29 September 2010

Dinner at Zaytinya, Washington, DC

In past posts, I’ve written that I’m a fan of chef Jose Andres. He has several restaurants in Washington, DC, so I decided that over the course of several months, I’d try to go to each one of them. (Click here for minibar; click here for Cafe Atlantico; click here for Jaleo.)
So in September, when I found myself with an evening and no business-related dinner plans, it was a perfect opportunity to try Zaytinya. One of my co-workers also was free that evening, so he joined me. That proved to be a good thing. Not only was it pleasant company. But Zaytinya features Mediterranean mezzas – small plates, quite similar to Spanish tapas. In my review of Jaleo, I lamented that since I was eating along, I didn’t get to try a good variety of the tapas. But by having a dinner companion at Zaytinya, we were able to sample a good selection of mezzas.

We started by splitting a salad – tabouleh. It’s made from parsley, bulgur wheat, tomatoes, onions, mint, and a citrusy dressing. I really like tabouleh, and it was good at Zaytinya. But it wasn’t the best I’ve ever had.

Next we ordered a couple of vegetable mezzas. One was roasted eggplant stuffed with onions and tomatoes. It was called “Ímam Bayıldı.” It was very good; quite unusual. The other was spanakopita. When we ordered it, I thought this was our ‘safe’ choice. I’ve had spanakopita many times and thought I knew what to expect. But to my surprise, at Zaytinya it’s served rolled in a cigar shape rather than flat layers of phyllo, spinach, and feta.
For our final round of items, we decided to have fish and seafood. The fish item was halibut coated with a ground nut, roasted and served on a roasted pepper and almond puree. It was very flavorful and unique. But the best dish of the evening was the shrimp - “Garides Saganaki.” The shrimp were sauteed with tomatoes and onions and were mixed with a Greek cheese and just a faint hint of ouzo in the sauce. Yum! It was great.

So overall, I liked the mezzas at Zaytinya better than the tapas at Jaleo. But I still think that Cafe Atlantico is the best of Chef Andres’ DC restaurants for dinner.

27 September 2010

Dinner at Bar La Grassa, Minneapolis

In August, Bon Appetit magazine named Bar La Grassa one of the 10 best new restaurants in the United States. Many of our friends had eaten there and they raved about it. So earlier in September, we decided to try it.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s not one of the 10 best new restaurants in America. It might be. It was very good. But there were just a few little things that prevent me from raving about it.

Let’s start with the neighborhood. It’s kind of … edgy. Not in a dangerous way. But also not in a very welcoming way. There’s a rowdy music bar across the street. (Bunkers. We had a fun time there with some friends earlier this year. Even had some pretty good bar food there.) There’s another bar a couple blocks away, Clubhouse Jager. (Kind of mysterious in a Teutonic kind of way.)

There are some bars, coffee houses, and pizza joints along the street. As we were strolling up the street, waiting for our table to be ready, in front of one of the neighboring joints there was a tall young man yelling at several friends. His shirt was off, and he was unbuckling his pants. His friends were pleading with him to get dressed. “All right,” he shouted. “I won’t take off my pants. But I’m not putting on my shirt.” H-m-m-m.

So here’s the thing about the neighborhood. It’s not that it’s a bad neighborhood. It’s just that, I can’t imagine any of the ‘beautiful’ people at Bar La Grassa wandering across the street after dinner to finish the evening at Bunkers. Or, if the wait is too long for a table at Bar La Grassa, I can’t really imagine them taking at table at The Loop instead. (Though maybe Black Sheep Coal Fired Pizza might attract some of the overflow crowd.)

Next was our table. We were seated next to a window. Which is fine. But it was right near the kitchen. So we had all of the traffic of servers coming and going from the kitchen moving past us all night. Next time, we’ll wait for a table more in the dining room.

Third is the menu. Not the food, mind you. The menu. It’s not very descriptive of the food. For example, here’s what the menu says about the chicken entree: “Chicken.” That’s it. Most of the other menu listings were equally as spare.

When our server came to our table, we wondered: “How are we supposed to know how the food is prepared?” we asked. She said she’d gladly tell us as much as we wanted to know about any of the menu items.
Here’s where the good stuff about Bar La Grassa begins. Our server was tremendous. She did tell us as much as we wanted to know about the menu items. I’m sure that if we had asked her to describe every menu item, she would have. She helped us make some wonderful choices. And through the evening, she was friendly and attentive.

The next ‘good’ thing about Bar La Grassa is the food. It’s excellent. We each had a starter. Mine was barramundi with Calabrian pepperoncini. This was a kind of civiche. The fish (barramundi, or Asian sea bass) was cured in citrus juice and served with slices of Calabrian peppers. My wife had an artichoke bruschetta. The toasty bread was piled high with artichoke slices and was very tasty.

The menu includes a nice selection of fresh and dried pasta. You can get either a full order or a half order. We had been to a reception before our dinner, so we were satisfied ordering half orders. My wife had tortellini stuffed with a rich, flavorful foie gras filling. I had gnocchi served with cauliflower and orange. Both dishes were excellently prepared and delicious.

So our conclusion: Maybe this is one of the 10 best new restaurants in America. Who am I to second guess Bon Appetit? I did like Bar La Grassa. But I can’t rave over it. It’s very good, but it’s not my favorite Italian restaurant in Minneapolis. (I think Broder’s Pasta Bar still deserves that distinction in my book.)

Still, we’re going to give Bar La Grassa a do-over. Even though we were put off by some things, the food, the excellent service, and the contagious energy of the restaurant makes us want to give it another chance.