Eric Ziebold has taken Washington D.C. by storm with his inspired dishes for CityZen at Mandarin Oriental. We are in awe of the mild-mannered wizard with the golden touch

Chef Eric Ziebold

Chef Eric Ziebold

What’s a boy from Ames, Iowa, doing serving up ‘all-night-braised honeycomb tripe with baby fennel and stinging nettles’ at the smartest new restaurant in the nation’s capital? Here’s what. Last year, Mandarin Oriental pulled off a remarkable coup. They snagged chef Eric Ziebold from the French Laundry in Napa, where he had been cooking for eight years, and installed him in their signature restaurant, CityZen, at the recently-opened Mandarin Oriental in Washington D.C. For Ziebold, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, it’s a return to the city which gave him his start. He was holidaying in the capital in 1994 when he heard of a job going at Jeffrey Buben’s new restaurant, Vidalia. He got the job, moved to Washington and stayed two years. Ziebold, 33, is a ringer for Hollywood star Nicholas Cage. Actually, he smiles more than Cage.

Cityzen is a city-slick restaurant that’s striking without being glitzy, sumptuous without being over the top; neither cluttered nor minimal

Welcome to CityZen

Welcome to CityZen

I want to know about Ames, Iowa. ‘It’s a college town of 50,000 people,’ he says. His mother was a teacher. And she taught him a thing or two about cooking. ‘She’d put dinner on the table every night at 6pm,’ he reminisces. ‘That wasn’t 5.58pm or 6.02pm. Oh no. No matter what was going on in the world, dinner was on the table at 6pm.’ You sense a sort of wry nostalgia, mixed with admiration. ‘And she was into everything – every fad, every fashion, she went with it.’

At the age of 16, Ziebold found himself a job in a local restaurant kitchen. Boys from his background usually went on to college. ‘At first my parents said, “you’ve got to be kidding,” but they supported my decision nevertheless.’ The restaurant’s owner was a CIA (Culinary Institute of America) graduate and for Iowa, the restaurant, he says, had an impressively contemporary menu. He learned how to make Steak Oscar and perfect hollandaise, which stood him in good stead when he got to the CIA.

Spring onions cuits sous vide and foie gras

Spring onions cuits sous vide and foie gras

Twelve hours before I meet Ziebold in the lobby of Mandarin Oriental, Washington D.C. I have already eaten at CityZen. He looks relaxed in his crisp whites despite a late night and early start. CityZen is a city-slick restaurant, striking without being glitzy, sumptuous without being over the top. It was designed by Tony Chi, who has worked on several MO properties, and it is something of a D.C. mould-breaker – and not just because of Ziebold’s refined, virtuoso cooking. French limestone columns punctuate marble-effect floors, and diners look out at the lights of Washington, or on to Ziebold’s gleaming, open-plan kitchen. It’s a smart, urban space, neither cluttered nor minimalist, and diners strike me as neither too politico nor too touristy.  There are guys in sharp pin-stripes, but the guy next door to me looks comfortable in his Hawaiian shirt, waving his phone (despite the stipulation at the foot of the menu: ‘Please silence your cell phone while dining’). It’s a good cosmopolitan mix. Not, of course, that you can ever get away from politics completely in this city. ‘Yup, Newt Gingrich and the Clintons have been in,’ admits Ziebold – but only when pushed.

Chef Ziebold cuts and prepares foie gras

Chef Ziebold cuts and prepares foie gras

Tony Chi's spellbinding CityZen dining room at Mandarin Oriental, Washington D.C.

Tony Chi's spellbinding CityZen dining room at Mandarin Oriental, Washington D.C.

Although foodie-sophisticates have long considered Washington a meat-and-potatoes town, the gastro map has changed in recent years. Now the city has a clutch of fine restaurants – so what, one wonders, does Ziebold bring to the arena? Well, for one thing, his tutelage under Thomas Keller at the French Laundry has given him a remarkable grasp of what you can and can’t do. ‘Take foie gras,’ he says. ‘I like my foie gras poached. The current trend – at least in America – is to sear it: people want to see a deep gold, caramelised outside. By putting foie gras on a sheet of crisp duck skin, I create the effect of a seared outside, but with the poached foie gras within.’ Does this place him in the school of molecular gastronomy? ‘I respect that route but I don’t go down it,’ he says firmly – while numbering among his friends Heston Blumenthal, who does follow that ethos and who owns the multi-Michelin-starred Fat Duck in Berkshire in the UK.

