Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The much touted arrival of chef Eric Ziebold to preside over the kitchen at the new CityZen restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel overlooking the Southwest Freeway has blossomed into one of the city’s most elegant restaurants.

Guests are made to feel welcome, even though they’re treated as if their’s is the privilege, to dine at CityZen, rather than the reverse.

The chef is no stranger to Washington. He began his professional career in the kitchen of Vidalia 10 years ago, before moving on to Los Angeles and then to Yountville in the Napa Valley at Thomas Keller’s famed French Laundry in 1996, serving most recently as the chef de cuisine.

It’s always difficult for a chef and a restaurant to live up to such superlative fanfare and anticipatory excitement without some degree of disappointment. Mr. Ziebold is unquestionably a master chef, and CityZen is a first-class restaurant. It’s precious, but not perfect.

CityZen opened Sept. 15. The space is inviting, with high ceilings, an open kitchen, lots of wood, stainless steel, textured fabrics and tall vases with graceful arrangements. The lighting is warm and pleasant. A bar with comfortable seating is to the right of the street entrance, and a long bar is between the entrance and the dining room. The bar is lively with good-looking, well-dressed customers, particularly after 10 p.m., which animates the dining room.

The dining room is under the able management of Mark Politzer, and his staff is well-trained, pleasant and eager to please, sometimes to the point of hovering too close.

Diners get a choice between a five-course tasting menu for $90 or a three-course menu for $70. The former offers a starter such as mushroom tart with Parmesan cheese and baby arugula; poached medallion of salmon; a main course of beef; assorted cheeses and a dessert. The diner does not choose, except for vegetarians. Pretentiously if not grammatically, the menu “invites the opportunity to prepare a menu for our guests that prefer not to eat either fish or meat.”

The three-course menu offers a choice of a half-dozen appetizers, seven main courses and five desserts, all of them, including the desserts, complex dishes, a mix of French techniques and American ideas. Portions are not too large. Choices are varied and, unlike the tasting menu, often consist of unusual main ingredients.

Many of the dishes blend the sweetness of fruit with the salt of vegetables and meat in elegant combinations. The chef likes to garnish with cubes, be it sweetbreads in the squash soup or foie gras and apples on the risotto.

Dinner begins with a gift from the chef: a spoonful of delicious deep-red beet jelly with a tiny smattering of diced golden beets and a splash of creme fraiche. Delicious and refreshing. A second amuse bouche is a minuscule rectangle of pork belly (where bacon comes from), crisply fried with a dab of slightly tangy sauce. Wonderful. Then it’s time for the dinner to proceed.

Puree of kabocha squash soup is a pretty autumnal light soup, almost a broth. It’s satisfying without being filling; the taste of squash is strong and pleasant. The soup comes with a little mound of sweetbread cubes, which have been lightly breaded and deep fried. Sweetbreads have a delicate subtle taste, almost destroyed by the sizzle of the frying pan. The robust squash needs something stronger than the sweetbreads for balance and to add an additional element to what is basically a simple soup.

Risotto topped with small squares of fried duck foie gras and fried apples make another starter. The risotto is perfection — creamy and crunchy. The apples and the liver should have worked with the rice, but the taste of the fried coating on both was overpowering and the dish floated in oil. It could have been so good.

The other starters are a choice of braised fennel with chanterelle mushrooms, broiled Japanese mackerel with melon gazpacho, baked potato with salmon mousse and potato gnocchi and tripe prepared like a Wiener schnitzel with peanuts, kale and Smithfield ham — all interesting and unique dishes.

Main courses are flawless. Saddle of lamb is tender beyond belief, full of flavor, cooked rare exactly as ordered. The lamb is accompanied with braised, almost caramelized Belgian endive and toasted pine nuts. A little dried pear adds a touch of sweetness and works to make the entire dish a great success. It’s one of the best lamb preparations I’ve tasted.

The kitchen readily agreed to the request of a red-meat diner in our party, substituting a beef dish for the entrees on the menu, which are mostly from the sea and stream. The beef, the heart of the rib-eye steak, was perfectly cooked and almost as tender as the lamb. A small tart of layered potato topped with a dollop of prune puree, glazed tiny turnips and a pepper sauce accompanied the sliced meat. A fine simple, elegant combination of meat and potatoes.

The entrees offered on the three-course menu were braised lobster mushroom; sauteed filet of halibut with shiitake mushrooms; a pave of sablefish with globe artichokes and melted eggplant; crispy-skin black bass with caramelized cauliflower; rabbit with beans and braised collard greens, and chicken and dumplings prepared in the chef’s imaginative style.

Desserts include a plate of artisanal cheeses — there’s no cheese trolley and the cheese arrives in small portions on the plate — an interesting apple dessert consisting of an apple broth with apple jelly and slices of poached apple accompanied by small, round, warm apple beignets; roasted pineapple with coconut salad; cold coffee souffle with tapioca pearls and sweetened milk; and a sensational warm chocolate cake with lemon thyme ice cream resting on a bit of caramel.

Dinner concludes with a plate of miniature petits fours.

CityZen’s wine list is extensive and expensive, but there are a number of reasonable wines by the glass. The waiter’s insistence that we order dessert when we ordered dinner, “because some of the desserts take time to prepare,” seemed a bit ostentatious, and was rendered a bit silly when we waited half an hour between the main course and dessert.

There are some wonderful things to eat and the atmosphere is warm and festive. There are shortcomings, but Mr. Ziebold knows his craft and his team in the kitchen is able. CityZen will be one of the city’s best when it gets over itself.

RESTAURANT: CityZen, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 1330 Maryland Av. SW; 202/787-6868

HOURS: Dinner only, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; bar open from 5 to 11:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and until 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Tasting menu $90; three-course menu $70, not including drinks, coffee, tax and gratuity

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Valet parking $7 for three hours with validation; some street parking three blocks away, and nearby garage closes early

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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