- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Mike Isabella is a youthful, fast-talkingNew Jerseyite with a ready smile. He is fashionably tattooed; his short black hair sports an occasional discreet spike.

Don’t get him wrong, though. There is nothing rebellious or carefree about how this 32-year-old man runs the kitchen at Zaytinya, the Gallery Place hot spot serving mezzes — small plates — of Turkey, Greece and Lebanon. He was hired as head chef in March.

On the contrary. Mr. Isabella brings to the table — rather, to the kitchen — an abundance of ambition and a certain amount of traditionalism.

“I like to keep it simple, find the best ingredients and make sure the execution is very high,” Mr. Isabella says.

So, he’s constantly tweaking, adding lemon and vinegar (his two favorite flavor-enhancers: “It’s all about adding acidity.”) here and removing complexity of ingredients there.

Before coming to Zaytinya, he worked at Kyma, an award-winning Greek restaurant in Atlanta, owned by Pano Karatassos. As part of Mr. Isabella’s training, the Karatassos family sent him to two Greek islands — Santorini and Ios — to learn for six months from the best: a Karatassos grandmother.

“We would buy whatever was fresh at the market that day and we’d sun-dry our octopus,” says Mr. Isabella. He can’t do the sun-drying here in the city, but he has figured out a way to do octopus to his — and many guests’ — liking.

“No one can compete with this octopus,” he says and, sounding like an ancient Greek sage, he adds: “A Greek chef is one who can cook octopus.”

The ingredients include red wine vinegar, black peppercorns, bay leaves and octopus. Sounds simple enough. The preparation, however, seems lengthy and somewhat daunting. It includes wrapping the octopus in aluminum foil, roasting it until tender, checking it for doneness (“by examining the purplish skin where the head and tentacles meet”), cooling it, removing the tentacles from the head and refrigerating it until ready to cook.

If this seems like an arduous process, you can also just let the expert do the work and order it for $6.95 at Zaytinya, the spacious white-and-blue elegantly designed restaurant, which manages to keep prices low because of its high volume of guests: about 1,000 a day.

“We also make our spanakopita completely from scratch. We blanch four cases of spinach a day, and we make our own phyllo,” Mr. Isabella says. “No one does that anymore.” Price: $6.95.

When Jose Andres, an owner and the creator of Zaytinya and several other popular, small-plate Washington restaurants, a cook book author and television host, heard through the restaurant grapevine that Mr. Isabella was looking to leave Atlanta for the Washington area, he contacted him. A few phone calls later, sometime in March, Mr. Andres hired the 32-year-old to run Zaytinya.

There was supposed to have been an in-person interview and a tasting menu, but they skipped all that until Mr. Isabella was settled in. He then was asked to create a 17-dish tasting menu for Mr. Andres, of which the latter gave high marks to exactly 94 percent of dishes.

“I was not crazy about the tomato-feta pancake he made. Lucky for him everything else was good,” said Mr. Andres in an e-mail from the Asturias region in northern Spain where he was recently filming his popular cooking show for Spanish television.

It seems Mr. Andres’ opinion has not changed since the positive phone interviews and excellent tasting menu. “Mike is great and plays well with my team,” Mr. Andres says. “Running the kitchen, making sure Zaytinya’s quality is there, motivating the staff, making things happen. (He is) talented, and a great kid.”

Part of the reason the relationship is successful, Mr. Isabella says, is that he and Mr. Andres are on the same plate in terms of what food preparation is all about.

“He wants to create the best and he’s always thinking outside the box,” Mr. Isabella says of his boss. “And he gives me the freedom to do the same.”

Mr. Andres is the second Jose to have influenced Mr. Isabella. “One Jose watched me grow and the other one grabbed me when I was ready,” he says.

Jose Garces, who owns two restaurants — Amada and Tinto — in Philadelphia and is preparing to open a third, Mercat, a Catalan restaurant in his native Chicago, was the first Jose and “my biggest mentor,” says Mr. Isabella.

Mr. Isabella’s move to Zaytinya is “a perfect match,” Mr. Garces said, also from Northern Spain, where he’s doing research for Mercat. “He’s been doing Greek food for about a year now, and he’s finally found his niche. He is absolutely someone to be reckoned with in Greek food.”

Mr. Isabella’s culinary journey has nurtured his skill in all Mediterranean cuisines except his own — Italian. “I just never saw myself cooking Italian food,” he says.

He did, however, see himself cooking starting at a young age. “I think I was 7 or 8 and I knew I wanted to be a chef,” he says. His first teacher was his Italian maternal grandmother. Later, his formal education included an associate’s degree at the New York Restaurant School.

To the outside world, it may seem Mr. Isabella has landed, and he acknowledges there is no place he’d rather be than Zaytinya now. That doesn’t mean he ever rests on his laurels.

A visit to his busy, back-of-the-restaurant office is testimony enough.

The shelves and desk are spilling with books that are marked with brightly colored notes. An open page in “Real Greek Food” by Theodore Kyriakou shows a recipe of fish stifado.

