review: pan hellenic…

Komi
komi, Washington, D.C.

It was the year that April Bloomfield brought the gastro pub to the West Village, Dan Barber opened a restaurant in a stone barn in Pocantico Hills, and Grant Achatz cast a wrinkle in the fabric of modern cuisine with an archaic symbol.

Joël Robuchon landed in Las Vegas at The Mansion, Steve Wynn opened his dining pleasure palace, which included Alex and Wing Lei, among others.

bluestem, a personal favorite in Kansas City, popped up.

Quite a few game-changing restaurants opened in 2005.

For Washington, D.C., komi was one of them.

Johnny Monis, ex-McCrady’s, opened the restaurant at the age of 24.  It went on my list almost immediately.

Of course, that was before chefs invented the “no photography” rule, which Monis has since instituted much to my disappointment.  It wasn’t without a very long pause that I decided to eat at komi, despite this ridiculousness.

Am I sorry about my decision?

Yes: I can’t share a lick of it, visually, with you.

And no: our 14-course plus meal ($125 per person) was a steady parade of successful dishes with pockets of brilliance.  It’s one of the best meals I’ve had in a while.

-

1st Course
Kampachi
Smoked tuna broth.
2nd Course
Madai
Grated Japanese wasabi.
3rd Course
Steamed Brioche
Crème fraîche, smoked salmon roe.

4th Course
Scallop in Two Preparations

Scallop
Shellfish sabayon, almonds, cilantro.

Scallop
Dill mustard, black truffle.

5th Course
Alaskan King Salmon Belly
White Baltic salmon, shiso sorbet, candied pinenuts

6th Course
Crispy “Caesar” Salad
Warm Romaine cream, Caesar dressing, Parmesan cheese.

7th Course
Mini Pork Belly Sandwich

8th Course

Charred Octopus
Charred cauliflower and grilled scallion salad
Onion yogurt, candied pecans

9th Course
House-made Mortadella
Crispy halloumi, egg whites, capers, grainy mustard, red onion.

10th Course
Oven-roasted Medjool Date
Mascarpone, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt.

11th Course
Ricotta Ravioli
English peas, garlic, black pepper.

Papardelle
Quail ragu, black olive puree

12th Course
Roasted Suckling Pig
Roasted Goat

Accompaniments
Pita, oregano salt, chile sauce, roasted red onion mustard,
cabbage and cumin slaw, cucumber tzatziki.

13th Course
La Tur
Fennel mostarda.

14th Course
Tangerine Creamcicles
Hibiscus salt.

15th Course
Frozen Baklava
Cinnamon ice cream, phyllo.

16th Course
Soft Chocolate
Fennel, ouzo ice cream.

-
Salted Lemon Lollipop

-

In case you didn’t know, the theme: pan-Hellenic.  But it’s actually pan-Mediterranean.

The first ten courses were “mezze” – small one/two-bite dishes. At least three or four of them were presented as finger food (server holding the serving dish while you pluck and eat directly with no layover on your plate). A clever way to minimize the use of silverware and dishes, I suppose.

Most of the mezze were minimalist, showcasing one or two ingredients.  There were a couple of exceptions, like the “Crispy Caesar Salad,” which was more manipulated and “conceptualized” than the norm, something out of the playground of Cantu or Bowles.  But it was delicious – a warm, creamy romaine lettuce cream encapsulated in a croquette topped with Caesar dressing and Parmesan shavings.

For the most part, dishes were served family-style. There were a few that were served individually, like the salmon belly tartare, which came in long-stemmed cocktail glasses; the cheese course; and the last two desserts.

Monis likes salt.  It appears prominently in all his dishes.

He uses it to great effect.

We balked at the hill of salt on top of his famous stuffed dates. But the dates were so sweet, the salt was needed. There was a wonderful balance. The warm, fruity extra virgin olive oil that coated the dates and the plate stole my heart. I found myself double and triple dredging the date around the plate just to pick up more oil and salt.

