ingredients. The kind of ingredients also varies, from traditional chickpea to roasted red pepper and beyond. It seems like every kind of cuisine and every nationality has a different way of crafting this dish, which is what makes trying it all the more exciting. With this sort of attitude in mind, we ordered Zaytinya’s version. As you can see from the picture, the center of the hummos consisted of a well of olive oil. This isn’t the regular shit that you just grab off a shelf at a discount price, this olive oil was green, with a nice thickness and an almost grassy and fruity flavor. Accompanied by a few whole chickpeas and sprinkled with a little paprika for color, it was a nice and new presentation for me. Jay wanted to mix it all up, but I resisted, and instead found pleasure in dragging warm pieces of flatbread through the lake of olive oil and into the puree itself, almost in sort of a sensual mating of the elements experience, or one of those chemistry experiments where you combine two normally-passive ingredients into an explosive compound. The texture of the hummos was just about perfect, not pureed to death as if to be fed to babies or old people, with just a little bit of grit and bite. This is the kind of food that a table of different tastes will like, and probably a favorite at the bar.

Round 5: Meat Mezze: Rabbit Stifado

(rabbit braised in red wine, spices and pearl onions)

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Lamb Chops with Hommus Bil Toum

(grilled lamb chops, roasted garlic chickpea puree)

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Ever since I first ordered rabbit at Central, Jay and I have almost made it a point of ordering rabbit whenever we see it on the menu, in sort of a “I wonder how they’ll prepare it here” sense. The day after eating rabbit at Central I ordered it again at Brasserie Beck, and I was rewarded with an even more tender and succulent dish than the already amazing one I had experienced at Central.

This rabbit experience was a different rabbit experience. The other preparations of rabbit I’ve tried have always come de-boned, and to my unfortunate surprise, this rabbit dish left the bones in. With braising, I imagine that more flavor is imparted from the bone over the long cooking time, but this was so hard to eat and rewarded us with so little meat that it almost wasn’t worth ordering. It reminded me a lot of ordering quail, where you almost have to pick up the entire bird with your hands and scrape the tiny bits of flesh off the bone with your teeth if you want to get any sort of substantial meal out of it. Such was the experience here, and I did in fact resort to using my hands like a child. Even despite looking like a fool, the flavor of the rabit itself was completely masked by the sharpness of the braising liquid and the harsh acidity from the onions and tomatoes. Although it smelled very good, the experience was lacking and not worth the effort, or the stomach space.

Like every other pairing of dishes in this meal, a poorly executed or otherwise forgettable dish was accompanied by an exceptional, remarkable, and downright mouth-watering dish. Not only was this lamb the better of the two dishes in this pairing–by far–it was one of the best dishes of the night, fighting it out against the eight-legged wonder, the grilled baby octopus.

Like the octopus, the lamb was grilled to near perfection. Each cut of meat was oozing with juices, with the fat and the meat bonding together in a warm, tender embrace. It’s hard for me to describe a dish that is so near perfection. I’ve never had grilled lamb, and this is by far the best preparation of lamb I have ever had. Like the octopus, I think the grilling prevented the lamb from being overcooked; rather than being the dry thing you see being carved at country clubs, this was a succulent, dripping, almost wet piece of meat that blead flavor with every puncture of your fork. After carving all the meat off of the bone that was possible with my fork and knife, I gave in to primal instincts, I collapsed before etiquette, I gave myself over to pure functionality and picked up the chop with my hands, sucking off each and every last piece of lamb from the bone, even cherishing the little morsel of grilled fat toward the middle of the bone. Nothing carries flavor like fat, and this one held together all the flavor of the grill and smoke and lamb, pushed together with slow cooking. Tender, giving, non-resistant, it wasn’t like the piece of fat you accidentally find in your mouth, pushing against your teeth and reminding you not to waste your time because it has no flavor. This was different, and for a fat avoider like myself, was wonderful guilty pleasure.

Final Round: Dessert: Turkish Coffee Chocolate

(warm chocolate cake, bittersweet chocolate flan, and cardamon espuma finished with espresso syrup)

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Turkish Delight

(walnut ice cream with Skotidakis Farm goat’s milk yogurt mousse, honey gelee, orange-caramel sauce and caramelized pine nuts)

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Dessert never gets passed over by the Robertson clan. My sister-in-law Sharon puts it well by saying we have a “dessert pouch”: no matter how much dinner we eat, there’s always room for dessert.

Despite this general rule, I have been getting more and more apprehensive about ordering desserts at nice restaurants. Unfortunately (see my Ashley’s post below), too many fine restaurants seem to forget to hire a fine pastry chef, and the dessert course is often lacking. Such is true at Oyamel, where although the desserts have a nice presentation, there’s a spark missing in the flavor and types of dishes themselves that is otherwise present in the rest of the dishes.

Happily, this Jose Andreas restaurant does not stutter at the last step. Both of our desserts–recommended by our waiter–were very good. More importantly, they were re-imaginations on classics. Take the chocolate cake, for instance. This is a perennial Jay favorite, and they eventually taste more or less the same. By adding some otherwise unseen ingredients–cardamon and sesame seeds–the normal is transformed into something more playful, fun, and memorable.

Although my dessert, the turkish delight, might look all monotone, the flavors were played off of each other exceptionally well and highlighted each other in fun ways. My first bite had a little of everything, and it was really a lot of fun to experience the parade of flavors. The walnut ice cream had a deep, almost woody flavor complimented with only a hint of sweetness, while the gelee was sweet and fruity with a completely different flavor from the rich creme. The caramelized pine nuts offered a nice crunch, and the orange-caramel sauce served as a kind of deep amber overtone. The crisp placed between the two servings of ice cream was incredibly delicate and broke in my hands on my first attempt to eat it, and had such a wonderful lightness that I almost felt like I was eating flavored air.

We finished off our meal with turkish coffees, uncharted territory. They come unsweetened, semi sweet, and sweet. We ordered the semi sweet, and the flavor was still very dark and rich. Unbeknownst to us, turkish coffee is basically served with the ground beans at the bottom of the cup, which were quite the unpleasant surprise, especially since we didn’t realize we weren’t supposed to drink them (don’t worry, I couldn’t make myself). Armed with this knowledge, it might be a more pleasant experience the next time around.

Zaytinya is one of my new favorite places. Despite the misses with some of our food choices, overall the meal was excellent, with new and interesting flavors and texture. The vibe and pulse of the highly populated bar definitely doesn’t detract from the experience either.

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