Tale of Two Dinners


Photo courtesy of CityZen

Like Zeke Emanuel, I was knocked out the first time I dined at CityZen. It's the kind of place I'm often allergic to--an imposing, somber, room (just look at the picture they sent ut), in a super-luxurious hotel, with waiters who seem both attentive and scared something penurious will happen if they don't jump to your command.

The food wasn't what I expected: meticulous, yes, and carefully served, but by friendly waiters not the least bit shy about expressing their own personalities. That bold friendliness might have come from the chef, Eric Ziebold, an Iowa boy (you can read more about him here) who knew and cared about local farms--that was the part that got me, rather than the French Laundy/Spago/Per Se training that seems to wow everyone else.

The difference this time was the menus. Zeke hadn't ordered in advance, and he and several of his guests opted for the default tasting menu. It turned out to be rich in rich proteins--Japanese-style fatty beef, lobster, lamb--the kind that denote luxury and high prices (without wine, the six courses cost $95; wine in "sommelier's pairing" is $75 extra).

We both left with high opinions of Ziebold's talent, but I and my fellow guests had by far the better dinner.

Encouraged by the waitress (though we're not allowed to use that term anymore), with her alluring accent--one of our group asked if she was Brazilian, and she said "Yes, once you know the accent it's easy to recognize"--a few of his guests started admitting different preferences. Some were kosher, some preferred to avoid meat, others butter sauces (that would be me). The needs of just about every request could be met, it turned out, by the alternative vegetarian tasting menu, even if no one that I recall was actually vegetarian. Both, for illustration, are here.

We tasted freely from each others' plates, but we vegetarians-for-the-night made out better. A lot better, as Zeke doesn't quite say but explains, I would submit, his preference for his second, I-hope-I-was-wrong dinner.

As with the meat menu, many of the dishes were show-offy demonstrations of technique. But each had at least one unexpected, meticulous, and memorable flavor: the tea gelee with the marinated Japanese mountain potato, a novelty vegetable (also called yamaimo or Japanese yam, a tuber) generally used for its gummy texture even when shredded raw, as it usually is; the licorice consomme under a "navarin," or stew, of heirloom beets. The beet stew and the dish that followed, roasted savoy cabbage with Perigord truffles, duchess potatoes, and a truffle sabayon, were the most impressive because of their substance and variety. They read as main courses with heft, not decorative diversions. The beets weren't just pretty, as they often are (and semi-raw, and dull), they had real flavor, and the very lightly licorice-flavored broth pointed up their sweet, mineral-y taste. The cabbage was an unlikely triumph: rich parcels of stuffed cabbage, with irresistible mashed potatoes. One of those trompe l'oeil dishes you'd swear had meat in them, mostly because stuffed cabbage always does.

Too bad about the sticky toffee pudding, as Zeke pointed out--too much gum, too much stick, too much stodge, and no clear or fresh flavors in the desserts except in the ice creams and sorbets some of the guests ordered.

We both left with high opinions of Ziebold's talent, but I and my fellow guests had by far the better dinner. I tasted most of the courses on the menu that disappointed Zeke, and think the main error was leaving as luxurious stars several ingredients that had insufficient flavor on their own, particularly the lamb. Choosing rib-eye, and "Kagoshima Kuroge" beef, whatever that really is, means going for the tenderest, fattiest cuts--not, of course, the ones that actually have interesting taste. Even more dangerously, there were too many of those rich proteins one after another, so by the time Zeke got to the lamb he probably needed more refreshment and crisp texture than the crystallized orange and harissa oil on the lamb were able to provide.

Lessons learned? I'll be preachy, where Zeke admirably restrains himself. Moderation, variety, and balance made for his superior second recent meal, neither all-vegetable nor all-meat. And, of course, patience and giving someone a second chance, essential virtues for restaurant critics and everybody else too.

When Good Restaurants Go Bad
By Ezekiel J. Emanuel

Presented by

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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