Saturday, April 19, 2008

Baby pig not safe here - restaurant: CityZen (DC)

I have a love hate relationship with DC. I hate the traffic and streets that refuse to go straight (squares may have been a good idea when horses dominated the roads, but they are terrible for regulating aggressive automobiles). I have a hard time dealing with the grumpy people stuck in traffic, whose collective grumpiness even show on their license plates, which proudly coins the essence of DC as "taxation without representation." One the other hand, I love the gazillion free museums, the sea of spring cherry blossoms around Lincoln memorial, and blue crab season near the Chesapeake bay. These were loves developed during my teenage years living in the area when I had no money to experience the finer things. Now that I have a bit more spare cash, the love side has begun to outweigh the hate side with every good meal in the capital.

CityZen provided the best bite on my recent trip in what is arguably one of the best bargain meals of the year. Tucked behind a wall on one side of the Madarin Oriental Hotel, CityZen wowed with its impressive spacial scale, but warmed with a comfortable elegance. I opt to sit at the bar, having already made up my mind to try the three course bar tasting menu.

The bar was no less impressive. In fact, the architecturally interesting band of fire behind the bar illuminated the bottle display and mesmerized me during much of the meal.
Settling in with a glass of bubbly, I nibbled on a cute mushroom fritter sent out by the chef. Nothing remarkable here, just comforting shroom flavor captured in a fluffy bite.
I went whole hog this night, literally, starting with a crispy tete de cochon. As the server so honestly and eloquently put, this was essentially head cheese deep fried with a thin coating. Since I love the porky pig and all things gelatinous, especially those from pork cheeks, I waited for this plate with great expectation. CityZen not only met my expectations, it exceeded them. The coating was crunchy, but not too thick. The head cheese held together beautifully with bits of the glistening jelly interburst throughout the cheek meat. It was lip-sticking good. Another great element of the dish was the little poached quail egg sitting on top. It had a perfectly runny yoke that ended up coating the already rich bites with an additional layer of richness. I imagine a whole chicken egg yoke would have been too rich, so the quail egg was just perfect.

Had the meal progressed directly to dessert from the rich appetizer, I would have been satisfied. But I said I went whole hog earlier, so the rest of the porky pig was still to come. Boy did it come. Behold the best bite of the evening at the top of the post, a braised shoulder of Kanagy farms shoat with russet potato gnocchi and spring peas and asparagus. I couldn't have conjured up a better dish for pork-loving me even in my dreams. All my favorite elements were present. A nice fatty cut of pork, oh yeah! And it's from a shoat, a baby pig. Sounds cruel, but I am Chinese, we eat baby things and love them. This dish reminded me of one I had at Bouchon in Vegas almost a year ago. But this version tops the Bouchon pork shoulder with the shoat tenderness factor and the very very light gnocchi. It would have been very easy to eat plates of the gnocchi without stopping. Luckily there was the rich shoat shoulder to distract me. Then of course, my favorite veggies. Nothing beats spring peas and asparagus when they are at their peak and they were here. All around, just wonderful.

It's not a proper end unless there was dessert, which I chose to have with a banyul. The server delivered the Pave of Valrhona chocolate sans foam to the bar then proceeded to put it on. I was very tempted to stop him, but held my tongue. Truth be told, I am a little tired of foam. It has this way of distracting from the main event without delivering much impact on its own. In this case, it made the photo come out bad, but did no other harm. It was minty and played nice with the warm chocolate. The whole combination was tasty and well executed. I just wished that Cityzen would break away from the warm Valrhona chocolate cake/tart/pave norm and do something original.

All in all, for fifty dollars, this bar tasting menu was pretty unbeatable at one of the top tables in DC.

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