In an effort to make up for the Saltine and Salsa Dip spread that was my dinner tonight, I’m going back to a time when milk and honey spewed out of my throne of kings and I felt invincible from the first swig of Ouzo and all the way to the very last note I belted out as I laid against the Washington Monument.
Zaytinya, 701 9th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001
We had walked seventeen miles that day in Washington. I had never worn Clarks in my entire life and I felt as much of a badass as I did a damned idiot. I wish I could say that I had lost all of my water and whiskey weight on this trek across the District of Columbia, but- unfortunately, we ate at six different restaurants that day…
…as can be seen here:
If you don’t feel the urge to read all of that, just know that I had a lot of gelato that day, and played in art exhibits that reminded me of that road trip I’ve never taken:
And of very happy families getting ready to board their passenger airplanes:
I mean- look at that guy. He’s literally the most constipated-looking man.
For the record, these are the only pictures I have of the evening- so, revere them.
So- we’ve walked seventeen miles and my ass is looking and feeling the same way it always has because all that gelato negated everything.
Walking towards the restaurant you’re approached by an intimidating steel and concrete portico that incessantly screams at me for wearing shorts.
Inside- a cesspool of geometric godliness, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Ceilings four times as high me. Taupe Marble and egg-shell white accented by cerulean blue and chrome finishing- tables of rich, stained wood, all positioned perfectly to provide guests spectacular views of their floor-to-ceiling windows, the firewall, or bar.
The place is already packed and I’m hearing the clanging of fine glass and that delightfully irritating screech of steel against ceramic. To one corner I can see a packed bar with a hoard of beaming patrons downing their second glass of scotch while simultaneously holding their reservation beeper and looking desperately at the front desk.
We eventually join them- I’m sipping on some Maker’s Mark and my guy’s sipping on the same. I swiped some left over pita from the last couple who bounced and abandoned it as their beeper rang- I like to think I broke bread with them in solidarity. We’ll be there someday, I thought.
Our mistake here was that our beeper had gone off. Twice. It just doesn’t vibrate- the lights just start to flicker nonstop until you start believing they had been doing that the entire time. After a half hour of sipping and doubting and reassuring that the beeper would at some point actually buzz, we went to the front desk and found out… sure enough… they had been trying to reach us for the past fifteen minutes.
The host takes us to a table set for two in the main dining room. Of course it’s gorgeous- but it’s not good enough for my guy who had promised me an early Anniversary dinner at the outside patio. Within a minute, we were redirected to an outside table that was being cleaned as quickly as we were approaching it.
We’re handed the menu, and in great big Cerulean print- the first pages reads:
“Food is about making an interaction with ingredients. If you talk to them, they will always tell you a story”.
This is something Chef José Andrés has preached at some point out of his mouth and now it’s glaring at me, daring at me, to become as submissive as my feet had become to my Clarks.
In my head, so many things are bouncing around. First- is the ideology of his philosophy; I mean, here’s a guy who’s promising to set out a series of Mezze right before you- hoping to unite the signature flavors of Turkey, Greece, Spain, Italy, Israel, and Lebanon by the singular unifier: Olive Oil. I mean, it’s slapping you in the face, in fact; ‘Zaytinya’ in Turkish means olive oil, and it’s olive oil we’re going to get- while perhaps not in the most literal sense of everything being soaked, but in the sense that by incorporating such a dynamic component of the quintessential dining experience to ingredients that might be singular and (therefore) contrasting to ingredients of other cuisines- that food is becoming something more than itself, and maybe in that sense, redefining its own potential.
At least, that’s what I like to think.
So we go right into it.
Soujouk Pide, Spanakopita, Snail Kibbeh, Kibbeh Nayeh, Lamb Bahar, and two glasses of Ouzo.
Trying to keep it as brief as possible, favorite mezze has got to be a tie between the Soujouk Pide and the Kibbeh Nayeh-
The Soujouk Pide is a freshly-baked flatbread laid out with soujouk sausage that is as spicy as it is rich and moist. It’s baked with creamy kasar Cheese and topped finally with a 63-Degree Egg. For the record, 63-Degree egg describes an egg that is nearly cooked as if it’s poached- except- the egg is cooked (still) in its shell in a bath of 63 degrees Celsius. Contrastingly, a poached egg is not in its shell. The result is a thick, gooey yolk and very creamy whites.
Then there’s the Kibbeh Nayeh– Beef Tartare; minced raw beef for those back at home. It’s prepared succulently with tons of Lebanese-inspired flavors; mint and radish- the combination mashing between my tongue and roof of my mouth like it’s the only thing that ever mattered. The fresh pita chips that came along with it were equally as seductive, as nothing could match the tartare’s rawness more than the flaky, crumbly, crispy chip.
Not to diminish the quality of the other mezzes- they were equally as brilliant. Frankly, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Snail Kibbeh on its own; it was only until I took in the mezze’s compliments of heirloom and Baharat-spiced yogurt that I realized just how much Zaytinya looked out to ensure that every component of every dish went so perfectly with each other that combined they all enhanced the flavor and interaction of the entire plate. Riding back to that philosophy of interaction…
By this point, we were down our second glass of Ouzo- the seemingly-milky licorice taste driving our forks harder and faster to each and every mezze that landed on our table.
For dessert, we had a triage of sorbets- the most outstanding being the pear sorbet that seemed to revitalize every tired muscle in my body. it was perfect and sweet enough that it didn’t override the refreshment of it all.
Our waitress introduced us to our check with a beaming smile. We beamed right back.
By this point- the sun had set behind the National Art Gallery and we were both caught mid-float and buzz and full. It’s the greatest feeling in the world, you feel like Hercules as the Ouzo moves the legs that carry your boulder of a stomach. You’re invincible.
Fifteen minutes walking along the National Mall we’re still tasting that pear in our mouths.
We don’t stop walking- in our gluttony and our tipsiness we’ve gathered a shortness of breath. But within five minutes we’re as close as we could be to the the Washington Monument.
We lay down and look up at it. It’s intimidatingly gorgeous. We start to meow our favorite national songs. We even screech that last part in the Anthem.
And then we laugh and we settle and at some points we taste the pear or the Ouzo or imagine tasting that tartare. No matter what, we’re looking up at that obelisk. And that sky. And the grass is the softest its ever been and I’ve just had the best meal of my life.
It isn’t a meal until it gets all over you. Well at Zaytinya, I made sure I didn’t spill a bit of it. But being lost in that City. Seventeen miles worth of being lost- and sitting outside with the Capital Building as my backdrop. And now the dirt creeping onto my neck. It was cool, I remember. The wind was waking us up as much as the warmth in my stomach was putting me to sleep. The laughter following our kitty anthems shocking my body out of its liquor and meat sedation.
My body’s a mess both inside and out. And the day’s as gorgeous as the plates put in front of me at Zaytinya.
I think you know that’s when a meal is good. When you’re able to remember every single component- every single faction of every single sensory input your brain and soul is trying to piece together. When you’re able to feel back into that confusion and interaction- of your body feeling so differently that it ever has before that one moment, I think that’s when you know it’s stuck with you forever, and I’m convinced that that is what makes food so incredibly fierce almost 120% of the time.