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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