Since our visit to CityZen was a carefully planned birthday celebration, our expectations prior to arrival were set incredibly high. Our previous two birthdays had been successfully celebrated at Marcel's and Komi, so comparisons were inevitable. I will say that not everything tasted divine, all service was not impeccable, yet our overall experience clearly illustrated that CityZen belongs among the Washington elite.
Upon arrival we were greeted by a trio of friendly hosts/hostesses. Something about the opening minutes indicated that the restaurant was not entirely ready for us. A waiter approached our table to take our drink orders. He did not seem particularly knowledgeable about what he was doing, and I could not help but think that we were in for a long evening. However, as it turns out, it was just his role to take a basic drink order. Fernando, the man in charge of our table, took over, brought us our menus, and went over our options for the evening. One other hit-and-miss here was that we ended up making our own wine selection, one glass of red (an exquisite pinot noir) and one glass of white (a so-so riesling). If we were bigger wine snobs, perhaps we would have insisted on meeting with the sommelier.
Both of us opted for the six course tasting menu. Most of the dishes are relatively small, but they left us pleasantly full by the end of the evening. The first bite we had to eat was the amuse bouche which was a thin slice of wagyu beef plus some jellylike substance. Nice touch but not a particularly memorable one. We were offered multiple choices of bread - all of which tasted freshly baked - plus later during the meal, there was also a serving of yummy rolls in a wooden box. The first dish was roasted asparagus, one of the better dishes in terms of a variety of different tastes that worked equally well individually as they did in combination with each other. The second course, the chilled lobster salad, was probably the least impressive dish, although there was nothing wrong with it, strictly speaking. I guess I am just not big on cold dishes. The third dish, soft-shell crab with cabbage, was pretty good, but it was unclear what exactly the role of the cabbage was. The fourth dish, the lamb carbonara was probably the best dish of the evening. I probably would have been happy ordering this dish five times over (plus the dessert). The fifth dish was the beef ribeye, perfectly cooked, and an acceptable ending to the selection of entrees. Prior to the dessert, we enjoyed three pieces of chocolate and candy, and as part of the birthday celebration, Fernando also treated us to some muscato dessert wine which was fabulous. In restaurants like CityZen, when you go with a fixed price menu, sometimes the best things you end up eating or drinking are not even listed anywhere on the menu. The dessert was an elaborate version of the root beer float. Plus for the birthday, we received an additional ice cream treat with "Happy Birthday" calligraphed on the plate in chocolate syrup. A nice way to wrap up our evening.
CityZen is located at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, in a somewhat awkward neighborhood, behind government office buildings just south of the Mall/Smithsonian. During the day and in the early evenings, it's actually a simple enough walk from the Smithsonian Metro Station. And I believe CityZen would also have validated our parking had we driven. The hotel is quite upscale and has some nice facilities, including restrooms. The decor of the restaurant is sophisticated and is in line with other restaurants of similar caliber. From my seat I could observe Chef Ziebold and his crew working on the dishes, applying final touches, right before they got shipped to our tables.
My initial reaction after leaving the restaurant was that service was not quite as good as Komi, that the dishes at Marcel's had been tastier on that particular evening, and that the bill was just as high as its peers, and I was actually thinking about going with four instead of five points. But after I came to my senses, I realized that CityZen had actually met our high expectations and that the personal touches in acknowledging our birthday celebration exemplified the interest that the restaurant staff took in treating all of its customers. While not everything was perfect on this visit, rather than dock the restaurant points for a few shortcomings, I would rather acknowledge and reward them for the things they did above my expectations.
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