Lunch Break.

Last week was a whirlwind one for the New York half of Itinerant Foodies: After an escapist weekend of camping upstate, I hopped on a bus to Washington, D.C., first thing Monday morning to see my TMJ doc. In the nine months or so since I’d last seen my miracle-worker, the disc on the left side of my jaw had completely slipped out of place, making eating, drinking, and talking crazy painful. Given the amount of all three that I had planned for the upcoming weekend in San Francisco, a doctor’s visit was an imperative. I knew that getting myself fixed up was going to hurt; as a normal rule, I insist on balancing out my suffering with something pleasurable, so I rewarded myself (in advance!) for my stoicism with a lovely catch-up lunch with a D.C.-based friend.

Though I grew up in northern Virginia, my experience in our nation’s capital has always been somewhat limited; with friends, maybe a restaurant here, a bar there, but overall, I’ve spent more time in museums and galleries with my family than anything else. Liz had already proven her good taste—she’s an Arsenal fan, what more do you need?—so I ceded to her expertise in the D.C. arena. Given our location and time constraints, she suggested Zaytinya, the Middle Eastern/Mediterranean entry in the José Andrés restaurant canon.

My confidence was quickly repaid. Liz had ordered an appetizer for us while she was waiting, and I’d no sooner gotten settled at the table when the luscious taramosalata (pictured above) was lovingly deposited in front of us. There’s nothing like walking into a restaurant and being fed immediately, especially when you’re fed something as satisfying as a creamy, whipped dip of carp roe, drizzled with olive oil and served with a basket of warm flatbread. After a bite or two, memories of the bus ride faded away to haziness; by the time we’d cleaned the plate, I could barely remember the window-rattling snore of the passenger seated directly behind me. Magic!

We had arrived during a mid-afternoon lull, post-lunch and pre-dinner, and our poor waiter must’ve been bored: He checked in with us three or four times before we finally buckled down to study the small-plates menu. After my friend mentioned a food allergy, he promptly removed the normal menus and provided us with a nut-free version; we then settled on a strategy of veg, meat, and seafood, one of each.

The first to arrive was the piyaz, a warm serving of giant beans, kale, and roasted tomatoes, heavily laced with garlic, lemon, and dill. Well-balanced, robust, and nutrient-packed, this was possibly my favorite plate of the day—I instantly wanted to recreate it in my own kitchen.

When our seafood selection was served, I silently thanked Liz for her nut allergy. Octopus Santorini wasn’t among the regular lunch offerings—had we stuck with that menu, we would’ve missed grilled baby octopus, plated with capers and marinated onions on a bed of yellow split-pea purée. The meatiness of the seafood played nicely with the hint of curry in the purée, while the tangy capers and onions provided the appropriate punch of palate-cleansing acidity.

By the time we sampled our final dish, my expectations had been elevated to the point that I found the lamb bahar to be sufficiently underwhelming. Though the protein was cooked well, with interspersed slices of onion doing that crisp-tender thing I like so much, this was, in essence, your basic lamb kebab with tabouleh. Good, but not as impressive as the rest of our meal.

The dining room might’ve been a bit sterile, the service overly attentive (hovering waiters do no one any favors), but other than one small quibble over the meat dish, we had no complaints about the food; I consider one average plate a perfectly acceptable tradeoff for three stellar ones. The otherwise-daunting New York-D.C.-New York journey—roundtrip in a single day, by bus—is child’s play when a lunch like this one is on the table.

Zaytinya
701 9th Street NW
Washington, DC
20001 |  202.638.0800

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