Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Best Restaurant in the Country Is In Washington D.C.

1509 17th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20036
Chef Johnny Monis
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday (closed when Chef Monis unable to come in)
Tasting menu only

Last tried: October 2009

Komi on Urbanspoon

Previously tried: January 2009

KOMI has a new sommelier, Kat Bangs, and a new pastry chef, formerly of CityZen. Who knows whether the new blood or the new expanded kitchen is the secret to Monis' continually mesmerizing creativity? Every time he adds something new, I fall in love. How did I ever exist without beef tartare with truffle ice cream, or wild salmon with shiso sorbet and candied pine nuts?

Yet I still hanker for the tastes of previous favorites. If Monis has any "flaw," it is that he rarely repeats anything-- thankfully he has made an exception for the fried Caesar salad, the miniature deep-fried croquette filled with lettuce cream topped with parmesan curls and anchored on a swirl of anchovy cream. Now, if he would only bring back the gyros and the olives ... oh, and the boudin (blanc or noir, I'll take either).

UPDATE: April 2007

Johnny Monis has been named among Food & Wine's Best New Chefs for 2007 (opening screen shot on Bravo TV's Top Chef Season 3). He deserves to be at the top of that list as well as any list that the James Beard Foundation could come up with. Every time I dine there, Monis adds to his repertoire of amazing creations with new delectable surprises-- microthin slices of salty, spicy chorizo on top of sweet scallop ravioli, with charred bites of tender fresh cauliflower interspersed among the ravioli; sashimi-grade slices of glistening white kanpachi dressed in sweet olive oil and fleur de sel; tiny roasted padron peppers accompanied by a sunchoke panna cotta filled with a quail egg yolk and topped with caviar; decadent discs of creamy boudin blanc seasoned with morel mushrooms that were braised in olive oil until they tasted like bacon and pulled together with braised ramps. (I finally understand why people get so hot and bothered about ramps. In Monis' hands, they were al dente with the flavor of garlic cream. I get it now.)

It's unfortunate that dessert chefs do not generally garner similar recognition. Brooks Headley knows how to conclude the unbelievable meals at KOMI with aplomb and matching flourish. His play on textures and contrasts, particularly his delicate execution of the combination and balance of sweet and savory elements, always commands attention from your tastebuds.

On the wine front, Derek Brown from Citronelle has replaced Adam Curling as sommelier. Technically, I have rarely encountered a sommelier with Curling's expertise and ability for perfect wine pairings, but Brown exudes the type of unintimidating wine knowledge that is very inviting.

Previously tried: December 2006

There are certain moments from my dining past that linger in my memory no matter how much time has passed or how many different restaurants I have tried since then-- the first time I dined at The French Laundry, Eric Ripert's miraculously refined tastes at Le Bernardin, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's decadent yet delicate white truffle egg with brioche, David Kinch's innovative combination of Japanese/French/Catalan cuisine at Manresa -- and then there is Johnny Monis' flawless tasting menu at KOMI. The food created by Monis tops even these culinary giants, heightened by the compact yet thoughtfully matched, mineral-laden wine list compiled by Sommelier Adam Curling (formerly with the Inn at Little Washington), and finished with the equally inspired dessert creations by Brooks Headley.

Despite having suffered through countless years of mind-numbing business travel as part of my job, I find myself looking forward to at least one destination, Washington D.C., provided I can allot one evening to be able to make a detour out to Dupont Circle where Komi is located. This tiny 38-seat starkly decorated restaurant, located on the second floor, is unknown to even cab drivers, who often confuse it with a Japanese restaurant nearby. Each time after I have satisfied my Komi craving, I find a strange fog of depression settle over me as I realize that it would likely be months before I could return. Not even the thought of countless lovely restaurants in San Francisco and New York can pull me out of my wistful daze, as I recall KOMI's sweet, meaty house-cured Greek olives bathed in aromatic olive oil and sprinkled with crushed crystals of fleur de sel. Monis adds just enough salt to highlight the sweetness of the dark green berries and maximize the intense flavor of the slick green oil, which is sweet enough to pour over pancakes. Having sampled these olives, I can never order marinated olives anywhere else, for fear that it would disturb the last perfect taste and impression I carry from KOMI.

