Grand Hyatt Hotel, 1000 H St. NW 582-1234 Hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Prices: Soups, sandwiches and salads, $1.75 to $4.75; desserts, $1 to $2.75. Cards: None accepted.
By Tom Sietsema Special to The Washington Post
I predict a lot of friends for the Zephyr Deli. Conventioneers will like its proximity to the Washington Convention Center. Hotel guests will appreciate it as an alternative to the Grand Hyatt's pricier dining rooms. And area workers will be thankful for a new and inexpensive eating spot in a neighborhood where the choices are few.
The Zephyr Deli is no ordinary hotel coffee shop, but rather a sleek and polished cafe with a menu that does the standards proud and surprises us with a small but clever selection of snacks, salads, sandwiches and desserts.
While standing in line, which you will almost certainly have to do at lunch, one of the first things you notice is how fresh everything is, from the crisp greens (no iceberg lettuce here) that adorn the salads to the scarlet tomatoes that garnish the sandwiches. The desserts are said to be made daily. What's more, the kitchen knows enough not to gussy things up too much: The potato salad is basically thin slices of new potatoes and a light binder of sour cream, while the shrimp and crab salad is just that: whole pieces of pink shrimp and flavorful crab on a bed of lettuce, surrounded by radishes and those big, juicy slices of tomato.
The mark of a good deli is its meats. Here, the pastrami -- firm, grainy, lean and flavorful -- will lift the spirits of those who have despaired of finding a decent deli hereabouts. So, too, will the barbecued beef brisket, the slices of meat permeated with a delicately sweet and zesty red sauce. It's not New York, but it's good stuff.
Yet another regional taste is found in the muffaleta, New Orleans' answer to the submarine sandwich, stacked with melted cheese, three colors of smoky-tasting roasted bell peppers, and various cold cuts.
Soups might range from a respectable if mildly seasoned blend of vegetables and beans to my favorite, the meaty, spicy Zephyr Deli chili, laced with colorful bits of pepper and tomato and sprinkled with grated cheddar cheese.
Feeling nostalgic? You can treat yourself to a CARE package that tastes like Mom's cooking with such desserts as the tapioca parfait, swirled with fresh strawberries, or a knockout wedge of bread pudding, heady with cinnamon and doused with a delicate vanilla sauce. The chocolate layer cake is the stuff of dreams -- fine, moist layers of cake alternating with intensely dark chocolate frosting.
If what you seek is a light snack, go the ethnic route with the deli's aromatic garlic bread, thin rounds of crusty bread sheathed with bubbly mozzarella.
Clinkers -- an insipid chicken pasta pesto and an anemic, underbaked foccaccio -- are few.
Not only do you get some remarkably good cooking at the Zephyr Deli, you also get a comfortable environment in which to eat it. At one end of the sprawling eatery, floor-to-ceiling windows look onto the street. At the other end, tables spill into the lobby of the hotel. Those bored with the sameness of fern bars will appreciate the fresh appeal of the Zephyr Deli, which is surrounded by handsome curved blond wood walls and furnished with black lacquer-topped tables and red chairs. The one drawback seems to be the crush at lunch, when lines snake out into the foyer and tables are scarce. You're not likely to see the staff sweat, though; the youthful troops behind the counters are unfailingly gracious and helpful, eager to please and happy to offer the undecided a sample taste of dishes on the menu. Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.