Monday, April 26, 2010

There is no Sincerer Love Than the Love of Food

I had a difficult time choosing where to celebrate round 2 of my birthday. Food is so important in our family, especially when it comes to special occasions. My dad was in town yet again, so I truly had my pick of restaurants, and I wanted to pick one that lives up to our "sincere love of food" (according to the Greek philosopher Socrates). Previously, I had been to Zaytinya just for drinks and a few dishes, but that brief encounter left me wanting more of the Greek mezze. So this seemed like the perfect occasion to go all out.

Zaytinya has had quite a reputation in DC for some time, especially because it is a Jose Andres restaurant, but ever since the last season of Top Chef when executive chef Mike Isabella competed its popularity has exploded. It is no longer possible to just walk in and be seated, you are looking at an hour wait (at the minimum) if you don't make a reservation.

This is a place where you can go to satisfy almost any stage of hunger. It is quite possible to go to the bar and order a cocktail and 2 or 3 plates off of the $4 Mezza Ora menu during the restaurant's happy hour. But you also can take a seat in the large airy dining room and enjoy a leisurely meal where the dishes keep coming out of the kitchen - each one more exciting than the last.

On the night that we went to the restaurant, we were lucky enough to meet Jose Andres. Mr. Andres has built quite a reputation in the culinary world and beyond; he even carries the nickname of "Spain’s unofficial ambassador to the United States." He is one of the nicest chefs that I have had the opportunity to meet. Besides standing and chatting with us for a good 10 minutes, he sent over some of his favorite dishes during the meal.

When you first take a look at the menu, it is almost impossible not to be overwhelmed. The list seems to go on forever and almost every dish looks like it could be the best. My suggestion is to ask your waiter or waitress for their recommendations. Many of them have been working at the restaurant for quite some time and they all have had extensive training. The waitress that we had that evening was knowledgeable without being preachy. She was not only able to accurately describe dishes that we had questions about, she also could tell us the stories behind many of the ingredients that are used.

Every dish that came out of the kitchen that evening was truly wonderful, but there were a few standouts that deserve to be mentioned. The fresh chickpeas (still in the pod) that were marinated in lemon and dill that were incredibly unusual, but so good. My roommate said, "I want to just go to the bar, order the chickpeas and drink a glass of wine." Chef Andres also sent out a wonderful dish of hand-stuffed, lamb-filled pasta (about the size of the nail on your pinkie finger) and covered with a yogurt and paprika sauce.

A word to the wise - save room for dessert. One of the most amazing dishes of the night came during dessert: greek yogurt with apricots and pistachios. The description on the menu doesn't do its perfection justice. Zaytinya does a brilliant thing and offers two different sizes for their desserts, large and mezze style. I wish more restaurants did this, because sometimes all you need a few bites of sweet, and not an entire dish.

I left dinner that evening feeling comfortably full, which I think is the best feeling after a great dinner. Thank you Zaytinya (and Chef Andres) for an amazing birthday dinner. It's a meal I won't soon forget.

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