The olives are followed by roasted, candied dates stuffed with sweet, creamy mascarpone cheese, with a hint of cinnamon and more fleur de sel. Just these introductory tastes alone (part of the first course called "Mezzethakia," a series of small bites) demonstrate the chef's marvelous obsessive-compulsive tendencies and absolute control over flavors and ingredients. Adam Curling then added his magic touch with the wines, starting with a 2005 Hope Verdelho from Hunter Valley to pair with both the olives and the dates. The crisp, clean wine had just enough fruit to be delightful with both, without overwhelming any of the intricate sweet-savory flavor profiles.

The next taste was mackerel tartare on top of a crisp filo disc, the size of a quarter, topped with glistening grey pearls of caviar. The salty creaminess of the mackerel combined with the salty richness of the caviar balanced out beautifully with the slightly sweet and buttery filo round. This was followed by grilled crostini with taramosalata-- olive oil emulsified cod roe. Both of these dishes were executed with absolute precision and freshness, as though they had been created by a sushi master. Indeed, the pairing was a Shichiyon-hori Junmai Ginjo sake.

Grilled octopus legs intermingled with house-made mortadella cubes and decorated with dots of lemon aioli was the next dish among the Mezzethakia. The grilled octopus were nicely charred yet still very tender, and the mortadella was salty, sweet, and creamy at the same time. This is my idea of the ultimate surf and turf. When the next dish arrived, crispy fried cubes of halloumi cheese with expertly seasoned venison tartare, I decided that Monis is just showing off at this point. With the crispy oxtail gyro and the foie gras with mostarda (an Italian condiment made of candied fruit and mustard), I simply melted into dining bliss. To highlight these various tastes, Curling brought over one spectacular glass of wine after another-- from Greece, Loire Valley, Austria, and Italy.

The last dish of the Mezzethakia was a small salad of bitter greens topped with sweet grilled figs and crumbles of feta cheese, a perfect transition to the next savory courses, which generally consist of a pasta selection and a meat or fish course. Being greedy, I asked for two dishes from the "Macaronia" category: Pappardelle with milk roasted baby goat ragu and Ribollita with crispy frog's legs. The pasta was exactly al dente, and flavored perfectly with a dash of freshly ground cinnamon to brighten and highlight the richness of the rich and tender confited goat. The ribollita was the best version of frog's legs I have ever tasted, somehow simultaneously more elegant and more hearty than the rendition I had sampled at Restaurant Jean Georges. The final savory course was guinea hen saltimbocca with mushrooms. The nebbiolo selected by Curling was the ideal complement to this dish.

To conclude, I had the most amazing dessert: flourless chocolate cake (I know-- the tuna tartare of desserts, or the new creme brulee? But this one was done right, as so few are) with olive oil gelato, both decorated with bits of fleur de sel. KOMI does the sweet-savory combination like no place else. What to pair with this delectable but unusual dessert? Curling brought over a glass of chocolate stout by Brooklyn Brewery. It was not only whimsical and entertaining, but really tasty.

As though all of this were not enough, along with the check was a homemade cinnamon lollipop presented in a miniature brass pot. The lollipop tasted like cinnamon toast candy with a hint of saltiness to accentuate the sweet cinnamon flavor. As I walked out of the restaurant at the end of my transcendent meal, it felt like I was waking up from a really great dream.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Ad Hoc vs. Canteen: Where the Prix-Fixe Menu Rules

Ad Hoc Restaurant
6474 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
Chefs Thomas Keller and Jeffrey Cerciello
Dinner Thursday through Monday
Tried: November 2006

817 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
Chef Dennis Leary
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday
Brunch Saturday and Sunday
Lunch Wednesday through Friday
Last tried: May 2007

Canteen on Urbanspoon

Ad hoc was impressively satisfying, beyond just the glow of Thomas Keller's pervasive reputation. On the night I visited, the $45/person four-course menu consisted of a beautifully fresh gem lettuce salad with sweet cherry tomatoes, briny black olives, and crunchy, buttery croutons, drizzled with delicately creamy blue cheese dressing; a generous platter of perfectly fried chicken, with deep golden crunchy flakes of buttermilk batter on the outside and tender meat on the inside dripping with glistening juice, spiked with fried sprigs of thyme and rosemary and dressed with pancetta collard greens and garlic whipped potatoes; Capriole Farmed Old Kentucky Tomme cheese with poached quince and toasted pecans; and ending with an apple and cranberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream. Apart from the cobbler, which was overly doughy and rather clunky, even for a cobbler, everything was perfectly conceived and well executed. The servers, outfitted in grey bowling shirts decorated with blue-white ad hoc labels, were appropriately casual yet knowledgeable and clearly experienced, especially with the short but interesting wine list.

