All Words: Riley Croghan
All photos: Franz Mahr
Zaytinya, long a DC-foodie favorite, has been a cornerstone of Penn Quarter since 2003. A favorable review, at this point, will come as a surprise to no one, and most of you are here (rightly so) for the food porn, anyway.
Allow me if you would, before you scroll down to drool over your keyboard, to offer a quick behind-the-scenes look at a food review. I will try to keep the stealth-brags to a minimum.
Many of you likely have an idea in your head of how food reviews are done– an elaborate game played between a reviewer trying to order most of the menu without being recognized, while the restaurant tries to impress, dazzle, and have the chef send out a few off-menu delicacies without revealing that they have spotted the critic. This high-adrenaline, thrill-a-second food review world that Hollywood has incepted in you does exist. Probably. But what you’re thinking of is a full restaurant review, performed by critics paid much better than I am, who somehow still maintain slightly smaller waistlines than mine. The secret of how they manage to stay slim is one they will take to their grave.
Anyway, many reviews of new events or tasting menus in this city are handled via a tasting reception. Here, writers and food photographers drink, eat, and meet with the chefs who make the magic happen. Zaytinya, true to its reputation, has been one of the best restaurants in terms of pulling off this sort of event.
Franz and I went to a reception last week to preview Zaytinya’s Greek Easter menu, running from the start of “Western” Easter (April 8th) to just after Greek Easter (which is April 15th– the menu will run until the 22nd, though). We sampled cocktails and small-plate versions of the spring-lamb inspired menu. In a tasting reception, the cliff’s notes version of each dish comes out on a tray that the photographers will scramble to in an effort to take some pristine photos of the dish before it is eaten. The better the food, the faster it goes, and I didn’t get to sample some of the top dishes on the menu until they had already been brought out five or six times and cleared out before the waiter made it more than a few steps into the room.
The lamb shoulder (“arni me sparangia”) was one of those dishes. Roasted over an open grill near the bar of the restaurant, the shoulder is blackened and tender, served with asparagus and ladolemono. I try not to be vulgar in these reviews, but it bears mentioning that the place where I usually scribble some notes about the dish on my menu, I wound up writing “Fuck Yeah!” and underlining that twice. The dish is, unsurprisingly, expected by chef Michael Costa to be one of the biggest sellers this month.
He also mentioned that his favorite dish is one that is not expected to sell quite as well: the glossa, which is thinly sliced lamb’s tongue. I already had sampled one of these by the time I figured out what the dish was, which I guess is kind of cheating, but I would urge you to keep an open mind about it. The meat is light and fresh, and served with potatoes, olives, and candied pistachios, the taste was slightly reminiscent of fresh oyster, although less fishy, of course. (Costa admitted “I like the idea of introducing people to offal dishes,” which briefly confused another reviewer who assumed he said “awful”)
Other important menu highlights include the lamb sandwich (served with tzatziki and pickled onions and tasting like the best and fanciest falafel you’ve ever had); an incredible soup called the mayiritsa which is salty and rich, and includes some very tender lamb liver); and of course the desert: tsoureki bread pudding.
There is such a tendency to go overboard with a bread pudding dish; make it out of the thickest bread, smother it in thick caramel sauces, which is exactly how I have had it (and loved it) at previous reviews. But here, the dish is light, citrusy, and practically evaporates in your mouth. A light, orange brittle topping makes this dish much more like creme brulee than your standard bread pudding. It is an excellent way to finish off the night.
The entire ten course Easter meal is available at $99 (excluding tax and gratuity) for two