The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.
I don’t keep secrets, at least when it comes to restaurants. But if I did, I’d keep for myself this hushed and handsome dining room and its fish-focused menu, the most intimate of chef Michael Schlow’s five Washington establishments. Looking for romance on the cheap? Conosci obliges, with a six-course tasting menu for $45, staged in a space with its own cocktail cart and what looks like gold leaf on the walls. Angling to splurge? Conosci, reached through the neighboring Alta Strada via a blue velvet curtain, is happy to help, with a $135-per-person treasure chest of indulgences running to scallop tartare on a puree of huitlacoche, Mexico’s “truffle,” and Bing cherries stuffed with foie gras terrine. Then again, a diner can also order a la carte. In that case, ask for whatever oysters are being perfectly shucked; risotto swirled with sweet crab and gilded with sea urchin; maybe a fan of tender duck with grilled kumquats. (Chef Michael Zentner accords meat the same respect as seafood.) The name asks “Do you know?” in Italian. Well, now you do.
Conosci: 465 K St. NW. 202-629-4662. conoscidc.com .
Prices: Tasting menus $45-$135.
Sound check: 70 decibels / Conversation is easy.
The following review was originally published June 1, 2016.
Conosci review: Michael Schlow’s crudo concept is a hidden gem
Michael Schlow maintains three restaurants at home in Boston, but he could just as easily be identified as a Washington chef these days. Since 2014, when he opened Tico, a whimsical Latin American small-plates destination on 14th Street NW, the chef has gone on to make the District a more enticing place to eat, with a retro supper club in Dupont Circle (the Riggsby) and a neighborhood Italian joint (Alta Strada) in Mount Vernon Triangle.
At the rate he’s going, the mayor ought to give Schlow a key to the city.
His latest contribution to the scene, the fish-focused Conosci, is his most personal expression yet. “I opened it for selfish reasons,” says Schlow of the 30-seat crudo bar (pronounced ka-no-shi) that shares an address with Alta Strada and made its debut in April. The guy loves raw fish and the interaction that happens when someone behind the counter is feeding someone an arm’s reach away.
But even from the distance of a table, Conosci feels intimate, like grazing at a small cocktail party where the hosts happen to be stylish friends. The walls around the counter are lit by votives whose backdrop appears to be gold leaf; early evenings might find Pink Martini on the soundtrack. The mood is reinforced by the likes of sweet shrimp carpaccio served with lardo toast.
The venue, previously occupied by the Japanese restaurant Kushi, plays to Washington’s love of insider information with a name that asks “Do you know?” in Italian. To access the oasis, diners announce themselves at the host stand at Alta Strada, after which they’re led to a blue velvet curtain that parts to reveal a short dark hall leading to the restaurant-within-a-restaurant. In comparison to the Italian eatery, boisterous and casual, Conosci is hushed and romantic. Score another hit for Edit Lab at Streetsense, the Washington designers, and Schlow’s wife, Adrienne, whose black-and-white paintings are as pleasing as her husband’s cooking.
Originally, the owner wanted to call the place Gemma, Italian for “precious stone,” but the name was taken. The gist of the idea is retained in teal bar stools, walls the color of eggplant and multiple small chandeliers.
The menu, just a dozen or so dishes long, is introduced by a server who can describe the food so vividly, you figure she plans to don a toque and head to the open kitchen as soon as she’s done taking your order. In actuality, executive chef Michael Zentner, also from Boston, is likely to be fussing over your meal. Schlow’s team recruited staff from among the more hospitable waiters at his other Washington restaurants. The cherry picking has paid off.
Dewy cubes of red snapper splashed with what Peruvians know as “tiger’s milk” make a rousing ceviche, its marinade of lime, chilies and fish juice as fierce and balanced as any I’ve had in Lima. A lacy sail of crisp bread gives the appetizer both height and crunch.
Three bites of hamachi let you pretend you’re at an expense-account retreat, gilded as the fish is with glinting caviar and custardy monkfish liver. Tying the treats together is a liquid stripe billed as “miracle sauce.” Suffice it to say, the grace note coaxed from soy sauce, Thai basil, sriracha, rice vinegar and other enhancers does wonders for whatever it touches. “I’m a sucker for spice,” says Schlow, whose miracle sauce serves as Exhibit A.
Octopus is sliced into white coins and gathered in a puddle of citrus juices and cooked yellow peppers, a tad sweet for my taste. The presentation — a bowl set within a bowl of ice — almost makes up for it. Like his peers, Schlow is upping his plateware game, having shopped at the revered Korin Japanese Trading Company in New York for Conosci’s sleek settings.
Crudo is the thrust, but there’s more than fish and seafood to occupy a diner’s fork. Any meal is better with the addition of “market veggies,” one night a hedge of crisp snap peas, radishes and fresh mint formed into a half circle and kept in place with snap pea puree on its plate. Adding intrigue to each bite are crisp walnuts and salty pecorino. Another category edges into entree territory with compositions including a roseate fan of thinly sliced duck set off with grilled kumquats and a swab of creamy onion sauce. A garnish draws the most attention, though. What looks like a chocolate truffle in the presentation is a ball of foie gras coated in crispy rice. Risotto swirled with sweet crab and finished with sea urchin is an indulgence hiding a surprise: minced Fresno chilies swirled into the creamy grains of arborio rice. Consider yourself warned: The bowl packs heat.
Conosci’s autonomy from Alta Strada extends to the beverages. Select one of the signature drinks in the new place and it’s assembled from a nearby bar cart by your server. One of a handful of refreshments, a combination of cachaca, yuzu, lime and lemon grass is designed to flatter the kitchen’s ocean-based handiwork.
The small kitchen leaves little room for making desserts, which goes against Schlow’s inclination to please. The compromise is a single gratis treat, an idea inspired by one of Schlow’s trips to Italy, where he recalls ending a meal simply and gloriously with cherries on ice. At Conosci, spring found a complimentary shot glass of chocolate ganache topped with salted caramel and piped buttercream: two spoonfuls make a sweet impression. Future visits might conclude with compressed watermelon zapped with chili vinegar.
The beguiling food and chic environs suggest a trust fund must be footing the bill. But Conosci makes itself approachable with a $45 tasting menu of six courses, a bargain considering that the average cost for small plates here is $14. On the flip side, you can shell out $135 a person for up to 15 dishes selected by the chef, which underscores the beauty of this restaurant: You can make it a quick bite or a full-blown celebration.
There’s no sign outside announcing Conosci, by the way. You have to know it’s inside another restaurant. Right now, it feels like a secret. As much as I’d like it to stay that way, my job is to share, not withhold, such good news.