Throughout the year, Restaurant Editor Bill Addison will travel the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Having relatives in Maryland, I make it to D.C. two or three times a year, usually to power-chow through the latest openings. But the first place I recommend when asked for dining advice in the nation's capital hasn't wavered in almost a decade. Zaytinya opened in 2002 and is my favorite among chef and restaurateur José Andrés' dozen restaurants. (His newest, a reincarnation of his elaborate pop-up America Eats Tavern, opened earlier this month at the Ritz-Carlton in nearby Tysons Corner.) Andrés took his prowess with Spanish tapas and transferred it to the small plates traditions of Greece, Lebanon, and Turkey—a ballsy but rewarding leap at a time when those cuisines weren't getting the widespread play that's now percolating nationally.
Zaytinya's success cinches on its ability to please many appetites. The adventurer, the mild of palate, the carnivore, the vegetarian: All can break bread here together happily. And the bread they'll share is hot pita; batches of it arrive looking like turnovers plumped with helium. Olive oil comes alongside, but take the dipping to the next level with spreads like Greek htipiti (roasted red peppers with crumbled feta and thyme) and Lebanese labne (yogurt strained to the texture of ricotta, sprinkled with za'atar and a few pine nuts).
Pace yourself, though. Groups I've been with tend to gorge early and then regret ordering the last dish or two that appear. But I want tastes of it all: the unusually fine-tuned spanakopita, a Mediterranean umami blast of spinach, feta, and crackly phyllo; sultry shrimp in a bath of lemon juice, mustard, and dill; oozy kolokithokeftedes, fritters that make humble zucchini crave-worthy; lamb chops zapped with capers and tempered with smoked tzatziki. Servers push the brussels sprouts glossed with garlic yogurt and barberries; but in warmer weather veer to seasonal ideas like seared halloumi cheese offset by cubes of watermelon, tomato, and mint. If there's room for dessert, I rarely deviate from the parfait of vanilla scented Greek yogurt, Muscat-soaked apricots, apricot sorbet, and crushed pistachios—with a small cup of chalky Turkish coffee to jolt me out of my stupor.
The only drawback to Zaytinya (Turkish for "olive oil") is its cavernous size: For the coziest setting, ask for a table in the back on the second level, up a calorie-burning set of stark white stairs.
DC cabbies are still figuring out exactly where to drop off passengers bound for Fabio Trabocchi's third restaurant, a new looker on the edge of the Potomac River down the hill from Georgetown's clogged thoroughfares. The friend and I who met there both had confused drivers. It skirts the right side of the tony Washington Harbour complex, to the left of the Georgetown Waterfront Park. Plenty of Washingtonians know it well already: Since opening in February it's become the hangout du jour for the city's elite.
Trabocchi hails from the Marche region of Italy, near the Adriatic Sea, and the menu is one long psalm in praise of seafood and pasta. My pal and I had busy dinner schedules and swore earlier we'd eat a light lunch. Didn't happen. We started by tackling the frutti di mare—one of those iced platters heaped with oysters, mussels, clams, beady-eyed prawns, and now-ubiquitous uni that evokes the kind of languid beachside vacation that few of us have time for. Trabocchi's showmanship can sometimes lead to excess: A soft-shell crab appetizer was breathtaking to behold but scattered to eat. The crab played hide-and-seek among a bouquet's worth of edible flowers, pesto, blood orange segments, and, for good measure, a few hillocks of trout roe.
Spaghetti with clams, emerging as a signature dish, was a model of simplicity. Littlenecks in their shell surrounded a coil of noodles in a seafood broth, dotted with roasted tomatoes and kindled with bright Controne chilies. Risotto—gilded with lobster coral butter and finished with calamari and cod tripe in tempura batter—proved so rich that dessert was out of the question. At the end of the meal we meandered through the restaurant, lapping in the details: a marble bar with a pattern resembling a white cheetah's coat; azure blue banquettes by the windows that pop against the main room's brown and gray shades. Handsome front and back bars flank the space. It's easy to see why the power-suit crowd flocked here immediately.
Escargot are a thing in D.C. Perhaps they're a holdover from the French bistros that dominated the city's dining landscape for decades. I spotted snails on menus of every style and breadth—even crusted in potato and served with spiced yogurt at Zaytinya. Mintwood Place, in the eclectic Adams Morgan neighborhood, drops them into an even more unlikely medium: hushpuppies. It works as a study of textural opposites, the fried cornmeal's craggy terrain versus the snail's earthy chewiness. The tarragon in the aioli alongside is a wink to France and also coaxes out the fritter's briny qualities.
Chef Cedric Maupillier cooks without borders: He nabs ideas from all over the map, with results that are considered rather than forced. Mintwood only opened in 2012 but it already feels worn-in and comfy, with a mix of knotty woods, tufted chocolate-colored banquettes, and a packed bar where heads stay trained to the game televised overhead.
Unfortunately, my Mintwood experience was uneven. It wasn't the conception of the dishes; it was the execution. A leaden hand with salt marred otherwise smart dishes including a grilled soft-shell crab with a yin-yang of smooth corn and black bean sauces and also a hunky pork chop capped with fried chard and paired with a sodium bomb of spaetzle carbonara. Rainbow trout encased in herb batter with green papaya and aji amarillo slaw was the picture of equilibrium and a fascinating meditation on Peruvian flavors. The spring vegetable composition—a greenscape that included peas, asparagus, favas, and fiddlehead ferns—looked stunning, but the precise circle of morel cream underneath the bounty had a muddiness that mired the dish.
Service threw off the works, too: One of my tablemates nearly got into a verbal spat with a busboy who was overly aggressive about clearing plates before we'd finished eating. It was an off night all around. Mintwood has received repeated praise from local critics whose opinions I trust; I'll circle back at some point.
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