Zaytinya in Washington, DC

Jose Andres has done it again. The celebrity chef based in Washington DC owns several restaurants around the District, and I’ve now eaten at all of them with the exception of Minibar (though my son and his girlfriend went and took lots of pictures so I have experienced it vicariously).  I had heard fabulous comments about Zaytinya for years but was reluctant to go because the featured cuisines of Turkey, Greece and Lebanon are not typically my favorite. But this is not about hummus and dolmades, though those particular dishes are on the menu. If you venture out of your comfort zone, you will be richly rewarded with fun and exhilarating fare.P1010148Zaytinya in Washington, DC

Here’s the list of what we shared at our table with a description from the menu. I’ve made a few notes of explanation where needed. The pictures say it all.

CRISPY BRUSSELS AFELIABrussels Sprouts with Greek yogurt--Zaytinya
brussels sprouts, coriander seed,
barberries, garlic yogurt

HORTA SALATAKale salad --Zaytinya
kale salad, smoked olives, fava Santorini,
ladolemono, pistachios

SEARED HALLOUMI CHEESE
medjool dates, orange, pomegranate,
pistachios, mintHalloumi cheese--Zaytinya

Halloumi is a cheese that can withstand heat without melting. It gets a bit too chewy when it cools, but right off the stove it’s soft and pairs well with a variety of sauces and fruits.

GARIDES SAGANAKIShrimp SAGANAKI--Zaytinya
sautéed shrimp with tomatoes, green onions,
kefalograviera cheese, ouzo

OCTOPUS SANTORINI
grilled Mediterranean octopus, marinated onions,
capers, yellow split pea pureeOctopus Santorini--Zaytinya

SKUNA BAY SALMON
Samke Harra-style with coriander, cardamom,
pickled Lebanese chili oil, pine nuts and tahiniSalmon with Lebanese chili oil--Zaytinya

SHISH TAOUK
grilled chicken thigh, sumac, onions, garlic tuom,
grilled tomatoesChicken thigh with sumac, tomatoes, and tuom--Zaytinya

Garlic tuom is a Lebanese dipping sauce made along the lines of a pesto in that a mortar and pestle is needed to crush the ingredients into a paste. This particular condiment contains garlic, salt, olive oil and lemon juice.

There are a number of beef and lamb options on the menu. Knowing we had another meal to eat later in the day we opted for the lighter dishes. Though the small plates are meant for sharing, we still ordered too much food for three people to consume for brunch. The salmon was the only dish I didn’t care to fight over. There was nothing objectionable about it; compared to the other dishes, it was ordinary.

Not to be forgotten is the puffy warm pita that comes to the table with olive oil for dipping. It’s light and airy and makes a great pusher for each dish. We asked the server how it was made and he said it requires a very expensive machine, so I dismissed thoughts of trying to duplicate it at home.

Pita at Zaytinya

I try to check out a new restaurant, or one I haven’t visited, each time I make a trip to DC, but Zaytinya will definitely be on my repeat list.

 

 

 

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Voltaire

Voltaire recently opened in the old R Bar space in the West Bottoms. Owned by Wes Gartner and Jill Myers of Moxie Catering, the couple serves up dinner and Happy Hour Wednesday-Saturday, and utilize the kitchen for their catering business the rest of the week. Though the old stage up front was transformed into a comfortable seating area, they left the rest of the restaurant intact, fortunately leaving the gorgeous bar as it was. Both times I’ve been there, the place was hopping with mostly under 30s.P1010707P1010698

The menu consists of innovative and delicious dishes, some small, others not so. On my first visit, the server suggested 2-4 dishes per couple; the second time I dined there it became clear that the number greatly depends on what dish you order. The plates get bigger as you move down the menu, so if you get one of the dishes at the bottom featuring meat, chicken or fish, you probably only need a salad or one of the more appetizer type dishes to complete your meal. If you stick to the top half of the menu, you’ll need to order more to make a complete meal.Vietnamese wings--VoltaireBibb lettuce salad--Voltaire

A new menu is printed up every week, with many new items added depending on what’s fresh. I tried most of the dishes on the spring menu, and was excited by what I ate.

