The only thing better than a great meal for its own sake is a great meal shared with friends. I recently had an opportunity to do that in Washington D.C. when I organized a mini-reunion dinner with some college classmates who live in and around the nation’s capitol. For this meal I chose CityZen, a restaurant that had been on my list of get-to places for some time.
Chef Eric Ziebold, an alumnus of The French Laundry has developed a reputation as one of the best fine dining chefs in the country and CityZen a reputation as one of the loveliest restaurants in D.C., which has become one of the country’s very best food cities. Ten of us were seated in the Wine Gallery overlooking the large open kitchen with Chef Ziebold active at the pass. The set-up was elegant, modern and comfortable with enough privacy to assure that our collegiate revelry would not disrupt the rest of the diners on the other side of the wall, but open enough that we had no sense of claustrophobia.
I chose a fixed menu format, but the restaurant selected the dishes that we would have. This was arranged for a set fee. Beverages were handled individually, though most of the group shared wine ordered by the bottle. A lovely German Riesling, the 2009 Grünhauser Riesling Kabinett, from the Mosel region of Germany was a delightful choice for the first part of the meal, so good and filled with bright acidity and luscious fruit, that we ordered more when the initial supply ran dry.
The meal opened with an amuse of Shaved Cured Sea Trout accompanied by tempura fried fennel and Maine lobster salad with shichimi aioli. There are restaurants that celebrate the local and the regional and there are those that have a more global outlook. Chef Ziebold made it plain at the outset that CityZen, billed as “modern American cuisine”, falls into the latter camp. Pristine sea trout was gently cured and paired with lobster from Maine and spices from Japan to create a melting-pot dish from a variety of cultures that simply tasted very, very good with a range of well structured textural contrasts.
A second amuse brought some Basque flavor into the evening with the espalette pepper. It was satisfying in the way only a well made custard can be.
Our first official course saw a return of Maine lobster, but this time in a more prominent role. This was a light and lively, well thought out and executed course with a Mediterranean bent. The main ingredients were abetted by Greek yogurt sorbet, turmeric vinaigrette & a cumin tuille, all blending together very nicely, while maintaining bursts of their individual characters.
Ziebold correctly sees American cuisine as a whole as an amalgamation of international influences. His tour continued with the flavors of Southeast Asia married with fish from Alaska. Swarnadwipa, which is an ancient name for Sumatra, is a spice blend incorporating coconut, lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal and smoked paprika and possibly other flavors. This dish was further enhanced with young coconut, lemongrass mousse and roasted corn consommé, which gave the dish deliciously smoky undertones.
When the foie gras was served, I took a quick look at it and initially thought it was perhaps slightly overcooked duck. While it was duck, it wasn’t overcooked and it wasn’t breast. It was a huge piece of foie gras served with mission figs, baby leeks, Darden ham & hyssop-red wine gastrique. The figs were certainly classic, but the other components gave additional evidence of Ziebold’s culinary dexterity. The ham, Ziebold’s nod to the Mid-Atlantic region, is a smoked Virginia ham from a small producer in southern Virginia, that lent a savory spark to the dish that was also nicely balanced with the acid from the hyssop-red wine gastrique.
As good as every dish was at this dinner, my favorite course of the evening was Ziebold’s Elysian Fields lamb ribeye accented with grilled Penn Farms zucchini, tomato marmelade, dried olives, garlic powder & basil panade. The lamb was fork tender and full of wonderful flavor and the Mediterranean flavors are classic with lamb for a reason. This was a dish of pure pleasure.
These straight from the oven Parker House rolls were a treat served along with the lamb. Having them towards the end of the meal was a good touch as it allowed anyone who may still have been hungry, a chance to fill up, while they did not prematurely sate those hungry from the start.
The pre-dessert was a palate cleanser of ginger sorbet sitting upon an apple-pear compote and finished with almond streusel. The ginger reinvigorated my palate and primed it for the main dessert.
This play on a classic carrot cake was well done with enough of a resemblance to its original inspiration to be recognizable and familiar, but enough whimsy in its construction to keep it fun.
The mignardises were well prepared and fine, but faced the difficulty that mignardises often face of trying to win over the affections and memories of well-sated diners at the end of the meal.
CityZen provided a perfect forum for our mini-reunion with food that was delicious and novel without being too challenging for a group of individuals, a most comfortable environment and warm service. Add that to the pleasures of getting together with a group of old friends and there is a truly winning combination.