Ciudad’s Bold and Beautiful Cuisine

Two restaurateurs—one known for restraint, the other for brashness—converge in this seriously unique and delicious Georgetown newcomer.

A huge outdoor grill greets diners entering Ciudad (6118 12th Ave. S., 717-2984) in Georgetown, giving the impression that they’ve just arrived at a friend’s outdoor barbecue. Outside the restaurant—my favorite new addition to the dining scene this summer—is a huge seating area and bar, featuring fine gravel underfoot and a view of the highway: a sort of Georgetown-style beach. Inside the old brick building, the industrial space has been given an artsy makeover with a colorful mural by Los Angeles-via-Seattle artist Stacy Rozich that’s a little Where the Wild Things Are meets Day of the Dead. The chairs too, in red, white, and blue, add pops of color against the concrete floor. The ceilings are pitched, with old, wooden rafters and a domed skylight. As at the nearby, recently opened Sisters and Brothers, you never forget you’re in Georgetown when you’re there; it’s a trend I hope will continue.

Manning the grill, the whole kitchen really, is chef Nick Coffey, formerly of Cafe Barjot and Sitka & Spruce, where he worked for Matt Dillon (Bar Sajor, The London Plane), who co-owns Ciudad with Marcus Lalario (Li’l Woody’s, Fat’s Chicken and Waffles). Coffey is magnificently executing the restaurant’s simple but very original conceit: lots of grilled meats paired with grilled flatbread and a myriad of sauces, as well as an impressive array of vegetable sides. While every place these days seems to bill itself as a “shared-plates” feasting experience, none I have tried are as conducive to the concept as Ciudad. You simply must dine with a group of people to get the most out of the meal, trying all eight palate-popping sauces and experimenting with which go best with which meat. Try a house cocktail while you’re at it; the drink of the day when I visited—gin infused with elderflower berry and served with a squeeze of lime and simple syrup—is the prettiest shade of purple and a well-balanced ratio of sweet to sour.

“Lamb cooked slowly over the coals” comes in a handsome heap of medium-rare thin slices, and though marinated in yogurt and spices, we found that it paired particularly well with the burnt-honey sauce (as opposed to the more predictable choice of yogurt and spinach). The tang of that sweet/bitter caramelization tames the lamb without masking it. Meanwhile, the black garlic, whipped into a kind of pudding-like texture, is a perfect accompaniment to the slices of cider-basted “chicken cooked under a brick,” its truffle-like strength bringing more depth to the poultry. The Gulf prawns & cherry tomatoes, served cold, are less successful; poached in drawn butter, they’re bland but edible thanks to the ramp mayo. Everything goes well with the dukkah, an Egyptian sauce characterized by its sweet nuttiness (usually via hazelnuts) and sesame seeds. The bratwurst and house kraut is probably the one meat that doesn’t need any assist, given that it’s drizzled in mustard seeds and punctuated by the tart kraut. It’s wonderfully light for a sausage course.

While we had a great time dabbing and nibbling, rest assured that the servers are happy to suggest what works well together in case you’re feeling overwhelmed with choices. And, honestly, though I can’t speak for the anchovy or the rescaldo, none of the sauces we had were downright bad with any of the plates. The prices are reasonable too, with all the meats and seafood—including a braised by-catch octopus that we didn’t try—ranging from $10 to $16, with well-portioned sauces at one for $2 or 3 for $5. Get at least four; if nothing else they make great dunkers for the excellent flatbread. And speaking of prices, there’s no gratuity here (and no added surcharge).

Ciudad isn’t just a meat fest, though, and here’s where Dillon’s influence is most keenly felt. The vegetable dishes are nuanced, bringing in global flavors and unusual touches from nature as well as interesting cooking techniques. Shishito peppers, typically grilled and served simply with salt, here share the plate with thin, room-temperature slices of candy-sweet cantaloupe and a smattering of penny-sized pieces of blue cheese, an inspired triumvirate tickled with a touch of caramelized honey. A lemon-yellow cucumber comes in pretty discs, lightly poached in cultured butter and flavored by a cool broth of kombu, dill, and flowers. I was perplexed by the idea of a cooked cucumber, but it’s a beauty, and the softness of its flavor allows the herbs and kelp to really push through. Even the shrimp, though not a vegetable, sits atop tiny orbs of jelly that are the result of the gelatinizing of the housemade sambal; it tastes a bit like a sweet, spicy pepper jelly. The fried smashed potatoes are outrageously good, in hash-size pieces, fried to a perfect crisp. Unfortunately, the squid ink and wild mushroom sauce they’re smeared in doesn’t really bring out the briny or woodsy flavors of either. Dillon sometimes has a too-delicate touch, and in this instance the potatoes would benefit from a more aggressive blast of sauce.

As if we needed any more variety, the kitchen also sends a trio of lovage salt, sambal, and preserved lemon, each to be used to your liking: sprinkled on a veggie, spooned over bread, squeezed on a piece of meat. I really didn’t use them much, other than to suck deeply on the preserved lemon and enjoy its sour-sweet juice. And at this anything-goes restaurant, with an emphasis on adventurousness and mix-’n’-match flavor profiles, I’m sure the kitchen would fully approve.