UPDATE: THIS RESTAURANT IS NOW CLOSED.
Neighborhood: Gallery Place - Chinatown
I hadn't seen Official Friends of DCWD Dr. Habibi and Sparkle in months (maybe even a year), and so we set up a dinner date, this time at Zola.
Zola sits on the second floor of the International Spy Museum's gift shop and caddy-corner to the museum itself. The restaurant takes its decor cues from its downstairs neighbor, with themes of black, ocher red, and ecru with dark wood accents. And yet perhaps the most notable decorative trait is the spy theme with pictures and murals of silhouettes and shadowy figures.
You walk into a hallway that splits the restaurant in two; on one side is a bar and lounge that pumps house music into the whole space, and the actual dining area. Segmented into several spaces, each follows a specific formula: two-tops along the full pane windows, four-tops in the center of the room next to a giant wine centerpiece, and full booths along the insides with port hole windows. Lighting is provided by soft spot lights and whatever light floods in from the outside.
In a trend that seems to be happening to me more and more often, the kitchen was out of several of our first choices, including the oyster and salsify ravioli, and anything involving sunchokes (which was a letdown because just reading the word sunchokes had me absolutely craving them). Instead, we were treated to a rather pedestrian amuse bouche, tuna tartare on a slice of cucumber. Dry and uninspiring, it was definitely not the best way to start.
In lieu of the ravioli appetizer, the three of us decided to split two dishes. The first was a mushroom and goat cheese fonduta, made with morel, hedgehog and maiitake mushrooms, and goat cheese, and served with grilled ciabatta bread. Designed to be shared, the fondue was fine but only when you got a chunk of the goat cheese which added an explosion of pleasant flavor. Unfortunately, these chunks were few and far between.
The second appetizer was a roast boneless quail, which came with a date whipped cream, buttered brioche, kumquat glaze, and duck cracklings. This dish was in a word, interesting. The idea itself I've seen other places: a quail with a sweet fruit glaze. Normally, this dish then goes on to accentuate the savory flavors of the bird, but not in this case. Instead, more sweet flavors were added on top of it in the form of actual kumquats, the mild sweet of the dates, and then the brioche. It was still tasty, but it left me sort of a "how much do I like this?" frame of mind.
For entrees, after much discussion and the disappointment of no sunchokes, I ordered the linguine with scallops topped with black truffle, oyster mushrooms, and squash blossoms. To put it simply, it just lacked anything that made it exceptional and left me with questions: while the scallops were cooked beautifully, why scallops with the linguine? What do the oyster mushrooms add? Are the squash blossoms totally wasted in this dish (a fact hammered home by the wonderful goat-cheese squash blossoms I had at Oyamel two days later)? Sort of confusing.
Dr. Habibi ordered the Virginian veal loin with baby carrots and goat cheddar hush puppies in a coriander jus. This was just out and out boring. The veal might as well have been lamb, since it didn't have any difference in flavor. The goat cheddar hush puppies were throwaway, and the coriander jus was lacking any cilantro flavor whatsoever. I was considering this dish, and am glad I dodged the bullet.
Sparkle ended up getting the best entree: a lamb chop and shoulder with a lemon-thyme glaze, served with a fava bean and sheep's cheese canneloni. The lamb was cooked well and the flavor profiles were pretty classic and well matched, the savory notes of the cheese and the lamb working fairly well with one another.
A few interesting dishes unfortunately mired among otherwise nondescript ones. Which is too bad because the dining room is fairly nice.
Food Rating: ** 1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 3.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Classy Crowd to Party in the USA
Vibe: ChattyCost: $$$ (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing: Well, I guess it goes without saying that Zola is the Spy Museum's companion fine-dining restaurant. If I had to recommend one thing, it'd be the Spy at Night series, which offers you a drink and an interactive experience that's actually very fun.