Classy touches offset any disappointments
Kellari Taverna impresses with efforts
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 24, 2010
After my companions and I have surveyed the menu at Kellari Taverna, a server in a crisp white jacket asks, per tradition, "Are you ready to look at the fish?"
And, per usual, there are tough decisions to be made at downtown's new Greek restaurant. We gather around a canvas of shaved ice, neatly topped with no fewer than 10 options, and listen to our guide introduce them. Here's the sweet lithrini, a member of the sea bream family. Nearby are pompano from the Gulf of Mexico, fat shrimp from Madagascar, genuine Dover sole and barbounia so delicate that it gets pan-fried rather than grilled, as is the custom here. The clear eyes on the fish and a lobster's valiant attempt to break free of the rubber bands on its claws lend credence to the staff's assertions of "the freshest fish in D.C."
Dining rooms on legendary K street (and at this address in particular) have not fared well in recent years. Before Kellari Taverna set sail in October, the modern American Restaurant K by Alison Swope and a steakhouse called Jimmy's on K Street occupied these quarters. The newcomer, which has an older sibling with the same name in New York, hopes to beat the odds not just with a different accent but also with a setting that takes patrons on a holiday from the city.
The sense that you've come to the right place begins at the impressive red mahogany door and continues at the front desk, where one or two gracious hosts -- as flawless as models -- bid you welcome, relieve you of your wraps and take you to a table that is quickly decorated with a plate of hummus, olives and radish slices, along with a basket of thick grilled bread. "Kellari" means "wine cellar," which should be your cue to enlist the aid of Yacine Tazi for something to sip; the suave general manager has never steered me wrong on the extensive list. The pacing is suited to your needs. If you want to be quick about lunch, the servers honor that request. Should you wish to linger over dinner, that's possible, too. Unlike its predecessors, Kellari Taverna comes off as familial rather than corporate.
It's also the best-looking interior yet -- open, elegant but unstuffy -- at this location. The red oak floors are buffed to a sheen. The lighting is honeyed. Near the coffered ceiling are Greek words for different grapes and dishes, illuminated from behind: definite scene-setters. The bar is thoughtfully separated from the main dining room by a half-wall, while the Wine Room, a private space for as many as 55 diners, features windows with gauzy curtains, giving it the feel of a restaurant within a restaurant. Only a glimpse of a famous lobbyist or Supreme Court justice keeps you in Washington.
A dash of drama comes with every order of saganaki, nutty graviera cheese flamed at the table with the Greek spirit Metaxa. The better cheese dish is warm goat cheese treated to almonds and apricots, a spread that is easy to fill up on. Of the traditional Greek starters, I'm most drawn to the whip of fish roe, olive oil and lemon -- every mouthful a salty, soothing pleasure. Avgolemono nicely balances richness (from egg yolk) and tang (from lemon juice) in a soup chockablock with chicken and carrots. Come my next cold, I'll surely be here for a bowl. Kellari's Greek salad is a bushel of chopped tomatoes, peppers, onions and sharp feta cheese, everything tied together with red wine vinegar and about as good as that classic combination gets. Shaped from ground beef and lamb, meatballs perched on dill-flecked yogurt are soft and perfectly pleasant.
There's no mistaking Kellari Taverna for Zaytinya, the area's best and most consistent purveyor of Greek dishes. Salt cod croquettes are piping hot but also pretty tame, unimproved by the garlic-and-almond dip they sit on. A server introduces the octopus as "the best in town," but the vaguely smoky chunks of too-soft grilled seafood leave a less than memorable impression despite the company of peppers, onions and capers on the plate.
Finesse sometimes takes a back seat to quantity with this kitchen. The ginormous portions only draw attention to any flaws. On paper, seafood yiouvetsi sounds like a cross between bouillabaisse and paella. What comes to the table is a soupy construction of orzo and strangely sweet tomato sauce topped with seafood of varying degrees of interest. (The fish chunks are tasty; the mussels and clams are bland.) A mound of pasta, stained black with squid ink, gets a light crunch from bread crumbs and a nice glint from silvery anchovies. Despite those accents, however, the dish is pretty ordinary eating. Steamed wild greens, or horta, are limp and dull.
Fish, simply char-grilled and sauced with capers and olive oil, offers more rewards; the firm and meaty turbot is a standout. Priced by weight (there's a scale next to the display), the highly perishable fish and seafood don't come cheap: The average cost per pound is $30, and the average order is about 1 and 1/4 pounds.
Though seafood is the obvious lure, chef Anthony Acinapura, formerly with nearby Potenza, doesn't require you to wade into water to eat well. Grilled lamb chops are tender and flavorful from their marinade of oregano and rosemary; thick slices of homey roasted potato make a good entree better. Super-juicy chicken stuffed with bold herbs and draped in melting onions is even more succulent -- and better with a dab of feta-laced whipped potato included on the fork.
Like everything else here, desserts are plus-size. Some are quite pleasing, in particular the white drift of tart yogurt dotted with sour cherries and toasted walnuts and drizzled with thyme honey. The baklava is a honey-flavored brick, in size if not texture, while figs and ice cream do their best to rescue a dry slice of walnut cake. Honestly, the sweetest finish is a gratis plate of Greek cookies that lands on your table if you don't order dessert.
That gesture is typical of the place. It also demonstrates how a big heart and a beautiful room can take one's mind off food that might not attract as much attention without such support.
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Liquid pursuits: Two of manager Yacine Tazi's picks for $40 or less are Argyros Assyrtiko Santorini (a white wine with a nice mineral finish) and Xynomavro from the producer Strofilia (a red wine that brings to mind pinot noir).