I was number one on the waitlist for minibar on Tuesday, but I didn’t figure there was much chance I was getting in. With many of DC’s top tables booked for the other six days of my stay my backup needed to be something good – 2941, Marcel’s, Proof, The Oval Room, and others were considered but in the end I decided to go with my instincts – “hotel” restaurants generally provide excellent service for solo diners and with a long term Keller alum helming the kitchen of a restaurant consistently amongst Gayot’s top 40 food ratings each year I knew the food would hold up to the other kitchen’s on my tour itinerary.
Arriving at the Mandarin Oriental ten minutes early for my reservation at CityZen the hotel staff and reservationist couldn’t have been more helpful – doors were opened, “sir” and “doctor” used liberally, chairs and tables pulled out as I was seated (per request) at a table directly next to the glistening open kitchen where I would be privileged to watch Chef Eric Ziebold operate throughout the evening. Yet another Beard Award Winner, the third of my trip, Ziebold seemed to be at every station during my visit – a working man’s chef despite his critical acclaim. Matching the flawless kitchen the décor at CityZen was sleek, clean, and modern – everything in its right place, everything looking the part of a very fine dining establishment and surprisingly both the kitchen and the restaurant were quite quiet – Radiohead’s Kid A playing softly overhead.
Greeted moments after seating by my primary server for the evening, Renee, the service at CityZen was precise if not overly friendly – everyone did their job but no one seemed interested in knowing the diner or showing much personality. Questions were answered without delay, dishes described in exacting detail, requests (in my case for a substitution on the tasting menu, in the case of the table next to me for gluten free preparations) allowed without question, but everything seemed very stiff; fine-dining-by-number, if you will. Choosing the tasting menu and requesting the final savory be replaced by an item from the prix fixe Renee checked with Ziebold himself who stated it would be no problem, merely a $10 upcharge – much like in the kitchen it was clear that Ziebold was in total command of his restaurant.
Beginning the experience I opted for a mixed drink, in this case a CityZen Dark and Stormy with Fresh muddled Limes, house made ginger syrup, Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, Soda Water. A delightful beverage it arrived directly from the bartender moments before my amuse of the evening, Potato and Leek Panna Cotta, Lobster and Cajun aioli. A small morsel of chopped lobster beneath a buttery crisp the dish was approximately 2 bites and well balanced – the smooth and creamy custard and lobster forming a flavor not unlike a semi-solid spicy lobster bisque.
A follow-up to the amuse was three canapés – a Halibut Cheek Croquette on Tomato Confit, Bass Belly on Melted Leek, Head Cheese on Bread Soup. Confused as I generally expect canapés to precede the amuse proper I wasn’t about to complain about these choices, all three expertly prepared and cleanly presented without a lot of embellishment or fuss. All quite delicious I particularly liked the melt-in-the mouth croquette and the supple head cheese, specifically the way the smoky and melted collagen mingled with the garlic and thyme of the “soup.”
Arriving prior to my first course I was delivered two butters – a salted French option and an unsalted sweet Amish butter sourced from Pennsylvania. To accompany the butters three bread options were offered; Sourdough, Forcaccia, and Whole Wehat - all room temperature and replenished without requiring request. Serviceable but not extraordinary in any way I liked the Forcaccia with its smoky garlic tones best of the three.
Soft Boiled Path Valley Farms Hen Egg with Melted Spring Onion, Shaved Shoat Leg, Morel Broth would be my first proper course and it would also be my favorite of the evening. Flawless execution with the egg sous-vided to a consistency where the yolk and white were hardly distinguishable the dish came alive on mixing – the pungent spring onions, savory pork, and smoky morel mushrooms all flawless. Fine dining or not, I used some of the sourdough to mop the bowl clean.
