Zaytinya: As big and bold as ever

Other than the mezze-style plates, there’s nothing small about José Andrés’s Mediterranean-focused Zaytinya. With its 282 seats (plus 65 more on the patio), sky-high vaulted ceiling, eclectic mix of distinct Greek and Arab tunes, and menu of more than 65 dishes, the restaurant isn’t about subtlety.

The constant stream of lamb- and pita-craving masses (resulting in a 45-minute wait one Thursday night) belies the restaurant’s age, even if the “contemporary” décor — circa 2002 — doesn’t. Zaytinya is going on its ninth year in business, which is almost ancient by industry standards. After Andrés lost his headline-grabbing chef Mike Isabella last August to “Top Chef All-Stars” and his own venture, a competing small-plates venue in the same neighborhood, the Spanish culinary guru hired a relatively unknown chef, Michael Costa. It reads like a recipe for ruin for most restaurants.

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But this is a José Andrés enterprise. A man worthy of the 2011 James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef award isn’t one to let staff turnover tarnish his successes. Besides, Zaytinya’s new head chef isn’t a total stranger to Washington. Costa worked for Michel Richard’s Citronelle and, more recently, won stars and awards whipping up small plates at the hybrid restaurant-nightclub Pazo, in Baltimore. He knows his tzatziki from his taramosalata, and his way around a bustling kitchen.

Andrés wasn’t looking to reinvent Zaytinya’s menu by bringing in a chef from outside of his organization. Why mess around with a formula that draws crowds each day? However, tweaks and additions can be found on the menu; Costa is working closely with Andrés to make his mark.

Many of the new dishes reside in the menu’s specials column, which can change nightly or weekly, and several others have been added to the vegetable mezze menu category. The additions range from seared halloumi (a Greek cheese) and compressed watermelon salad to Pacific halibut with fresh chickpeas and tomatoes, both of which are worth ordering.

One of the specialties was a house-made lamb sausage dish with fingerling potatoes called loukaniko me patates; it was outstanding for its authentic assemblage of rich lamb, tomato and potato flavors, and a sauce that was worth soaking up with every last scrap of freshly baked pita. Sadly, the fresh English peas with a roasted garlic yogurt sauce and pistachios didn’t achieve the same levels of deliciousness. The mound of heavily yogurted peas with bits of chopped pistachio was odd in both flavor and texture — one or two small bites was enough to send you on to the next plate for better culinary harmony.

A nice attribute of Zaytinya is that the small plates, which are meant to be shared, actually come with a sharable amount of food. The falafel — bite-sized balls of deep-fried ground chickpeas with fresh herbs next to a refreshing pile of radish and onion salad — arrived crispy-brown and six to the plate. Similarly, the bakallarou mavro skordalla — black cod robed in an ouzo-infused golden shell with garlic-potato puree — was delivered with five nuggets of meaty, juicy fish.

Roasted fresh chickpeas, still in their husky green pods, came piled high in a bowl, warm and tossed in a lemon-olive oil dressing (called ladolemono) and fresh dill. Hiding in their small shells, the chickpeas are unrecognizable to most people, but their light green flavor, accented by the dressing and dill, made them unforgettable. (Eat them like you would edamame, by sucking the pea out of the shell and then discarding the shell.)

With roughly 85 percent of the menu unchanged, there remain many Zaytinya standbys. The hummus spread was fine, but the htipiti, a mixture of minced roasted red bell peppers, feta and thyme, was super — sweet, sour and succulent, all in one bite. Kibbeh — beef and bulgur wheat fritters — were another delight. A fiercely crisp exterior gave way to a meaty, tender interior that contained hidden gems of pine nuts, slivered almonds and currants, and the faintest hint of cinnamon — exotic and homey at the same time.

Battered and fried disks of eggplant, bantijan bil laban, were almost unbelievably crunchy, but the vegetable seemed to have melted away into all that golden brown armor. Its accompanying roasted garlic yogurt did its best to add another layer of flavor, but was no substitute for the dissipated eggplant.

Lamb and octopus both do well in the Zaytinya kitchen without surprise. You can see lamb roasting on a spit upon entry — it sets an authentic tone to the place and practically invites you to order it. The spit-roasted lamb pita makes the whole affair neat and manageable. The miniature pita was smeared with tzatziki and combined a tasty array of flavors and textures in one bite: cool tang from the yogurt-based sauce, unctuous shreds of warm lamb and bright, crunchy pickled onion.

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Octopus Santorini was classic in many ways: a grilled tentacle with punches of acidity and salt from pickled onion and capers. The octopus was very tender and benefited from a light char, but the yellow split-pea puree was forgettable and largely left untouched on the plate — a testament to its impotence if there ever was one. On the other hand, the plate that brought the knisa lamb chops returned to the kitchen with nothing but picked-over bones. The two grilled chops were dripping with flavor, the meat succulent and gently gamey and creatively accented by a carefully smoked yogurt and bright caper-dill mixture.

Desserts are not a strong suit at Zaytinya. With just four dishes to choose from (not counting ice cream), it’s not a menu made to impress a sweet tooth. On the upside, they’re offered in two sizes, which makes it easier to go for when you just need a bit of something sweet. The Greek yogurt with apricot was one of the better choices; it’s sweet-tart and not heavy. For something more decadent and chocolate-laden, go for the mysteriously named Turkish Delight. There was not a bit of the real Turkish Delight candy (a chewy, gel-based confection) to be had; instead, it’s an oozy, molten chocolate cake served with a puffy cloud of cardamom espuma (a light foam — like whipped cream but airier) and ground sesame seeds. It’s at the very least interesting, though unrelentingly sweet.

With several dozen dishes to choose from, and a nicely fleshed-out vegetable mezze section, it probably isn’t a stretch to say that there’s something to please everyone at Zaytinya. Its classics continue to shine, and many new dishes impress with gutsy flavors and intriguing twists on Mediterranean classics. Zaytinya is still the large, busy restaurant it’s always been, and the flavors are as big and bold as they ever were.









 

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