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When Eric Ziebold announced, this past spring, that he was leaving the French Laundry to come to D.C., the city’s foodies went into paroxysms of speculation. The prospect of Thomas Keller’s right-hand man turning out variations on the fanciful and exquisite plates that had made the Napa Valley institution the most sought-after reservation in the country was so tantalizing that CityZen was booking tables even before it opened.
Well, guess what? The most eagerly awaited restaurant to debut in the city in the last several years turns out to be a far less dazzling display of wit and whimsy and look-at-me brilliance than many expected. And guess what else? That’s not a bad thing.
The apprentice may not have entirely made his break from the master—one night, I glimpsed him wearing chef’s whites with “French Laundry” on them—and his technical repertoire is so vast that sometimes he’s guilty of wanting to try out everything he knows at once—but the restaurant, situated in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, has an appealing directness and a quiet sturdiness that owe more to Ziebold’s native Iowa than to his adopted California.
Take the mini Parker House rolls, brought to the table in a humidor, the clasp of which is released by a server with the flourish of a street salesman showing you his selection of Rolexes. The yeasty pull-apart rolls, sheened with butter and dusted with sea salt, embody the house style: technical accuracy (they bounce back when you pinch them) subsumed into cooking that is hearty and satisfying. Or dig Ziebold’s bread course, which might as well be the butter course. The chef serves two varieties of the spread, not one—recently, a disk from Virginia and a disk from France—and not because he can’t decide. It’s a chance to revel in difference, to appreciate the variations in sweetness and saltiness and creaminess—the kind of subtleties that Ziebold trades on.
There is, to be sure, whimsy and reinvention (an inverted Caesar salad, a “fudgesicle” on the dessert menu) but just enough to remind you that he’s enjoying himself. In the end, Ziebold doesn’t want you to stand back and admire his food; he wants you to dig in.
The menu changes to reflect not just the seasons but the young chef’s culinary wanderlust; it reads as though Ziebold, who spent the past eight years in dutiful adherence to the seasonal, produce-celebrating tenets of Napa chauvinism, is free, again, to love pork and organ meats in all their glorious richness. Oh, he may make a vegetable the centerpiece of a dish or two, and he explores the full range of seafood, but his deepest affinities lie with pork and game. In the case of the superb rabbit, those loves are conjoined—a thin layer of smoky bacon impersonates a second skin and keeps what is often a stringy meat moist and tender.
Technique is learned behavior; the love of pig—that’s innate. And so, sure, there’s a gastrique in his repertoire, but it’s a pig’s-ear gastrique. A shimmering consommé gets its depth of flavor not from the usual, laboriously strained beef stock but from the far richer duck stock. Organ meat is well represented, too. One of the more delicate creations in my three visits was a dish of perfectly fried calves’ brains, the interior soft but not oozing, set atop a potato-studded frittata and garnished with parsley and capers.
The best of the rest of the menu wears its considerable learning lightly: the chicken and buttermilk dumplings, so impeccably handled that what might otherwise be considered grace notes—slices of celery and pearl onions—are elevated to component parts; a foie-gras risotto so controlled—neither mushy nor overrich—that you’re made to realize, anew, that the whole deal is about the rice. Ziebold is not a plater; he’s not a colorist; he’s not much of an innovator. He eschews gimmickry for gimmickry’s sake. You sense that, for all his experience, all he really wants to do is intensify the strong, round flavors he grew up on. To make the simple elegant, the elegant simple.
Occasionally, he overreaches. A tripe schnitzel with raw peanuts is the kind of cooking that is meant to satisfy the needs of a restless chef more than the needs of the public. Lobster mushrooms are tasty enough, but they’re far from the earthy intensity you’d expect, and the cabbage-wrapped roll that comes with them seems like a joke that’s missing a detail. The horseradish-crusted sturgeon with roasted beets and a beet vinaigrette is neither simple nor elegant but uncharacteristically dull.
And CityZen could stand a little tweaking of its endings. Meals tend to taper off considerably, a fact the staff points to as evidence of Ziebold’s exquisite pacing, but that most diners—not just the chocolate mafia—are likely to regard as an oversight. Jewel Zimmer’s desserts, consisting as they do of gelees and eggless custards and soups, which extract their flavors from a range of tropical fruits, often come across as elaborate palate-cleansers. Some, like the blancmange, are terrific and light; others are merely light.
The youngish staff makes up for what it might occasionally lack in polish with a palpable excitement for the biz and for the chef. They help turn a space that resembles a palatial hallway (columns, soaring ceilings, humongous chandeliers) into a warm, inviting setting. There’s an earnestness that can’t be faked. Asked if I was enjoying my beef colotte, a dish of surprising clarity, I mumbled my approval between chews before getting out the word “Excellent.” The captain’s face lit up in such wonder, I couldn’t help but think of one of Frank Capra’s Midwestern innocents newly arrived in the big, bad city. “Really? You’re not just saying that?”
CityZen, 1330 Maryland Ave. SW, (202) 787-6006. —Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.