My second course presented a heavier flavor profile and something I’d never tasted before – a confit of fish. Confit of Big Eye Tuna, Marinated Yama Imo and Yuzu Aioli was intriguing in its obvious Asian influence yet refusal to simply present a sashimi of Tuna. Served warm the tuna was supple, somewhat akin to a pan seared preparation with beautiful red flesh inside but a creamy exterior layer. Accompanied by smooth citrus aioli, radishes, and sweet vinegar marinated Japanese Yam the dish was again quite balanced with each ingredient serving a purpose to enhance the overall experience.
Continuing the trend of expert execution and clean plating the next dish was apparently one of Ziebold’s more famous seasonal creations - Beer Battered Chesapeake Bay Softshell Crab with Black Radish, Toasted Cashew, Rhubarb Gazpacho. The best softshell I’ve ever had, bar none, the crab itself was impossibly sweet while the bitter radish and acidic yet smooth broth lent some lightness to the otherwise hefty fried preparation. It was at this point, three courses into the five savories that I started to realize I’d seen and tasted preparations like this before – refined, flawless, cleanly plated, text book execution…Keller’s influence on Ziebold was evident in a good way.
If my experience with the first courses made me think about The Laundry, course four sealed the deal - Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster with Baby Bok Choy, Crispy Sunchoke, Lobster Veloute looked straight out of my photos from Napa and tasted just as excellent. Skipping the sous-vide and instead presenting the Lobster as a slow poached version in butter it was succulent and snappy. Balanced with buttery bok choy and Crisp Sunchoke in a broth made of butter and lobster coral – again, detailed and refined, even if not very ground-breaking or daring.
Arriving next along with my main course was the house-made famous Parker House rolls – delightful, buttery, steaming hot and served in an elegant cigar box…it is too bad the standard Bread service wasn’t this good. For my main, the $10 supplement, an Aiguillette of Pekin Duck Breast with Citrus Braised Rhubarb, Fennel Salad, Navel Oranges, Foie Gras Vinaigrette. True to its name, this “cord” of duck breast was classic in preparation – rose flesh between layers of crispy skin and it sat next to a similar cord of similarly textured lemony rhubarb – an interesting interplay for sure. Topping the dish was seared fennel, sweet oranges, and a glossy sauce that pulled everything together – rustic yet refined, east meets west.
Finishing my savories I was offered coffee – with the time approaching 11:30 I declined…at this point the kitchen itself was actually cleaning up (though pastry Chef Amanda Cook and her team still appeared hard at work.) Having heard good things about the cheese program none was offered and I decided not to inquire – instead I awaited my palate cleanser, a smooth but unexciting Vanilla Ice Cream with Sour Cherry Gelee that served its purpose but really seemed no better than cherry Jell-O with whipped cream.
For my dessert I was served a Frozen Valrhona Chocolate Terrine with Orange Scented Fudge Cake and Blood Orange Sauce. Small and elegantly presented the cake itself constituted approximately four bites. Tasty if not ground breaking the dessert featured a cookie crisp bottom layer topped with an ice cream exuding accents of cocoa and orange – sweet balanced with sour, perhaps my expectations were set too high given Cook’s recent Beard nomination, but I wasn’t blown away.
Having seen multiple neighbors receive the mignardise plate I was somewhat disappointed when mine arrived without the house made cupcake, instead featuring pistachio Marshmallows, Cassis Macarons, and cold chocolate Peanut Butter Bars. Inquiring about the cupcake I was told they’d run out – c’est la vie. Tasting the mignardises it was clearly late in the day – the macarons were crumbly and the marshmallows dry…I did enjoy the bars more than my dessert proper, however.
When it was all said and done I left CityZen sated and appropriately impressed by Ziebold’s skills but overall the meal felt flat. At first I thought the disappointment may have been due to the sheer number of excellent dining experiences during my visit to the DC area, but looking back I think the problem was that CityZen tries very hard to be fine dining and ends up lacking soul in its efforts. Everything is fine, everything is elegant, but throughout the meal you feel like the diner…you don’t feel like a “guest.”