Vietnamese chicken wings are roasted and served with nuoc cham and chile sauce to mix together to make a dipping sauce. Cool cucumbers on the side are an ideal foil for the spice.Roasted Cauliflower with snake beans--Voltaire

The roasted cauliflower with tempura snake beans, pigeon peas (which taste like a cross between lentils and red beans) with nam prik num sauce is one of the most complex and flavorful vegetarian dishes I’ve experienced in town. (I wish young Sulzberger from the New York Times was still here to enjoy it.) I will order it as long as it stays on the menu.

The Anaheim chile is charred and sits atop a gazpacho sauce. It’s sprinkled with fried anchovies, and while they may not be my favorite taste, the anchovies do transform a simple dish into something quite addictive. Beet and arugula salad with a fried egg and blue cheese crostini was lovely, but was the only dish that was less than flawless, and only because it was overdressed.Mussels--VoltaireArugula and beets--Voltaire

P.E.I Mussels with fennel, leek, pernod and thyme were piled high in a bowl, with grilled bread for dunking. The colors and flavors in the beautifully presented Bibb salad made it vastly different than most “house” salads, especially since it was dressed with good old-fashioned Green Goddess dressing.Spring Risotto--Voltaire

The risotto wasn’t my favorite, but others at the table really enjoyed it. The base was mushroom and was a bit bland, though the asparagus, pea sprouts and pistachios swirled into it made up for that lapse. A beet risotto that’s currently on the menu is getting raves.

Tri-tip Beef with chimmichurri and roasted poblano rajas brings a bit of Argentina to the menu, and the strips of salmon on a stick sitting on a bed of bok choy with sake-yuzu beurre blanc takes diners to Asia. Looking to India for inspiration, the chef devised the current lamb chop dish. Coriander crusted, the two chops sit atop a saffron-potato pancake and tikka masala salsa, and are topped off with mint raita.Salmon with bok choy--VoltaireTri-tip with chimmichurri--Voltairelamb chops--Voltaire

If pork tacos are on the menu, they are worth ordering. They come on baby corn tortillas, dressed with grilled pineapple and a mild but tasty tomatillo salsa.P1010769

Since much of the fare may be a bit unfamiliar to some diners, it’s fortunate that the servers are knowledgeable and genuinely excited about the menu. And those who enjoy sipping a good cocktail will be happy to hear that Ryan Miller, former barman at the Boot in Westport, is working his magic behind the bar at Voltaire.Voltaire

Voltaire’s hip vibe and ambiance, sophisticated but unfussy fare, and creative cocktail list make this new hot spot a really fun place to hang out. And for those of us who have passed the half-century mark, I promise that just being there will make you feel younger.

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Scopa and Campo Fina in Healdsburg, CA

Scopa and Campo Fina share a chef and owner. And while they are both Italian and serve pizza, Campo Fina is the more casual of the two, with all day menus and a bocce court out back. On a recent visit to Healdsburg, we had dinner at one the first night and the other on the last.

Scopa has some serious cuisine going on in a very cozy, casual setting. The dining room is long and extremely narrow. We were lucky to get a table by the front window which looks out onto the tiny one-table sidewalk patio.

The menu is heavy on antipasti and pizza, so we indulged in both. We started with pan roasted and hot padron peppers that had been tossed in olive oil and sea salt, after which we fought over the grilled calamari with white beans and arugula. The squid was not at all chewy and had a perfect char to it.

The pizzas tasted better than they look in the pictures. The crust was chewy but crisp, and the pizza maker was liberal with his use of toppings. It’s hard to beat a good Margharita pizza, but the Salsiccia with peppers was everyone’s favorite.

Not one to pass up the specialty of the house, we also split Nonna’s chicken, which had been tomato-braised and cooked in a pot with polenta and greens. I have overcome my lifelong disdain for polenta, at least when it’s soft like this was, which is a good thing since otherwise I would have missed out on a comforting, satisfying dish.

We had some great wines that night, including a blend from Preston Vineyards that we liked so much we visited the vineyard the next day and ordered a case to take home.

Pizza also sounded good on our last night in Healdsburg, so we decided to check out the newly opened Campo Fina. We ordered a glass of wine and played bocce while waiting for our table, getting our evening off to a great start as the women beat the men in a fierce competition.

