Zestfully done

Casual sit-down eateries have become as ubiquitous in the Barracks Row-Eastern Market area as bars are on Bourbon Street. Yet only a select few spots merit a diner’s departure from one of Washington’s more condensed culinary neighborhoods, like Penn Quarter or Dupont Circle. Zest American Bistro may soon call itself one of those few.


Eastern Market’s newest addition is called Zest for a reason — if there’s one thing the bistro excels at, it’s packing punchy flavors into its offerings. A few items may miss that mark as the young restaurant continues to find its rhythm. Yet if the theory is to call oneself something until it becomes true, this particular establishment is well on its way.

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Zest is warm and small, cozy and inviting. Though the dining room is dim, it isn’t dark. And even when the house is full, it stops short of being unbearably loud. One lively April evening found the comfortable bistro packed to the gills with a diverse bunch — yuppies, preppies, hipsters and families alike. And there is something here for them all, especially from the restaurant’s interesting appetizer selection.

Luscious tomato soup with fluffy cheese croutons proves to be a solid starter. It’s sophisticated enough to please a parental palate but still simple enough to satisfy a picky child. Another popular appetizer, the grilled calamari, may not have quite the same luck, arriving slightly slimy on one occasion. Though it’s nicely charred, well-seasoned and perfectly tender, it doesn’t hold a candle to neighboring restaurant Cava’s squid hors d’oeuvre.

But there are several other enticing offerings on the appetizer list. The braised beef short ribs are smoky and tinged with cinnamon, and lush cheese grits intended as an accent could stand just fine on their own. This dish is savory enough to make any Southerner salivate. So, too, is the roasted corn blini, a sort of pancake partnered appropriately with plump barbecued shrimp. Yet another protein-rich starter, the jerked chicken pockets, aren’t very spicy, as the menu proclaims  —  but they are filled with bold Caribbean flavors that find balance from a lovely pool of tangy mango sauce.

Also missing the spicy mark is the creamy-soft wasabi avocado mousse that’s just a speck too light on the wasabi for an establishment named Zest. But the tuna tartare it cradles — fish the color of grapefruit and peppered with white and black sesame seeds — is stunning, fresh and buttery.

Despite these shortcomings on heat, an array of polished entrees helps prove the restaurant can live up to its name. The salt-and-spice roasted salmon delivers a gorgeous piece of fish, its flesh dusted liberally with a seasoning blend the avid home cook can only hope to create, and it sits on a gratifying spinach risotto. I request my fish medium-rare, but it comes to the table a definite-but-still-moist medium. On a separate occasion, the fish that headlines the grilled salmon entrée salad arrives north of medium-rare yet again, but it doesn’t distract from the bright spinach, standard but perfectly prepared hard-boiled eggs, caramelized onions and hot-bacon dressing.

The pork loin main dish features a crust of perky pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, and blends perfectly in the accompanying puddle of corn jus. Alongside the dish is the lightest potato gratin I’ve ever tasted. Instead of swimming in cheese or cream, as the popular side item typically does, thick Yukon gold slices rest comfortably in savory broth. Another dish, the spinach fettuccine, comes glazed with tart orange-butter and laced with vibrant asparagus and eggplant. It’s cooked perfectly al dente. The pasta also can be ordered with a more traditional tomato sauce, but this is one instance in which trying something new proves worth the risk.

The grilled ribeye is a reliable steak that truthfully brings nothing new to the table, and the same can be said for a grilled chicken sandwich on ordinary ciabatta. If it’s a handheld lunch you want, select instead the not-at-all-gamey roasted leg of lamb sandwich for its lacquer of remarkable pomegranate-barbecue sauce. But be sure to pick the addictive herbed fries as its side instead of plain mixed greens, which arrive without even so much as a cherry tomato for variety, tossed unceremoniously with a forgettable vinaigrette.

If you do happen to order the almost-salad and still find yourself hungry, the small dessert menu won’t overwhelm you with choices — but what it does have works well. When the chocolate chess pie arrives, I at first think it features a caramel decoration, but instead the sauce is a delightfully nutty pistachio that rounds out the dense, rich dessert. The same can be said for the bourbon-praline sauce that enlivens an enormous brioche bread pudding.

The brunch menu is short and sweet. Pancakes, eggs Benedict, an omelet with onions and peppers — mostly standard brunch fare that’s well-executed, but nothing to cross town for. One exception, however, is the banana-stuffed brioche French toast moistened by a sinful drizzle of maple syrup kissed with bourbon.

Speaking of which, bourbon seems to be Zest’s spirit of choice, included in both an exceptional blood orange Manhattan and a Derby cocktail that could stand to be a little stronger. The draft beer selection and wine list both highlight interesting (though not necessarily obscure) options like Troegs Nut Brown Ale, Blue Point IPA, Snap Dragon Cabernet and Jade Mountain Merlot.

I’d be remiss not to mention the attentive service and warm reception I received on each visit to the adorable spot, an impressive feat for a restaurant that has been open only since mid-December. Add to this its reasonable prices and well-crafted food, and with a little amplification on the flavor front, Zest’s reputation may soon match its ambitious name.