This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2015 Fall Dining Guide.
If the real Greece is anything like this breezy paean to seafood in Arlington, sign me up. Part of the expanding empire of restaurateur Mike Isabella, the offshoot of Kapnos in the District employs servers whose smiles are backed up by smarts and an airy dining room that seems to run on sunshine. The food pulls its weight, too. You almost need a ladder to tackle the seafood tower, its tiers a siren song to fans of oysters and shrimp, salmon tartare and marinated octopus, lobster and snow crab, among other treasures. (The extravaganza costs $125, but six diners can easily share it as a starter.) Don’t fish? Appetizers embrace spanakopita and saganaki, and among entrees “for the table” are a homey roast chicken. Be sure to settle in with some great dips (love the spread of eggplant, feta and red peppers) and stick around for something sweet. Lemon cake with thyme meringue and labneh ice cream is golden to the last bite.
This review was published in The Washington Post Magazine on May 31, 2015.
Can’t make it to Greece this summer? A more accessible splurge is the seafood tower at Kapnos Taverna in Arlington.
There are many reasons to take the plunge. The bottom tier gathers a ring of pristine raw oysters around poached jumbo shrimp on a bed of crushed ice. Moving up the display are small tins of salmon tartare and marinated octopus, along with sliced Taylor Bay scallops brightened with grapefruit or, if you’re lucky, razor clams. (Is there a prettier shell than the cigar-shaped case containing Siliqua patula? I think not.) Waving from the top of the tower are lobster, snow crab and ... king crab? Owner Mike Isabella says he’s crazy for the crustacean, never mind that it’s more Alaskan than Aegean. It’s his party, and he’ll ply if he wants to. The price of admission is $125, but the monolith can serve six as a snack, four as an appetizer or two as a feast fit for Neptune.
The taverna in Ballston is a spinoff of Kapnos in Washington, and having eaten many times at both, I tag the former as my favorite. The younger, two-story restaurant exudes an expansiveness and freshness I find very appealing, and it comes with a menu whose ingredients originate more from the sea than from sod. Streetsense, the local design firm, whipped up an interior that bridges rusticity with sleekness and gives every diner a pleasant view (of street, of scene, of cooks). For their part, co-owner and “Top Chef” contestant George Pagonis and chef de cuisine Greg Basalla make sure the dishes capture the spirit of Greece even as they serve 400 customers some days. You may know the chefs’ work. Pagonis opened Kapnos and worked previously for Isabella at the Italian-inspired Graffiato. Basalla comes to Greece by way of Spain — more specifically, the pulsing Boqueria in Dupont Circle.
The spreads that make for great beginnings at Kapnos show up at the taverna, and opa! for that. The dips I tend to repeat play up eggplant, red peppers and feta cheese; carp roe whipped with steamed cauliflower along with the traditional potatoes; and yellow lentils striped with a black garlic vinaigrette. But the rest of the roster can make me sigh, too. A choice of three dips is yours for $21 and arrives on a handsome dimpled ceramic tray you wish the restaurant offered for sale. You tear thick folds of hot flatbread into pieces at the table and use them to convey dip from plate to pie-hole.
The bar makes you glad to be here, too, with drinks like “Hannibal” that tend to refresh or excite the palate. Coaxed from mezcal, lime, ginger and harissa, the cocktail puts your tongue on full alert. A stool at the counter or one of the tall tables is a nice place to chill out; bunches of lavender and eucalyptus overhead underscore the Greek theme.
Like Zaytinya, the mezze specialist in Penn Quarter and Isabella’s former roost, Kapnos Taverna welcomes a range of appetites. You can opt for tradition with spanokopita and saganaki or go the modern route with Caesar salad and batter-fried eggplant spiked with cayenne and cumin. Of the many spins on Caesar salads out there, the plate at Kapnos Taverna is one of the most enticing, ruffled spears of gem lettuce strewn with crumbled feta, rings of pickled Fresno chilies and charred bites of bread.
Eating your vegetables can be a pleasure here, although it would be a shame to exclude meat from the party. Shareable main courses, labeled “For the table,” include homey roast chicken and whole branzino, its center a flavor bomb of dill butter. Whole lamb shoulder is three pounds of primal pleasure for $75. A single serving of the same tender, spit-roasted meat on a bed of bulgur, couscous and nutty wild rice is taste enough for two and an agreeable $15. A stab of meat, some “ancient” grains and a smidge of house-made harissa constitutes a complete Greek meal in every bite.
If you’re thinking the retsina is getting in the way of an accurate portrayal, let me point out that the smoky asparagus is also tough and the grape leaves are straight tang. Among the “ocean” mezze are chunks of marinated swordfish lined up with red onion on a pool of parsley-caper sauce. The morsels are sometimes juicy and satisfying, other times left unfinished. “I feel like I’m eating tofu,” a companion said as he set down his fork on my last foray.
The young staff knows the food and seems eager to please. Can we sit down even though one of the party is looking for a parking space? We can. May we order a few dishes at a time and not everything at once? Sure thing. Could someone point out dishes the celiac sufferer in the group can enjoy? Yes, someone can; with the approved dips come lettuce spears instead of bread. Diners don’t have to win the lottery to sample the sea, by the way. Just order the scaled-back seafood “platter” for $75 — or individual elements of the tower.
It wouldn’t be a Greek restaurant without baklava, which pastry chef Ryan Westover serves by the slice with mandarin orange ice cream and uses, crushed, for punctuation in his fun Greek sundae. His most inspired creation is a lemon cake incorporating thyme meringue and ice cream churned with labneh (strained yogurt).
Isabella is in major expansion mode. The “Top Chef” alumnus hopes to open a Mexican restaurant, Pepita, in June and a Korean brand, Yona, by the end of summer. More Greek themes are headed for Bethesda and College Park, sometime in the fall and the summer of 2016, respectively.
Says the chef: “I enjoy coming up with new concepts.” If what’s sailing to a port near you is anything close to the breezy new Kapnos Taverna, the forecast suggests we’re due for blue skies and sunshine.
LOCATION: 4000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-243-4400. www.kapnostaverna.com.
OPEN: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
PRICES: Lunch and dinner mezze (small plates) $7 to $15; lunch gyros $11 to $14; “for the table” (dinner entrees to share) $20to $75.
SOUND CHECK: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
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