There are several ways to approach Ziebold’s menu at CityZen. There’s a regular three-course, prix fixe menu – not that anything this man does is strictly regular – a five-course tasting menu, and a vegetarian tasting menu. The previous evening I had had the opportunity of trying dishes plucked from all of Ziebold’s current menus and, lucky as I’ve been to eat in many MO restaurants around the world, I can say without a hint of bias that the gold standard has just been raised.

The fast-paced kitchen prepares a variety of dishes

The fast-paced kitchen prepares a variety of dishes

To tease the appetite, a canapé of hamachi tuna is dusted with Japanese rock salt. It works. Or rather, it tastes. Another amuse-bouche of scallop ‘broth’ is just a whisper. It’s more than a foam – like liquid air with the lightest perfume of the sea. Smoky salmon roe sits on Yukon Gold potatoes with crème fraîche. If these have been good lead-ins, I’m stopped in my tracks by a dish of sautéed halibut, with Sacramento Valley green asparagus, a confit of Fingerling potato, and a sprinkle of Périgord truffles. There’s such a homogeneity, a rightness about this dish, the thick, big-flavoured fish given such delicate, woody accompaniments. And spot-on too is Elysian Fields lamb, which Ziebold sources locally in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. He slowly roasts the meat, then wraps it in caul fat, until eventually it falls off the fork.

A signature bar snack of deluxe chips with dips and caviar

A signature bar snack of deluxe chips with dips and caviar

As for the tripe, it’s a revelation, like gelatinous veal, long on flavour, the nettles more fizzy than stinging, with a flavour not unlike Earl Grey tea. Can he really sell this dish in such a conservative town? ‘Washington is full of people who have travelled,’ he says. ‘They’ve tried tripe elsewhere and they want to try it again. Or they simply trust us to give them an adventure.’ And the same, presumably goes for sweetbreads and calf’s head? ‘The amount of sweetbreads we sell is crazy,’ he says.

Ziebold, you get the feeling, is a diplomatic man who will often end up taking the line of least resistance. In my experience that’s unusual in a chef. I can’t imagine him shouting in his kitchen. ‘I don’t believe in shouting,’ he confirms – despite a stint with Gordon Ramsay in London in 1999. His philosophy of calm was learned at the French Laundry – which says much about Keller, who has already visited CityZen and given it the thumbs up. Besides, with 13 different nationalities among his 32 staff, Ziebold has to find effective means of communication. ‘One of the things I encourage in my staff is peripheral hearing. It’s not enough just to see what’s going on around you. If you listen out as well, you know what’s happening and you’re prepared for what’s coming next.’

Washington is full of people who have travelled and have tried tripe elsewhere. They want to try it again or trust us to give them an adventure

Chef Ziebold at work

Chef Ziebold at work

Sautéed Maine halibut with sugar snap peas and red onion

Sautéed Maine halibut with sugar snap peas and red onion

A fifth generation American of German descent, Ziebold seems to have had no problem leaving Napa’s green pastures to return to the big smoke. ‘I love Washington,’ he enthuses, despite his early months at CityZen when he was doing a 115-hour week. He is currently un-partnered and enjoys socialising with Washington’s wide community of chefs and sommeliers, after Napa’s relative isolation. There is a local Chefs’ Club which meets regularly, and Ziebold enjoys their Saturday night get-togethers up at the Bistro du Coin on Connecticut Avenue.

Lanterns add to the warmth of the interior

Lanterns add to the warmth of the interior

Other downtime is spent exploring the capital’s ethnic restaurants, especially Vietnamese and Thai. Pho 75 in Alexandria, is a current favourite. Is he into exercise I wonder, knowing how marathon running is the new big thing in his profession? ‘No!’ he answers, without a moment’s hesitation. ‘Think how much time you save when you take your car.’

I wonder too if he gets back to Iowa much these days. He looks directly at me, as the slightest of frowns crosses his face. ‘Not really. Not as much as I’d like. There’s so much to see, so many places to go.’ Indeed, Chef Ziebold has recently spent an interesting time in Bordeaux, France. So who knows what will appear on his menus in the near future?

Serving sublime dishes at a steady pace

Serving sublime dishes at a steady pace

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