“If I start eating the food, just slap me.” A Restaurant Week Report

Greetings from New York, friends! I have been reveling in a, thus far, fantastic vacation far away from DC. Future posts will chronicle the excellent gastronomic aspects of my vacation (from the North Woods of Wisconsin to the hipster haunts of Brooklyn, and even to a quiet farm just outside the city – how’s that for a teaser, huh?), but today, I want to look back to a meal I enjoyed during the DC Restaurant Week just over a week ago.

It was yet another farewell luncheon. Tis the season, I suppose, for the parting of the ubiquitous DC summer interns. His departure conveniently fell during Restaurant Week, a culinary tradition in DC where a prix-fixe menu will get you a $20.12 lunch or a $35.12 dinner at participating restaurants. When the time rolls around, I try to make at least one reservation for the event. Most natives will tell you that Restaurant Week is a mixed bag, however. Although the deal can be extraordinarily good, the quality of the food and service can suffer at overrun or mismanaged restaurants. Nevertheless, it’s a great opportunity to try out some places that manage four $ signs on Yelp, and thus ordinarily are a bit out of your price range.

Luckily, our chosen spot, Zaytinya (another of José Andrés’ restaurants) did not disappoint in service or quality of the food. I had dined at Zaytinya on a few other occasions–all with positive outcomes–and was eager to see their performance during a more stressful time, especially when faced with a party of seven, and an individual with some serious dietary restrictions.

Zaytinya’s special Restaurant Week menu consisted of 4 courses: 3 small plates and a dessert. Theoretically, all members of a party are required to either order off the special menu or the normal menu, but our friendly waiter impressed immediately with his flexibility, stating that he wasn’t too concerned if we wanted to bend the rules a bit. While most of our party did order from the special menu, one had a simple sandwich. With three or four choices per course, it was easy to craft a personalized menu that appealed to each member of our party. I was ready with my selections when the waiter asked for my order; I was also ready for a long conversation about my restrictions.

As usual, I explained my allergy to peanuts—the concern immediately assuaged by the waiter’s assurances that there were absolutely no peanuts in house. I went on to describe my intolerance of corn and aversion to legumes. His responses were exemplary, and reflected an accurate and comprehensive knowledge of the menu. He advised that the crispy brussels sprouts and the pita would be fried in oil that also saw the likes of chickpeas, and wondered if that would be acceptable. I was impressed with his foresight, and I assured him that I was fine with that level of contact. The dessert I picked was also full of nuts (walnuts and pine nuts), and I asked that he confer with the chef to ensure that everything I had chosen would be safe. He pleasantly agreed to do so, and later came back with an assurance from the chef that my meal would be handled appropriately, and there was no risk of contamination in the kitchen.

Usually, I would have jumped at the chance to sample everyone’s dishes (as everything is served tapas style), but I felt safer keeping my own dishes at close range, and avoiding the risk of shared food. Each course was delicious, and amounted to a generous portion of exciting and inspired food. (Aside: on the walk over, I had convinced a coworker to slap me if I reached for my fork instead of my camera at the arrival of each course. To his credit, I managed to photograph each dish without any of the aforementioned slapping–a meaningful look from him was all it took!)

To start, I had the fattoush (tomato, cucumber, red onion, green pepper, radish, pita chips, pomegranate vinegar dressing), a simple and refreshing salad that primed me for the heavier courses.

Second, I feasted on a gorgeous piece of seared Arctic Char (Samke Harra-style with coriander, cardamom, pickled Lebanese chiles, pine nuts and tahini sauce) that was a nice departure from the more traditional Greek foods that I usually order. The fish was perfectly cooked (a major feat when dealing with a restaurant literally churning out hundreds of these dishes an hour), and had a surprising interplay between sweet and spicy.

My final dish before the dessert was definitely the best—a platter of crispy fried Brussels sprouts (brussels sprouts, coriander seed, barberries, garlic yogurt) that, again, had a delicate sweetness that really softened the garlicky overtones. My only complaint was that the Brussels sprouts hadn’t been adequately cooked before being dipped in the fryer; the sprouts were slightly too tough for easy chewing.

