It doesn’t take a secret agent to figure out that the hip Penn Quarter restaurant Zola attracts a well-heeled clientele with a trendy vibe and American fare. The restaurant opened in 2002 as part of the International SpyMuseum complex and practically hits you over the head with its insouciant cool the second you walk in.
First there’s the James Bond décor. The 6,000-square-foot restaurant, owned by Stir Food Group and designed by architectural firm Adamstein & Demetriou, features metal and dark wood, vibrant colors, pulsing music, a staircase to nowhere and bathrooms hidden behind a revolving wall panel.
The bar, marked by floor-to-ceiling windows, has ample space but limited seating thanks to oversized chairs.
Loud, thumping music fills the room, where mixed drinks and burger sliders sate tourists, locals and politicos lucky enough to grab a spot.
The 175-seat restaurant is more spacious, with four continuous dining areas featuring cherry wood, private red-velvet booths complete with circular cutouts (perfect for spying on your neighbor) and three oval wine display stations. Quieter, up-tempo jazz provides a more relaxed atmosphere over the noisy bar, as though that room is a front for this secret speakeasy where the real deals go down.
And the real mission at Zola, should you choose to accept it, is the food: a modern mix of American favorites, meat and potatoes mingling with mildly intriguing offerings. Helmed by executive chef Bryan Moscatello, formerly of Aspen’s Restaurant at The Little Nell, the menu features products grown locally on Virginia farms.
“We’re trying to be a neighborhood restaurant in this city, as well as trying to utilize products,” Moscatello said.
“Being American, being in the nation’s capital, being able to use the local ingredients from within a hundred-mile radius — there’s a tremendous amount out here.”
According to Moscatello, Zola partners with farmers throughout the area for products like beef, lamb, pork, chicken, organic eggs and produce. More than 50 percent of Zola’s ingredients in the summer are grown locally, and the menu changes quarterly to best showcase seasonal offerings.
Such a sustainable approach is somewhat at odds with the hyper-modern aesthetic at Zola — sort of like a suave spy with an environmentally conscious heart of gold — but the resulting menu is a mix of expected American dishes with some truly interesting twists.
An amuse-bouche of cucumber, goat cheese and beet sauce was a nice, cool palate-pleaser on a warm summer day, along with olive bread and butter flecked with red sea salt. The appetizers, ranging from soups to salads to sweetbreads, are diverse and a little off the well-beaten American path.
The Taylor Bay scallops, with caramelized lily bulb, spring garlic, watermelon radish and lobster sauce, were a briny taste of the sea. The miniature scallops tasted fresh-caught, and the herb-and-vegetable mixture was a nice pairing with the salty sweetness of the shellfish.
The roast-boneless quail with date whip, buttered brioche, kumquat glaze and duck cracklings wasn’t as interesting as the name suggests. The quail was overcooked and over-salted, and the butter-laden brioche, though delectably naughty, wasn’t enough to overcome the tough bird.
A side dish of lobster mac-and-cheese, one of the restaurant’s most popular items, did little to enhance opinion. When you combine cheese, pasta and lobster together in a warm, ooey-gooey dish, it’s almost surely a win. A total lack of seasoning, however, made this an uneventful, bland side note. A dining companion commented, “It wasn’t as bad as prepackaged mac; it just wasn’t interesting.” That summed it up perfectly.
The temporarily derailed mission was thankfully set back on track with the arrival of the main courses. The butter poached corvina with Virginia ham, crab, tomato and red watercress was quizzically tasty, with original flavor profiles including spicy mustard and the richness of the fish matched with the saltiness of the ham.
The local Virginian veal loin with grilled ramps, baby carrots, goat cheddar hush puppies and coriander jus, though not as daring as the corvina, was a respectable meat-and-potatoes dish worthy of any upscale American restaurant. The meat, perfectly tender with purple carrots and sop-worthy jus, was hearty and filling yet contemporary, a tough note to hit.
The Miller Farms pork loin with grilled ramps, tomato, mascarpone-creamed quinoa and smoky jus, wasn’t quite as successful as its meaty brethren. The pork loin was well-done as opposed to the requested medium-rare, and the jus was overly salty, the same fate that befell the quail.
With dessert, the anticipation for flan was quickly cut short when our waiter informed us they had run out.
Disappointment aside, we were served in its place the unfortunately named Creamsicle, a dessert that conjures memories of prepackaged ice cream treats served out of the back of a neighborhood van.
This dessert should never be ashamed of its name. One bite of the lighter-than-air, fluffy custard confection, which tasted like the smoothest cheesecake ever created, made everyone ask, “What flan?” This layered treat anchored with a graham cracker crust and topped with orange supremes was the perfect ending to a rich meal.
The companion baked chocolate mousse with chocolate sauce and whipped cream, resembling a flourless chocolate cake in its audacious richness, was a laser-guided torpedo to the sweet tooth. Though heavy and rather one-note compared with the complex Creamsicle, it would surely sate any dessert aficionado looking for a sugar fix.
Reflecting on a meal of expected ingredients served in a chic, sometimes creatively different way, it’s easy to say Zola delivers on its American-fare-with-a-twist promise. Though this restaurant doesn’t hit the highs of truly captivating cuisine in an original, authentic atmosphere, that’s not the mission here.
The mission at Zola is to provide an experience, complete with intrigue and style, that will transport weary tourists and political power players to a more exciting time and place, all from the comfort of downtown D.C.
With its hip vibe and approachable menu, I would say: Mission accomplished.