Counter Intelligence

In the Kitchen with Zaytinya’s Mike Isabella

Posted in District of Columbia by melissamccart on April 16, 2009

isabellaIt’s a Friday afternoon and chef Mike Isabella is in the kitchen of Zaytinya pointing out several EcoFriendly lamb he’ll use for the Greek Easter celebration. Through April 26th, Isabella uses two whole lamb a day. “I like all parts,” he says.  Shoulder, tenderloin, legs, cheek, brain and heart are all featured on his spring menu.

2008 was Zaytinya’s first year Greek Easter celebration. “Lamb for spring,” he says, “is a part of Greece’s history and religion.” Isabella, who comes from a Greek and Italian family, has travelled extensively among the islands to learn Greek cuisine. Before coming to Zaytinya,  he helmed at Atlanta’s popular Greek restaurant, Buckhead’s Kyma.

Isabella and New York’s Michael Psilakis– the first chef invited to cook for the Obamas in the White House– are among those whose creative takes on traditional cuisine is putting Greek fare on the map in this country.

“American’s understanding of Greek cuisine is so far behind because Greece had been so poor and isolated for so long. And their chefs couldnt afford to go train in France and Spain,” says Isabella. “It has taken Americans and others going to Greece to learn techniques. People such as Psalikis, a Greek chef who now has a Michelin Star.” After cooking at the White House, Psalikis brought his chefs to Zaytinya to pay Isabella a visit.  “He loves what we’re cooking here at Zaytinya.”

Back in the kitchen, Isabella talks about characteristics of Greek cuisine. “They love dill more than oregano,” he says. “Greek food also has more acid than other Mediterranean foods– all those lemon trees.” As he talks, he dices lamb and combines feta, dill and mint, with a little yogurt to bind; it’s the stuffing for a trio of squash blossoms, which he finishes off by quick frying.

He also notes the difference between olive oils. Spanish is “brassy”, Italian is  “a touch bitter,” while Greek is “fruity.” Greek olive oil brightens up the lamb heart tartare, which is ground in-house and served as a small plate with bulghur, julienned radishes and apricot.

But the crowd pleaser is the mini gyro. Drizzled with olive oil, the open gyrofaced sandwich is leg meat from a spit-roasted lamb, served with tzatziki, pickled onion, mint and chives. 

Isabella makes preparing lamb three ways seem easy. As he’s showing his dishes, five chefs prep for a busy Friday night, which, at Zaytinya, can mean a dining room filled with 750 people. There’s a reason why it’s so popular. Like Psalikis, Washingtonians enjoy what Isabella is cooking at Zaytinya.


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  1. […] finally, Counter Intelligence gives us a short primer on Greek food via her afternoon with Zaytinya’s Mike Isabella. var addthis_pub=”washingtoncitypaper”; […]

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