From Near East Soul to Chili Bowl

By Herb Gardener.

On the first day of our vacation Flora and I had lapped the National Mall twice in our eagerness to visit as many Washington, D.C. landmarks as possible, and now we were famished. Our host made arrangements to dine at Zaytinya, and we arrived at the restaurant fatigued, but exhilarated. To our delight, the meal stretched our domestic vacation into an international adventure without taking another step.

Zaytinya - Washington, D.C.
Zaytinya - Washington, D.C.

Zaytinya (Turkish for olive oil) is a downtown dining destination that specializes in “mezze,” or small plates, featuring flavors from Greece, Turkey and Lebanon. Spanish culinary savant and restauranteur Jose Andres is responsible for the concept, and chef Mike Isabella (currently a contestant on Bravo’s® Top Chef) handles the execution.

Diminutive servings gave us license to order spreads, vegetables, meats, and desserts. Standouts included a salty, olive oil-dressed yogurt (labneh), earthy orbs of beef, wheat, and pinenuts (kibbeh), and a diabolical dessert of layered Muscat-soaked apricots, apricot sorbet and vanilla yogurt cream. The balance of sweet and tart was pitch-perfect and resonated long after the last spoonful.

Our server, Alberto, was attentive and showed genuine interest in guiding us through dozens of menu options. We raved about Short Ribs. The tomato brazing liquid, redolent of cinnamon, delivered comfort-food satisfaction with an Aegean twist.

Two evenings hence, Flora and I celebrated our last meal in D.C. at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Packed like a Japanese metro train with students, locals, and wide-eyed tourists fishing in their pockets for cash (no credit cards accepted) we soaked up the U Street groove while chowing down on a chili dog and red velvet cake.

We discovered later that Ben Ali, the legendary founder of Ben’s, died the day before our visit. Not all D.C. history is chiseled in marble or cast in bronze. Check out the official web site for a fascinating account of Ben’s contribution to 50 years of social movements and community-building.

Flavors and More Magazine – November 2009

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