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Posted by aaron and brian at 10:01AM, Monday, November 01st, 2004

CityZen (restaurant review)

The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 1330 Maryland Avenue SW, Washington, DC

CityZen has been getting a lot of press, as pretty much the hottest restaurant in DC right now. We haven't experienced much to match it.

Cons


The noise, the name, the prices. The service could be better: everyone was very helpful, but we all had trouble hearing what the servers were saying, and I wasn't thrilled with the bottle the sommelier recommended. With a wine-list this bewildering, recommendations are crucial: there's the whole gamut of big-name Bordeaux -- but 1998 and later! These wines are wasted when drunk this young! Beyond that, the selection goes to every region, covering a tremendous range of varietals and vintages, and filling a sizable book. After leafing through it for 15 minutes, you realize that CityZen is a little sinful, both in terms of conspicuous consumption and bloating. Stretch your stomach before coming here. The bitter, weak espresso, totally out of character with the rest of the meal, made us vow never again to buy Illy beans.

Pros


We had a record 5-foodgasm meal. Champagne served on arrival is a great way to start dinner, and an idea we'd love to see imitated elsewhere (do they do this for everyone, or were we special? [edit: Brian says we were special.]). One of the bottles of wine we got was great. Entrees and starters are about as trendy and French Laundry-inspired as you'll find anywhere, and prepared with exacting skill. One of our companions was pregnant; the staff accomodated her requirements for the tasting menu expertly, even letting her know about a couple things she should avoid that she hadn't thought of.

Eating off the tasting menu (and letting the chef order for us), we had a succession of decadent plates. We started with pasta in a cream and black truffle sauce (truffles being one of the Chef de Cuisine's requisite trophy ingredients, served here in a ridiculous quantity), which was possibly my favorite. This was a lovely pairing with the champagne (foodgasm!), but a little overpowering for the poor Chardonnay that followed. Brian's favorite was the mushroom sorbet, which resembled nothing so much as a glistening organ of some sort, as it sat quivering on the plate. The servers poured a hot beef consomme over it, and the cold sorbet slowly merged with the broth as it warmed. Transferring spoonfuls of this to our mouths, we experienced a mind-bending combination of temperatures, textures, and flavors which rarely, if ever, coexist. Sublime (and foodgasmic.)

There were also scallops (so nice), and a beef course, among others. One of the highlights was the cheese course. We had a long discussion with the cheese waiter (what's the cheese version of sommelier? [edit: Brian says it's fromager, which makes sense; I prefer the Americanized version: Cheeser]), who brought out his sample cheese-matrix, organized along two dimensions: gooeiness and source animal. We made our choices, and dutifully experienced a foodgasm when they were served. (Have I mentioned that Vermont's been making an impressive showing on all these cheese plates lately?)

The desserts were spectacular, well beyond the match of any I've had before, in taste and visual presentation. A molten chocolate cake with a sprinkling of salt - with a liquid chocolate center precisely heated inside the cake so that it burst like a geyser as you bit down (foodgasm!); chestnut souffle (foodgasm!); pears marinated sous vide; little square tabs of chocolate on big plates...

Our party saw a photo shoot in a Maybach limo as we arrived, and a couple national politicians in the restaurant. This seems to be the DC scene's little version of LA (consumerist, glamorous, and expensive, but also fabulous). Check out the bar to see DC politicos, enjoy the decor and drinks and the service (our waitress at the bar was an impeccably-dressed Amazonian woman; I half-expected her to tell us her Bond-esque name and reveal a holster on her thigh), or just watch the parade of new and vintage unobtainable automobiles through the windows.

Ignore the faux-Eastern decor, which is loud and a little ugly. Ogle the floor-to-ceiling stainless wine racks, which vibrate too much to store any good wine in them. Come here for the celebrity-watching, and, mostly, for the spectacular food, from Chef de Cuisine Eric Ziebold (formerly of the French Laundry), and rising stars Jewel and Aaron Zimmer, pastry and sous chef, respectively.
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