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Fearless Critic restaurant review
Upmarket restaurant

Tue–Thu 6:00pm–9:30pm
Fri–Sat 5:30pm–9:30pm

Features Date-friendly, good wines
Bar Beer, wine, liquor
Credit cards Visa, MC, AmEx
Reservations Essential


Southwest DC
1330 Maryland Ave. SW
Washington, DC
(202) 787-6006
The most sophisticated way to keep it simple in the city—from Parker House rolls to organ meats

The District seems as divided over the pronunciation of the Mandarin Oriental’s superstar restaurant as it is over the value proposition it presents. The $50 three-course bar menu is a gift to the city, but in the main dining room—whose soaring space is informed by the Mandarin’s modernized notion of luxury, warmly lit and casually elegant—the cheapest tasting menu costs $110. Add wine pairings, tax, and tip, and you’re up to $240 a head. To manage that, you might consider keeping that AIG executive bonus.

What is less disputable is this kitchen’s preeminence, which is demonstrated more though pure taste sensation than through French-Laundry-style theatrics (CityZen’s chef was a sous there). The focus on elemental pleasure is obvious from a wooden box full of sweet, doughy miniature Parker House rolls (more Betty Crocker than Thomas Keller). They’re irresistibly undercooked, glazed with copious quantities of butter—part of it turns into the shine on the rolls’ pliant crusts, while the other part remains indulgently liquid—and sprinkled with coarse grains of sea salt, and, perhaps, a dash of crack. Bloggers and such have been debating under what circumstances it’s possible to get a second helping of the rolls.

CityZen’s menu changes frequently enough that it’s hard to generalize, but the consistency is remarkable. The kitchen has a particular way with the ultramodern fat-and-entrails sect of 21st-century cuisine, from shoat (young pig) belly—whose layer of fat disappears into the crispy skin instead of fighting against it—to pan-roasted lamb brains, which come off like a softer version of sweetbreads, brilliantly paired with pickled green tomatoes and lamb sausage. Sweet-spicy-savory is another game this chef plays, as in olive oil custard with red chili, an exercise in unexpected lightness; a roasted lamb ribeye with cauliflower, crystallized orange, and harissa oil; or sweet-potato gnocchi with shaved black truffle. The seven-layer bar, a dessert stalwart, is sort of a chocolate custard cookie, and we like its condensed-milk ice cream, but like other sweet things here, it’s not operating quite at the level of the rest of the meal.

A point of order: we have progressed past the point in American history when dress-code pomposity was an element of dining at this level. Has the Mandarin Oriental, in spite of its forward-looking brand of elegance, not received the memo that no-jeans dress codes have been relegated to Rotary Club meetings in middle American cities, and that serious modern restaurants pay attention to food, not pants fabric?

Don’t let it stop you, though. Pull up your trousers: this is one of DC’s most sensational culinary experiences.

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