During our interview with Chef Mike Isabella, he pointed out just how big a restaurant Zaytinya is. 160 employees, 60 of them in the kitchen…this is a massive undertaking. We couldn’t get a reservation, but we naturally assumed we’d have no trouble getting a table on a Friday night in August, when half of DC has left town. Makes perfect sense, right?
Turns out, Zaytinya holds a majority of their tables back for walk-ins. Because they get A LOT of walk-ins. When we arrived at the restaurant around 7 o’clock, we were told that our wait for ‘first available’ seating could be as long as 45 minutes. So we did what any sensible people would do: we retired to the bar.
Zaytinya’s bar is centrally located within the restaurant and elevated slightly from the dining areas on either side. The cool stone surface, white walls and bright blue bar backing set a soothing tone that offsets the drop ceiling and the overall volume of the space. Flipping through the drink menu, we were impressed by the diverse options: plenty of wines from the eastern Mediterranean (primarily Greek), traditional anise liqueur (ouzo in Greece, raki in Turkey, arak in Lebanon) and beers from around the region abound. But Zaytinya also boasts a creative cocktail menu overseen by Rachel Sergi, featuring such winners as the Apple Cart Upsetter (Maker’s Mark, apples, lemon and moscato) and the Eros (42Below honey vodka, St. Germain, lemon juice, baby roses and honey dust). It was a great way to kick off our evening…with one exception. Looking up at the tiles in the drop ceiling, we couldn’t help but notice a number of fruit flies congregating above the bar. No doubt all the freshly-squeezed juices and glasses of wine were just too much of a draw for the little annoyances.
After half an hour or so at the bar, our table was ready. Hungry for mezze, we dove into the menu.
A great collection of small plates (don’t call them tapas!) after the jump.
Like its Spanish sibling Jaleo, Zaytinya offers a wide range of mezze or “tastes” designed for sharing. The menu is organized into sections that generally progress from lightest on the left to most substantial on the right. Don’t let the dishes’ diminutive designation fool you, though…a few choices should be enough to satisfy most diners, especially if you’re sharing. Add in the pillowy, house-made pita (puffed up from a quick bake in the restaurant’s super-hot oven and served with a dip of Greek olive oil and pomegranate vinegar) and you’re good to go.
We decided to split five dishes that highlighted various aspects of the menu. From the “cheeses and cures” category, we opted for the pastirma. This traditionally-cured beef loin (the image before the jump) is made by salting and air-drying beef in a manner similar to Italian bresaola. The meat is then rubbed with spices that usually include cumin, garlic and paprika. Here at Zaytinya, the cumin and paprika were definitely on display, and their earthy spice was offset nicely by a drizzle of oil.
Our next stop was going to be the imam bayildi, a rich eggplant dish, but we stopped when I remembered something I read about the dish in the Washington Post a while back. We asked our attentive server, Jason, if this was the dish known for the oil used in its preparation, and he acknowledged that it was. When we told him we were looking for something a little bit lighter, he directed us to the Purple Eggplant Salata, one of the specials of the evening. His recommendation was spot on, as the salata combined firm chunks of the starring vegetable with walnuts, pomegranate seeds and bright roasted peppers with fresh herbs in a light, tart dressing. Every flavor stood out clearly, but the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. We were definitely grateful for the suggestion.
From there, we ventured to the seafood mezze where our interest was piqued by a pair of dishes. We had heard that Chef Isabella is known for his octopus Santorini, so we knew we wanted to give it a try. But we were also drawn to the Cretan snails skordalia, a dish that served the little critters in a thick, garlicky sauce. The octopus had a smoky char to it, and none of that distasteful chewiness that comes when the mollusk is overcooked. Onions, capers and split-pea puree make for a great combination of flavors and textures that we made short work of.
The snails were hands-down our favorite dish of the evening. They were tender, sure, but the real star of the dish was that sauce, at once rich and creamy while still being bright with acid. We shuddered to think just how much butter must have gone into its creation, but Jason was quick to inform us that there is none. Score! Skordalia is an emulsion that combines the obvious garlic with olive oil and a substantive base like potato or nuts. Although we didn’t ask what went into Zaytinya’s version, we were more than happy to soak it up with a second basket of pita.
For our final dish, we settled on another mezze from the evening’s specials: lamb kleftico (“stolen” lamb). Here at Zaytinya, they spit-roast lamb shoulders around the clock, proudly displaying their rotisserie in the front of the kitchen. The kleftico takes the meat from the shoulder, shreds it, and serves it in phyllo dough with dill-yogurt sauce and feta cheese. The meat was fork tender and spicy, the phyllo was crisp, and the fresh feta had the consistency of chevre. It combined all of the best tastes from a gyro in a presentation that was refined and nicely packaged…you know I loved it.
We ended our meal with trios of ice cream and sorbet made in house and featuring flavors that fit well with the overall menu: ground walnut, olive oil, sour cherry, black pepper-fig. The ice creams were smooth and creamy, but the sorbet was shot through with ice crystals that distracted from the taste.
The main dining area is spacious, with lots of white and bright blues to evoke those images of Mykonos and its villas that we all associate with Greece. The atmosphere is festive, with plenty of groups chatting and laughing over their mezze. For us, though, it felt like Zaytinya could use some more attention to a few of the little things in their operations. In addition to the aforementioned fruit flies at the bar, we were surprised that a restaurant whose vibe tends toward the upscale would present menus in frosted report-cover plastic. The fact that the restaurant’s logo and name were flaking off both of our menus didn’t do anything to help the impression. I would stress that these were small hiccups in an evening far more memorable for attentive service and great food, but they still need to be mentioned.
Our meal at Zaytinya reaffirmed something we’ve been noticing more and more frequently when we dine out: sometimes the best and most memorable dishes in restaurants are the small plates. Their detail and concentration of flavors really allows them to hit the kinds of notes that would be overpowering in a full entree. When a menu is composed entirely of mezze, tapas, or any other cuisine’s small plates it can be a blessing (everything is focused and powerful) or a curse (poorly executed and tedious). Thankfully, Zaytinya and Chef Isabella definitely deliver on the flavors of the eastern Mediterranean in a way that allows them – and the updated techniques used – to shine through.