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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.

 

The relentless march of mezzethakia dishes falters a bit when Mannis drifts away from pure ingredients and introduces more technique driven dishes – the only problem with the food at Komi. The foie gras cream puffs, cheese animal crackers and goat cheese marshmallow s’mores, presented by the staff with a certain amount of pride and anticipation, all fall flat, lacking the assertive flavor to deliver the intended effect. Things get right back on track as the Greek themed entrees begin to arrive, however.

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Few chefs, save for Michael Tusk of Quince (another convicted photophobe) and Mark Vetri, have as deft of handle on pasta as Johny Monnis. The house made spaghetti with sea urchin cream, fresh spring ramps, crab, habanero and Catalina uni may sounds like a complete train wreck, but the unlikely combination works brilliantly. The use of habanero, the single hottest pepper in the universe, is the maybe the best example of culinary skill at Komi. The habanero flavor is there, but the heat level barely registers in the overall composition (this coming from a Texan, so take that with a grain of salt).

The meat course, so often the low point in epic meals, matched the intensity of the pasta at Komi. In the age when many chefs gently bathe their meat in sous vide baths (innyourendo!), Mannis goes against the grain and plays with fire instead. The slow roasted goat shoulder and house baked pita bread called Katsikaki has a remarkable range of flavors and textures for a such a large cut of meat. Some of the interior parts of the shoulder are tender; others are incredibly moist from the slowly melted collagen. Exterior has the texture of a crisp goat flavored cracker, achievable only with a natural heat source, making it easy to forget about the excellent selection of sides of seasoned salt, pickled cabbage, habanero sauce (again of the alien mild variety) and smoky eggplant puree.

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It’s too early to declare Komi in any way perfect, but Johnny Monnis has real talent and crafting some truly outstanding food. Go now, before Komi mania gets out of hand and it becomes a shadow of its former self.

The lineup (best dishes noted with *)

  1. Sweet shrimp *
  2. Tuna sashimi
  3. Kampachi sashimi and Meyer lemon very good
  4. Steamed brioche, Meyer lemon mousse, trout roe *
  5. Akaushi oyster, pickled fennel purée
  6. Two preparations of diver scallop sashimi, black truffle heavy on salt; in gelee with uni *
  7. King salmon tar tar. Uni vinaigrette, frozen shiso sorbet, candied pine nuts *
  8. Fried caesar salad
  9. Warm salad of octopus, sepia, lentils, frisee and humus *
  10. Two small quenelles of hanger steak tartar and black truffle ice cream *
  11. Roasted stuffed date, foie gras cream puff, animal cheese cracker, Basque pepper gelee, goat cheese marshmallow s’more
  12. Pasta, sea urchin habanero cream, fresh spring ramps, crab, Catalina uni *
  13. Katsikaki – roasted goat shoulder, freshly baked pita, habanero purée, tsadziki, fennel pickled cabbage, roasted eggplant *
  14. La tur, eucalyptus honey *
  15. Meyer lemon sorbet
  16. Passion fruit, tapioca *
  17. Greek donut, cumquat ice cream *
  18. Chocolate Ginger financier, banana brûlée, ice cream

PS – photophobia seems to be a new thing at Komi, perhaps adopted from the original gangster in NYC (that would be  the ever self-important David Chang). You can see some of the dishes here.

PPS – look for a far less obnoxious version of this post in the upcoming edition of the Washington DC Fearless Critic guide.

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