Ham is so four days ago — and, technically, Greek Orthodox Easter was, too. Every few years, the date of the religious holiday coincides with Easter here in the States. This is one of those years. Luckily for lamb lovers, tradition lingers for a couple weeks at Zaytinya (701 Ninth St. NW; 202-638-0800).
Through May 8, the restaurant celebrates its third annual Greek Easter festival. As per cultural custom, lots of lamb is on the menu (an homage to the sacrificial lamb of the Bible and Greek mythology).
“The idea is to do some traditional dishes centered around utilizing an entire lamb, which is a very important part of how Greeks view the life of the animal,” says Zaytinya’s head chef, Mike Costa.
Costa’s holiday menu offers parties of two a 10-course spread ($105), the lone diner a five-course spread ($55) or pickers and choosers an a la carte menu (items range from $8 to $12) incorporating various parts of the lamb from the tongue to the liver. We asked Costa to describe a few standout specialties.
Available during the Greek Easter festival only, Zaytina’s specialty cocktail menu can help wash away any gluttonous feelings after consuming so many courses. Cleanse the palate and clear the conscience with the “Clean Monday ($13),” a refreshing mix of Hendrick’s Gin Green Chartreusse and Brut Sparkling Moscofilero Mint Mist.
Mayiritsa (Seared lamb liver)
Served after the midnight Easter service (in the very early hours of Sunday morning), the base of this traditional soup is made from the boiled and strained broth of lamb bones. Pieces of seared lamb liver are tossed in to complement the blend’s robust taste. Rice-stuffed grape leaves — a year-round Greek staple — soak up the flavor. “The idea is that an easily digestible soup is a good way to reintroduce meat to the diet after having gone without it for 40 days” during Lent, Costa explains.
Arnaki me Sparangia (braised lamb shoulder)
A simple preparation — spit roasting and continuous basting — captures the pure flavor of the shoulder in this dish topped generously with asparagus and dill. Or opt for the Arnopitta (braised lamb shoulder with sweetbreads), Costa’s more complex take on the lamb part. Slow-cooking tenderizes the relatively tough cut of meat, and the thickness of the shoulder is offset by the flakiness of the accompanying phyllo dough filled with a mix of sweetbread, golden raisins and almonds.
Glossa Souvlaki me Horta Salata (grilled lamb’s tongue)
A few bite-size, melt-in-your-mouth chunks of tongue sit on a bed of kale and a fava Santorini puree. Usually a spread, the creamy puree is made of buttery fava beans. “[The tongue] gives the salad a rich, earthy, luxurious mouth feel without adding a lot of fat,” says Costa.
Arnaki me Aginares (grilled lamb leg)
Rare on the inside and crispy around the edges, this dish is essentially a lamb chop minus the bone. It’s sliced thin and served with fried artichokes and sheep’s milk feta cheese. “There’s a certain sort of natural logic to pairing the meat of an animal with a cheese made from its milk,” Costa says.
Arni me Mastica (braised lamb belly)
Fattier than its counterparts, the lamb belly is also one of the animal’s softest cuts. For a tasty effect, Costa braises the belly after bathing it in Mavrodaphne syrup, a brandy-tinged sweet sauce. “Imagine how rich pork belly is, and how pure and amazing a pork flavor it has,” he says. “It’s that sort of expression of lamb.”
Dine and Dash
Flock to the first D.C. Lamb Jam at the Ritz-Carlton (1150 22nd St. NW) on May 22 from 2 to 5 p.m. The American Lamb Board brings together 19 of D.C.’s top chefs and restaurants to serve up various versions of this succulent meat. Tickets cost $50 per person (Fansoflambdc.com).
Written by Stephanie Kanowitz
Photos by Greg Powers