Mandarin Oriental, Washington, D.C.
I have very good instincts about restaurants.
They work for me, anyway.
I’d say that about 80% my restaurant experiences match my expectations.
I tend to walk in with a glass slightly less than half-empty and hope that the restaurant can fill ‘er up. If it doesn’t, there’s not a tremendous sense of loss.
Rarely, however, I encounter an unexpected knock-out; a restaurant experience that far surpasses my expectations. Thrilling, these are the meals I live for.
My recent dinner at CityZen, unfortunately, was not one of them.
If I have learned one thing by now, it’s that Thomas Keller is Midas. Everyone and everything he touches turns to gold.
How many Keller proteges have moved into their own kitchens?
Ron Siegel, the first and only American to beat an (original) Iron Chef jumped from Charles Nob Hill to Masa’s (where Keller alumnus Gregory Short is currently the executive chef) and landed at the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco, where he’s earned one Michelin star.
Multiple-James Beard Award-winner Grant Achatz, needs no introduction. He opened alinea in Chicago.
Richard Blais of Top Chef fame has Elevation and Flip Burger in Atlanta.
Rob Evans, who won the James Beard Award last year (2009) for Best Chef Northeast, has two restaurants in Portland, Maine – Hugo’s and Duckfat.
Clayton Miller – recently named one of Food + Wine Magazine‘s Best New Chefs – has Trummer’s on Main in Clifton, Virginia. In the five years between The French Laundry and Trummer’s on Main, Miller worked at Norman’s in Orlando, where I ate shortly before he left in 2008.
And we’re on the cusp of seeing two of perhaps the most well-known Keller graduates move on to write their own bright futures. Corey Lee (Chef de Cuisine at The French Laundry from 2005 to 2009) and Jonathan Benno (Chef de Cuisine at per se from 2004 to 2009) are both expected to open their own restaurants later this year (Lee in San Francisco, Benno at the Lincoln Center in New York City).
Then there’s Eric Ziebold, Corey Lee’s predecessor at The French Laundry.
I have been fascinated by him ever since he first arrived at CityZen in 2004.
Like the rest of his Keller colleagues, his ascent onto the national culinary scene has been impressively quick and refreshingly quiet.
In 2005, he was named one of Food + Wine’s Best New Chefs. In 2008, he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. But these awards, having come and gone, haven’t stolen him from his position as a working chef. Indoctrinated with the Keller work ethic, he has seemed far more dedicated to his craft and kitchen than to pursuing fame or fortune.
Every one of Keller’s disciples, whose restaurant I’ve had the chance of visiting, has been in the kitchen the night I visited their restaurant. Ziebold was no exception. Of course, Ziebold has an extra incentive to show up for work – his kitchen is open to the entire dining room.
My friend Houston and I had front row seats. Our table, in the smaller dining room often used for private parties, was the closest one to the pass. Sitting on a concrete floor next to a glass wall lined with metal, I was surprised to find the noise level quite manageable. Only the deafening clatter of the whisk and copper bowl, which injected itself episodically throughout the evening, was slightly annoying.
Neither Houston nor I was terribly hot on the six-course chefs’ tasting menu ($110). Preferring the luxury of choice, we ordered three three-course prix-fixe dinners to share. We selected nine dishes, asking for the third main course to be halved. Therefore, we had two sets of first courses, a main course each, shared a cheese course, and each finished with a dessert course.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal, or click on the course titles below to see the individual dishes.
Vichyssoise Panna Cotta
Smoked olive oil, Steelhead salmon roe.
Olive Oil Custard
Red pepper butter sauce.
Clam Chowder Crepe Soufflé
Littleneck clams, Peruvian purple potato, Applewood smoked bacon.
Grilled Guinea Hen Liver
Confit of Savoy cabbage, Perigord black truffle, and roasted guinea hen jus.
Pan Roasted Loin of Kanagy Farms Shoat
Sauteed apple, Brussels sprout leaves, faritytale pumpkin, and shoat jus.
(First course portion $18 supplement)
CityZen Pork Bun
Minced pork cheek, spinach and kumquat
Wrapped in a black pepper dough with melted head cheese.
Pan-Roasted Guinea Hen
Boudin blanc, pommes Sarladaise,
chanterelle mushrooms and foie gras emulsion.
Crepinette of Florida Red Snapper
Caramelized Savoy cabbage, applewood smoked bacon, pearl onions, and grain mustard sauce.
Ticklemore: Goat. Devon, U.K.
Idiazabal: Sheep. Spain.
Abbaye de Tamle: Cow. France.
Bleu d’Auvergne: Cow. Auvergne, France.
Spiced Marcona almonds and candied walnuts.
Apricot compote and a pear-red pepper chutney.
Creme brulee ice cream and mocha coulis.
CityZen Rootbeer Float
Sassafras soufflé with tonka vanilla ice cream and spiced milk broth.
Oatmeal Cookie Cream Pies.
Toasted Hazelnut and Dark Chocolate.
I have to be honest: Ziebold’s menus have never interested me. Perusing them regularly over the course of five years, my imagination has never been captured.
And that seems to have been my reaction to every Keller and Keller alumnus restaurant I’ve visited. I’ve left every one of them shrugging.
So why visit this one?
Because everyone I know who has been to CityZen has highly commended the restaurant to me. And because I am on that eternal quest to have my expectations unexpectedly surpassed.
Hope springs eternal.
I arrived with my expectations heavily checked, though.
Whereas I expected to be mildly bored, I actually left the restaurant deflated.
By the end of the night, CityZen had managed to siphon off a good deal of my slightly half-empty glass.
Service, at first, seemed razor-sharp. But it quickly dulled.
