I wish I knew more about Greek cuisine. Syracuse has a strong, but small, Greek community but no really strong entry into the restaurant morass. Everything in town gets the label of Middle Eastern, which means carbon copy menus of pita, hummus, gyros and falafel. While I would eat at King David’s five nights a week if I could, there’s not an opportunity for classic or modern Greek food outside of a family kitchen.
Zaytinya, two blocks from our hotel in Chinatown/Penn Quarter, offers that hybrid of modern and classic Greek and Turkish cuisine. Owned by Beard award winner Jose Andres and helmed by executive chef Michael Costa, Zaytinya (the Turkish word meaning “olive oil”) is a mezze restaurant, specializing in small plates with large flavors akin to a Greek tapas restaurant. It has been on Washingtonian magazine’s Best 100 Restaurants list for four consecutive years and was ranked ninth in 2013.
The colossus of conferences in town, combined with daily traffic, have made reservations a challenge this week. I made ours about 10 days ago when I discovered Zaytinya on Eater.com’s list of essential D.C. restaurants with this description:
This Jose Andres restaurant may be even more popular than his flagship Jaleo. It’s hard to go wrong with the ever-changing menu of Mediterranean dishes. The buzzy restaurant has delicious brussels sprouts, flatbread and octopus small plates, and a number of fun festivals throughout the year.
In addition to its “it” status, Zaytinya caters to a wide audience. One of my dinner companions and co-workers, Jessie, is a vegetarian. As I was scoping places to eat, I kept this in mind. While I would relish a trip to The Palm or Sam & Harry’s, I know that I have a litmus test to apply when choosing eateries. My flow chart of decision making goes something like this:
- Would I like it? After all, it’s all about me.
- Is everyone else going to like it?
- Does the menu accommodate everyone’s needs?
If I can get a yes for all three, it’s a winner.
Four of us arrived on time for our 7 p.m. reservation, and greeted by two Spartan warriors outside by the statue. Zaytinya took the Greek Easter seriously, offering a series of specials and a festival on the patio in front of the restaurant. I bought the Greek Easter 2013 t-shirt designed for the celebration.
Detail is a big deal to me. Yes, it’s important in the kitchen, but when a restaurant applies that level of detail to its branding, you know there is a special experience. Each of the menus carry a similarly branded cover: a quote from Chef Andres cast in a rich Greek blue, celebrating the experience of a meal. And that is key. He treats each flavor as an experience, each ingredient with dignity and every step of the meal is delivered in a deliberately complex manner.
The aesthetic of the restaurant is more museum than eatery. Clean white lines and massive windows create the scene, while a lamb on a spit in the kitchen entryway and individuals walking around with baskets of oven fresh pita remind you of why you walked in the door.
Our waiter, Dave, was above and beyond the usual server. He lent perspective to each plate, walking through his favorites, the best sellers, and those which are not well received. He was genuine every step of the way, excited when we liked the house made tzatziki — fresh strained yogurt with dill and diced cucumber prepared to order, not unlike a restaurant might make fresh guacamole — and disappointed when we passed on dessert.
The menu makeup is almost half and half vegetarian and meat/seafood plates. We each ordered two, knowing that Jessie was a vegetarian and that Eileen does not care for seafood. I chose the Octopus Santorini, which featured cubed octopus meat that was grilled and served with onions, mased yellow peas and capers. The other times I have eaten octopus, I have been met with chewy, tough meat. This was fall apart tender without being dry. The pea mash had an acidic profile, which kept it from being too paste like. My garides de anitho featured shrimp sauteed in dill, shallots, mustad and lemon. The sauce had a buttery flavor and texture without actually featuring butter. The dill was pronounced without being overwhelming. It could quite possibly be the best shrimp presentation I’ve ever eaten.
I tried both of Jessie’s plates — asparagus salata and mushroom couscous. The former had chopped asparagus atop a mound of tzatziki constructed with white asparagus, dill, pistachios and lemon. The flavor of the tzatziki was unlike anything I’ve ever had before. Everything about the texture said cucumber, but the asparagus flavor came out of nowhere. I liked it more than Jessie did. She raved about the couscous, made with English peas, garlic and grain pearls so large that they looked like farro.
The only dish of Cathy’s pair I tried was the bantijan bil laban, or crispy eggplant fritters stuffed with garlic-yogurt. They were quite good. She and Eileen were both complimentary of their meat dishes including hangar steak over a taboulleh that substituted finely chopped green beans for parsley, and traditional kibbeh fritters made with bulger wheat and beef.
The two small plates per person option rendered everyone full but not stuffed, which is a nice place to be for our walk back to the hotel.
Zaytinya is brilliant and unassuming. It is spectacular but not in your face. And it’s food is rich and flavorful without overwhelming. Without realizing it immediately, I had one of the finest dining experiences in the past few years.
Zaytinya is located at 701 9th St. NW in Washington, D.C.’s Penn Quarter. The restaurant takes reservations by phone and online. Dinner for four with no alcohol or dessert was $100 before tip.