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Komi (Washington, DC)

Restaurants live and die by the personal ambitions of their chefs more than they care to admit. Some aim to be the best in the city, content with the reward of perpetually packed dining rooms, while others push on to compete on a national stage. Komi aims to occupy this space and Johnny Mannis’ obsession with perfect execution and purity of ingredients earns his restaurant the right to be mentioned in the same conversation with such names as Manresa and Vetri. While Komi is clearly a work in progress, few restaurants in today can make such claim.

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Since opening in 2004, Mannis has halved the number of seats to 38 and doubled the prices. The cost isn’t extreme, you can easily spend twice the amount at Citronelle, but few can afford to make dinner here a regular affair. None of the changes, not even an economic recession or a new administration in the White House, has made a dent in the restaurants’ popularity – Komi is still booked solid weeks in advance.

Komi hopes to provide an elevated experience and the uneasy showmanship is perhaps the singular weakness at Komi. The candle lit dining room set in an old brownstone looks theatric (direct throwback to Vetri), but hides the visual dimension of the food. The wait staff warn that photos of the food are not allowed, lest they spoil the surprise for future diners. I find this trend of self-aggrandizing chefs dictating what I do with my food highly annoying. After sampling the food at the photophobic and photoloving restaurants alike, I’ll go out on the limb and say that the creations they are trying hardest to protect are not all that unique. Meanwhile, the unreasonable rules imposed by the restaurant leave more than a slight bitter taste in your mouth.

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I stopped my whining as soon as the first few plates of mezzethakia, Komi-speak for a progression of small tastes before the main courses, began to arrive. I couldn’t figure out  why the two nearly identical sashimi ribbons of aji and kampachi seemed so familar at first. Turns out Mannis spent some time working for Michael Kraemer at McCrady’s, who uses the same preparation to this day at Voice.

Even if the intended arc of the mezzethakia doesn’t always come together, the individual parts can be outstanding. The two small quenelles of hanger steak tartar and black truffle ice cream are a nod to French Laundry and other European inflected, but decidedly American restaurants, in terms of flavor, form and flawless execution. The salmon tartare required a little editing to eliminate the overwhelming sweetness of the candied pine nuts, but the rest of the dish, finished with sea urchin vinaigrette and frozen shiso leaf sorbet, brought a remarkable dimension to one of the most overused fish varieties today. Similarly impressive were the sashimi of diver scallops served in two preparations, one with black truffles and the other suspended in gelee and finished with sea urchin, seamlessly blending the best tastes of the earth and the sea. The fried Caesar salad taken in one bite may not have delivered much of the anticipated anchovy or Parmesan flavor, but the steamed brioche with Meyer lemon mousse and trout roe was as ethereal as it was stunning.

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April 12, 2009   7 Comments