Dinner last night at Zaytinya showed that Ansel missed a third person: the one watching the photographer take the picture.
Typically, when my camera flash starts popping in dimly lit restaurants, the other diners flinch and bat their eyes in pre-epilectic swoons. They aren't so much watching me as silently praying I'll choke on my subject before blinding them again.
The waiters are the ones who really watch. They seem to give more attention to my table in the off chance that I might be an industry-insider like Tom Sietsema preparing to write a review.
And last night our waitress took it up a notch - Marcy and I got our first bribe! Of course, our waitress prefaced the bribe by saying, "Now, this isn't a bribe!" But, perhaps in the interest of feeling like a real food critic, I'm saying it was a bribe.
Maybe bribes always taste sweet, but ours was especially so because it was dessert. It was also bountiful - we were the beneficiary of no less than four dishes, compliments of the house. My favorite of the four wasn't on the menu: a counterintuitive mix of cherries, chocolate and a multi-colored caramel of kalamata olives. Other highlights were an olive oil ice cream and an ultra-smooth chocolate visne.
My only criticism is with the timing of the bribe. It came at the end of the meal, at which point I'd already made up my mind about Zaytinya - it's one of the top two or three restaurants I've been to in DC. Here's why:
1. Octopus. I ordered the baby octopus because I heard it's Chef Mike Isabella's favorite food to prepare. He got some cooking tips in Santorini, Greece, where octopi swim the Aegean in such abundance that native Santorinis paint them on their pottery and call them their "apples of love." Santorinis are, apparently, a somewhat creepy people. Like the Santorinis, Isabella braises his octopus in red wine vinegar. But whereas the locals tend to boil their love apples, Isabella grills them until the arms turn brown and crisp.
Have this dish - it will rejigger your understanding of octopus. If, as I used to, you think of it as seafood's second-class citizen - certainly palatable but bland and chewy - Zaytinya will disabuse you of your octoprejudice. Isabella's version is sweet as lobster, and I haven't enjoyed crispiness this much since cracklings. Thanks to last night, I overcame my fear of slimy undulating tentacles coming to life in my kitchen and attacking me, and bought my first octopus to braise and grill later on today.
2. Snails. Chef Isabella's Cretan snails earned him a top three finish in the snail challenge on Top Chef. Flecked with tomato, green onion, and parsley, they were just as pretty on my plate as my television screen.
Like the octopus, Zaytinya's version of snails was a jolt. I'd previously had only escargot - French snails that are lost at sea without a life raft, asphyxiated by butter.
If you've been eating escargot all your life, stop what you're doing (hopefully working out) and go to Zaytinya for Crete's spin. They don't use a drop of butter. That's right - you can actually taste the snails. And I'm not sure where Isabella gets his gastropods, but they're flavorful like the ones that gorge on the aromatic herbs and date palms of Crete's underbrush. To that earthiness, Zaytinya adds a touch of ouzo, an anise-flavored spirit, and skordalia, a potato puree so good the Greeks have it by itself as a main dish.
3. Avgotaraho. If there are two things in this world that I love, they are weird food and Jose Andres. So it was a foregone conclusion that I would order the mullet roe (avgotaraho), which is weird because it comes wrapped in wax, and, according to the menu, is "one of Jose Andres' favorites."
Weird food isn't always wonderful, but Zaytinya's roe was. Most caviar you get in restaurants has been processed, but this Mediterranean tradition involves wrapping the ovaries in beeswax, which preserves their moisture and nutritional value. And, I learned, Greeks have OCD - obsessive caviar-wrapping disorder - they use eight wax layers. It had a great smokiness that reminded us of lox, but did they have to sell out and give it such a catchy, commercialized name like avgotaraho?
4. Tulumu. We'd heard from Cheesehead that Zaytinya's Tulumu cheese was not to be missed. As promised, this sheep's milk cheese from Turkey was strong. To balance it with some sweetness, Isabella doesn't just sprinkle on a little sugar - you get a honeycomb. News to me: honeycombs are edible.
5. Harissa. The restaurant staff was excellent. I don't think I've ever mentioned service on this blog, but, even before I busted out the camera, our waitress was attentive and unusually resilient and knowledgeable in the face of our unending stream of questions. When I requested a side dish of harissa, she brought it out quickly as if she'd been expecting the question, mentioning that Zaytinya shuns the canned stuff and concocts fresh batches in the kitchen.
I gloated to a number of you that I would be crowning my Zaytinya blog with a pic of me and Marcy hanging out with Mike Isabella. This would have been our second brush with Top Chef greatness in under three weeks. Would you believe that Isabella had the nerve to be in Spain when we visited his restaurant? Doesn't he know I'm an industry-insider?
More great dishes from Zaytinya:
Spiced Quail Couscous - braised quail, butternut squash, quail egg