Monday, September 21, 2015

Washington Social Diary: The Great Parker House Rolls Debate

Eric Ziebold's famous Parker House rolls, as served at CityZen.
by Carol Joynt

After time spent working his way up the haute kitchen ranks with a couple of power house chefs – Wolfgang Puck at Spago in Beverly Hills, and Thomas Keller at The French Laundry in the Napa Valley and Per Se in New York -- Eric Ziebold headed to Washington with a big assignment. When the Mandarin Oriental opened here in 2004, Eric launched its showcase restaurant, CityZen, as executive chef. Acclaim and awards followed. 

Eric’s singular cuisine, influenced by France and Japan, and his native Iowa, was hailed as bold and innovative. His sense of adventure, his passion for travel, showed on the menu. 
CityZen, now closed, and where Eric was executive chef for a decade.
Inside CityZen, looking from the bar to the dining room.
Soon enough Eric was on magazine covers; high on the important best restaurant lists, such as Food and Wine’s “best new chefs,” and in 2007 Forbes named him one of the ten most influential American chefs. Eric also grew a loyal following of the city’s most influential food lovers, including First Lady Michelle Obama, but also an impressive list of DC insiders that spanned the private and public sector and a number of visiting celebrities.

Eric closed CityZen last December so that he and his wife, Celia Laurent Ziebold, could open their own place, actually two places, Kinship and Métier, which are expected to debut late this year or early next year in the heart of the revived Mount Vernon Square neighborhood near the DC convention center. Célia, also a veteran of Per Se, and in DC, Le Diplomat, is managing partner.
Eric starts a corn soup at CitytZen.
A typical CityZen staff pre-meeting to prepare for the evening ahead.
Showtime in the open kitchen. Métier will also have an open kitchen. 
Preparing the Parker House rolls presentation at CityZen.
CityZen is gone, but Métier and Kinship are coming.
The Ziebolds hosted a small at-home dinner party this past week, one of a series of summer dinners that Eric calls “Research Through Dining.” Earlier dinners have been with members of their restaurant inner circle; this was the first with guests from outside that circle, with the exception of pastry chef Anne Specker. All the dinners, according to Celia, are to try old dishes and new dishes, and to discuss food concepts for both restaurants.
Guests arriving at the Ziebolds, l-r: Ellen Gale, Celia Laurent Ziebold, Rory Veevers-Carter, Peter Abrahams, Michael Widomski, David Hagedorn, and Michael McCarthy.
We were ten altogether on Wednesday evening, a pleasant night of soft and arid late summer temps and breezes. We dined al fresco by candlelight under a string of pretty white lights. The conversation was of food and wine and travel, as it should be, and evolved eventually into what was essentially “the great Parker House roll debate.” Not sure this was the RTD Eric had in mind, but it was entertaining and actually a more useful debate than what the GOP offered that same night in California.

Those of you not from Washington may ask, what’s the big deal about Parker House rolls? If you did man-on-the-street-interviews with the guests at any big food event here, and asked them to name “what do you love best about Eric Zeilbold’s menu,” chances are they would cite at the top “those Parker House rolls.” This would not be meant with disrespect for the rest of his repertoire.
Le menu.
To start ...
Eric’s dishes at CityZen were beloved, but they changed with the seasons and his travels. What stayed constant were the Parker House rolls, essentially small warm clouds of butter-flavored dough cooked to golden perfection, tucked delicately into a cigar box, and served – wait for it – as the third act in a five course menu.

Ironically, the rolls happened inconsequentially. It wasn’t some grand plan to create the country’s most famous Parker House rolls. When Eric opened the restaurant he needed a bread course, and the Parker House rolls were smart and practical. Why did they come late in the meal? Another practical solution: he wanted to head off orders for seconds and thirds, which would overtax the bread baker. As a loyal patron I can say that the timing and quantity, while different than the typical (often unrelenting) restaurant bread service, felt just right, with the added spark of anticipation.
Dinner al fresco, Chez Ziebold.
Maybe that’s why the Parker House roll debate didn’t occur until we had enjoyed the first course of charcoal grilled Okra Salad with Heirloom Tomatoes, the second course of Lobster French Toast, and had started into the third course of juicy Roast Chicken en Panade. Food writer and impresario David Hagedorn brought it up, however reluctantly. He said he sensed Eric didn’t want to hear the question, but it was inevitable: would he serve The Parker House rolls at Kinship and Métier?

Eric doing what he loves: cooking.
Eric’s mellow demeanor dropped into a sigh; the elephant in the room had sat down at the table. He groaned, “I know, I know, I know.” He said he wanted to move on to what’s new. His point made sense. He will have had a year away from a restaurant kitchen. For an author a year could mean a new book. For a creative chef, it can translate as a whole new culinary narrative. In that logic, the rolls were not “new.”

David agreed with Eric’s point of view. “That’s right,” he said, “they don’t belong in new.” But others at the table countered: if he doesn’t serve them, that fact will be the headline, obscuring the story of opening his own place and of his new menus. Eric responded that, on the other hand, if he does serve them the reporting will be he’s stuck in the past. Opinions flew across the table, from David’s husband, Michael Widomski, from DC Modern Luxury editor Michael McCarthy, and from its publisher, Peter Abrahams. What about sentiment? What about patron expectation?

Ellen Gale, who handles Eric’s media relations, mentioned there had been talk about serving the rolls gratis in Métier, the subterranean “private salon,” the intimate, luxury half of the duo, while perhaps at Kinship, the street-level, larger and more casual restaurant, have them on the menu at a price.  But that’s just an option, not something that’s been decided.

The debate got crowded with opposing views. Try this, try that, what about…? Everything was on the table, short of a nightly raffle for an order of the rolls.
Debate time: Ellen Gale, Peter Abrahams, Rory Veevers-Carter, David Hagedorn.
Ellen and Peter listen as David makes a point.
Eric got silent. He rested his chin on his folded hands, deep in thought. “I don’t know,” he sighed, and soon enough was freed from his dilemma by the need to get up, clear the table and serve the dessert of Cheesecake Bavarois with Plums, and a sparkling dessert wine. Also, the guests were invited to please visit his treasured wine cellar and to please sign the wall, which we did.

While Eric Ziebold may not yet know what to do about the Parker House rolls, he does know that he and Celia look forward to opening Kinship and Métier with their loyal staff and to getting back into a restaurant kitchen. He’s found comfort in the down time of not being “open for business,” he said, which translates as time with their 21-month-old daughter. But being a “home” cook has its challenges. “It was an adjustment,” he said. “I’d go to cook something and I’d be used to heading for the walk-in to get what I needed, but there was no walk-in.”
Eric ponders, with Michael Widomski on the right.
Is it possible for Eric to be a home cook, just like the rest of us? Nah. He may grill his Okra on the same grill we have out back, but the results aren’t the same. Besides, if all home cooked meals tasted like a home cooked meal at the Ziebolds, none of us would eat out.  Btw, it was a memorable meal, delicious and lively, and guess what? No Parker House rolls were served.
Soon to be Kinship and Métier, on 7th Street NW, directly across the street from the DC convention center.
NOTE: For a behind the scenes look at a day in the life of Eric Ziebold at CityZen, here’s a story I did for NYSD in 2008.
Photographs by Carol Joynt

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