The Washington Post

At G and Zentan, certain nights are magic

Food adventurers have two new action items to check out: tasting menus whipped up by popular restaurants on opposite ends of 14th Street NW. One looks to Italy for inspiration, the other to Japan.

Because I sampled the fresh concepts just once, I’m withholding ratings. Suffice it to say, I saw stars during both meals.

Fans know G as one of the best sandwich makers in the city, the source of suckling pig and roasted lamb sold between bread slices in a storefront affixed to the modern Greek restaurant Kapnos.

Mike Isabella, the creator of both establishments, appreciates G for the way it saves him money, since leftovers from the whole beasts featured at Kapnos often find their way into the goods at his sandwich shop.

Elliot Drew likes G because four nights a week, the space becomes the little dinner joint of the chef’s dreams, a place where he and a handful of others make and serve a four-course dinner that’s one of the best meal deals around: $40 a head for G Tasting Menu, an Italian spread that rivals what some of the expense-account establishments are serving.

The metamorphosis from sandwich stop to ristorante begins around 5 p.m. Votives are set on the tables. Music gets more chill. The outsize vegetable caricatures that have colored the white walls of G since it opened last summer, on the other hand, stay put. So do the hard benches. (I’d pay a supplement for a bolster.)

Drew, who comes here from Graffiato, Isabella’s easygoing Italian outpost in Chinatown, says he starts each week sifting through cookbooks by acclaimed chefs Marc Vetri or Mario Batali or surfing culinary sites online for inspiration. No week is the same, but each comes with a constant, in the form of antipasti delivered on a slab of slate. As at the more elite Obelisk in Dupont Circle, G’s flurry of snacks threaten to fill you up before the headliners make an appearance.

Fingers crossed, your Italian landscape resembles mine: crostini topped with soft green beans dappled with tomato sauce, pickled baby carrots, zucchini fritters in a nubby panko crust, and folds of cured meats. Also on display are slabs of creamy buffalo mozzarella sprinkled with chile ringlets, the lightest of frittatas and a vinegary black-eyed pea salad. Plain follows complex, cool follows warm, and bold follows subtle as your fork navigates the lot.

The indoor picnic gives way to pasta. Drew says he has a soft spot for bucatini, which he treats to an egg-thickened wine sauce and brightens with fava beans and fresh mint. Each twirl of the fork is also likely to capture a bit of sautéed sweetbread and crisp pancetta. The dish, among the best of the night, arrives with a blizzard of Parmesan. Just as lovely are thin hats of pasta whose pale green tint hints at the sweet pea puree inside. A light wash of melted butter, brightened with lemon and thyme, makes the plate glisten.

Drew’s third course requires you to choose between land and sea. Lightly crumbed scallops on a loose hash of red peppers and bacon got more raves at my table than the hanger steak propped up on baby zucchini and other vegetables. (Fear not, vegetarians. Drew says he can accommodate you.)

Desserts, from pastry chef Alberto Hdez, put even more distance between this meal and what goes on here by day. A luscious bar of chocolate mousse cake gets a sail of dark chocolate as garnish, while a frothy ice wine sabayon flavored with blood orange is crowned with a copper-colored coil of spun sugar and a coffee-flavored macaron. Elegant and delicious, both are superior to the dry poppyseed cake that needed every bit of its olive oil gelato to make it palatable.

For an extra $29, you can add wine pairings with each course, and you should. James Horn, the suave wine and service director for both G Tasting and Kapnos, picks beverages the way Drew cooks: with care and attention.

Location of G: 2201 14th St. NW. 202-234-5015.

Open: 6 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Prices: Four-course dinner $40 per person.

Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy.

omakase at Zentan

Hear the group moan at the sushi bar at Zentan ? Of course you don’t. The Asian restaurant in the Donovan House hotel is too loud to allow for eavesdropping. But had you been sitting next to me on a recent Thursday night, with chef Jennifer Nguyen cooking for a handful of consumers of her new omakase, or “chef’s choice,” you would have understood the collective giddiness.

The first course alone, chawanmushi, makes you thrilled to be sitting feet away from its maker. I’ve spooned up a lot of Japanese egg custards in my eating career, but never one as decadent as this one, rich with foie gras (both pureed and sauteed) and nestled in an eggshell. The next few dishes are no less luscious. Grilled o-toro is like eating prime beef — if it came from the sea. Sharing the bowl are a snow-white bonito sorbet and a matchstick of crackling fish skin. Count on Nguyen to weave contrasting textures in her handiwork. Live sea scallops are sliced and arranged with circles of cucumber over a shimmering broth that pulses with lemon grass, chilies and garlic.

Rice cooked in king crab broth is subsequently blackened with squid ink, then fried and dressed with sweet crab, fleshy oyster mushrooms and bright salmon roe that pops between the teeth. Despite a few gummy bites, it’s still some of the best fried rice I’ve encountered. The night becomes a belt-loosening blur. Shabu shabu requires a diner to do some cooking on his own; sashimi — Japanese butterfish, sea bream — reveals a sushi chef whose standards mirror Nguyen’s.

Course No. 9 finds a red-hot lamb curry staged with thin, crisp mung bean cakes, a combination the chef aptly refers to as “a tour of Southeast Asia.” My only gripe with dessert is its size. Panna cotta flavored with sesame seeds and strewn with a garden of shaved fruit comes in a bowl the size of a coconut. Still, I manage to eat as if for two.

The few details I’d change would include the schedule and the size of the party. Zentan’s $65, many-coursed omakase, which doesn’t allow for substitutions, is offered only on Thursday to no more than five diners at a single seating. Food that borders on the glorious deserves a wider audience.

Location of zentan: 1155 14th St. NW. 202-379-4366.

Open: 6 p.m. Thursday.

Prices: Six- to 10-course dinner $65 per person.

Sound check: 76 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

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Location of G: 2201 14th St. NW. 202-234-5015.

Open: 6 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Prices: Four-course dinner $40 per person.

Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy.

Location of zentan: 1155 14th St. NW. 202-379-4366.

Open: 6 p.m. Thursday.

Prices: Six- to 10-course dinner $65 per person.

Sound check: 76 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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