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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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