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Apr 22, 2010 08:05 PM


Here's a lengthy excerpt from my blog post about a recent meal at CityZen. You can find the photos on my blog. (



Every one of Keller's disciples, whose restaurant I've had the chance of visiting, has been in the kitchen the night I visited. Eric Ziebold was no exception. Of course, Ziebold has an extra incentive to show up for work - his kitchen is open to the entire dining room.

Our table, in the smaller dining room often used for private parties, was the closest one to the pass. Sitting on a concrete floor next to a glass wall lined with metal, I was surprised to find the noise level quite manageable. Only the deafening clatter of the whisk and copper bowl, which injected itself episodically throughout the evening, was slightly annoying.

Neither of us was terribly hot on the six-course chefs' tasting menu ($110). Preferring the luxury of choice, we ordered three prix-fixe dinners to share. We selected nine dishes, asking for the third main course to be halved. Therefore, we had two sets of first courses, a main course each, shared a cheese course, and each finished with a dessert course.


Amuses Bouche

Vichyssoise Panna Cotta
Smoked olive oil, Steelhead salmon roe.

Olive Oil Custard
Red pepper butter sauce.

First Courses

Clam Chowder Crepe Soufflé
Littleneck clams, Peruvian purple potato, Applewood smoked bacon.

Grilled Guinea Hen Liver
Confit of Savoy cabbage, Perigord black truffle, and roasted guinea hen jus.

Pan Roasted Loin of Kanagy Farms Shoat
Sauteed apple, Brussels sprout leaves, faritytale pumpkin, and shoat jus.
(First course portion $18 supplement)

CityZen Pork Bun
Minced pork cheek, spinach and kumquat
Wrapped in a black pepper dough with melted head cheese.
(Supplement $17)

Main Courses

Pan-Roasted Guinea Hen
Boudin blanc, pommes Sarladaise,
chanterelle mushrooms and foie gras emulsion.

Crepinette of Florida Red Snapper
Caramelized Savoy cabbage, applewood smoked bacon, pearl onions, and grain mustard sauce.

Mini Parker House Rolls

Cheese Course

Ticklemore: Goat. Devon, U.K.
Idiazabal: Sheep. Spain.
Abbaye de Tamle: Cow. France.
Bleu d'Auvergne: Cow. Auvergne, France.

Spiced Marcona almonds and candied walnuts.
Apricot compote and a pear-red pepper chutney.


Mango Sorbet
Vanilla bavarois.


Banana Fritters
Creme brulee ice cream and mocha coulis.

CityZen Rootbeer Float
Sassafras soufflé with tonka vanilla ice cream and spiced milk broth.

Petits Fours

Oatmeal Cookie Cream Pies.
Spearmint Marshmallow.
Toasted Hazelnut and Dark Chocolate.

I have to be honest: Ziebold's menus have never interested me. Perusing them regularly over the course of five years, my imagination has never been captured.

And that seems to have been my reaction to every Keller and Keller alumnus restaurant I've visited. I've left every one of them shrugging.

So why visit this one?

Because everyone I know who has been to CityZen has highly commended the restaurant to me. And, because, I am on that eternal quest to have my expectations unexpectedly surpassed.

Hope springs eternal.

I arrived with my expectations heavily checked, though.

Whereas I expected to be mildly bored, I actually left the restaurant deflated.

By the end of the night, CityZen had managed to siphon off a good deal of my slightly half-empty glass.

Service, at first, seemed razor-sharp. But it quickly dulled.

It was a very busy night. And it was apparent in the lack of attention and wildly inconsistent pacing. We waited at least 25 minutes between a couple of our courses, even longer for dessert. This wasn't as much of a problem towards the end of the night - we were getting full - as it was towards the beginning.

Some restaurants are able to pull off the round robin-style of service seamlessly, a relay with well-rehearsed baton passes. Our rotating servers seemed more like last-minute covers trying to fill in the gaps.

My empty wine glass sat on our table for more than half the night, even though I said I wasn't having any wine. Silverware was misplaced.

Bread, which was served from a large cigar box, was stone-cold. It wasn't quite icebox-cold, but it was unnaturally cold. Cold focaccia is not good focaccia.

