Thursday, April 13, 2006

Yin and Yang of Haute and Comfort Cuisine at CityZen

1330 Maryland Avenue SW
Washington DC 20024
(202)787-6006
Chef Eric Ziebold (formerly sous-chef French Laundry)
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday

CityZen on Urbanspoon

Last tried: April 2006

CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, located in the Southwest district of Washington D.C., is modern and elegant yet comfortable, much like the cuisine of Chef Eric Ziebold. The best seats in the house are near the large open kitchen on the far end of the restaurant, on the opposite end of the spacious bar area, where you can view the quiet, efficient movements of the chef and the kitchen staff as well as ogle the wines in the floor-to-ceiling wine racks lining the glass wall of the temperature-controlled transparent cellar.

The menu offers three options: five-course tasting menu for $90 per person; five-course vegetarian tasting menu for $80 per person; and a standard three-course menu for $75 per person, with each course to be selected from the five or six a la carte choices in the categories of appetizer, entree, and dessert. Interestingly, rather than being an excerpt of the a la carte menu with a few additional ingredients added or substituted, the tasting menu items are completely different from the a la carte dishes. Although I opted for the tasting menu, I could not help being irresistably drawn to all of the delicious sounding dishes listed among the three course options. Since I was there mid-week and the restaurant was not as packed as it is on weekends, the kitchen agreed to incorporate additional individual dishes from the a la carte menu as supplements to the tasting menu.

Our gracious and patient server did not bat an eye as we enumerated our various requests, including indulging my attempt to fashion my own wine pairings, which he executed as though they were part of his regular wine service (the restaurant offers wine pairing at $68 per person, but CityZen had such a spectacular list of wines by the glass as well as half-bottle selections, I could not resist playing with the list). Between the available menu options, I would recommend the tasting menu as the best display of Chef Ziebold's talents, but I also found some incredible, not-to-be-missed gems in the standard three-course menu offerings.

As our server walked away, I was sure that I had given him a complete migraine and he would run away screaming. Instead, he came back smiling with a tiny white plate containing a small gumball-size three-mushroom fritter filled with a truffle puree and decorated with a taupe-colored comet tail of creamy mushroom sauce speckled with black pepper. The delicate crunch of the crispy exterior of the fritter yielded to an explosion of rich, earthy, and creamy flavors. As I was smacking my lips at the memory of this tiny exquisite taste, a second amuse was placed in front of me-- a tender bite of roasted cobia resting on a ragout of couscous and spiced with a swirl of olive tapenade. The fish was so soft it was almost sushi-like in texture, and the flavors and textures of the couscous and salty tapenade complemented the fish impeccably.

The first course of the tasting menu was a Maine lobster chibouste. This creamy yellow dome looked like a large egg yolk, had the texture of a perfectly cooked souffle, and tasted like just-caught and cooked lobster that had been pureed with cream. The tender slices of morel mushrooms, buttery ramps, and fresh English peas swimming in the light broth that surrounded the chibouste were just as exquisite. (I did not realize at the time that I would be having this combination of lobster and peas repeatedly, as every restaurant in Washington DC seemed to be featuring it as part of their menu this month. CityZen's, however, was by far the best executed.)

From the a la carte menu, I tried the spring garlic soup with frog's legs, farm egg with cured shoat leg, and the trout club sandwich. The garlic soup had a tad too much cream but was generally flavorful and soothing, and the light golden morsels of deep-fried frog's legs in the soup were faultless. Bernard Loiseau would have been pleased with this rendition. The farm egg was soft-boiled perfectly such that the egg white was firm yet still soft and the yolk burst open at the touch of my spoon, oozing decadently over the mixture of braised leeks, morel mushrooms, and the salty and chewy pieces of cured shoat leg which tasted like pancetta. My favorite among this amazing trio of appetizers was the trout club sandwich. The cured New Zealand sea trout had the delicately rich flavor and softness of arctic char. Placed on top of griddled brioche with roasted romaine lettuce, slices of sweet red onion lightly pickled in vinegar, and topped with bright orange pearls of smoked trout roe, this dish was simple, clean, fun, and completely scrumptious.

The second course of the tasting menu was a sweet white filet of Atlantic halibut on a bed of pillowy soft potato puree infused with extra virgin olive oil, accompanied by a saffron broth containing a sweet and savory relish of peppers and olives. The halibut was sauteed to buttery crisp perfection on the outside without losing any of the juicy softness inside. The flavor of the delicately salty and tender fish combined beautifully with the olives and peppers, warm saffron broth, and creamy whipped potatoes.

The entrees fell somewhat short in comparison with the preceding dishes. The portions of both the shallot-crusted sweetbreads and the black bass were so large that they became tiresome after just a few bites. I suspect this is an inevitable symptom of having to satisfy hotel dining requirements, which is unfortunate as I could see the potential of these dishes. As it was, the large mound of watery sweetbreads overpowered the delicate shallot breading and turned the entire dish rather soggy. Similary, the skin of the large piece of bass had lost its intended crispy texture in the trip from the kitchen to the table, while the rest of the fish had turned chewy. The flavorful and smooth egg mousse accompanying the bass, however, was immaculate. The grilled venison loin, which was the final savory course on the tasting menu, had a perfectly pink center and a pleasing char on the exterior. The accompanying ragout of white asparagus and fava beans added a fresh spring touch while the rich Bordelaise sauce with caramelized parsnip tied together the vegetables with the luxurious tender meat. I also tried the lamb saddle cured with garlic oil saucisson. Although I personally found it a bit too strong and gamey (to be fair, lamb is not my favorite red meat), it was pink and juicy, and the accompanying braised artichokes and sweet carrots were fragrant and beautiful.

A side dish that should not be missed is the box of homemade parker house rolls, which are served in a tiny wooden treasure box. When the box is opened and presented by the server, the first thing that greets you is the most incredible freshly-baked bread aroma. Each roll is the size of a miniature muffin, and half the fun is pulling the hot rolls apart to pop each steaming hot buttery morsel in your mouth, which then melt like cotton candy. The light sprinkling of Maldon salt on top accentuates the rich and buttery flavor.

To close, we had a chocolate feast: a torchon of valrhona chocolate with miniature slices of buttery brioche cinnamon toast, and valrhona chocolate mousse on a soft graham cracker with marshmallow covered with a shell of dark chocolate on a pool salted caramel sauce. The chocolate mousse tasted like the Beverly Hills version of a mallomar, and the torchon is a chocolate lover's dream dessert, thick rich chocolate through and through. My favorite though was actually the delicate cinnamon toast on the side.

Interesting yet homey and novel yet familiar, CityZen was quite a satisfying experience.

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