In planning the family trip to DC it must be noted that the trip itself was functioning as Christmas, Graduation, and Birthday for me – I worked overnight call for every major holiday this year and as such requested each family member to dine with me somewhere in DC during our visit as my gift – similarly I took them all out for their respective holidays…”stuff” gathers dusts while memories of special times with family last a lifetime. For the second of these meals in DC I selected the restaurant widely regarded as best in the city – no, not the fabled minibar or famous-by-way-of-TV Volt Table 21 – a small 30 seat restaurant situated above a dry-cleaner, Komi. The vision of Johnny Monis, a man younger than myself who reinvented a local neighborhood restaurant at the age of 24 (in 2005) Komi proved an easier reservation than I’d heard – a simple call at noon one month in advance was all it took for my sister and I to secure an early table, though apparently the seats closest to the kitchen had already been booked.
Seated near the large window looking out onto Seventeenth Street moments after our arrival I will note that the décor of Komi is quite stripped down – mellow yellow walls, wood panel floors, a receptionist stand built into the wall, a center table with flowers, and the brilliant white kitchen open for all to view in the back. What the restaurant lacked in décor (we’ll get to the food in a moment) it more than made up for in service – “tag team” with everyone from the hostess to the maitre d’ to the sommelier chipping in and describing dishes in excellent detail, but more importantly whimsical, interested, and interesting with drinks never below 1/4 empty, no questions unanswered, and an ever present smile. Adopting a semblance of naivety I figured the best way to address their photo policy (not listed on website or in house) was “don’t ask, try, and if they say no the answer is no.” Admittedly I was discreet and some pictures imperfect but...well, they never said no.
After an explanation of the two menu options – the “dinner” at $90 or the Degustazione at $125 we went with the longer menu with our only stipulation being no beef – with menus collected I asked if Chef Monis could possibly provide a menu of the items on the Degustazione and was told “certainly.” Sitting back and chatting with Erika it was a matter of moments before our first of twelve Mezzethakia arrived – Kampachi with hot tuna broth. Single bites, one per diner, this crudo presentation was followed by two more in quick succession - Hiramasa with Olive Oil, Chive, Sea Salt and Madai with cured olive and pickled rhubarb. Fantastic quality fish it was only three courses into the meal that my sister said “yeah, I think I’m going to enjoy this.”
A change of pace arrived next as the restaurant filled to capacity and remained that way throughout our three hour meal – entitled Taramosalata the dish was described as Monis’ modern take on a traditional Greek dish made with bread and Caviar, in this case a steamed brioche bun topped with salmon caviar and packed with lemon, parsley, and crème fraiche. Placing the dainty bun into the mouth it burst on mastication delivering a very traditional yet pleasantly balanced flavor – I could have eaten 5 more.
Scallop – 2 preparations arrived next. The first, on spoons, featured a “Shellfish sabayon,” essentially a tartare with almonds and cilantro while the shells presented a crudo atop Dill mustard and topped with white truffle, olive oil, and sea salt. Usually unexcited by mustard I must admit the shell preparation was quite nice…the tartare, however, was wonderful with the almond flavor and sweet bivalve balanced by a heavy dusting of sea salt.
Course six was served in a cocktail glass and was my sister’s favorite of the night – entitled “Sorbet” of Alaskan King Salmon Belly with Baltic Salmon, Shiso sorbet and Candied Pine nuts the dish was thrilling. Having never had salmon belly before I was pleased to find it quite unlike any salmon I’d ever had – literally velvet smooth it truly did melt in the mouth. Pairing the belly with the smoky/pale flesh of the Baltic Salmon and sweet + sour sorbet and pine nut topping worked to great effect.
Enough has been written about course seven that anyone who is thinking about dining at Komi should know what it is all about – interestingly, however, when Monis writes it on the menu he names it “Spanakopita” – an interesting fact given its more common description (both by diners and the server who presented it) as Caesar Salad Cube with fried Romaine lettuce cream fried, Caesar dressing, and Parmesan cheese. Instructed to eat it whole that is exactly what we did and, yes, it tasted like a warm liquid Caesar Salad.
Mezze number eight was Monis’ take on traditional Greek skewered meat. Dubbed Souvlaki – pork belly, house made sweet pickles this was the second time in DC that I received a broasted pork belly, drier than most of the fatty pan seared options, and the second time I thoroughly enjoyed it. Savory and balanced with the sweet pickles it reminded me much of something from the Momofuku universe – I knew I’d like it but I was downright surprised when Erika liked it just as much.
Octopus with charred cauliflower, grilled scallions, onion yogurt, and candied pecans was served next. Served family style it was after a single bite that I considered stabbing my family member in the hand so I could have the whole thing. My favorite of the mezze courses the charred octopus defied any previous description of octopus – it was not chewy, it wasn’t “heavy,” if anything it was crisp, smooth – even buttery. Making the cephalopod seem even more refined was it’s pairing with smoky cauliflower, pungent scallions and tangy yogurt, plus sweet pecans. A truly beautiful dish.