As good as Ad Hoc was, given the choice, I would rather skip the drive up to Napa Valley and head for Canteen in the Commodore Hotel. Chef Dennis Leary's prix-fixe menus at this little diner, served now on Tuesdays of each week (previously Wednesdays), are more extraordinary and inspired than most formal restaurants (including Rubicon, which has declined considerably since he was executive chef there). Leary has no patience for foodies, reviewers, or anything that hints at culinary pretension, yet I would be hard-pressed to find chefs of his level of command of ingredients and flavors in the kitchen doing all of the cooking and touching every dish that comes to the table, or in this case, the counter. Unlike most chefs, Leary is equally as proficient with desserts as he is with savory courses.

When Canteen first opened, the wines were limited to one or two whites and reds and one sparkling wine, unidentified on the menu, available by the glass. The wine selection has since expanded to a noteworthy list of Old World and New World picks, most of them under $50 a bottle with a number of choices for white, red, dessert, and sparkling. With the "mostly fish" prix-fixe menu offered on this particular evening, we had a 2004 Collovray-Terrier Pouilly-Fuisse ($53/bottle). The round fruit of the Pouilly-Fuisse, balanced with sharp acidity and citrus flavor accents, was the perfect finishing touch to complement the varying shades of the 5-course seafood focused menu ($50/person) and even the buttery homemade Parker House rolls that were served with the meal.

The first course was a rockfish ceviche, the freshest white and meaty miniature filets with just a hint of the lime juice still present in the soft yet firm fish, accompanied by sweet avocado chunks and toasted hazelnuts to balance the acidity of the ceviche and add nutty and creamy dimensions to the flavor profile. This ceviche was better executed than any I had tried in any Peruvian restaurant.

The ceviche was followed by an Autumn Vegetable Salad, topped with fried pork. The pork had been fried to crisp cracklings but with pieces of tender meat still studded inside the fried exterior. The salad, composed of shredded red cabbage, bits of white onion, and shreds of parmesan, dressed with a pomegranate vinaigrette, was both refreshing and heartwarming at the same time.

The best part of the meal was the pumpkin and prawn soup. The pureed pumpkin broth was creamy, sweet, and thick, spiked with reduced shrimp stock and olive oil, which made the combination taste more refined and luxurious than even the best-prepared lobster bisque. The large and tender prawns that decorated the soup were cooked to that exact point where they are no longer translucent but before they get the least bit rubbery, and had been cooked separately with a bit of lime juice and a dash of red pepper before being combined into the soup. This level of care and attention to detail is what makes Leary's creations stand out, and this soup exemplified his perfectionist tendencies.

The last savory course, three crab dumplings surrounding a mound of creamy celeryroot, decorated with bright red tomato dice, in a paprika sauce was similarly beautiful, although not my personal favorite. The crab dumplings tasted like a fresh crab cake made without the fried batter, and the paprika sauce was perfectly seasoned. Because fresh crab was used, the inevitable pieces of shell had to be picked out of the dumplings, which always disrupts the experience for me in this type of preparation. The dish was nonetheless gorgeous.

To conclude, our server brought over a shotglass of quince and grapefruit "trifle" with a fluffy yellow triangle of butter cake. The fresh grapefruit juice with pieces of quince and chunks of grapefruit sorbet on the bottom and topped by grapefruit foam were all sweetened exactly right to the point of highlighting the quince and grapefruit, without overwhelming the delicate elements or losing the freshness of the ingredients. The butter cake was so moist, sweet, and tasty that I wanted to run into the kitchen and steal a whole tray. And as always, Canteen's coffee was dark, rich, and freshly brewed. A perfect end to a perfect meal.

The last couple of months at work have been particularly heinous for me. It was a pleasure to be able to enjoy two such spectacular restaurants in succession. Right now, it is unclear whether Ad Hoc will become a permanent establishment and also unclear whether Dennis Leary will continue with Canteen after his lease runs out. In the meantime, I hope to squeeze in as many Tuesday night prix-fixe dinners at Canteen as possible. Where else can you find a chef of his caliber personally cooking for you?

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