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.”
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.