Zay Yes!

When my friend asked us to go out to Zaytinya, a chic Middle Eastern tapas (they call them mezze) restaurant in the China Town area of DC (9th and G), I said “yes” quicker than I had to run to catch my train today. Why did I say yes so assuredly? Well, because this was not my first time there, and I'd been looking for an excuse to return. Perhaps this is one of the higher compliments that I can pay a place. I mean, there are tons of places in DC and the surrounding areas in Virginia, plus I enjoy cooking and eating at home, if not for just the caloric and monetary benefits. So if I can be excited about going back to a place in a relatively short time horizon and enjoy it both times, you should probably take notice as well.

The atmosphere is pretty trendy and the place pretty hopping, even on a Tuesday, at Zaytinya. We waited about 25 minutes with no reservation, so I would definitely recommend one on the weekends and maybe even on the weekdays.

The prices are moderate here with many of the mezze in the six to eight dollar range. We ordered three cocktails and eight mezze and got out of there for under $90.


The delightful part about this menu is its depth, with a wide array of meat, seafood and vegetarian dishes spanning across a variety of Middle Eastern countries, from Greece to Turkey to Israel, but all with a clearly Med motif. The classics are there, with grape leaves, hummus and spanokopita, but the real interest here is in the creativity running through the menu. While this was a pretty vegetarian meal, with two lifelong vegetarians and me, a vegetarian lover, there were several very interesting meat entrees, including crispy skirt steak, mahanek (sausage), several lamb dishes, mussels and a swordfish kabob.


Labneh with zatar and fresh pitas: Our dinner friend, Rebecca, has spent a significant amount of time in Israel, so she was the expert dish suggestor at this particular meal. For instance, while Julia and I normally would have stayed with old favorites like hummus or baba to start with, Rebecca introduced us to a phenomenon: labneh! You may have noticed it (already) made my Olympic top ten (twelve) list last Friday, so it shot up my personal rankings very quickly. For those unaware, this well-spiced hybrid of cheese and yogurt is heavenly and makes any piece of pita, no matter how packaged and processed, instantly relevant. Of course, Zaytinya has an endless run of fresh, warm pitas, so this is a must order in the future for me.

Tilton Cheese from Israel: A creamy goat, this cheese had a lot of flavor. Zaytinya has a nice little cheese menu tucked away on the left, which makes for a changeup from just ordering typical tapas.

Peynirli Pide: If you’re not familiar with a pide, it is kind of like a tiny flatbread pizza. This particular one had halloumi – a great sheep’s milk cheese – some tangy tomato sauce and a hint of cinnamon. It was delicious, and was probably the one dish I wished I had had more of, as it is not big at all and incredibly tasty. This is definitely something I will return to in the future.

Kolokithokeftedes: These little bites were zucchini circles with some cheese and spices over a creamy, yogurt sauce. They were recommended by the waiter as one of his favorite vegetarian mezze, and I thought they were pretty good. Usually zucchini is pretty bland, and this wasn’t, but this dish still didn’t have that extra pop or zing that would make me want to order it over and over again.

Imam Bayildi: This was eggplant with stewed tomatoes and onions stuffed inside. I found this dish to be a very nice use of several ingredients that are pretty common to make a very interesting flavor. This probably could have had a little more spicy aspect and I would have been all over it, but then again, Mediterranean food usually is not very spicy. Sometimes a dish can be too savory though, and I thought this one did need that little bit of extra depth of flavor from somewhere.

Havuc Koftesi: Well who doesn’t love a fritter? Not me. These were bundles of carrot and apricot goodness with pine nuts and a pistachio sauce to add just a bit of creaminess and nuttiness to the actual bite. This was something we had tried on my first visit to Zaytinya, and they tasted great both times – even not being much of a carrot fan. Plus, they’re not too greasy. A really nice mezze.

Salmon phyllo: This was the only non-vegetarian dish that we ordered, and it was also probably the weakest dish. It was kind of like spanokopita with salmon instead of spinach. This was the only mezze where the flavor did not seem to mesh right. The dill-like flavor that I tasted with the salmon seemed to overpower the overall taste and it came off as one-dimensional. I probably would have liked to see a play on spanokopita with either a different fish or perhaps adding in some red pepper and tomato to give it a little more kick. That being said, it was a special, and sometimes there are good reasons that things are on special and not on the regular menu. So I give them a break on that one.

All in all, the meal was immensely satisfying. A good meal of tapas (or mezze) is great because you get to try so many things and really balance out your taste buds. And like a well differentiated stock portfolio, even with a couple dishes that were just okay, there were enough great ones to make the meal terrific.

And when I am asked to go there a third time someday, I imagine my answer “yes” will come even quicker yet.

Check out my reviews of these places in even more detail at Menuism.com!

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