“I usually make it with rabbit, but I want to try it with fish,” he says. Stifado is a stew dominated by onions and frequently is made with rabbit.

Other books he’s reading include “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” by Claudia Roden (“She’s a genius”) and “Glorious Foods of Greece” by Diane Kochilas (“She’s probably the best Greek cookbook author around”).

Also in his office on stainless steel shelves are labeled plastic containers. They hold ouzo that is being infused with ingredients such as lemons and watermelon.

“That’s something we started recently, and people really seem to like it,” Mr. Isabella says, adding that the infusion takes the edge off the intense licorice flavor.

For fall, he’s planning cinnamon and pumpkin-flavored ouzo, and in October he’s introducing a grape festival with everything from grape leaves to raisins to wines.

Other projects include making his own yogurt and yogurt cheese, traveling to Athens, Crete and Santorini to visit Greek wineries, olive oil producers and restaurants as well as creating the tastiest-ever tapenade.

“It’s not enough for it to be just OK; then, why bother?” Mr. Isabella says. “We’re working on making the best olive tapenade in the country.”

For late October, he’s planning a trip to Lebanon to visit olive oil producers and pastry and sesame warehouses. In early spring, a trip to Turkey is planned. His aim there is to learn about regional cooking and customs.

Aside from his busy work schedule — he’s at the restaurant six days a week — he works out at the gym almost daily, enjoys his Crystal City condominium and surrounding neighborhood with his girlfriend (also in the restaurant business) and — surprise — he reads cookbooks.

As for the future, he says, “I’m not going anywhere unless I open my own restaurant, and that’s not anytime soon.”

Swordfish kebabs

2 pounds swordfish

1 medium red onion

2 red bell peppers

½ cup parsley leaves

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon capers

1 anchovy fillet

1 tablespoon lemon juice

4 tablespoons canola oil

8 bamboo skewers

2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped, for garnish

Salt

Cut swordfish into 1-inch cubes, then place on a flat sheet tray, wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to place on skewers.

Cut onion in half from top to bottom and separate the pieces, place on a sheet tray and then put in oven at 350 degrees for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove and let cool. (This partially cooks the onion so it will be soft and sweet after final cooking on the skewer.)

Repeat the same step for the bell pepper.

While the onions and peppers are cooking, make the parsley sauce: in a blender, place the parsley, anchovy, capers, then puree and slowly add olive oil until all is emulsified and continue to blend, about 3 minutes. Refrigerate.

In a small mixing bowl, add lemon juice and canola oil to make a lemon vinaigrette for basting the fish when it’s on the grill so it doesn”t get dry.

Remove peppers and onions from refrigerator and cut them in 1-inch squares so they will be the same size as the fish cubes. Then skewer onion, pepper and swordfish, repeating three times for each kebab.

Once all kebabs are assembled, season with salt and place on hot grill. Cook about 3 minutes on first side, 2 minutes on reverse side and 1 minute each on two other sides or until fish is medium in temperature, making sure to baste with lemon vinaigrette during and after cooking process.

Once fish is off the grill sprinkle with chopped dill.

On a serving plate, place several tablespoons parsley sauce, then add swordfish kebabs on top of the sauce.

Makes 4 to 8 servings.

Fava Santorini

1 cup yellow split peas, rinsed under cold water for 5 minutes

3 cups water

½ cup onion, thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, halved

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons capers

1 red onion, cut in 1/4-inch l dice

4 tablespoons parsley, chopped

Place the split peas in pot and bring to a boil, skim the foam off the top and add onions and garlic and simmer until the split peas are tender.

While the split peas are cooking, make the vinaigrette.

RED WINE VINAIGRETTE:

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 pinch oregano, dry

3 tablespoons canola oil

Combine vinegar, oregano and canola oil in bowl; next add diced onion and marinate at room temperature until fava puree is complete.

Pour the cooked split peas into a fine strainer and let sit for 5 minutes.

Put the split peas, while still hot, into a blender and puree, add the lemon juice, olive oil and salt and continue to puree until smooth.

Then place in bowl and top off with capers, parsley and marinated onions.

Watermelon salad

2 cups watermelon (1 red, 1 yellow or 2 red) cubes

6 yellow kalamata olives, pitted

4 mint leaves

2 scallions

2 tablespoons lemon vinaigrette (recipe follows)

½ cup feta cheese, crumbled

Cut the trimmed watermelon flesh into half-inch cubes, and place in mixing bowl.

Cut each of the pitted olives into 4 pieces lengthwise. Thinly slice mint leaves in a chiffonade; repeat with the scallions but only use the green parts, saving the white parts for different recipe.

Combine all these ingredients in the mixing bowl.

LEMON VINAIGRETTE:

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons canola oil

Combine the lemon juice and canola oil in small bowl.

Add to the watermelon salad and mix gently.

Place the salad in 4 separate bowls and top with crumbled feta cheese.

Makes 4 servings.

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