CityZenQuick!  Name the top five restaurants in DC.  And I mean in DC…not just inside the Beltway (Sorry, Restaurant Eve…we still love you, we promise!).

Got ’em?  Good.  Now take a look at your list.  There’s a pretty good chance that most of them can be found in Northwest, clustered around Penn Quarter, Georgetown, and maybe Dupont or Logan Circle.

But there’s likely to be one outlier, all by itself in Southwest.  Maybe you’ve heard of it…a little place in the Mandarin Oriental called CityZen.  There it is, front and center at #4 on Washingtonian’s Top 100 list for 2009 (and at #2 the year before).  And there it is in Tom Sietsema’s Fall Dining Guide in the Washington Post last year.  There’s Executive Chef Eric Ziebold, winning the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic last year – he’s also a Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef from 2005.  After Citronelle, Ben’s Chili Bowl – and possibly Minibar – this is probably the DC restaurant most known to non-Washingtonians.

We finally experienced CityZen for ourselves this weekend, as Elizabeth brought me to celebrate my birthday.   Right away, we were impressed.  After walking in the front door, we were immediately greeted and ushered past the bar and lounge into the main dining room.  With the high, vaulted ceilings, the oversized chandeliers, and the lighting fixtures along the walls that looked like enormous tablelamps, it was easy to imagine ourselves in a giant’s castle.

Menu SignedOur waitress immediately arrived to take our drink orders, but we definitely wanted to take the time to read through the numerous offerings before commiting to something right off the bat.  So we took a few minutes to review the wine and cocktail lists before settling on a sparkling wine (Elizabeth) and a big California Zinfandel (me) to start off.  That just left us to decide what to eat.

At CityZen, they take the concept of the chef’s tasting menu to its natural conclusion: each menu is hand-signed by Chef Ziebold, indicating that he has, in fact, approved the six-course menu that is being offered to you.  We had never seen anything quite like that, and if we hadn’t already been planning on the tasting menu we would almost certainly have been drawn to it as a result.

So what did the chef recommend?  And how was everything?  More descriptions and photos after the jump!Chef TastingIt has been observed that Chef Ziebold frequently changes up the menu – so much so that critics lament the loss of certain favorite dishes each time he rolls out a new menu.  Even the a la carte menu, which offers an impressive selection of dishes that sounded almost good enough to sway us from the tasting, changes from time to time as dishes pass in and out of season.  Simply put, Ziebold’s got too many good ideas to be bound to any one menu for too long, and so the menu is constantly evolving to match the season and the chef.

Mushroom AmuseIn our case, the meal began with a pair of amuses bouche from the kitchen.  The first was a mushroom fritter, a delicious puff that gave off a strong, savory aroma of porcini (or another equally earthy mushroom).  Sitting on a streak of mushroom puree, it was powerful but not overpowering.  The bite-sized presentation prevented it from going too far.  The second bite was a crisp ball of brandade (pureed salt cod with milk and oil) in a romesco sauce that was far lighter than any romesco we’ve ever made at home.  The two teamed up to give a great introduction to what lay ahead – big, bold flavors and delicate ones following one after the other would be the order of the evening.

Ivory SalmonFor our first ‘official’ course of the tasting, we got one of those more subtle flavors that just blew us away: an ivory salmon served with bing cherries, toasted amaranth and a hyssop gelee.  This was exactly the kind of dish we had been expecting to experience at CityZen* – inventive in its combination of flavors and textures, unseen on any of the other tasting menus we’ve tried here in DC and elsewhere.  The salmon was firm and fresh, its light flavor acting as a base upon which the floral notes of the hyssop and the sweet-tart flavors of the cherry gastrique could build.  We could have easily made a meal of this dish.

Rabbit CanneloniFrom there, we moved onto a similarly impressive second course: a rabbit canneloni that featured rabbit confit, potato canneloni, and a celery salad with just a hint of acidic bite.  Again we found ourselves facing a dish that took a handful of familiar ingredients and elevated them into something altogether better.  The potato canneloni were cooked through perfectly, giving their exterior something of a ‘spring roll wrapper’ texture and a soft crunch.  Stuffed with rabbit confit, they were salty and delicious with a moist, meaty consistency.  We cleaned our plates again.

Sadly, the third course ended up as our least favorite.  Grilled Maine lobster, served atop a hash of fava beans, housemade chorizo and piquillo peppers and dressed tableside with a spicy tomato broth, should have been a ‘can’t miss’ dish.  Unfortunately, Elizabeth and I seem to have received two halves of the same overcooked lobster.  While the claw meat was perfect, the meat from the body was too tough to cut with the utensils we had been given. 