Thinking we needed something at least a bit healthy before diving into pizza, we started with an arugula salad with figs and burrata, which was light and lovely. The octopus is prepared similarly here to the calamari at Scopa, only at Campo Fina it is served with grilled potatoes, wild chicory and black olives. It turned out to be my favorite dish of the night, because though the pizza may have looked better at Campo Fina and had a better char, both the crust and toppings lacked the flavor of their counterparts at Scopa. But it was fun to eat outside below the vines, the restaurant has a festive vibe and it was a pleasant way to end a fabulous trip.

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The Girl and the Goat

Stephanie Izard has been on a roll ever since winning Season 4 of Top Chef on Bravo. Shortly after becoming the first and to date only woman to win that competition, she opened her own restaurant. The Girl and the Goat has been packed since the day she opened the doors and, after a recent visit, I’m not at all surprised. This gastropub has everything–an oh-so-cool ambiance, killer small plates, marvelous service and reasonable prices.

It’s difficult to adequately describe the interior or the experience. It’s in a converted warehouse in the West Loop. enormously high ceilings and a scattering of  wood tables. The kitchen, which spans the entire back wall,  is in full view, hidden only by rows of shelves that hold dishes of assorted shapes. A gigantic wood-burning oven is the focal point, and its aroma makes the restaurant smell like a campfire. The bar is off to one side of the huge restaurant, but it is very much a part of the scene. Communal tables are in these days, and they are a major seating component at The Goat. We were fortunate to snag a table for 3 in the corner of a row of booths that runs the length of the restaurant, making it easier to converse with two lifelong friends whom I rarely get to see, yet we still felt part of the action.

The menu trots around the globe, with an emphasis on the Mediterranean. It’s divided by Vegetable, Meat, Fish, Bread, Oysters and Goat. The ingredient pairings are incredibly exciting,  and unusual to the point of being the first time I had experienced many of the combinations. But it all works; each dish is properly balanced but with bold flavors, and complex without any fussiness.

Our server walked us through the menu and suggested ordering 2-3 dishes per person.  After a civilized negotiation we created our meal and ordered. For the most part the dishes  came out nicely timed, though at one point we had to ask them to slow down their delivery. Our request was met with profuse apologies.

We took our waiter’s recommendation and ordered the Culture Club bread. House-made butter and beer cheese sauce accompanied a chewy sourdough type loaf. We were just getting started, but it set the right tone.

From the vegetable list, we ordered Roasted Beets with green beans, anchovy and avocado creme fraiche, and Roasted Cauliflower with pickled peppers, pine nuts and mint. I’ve been eating more than my share of beets lately, they seem to be on every menu and we just finished off the ones in our garden, but the anchovy made them stand out. The cauliflower  was exceptional–I’ve never thought of this lowly vegetable as being a star, but it was splendid.

I had read about the grilled octopus and though I’m sure its partners change occasionally, I loved this particular rendition, with guanciale, wax beans, romano beans, radish, pistachio-lemon vinaigrette.  The octopus was smokey and the vinaigrette’s citrus mellowed the dish.

When I think of brandade, my mind goes to salt cod, but fortunately that didn’t stop me from giving this a try. It was one of my favorite tastes of the night. Seared scallops were layered with pumpkin brandade, fried brussels, pomegranate and spiced pecans. Wow.

Wood fired Walter’s Chicken was not your mother’s traditional roasted variety. The flavors were tantalizing and it was fun to eat with yuzu harissa, fried pickles, brussel slaw and grilled naan. We fought over the last piece and would have ordered another if we hadn’t had to pace ourselves.

With an entire menu devoted to goat dishes, the restaurant’s namesake, we of course had to sample a goat dish. Our very knowledgeable server suggested the goat rillette empanadas, but I was drawn to the Confit Goat Belly with bourbon butter, lobster ‘n crab and fennel. The goat was tender and rich enough on its own not to need the bourbon butter, but why not gild the lily a bit?

At this point, we were sated and happy…and we thought we were through. But as we were sipping the last of our wine, out came Wood Oven Roasted Pig Face with sunny side egg, tamarind, cilantro and potato stix.  It was visually appealing, but it turned out to be our least favorite item of the evening… perhaps because we were full, or maybe because the meat was a bit gamey and dry.

The portions are substantial and can easily be shared among 3-4 people. Unfortunately we had no room for dessert, one of many reasons I can’t wait to return.  Someone had told me that if I could score a reservation (no easy task I should warn you), it would be worth extending my Chicago trip, and she was right. It was an energizing evening and I am in awe of what Izard has created, both in terms of ambiance and food. She is one talented woman.

