The flatbread on the CityZen menu seemed out of place. But there it was, tucked into a description for chef Eric Ziebold’s grilled pork jowl. How could I not order it? When the appetizer arrived, the aroma that drifted up from the plate took me far away from the stately, quietly elegant dining room in the Mandarin Oriental hotel; it took me to market stalls and Caribbean takeouts, where the toasty smell of griddled bread hangs in the air. The dish’s aroma was straight from the grill, a char as humble as a backyard barbecue, and yet it was still absolutely Zieboldian in concept and execution. The tender jowl meat almost melted on my tongue, softly complemented by the grilled roti and a small cadre of garnishes. This was street food elevated to fine dining.
More than anything, Ziebold’s cooking is so pure of flavor that it can make you recall your most formative eating experiences. His artichoke soup, though spiked with other ingredients, reminded me of the first time I ever pulled the leaves off a freshly fried choke and scraped its luscious flesh with my teeth. But his crispy-skin black sea bass with shaved slices of potato and bacon was my formative eating experience; it renewed my faith in a chef’s ability to accentuate a fish’s flavor, not obliterate it. Ziebold is a master chef with a Midwesterner’s heart. He keeps his ego in check. His genius lies not in his presentations or his desire to delight or trick the eye but in his ability to open new lines of communication between ingredients, and even cultures. Not that there’s anything wrong with letting your imagination run wild on the plate. Over at Teatro Goldoni, chef Enzo Fargione has a definite flair for drama. His tomato popsicle appetizer looks like steak on a stick; his branzini carpaccio is briefly smoked in a wooden cigar box, which also serves as your plate; his amuse-bouche of insalata Russa, wrapped in gold-leaf and served with basil and tomato oils, looks like a blinged-out version of the Italian flag.
But don’t mistake Fargione’s flair for shallow showmanship. His dishes are personal, highly idiosyncratic takes on Italian cooking, and underneath their playful exteriors, they all show a deep respect for the essential flavors of the cuisine. If Ziebold is the new gold standard for fine dining in D.C., then Fargione is the chef by which all Italian toques in town should measure themselves.