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24 in 24: DC Third Quarter Recap

This was probably the most fun quarter for the trip since it includes all three of my drivers and the best food in the Shoot. Zaytinya, Cashion’s, and Citronelle did the best to vie for our hearts. Zaytinya won on the vastness of the flavors in the Mediterranean menu, Citronelle takes the refined elegance category, and Cashion’s takes the finest dining while still feeling comfortable in a T-shirt award.

5:00 – Etete

Etete has won the value eats category from some source every year it’s been open and there is good reason for this. Inside, the place is upscale and trendy and the food is cooked by someone’s mom. Etete is a colloquialism for mother in Ethiopia, and the restaurant was purchased as a surprise gift to their mom (who already had a reputation in DC’s Ethiopian community as a fine chef from her catering business). To help the success of the business, Yared (son and co-owner) goes to Ethiopia twice a year and brings back sixteen suitcases of spices direct from the source. If that’s not authenticity, I don’t know what is.

Erik, Scott, and Ania waste no time poking fun at our generation’s view of Ethiopia of flies and distended stomachs. It’s nice to sit in a restaurant, gorging myself on the twelfth meal of the day, not pausing to wonder why I was born a white male to a middle-class family in America and not to a farmer in Ethiopia. Looking back today at kids my age that didn’t make it to see six years old, I just have to thank God for what I am blessed with. Even though countless millions are still starving somewhere else, it’s acceptable for us to have a laugh at their expense. Oh well. When in Rome . . .

6:00 – Zaytinya

By far the funniest stop in 24 in 24: DC. The Andersons were on their comedic game, and by the first appetizer, I was adopted, married a black guy, and slapped Erik’s wife. Zaytinya has always been a place at which I enjoyed taking happy hour, so this was the first time I was going to actually dine for more than a few plates of tapas. Steve Uhr, the GM, was at our service to explain each of the dishes we received and every one blew our mind. This was by far the best baba ghanouj I have ever eaten, and the braised lamb inside the fillo? Fugghetaboudit. The red pepper salsa-type stuff called htipiti seemed like such an easy dish to make by looking at it, and questioning Steve, it turns out that the peppers are marinated for a day. They use plenty of fresh ingredients here, but they don’t just whip things up in minutes.

We were behind schedule for the first time in the day. I thank Steve before we head out; we shake hands and he asks with an almost imperceptible but insistent grasp of my hand “You have time for dessert, right?” I think I have to say yes to this one. Damn, were we thankful for that.

Olive Oil ice cream. Wat? Don’t be alarmed. Try it. Sour Cherry, Walnut, and Olive Oil ice creams were presented to us in a little trio platter and held true to their character. None of the ice creams tried to be anything other than what they purported themselves to be. One of the marks of a great chef is that they work with the ingredients instead of attempting to tame them and make them act how the chef wants them to. These ice creams were the finishing touch that left you looking forward to starting the first course again on your next trip to the restaurant, wondering if there was something you didn’t try that would woo you the way the rest of your meal did.

Zaytinya wins both the Volume and the Desire awards for 24 in 24: DC. We were presented with just about everything on the menu, and every one of the staff aspired to perfect our dining experience. Erik and Ania might never go back to Café 8 again.

7:00 – Cashion’s Eat Place

So we were late to Cashion’s. I took six minutes out of the 7:00 hour to convene with the Fojols at their art opening and grab a quick chicken masala/curried chicken/roasted eggplant box that was barely nibbled since the space in our stomachs had just been ransacked by Zaytinya. We arrive at Cashion’s, and on cue, a homeless man is ready to polish off our uneaten Indian food.

Cashion’s wasn’t on the initial list for 24 in 24: DC, but as I heard their name after asking the ‘favorite restaurant’ question over and over in my interviews, I needed to see what all the hubbub was about. I called up and they were happy to have me in to try their stuff. In my interview with Justin, they dropped two appetizers on me that were chock full o’ win: fresh vegetable mezze and a lamb souvlaki – exactly what I felt like after a long day of bike riding, and just light enough so I’d have room for the barbecue I was attending later in the evening. At the stop on the day of the shoot, we were met with an equally refreshing tomato/balsamic/watermelon (yes, watermelon) appetizer and their muscovy duck/foie gras entrée. The combination of watermelon and reduced balsamic tasted like fennel as if I was flavor tripping. It was a very interesting experience. My internal monologue during my culinary interaction with the duck was as follows:

*Tries the duck and the Foie gras*
“Oh, that’s good . . . that is goo-oooo-ood”

*Tries the duck, foie gras, and rhubarb*
“Wait a second . . . that’s ridiculous!”

What a great combination. I saw a Bison Porterhouse on the menu just now when I was researching the menu items we had; that’s what I’m having the next time I go to Cashion’s.

8:00 – Citronelle

Citronelle. Incredible.