The cheese course, which had me particularly excited (a trusted friend had said the selection was especially notable), arrived on a plate, not on a trolley, as my friend remembered. It's not the trolley I missed, but rather, the implied ability to choose from a larger selection. More troubling, however, was the fact that our server wasn't sure how to identify two of the cheeses she was serving us. For a restaurant of CityZen's caliber, this was disappointing.

But these are all trivial concerns next to the extremely fishy-tasting snapper I had as a main course. I smelled its fishiness before it landed on the table. The snapper - two thick filets wrapped tightly in caul fat, skin-side out (a cleverly bound "Crepinette of Florida Red Snapper") - was beautifully cooked. The fish was moist and soft within, crispy on the top and bottom. But it was ruined by its odor. I left the majority of it uneaten, focusing instead on the bed of softened Savoy cabbage, whose hamminess helped mask its fishiness.

The pommes Sarladaise that accompanied Houston's "Pan-Roasted Guinea Hen" were limp and greasy; the guinea hen, unspectacular. The boudin blanc and a swatch of creamed spinach, however, were very good. Ziebold could have started and stopped with those two items and had a blue ribbon plate.

And this is what I learned about Ziebold's cooking from my narrow experience: I preferred his heartier, bolder-flavored creations. They seemed more honest. More present. Maybe, even more Ziebold?

My favorite dish of the night was my first course, "Grilled Guinea Hen Liver." It had all of the guts and gusto of a rustic country dish, yet the precision of a Keller alumnus. It was head and shoulders above the rest. It was the type of dish - the quality, not necessarily the content - that I expected to parade out of Ziebold's kitchen consistently.

The nuggets of livers were amazingly tender and the confit of cabbage unnaturally silky, bathed in a rich guinea jus. If there was one disappointing thing about this dish, it was the black truffle, which had no aroma whatsoever, tasting instead of bitter flecks of char.

My friend's first course, the "Clam Chowder Crepe Soufflé," was wan by comparison, not rich enough to be a chowder. It was like all of the ingredients of a traditional chowder washed up in a tidal pool next to an omelet. Creative, overly precious, forgettable.

Ziebold's more refined dishes struck me as being Keller clones. (That chowder soufflé even arrived on Keller's signature houndstooth Bernadotte china.)

The "Pan Roasted Loin of Kanagy Farms Shoat," for example, looked and tasted like it could have walked straight out of per se under Benno's tenure. The shoat was wonderfully tender. It came with excellent jus (clear as a bell, clean as a whistle), and perfectly turned canons of fruit and vegetables. It was all very textbook, and just about as exciting as one. Apologies to the Keller fans here, I don't know what's wrong with me - Keller-type dishes just don't grab me.

Both of the amuses bouche were bold and delicious volleys with which to begin the meal, if not a bit predictable. Something creamy with something salty. I especially enjoyed the red pepper butter, which punctuated silky olive oil panna cotta with sweet-salty savor.

Then there was the "CityZen Pork Bun," which was very odd. I had imagined it to be something akin to a steamed char sui bun filled with melting head cheese. Instead, this "bun," shaped like a burrito, was more of an over-sized dumpling. More dough than filling, it relied mostly on the golden, pan-fried crust on the outside for personality than anything in it. But the rosy bed of "minced pork cheek" - corned, apparently - was delicious.

Headed by Amanda Cook, the pastry department here is solid.

Those cheeses, as common as they were, were exemplary, especially the Bleu d'Auvergne, which was especially meaty that night.

Both of our desserts were sophisticated versions of simple classics. Sweet teeth should look elsewhere for a fix, these desserts were lean on sugar, focusing instead on the natural flavors of the ingredients. Cook targets dessert-eaters like me.

The highlight was my "CityZen Rootbeer Float," a creative reinterpretation involving a sassafras soufflé and an edible straw (made of potato flour, I believe). It would have been even better had the "spiced milk broth" been served in a little creamer so that I could pour it into the warm, fluffy soufflé like you would do with creme anglaise normally. Instead, the wonderful spiced milk - subbing in for the frothy head off a root beer float - sat in a shallow pool around a quenelle of vanilla ice cream.

