- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 31, 2002

Washington has a new hit: Zaytinya opened Oct. 14 in the new Pepco building downtown, and the food and setting are extraordinary and delicious. The overture is a wire basket with hot, still-puffed pide, Turkey's answer to pita, and a plate of olive oil with dots of a pomegranate reduction.
Zaytinya Turkish for olive oil serves mezes, the eastern Mediterranean's answer to the tapas of Spain on the sea's western shore. Zaytinya's mezes pay homage to their origins in Greece, Turkey and Lebanon but have undergone expert reworking by executive chef and co-owner Jose Andres. Everyday mezes from these countries emerge triumphantly in a new style.
With restaurant as theater, the set by Adamstein & Demetriou of Washington and the lighting by Illuminations near Zaytinya add drama to Mr. Andres' mezes or little dishes. The names of the mezes recall lazy, lengthy, easy meals of many, many of these dishes at sea and on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, and it is here that Mr. Andres' talent and research make Zaytinya a champion in the area near the MCI Center.
Take tzatziki, usually served in a bowl in which limp wisps of cucumber and far too much garlic drown in yogurt. Mr. Andres' vision elevates this common Greek dish into a splendid version in which fresh diced cucumbers are bound with a minimum of yogurt and a hint of garlic. It is a revelation of what can be accomplished in the reinvention of a traditional dish, of using the same ingredients but changing the emphasis.
Zaytinya's spanakopita Greece's familiar pie of spinach and feta cheese wrapped in phyllo is long and round and perfectly seasoned. Is there a better spanakopita? Somewhere but please show me. The phyllo maker is a member of the Zaytinya kitchen crew.
Another favorite dish in 11 days, I sampled 25 mezes, three desserts and one main course, and that one twice is a seafood meze: kalamari me spanaki, or squid with spinach. This Greek meze usually is prepared by cooking the squid and spinach at a low temperature for a long time, but Mr. Andres cooks the squid quickly at high heat and combines it with the freshly cooked spinach and slices of mild garlic in a lemon-scented broth. The elements of the dish stand on their own.
Mr. Andres also revives as he revises a longtime Turkish favorite: cerkez tavugu, or Circassian chicken. Traditionally, this dish of shredded chicken and walnuts is almost a paste, but at Zaytinya, the chicken is in larger shreds and the walnut sauce is more like a dressing. The flavor of the chicken is enhanced by the sauce; both stand out. Circassian chicken sandwiches are served at lunch in addition to the mezes.
Imam bayildi or the imam swooned gets its own reverence from Mr. Andres, who leaves the skin on the eggplant, which is partially cooked and then mounded with onions and tomatoes before the dish continues roasting to perfection.
Mr. Andres uses thyme in his imam bayildi, although some recipes may call for other herbs, such as a combination of dill and mint. He is careful about not having the same herbs in many dishes as visitors often find in Greece and Turkey.
I liked everything except the octopus meze, and I usually like octopus. It was tender but had an unexpected and unpleasant slickness octopus skin, perhaps.
At dinner in July in Athens, I told Nadia Kounathi, one of the founding owners of Aristera-Dexia (Left-Right), a restaurant on the cutting edge of modern Greek food, that Washington was anticipating the opening of a Greek-Turkish-Lebanese meze restaurant in the fall. "I know," she said. "[Mr. Andres] was here last week, and he has been to our restaurant [Tomato] on Santorini."
Mr. Andres' mezes remind me of those served at Aristera-Dexia, and one of his mezes is feta cheese served with sun-dried tomatoes from Santorini.
His mezes are full of fresh flavors, robust and subtle in new takes on these traditional folk dishes and the more elaborate foods created in the Ottoman kitchens in Topkapi Palace. One of the latter is kadinbudu kofte, a fried meat-and-rice cake shaped, in the eyes of the Ottoman chefs like its name, "ladies' thighs."
Mr. Andres, who was born in Spain, arrived at his version of mezes by talking, reading many recipes and traveling. In Turkey, he found the tinned copper dishes in which the Ottoman rice pilaf, with pistachios and dates, is cooked to order.
Desserts are worthy of the mezes: a warm chocolate cake, a combination of yogurt and apricot, homemade ice creams and, my favorite, ravani, a warm semolina cake with yogurt sorbet and dried fruits. The ice cream freezer is the only freezer at Zaytinya.
The wine card lists about 50 Greek wines, several from Lebanon and a few from Turkey. Ouzo, the traditional anise-flavored Greek liqueur, is joined by its counterparts from Turkey (raki) and Lebanon (arak). They are served in the traditional style with ice and a carafe of water.
In his role as chef-impresario, Mr. Andres adds the unexpected to his restaurant stage: Waiters serve Turkish coffee from tepsi, the traditional handled Turkish trays that are carried like bells; rehearsing and soon to be on stage center is a siraci, the Turkish vendor who sells juices carried on his back. Don't expect gyro and souvlaki they play elsewhere.
Mr. Andres is joined in the Zaytinya production by Rob Wilder, creator of the Washington area's Austin Grill restaurants, and Roberto Alvarez. Both are also associated with Cafe Atlantico and the two Jaleo restaurants.

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