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Chef Eric Ziebold; photography by Greg Powers

Magic, Not Illusion

by George W. Stone | DC magazine | October 29, 2012

Has CityZen gone dim sum? That’s what I’m wondering as Eric Ziebold wheels a silver cart to my table and presents a bamboo basket of forest-green dumplings. As the chef chats about Hong Kong and Chinese spices, I start to worry that the master of DC’s most methodical kitchen, a man better known for his hushed focus than hocus-pocus, is doing the unthinkable: getting trendy.

Since its debut in 2004, CityZen has elevated un-trendiness to an art form, proving that classicism can be a rebellion in its own right. But a lot has happened in DC since then, including a casual-chic revolution that threatens to turn white-linen restaurants into Houdini-esque disappearing acts. To me, no chef is more creative than Ziebold. But what does creativity matter when fried comfort food sates our Twitter-sized attention spans?

While I’m thinking, Ziebold is talking. Three minutes into his patter, he lifts one dazzlingly bright orange dumpling after another from a cloud of perfumed air. Behold the magic lobster! Here I am, wondering how CityZen has managed to remain hot without ever being cool, and the chef is reinventing pot stickers. I decide that a restaurant where nothing—not even a wonton wrapper—is as simple as it appears, deserves a second look.

To learn the secret behind the dumplings’ chameleon-like color-change from emerald to neon orange, you’ll have to make a reservation. “It’s nothing that doesn’t make conceptual sense,” teases the chef. But that leaves a lot on the table, including the dish’s spectrum of flavors—sweet Maine lobster, tender braised pork, poached raisins, roasted cauliflower and a curried emulsion that pulls together the dish’s North African essence—and a wine pairing, an almost gamey premier cru Burgundy that was bewitching.

“Fine dining is about all the details,” the chef says, while trimming a $1,000 cut of kuroge beef, fresh from Miyazaki, Japan, in CityZen’s jade-and-steel kitchen. “It’s about visuals and contrasts; it’s about clarity of flavor and clarity of emotion,” he says. “It’s about wine, service and all the accents we bring to the table.”
To decode some of the restaurant’s mystery, I spend an afternoon watching the chef and his prodigiously talented team prepare dinner. It’s an education in how intention, ingredients and techniques can be marshaled to produce spectacular results. Or, as Ziebold says, “there’s a lot that separates a great diamond from a merely OK diamond.”

CityZen’s six-course chef’s tasting menu is a tour de force of flavor, texture and proportion, with a surprising current of international nuance. Tender, flaky poached Alaskan halibut is delicately spiced with swarnadwipa, a spice blend inspired by 800-year-old Indonesian recipes. The gingery-garlic powder is a natural partner to the dish’s coconut flavors and lemongrass mousse; a consommé of roasted corn brings a flash of gold to the plate (swarnadwipa means “land of gold” in Sanskrit). Indonesian inspiration makes a second appearance on the menu in the yuba (tofu skin) -wrapped crab roll, a hyper-crisp packet of sweet crab, punctuated by a devilishly piquant peanut sauce that’s prepared by the mother of one of CityZen’s servers.

“Every dish starts with one ingredient and an idea,” chef says. “Then there are the tools and accents to get us there.” A powdered soy protein called Versawhip is blended with xanthan gum and liquefied lemongrass to create a foam that coddles, not cloys, a halibut dish. While this may appear to be a flash of molecular gastronomy, it’s merely a studied approach to creating tantalizing layers of flavor. Ziebold is deft at using his foundation of classic training, elevated by his tenure under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry and Per Se. “Your palate never gets bored,” says my partner. “That’s the difference between this and comfort food. There’s always something going on.”

For a chef who can seem overly thinky compared to his peers, Ziebold creates food that has a sensual power. It just happens to pass through the brain first. A bittersweet gelée of Dolin blanc vermouth brings an herbal essence to a creamy torchon of moulard duck foie gras with red wine-poached mission figs and a coriander brioche. The floral vermouth delivers hints of dozens of herbs, without futzing with the inherent simplicity of the dish. The result is a classic offering of potent deliciousness.

Ziebold does not work alone. His most dynamic partner is sommelier Andy Myers, considered by many to be DC’s most imaginative pairer. While a chef’s tasting menu, like a play, tells a tale from beginning to end, a sommelier’s calling is more poetic; his selections invite commentary, acting as both a complement and counterpoint to each dish. It helps that Myers is a jovial presence—a Sir John Falstaff with a killer wine cellar. Our pairings include an Austrian grüner veltliner, which teases out the cilantro mousse on an appetizer of wild Pacific kampachi ceviche; a floral pinot gris from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which delivers a lychee-like tanginess to a warm pavé of cured Tasmanian sea trout; and a fruity Australian verdelho that’s an unconventionally apt white wine for succulent grilled lamb heart with sweet onions. At the end of the night, Myers gives me his wine worksheet; it’s a palimpsest of pairings for each course, some scratched out twice before the final selection is listed. “This is what a great meal looks like,” the sommelier tells me.

Thought meets expression again in Matthew Petersen’s arrestingly delicious desserts. His speculoos parfait, a playful turn on a fluffernutter sandwich, is a minefield of flavor; whipped concord grapes and micro-celery sorbet offer sweet and savory accents to a rich, creamy parfait served over the crumbles and buttery paste of speculoos, a brown-sugar cookie. Concord grapes reappear as sorbet (along with a sweet butternut-squash sorbet) in the CityZen fruit plate, a beautiful fantasia of butter pear, pomegranate and figs. And chocolate crowns the night, both in the guise of Valrhona cake with hazelnut streusel (served with whiskey ice cream) and Black Forest cake with sour cherries (served with a Belgian kriek lambic sorbet).

What happens in the kitchen may seem inscrutable, but the most advanced technology here is simply brainpower and emotion. “I want guests to leave thinking, ‘I don’t know what happened tonight, but it was magical,’” says Ziebold. An abracadabra moment, once had, is never forgotten.

1330 Maryland Ave. SW

Dinner, Tue.-Thurs., seatings 6-9:30pm. Fri.-Sat., 5:30-9:30pm six-course chef’s tasting menu, $120; sommelier’s pairing, $85; six-course chef’s vegetarian tasting menu, $105; four-course dinner menu, $90

Let’s Not Meat
A six-course vegetarian chef’s menu is a mind-blowing display of texture and flavor. Grilled okra and baby corn (with green tomato sorbet) is a one-plate victory garden. A fried pullet egg brings rich yolk to a creamy sweet garlic velouté. And mission fig couscous creates an exotic foundation for slow-roasted Turkish orange eggplant with a smoky broth.

Talent Pool
Anyone who finds the city’s best restaurant inscrutable should spend a day in the kitchen to discover that the backbone of genius is hard work. “For a restaurant that’s open for dinner five nights a week, there are only four hours each day when no one’s in the kitchen,” says Sous Chef Michael Malyniwsky. He and Kerwin Tugas, also sous chef, rock the pans. Emerging dessert diva Anne Specker is a rising star.

Raising the Bar
Saddle up to the bar for a concentrated three-course tasting menu ($50) that features a mix of CityZen classics (braised shoat shoulder with fava beans and poached apricot) and surprises, like a dessert of muscovado-glazed blueberries with sweet corn pudding and popcorn sorbet.