Tom Sietsema: Mike Isabella’s Kapnos updates an ancient cuisine

September 4, 2013

Take a sniff around. Smoke is the food scene’s current must-have accessory. From the fumes found in the wood-roasted bone marrow at Wit & Wisdom in Baltimore to the haunting salads, seviches and even desserts at Del Campo in Washington, smoke is tickling diners’ noses and drifting over their tongues in sometimes primal, often pleasurable, ways.

Waving the trend in our faces anew is Kapnos, the modern Greek restaurant from Graffiato owner and “Top Chef” personality Mike Isabella, who managed to find space in the bursting-at-its-seams 14th Street corridor for his latest idea. Kapnos — that’s “smoke” in Greek — is a mostly smooth performance, where the mezze, or small plates, fuse yesterday’s culinary techniques with today’s and where whole animals slowly spin to doneness over hickory-fed fires.

Greek food from an Italian guy who’s also dabbled in Mexican at Bandolero in Georgetown? Kapnos is less about a chef trying a new cuisine on for size, just because he can, than an entrepreneur with ties stretching back to Isabella’s New Jersey youth, when his mother, a vegetarian and a “gypsy” (his word), taught him how to make tabbouleh at home and took him to eat gyros in New York. Ask Isabella why he’s dishing out eggplant dip, stuffed grape leaves and baby goat, and he’ll tell you about his years cooking at Kyma in Atlanta and Zaytinya in Washington. Having tasted his food at Zaytinya, foremost roasted lamb so masterful it lingers in my mind four years later, this satisfied customer believes you don’t have to be raised on a cuisine to do it well.

Besides, Isabella’s sidekick is chef de cuisine George Pagonis, his former sous-chef at Zaytinya. Pagonis, 30, comes to Kapnos not only with a good Greek name, but also experience at his family’s late Greek diner, Four Seasons in Alexandria, where, as an 8-year-old, he launched his cooking career. (On weekends, the kid made the toast — and $50 in tips!) Pagonis went on to the Culinary Institute of America and jobs as a line cook at Le Cirque and a sous-chef at Aureole, both in Manhattan.

Don’t come to Kapnos hungry for what Isabella calls “touristy” dishes. While true to the flavors found in Greece, even the familiar food here is likely to have been, as he says, “cleaned up.”

Master Chef, Mike Isabella is spit-roasting meat at his new Greek restaurant Kapnos in Washington, D.C. For the leftovers, he opened G, an Italian sandwich shop next door. (The Washington Post)

Red and gold beets absorb smoky notes from the embers of the fires they’re left in overnight, but the root vegetable salad speaks to today’s fashion with its garnish of green peppercorn-spiked meringue chips. Octopus glides to the table as a smoky and tender tentacle atop a swipe of yogurt tarted up with green harissa. The crackle you encounter when you bite into the seafood comes from quick-fried amaranth. Moussaka, a Monday night special, is not the dense brick a lot of restaurants serve, but rather a soft layering of smoked eggplant and ground beef and lamb whose bechamel cover has the texture of a souffle. On the other hand, stuffed grape leaves with purple yogurt call more to the eyes than the taste buds.

Meanwhile, from the fire come glossy suckling pig and crisp-but-tender goat, wicked hunks of meat tamed by creamy orzo and a fluffy grain salad, respectively.

But first, spring for some dips, if only for the chance to try my new favorite bread in town. Kapnos bakes to order a flatbread similar to Israeli laffa, but more pliable, which the restaurant brushes with garlic oil and sprinkles with sea salt before sending out with its spreads. They include a lush pink taramasalata whipped up from potatoes, onions, carp roe, lemon juice and steamed cauliflower, the last ingredient a delicious trick Pagonis picked up from his tenure at Le Cirque.

While meat hogs the restaurant’s press, Kapnos embraces vegetarians with a section called “garden mezze,” a path that includes roasted cauliflower in a tomato sauce hinting of cumin, fenugreek and heat, and a swirl of yellow lentils, fava beans and baby spinach that brings India to mind. Even more alluring is the elegant baked phyllo pie filled with roasted, crushed potatoes, garlic and yogurt and capped with a bright fried duck egg.

Greek “fries” are not what you might think. For one thing, potatoes aren’t involved. For another, these fries are shaped into coins made with chickpea flour. Deep-fried and dusted with fine Greek cheese, the snack is crisp and gooey and the ideal companion to one of the bar’s winning cocktails. My current crush is the gin-based “lemonade” dispensed from a keg.

Eating the roast chicken at Kapnos is a revelation. The bird is crisp of skin, bright with lemon, dusky with oregano. But the potatoes that come with the entree are rivals for my affection, and I later found out why I can’t resist them: They’re cooked beneath the spits turning the birds, which surrender their prized fat and juices to the spuds.

Far less impressive is chicken souvlaki, the thigh meat overwhelmed by a burnt flavor, yet near-raw beneath the skin.

Pagonis’s grandmother came down from Astoria to teach the kitchen staff how to make her Greek cookies, which are best enjoyed after a dunk in coffee. No offense to Koula Maniatakos, but I prefer the restaurant’s semolina cake, sweetened with honey syrup, and its baklava, made with tart green apples and less cloying than the usual confection.

The design gives diners several ways to savor the multilevel restaurant, which opens with an epic — and deafening — bar. Food enthusiasts can sit at the chef’s counter and get a close-up view of the beasts on the spits. Beyond are the Wood Room, soothing with green walls and oak floors, and a more private retreat with curtains (but also a shot of the kitchen). A chandelier created from wine bottles makes a handsome plug for recycling. As with his menu, Isabella wanted to play down Greek stereotypes on his walls and floors. Hence, he says, “No white. No blue,” inside.

The support staff at Kapnos have all worked for Isabella before, and their shared history shows in the consistent cooking and the fine-tuned service, evinced in part every time a server rolls off names of the many Greek wines on the list. “We kind of have a system,” explains Isabella, who hired his chef de cuisine’s brother, Nick, to serve as general manager.

Next door to Kapnos is G, a spare, counter-service sandwich shop that by day stuffs sesame-seeded rolls with the spit-roasted meats and vegetables (go for roasted cauliflower) from the kitchen next door and at night morphs into a stage for a four-course tasting menu for $40 a head.

Isabella and crew dominate not just their block, but their genre.

★★½ star

(Good/Excellent)
Kapnos

2201 14th St. NW. 202-234-5000. kapnosdc.com.

OPEN:
5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday,
5:30 to 11 p.m. Thursday, 5 to
11 p.m. Friday
and Saturday.
5 to 10 p.m. Sunday.

METRO:
U Street.

PRICES: Small plates $6 to $9, large plates $20
to $34.

SOUND CHECK:
87 decibels/
Extremely loud.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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