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SEI Restaurant–Washington DC

To say that SEI restaurant in Washington, DC is a sushi restaurant doesn’t do it justice. Yes, it has some pretty terrific and beautifully prepared sushi. But what makes this Penn Quarter gem glitter beyond its white and amber decor is the inventiveness of the small plates on the menu.

Building a meal around these eclectic dishes is not easy, only because there are so many intriguing choices. And since there were just two of us at the table, we didn’t come close to sampling all that we wanted to try. But we savored each dish that we did order.

The sashimi pizza has a thin crust and is topped with salmon, tuna, yellowtail, shrimp, salmon roe and wasabi aioli. It was hard to distinguish the flavors, but it was gorgeous and fun to eat.

The lamb chop with red curry was as tasty as it was pretty. It was accompanied by Indian Idli, which tastes like polenta and was the perfect foil for the smooth sauce.

Though they were out of the pork buns, we consoled ourselves with Korean tacos. Short rib meat was paired with kimchee in corn tortillas, and though they didn’t wipe out my longing for a Momofuku style pork treat, the tacos were tasty.

The duck edamame hash was presented in a mold and topped with a perfectly cooked fried egg.  We were loath to break it, but once we did, we devoured it.

We also enjoyed the Triple Tuna sushi roll, just to be sure that SEI does sushi well. They do.

Other offerings we wanted to try but didn’t have room for in our stomach? Seven pepper tots (tator tots served with sriracha honey ketchup), tuna poke with wonton chips, wasabi guacamole, and fried rice cakes with kimchee.

I had the opportunity to meet sommelier Andrew Stover at the DrinkLocal Wine conference in St. Louis last month, as he sipped his way through the weekend looking for Missouri wines to bring to DC. He has a passion and commitment to regional wines, which is evident from the inclusion of wines from Michigan, New York, Virginia and New Mexico on the restaurant’s wine list.

Service was unusual. There seemed to be a tag team system, which in theory is a good idea because diners are never ignored. But we found it to be a bit annoying. Each of the two servers on our team kept coming to our table, asking the same questions (would you like a drink, ready to order?), as though the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.

The food ruled the evening though, and I am anxious to try SEI’s older sibling, OYA on my next visit to DC.

 

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Oyamel–Washington, DC

Put Oyamel on your list the next time you visit our nation’s capitol. This attractive restaurant features small plates and authentic Mexican flavors, best enjoyed family style to experience the entire array of offerings on the menu.

Mole is an intense sauce, made with a variety of chile pods, fruit and nuts. Oyamel makes several different ones and pairs them with meat or fish. The scallops with green mole were a particular treat, as was the chicken and rice smothered with poblano mole.

The best dish? A quesadilla with huitlacoche and tomatillo salsa. Huitlacoche is corn smut, popularly referred to as a Mexican black truffle. Whenever I see huitlacoche on a menu, I always order it because it’s rare and incredibly delicious (check out a similar dish in Kansas City at Frida’s, along with their fabulous squash blossom quesadilla.)

We also enjoyed wonderful chips and salsa, a corn tamale, duck confit flautas and a taco with Yucatan-style pit barbecued pork with pickled red onion and Mexican sour orange, though the latter didn’t have the oomph of some of the other selections.

The choices get harder during weekend brunch, when some incredible sounding egg dishes are added to the mix.

And, not surprisingly, the drink list includes a dazzling variety of margaritas, including the Classic which can even be ordered by the pitcher.

What’s not to like about this place?

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JP Wine Bar

I have always been a fan of JP Wine Bar in the Crossroads District.  (The Leawood location recently closed.) I enjoy the wine and cheese flights and the food has always been fabulous. Last year the menu was tweaked to include more entrees and fewer small plates, evidently because Kansas Citians have trouble with the small plate concept and don’t know how much to order (or maybe they just wanted larger portions).

It’s been a while since I’d been and I wanted to check out some of their newer menu items. My friend and I split the scallops with grilled artichokes, carnitas, and seared tuna with a sushi rice cake and stir fried vegetables. Though each dish was good and nicely presented, nothing was memorable or knock- your-socks-off delicious. The scallops were properly prepared, but one-dimensional and  not very exciting. The carnitas were served with good homemade corn tortillas and a spicy green sauce, but the black beans that accompanied the pork were beyond dry. The tuna was rare as requested, but the entire dish lacked flavor and oomph. It was a real disappointment.

