Bethany Imondi/The Hoya
Bethany Imondi/The Hoya

5/5 stars

$$

Most power players in Washington are known for their clout on the Hill. José Andrés, however, is not a traditional player. Rather than leaving his mark on the passage of legislation, Andrés makes an impression as one of the area’s most innovative culinary minds.

Born and raised in Spain, Andrés trained as a chef there, which included a stint under renowned chef Ferrán Adria at the restaurant El Bulli. After moving to D.C., Andréslaunched Jaleo, a Spanish tapas restaurant that remains one of the hardest reservations to secure in the area. Although not requiring a reservation request months in advance, Zaytinya, another of Andrés’ D.C. spots, is a dining destination that epitomizes the chef’s commitment to exposing diners to exotic flavors and high-quality cuisine.

Meaning “olive oil” in Turkish, Zaytinya sits on the corner of 9th and G Streets in Chinatown. Although the restaurant is expansive, with two floors of tables and an outside patio, reservations are highly recommended. At 7 p.m. on a recent Friday, the restaurant was filled with diners. Despite the crowd, the noise level was moderate and conversation flowed easily.

The kitchen is immediately visible to diners. This open kitchen not only sends a waft of Mediterranean scents like garlic and oregano through the establishment, but it also allows diners to get a glimpse of what is on the menu. During our visit, lamb shoulder roasted on a rotating display to whet appetites.

Whereas Jaleo serves up tapas, Zaytinya offers a menu of mezze, small plates inspired by the cuisine of Turkey, Greece and Lebanon. Because of the extensive offerings, it can be difficult to decide what to order; however, the staff is extremely knowledgeable about the menu and considerate of patrons’ tastes. When inquiring about the crab cakes, our waitress informed us that the recipe extended back to a woman in Greece highly regarded for her cooking, but who was not considered a chef.

Unlike most crab cakes, with the proportion of crab often paling in comparison with the amount of breadcrumbs and fillers, each of the order’s three cakes contained a generous amount of plump, local blue crabmeat. The cakes came atop a roasted garlic yogurt sauce, which was a Mediterranean substitute for tartar sauce, much lighter and sweeter than the traditional mayonnaise-based accompaniment.

Without reading the description, many of the menu items are difficult to identify by their traditional Turkish names, perhaps explaining why the easily identifiable falafel is one of the most popular selections. The chickpea fritters come six to an order and are served hot out of the fryer with a tahinisauce. Biting into the falafel, the crisp coating gives way to a green interior mixture of chickpeas, parsley and cumin, among other ingredients. The inclusion of lemon in the sauce helps provide an acidic balance to the fried plate.

If, by the time the falafel has arrived, the table has already devoured the basket of made-to-order pita bread, request another round of the unlimited offering. Ripped apart and opened to make a pocket, the warm bread makes a great pouch for a handmade falafel sandwich.

Also fried but worth ordering is the batinjan bil laban. Three eggplant rounds are crisped to a golden brown and the interior practically melts in the mouth. The same garlic sauce served with the crab cakes complements the eggplant beautifully.

After seeing and smelling the roasted lamb in the kitchen, the lamb mezze offerings have elevated appeal. Our waitress could not say enough about the lamb kleftico: roasted lamb with feta cheese, wrapped in phyllo dough and served with a yogurt dill sauce. The feta provided a salty bite to the tender meat, while the phyllo provided a contrasting crunch. The sauce is similar to tzatziki.

With mezze prices ranging from $7 to upwards of $14, it is easy to leave Zaytinya with an empty wallet. Regardless of the cost, Andrés dishes up excellent food and service, ensuring that your stomach is anything but empty.

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