Saturday, May 17, 2008

Two Fantastic Restaurants

I start with an apology. I always want to add photos. I had my camera this week but both nights out, I had forgotten it. The links to both restaurants are in the article below so that is my only offering this week. Again, my apologies. On to the story:

I went to work on Wednesday knowing that I wanted to explore a new dinner experience that night. I just wasn’t sure what. I was once again in Washington DC and the choices are endless. So after a bit of web searching and some chatting with the locals, I decided on a restaurant owned by local celebrity chef, José Andrés. Andrés can be seen on a local cooking show here in the capitol city as well as on the national spotlight. I recently saw him on Iron Chef America and a tour of his web site says he’ll be a guest judge on Bravo’s Top Chef –I love that show. Zaytinya is one of his well known DC eateries. It’s in Gallery Place directly across the street from the National Portrait Gallery (one of my favorite of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums). As it turns out, once I arrived, I recognized the place as somewhere I’d eaten before. Bummer. I recall really liking it then but I was still a bit disappointed. I wanted something new. But rather than taking my chances on a walkabout, I decided I’d give this highly touted restaurant another go. Then when the bartender told me the menu changes regularly, any remnants of disappointment melted into my Martini.

Not only are bartenders the traditional “good listeners”, they can be great educators as well. I learned a few things at dinner. Mezze means small plates of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. Hmmmm… OK. Lamb comes to mind and those amazing aromatic spices from the Turkish and Lebanese cooking styles. YUM. So it’s a tapas-goes-east kinda style and Zaytinya is a mezze restaurant. That makes perfect sense since the owner is a Spanish trained chef and tapas style cooking is Spanish. The next useless fact I learned is that Zaytinya means Olive Oil in Turkish (I guess that’s not useless if you are a chef in Istanbul, but everything in context, it’s a useless fact to most of us).

Having fulfilled my put-something-new-in-your-brain-every-day goal, it was time to put something new in my belly. Mezze style, like tapas, are really small portions so you need somewhere between 3 and 5 items to feel satisfied. The prices were in the ten dollar range, so I would put this in the moderately pricey category. The first thing that caught my eye was something I had recently been contemplating trying a hand at in my own kitchen. Cold cucumber soup. I’m not really sure why I’ve been thinking of it either. I don’t recall any recent recipes or TV programming that has featured this, although I know I’ve read about cucumber soups before. Well, for whatever reason, it’s gone from the recesses of my memory to the forefront and here it is on this menu. Of course, I had to have it. From the website’s menu it is described thusly:

Ashe Mast va Khiar-
chilled cucumber-yogurt soup, golden raisins, dill and
Persian cucumbers

That sounds delicious but it tastes even better. It was a creamy consistency that would put a reasonably good coating on the back of a spoon as it lazily dripped off. The yogurt provided a nice acidity that balanced the mellowness of the sweet cucumber flavor and the raisins were an amazingly bright treat. This was good. Real good and it left me wanting more. But I had to move on to the other dishes I ordered. The swordfish kabob was next. I don’t know how anyone could consider that they’ve had Middle Eastern food until they’ve eaten some sort of Kabob (meaning ‘skewered’). I mean, I’m no authority on Middle Eastern cuisine –I ate mostly Army issued MRE’s during the Gulf War- but the Kabob seems so quintessential to Middle Eastern fare. This was also terrific. It’s so easy to make a piece of swordfish dry. I know this from experience. This was perfect and moist with a second to none crust on the grilled surface.

Lastly I had these teeny-tiny little sausages. Again best described from the menu:

housemade lamb and beef sausages served with
garlic, pine nuts and topped with micro cilantro

After the sausages were gone, there were a few tablespoons of a garlic, pine nut and cilantro broth that was just heaven. After dinner was a nice port followed by a brisk walk. Honestly, I could have eaten more, but gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins so I stopped right there. I have to admit that Zaytinya should be on anyone’s radar that visits Washington DC.

Thursday was a new treat. The weather was perfect. When I popped up from the metro stop at Union Station heading back to my family’s place on Capitol Hill, I noticed a warm sweet smelling breeze that was quite inviting for a stroll. I recalled eating at an Italian restaurant that was nestled in a restaurant district not far from Eastern Market, which is just at the comfortable edge of walking distance. I was betting that I could find a place down there that was exciting so after a quick cocktail at the house, off I went. The only trips I’ve had to the Market area were by car when someone else was driving so I wasn’t 100% sure of myself but it turned out to be a pretty straight shot down 7th Street. Eastern Market cropped up at the end of the 19th century in response to the growth happening on Capitol Hill at the time. Around it, shops and restaurants have flourished and today its rich tradition of providing local meats and produce continues. Just beyond the metro stop on 8th Street, there are several fine places to eat but I saw one I had recently been told about. So into the Belga Café I went.

The Belga Café serves up Belgian cuisine which, frankly, does not stir up any thoughts of fine dining. Of course, I immediately think of great beer but I can’t think of one stunning Belgian dish. I visited Belgium a few years ago and remembered the food to be just OK (even though the sidewalk cafes were spectacular). I obviously did not eat at a restaurant owned by Bart M. Vandaele while I was there. This guy has cooked for the likes of the entire Capitol Hill crowd after moving to the states and the political celebrity list is long. I noticed him walking about the restaurant talking to his guests. That’s not something you see done much. I was impressed. And if you think this owner’s hands on approach to service is cool, you should taste his food. I traveled back to the cold soup. If the night before was cucumber, this night was Avocado. It had a somewhat similar consistency to the cucumber soup but the flavor of Avocado and Cilantro powered through. The perfectly seasoned saltiness was dreamy. I loved it and again, needed more. Next was a Hanger steak that was made in a sort of an Au Poivre fashion. Au Poivre just means with pepper in French. So the steak came in 3 generous medallions coated in a dark pepper sauce. If you scroll way down to the Stonington Borough excerpt, you can find a lovely photo I took of the Hanger steak in Connecticut a few weeks ago. This will give you an idea of what a hanger steak cut looks like. Hearty, buttery, peppery- Delicious!! Belgian steak is typically served with wonderfully crisp potato fries and Mayonnaise (instead of ketsup). A nice touch.

Stepping back onto 8th Street, I was pleased. All of the cafés were still abuzz with the young and trendy Capitol Hill crowd. While I’m a t-shirt and flip flops sorta guy (although I enjoy dressing up occasionally), there’s something refreshing about seeing young men in their late 20’s and early 30’s wearing ties and suit coats. Their young lady guests hold heads high and are perfectly put together –classy. I felt as if I was dining with the future leaders of the free world.

As pleasant and welcome as the two previous evenings had been, Friday morning was just as melancholy. As I walked in the predawn rain to Union Station for a cab to the airport, I realized that my business in DC has come to a close for now and my family there is actively trying to move back to Arizona. That means this may have been my last trip for a while to this fantastic city. Well, I do plan to go back and I’ll just have to use my hiatus to explore and write about new experiences. For now, a short airplane ride back to the land of the flip flop will do.

I should have a fair amount to write about next week. I’m headed off later today for an Orlando weekend. Olivia turns 4 on Monday and she’s at the “everything princesses” age. Disney here we come. Then off to Rhode Island yet again for the work week followed by Olivia’s birthday party next week where I will be the grill master of the dogs and the sliders. Too fun. Bye for now.

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