Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Our Night at Komi

Many times I have read a series of raves about a place, gone and forked over a ton of cash, and when totally underwhelmed with the experience, wonder what I missed. Worst case scenario so far- Volt Table 21. The bill was astronomical, and the experience was not amazing. Don’t get me wrong—there were some fantastic bites in there, but also some that I found either dull or just something that the juxtaposition of flavors didn’t work for me. Minibar, on the other hand, was great, worth the money and a totally satisfying trip into glutton heaven. Better still was my meal last night at Komi, a top rated small course restaurant near DuPont Circle.

My wife and I arrived at 6:00 on the dot, and found no valet or parking on the street. I pulled my ex-New Yorker routine and landed something on a side street with some illegal moves.
The space is spare and not lushly decorated. It’s on one floor of a townhouse, with wood floors, stucco walls and wrought iron appointments. It’s dimly lit, and, once filled, pretty noisy. Older people like myself can’t really hear normal conversation when sound isn’t deadened somehow. This is a conceit of the younger generation of restaurateurs—they want their places to seem lively, so no carpets, wall hangings, drapes, etc. What you end up with is cacophony, and not conducive to an intimate dining experience. Lisa, my wife and dining companion, said the background music playlist was excellent and eclectic, but they could have been playing “The Candyman” on endless repeat for all I could tell.

The place hadn’t filled yet, so for the first half of our meal, we could enjoy conversation without raising our voices. And there’s plenty of time to talk. The full experience took 2.5 hours. That’s not to say that you spend a lot of time waiting for your food. On the contrary, it comes out exactly when you want it.

Our main server, Mary, was a delightful and well-informed presence all night. An ex-policy wonk, she decided to blow it off for the world of high level dining, and she seems very happy. We each ordered one glass of red wine, which we nursed through the meal. This served a dual purpose. First limit the cost of a verrrry pricey meal, and second, I had a gig afterwards and wanted to not be completely groggy for it.

Before our food began coming out, Mary asked us about food allergies and preferences. Lisa is not a fan of cooked fish, I have a problem digesting eggplant (not a small problem in a Greek themed restaurant), and we both detest beets. That was no problem, and the dishes we received were very appropriate to these tastes.

Now for a plate by plate broadcast:

Our first taste was a small spongy ball of bread topped with some sour creamy/yogurt substance and a small spoonful of trout caviar. We were told that this was their “Taramosalata”, and it was a perfect opener. Light and refreshing, with a few nice textures.

Next came the re-imagining of Spanakopita. No filo here, instead, a fried ball of cracked wheat or bulghur and inside a soft, warm cheesy substance. I didn’t get the textural sensation of spinach, but the flavor was there. It was a kind of kibbe with pureed creamed spinach inside. This was a standout, and we both raved about it so much, that Mary later on brought us a second taste each!

Sashimi of Coho Salmon followed, and was as fresh and flavorful as that gets. Interestingly sprinkled with tiny cocoa pellets, the mix worked both in flavor and texture.

What followed was a baby turnip, which was cute as can be, served over a small smear of uni, and the sauce was an “uni zabaglione”. I guess that means some liqueur and cream foamed with the uni. Whatever, it was a beautiful combination with the bitterness of the turnip.

The first swing and miss from the kitchen was a still attached to the shell bay scallop, tiny and sauced with a scant lemon butter. This was really not very different from a sauce you’d get in a so-so seafood stop near the shore. Very uninspired. Also, detaching the mollusk from it’s shell was troublesome, and shredded the scallop on Lisa’s dish.

Gnocchi was next, and time for some redemption for the kitchen. Made from Yukon Gold potatoes, the gnocchi was the lightest and fluffiest I have ever had, served with Vermont butter sauce and baby chives. The single best pasta dish I have ever tasted. Literally at the moment I was thinking this, one of the waiters saw my expression of rapture, and commented, “It’d be nice to have an “Olive Garden” sized portion of that, right?” No shit!

Another success came out, a bit riskier but fully realized nonetheless. Rabbit Liver Mousse served over a sourdough soft crouton. The mousse was light and flavorful, and not too livery. The crostini was from pain de campagne type bread, obviously flavored with oil and garlic. Tiny minces of some kind of gherkins added a sweetness and contrast to the gaminess of the pate. A home run!

Sweet onion filled dough, described as Baklava, served adjacent to a small slab of Foie Gras was next, and the plate was dotted with the most powerful tangerine jelly you can imagine. I expected more of a flaky filo type encasement of the sweet onions, but it worked nonetheless. They shouldn’t refer to it as Baklava. This was good, but following the previous two acts was difficult at best.
Mascarpone filled Dates

Our first taste on the sweeter side came out, a mascarpone filled date, warm and comforting, exactly when your palate was ready for a directional change. Exquisite!

Now for the other pasta: two kinds of ravioli, and respecting Lisa’s wish, she received a non-fish version, filled with sunchoke puree and delightfully rich in a light veggie cream sauce. Mine was salt cod filled, and very airy, with a sauce that complemented the fish well. Typically, we each liked the other’s dish more, but I generally appreciated both of the raviolis more than Lisa did.
Roast Goat
At last the main dish came out, and this is what separates Komi from all the other small course places, they give you their choice of a substantial serving of a protein. If you are lucky, or hint at it, you get what we got; the roast goat. It is pretty much the best souvlaki you can ever imagine---fork tender goat meat with a crispy outer layer, served with fluffy grilled pita rounds and garnished on the side with fresh lemon, red pepper rings, basil salt and ultra-creamy tzatziki. I literally could not get enough, but I was also getting a telegram from my stomach that it was “fine now, and could I please stop?” My mouth shot back, “shut up, fool.”

Desert followed in three plates:

We started with honey mousse, served over delightfully crunchy nuts and a crackle of some sort. This was a standout. Unlike any desert I have had in both flavor and texture.

Then came a greek donut, which was a bit thick and dull, the only other misfire from this kitchen beside the scallop. The donut was served on a ricotta cheese bed, which usually does nothing for me anyway, so all in all, it didn’t work for me.

But hope was not lost, for the finale was a plate of salted caramel and chocolate variations, one a small slab of toffee coated with chocolate, a millionaire’s Heath Bar.
In the middle was a peanut butter caramel and chocolate petit four, that was probably the best sweet I have ever had. In the middle of it was a crunchy peanut brittle substance, and the top was soft caramel with fleur de sal on it. Screw Olive Garden, I wanted a Coldstone Creamery “Love It” size of that!
Then, wrapped in a box (supposedly for a birthday present- although this was not really my birthday dinner) was another caramel in a chocolate cup, but this had a spicy flavor, later identified by Mary as Cardamom. Brilliant!!

Was Komi one of the top 5 meals of my life? Yes, without a doubt. Not ranking them, but they are; my first meal at Inn at Little Washington (1990), a perfect evening of steak, etc. at Peter Luger in Williamsburg, Minibar, and a Rive Gauche discovery, Café Constant.