Gregory Zapantis surveys the seafood atop a mound of crushed ice and selects a whole prawn, prettily mottled and nearly as long as my forearm. It weighs in at about half a pound. “This is a Madagascar wild shrimp,” he says, turning it over to show me. Because the flavorful roe is located along its back and not its underside, he says, the kitchen cleans and prepares this shrimp differently. “It’s very sweet, very good.”
This is how Zapantis, chef and partner of the new downtown DC restaurant Kellari, wants all his patrons to start their meal—by chatting with the staff, learning about the food, and understanding the preparation before selecting their dinner. And so the focal point of the restaurant—a DC outpost of the popular New York dining room—is this icy seafood display fringed with fennel and packed with 15 varieties of seafood. Diners can view that day’s selections and choose their meal straight off the ice—a tribute, Zapantis says, to traditional, menuless Greek dining.
Zapantis resists calling Kellari a Greek restaurant or the dishes Greek cuisine. “How can you put borders on food?” he asks. But the menu is unquestionably Mediterranean-inspired, with classics such as spanakopita, olive-oil-grilled lamb, and citrusy avgolemono soup. The seafood, the restaurant’s star, is sold by the pound—the chefs recommend a pound per person—and simply prepared with oregano, capers, lemon, and olive oil. “Our philosophy is that food in its purest form is the best food,” says executive chef Anthony Acinapura.
Around the display, the dining area has brightened considerably since the dark-paneled Restaurant K vacated the space last June. Ivory-pillared candles and shiny blond-wood floors are accented with wine barrels, oversize antique urns, and a copper-trimmed raw bar. Pale swaths of linen hang from the ceiling, like the sails of a ship.
Although it’s smack in the middle of power-dining territory, the white-tablecloth restaurant (and its price tags) seem more suited to a special occasion than a workday meal. But Zapantis and Acinapura try to dismiss any notions of stuffiness. The place’s mantra they say, is “come as strangers, leave as friends.”
Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, Sunday for brunch, and daily for dinner.