"Banana Fritters" were surprisingly hefty nuggets, each filled with a mashed banana filling. They were accompanied by a daringly bitter chocolate sauce that was two parts smoky, one part earthy. This was an adult dessert. It begged for a glass of red wine.

CityZen is a handsome restaurant. It's predictably sleek and modern - grand, even. But it has hardly any character. It might be listed under "high-end, nondescript hostelry" in a catalog somewhere: plush settees; high thread count linens; floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, temperature-moderated , glass-encased wine racks. A gleaming kitchen. High ceilings. There's some Las Vegas in its pedigree.

Highlights, there were a few (I failed to mention the warm, buttery mini-Parker House rolls that arrived in a small cigar box with our main courses, and the excellent "Jack of Allspice" cocktail that came in a pretty, long-stemmed coupe). Disappointments, there were more.

CityZen Restaurant
1330 Maryland Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20024

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  1. My one visit was encouraging enough, but I have been in no rush to return.

    1 Reply
    1. I had a similar experience last New Year's Eve - just not up to par. I left completely and totally underwhelmed which was too bad because I was ready to really like the place.

      1. Can I ask what camera/lens you're using? Most restaurants are rather dim and your shots are really nice.

        1 Reply
        1. re: reiflame

          @ reiflame: Thanks for your kind words. Refer to the FAQ here.

        2. UE - we don't always agree, but generally I respect your knowledge and writing skills. I tentatively have CityZen slated for a Tuesday dinner while in DC, but this review and others give me pause. CityZen is intended as a fallback as I'm #1 on the cancellation list for Minibar that night.

          If you had it to re-do and skipped CityZen where would you go instead? I've already got reservations at Citronelle, Komi, Vidalia 24, Volt Table 21, and Restaurant Eve's Tasting room (ambitious, yes - I'm traveling with others on a celebratory trip)

          Restaurant Eve
          110 South Pitt Street, Alexandria, VA 22314

          CityZen Restaurant
          1330 Maryland Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20024

          3000 M Street NW, Washington, DC 20007

          1509 17th St NW Ste 1, Washington, DC 20036

          1990 M St NW # 2, Washington, DC

          7 Replies
          1. re: uhockey

            Not UE, but here's my opinion since I've been reading yours about Cleveland. (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame trip coming up. Lola and Greenwood Tavern are my two choices.)

            Unless you're determined to remain in DC, I'd head to the close-in suburb of Falls Church to eat at 2941. The chef offers modern American cuisine with personalizes touches. Looking at your existing list of restaurants, I see a trend towards lots of little bites. Although 2941 offers a tasting menu, I find their food so delicious that I want full portions of each of the dishes I select so my husband and I rarely order the tasting menu. If there's any pasta/risotto on that night's menu, definitely order it. I don't where this French chef learned to cook such superlative pasta, but, outside of Italy, I find his pasta to be the best in DC. (Most of the pasta is of the eggy, ethereally light Emilia-Romagna type.) I find the service to be reliably superb and I love eating in a space with amazing contemporary art glass chandeliers and a Rodin sculpture.

            If you want to stay in DC, my vote goes to Marcel. I love the flexibility their menu offers. Ignore the way the menu reads. Basically, you order anything you want, including multiple dishes from a single course on the menu, and the kitchen will sequence the food in the best order. This would be a place you'd feel most comfortable wearing a jacket and slacks.

            1. re: Indy 67

              Seriously - skip Lola and do Crop - sit at the chef's table and watch that man work the kitchen.....

              And thanks a ton for the input!

            2. re: uhockey

              First, thanks for the vote of confidence, uhockey.

              If I had it to do all over again, I would have gone to Restaurant Eve Tasting Room. But I see that's on your schedule. I think Indy has given you two excellent recommendations. I've been especially interested in 2941 ever since Chemel vacated Cafe Boulud. To Indy's list, I might add Eventide. Though I've never been, it's come highly recommended.

              And since you're doing so much high-end dining already, you might consider going casual one night. I've heard that proof is great.

              Restaurant Eve
              110 South Pitt Street, Alexandria, VA 22314

              1. re: ulterior epicure

                I would skip 2941 and go to Inox in Tyson's. I have been underwhelmed every time I have been to 2941 but left Inox very happy and would say it is a close second to Eve in Va.

