Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Grape Expectations

By: Ian McGinnity

Famed José Andrés creation and DC favorite Zaytinya kicked off its third-annual Grape Festival on Sunday, September 22nd, with special events including wine tastings, live music, and a grape stomping competition that will last through October 5th. A celebration of the versatility of the Mediterranean staple, the festival features innovative culinary concoctions that skillfully intertwine the region’s vibrant history and rich traditional cuisine.

While the event boasts an exquisite selection of wines from Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece, the drink that perhaps best embodies the spirit of the festival is the aptly named cocktail, “There’s More Than One Way to Skinos a Grape.” This boisterous beverage is a finely tuned mixture of muscot, verjus, Dolin Blanc vermouth, skinos, and Fee Bros old-fashioned bitters topped with a lemon twist and bottomed with a frozen, peeled grape. A first sip of this robust and tangy-sweet concoction reminded me of the description of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, dubbed the “best drink in existence” in Douglas Adams’ novel The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Much like the Gargle Blaster, taking a swig of There’s More Than One Way to Skinos a Grape was delightfully similar to “having your brain smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick,” which perhaps not intuitively, is an entirely positive attribute.

But far from the fictional pseudo-futuristic realm of intergalactic travel and Vogon bureaucracy, the main ingredient in this cocktail, skinos, has been a cultural mainstay in Greece since the days of Hippocrates, who purportedly used to mix the spirit with honey as a remedy for stomach ailments. Derived from the resin of the Mastiha tree, skinos adds sweet hints of pine, cucumber and fresh herbs to the cocktail. These distinct notes balance out the pucker-punch of the verjus, a highly acidic juice derived from pressing unripe grapes. The result is a delicious, zinging cocktail.

Photo: Lili Kocsis

Guests would do well to start their culinary adventures with the Lebanese-Style Preserved Labneh, which is a spoonsweet made with strained cow’s milk yoghurt topped with raisin grape molasses and skinned grapes. Offering visitors and guests a sweet treat on a spoon is a long-standing display of hospitality in Mediterranean culture. The restaurant itself espouses the spirit of this hospitality. The minimalist Mediterranean décor of deep blue and crisp white walls and skillfully-crafted glass decanters filled with olive oil (or, zaytinya, in Turkish) create a sense of comfort and subtle luxury, and the friendly servers exercise with ease their impressive, layered knowledge of the ingredients, preparation and even regional history. Visitors need not order the labneh spoonsweet to feel welcomed here, but it would be a shame to pass it up all the same.

Photo: Lili Kocsis
One of my favorite mezzes was the grape leaf butternut squash and crispy pumpkin seed Dolmades, which rested on a creamy bed of bull’s milk labneh seasoned with cumin. The pumpkin seeds and butternut squash added a playful seasonal twist to this delicious traditional dish. Considering the first day of the festival coincides with the first day of fall (September 22nd), the timing for this treat could not be better.

Photo: Lili Kocsis

The four main meat mezzes during the event are the White Hamachi (hale peon oil, asparagus, sea beans, fresh tarragon), the Foie Gras (Concord grapes, grape raisins, petimezopita (grape molasses spice cake)), Prawns Arak (shrimp sautéed with Arak, roasted grapes, red Fresno chiles, aromatic herbs), and my personal favorite, the Mutancene – a lamb shoulder dish made with pasture-raised lamb from the award-winning BorderSpring Farm in Patrick Springs, Virginia. According to Head Chef Michael Costa, he and José Andrés derived the inspiration for Mutancene from a 16th century Ottoman recipe that took extensive research and international travel to find and to master.

And master it they did.  The shoulder is perfectly braised in an exuberant mixture of grape vinegar and honey and accompanied by apricots, almonds and dried plums. The tender, succulent lamb falls apart beautifully in the mouth, releasing a rush of savory juices graced with subtly sweet notes of honey which compliments the semi-sweet apricots and dried plums. The almonds not only contribute a very slight nutty flavor, but they also provide the dish with a more diversified, interesting texture. From start to finish, everything about the Mutancene is perfect, making it the true plat de résistance of the festival.

Photo: Lili Kocsis
No celebration would be complete without a dessert, and the Muscot Grape Granita fulfills this obligation. The rather stereotypically grape-tasting granita rests atop an orange flower scented yoghurt espuma, which lends a slightly tart flavor to an otherwise intensely sweet dish. Candied oranges and lemon verbena also add a welcomed citrusy balance to the treat’s powerful saccharinity. In terms of texture, the foamy yoghurt espuma and soft candied fruit provided a pleasant contrast to the crystallinity of the icy granita. Although this particular dessert may have missed the mark for those looking for something with slightly more complexity, it is, overall, an enjoyably light way to end an evening of fantastic dining.
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