There are many great places to eat in the constellation of restaurants that make up José Andrés’ Think Food Group, and arguably, Zaytinya has been one of the more reliably high-achieving ones. Despite being around for close to for a decade, the restaurant’s willingness to reinvent itself and explore new, one-off concepts ensures that it remains fertile ground for innovation and experimentation. I was one of the fortunate twenty or so people – and one of the few non-Armenians – to be invited in for a special dinner in celebration of Armenian culture and cuisine, part of this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival programming. The collaboration between Chef Michael Costa and guest Chef Carrie Nahabedian (of NAHA Chicago fame, where she won several Michelin Stars) brought together a handful of ethnic Armenian-Americans, food writers, and friends of the restaurant for a meal that married haute cuisine with home comforts.
The aim of The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is to shed light on regions around the world, educating American audiences on elements of life, art, food, and history. This year the Smithsonian’s curators are focusing on Armenia and Catalonia, two countries/regions with deep gastronomic traditions and pronounced idiosyncrasies that share politically charged histories within their respective geographic areas. The free festival takes place on the National Mall between 12th and 14th streets from June 27 to July 1, and then again from July 4 to 8. Tuesday night’s dinner served as an unofficial kickoff for the Armenian programming, with a menu that paired modern Armenian wines with updated versions of traditional dishes. The only shame is that the dishes dreamt up by Chefs Costa and Nahabedian won’t be permanent additions to the Zaytinya menu, because they were all excellent.
We started the evening by sampling a variety of Turkish-Armenian delicacies as finger food: grape leaf dolmas, thin slices of beef cured in salt and turmeric, and lamb meatballs served on crunchy pita chips and with a dollop of spiced yogurt.
This was all paired with a sparkling Armenian white wine, a blanc de blancs grown at high elevation in vineyards reclaimed after the fall of the Soviet Union. The wine – produced in a champenoise method – was clean, effervescent and incredibly refreshing on a muggy evening. Of the four different wines we tried from the region, it was certainly the standout, although it is worth pointing out that they were all quite good.
While all the dishes served that evening are deceptively simple in theory, this was an example of execution at the highest level. A bright summer salad of watermelon, muskmelon, cucumber, mint, lima beans, red onions, and shaved tomatoes was anchored perfectly by the umami of cured olives and a cheese boereg, a classic Armenian puff pastry made with phyllo dough. Each bite burst with contrapuntal flavors: sweet, salty, fatty, crisp – and as weird as it sounds to wax poetic about a salad, I’m still thinking about it two days later.
It wouldn’t be an Armenian meal without lamb, and we were not disappointed. The main dish was a perfectly herbed and roasted leg that you could carve easily with your dinner knife and that melted in each bite. Served with a sou berek (basically a cheese lasagnette) and sautéed string beans, squash, and onions, the generous portion of meat was the pièce-de-résistance of the evening. It was a fitting ending to a meal that had taken on the nature of a family gathering by that point, after a couple of celebratory speeches and toasts by the chefs, representatives from the Smithsonian and the Armenian cultural organization, and the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, Richard Mills – all effusive in their appreciation for the hospitality and generosity of Armenians around the world.
As proceedings began to wind down, dessert and tea was served. Like clockwork, “oohs” were heard from each table, as diners tasted the crème kadaiyif on offer – shredded phyllo pastry filled with rose water syrup soaked custard. It was incredibly decadent, delicious, and the perfect final bite.