January 2007: 100 Very Best Restaurants

Eric Ziebold reaches for perfection at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel's gleaming restaurant.

No. 3: CityZen

No chef has arrived here with more fanfare than Eric Ziebold, who had just completed an eight-year turn as chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller’s revered French Laundry in Napa Valley when he landed at DC’s opulent Mandarin Oriental two years ago, heirloom-vegetable seeds in hand. Gastronomes asked: Would this be the second coming of Keller?

Well, no. You’ll see flashes of his style, to be sure. What Ziebold calls a “calotte” of beef—the juicy, brown-colored cap on a cut of prime rib—is a Laundry knockoff, as is the carnaroli-risotto Biologico, festooned with Alba truffles and Castelmagno cheese. But where Keller is a playful perfectionist, Ziebold is studied and serious minded: If you’re looking for a foie gras peanut butter and jelly, you won’t find it here.

What you will find is the work of an intense technician who has let go enough to overcome his biggest early shortcoming—dishes that were more intricately conceived and cerebral than delicious. He still overhauls his menu each month and rarely reprises a dish, even very successful ones—what happened to the sublime truffled chicken and buttermilk dumplings or the luscious butter-poached lobster with sweet corn? But his cooking these days feels more relaxed, more lived-in.

Look for anything house-cured: chorizo and prosciutto from baby pigs or veal tongue, pastrami-style. Or anything with an Asian or Americana touch: foie gras shabu-shabu, slices of toro with a Yuengling popover and pickled tomatoes.

An evening in the pillared dining room, all fire and steel, is one of the more expensive experiences in town. Finally, it’s worth it.

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