The patio was packed on such a beautiful evening and the service was excellent. It’s still a great place for some special wine–I just hope the chef works on returning the food to its former glory.

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Extra Virgin–Kansas City

With its brick walls, open kitchen and oh-so-cool bar, Extra Virgin is an extremely genial spot to try dishes not encountered elsewhere in Kansas City. A New York-styled restaurant in the heartland, this lively tapas spot is for the adventurous eater who enjoys trying unusual disheExtra Virgin-Kansas Citys. Michael Smith is in the kitchen here, and runs a path between it and his eponymous restaurant next door.

Although a special section on the menu targets the “adventurous” eater, mainstream diners will find even the less exotic offerings, from chorizo and fig stuffed chicken to spicy halibut cheeks, a bit unusual.  The tapas concept makes it especially fun, and the menu changes often to encourage repeat business.  It’s a fun place to go with a group to allow a large sampling, or for a sophisticated date-night with your main squeeze. Yellowtail ceviche with fried plantains-Extra Virgin

Having been several times, we opted for some of the selections I had not tried, including yellow tail ceviche with fried plantains, lobster and chorizo fried rice, scallops with sweet potato puree and a beet salad. All were delightful, and beautifully presented.  Scallops with sweet potato puree and goat cheese-Extra Virgin

This is not inexpensive fare. But there are a number of ways to make the experience quite affordable. Go before 6 p.m. and many offerings are half-price, even at lunch. On Mondays, hand-crafted pizzas are $8 (remember that Michael Smith and Debbie Gold were the culinary gurus behind the Spin concept) and bottles of wine are half-price.

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JP Wine Bar

It may be a wine bar, but JP‘s Leawood location most definitely serves lunch. JPWineBar-LeawoodIn fact, the food coming out of the kitchen at noon and in the evening rivals any of upscale dining experiences around town. I have been on several occasions to both locations, for small plates, cheese plates and entrees, but this was my first time trying the lunch menu.

We had a friendly, easy-going server, and were unfortunately  her only table. When we asked about the lack of customers, she explained that people don’t associate a wine bar with food, much less lunch. I’m happy to spread the word because we had a great meal. The hamburgers, both beef and pork, were substantial and well dressed. The grilled cheese was outstanding, undoubtedly due in part to the use of the same artisan cheeses found on the creative cheese plates. And, the french fries are definitely going on my “Best of Kansas City” list.JP-WineBar-Hamburger-Frenchfries-Leawood

www.jpwinebar.com

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The Drop Bar

I love the Drop. If you haven’t been, go, and if you haven’t been lately, it’s time to go back. It’s on Martini Corner, on 31st Street, between Oak and Gilham. While the stark décor might be more attractive to the under thirty crowd, the food should be pleasing to all palates.IMG_0335

The menu is small, but each item is tasty and fresh. We started with white bean hummus, topped with  toasted cumin seeds that lent an unique taste to the taste and presentation.

The most inspired offering that’s not to be missed is the bruschetta platter. Share it with a friend and make a meal of it. The innovative list of bruschetta features more than a dozen from which the diner picks four to sit atop the thick grilled bread. We chose the brie and apple, the strawberry and IMG_0336gorgonzola, both of which were excellent but couldn’t unseat my two favorites– the one with pistachios, chopped figs and goat cheese, and the other with fontina, caramelized onions and spiced almonds.

Though the original menu featured mostly items that didn’t need to be cooked (the restaurant has a ridiculously small kitchen), the Drop now offers small plates and even such substantial dishes as lamb chops and coffee encrusted ribeye.  The crab cakes were fabulous–as good as anywhere in the  city,with only enough filler to hold each one together, and served with a spicy sriracha aioli and guacamole. We practically licked the plate! IMG_0339

The place is quite the scene, especially during Happy Hour when they offer great food and drink specials, including 1/2 priced starters and $5 glasses of wine.  The music tends to be too loud for the over-40 crowd, but it does add to the lively atmosphere.

Starting Sept 28, the Drop will again be open for lunch, following a break during which owner Eddie Crane enjoyed his new baby. That’s good news for all of us who missed stopping by at the noon hour for a light salad and bruschetta or sandwich.

www.thedropbar.com

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