Dish ten, entitled “Gambas” was not something I expected at a fine dining establishment – not because it wasn’t fresh, well prepared, or delicious – but because it was impossible not to make a mess with it. Instructed to “just go at it, don’t worry, we’ll bring warm towels” two large lemon salted prawns were served whole over a basil reduction and after substantial work we had indeed made a mess…but mopping up the sauce with the piping hot crustacean the work was certainly worth it.
The dish that came next was named “Asparagus” per Monis’ handwritten menu, but the star of the show was clearly the house-made Mortadella. Two thick slices, pan seared and served alongside the charred green asparagus, blackened spring onions, and smoky tomato sauce – savory and comforting, albeit a tad overly salty.
The last of the mezze turned out to be Komi’s infamous Dates; specifically oven-roasted Medjool Dates stuffed with with Mascarpone and topped with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt. Intensely sweet I’m rather uncertain as to where Monis’ sources his Dates from, but whether it is the product or the preparation this dish is every bit deserving of the hype. Paired with a glossy olive oil, creamy mascarpone, and ample crystals of salt my only complaint is that we received only one each.
For our thirteenth dishes we were each delivered separate pastas which we ate half of prior to swapping. While I’m uncertain how they decide who receives which dish I am certain that it did not really matter – both were excellent. As well prepared as expected, the hand rolled Macaronia with goat neck Ragu was sweet yet smoky with a creamy tomato and olive accented tomato sauce adding levity to the hefty and fatty shredded goat. Softer and more creamy than the Macaronia was the Ravioli with Guanciale and Peas. Stuffed with ricotta and drizzled with a smoky butter sauce the peas, incredibly sweet, proved an excellent foil to the savory jowl.
For our main course – really, there is nothing “fine dining” about it other than the quality of the ingredients and the excellence of preparation. Titled Katsikaki with Pita, oregano salt, chile sauce, roasted red pepper sauce, Baba ghanoush, Buttered Fennel and Cumin slaw, Cucumber tzatziki the dish was served family style and we were encouraged to eat with our hands. With thin and crispy skin atop a layer of fat surrounding some of the most lean and tender tasting meat I’ve had in some time I simply fell deeper in love with this dish the more I ate – think pulled pork but without the ham flavor – clean and a welcoming palate to the condiments. Forming our own pitas as we went along (and requesting a second serving of hot, buttery pita) I’m rather certain I ate approximately 2/3 of the delicious goat and left to my own devices I’d have probably eaten more of the large shoulder…especially with that ghanoush and buttered fennel slaw.
Sated but not stuffed I rather hoped desserts would be small and dynamic as opposed to large or gluttonous – of course I was thinking dessert and forgot about cheese, a dish titled “Appalachian” featuring Meadowcreek Dairy’s buttery raw Appalachian paired with a crisp crostini and candied orange peel. A good composed cheese course I appreciated its mellow nature and the manner in which the orange brought forth some of the earthy tones.
The followup to our cheese course, an intermezzo noted as simply “Strawberry” was served in small porcelain bowl – 2oz at most – and featured a freshly pureed locally grown strawberry in tangy Greek Yogurt with a hint of lime. My sister called it the best smoothie ever, and I would be inclined to agree.
“Baklava,” the only dessert constant on Komi’s menu came next and featured the much discussed Frozen Baklava with Cinnamon ice cream, Crispy Walnut, Phyllo crumble, and Greek honey. Essentially a scoop of vanilla walnut ice cream served in a deconstructed form with all the traditional constituents of Baklava I must say it was clever and tasty – it made me remember trips to a Greek diner back home with my parents when I was young…advanced comfort food, if you will.
Our final dessert, the largest of the group, was unfortunately the weakest course of the night, though perhaps not the fault of the restaurant as Erika and I simply don’t fancy Rhubarb. Titled “Rhubarb” this dish was essentially an exploration of textures and flavor – poached, foam, cream, and syrup served over a house-made graham cracker. While effective in its scope, the taste just wasn’t all that sweet – it would have worked better as an intermezzo after the cheese, perhaps.
For our mignardises we were presented one at the table and one to take home, the first a liquid Caramel topped with sea salt. Served warm on a spoon the flavor was buttery, sugary, perhaps even a little bit of bourbon undertone – the salt was a beautiful textural addition – and it seemed to fit the rest of the meal quite appropriately.
Receiving our check and two of Komi’s signature Lollypops (Lemon ginger this evening) we joked with our server about the mess we’d made of the tablecloth and she assured us we” did better than most – the point is to enjoy the food and have fun!” Given the quality of sourcing, preparation, and service plus their stature as best restaurant in DC I find it difficult to think the only point of a meal is to enjoy the food and have fun, but at the same time something about her comment rang true. What Johnny Monis is doing at Komi isn’t as serious as Restaurant Eve and it isn’t as innovative as Jose Andres…the best comparison would be to what RJ is doing with Vidalia 24, but Monis is doing it for two services five nights a week. If the point was only to enjoy good food and have fun, Komi was a resounding success…if the point was something more – to provide fantastic service of superior ingredients prepared in an expert fashion…they do a fantastic job there, as well.