Delighted by the news that Eric Zeibold was coming to DC with a high-end restaurant, we had been looking forward to our first meal at CityZen. Seven of us went there last Wednesday night, and while we had a nice evening there, given our expectations, it was somewhat disappointing. CityZen must improve virtually every aspect of the dining experience it offers before it can aspire to be among of the very best of local restaurants.
Walking into the restaurant through the lounge and bar area, one notices the stylish surroundings, but does not exactly feel welcome. Despite the striking, high ceiling, the space seems narrow. Standing by the bar, we felt crowded (although we were the only ones there!), getting in the way of the servers and the hostesses (the latter, by the way, seemed uncomfortable in their low cut attires). The bartender was competent, but did not display the confidence and control that should be expected from one at a top-notch place.
We were seated at a circular table right by the open kitchen. Again, the space felt a bit narrow and crowded, and a bit unattractive with a long serving cabinet running on one side, with assorted glasses, plates, and silverware sitting there for the nights use. I appreciate the cabinet's functionality, but did the designer not realize how in-your-face it can be?
We were seated and immediately faced an army of somewhat unsure busboys and servers. As soon as one left after taking our orders for assorted water bottles, another followed to do the same! Our main server of the evening came by to tell us about the tasting menu ($90, five courses, no substitutions or smaller orders allowed if you're in a large group, VERY RESTRICTIVE!!), but again, he seemed only mildly self-assured and interested. He told us that we could have a risotto with white truffles as an extra course for a $40 supplement. Curiously though, when we suggested that he bring us three of them in between the first and the second course he seemed unhappy, instead insisting that we replace them with our first courses. I think he was torn between wanting us to order the pricey extra dish, but not comfortable in serving only three plates on a table for seven. At the end, he reluctantly agreed to serve the risotto as an extra course. It worked just fine, which makes one wonder why he was making such a big fuss.
The amuse bouche arrived in the form of a tiny mushroom fritter with truffle oil; a very impressive first bite with its concentration of flavor. A lovely crawfish foam followeddelicious!
We ordered a couple of bottles of wine from a rather pricey list (a Riesling from Alsace ($50) and a Cabernet Sauvignon from California ($89), both very good wines and not necessarily overpriced), with detached assistance from the sommelier. After the first pour of the white though, our bottle seemed to disappear, and a while later the waiters began to remove the glasses! Only after we wondered what happened to the left over wine (a lot was left, only four were drinking), the servers woke up and we got our second pours. However, by then they had also opened the red in parallel (which btw they should have done right at the start to let it breatheno question asked in this regard, very poor show). This was especially annoying since the next course was a salmon filled with foie gras that could have done well with the white instead of the red that was now sitting in front of everyone. Somewhat haphazardly, they seemed to discover that there was white left and dumped it in the two remaining white wine glasses rather than suggesting to bring new glasses.
The first course of the evening was a chanterelle mushroom turnover (although it was called chausson or something else; even the native French speaker among us had not heard that word before!) with an outstanding sweet and savory watercress sauce to go with. The pastry was buttery and flaky, and the mushrooms were tender. Although the mushroom filling was slightly over-salted, it was well balanced by the sweet sauce. We did note that the amuse bouche and the first course were closely related, but this was a minor quibble.
The much discussed risotto arrived, with fairly generous shavings of the white fungus. The dish was the highlight of the night, full of earthy flavors. At $40 for about five spoonfuls, it had better been!
The second course, grilled salmon with foie gras on a bed of lentils, was completely underwhelming. The flavors were bland, and texture non-existent. Some plates had very rare portions, whereas others were too much done. Surely a top notch place should display more consistency.
The third course, shoulder of baby pig (Shoat?) with truffle oil and pork juice was delicious. One of us had asked for a replacement, and was served beef short ribs on a reduction of red wine and chanterelle mushrooms, pretty good as well (although the chanterelles had become a little too familiar by now).
The cheese trolley came, and it was suggested that instead of serving us individual portions, a better idea may be to prepare two large plates of assorted cheeses. Seemed like a good idea to us, and we agreed. What we got was decent, but nothing in the same league as what weve seen at the Inn at Little Washington, Galileo, Citronelle, or even Lauberge Chez Francois. A few portions of blue cheese were good, but nothing memorable at all (compare that with the amazing selection we had had at the Inn or Galileo, which prompted us to write down the names of the farms where the cheeses came from). Also, the cheese slivers were so thin that they barely constituted proper tastings.
The dessert was definitely the low point of the evening. An insipid rice pudding with a pear tart and clove ice cream lacked any interesting interplay of flavors or textures. The little cookies and candies that topped of the evening were equally unmemorable.
A couple of us ordered schnapps at this point, which had to be sent back because they tasted very weird...
So, all in all, after paying a LOT of money (dont even ask how much), we left the Mandarin Oriental last Wednesday night utterly unimpressed. The restaurant needs more sophistication and polish in its service, and the kitchen needs to display much more competence and imagination. Loading plates with truffles and foie gras is not good enough; at this price level, we want to see superlative efforts, nothing less.