…I enjoyed the Bazaar when I was in LA and I had every intention to attend minibar while I was in DC – except of course for the fact that it takes an act of God (or political connections, I hear) to get reservations at minibar (Fact: it is the first reservation I’ve ever tried consistently for and failed to achieve.) Un-deterred and already with a myriad of DC’s top tables on my dinner itinerary for the trip I opted for plan B – to exploit the fact that each of Andres’ restaurants were open at lunch with a menu nearly identical to dinner. Deciding that Zaytinya, the highest regarded of the group, had the most solo-friendly menu I made reservations for mid-day Saturday during their brunch service.
Open since 2003, Zaytinya (Turkish for Olive Oil per my server) continues Owner/Operator José Andrés' small plates concept while focusing on his interpretation of the cuisine of Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon – cuisines that I’d experienced but never truly delved into due to lack of those populations in my place of residence. With Mike Isabella, a name known to many from Top Chef, helming the kitchen I was told that Zaytinya has been quite busy recently and sure enough the place was full both inside and out throughout most of my 75 minute meal. Energetic but not loud I found the seats to be well spaced, the servers quite educated, and the music authentic to the restaurant’s concept without being obtrusive. Multi-layered much like Jaleo the room’s blue and white décor and lighting provided by floor to ceiling windows added to its Eastern Mediterranean feel.
Browsing the menu and gauging my hunger I opted to order a couple courses at a time – most pre-determined from ogling the online menu but one dictated by a choice made by one of the neighboring tables. With water filled my friendly server, a self admitted native of Turkey, dropped off the house signature airy pillows of house-made pita and a small bowl of Greek olive oil and a “Z” of pomegranate vinegar. Having considered a spread to go with the bread I quickly decided against that option on tasting the oil and vinegar – it was heavenly and on its own pushed me to consume two baskets of bread.
Beginning my proper courses was the pairing of Seasonal Mushrooms sautéed with dates and toasted almonds alongside Octopus Santorini with marinated onions, capers, yellow split pea puree. Beginning first with the Mushrooms – a mélange of five varieties sautéed in olive oil and pan fried to perfection, the earthy mushrooms were beautifully complemented by small sweet bits of dates while the crunchy almonds lent textural diversity and a degree of saltiness. Moving on to the Octopus, a “house favorite” according to my server, it truly was an exceptional dish and a must order. Featuring a large portion of poached-then-grilled octopus I loved the way in which the supple and sweet protein was complimented by pungent onions and salty capers while the vegetal yet sweet pea puree proved a competent balance for the char.
Delighted thus far I proceeded to order two more dishes – the Midyes fried mussels with walnut tarator sauce and the Crispy sweetbreads with orange, caper, and baby fennel. Coated with chickpea flour and flash fried I must say I liked the overall flavor of the mussels and the walnut sauce was quite unexpected in its sweetness – almost a walnut-butter with hints of lemon and garlic. Unfortunately for the mussels they were paired with something that made them almost forgettable – the best fried preparation of sweetbreads to grace my palate in some time. Meltingly smooth on the interior with a delicate yet crispy crust the unctuous offal mingled wonderfully with the sweet orange, spicy peppers, and salty capers while the whole dish was grounded nicely by the mellow (and unexpectedly fried) fennel.
While I certainly could have opted for more savories I changed my mind when the couple next to me received their dishes – a brunch item and dessert clearly deserved my attention. Arriving first along with a mellow and fig/cocoa accented coffee was Turkish Delight with walnut ice cream, yogurt mousse, honey gelee, orange-caramel sauce, caramelized pine nuts. Delight – yes it was. Featuring a crunchy layer of fried filo standing between scoops of gritty and nutty ice cream the dish was nicely enhanced by the sour and smooth mousse, sucrose sweet honey, and milky citrus sauce while cinnamon tinged pine nuts added a degree of spice and crunch beyond the filo. Thankfully offering Mezze portions of their desserts this dish was an absolute steal at $4.
Arriving just as I finished the Turkish Delight was the last dish of the meal – an option from the brunch menu and the best item of a meal containing nothing but great food. Entitled Tiganites or Greek Style pancakes with Greek Yogurt, Honey, and Cherrie the primary constituent of the dish was three impossibly light lemon accented pancakes with distinctive hints of olive oil. Resting beneath the pancakes was a creamy yogurt with hints of citrus and a small pile of warm poached Cherries and alongside was 2-3 tbsp of warmed lavender honey in a small dish. First tasting the pancakes solo and then topping them with the cherries and honey I can only say that these were the best textured pancakes I’ve had in well over a year and the flavors complimented one another exquisitely.
When it was all said and done my brunch at Zaytinya with tax and tip cost nearly $60 but it was worth every cent – there are just certain situations where you get what you pay for. While I wish I could say that all of my Andres’ experiences in DC were as good as Zaytinya they simply were not…what I can say, however, is that I wouldn’t hesitate to return – the room, the location, the service, and especially the food are splendid.