You should know that most of these meals are comped. I can’t afford to go to 24 places in a day and pay for all of them. I think that’s obvious from how well orchestrated the event is, but I just wanted to reiterate that before I make this statement. Going to a place like Citronelle and receiving the kind of attention and care in service I was administered makes me want to work that much harder to write an exceptional review for them. That’s not to say that the places like Pho 75 and Tangier Lounge aren’t going to receive my full attention when editing (I have a body of work to compile and any slacking would be evident) since they offer a consistent level of service to their clientele, it is more to put the focus on how much goes into the actual dinner service and effort that goes into making people happy at places like this. Zaytinya was the only other restaurant at which I felt the same way. From minds the caliber of José Andrés and Michel Richard, I would expect nothing less.

Watching the tape of dinner again, I think Ania may have had many small food orgasms at Citronelle because she kept saying, “Oh my God!” We started with the mosaic; several different carpaccios on an elegant square plate as pleasing to the eye as it was to the palate. Erik let me have the eel (since there was only one (there were conveniently three of everything else for my companions and I) and it was certainly the highlight of the dish. The true, eel-y sweetness set against the tart greens (and I don’t quite remember which they were) was an excellent juxtaposition of flavor. The second course was something like an eel-plant parmesan (an eel prepared like an eggplant parmesan served with mussels and fresh chopped tomatoes and garlic) and then we had the Begula Pasta. Risotto, poached egg, and lobster – a truly beguiling presentation as the squid-ink saltiness of the risotto doesn’t reach the saltiness of caviar I was half-expecting. The third dish we had was the 72-hour short rib. I didn’t know this was coming because Tom from Market Lunch told me he’d had it at Central (Michel’s other restaurant). He told me he’d never ordered another item off the menu there, and with one bite I saw why. I don’t know if I could really call it a bite because you can cut this meat with a spoon and eat it without dentures. The three of us were flabbergasted.

Citronelle wins the Best Restaurant award for 24 in 24: DC with the Best Bite award going to the 72-Hour Short Ribs. Everything about the experience was exemplary. Mel and J.J. are uber-personable, attentive, and just plain designed for service. I can’t explain how excited I was to eat here, and my high expectations were met to a T.

9:00 – Capitol Lounge

It’s Saturday night and they were out of Teddy Folkman’s Throwdown winning mussels. Not a huge disappiointment since I have a thing about ordering fish or shellfish on Saturdays and Sundays anyway. At more upscale places, you usually wouldn’t have to worry about this since they won’t serve you old seafood, but there’s been exceptions to this in my lifetime, so I just stick by my rule of thumb and I’m happy. In NYC, I was excited about going to the Kabab Café in Queens after I saw it on No Reservations and the chef served me old squid that had the consistency and taste of a lobster buoy. The rest of the stuff was amazing, but why did he have to serve me this awfulness? I digress.

Kevin dropped a Xingu Black Beer on us and we were amazed. The beer had to be laced with something like a blackberry brandy, since the berry flavor was just too syrupy and sweet to have come from hops alone. It poured like a coffee and went down just as easily with little aftertaste. I mentioned that the Brickskeller would have a tough time beating the Capitol Lounge with this selection; they did in regards to the beer selection (To̱a Рmy second favorite beer from Central America) but not on presentation. The beer was warm. Ugh.

James is there and he gets us a pizza. Full from the Zaytinya-Fojol-Citronelle stretch, I saw the pizza being delivered and shuddered a bit inside. After that initial reaction, I took a bite and still I was impressed with the taste even as the marginal utility of food was breaching the negative. Probably the most filling thing on the menu, it was a complex flavor that I enjoyed thoroughly for the piece I had; the Kalamata olives exploded when you bit into them and the artichokes added that touch of class you would expect from the finest pizza joints. I can imagine eating this again and housing the entire pie by myself. I’m going to give the Capitol Lounge the Friendliest Patrons award of 24 in 24: DC for all the cool people I met there. I’ve been before and it’s always been the case. Who says Capitol Hill is stuffy?

10:00 – The Gibson

We get to the Gibson and Tiffany is busy, but not so busy that she can’t mix us up some drinks. It’s kind of a slow night over there and we’re happy not to have to eat a damn thing. This is a newer place in DC (brand new – opened in 2008) and it respects the cocktail. It’s very similar to Drink in Boston in the ingredients they use and the atmosphere they’re intending to create. The Gibson is a dimly lit speakeasyesque bar that used to lock the front door, but has been prohibited from doing that due to fire codes. Definitely added that air of exclusivity. Today, with grates on the windows and a sign no more than an inch and a half long, you’re going to have trouble finding it if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but when you get in, you stay.

That’s my biggest regret about this stop, not being able to hang out and relax. One thing that I noticed is that there was not a lot of mingling. This is definitely not a singles bar. You come here with a group of friends and you grab a seat and prepare to be wowed by the cocktail list. There’s conversation and the drink – no intrusions of any kind, just you, your friends, and great liquor.

I get a Cricketer, a purely alcoholic Dark and Stormy, and save pure scotch, it’s unequivocally the best all-liquor drink since a top-shelf Godfather I made myself at a friend’s place in 2007. I need the recipe. The Gibson is going to take the Favorite Bar award for 24 in 24: DC. A great concept executed thoroughly and no more. I’ll be back.

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