In one dish, however, he crossed the line. The scallop duo – to one side, a slice of scallop resting a bed of creamy dill mustard and topped with a slice of black truffle, to the other side, a tartare of scallop with shellfish sabayon and pulverized almonds – was too salty, even though the scallops were immensely sweet and delicious. Pity.

Monis serves excellent “crudi” (my description, not his). The kampachi was especially nice. The flesh, well-rested, had a wonderful texture and flavor.  So did the silky king salmon belly tartare, which was juxtaposed with an almost-crispy slice of white Baltic salmon.  Both kinds of salmon were raw, a unique comparison.

There was wonderful housemade mortadella, sliced and folded like satin kerchiefs, served with crispy cubes of halloumi and a bevy of garnishes.

And there were marvelous ribbons of fresh, egg papardelle, hugged by a quail ragu whose sweetness was checked by a salty dollop of black olive puree. The noodles displayed admirable elasticity.  (The ravioli, on the other hand, were very soft – the cloud-like packets with fluffy ricotta filling melted away in the mouth.)

Both the roasted goat and roasted suckling pig, served on large plates family-style, were excellent, perhaps the highlights of the meal.  This meatfest was the “main course,” the end to the savory courses.

The roasted pig – a nicely bronzed front quarter – was presented at the table before being taken to the kitchen where it was disassembled. The meat was pulled and the crackling removed, cut into squares and scattered over the meat.

The slab of goat sported a thin, crisp layer of skin. The interior was very moist and tender; it shredded with the slightest pressure.  The goat meat was very clean – almost too clean-tasting for me. The suckling pig had more flavor.

Both meats came with pita wedges straight from the oven – fluffy, pillowy, warm, comforting. There was a row of condiments, including an especially rich tzatziki. It was all presented in a excitingly unstructured way – a choose your own adventure course.

I made mini gyros. A slap of tzatziki. A dash of lemon. Some “oregano salt.” Comfort food.

The meal headed slightly downhill after the main meat dishes.

The cheese course was fine, but nothing extraordinary. (Or, is it because I generally find “composed” cheese courses too precious and forced?)

Desserts were alright, but certainly the weakest link (is there a dedicated pastry chef at komi?). The “animal cookies” sent out for a birthday celebrant at our table tasted stale . They weren’t very good.

Umbrella
Salted Lemon Lollipop
komi, Washington, D.C.

The soft chocolate dessert was very forgettable, even if it included very good ouzo ice cream.

Service was good, although I still prefer to have just one server, as opposed to drawing from a pool of servers. But, I must commend the staff on being so coordinated. The restaurant was full, servers rotated, yet nothing was amiss.  They were polished, on cue, and knowledgeable.

The long, narrow dining room is stuccoed in butter yellow. The floors were wood-paneled. There weren’t more than fifteen tables – every one of them full.  komi reminded me of a Spartan (no pun intended) version of Vetri Ristorante. They even have the same degustazione-only weekend concept – a flurry of small bites, then pasta, then meat, and finally a couple of desserts.

From my seat, I had a direct eye-line through the open door into the well-illuminated kitchen. Given that the restaurant was dimly lit, it was sort of like sitting in a movie theatre facing an open fire exit. If you don’t want to be distracted by the sight of Johnny Monis cooking, or his cook tossing pita throughout the evening, you had better request a table towards the front of the restaurant.

“Yea or nay,” chuckeats asked me.

Based on one meal, this gentleman from the State of Missouri will vote yea.

Monis’s food is most successful where it’s honest.  It’s immensely satisfying.

This isn’t the place to go for innovation or subtlety. Neither is it a place to seek unfettered genius. Rather, komi delivers notably high-quality ingredients that are, for the most part, minimally handled and executed with rewarding precision.

Rising Star?  Monis is up for a second nomination this year at the James Beard Awards.  He faces, among others, a Keller protege (Hollingsworth) and a Robuchon protege (Pugin).  I wish him the best of luck.