Forging ahead to my fourth and final course despite an increasingly full stomach, I savored a lovely little dish described as “Turkish Delight.” Although traditional Turkish Delight is a confection consisting of a gel-like substance with honey and nuts molded into small cubes, the plate in front of me was an adorable architecture of two scoops of walnut ice cream holding up a crisp slice of philo, surrounded by a sea of yogurt mousse, honey geleé, orange-caramel sauce, caramelized pine nuts. Perhaps this could be deemed a “deconstructed” Turkish Delight, but my general disgust with the real thing certainly biased me in favor of the dish I received. Unfortunately, the ice cream lacked any indication that walnuts were ever present in its creation, and might have been improved by a more intensely flavorful nut like hazelnut. Still, it was a nice complement to the other aspects of the dessert, and the presentation left nothing to be desired.

Ultimately, Zaytinya performed well under the pressure of Restaurant Week. The service was extraordinary—never rushed, and always sensitive to my dietary issues. Except for the final bill, there was no indication that one was participating in any special gimmick—nothing was sacrificed, and everyone left happy. And that’s really how it should be.

Zaytinya | 701 9th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001


Ode to Oyamel

At the beginning of the week, our team was forced to say goodbye to our lovely summer intern who was returning to medical school in Massachusetts. We had tasked her with choosing the location of her farewell luncheon, and we couldn’t have been more pleased with her selection: one of José Andrés’ best restaurants, Oyamel Cocina Mexicana. Located in Chinatown, Oyamel is known for its fantastically inventive and playful dishes. As it was only 1:30 on a Monday afternoon, our group couldn’t quite justify imbibing, but if we had, the margaritas with Oyamel’s signature foam would have been just the ticket.

But let’s back up. I’ve eaten at Oyamel twice before, so I knew roughly what to expect from the menu. The only difference was that my recently discovered food intolerances meant that I was no longer eating any legumes (read: beans), or corn. As corn and beans are ubiquitous to Mexican cuisine, I took a bit more action than usual – I called ahead to speak with a manager. Just as I had hoped, the manager was extremely gracious, and went over different items on the menu that would be appropriate, or could be slightly modified to accommodate my needs. I felt pretty confident that I could eat well and safely at Oyamel.

What I did NOT expect was the extraordinary service the staff imparted as soon as my party walked in the door. As we sat down, the hostess asked who had the allergy; I raised my hand, and she gave me a menu. But this menu was just a bit different from the other ones she was passing around. This looked as if a small child had been given a red crayon and black sharpie and told to “go crazy, kid!” Every single dish on the very extensive menu was either circled, crossed out, or starred with a message indicating that a substitution or change could be made easily to the dish. No guessing game here. Someone at Oyamel had taken the time to sit down with the menu, and mark up every single dish, in order to make my dining experience easier.

Things were looking good, but I still felt a small twinge of jealousy when my colleagues started chowing down on the chips and salsa. Oh, for a salty, hot-off-the-fryer tortilla chip. It’s the little things in life, really. I digress.

We ordered guacamole—made table-side in a massive molcajete—and I was presented with a delightful plate of sliced radishes, cucumbers, and carrots as a substitute for the chips. Nicely done. The red fish that I ordered needed no modification, and was delicious with a crispy skin, surrounded by a luscious stew of tomatoes, capers, jalapeños, onions and olives. I rounded out the meal with a dessert I had tasted on a previous occasion—the sweet potato flan with green apple sorbet and tamarind sauce. It was heavenly.

It was an extraordinary meal, yes, but José Andrés is pretty darn good at that. What was really special was the added care that the staff took to attend to my needs. Many of my colleagues actually ordered things with peanuts, but I felt no apprehension about cross-contamination or carelessness. Oyamel means business—plating exciting and delicious food, and doing so in a safe, accommodating, and pleasant environment.

Until my next meal…

Oyamel Cocina Mexicana | 401 7th Street NW, Washington DC 20004)