Building on a vision more than 20 years in the making
A Greek grandmother and a village of chefs bring authentic recipes from across the Mediterranean
You know, I have a lot of restaurants…30! Crazy. If you ask me to choose a favorite of course I can’t…but Zaytinya, which I opened nearly 20 years ago in Washington DC, was one of the first and so it has a special place in my heart. The restaurant is an expression of my love for the amazing foods and flavors of the Mediterranean…Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon. And now, two decades later, just last week we opened the doors to Zaytinya at the new The Ritz-Carlton New York, NoMad in New York City.
The restaurant is also special to me because of Aglaia Kremezi, who is a brilliant Greek food writer, cook, and journalist…the Julia Child of Greek food. When years ago I was beginning to think about Zaytinya, I took a trip to Kea, the beautiful island in the Aegean Sea where she lives. I wanted to meet her and to learn from her so that the recipes we served were authentic. We had never met before, but we connected in an instant. We spent weeks together cooking where I wrote down everything she taught me, and took many pictures to bring back with me.
She taught me many things…to make Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves, a recipe we still use today!) and to always always roll phyllo by hand and never rely on the packaged brands…and so much more.
Aglaia has been our muse and the one who helped guide us and develop the Greek side of our personality…we call her our Greek Grandmother. To this day, she is involved and keeps us grounded in tradition. Zaytinya’s Concept Chef Michael Costa, who has been with us for 11 years, still travels to her cooking school to work on recipes with her, and we have a regular call with her to go over menus and talk about food and what she’s cooking.
This type of culinary exploration and collaboration is a huge part of how we create food in our restaurants. It is not just me, José, doing the menus. It is all of us. The one thing I always emphasize in my kitchens is that no chef exists in a vacuum. Every kitchen is a village of cooks, and we celebrate the contributions of everyone. Our restaurants bring people with different backgrounds and skills together…that collaborative culture is the foundation of our food.
For Zaytinya, in New York City, our “village“ was lead by Chef Costa along with New York Zaytinya Chef José Ayala, pastry chef Abby Naguit, ThinkFoodGroup Executive Pastry Chef, and Andres Lara, the Research and Development Pastry Chef for ThinkFoodGroup, and cooks like Selim Topal, who is from Turkey. We traveled, we read books, and had a lot of dialogue with Aglaia, to be as authentic and true to the stories and the regions as we could.
On the menu you will find many new items, in particular for breakfast, a meal we don’t serve at Zaytinya DC. I love how the countries in the Mediterranean bring in so many flavors to the first meal of the day—chilis and tomatoes and salty cheeses, it’s amazing. Take the Shakshouka we make…a braised tomato and chicken stew with poached eggs, onions, and sweet peppers. Over the top we have pickled chilis, preserved lemon, parsley, and lots of olive oil. Incredible!
Menemen, which originates from a small town in the Izmir province, is a very traditional Turkish scrambled egg dish with tomatoes, spring onions, green peppers, star anise, Marash pepper, and feta, with some chives and olive oil on top. And have you tried Çilbir (pronounced jil-bur)? This is a dish that dates back to the Ottoman sultans, as far back as the 15th century: poached eggs on toasted pita with whipped yogurt, chives, and a Harissa chili crisp. Delicious.
Let me also tell you about our desserts! Other than one dish, the Greek Yogurt with Apricot, which we have had on the menu since day one, all of the desserts are new and are like nothing we have ever served before. Islak Kek, which translates to “wet cake” is a recipe you’ll find dogeared and stained with cocoa powder in the kitchens of Turkish grandmothers. It’s a milk-soaked chocolate cake, sort of like the Turkish version of Tres Leches, that is super light and fluffy, topped with barberry compote, labneh, and rose espuma, with a red fruit and floral-infused granita and a finishing touch of sumac. Boom!
Our Kunefe, a dish from the Southeastern parts of Turkey that border the Mediterranean Sea, was something we worked on for a long time, trying to make it as gooey as possible. Selim Topal, who is from Turkey and is a cook at Zaytinya, helped us develop this recipe, which we finally feel like we have perfected… it has crispy kataifi (fine pastry strands of crispy phyllo dough), the gooey cheese, and pistachio marzipan drizzled with a rose and lemon scented syrup. It is finished with a salted lemon yogurt and crushed pistachios.
Galaktoboureko is a traditional Greek phyllo-wrapped semolina custard that’s baked and soaked in syrup. We turned it into a citrus summer dessert with lemon semolina custard and gave it some salinity with dehydrated black olives, and added crushed pistachios and lemon sorbet.
Traditional Kaymak is a clotted cream from Turkey that is heated slowly so the cream rises to the top and slowly thickens over a long process…18-24 hours! The result is a very thick cream, like a pudding, but when you eat it it's very light like a cloud. For our version, which Selim also worked on with us, we paired the Kaymak, which we source in Brooklyn, with a saffron-soaked pine nut meringue cake.
Amigos, I hope that you are feeling hungry now and ready to dig into some dishes from the Mediterranean. For paid subscribers, we will have two amazing classic Zaytinya recipes for you on Wednesday…a summertime pomegranate cocktail and the classic red pepper and feta spread, htipiti, that everyone loves.
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