Great meals always start with an exhalation. You know what I’m taking about: almost compulsively, an “ohhh” escapes your lips as you bite into a flaky crust, a juicy piece of fruit, a perfectly grilled steak. I think all meals should begin like that. To get a good taste of such a meal (pun intended), try Zaytinya, located in DC’s Penn Quarter.
Zaytinya has an interior like a futuristic subway car: clean, flickering, dim. Blue and white luminaries line the bar and the slick white staircase, hung by criss-crossing wire cables. The restaurant’s airy layout creates as much open space as possible; this is a place for beautiful people to see and be seen. A long central table for large parties is spot-lit; get a smaller side table on the main floor to observe the hustle & bustle.
Greek food is often oppressive, centering around the harsh, acidic flavors of garlic, feta, and olives. Zaytinya, in contrast, serves mezze, tapas-style plates of a Greek-Turkish-Lebanese hybrid cuisine. Two people can share five to seven small plates, which the bustling staff present to your table in staggered courses throughout the evening. Order a few dishes from each of the menu’s categories, and don’t be afraid to ask your waiter for advice: the staff gives great recommendations.
Zaytinya reinvents done-to-death Greek standards and makes them outstanding. Ubiquitous pita bread is transformed into long trenches of puffy, air-filled bread, piping hot and served with a trio of spreads: silky smooth hummus, drenched in oil and garnished with chickpeas; an outstanding red pepper and feta mash-up; and a nice variation on tzatziki sauce. Another Greek standby, chicken kebabs, is deconstructed, served with slipskin tomatoes, spice-laden onions and a delicious whipped goat cheese on the side.
Zaytinya isn’t content to reinvent the wheel, however. Squash blossoms are stuffed with crab meat and cheese, deep fried, and served with a dill sauce. The end result is light, creamy, and warm; try this dish while the blossoms are still in season. In another dish, sauteed shrimp are served in an artful sauce of lemon, mustard, butter, and dill. Zaytinya gets especially creative with the cauliflower side dish, tossed with sultanas for sweetness, capers for tang, and pine nuts, chopped into crispy disks and roasted with sea salt, for crunch.