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.


Honeybee said...

The next time that you go to Komi, can I come?

Anonymous said...

better than Manresa, Le Bernardin, & Jean Georges?

ok, i've added it to my To Do list. that praise is too high to ignore.

Robert said...

Just have to tell you I was so impressed by this review that I added your blog to my favorites.

Plus based on your experience will be traveling 500 miles next month to visit myself. I will let you know how it was.

Robert said...

I would be lying if I said I did not have doubts after reading your review. Because lets face it,The French Laundry, Manresa and Jean George are strong company.
Forgive me for doubting, as you are correct! I had a outstanding experience at Komi that in many ways exceeded meals at the above mentioned restaurants.

And when one considers Chef Monis has a kitchen staff of about four or five it's even more amazing.

Next time I think I'll fly though. LOL

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