Mike Isabella wants you to know he’s serving something fresh at Kapnos Taverna, the Arlington spinoff of the chef’s hopping Kapnos in Washington. Although his restaurants are linked by a name, an executive chef and some great Greek spreads, “they’re totally different concepts.”
The original, for instance, emphasizes meat and a dark color scheme. The newcomer, in contrast, looks toward the Aegean with lots of seafood — brandy-splashed sauteed shrimp, whole grilled branzino on cooked greens — and comes in shades of blue. Both restaurants are watched over by George Pagonis, who, like Isabella, once cooked at the mezza master Zaytinya in Penn Quarter and who, like his business partner, has acquired national recognition with the help of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef.”
The goal of the Ballston taverna, says Isabella, is for customers to feel as though they’re “hanging out on an island or the beach.” Alone, the restaurant’s tiered shellfish display — stacked with salmon tartare, fresh oysters, lobster and more — gives the illusion of a break from the routine. (The cocktail sauce is spirited with ouzo, capers and preserved lemon.) Buoying the breezy cause are bunches of lavender and eucalyptus hanging over part of the bar and drinks running to the Gracias Amigo: Tequila, Aperol, agave, grapefruit juice and a garnish of fresh thyme over crushed ice is love at first sip.
A diner could assemble a meal from among the spreads alone, any trio of which costs $21 and cruises to the table with warm folds of irresistible flatbread. Fish roe whipped with roasted potato and steamed cauliflower, and mashed eggplant streaked with red peppers and feta cheese call to me like a tax refund. Throw in the cheesy tyrokaftari and you’ve got a memorable threesome.
Though meat is played down in the Virginia outpost, carnivores aren’t overlooked. Lamb tartare, dotted with sunny, cold-smoked egg yolk and spread on toasted bread, and shaved roasted lamb, piled on couscous and other grains, are both prime picks. (Be sure to add a bit of the racy harissa to each bite of lamb.)
The star of the vegetable mezze: slices of honey-glazed fried eggplant in a clingy buttermilk batter that gets some zing from cayenne and cumin.
This is a restaurant that goes the extra kilometer. That crisp eggplant doesn’t need company, but a dip in its accompanying yogurt tweaked with orange makes it more fun to snack on. Liquid from the house-made harissa helps fuel the hot sauce that accompanies the shellfish platter. And the thick white napkins at Kapnos Taverna are of the type doled out in restaurants with significantly higher check averages.
I have yet to find a bad table among the 165 seats, some of which face the exhibition kitchen (and an animated chef de cuisine, Greg Basalla), and others of which offer a seagull’s-eye view of the scene from the lofty mezzanine.
The prolific Isabella has yet a third Greek idea, scheduled to open in Bethesda this summer. Kouzina, or “kitchen” in Greek, will be more rustic than either of its predecessors and will feature regional classics, served family-style.
Right now, though, Kapnos Taverna commands my full attention. How often does work feel like vacation?
4000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-243-4400. kapnostaverna.com. Mezze, $6 to $15.
An earlier version of this story misstated the number of seats in Kapnos Taverna.