"When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy," wrote Thomas Keller in The French Laundry Cookbook. "That's what cooking is all about."
Chef Eric Ziebold comes to CityZen after serving as chef de cuisine at Keller's French Laundry restaurant in California's Napa Valley, perhaps the nation's most praised restaurant. There's a lot to be happy about at CityZen–a dramatic, high-ceilinged dining room with a long bar at one end and a gleaming open kitchen at the other; lovely linens, silver, and glassware; conscientious service; a chef who buys top-quality ingredients and lets their flavors speak for themselves. Most evenings, particularly on weekends, the dining room is fully booked by a young, well-dressed crowd that makes a table at CityZen one of the hardest to get in the city, despite its out-of-the-way location and its steep prices–$70 for three courses or a five-to-seven course tasting menu priced from $90 to $125.
Dinner at CityZen is marked by small gestures that make the restaurant seem both luxurious and gracious–a choice of rye, sourdough, or bacon-and-cheese bread, served with unsalted butter from Virginia and salted butter from Normandy; a series of amuses bouches from the chef, perhaps a single fried mushroom with truffle butter, a cup of brandade soup, a perfectly scrambled egg with white truffles shaved over the top at the table.
A recent three-course winter menu began with a choice of chestnut soup enlivened by braised quince and finely chopped San Danielle ham; a wonderful soufflé of Yukon Gold potatoes with the delicate tang of Meyer lemon and sea urchin; and a luxuriously rustic stew of duck foie gras and root vegetables. Main courses included poached duck breast paired with duck foie gras and served with a tart-sweet mille-feuille of beets and apples; a flavorful braised veal shank with delicious potato gnocchi and a Parmesan crisp; and a rare disappointment, noisettes of venison that seemed both overcooked and dry but were nicely paired with caramelized fennel and pumpkin chutney. A highlight of the meal is the arrival with the main course of a wooden box filled with buttery miniature Parker House rolls, a witty and delicious treatment of an American staple, better than you ever thought it could be.
As good as pastry chef Jewel Zimmer's desserts are, it's hard to imagine passing up the cheese cart, which contains one of the largest selections of cheeses in the city, all in prime condition. The cheeses are arranged from left to right in the order of type of milk, from front to back in order of increasing firmness. The waiter usually in charge of the cheese cart knows his cheeses and gives good advice.
Desserts have included a delicate and delicious Meyer lemon soufflé and a very good poached pear with chocolate cream, ginger froth, and a superb ice cream made with ten-year-old Port.
My experience with Ziebold's six-course tasting menu was less satisfactory than with the three-course option. On the night I ordered it, courses ranged from the very good–hand-cut tagliatelle with Périgord truffles, rabbit rillettes with a ragoût of lentils–to the good but unexceptional, such as a pan-seared yellowfin tuna followed by a pan-roasted lamb chop with Jerusalem artichokes and olives. A food-loving group of friends might do better to order from the more extensive offerings on the three-course menu and share plates.
The wine list is well chosen and expensive, though not out of line with other restaurants in this price range. Expect to pay $50 to $60 for one of the least expensive bottles. The sommelier's odd excuse that the tasting menu changed too often for him to suggest by-the-glass pairings has been abandoned. By-the-glass pairings are now available for $9.
CityZen is a very good–sometimes remarkably good–restaurant, and Thomas Keller no doubt would be proud of his former chef de cuisine's accomplishment. But sometimes it seems that the place just tries too hard. CityZen is most engaging when it relaxes a bit–serving that box of Parker House rolls, for example. I look forward to a time when this young restaurant is more relaxed and confident, less concerned that I appreciate its food and more concerned that I go away happy. Which, as Thomas Keller says, is what cooking is all about.
Mandarin Oriental hotel, 1330 Maryland Ave., SW; 202-787-6006. Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner.
Food: Classic preparations with Modern American touches.
Atmosphere: Luxuriously set tables in a dramatic, high-ceilinged dining room with display kitchen.
Service: Attentive but with occasional long waits between courses.
Price: Very expensive–three courses, $70; five-to-seven-course tasting menu, $90 to $125.
Value: In line with other top restaurants in the city.
Bottom line: Accomplished but somewhat self-conscious cooking from a talented young chef.