To read about the rest of the restaurants I visited on this trip to Washington, D.C., CLICK HERE.

komi
1509 Seventeenth Street
(Between P and Q Streets)
Washington, D.C. 20036
202-332-9200

~ by ulterior epicure on April 16, 2010.

9 Responses to “review: pan hellenic…”

  1. Well done, after the sub-par Ko (only other “no pics” meal I’ve been to) I was questioning whether to keep my 05/15 reservation with my sister at Komi, but the food does sound excellent. Out of curiosity, I’ve seen pictures from Komi – did they explicitly tell you no? The website (as bad as it is) doesn’t give much of a clue.

  2. @ uhockey: Yes, they will tell you “no photos of the food, explicitly.” You are free to take photos of each other and the dining room, if you like, just not of the food. Is komi awesome? Not quite. but I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

  3. Glad to see the review. My meal was excellent as well. I thought from your twitter/fb updates that you were not able to make it into Komi. Good thing you did.

  4. @ sygyzy: Thanks, I was able to make it. I was shut out at minibar. I wasn’t too upset about it. komi took some patience. Thankfully, I had three wonderful friends dialing in with me.

  5. the menu doesn’t change as often as he claims.. the same dishes have been on the menu for over a year..some like the Roman lettuce fried croquette has been on for at least 3 years. didn’t Mini bar do that like years ago.. he gets too comfortable and doesnt have trust to get outside his comfort zone. his style is exactly like Verti and Obelisk. His menu is a lame version of those established chefs done wrong. Rising star chef i would not agree. There are plenty of chefs out there doing more to the culinary world then what Monis is doing. He is not changing the scene or even doing anything progressive. Le Peigon, Gabriel Rucker is at least honest and doing very well done French style food, but he does it with confidence and he evokes his customers to try new things.. he works closely with the farmers.. He’s honest. Same can be said about Matt Dillon from Stika and Spruce, he is pushing the eating scene and working with farmers an forge-ring. actually leaving his kitchen and finding new product. I believe Monis gets most of his stuff from bigger producers.. IG.. He works i think with two farmers and doesn’t even give credit to his hard working farmers. at least mention on the menu or something. How about the chef at Commiss in San Fran, he’s doing very tasty food. I am not a believer in Komi being the best dining place in d.c. far from it. Frank Rutha should get more credit, there is also a young Chef Logan Cox from New Heights who does just about everything in the kitchen, from fresh baked bread, house cured meats and with a semi avant garde way. His food is engaging and his menu changes very often. He worked under a very impressive Chef Tarver King, now that is a chef who takes things to a different level.

    his menu doesn’t change and its a shame he claims that. The salt crusted Bronzo has been on the menu for at least 5 years. if you reflect on some of the past meat dishes some of them are very much like Verti… stuffed Guinea Hen wrapped in cal-fat..

  6. For the record just one of the suppliers for Komi is Polyface Farm. As featured in the documentary Food inc.
    I personally do not believe talent should only be measured by attempting to change the scene or solely modern progressive cooking. Some credit must be given to taking a successful neighborhood restaurant, removing 30% of the seats, revamping the menu and turning it into a dining destination for many. No doubt a risky business decision that took confidence, determination and yes talent.

  7. Ah, THIS was the write-up I was looking for…..thanks very much. Komi is on my mega-list of restaurants I’ll be visiting next week in DC, and it has been a challenge to find a “real” review of the food. Looking forward to it.

  8. I would argue the contention that the menu doesn’t change.I’ve eaten at Komi with less than a month between meals. In that short period, more then half the dishes were different. Sure there are dishes that stay on the menu, but many restaurants do that. Besides, if they’re good, why not keep them? My last meal didn’t feature the stuffed date and I certainly missed it.

  9. PS: Just returned from another meal at Komi – the date was back on and I was glad to see it! The menu was also almost completely new to me, and still exceptional. Wagyu beef tongue “gyro” with foie gras – what’s not to like?

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