Monday, July 07, 2008

José Andrés Bats .500

On my recent trip to Washington, D.C. I decided to try two of the restaurants in celebrity chef José Andrés' empire. I'm not necessarily impressed by chefs with cookbooks, PBS TV programs, James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef of the Year nominations and Top Chef guest appearances (all of which Andrés can claim), but I'd heard such raves about his tapas restaurant, Jaleo, that it made the top of my Washington wish list. I also decided to do brunch at his Mediterranean meze restaurant, Zaytinya. I enlisted two D.C. confederates for both meals. While my meal at Zaytinya was pure pleasure, Jaleo was more than a disappointment: it was a dog.

Zaytinya occupies an airy, bright, sleek space at 701 9th Street, NW (corner of G). It features a menu of small plates (meze) that are variations on traditional dishes of Turkey, Greece and Lebanon. Just about all the items we tried had plenty of pizaz and panache.

Perhaps the two least exciting, but still quite good, dishes were the brunch-only items that we ordered. The tiganites were described as Greek pancakes and were served with dried berries, Greek yogurt and honey. These were pretty much like American pancakes, though less fluffy. My own post-meal research reveals that true Greek tiganites are more like fritters. Patata harra consisted of diced potatoes mixed with chopped loucaniko sausage, topped with a fried egg.

Havuç köftesi (carrot-apricot fritters with pine nuts and a pistachio sauce) sounded interesting on paper, but I think they were even better on a plate. They were sweet but not cloying, perfect for a little taste among other items. The ground lamb and egg pide had a delicious filling, though I'd have preferred a more crisp and substantial crust. The house-made lamb and beef sausages (mahanek) were fabulous, lean with a bold yet fresh flavor. Garides saganaki, the Greek melted cheese with shrimp dish, was one of the best versions I've tasted. This was the kind of meal that makes you want to go back and try everything on the menu.

Jaleo (480 7th Street, NW, at E Street) has been around much longer than Zaytinya, and if it was ever in the same class it appears to be now coasting on reputation. I love tapas, and I was expecting one of America's premier tapas restaurants. What I got was pure mediocrity. If just about everything at Zaytinya was memorable, everything at Jaleo was forgettable. The food couldn't hold a candle to two of my favorite, and very different from each other, New York tapas bars: the resolutely traditional El Cid and the modern, inventive Las Ramblas.

Of the nine tapas we ordered, two were what I'd consider tapas bar benchmarks, items available on just about any tapas menu. The pulpo a la Gallega (Gallician-style octopus) was possibly the worst I've ever had. It was painfully salty, and otherwise flavorless--the smoked paprika seems to have been defused. The patatas bravas were also abominable, with a virtually flavorless aioli (where's the garlic?) and tomato sauce. The truly unforgivable sin of the patatas was that they were those thinly sliced, round chip-style Spanish fried potatoes, while the dish really needs to be made with hearty chunks of fried potato.

The wild mushroom rice with creamy Idiazabal cheese (I'd fallen love with a similar dish at El Farol in Santa Fe) was flat and uninspired. The seared monkfish over eggplant puree was tasteless. Sea scallops were fresh, but their mojo picon (spicy pepper sauce from the Canary Islands) was neither particularly spicy nor anything else. Chicken with a garlic green sauce was pedestrian. The two best items were chorizos with garlic potatoes and a tortilla (omelet) with artichokes and garrotxa cheese (a Catalan goat cheese). Those two items excepted, just about every dish seemed tired--could it be from the weight of reputation?

Zaytinya on Urbanspoon


Anonymous Sergio Perera said...

The most miserable portions I ever had in my life. A carafe of wine contains two thimbles; the gazpacho is served in a dropper. You come out of this restaurant as hungry as you got in, but with empty pockets and a big disappointment.

A very bad example of what the Spanish food is.

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