Brighten their holiday. Enrich their everyday.Give The Atlantic

When Good Restaurants Go Bad

When a favorite restaurant falls short on expectations, it can be extremely disappointing. CityZen was once the best restaurant in Washington, D.C. How did it lose its mojo? A loyal fan gives Eric Ziebold's spot another shot.

emanuel apr24 cityzen.jpg

Photo Courtesy of CityZen

Most of us have had serious disappointment in our lives. A missing heirloom. A lover we lost. A major project that failed.

When I go to a favorite restaurant and somehow the meal does not meet expectations, I take a deep breath and go again to be sure. Sometimes I am wrong or just had a bad night, but sometimes the disappointment only becomes deeper.

I was lucky enough to stumble on CityZen in Washington, D.C., (at the Mandarin Hotel, 1330 Maryland Ave, SW) just after it opened. The team had not quite gelled but the enthusiasm and eagerness were infectious. Who could not forgive the wait staff--at it for only a few weeks--who so proudly laid down the entrees at everybody's table, only to discover they had placed them at the wrong table? Or when they could not figure out how to divide the bill up to be paid by separate cards. What I remember of that first dinner was how intensely focused Eric Ziebold was in the kitchen but congenial once we motioned for him to come to the table, and how wonderful the food was. Ziebold, who had worked at the famed French Laundry, had at the tender age of 32 opened what was, I decided at that dinner, the best restaurant in Washington, D.C.

I returned several months later to celebrate a friend's 50th birthday, and the service was fantastic. One of the diners claimed to have ordered something different from what was served (he was mistaken). Without missing a beat or making a fuss, the staff brought him what he wanted. Again the food was superb. CityZen was, in my view, not just the absolute best restaurant in D.C. but also competitive nationally.

In March I returned, after a long hiatus, for another celebration. There were some wonderful highlights. The amuse-bouche of olive oil custard with a red peppery topping was both surprising and brilliant. The custard was firm, only slightly sweet, with the tang of a good olive oil combined with a spicy aftertaste from the topping. And the carpaccio of Kagoshima Kuroge beef with baby leeks and sautéed shiitake mushrooms was delicious. I was told that the poached Maine lobster with parsnip puree was very tender. Unfortunately, the overall experience was of disappointment. The lamb lacked flavor and was overly salted. The dessert of black bottom banana pie was a dud. Bananas may be delicious but, in my experience, rarely make wonderful pastries and creative desserts.

Rather than sulk and moan, I made another reservation. Much, much better but not quite at the old level. The meal highlighted creative uses of root vegetables: Japanese mountain potato (a kind of yam), parsnip purees, celery roots, cabbage, beets, and the like. The highlight of the evening was the appetizer of a ballotine of poussin. These rolled breast pieces were tender with a wonderful combination of textures--firm breast meat surrounding gently seasoned ground leg meat. Even better was the foie gras pierogi that accompanied the ballotines. Despite the ethical issues, I love foie gras. The combination of boiled dough and the rich taste of foie gras was very unusual. Even though the pierogi was huge, I could have eaten more and more.

The other diners told me that the butter-poached main lobster was a great dish. I snuck a taste of the celery root "scallops," which had a firm, a clarifying taste--a much milder form of the sensation that accompanies eucalyptus.

The desserts were, unfortunately, more disappointing. The best was the sticky toffee pudding with poached pears. The others had intense flavors that were too extreme. In general, they needed more citrus to moderate the intense sweet flavors. I had a novel sacher torte, a puff pastry with chocolate layers and an apricot mousse layered in between. But the flavor was too timid and completely drowned by the sweetness of the chocolate.

How relieved I was to have a favorite (almost) back. Relieved enough to make yet a third reservation to try out the new spring menu.

Corby Kummer responds:
A Tale of Two Dinners