Smoke Signals: Kapnos, where beasts meet smoke for a Greek take on barbecue

(Deb Lindsey/ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Meat turns in a hickory-fired rotisserie rig at Kapnos restaurant on 14th Street NW. At top is a pig; at bottom, a lamb; at rear, a goat.

(Deb Lindsey/ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Meat turns in a hickory-fired rotisserie rig at Kapnos restaurant on 14th Street NW. At top is a pig; at bottom, a lamb; at rear, a goat.

George Pagonis looks more like a cross between a surgeon and a handyman than a chef as he works intently with a pair of pliers to secure a whole lamb to a spit. His movements are precise, his focus intense.

“Yesterday,” he says, “it was too loose.”

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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He doesn’t elaborate. I don’t ask. He’s in surgery here. It’s enough to know that something wasn’t right and that the mistake won’t happen twice. Pagonis is learning.

He clamps down hard, giving a nut one final twist. With an approving nod, the trim, dark-haired, lightly bearded chef reaches for fresh thyme and sprinkles it into the cavity. The lamb has marinated overnight in olive oil, lemon peel, thyme, dried oregano, garlic. “I like to do what we do back home,” Pagonis says, referring to his ancestral Greece.

Pagonis means the seasonings, but what they also do back home is work with the same sort of live fire that’s at the heart of Kapnos, the new 14th Street NW restaurant where Pagonis is chef de cuisine — and whose name is Greek for smoke.

Still, it’s not a type of cooking with which Pagonis is all that familiar. Sure, he cooked whole lamb at Zaytinya, Jose Andres’s Greek-inspired restaurant in Penn Quarter. But that was with gas. And he has cooked with wood at Graffiato, Mike Isabella’s Italian restaurant. Beasts rotating on a spit over smoldering hickory? That’s a whole other animal, so to speak, even for a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who has cooked in some of the city’s top kitchens. “It’s a pain,” he quips, only half-joking.

Pagonis, 30, and his brother, general manager Nick Pagonis, 31, are partners with Isabella in the new venture. The idea, which they’ve been discussing for years, is to modernize an ancient cuisine and cooking method. Although his heritage is Italian, Isabella has had a lifelong love of Greek food. The Pagonis brothers grew up the sons of immigrants from the small village of Skoura in southern Greece; both speak fluent Greek, owing to language lessons on Saturdays and a private tutor. They summered at their grandparents’ home in Skoura, where they rode tractors through olive and orange groves. They still regularly visit Greece in the summer, now traveling to a villa their father built on the island of Paros in 1991. Perhaps most influentially, starting at around 12 years old, they worked in their father’s Alexandria restaurant, the Four Seasons Diner, which closed in 2006.

Isabella has worked with one or both brothers before: at Zaytinya, Graffiato, Bandolero. But it wasn’t until the three men took a 15-day research trip to Greece last summer, eating daring takes on traditional dishes at experimental restaurants, that the concept for Kapnos started taking shape. In Athens, they ate octopus head stew, a deconstructed moussaka with edible “aluminum foil” (“similar to gold leaf,” says George) and Japanese-Greek fusion cuisine. In the north, they sampled fire-roasted vegetable salads and unconventional phyllo pies (filled with squash, mushrooms, potatoes). In the south, they devoured spit-roasted foods, grilled over hardwood coals and olive tree branches.

At Kapnos, they expect to cook two lambs, two suckling pigs, one baby goat and countless whole chickens every day over a hardwood fire. Customers can reserve a whole animal in advance or order portions off the menu.

In addition to the meats, the menu features whole fish and vegetables, grilled at the front of the pit over the same fire that perfumes the animals (plus such dishes as duck-stuffed phyllo pies, “Greek fries” made of chickpeas and a salad of smoky eggplant with walnuts and feta).

The two enormous steel-walled J&R rotisserie rigs (the centerpiece of a large open kitchen) burn wood only, no gas. They don’t even have thermometers. Cooking with wood is notoriously unpredictable, owing to variables including the amount of moisture in the wood and the confounding behavior of fire.

“Yesterday, the fire was way too hot,” George Pagonis says. “It’s a challenge. I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants, but none of us have done anything like this. We got all this camping equipment, shovels and stuff, things I never needed as a chef before.”

They fixed the fire problem by spacing out the wood to create better air flow and by adding wood to the back of the smoker to dry it out, which, when added to the embers, will burn more predictably. Yet, inevitably, other problems arise.

When Pagonis finally finishes tightening the lamb to the spit, for instance, a process that takes more than half an hour, and places it on the rotisserie, the fire glows and a gentle waft of smoke swaddles the lamb, all perfect until. . . .

“See?” Pagonis exclaims. “See that?”

On its rotation, part of the lamb catches on the pit’s overhang. A welder arrives later that morning. He will cut off four inches along the length of the top of the pit’s opening so the animals can rotate without catching. Not only will the fix allow the animals to cook with less oversight, it also will permit the use of larger beasts.

The restaurant is part of a nose-to-tail cooking trend. From New York’s Sauce and Philadelphia’s Russet to Los Angeles’s Animal, chefs are experimenting with the style. Kapnos goes back in time in two very different places, combining a traditional Southern barbecue wood (hickory) with Mediterranean flavors to create what might be called Greekacue.

For George and Nick Pagonis, the wood-smoking of a whole beast reminds them of childhood visits to Skoura, when to celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary their uncle would slow-roast a whole goat over a live fire.

“Times have changed,” George says. “I got a lot of inspiration from the younger chefs and the way they refined the older generation’s dishes. That’s what we’re doing now. At the same time, the animal cooking on the spits, you can’t get more old school than that.”

Kapnos is at 2201 14th St NW, 202-234-5000, www.kapnosdc.com.

Shahin will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.

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