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.
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.
Smoked tuna broth.
Grated Japanese wasabi.
Crème fraîche, smoked salmon roe.
Scallop in Two Preparations
Shellfish sabayon, almonds, cilantro.
Dill mustard, black truffle.
Alaskan King Salmon Belly
White Baltic salmon, shiso sorbet, candied pinenuts
Crispy “Caesar” Salad
Warm Romaine cream, Caesar dressing, Parmesan cheese.
Mini Pork Belly Sandwich
Charred cauliflower and grilled scallion salad
Onion yogurt, candied pecans
Crispy halloumi, egg whites, capers, grainy mustard, red onion.
Oven-roasted Medjool Date
Mascarpone, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt.
English peas, garlic, black pepper.
Quail ragu, black olive puree
Roasted Suckling Pig
Pita, oregano salt, chile sauce, roasted red onion mustard,
cabbage and cumin slaw, cucumber tzatziki.
Cinnamon ice cream, phyllo.
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.
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.
1509 Seventeenth Street
(Between P and Q Streets)
Washington, D.C. 20036