When Zaytinya opened in October 2002, the food scene in D.C. was an entirely different monster. Arriving at restaurants before they open just to have the “privilege” of standing in line was unthinkable then, as was most of whatever is happening in Ivy City and the Wharf. And yet, through all of the changes and all of the new trends that came and went (looking at you cronuts), Zaytinya unabashedly kept doing its thing. As someone who hasn’t been to Zaytinya since trying to impress a date in 2014, I was excited to go to their recent Turkish Street Food Dinner to try a bevy of dishes that I hoped would help me understand how this place continues to gather accolades going into its fifteenth year.
Even before I sat down for the three course dinner, I already felt a little bit out of place. Walking through the tall double glass doors, I was struck by the feeling that perhaps wearing rolled up blue khakis and a semi-ironed red flannel was not the best dress choice. But then again, I can’t remember the last time I went to a restaurant with 282 seats, high vaulted ceilings, and décor that would probably make Patrick Bateman sweat with joy. Fortunately, none of this mattered once the waves of food started to roll in.
Each course consisted of three dishes that shared some sort of commonality. For the first course, the theme seemed to be the interplay between protein and carb. The first dish—aromatic rice-stuffed mussels with lemon and dill—was defined by the subtle brininess of the mussel that was elevated by the dill only to be tamed by the lemon. The rice balanced a refined creaminess reminiscent of risotto while still being substantial enough to carry the other flavors.
The second dish—a roasted mackerel sandwich with garlic yogurt, sweet gem lettuce, and heirloom tomato—was completely unexpected. To be honest, this was my low-key favorite dish of the entire dinner. Maybe it’s my Russian/Armenian upbringing or the fact that garlic literally makes everything better, but this unassuming fish sandwich was crazy good. Never mind that I couldn’t really taste the heirloom tomato or make sense of what sweet gem lettuce was, all that mattered was how well the mackerel, the garlic yogurt, and the toast paired together. The garlic yogurt added a welcome effervescence to the tender mackerel, while the toast provided a crunchy textural respite from all the quick hit indulgence.
The third dish in the first course—bulgur and beef tartare wrapped in lettuce leaves—was fine. The bulgur and the tartare just didn’t really work for my palate. Based off of how quickly the people around me consumed their portions, I can only assume I was in the minority on this one. The entire first course was paired with lemon-lavender mint-tea infused vodka, Aperol, vanilla syrup, lime juice, and grapefruit juice cocktail. The drink did well to tone down some of the more dense flavors in the course, but anytime I see a drink with more than two citrus ingredients I already know that all I’m going to taste is…citrus. The drink was refreshing but one-dimensional.
The second course featured three dishes that each showcased the combination of specific dough with varied ingredients. The first dish—flatbread with crispy chickpeas, tomato, parsley, lemon, and a spicy zhoug sauce—was really refreshing, with the chickpeas providing a nice crunch to a dish that was more about the interplay of flavors than textural contrast. It was also probably the only dish I had where I could decipher every flavor individually. The second dish presented a pressed sandwich with kasar cheese, slow-cooked beef brisket, cumin, and maras pepper. I don’t know much about Turkish food but I can only assume that this is what you eat when you’ve had more alcohol than consciousness can stomach. It was damn good. The last dish was also full of flavor but couldn’t live up to the previous two. The house-made phyllo with spinach, feta, and dill was salty, fluffy, and oddly refreshing, but didn’t leave a lasting mark.
The third and final course was the heaviest, both in flavor and ingredients. I couldn’t really figure out a clear theme other than every dish was a figurative nail in the coffin after the previous six. The standout of the three was the grilled baby corn with urfa and cumin, garlic yogurt, and sweet corn puree. Pairing grilled baby corn with the refined corn puree created an intensely smooth corn flavor that was transformed into something more refined by the cumin and garlic yogurt.
The spit roasted lamb shoulder, grilled Anaheim peppers, and cherry tomato was fantastic and was served torn apart on a wooden platter as if to almost say, “It’s lamb, it’s good, just eat it.” The last dish—a baked peewee potato, kasar cheese, soujouk sausage, black olive, beyaz penir, and chives—might have been good if it was served earlier in the dinner but after consuming eight previous dishes and battling meat sweats, the last thing I wanted was a baked potato.
By the time desserts started to role in, my inner Roberto Duran was begging for no more. The crunchy Turkish dumpling with Tangier spice was too sweet for my liking, while the Turkish wafer mastic ice cream sandwich was elevated by the chewy wafer and the oiliness of the pistachio sprinkled liberally on the ice cream. The accompanying Turasan rose was refreshingly dry and not too sweet.
After the meal, I had a chance to ask Chef Michael Costa why they decided to do a second Turkish street food dinner (the first was in July 2017). Chef Costa explained that the popularity of the first dinner was enough to convince them to have a second iteration, and added that it was really fun to be able to focus on one culinary focus. Going into this dinner, I figured this type of event was a foreshadowing of how Zaytinya will evolve at a time when D.C. is a nationally renowned dining destination. Instead, the dinner served as an example of what Chef Costa described as “the things we do best.” While not without its inconsistencies, the food exuded confidence and a pinpoint technique that reminds you that Zaytinya has been doing this whole restaurant thing longer than most of us have been in D.C. And on nights like this, when Chef Costa is able to focus all of his know-how on one specific cuisine, you understand why.