                1800 Tysons Blvd., McLean, VA 22102

                1. re: italy531

                  Italy531, based on a recent experience there I would tend to agree with you.

                  1. re: italy531

                    I thought you might appreciate a little bit of detail about Inox since I've already supplied it for 2941, albeit in a briefer version than what follows.

                    I've had sublime food at Inox: a game tasting dinner with wine pairings and a meal of Julia Child classics as a tie in the movie JULIE/JULIA. However, I've had meals there that leave me unsatisfied. Here's are two reviews I posted about an August meal and a February meal at Inox that illustrates both my points of view about Inox.

                    August: Run do not walk to Inox for the Julia/Julie special. The food is sublime, and Julia is appropriately honored by the chef's rendition of her recipes. (If you followed the link MrsWheatie supplied, you've learned that Inox's Chef Mathieson cooked the dinner that honored Julia Child on her 90th birthday.)

                    The non-descript appetizer course (French salad composee) turns out to be a sublime modern take on Salade Nicoise. On one side of the plate is a small mound of arugula tossed in a bright vinaigrette along with a quarter of a perfectly cooked hard boiled egg. (No green outer edge on this little darling.) On the other side of the plate, you'll find a perfectly seared piece of tuna topped with slice of a large mushroom, further embellished with a jumble of slivered lima beans, anchovies, and other vegetables.

                    Both my husband and I ordered the Casserole-Roasted Chicken with Tarragon. I've never tasted chicken so intensely tasting of pure yummy chicken-i-ness. The portion consists of a breast that has been deboned except for a small stub of the leg bone. The meat from the leg is served as part of the mixture of mushrooms, diced potatoes, and pearl onions that accompany the chicken breast. I haven't looked at my copy of MASTERING before posting so I don't know if the dark meat is cooked separately from the breast. At any rate, both types of meat are moist, tender, and, above all, delicious.

                    The clafouti was delicious although it was a drier version than I'm used to compared to versions we've eaten in France. I suspect this is the result of the decision to serve the dessert as a pancake/cherry studded layer topped with ice cream rather than leaving the clafouti in its baking dish. At any rate, this was a lovely ending to a delicious meal.

                    February review:
                    Last night, I had dinner at Inox and I realized something about the food that had been bothering me over the course of several meals. The chef needs to learn to edit a bit better. Yes, I know that complexity is one of the distinguishing features of restaurant cuisine compared to home cooking. Yes, I know about mouth boredom and that's why chefs include many elements; chefs want the diner to encounter variety with each forkful. But I think this chef needs to learn to edit.

                    Last night, I ordered the sweetbread appetizer and the scallop entree. The sweetbreads consisted of a crispy single sweetbread sitting in a sauce that wasn't Sauce Choron but was that color and consistency. Two thick slices of abalone mushroom and a scattering of black-eyed peas completed that grouping on the plate. The dish also included a nicely braised and sauteed piece of pork belly and, finally, a slaw of endive and raddiccio. I liked the dish since I individually liked all the components, but I didn't love the dish. The consistency of sauce was duplicated by the mayonnaise-based dressing on the slaw. One of those should have been vinaigrette. The mouth feel of the sauce and the sweetbread was duplicated by the consistency of the black eyed peas. I couldn't figure out what the peas were bringing to the dish beyond the visual of the black spot.

                    The entree was more successful. The braised Savoy cabbage offered softer texture than the carrot chunks and the super-crisp dice of bacon in the mixture. A light-but-creamy sauce unified all the above accompaniments. All of this contrasted nicely with the well-prepared seared scallops. By the end of the meal, when I looked at the complicated desserts, I couldn't muster any enthusiasm and simply ordered mixture of sorbet and ice-cream. The cinnamon ice cream was the winner of the three.

                    At the moment, between 2941 and Inox, the former is claiming my affections. The food at 2941seems to avoid this over-elaboration but remains interesting.

                    1800 Tysons Blvd., McLean, VA 22102

                    1. re: Indy 67

                      That sweetbread dish is a riot. Half way through the paragraph, I forgot you were still describing the same dish.

                      An excellent piece of meat or fish and a side of nicely cooked vegetables can last a life time. I dare say the most memorable dishes I've had tend to be the simple, well-executed ones. There really is no need to fuss.