It was a very busy night. And it was apparent in the lack of attention and wildly inconsistent pacing. We waited at least 25 minutes between a couple of our courses, even longer for dessert. This wasn’t as much of a problem towards the end of the night – we were getting full – as it was towards the beginning.
Some restaurants are able to pull off the round robin-style of service seamlessly, a relay with well-rehearsed baton passes. Our rotating servers seemed more like last-minute covers trying to fill in the gaps.
My empty wine glass sat on our table for more than half the night, even though I said I wasn’t having any wine. Silverware was misplaced.
Bread, which was served from a large cigar box, was stone-cold. It wasn’t quite icebox-cold, but it was unnaturally cold. Cold focaccia is not good focaccia.
And the cheese course, which had me particularly excited (a trusted friend had said the selection was especially notable), arrived on a plate, not on a trolley, as my friend remembered. It’s not the trolley I missed, but rather, the implied ability to choose from a larger selection. More troubling, however, was the fact that our server wasn’t sure how to identify two of the cheeses she was serving us. For a restaurant of CityZen’s caliber, this was disappointing.
But these are all trivial concerns next to the extremely fishy-tasting snapper I had as a main course. I smelled its fishiness before it landed on the table. The snapper – two thick filets wrapped tightly in caul fat, skin-side out (a cleverly bound “Crepinette of Florida Red Snapper“) – was beautifully cooked. The fish was moist and soft within, crispy on the top and bottom. But it was ruined by its odor. I left the majority of it uneaten, focusing instead on the bed of softened Savoy cabbage, whose hamminess helped mask its fishiness.
The pommes Sarladaise that accompanied Houston’s “Pan-Roasted Guinea Hen” were limp and greasy; the guinea hen, unspectacular. The boudin blanc and a swatch of creamed spinach, however, were very good. Ziebold could have started and stopped with those two items and had a blue ribbon plate.
And this is what I learned about Ziebold’s cooking from this, my only meal at CityZen: I preferred his heartier, bolder-flavored creations. They seemed more honest. More present. Maybe, even more Ziebold?
My favorite dish of the night was my first course, “Grilled Guinea Hen Liver.” It had all of the guts and gusto of a rustic country dish, yet the precision of a Keller alumnus. It was head and shoulders above the rest. It was the type of dish – the quality, not necessarily the content – that I expected to parade out of Ziebold’s kitchen consistently.
The nuggets of livers were amazingly tender and the confit of cabbage unnaturally silky, bathed in a rich guinea jus. If there was one disappointing thing about this dish, it was the chips of black truffle that garnished the plate. They had no aroma whatsoever, tasting instead of bitter flecks of char.
Houston’s first course, the “Clam Chowder Crepe Soufflé,” was wan by comparison, not rich enough to be a chowder. It was as if all of the ingredients of a traditional chowder washed up in a tidal pool next to an omelet. Creative, overly precious, forgettable.
Ziebold’s more refined dishes struck me as being Keller clones. (That chowder soufflé even arrived on Keller’s signature houndstooth Bernadotte china.)
The “Pan Roasted Loin of Kanagy Farms Shoat,” for example, looked and tasted like it could have walked straight out of per se under Benno’s tenure. The shoat was wonderfully tender. It came with excellent jus (clear as a bell, clean as a whistle), and perfectly turned canons of fruit and vegetables. It was all very textbook, and just about as exciting as one.
Both of the amuses bouche, on the other hand, were bold and delicious, exciting volleys with which to begin the meal, even if they were a bit predictable. Something creamy with something salty. I especially enjoyed the red pepper butter, which punctuated silky olive oil custard with sweet-salty savor.
Then there was the “CityZen Pork Bun,” which was, perhaps, the oddest dish I’ve had in a while. I had imagined it to be something akin to a fluffy, steamed char sui bun filled with melting head cheese. Instead, this “bun,” shaped like a burrito, was more of an over-sized dumpling. More dough than filling, it relied mostly on the golden, pan-fried crust on the outside for personality than anything in it. But the rosy bed of “minced pork cheek” – corned, apparently – was delicious.
Headed by James Beard Award-nominee Amanda Cook (best of luck in May!), the pastry department here is solid.
Those cheeses, as common as they were, were exemplary, especially the Bleu d’Auvergne, which was especially meaty that night.
Both of our desserts were sophisticated versions of simple classics. Sweet teeth should look elsewhere for a fix, these desserts were lean on sugar, focusing instead on the natural flavors of the ingredients. Cook targets dessert-eaters like me.
The highlight was my “CityZen Rootbeer Float,” a creative reinterpretation involving a sassafras soufflé and an edible straw (made of potato flour, I believe). It would have been even better had the “spiced milk broth” been served in a little creamer so that I could pour it into the warm, fluffy soufflé like you would do with creme anglaise normally. Instead, the wonderful spiced milk – subbing in for the frothy head off a root beer float – sat in a shallow pool around a quenelle of vanilla ice cream.
Houston’s “Banana Fritters” were surprisingly hefty nuggets, each filled with a mashed banana filling. They were accompanied by a daringly bitter chocolate sauce that was two parts smoky, one part earthy. This was an adult dessert. It begged for a glass of red wine.
CityZen is a handsome restaurant. It’s predictably sleek and modern – grand, even. But it has hardly any character. It might be listed under “high-end, nondescript hostelry” in a catalog somewhere: plush settees; high thread count linens; floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, temperature-moderated , glass-encased wine racks. A gleaming kitchen. High ceilings. There’s some Las Vegas in its pedigree.
Highlights, there were a few (I failed to mention the warm, buttery mini-Parker House rolls that arrived in a small cigar box with our main courses, and the excellent “Jack of Allspice” cocktail that came in a pretty, long-stemmed coupe). Disappointments, there were more.
1330 Maryland Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20024