News & Politics

March 2004: Komi

The stretch of 17th Street, Northwest, between P and R streets is lined with places to eat, and the neighborhood attracts a crowd of affluent young professionals. But except for the Best Bargain award-winning Annie's Paramount Steak House and the very good Sushi Taro, none of the restaurants on this strip is of much interest. Roberto Donna tried to tap into the market, first with his "spaghetteria" Il Radicchio and then with the trattoria Vivo!, but neither achieved the consistency of his flagship restaurant, Galileo.

Now Johnny Monis, a young chef who recently cooked at Chef Geoff's downtown, has taken over the Il Radicchio/Vivo! space and opened Komi. He made only minor changes–some counter and kitchen rearranging–but there's a youthful enthusiasm about the place and some good cooking going on, not perfect but of a high level of ambition and considerable accomplishment.

The kitchen at Komi is small, and Monis has kept his menu small. Dinner is likely to begin with a complimentary demitasse of soup from the kitchen–this winter, cauliflower and apple flavored with curry. Salads–thin grilled asparagus with fennel and mushrooms; roasted pear with bleu cheese, endive, and sweet-salty walnuts–are beautifully and sensibly composed. The best of the five seafood appetizers is crisply fried fresh sardines with a tangy pickled-lemon vinaigrette. The disappointment is scallops, elaborately presented in their shells on a bed of ice, garnished with salmon roe and flavored with cucumber water and mustard oil–good ingredients that don't come together.

Creating a coherent dish out of its parts is the kitchen's biggest problem. Cooking is generally good, but the combination of flavors on the plate is sometimes jarring. Arctic char is grilled to a perfect crispness on the outside but oddly paired with charred onions, sunflower seeds, and the cloying sweetness of figs. Quail is nicely complemented by a tangy-sweet pomegranate-vinegar glaze. Crispy walleye was beautifully cooked and perfectly matched to its accompanying black-eyed peas and applewood bacon. Cinnamon-braised rabbit had the acrid taste of too much spice. Olive-oil poached rack of lamb was barely warm when it arrived at table. Mustard-crusted hanger steak with grilled endive and fingerling potatoes was cooked as ordered and full of flavor.

One of the highlights of a meal at Komi is the side dishes, priced at $3 to $4 each. For one meal–my most satisfying–I ordered all eight of them, four to start and four as a main course. There's a sophisticated hominess about them–creamy collards with posole; Brussels sprouts with turnips, apples, and bacon; black-eyed peas with dandelion greens; and a terrific dish of black lentils and baby carrots.

For a light meal in the evening, Komi's pizzas, cooked in the wood-fired oven left over from the restaurant's previous incarnations, are very good–thin-crusted and topped with first-quality ingredients, including mozzarella made in house. San Danielle prosciutto, arugula, a farm-fresh egg, and garlic make for a great pie.

For dessert, the fruit soup with yogurt sorbet is good, but the real attraction is the cheese course–about five cheeses in perfect condition–for $9. The house-made lollipop that comes with the bill provides a nice grace note to a generally pleasant dining experience.

ATMOSPHERE: Casual and spare.

FOOD: Eclectic, seasonal American cooking.

SERVICE: Enthusiastic, unpretentious, and helpful.

PRICE: Main courses at dinner, $17 to $20. Dinner for two: about $80.

VALUE: A bit more expensive than the general run of places in the neighborhood, but worth it.

WINE LIST: Well selected but expensive for a neighborhood restaurant.

BOTTOM LINE: Inventive, usually successful, cooking from a talented young chef. A welcome addition to the neighborhood dining possibilities.