We hated to complain, since the rest of the dish delivered on big flavors and tastes, but we both had large chunks of lobster still sitting in front of us when our server came back to check on us. When she asked if everything was all right, we told the truth…and that was where a truly impressive portion of our dinner swung into place.  We were offered a new plate of lobster each (which we declined, knowing we had three more courses on their way) and assurances that our concerns would be immediately shared with the kitchen.  That’s really all you can ask for, and the fact that both happened without our having to ask for them was a great reflection on the level of engagement among the staff.

Asparagus PanzanellaThe fourth course was a traditional entree: a pan-roasted ribeye steak served with asparagus.  The beef was tender and delicious (we ordered it rare-plus, which allows for the true meatiness of the dish to be enjoyed), with a generous seasoning  of salt and pepper and a thick bordelaise sauce.  The asparagus came tossed with crunchy bites of toasted bread in an approximation of a panzanella’s fresh flavors and bready combos.  To accompany the steak and asparagus, the kitchen sent their signature mini-Parker House rolls.  These fluffy little butter bombs were irresistible.  If we had any complaint about the meal, it was that this dish really didn’t do anything to distinguish itself from countless other presentations of steak across the city…why include something on your tasting menu that’s so – ordinary?

From there it was time to move on to CityZen’s venerated cheese cart.  With more than 15 varieties of cheese to choose from, they offer plenty of flavors and textures for practiced cheeselovers and neophytes alike.  Cow’s milk?  Goat’s milk?  Sheep’s milk?  Check, check, check.  Prefer creamy, salty, or nutty cheeses?  They’ve got you covered.  There are even a few pungent blues and a stinky Gres de Vosges to round out the selections.  No pictures or detailed descriptions here…suffice it to say, they had a wide range of cheeses I have yet to see anywhere else in a restaurant setting.

Pineapple and CoconutBefore we could move on to dessert, we were treated to a dollop of sweet cream ice cream served over a shortbread-style cookie with dried blueberries on the side.  It wasn’t exactly the soft palate cleanser you would normally expect, but the flavors were creamy and concentrated and they set the stage nicely for our desserts.

I say ‘desserts’ because the restaurant was nice enough to accommodate my dislike for coconut (a prominent item in the menu’s pre-selected dessert, at left) by swapping in the CityZen Candy Bar, another signature dish. 

Cityzen Candy BarLooking at Elizabeth’s pineapple cake with coconut chiboust, we were expecting the dessert to be dense and overly rich.  What we found instead was a soufflee-like pastry that was even lighter than angel food cake.  It was beautiful and tasty, with a definite coconut sweetness that played well with the tart pineapple.  My Candy Bar, on the other hand, was a study in just how decadent you can make a dessert and still have it taste great.  Think of it as the richest (and probably most expensive) Snickers bar you’ll ever have.  Combining peanuts, nougat, and caramel and served with a port-chocolate reduction on the plate, this is enough to send anyone into sugar shock!  But it was wonderful, and I was surprised at myself for being able to east as much as I did.

They ended our experience with a selection of small candy bites presented around the words “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate – a nice touch, but even that was surpassed by the Happy Birthday/Thank You card presented to me and signed by the entire kitchen staff (even Chef Ziebold, whose signature we recognized from the top of the menu).

Throughout the meal the servers were attentive, and we had no fewer than half a dozen staff keeping our water glasses filled, our bread plates covered, and our every need attended to.  Aside from a few early hiccups (mostly related to the timing of when we received menus relative to when we were asked if we were ready to order), things were really working for the folks at CityZen this weekend.  We felt well taken care of.

If you’re going to visit, do yourself a favor and consult a map.  As small as Southwest is, the Mandarin Oriental is not the easiest hotel in the world to access.  We got there by heading south on 12th Street from Independence Avenue before turning onto Maryland Avenue.  Because we were able to find street parking, we didn’t have to leave our car with the valet.  But a question from the hostess reminded us that there is a iscount on valet parking offered to diners ($7), so you needn’t worry about that.

It was clear to us after our meal why CityZen receives such popular criticism.  They definitely turn out quality products and a few of their dishes are downright inventions.  Not every one was a hit, but at least Elizabeth and I were able to walk out feeling like we had a good understanding of Chef Ziebold’s philosophy and his creative approach to some familiar ingredients.

1330 Maryland Ave., SW (that’s right…Southwest)
CityZen on Urbanspoon

* = We have come to believe that there are just so many restaurants around the area doing tasting menus now that simply turning out good food isn’t enough.  You need to be pushing the envelope, at least a little bit, to really catch our eyes if you’re going to stand out among your peers.  These days, just being among “the best” won’t cut it if your tasting menu reads like a selection of basics…you need to be doing more to show off.  And if you’re offering the tasting menu alongside a less expensive option, you really need to make sure your tasting menu is impressive to make sure the diners who opt to splurge feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth.  CityZen definitely delivered on these points throughout the meal, with few exceptions.