Thursday, August 8, 2013

Little Serow-- Komi's much hyped, much cheaper sibling

Our experience at Komi was so excellent, that it seemed a no-brainier to check out Johnny Monis' hugely popular and well-reviewed Thai themed restaurant, Little Serow. Yes it was somewhat a daunting task for two middle-aged foodies. The process is complicated...you need to arrive about 4:30 to get on line outside the unmarked door on 17th St. Then you wait for an hour or so until they invite you in, party by party. If you want to eat later, you can put your name on a list, and will be seated in the second seating (usually about 7:30).
There are no garages in the area, so you need to find a meter if you want to eat right away, which is what we did. While we waited on line, it drizzled a bit, but we had some nice conversation with a young woman who was right in front of us.
The other daunting part of the meal for us oldsters was the content of the food, which has a reputation for being fiery hot. I happen to love hot food, so I wasn't scared, but my wife was not looking forward to it. I will let her vent her side of the story, but suffice it to say she doesn't like Thai food to begin with, so was truly indulging me. It was a bit of an easy indulgence, since she ranked Komi as a top 5 meal of her life! At $45 per meal, Serow also seemed much easier on the bank account than it's Greek neighbor.

Once inside, we were greeted cheerfully by the hostess, who sat us at a two top nearest the rear of the place. It offered a nice view of the staging area, so we could see what dish was approaching. The seats were raised stools, and the table was barroom table height. Not comfortable at all. The restaurant feels like a dinner party at someone's sparsely decorated home. The music playlist was bluegrass and country music; like Komi, it was selected by Anne Marler, Monis' wife and partner. It seemed kind of homey, and even though I am not a fan, I felt it counteracted the pretentiousness of the table getting process. Our server was happy and informative, but was more like a part of a huge serving organism that seemed to take plates to your tables regardless of assignment. All were very up on what was being served, and my water glass stayed filled all night, thank GOD!

We ordered a bottle of Rose Proven├žal, which I thought would be appropriate for the kind of food and August weather. The Rose came out nowhere close to chilled properly, which made me wonder if they were going whole hog on the Thai thing, where refrigeration is always an issue.
First course and Side dishes

Speaking of hog, our first plate came out, which was basically lighter than air pork rinds and hotter than Hades pepper dip. Accompanying for the full meal was a bamboo container of flavorless sticky rice, and a basket filled with undressed raw veggies. The veggie assortment was interesting, beetle lettuce(?), watermelon radish slices, Thai basil bunches), and also uninteresting, (Bibb lettuce, cucumbers, romaine). As for the chip and dip, it had its pleasures. The dip was reminiscent of Baba Ghanoush in texture, but way more subtle in flavor underneath the heat.

Next came out two dishes representing a salad course. I can describe one as pork candy in cilantro, and the other as corn salsa from hell. They both had a similar sauce, but the pork candy made that dish more enjoyable. Both were hotter than our pepper dip, and had a lasting burn I found difficult to quench until much later in the meal. I don't associate cilantro with Thai food, thinking it more indigenous to Vietnamese cooking, but it seemed a major part of this meal. I happen to love it, but it is quite a divisive herb. My wife detests it, sadly. I finished the pig candy, but left most of the corn salsa, finding it pretty damn boring. After this course, my mouth was pretty enraged, lips stinging and eyes running. That's ok. Nothing wrong with an endorphin rush. The water was being consumed at record pace.

Our next dish was a kind of lettuce cup and chopped chicken take, that was pretty similar to a P.F. Chiang dish, but much more unique in flavor. The chicken was mixed with liver, and I thought it was great. Instead of lettuce, there were cabbage leaves for cupping. Also, Thai basil took the place of Cilantro, making the plate safe for Cilantro haters, but not safe for Liver haters. This was a hot dish, but much less fiery than the three predecessors. Things were looking up!

So far the sauces were consistently redolent of fish sauce, with varying amounts of lime to sour things up. Next came a very different flavor and texture. A mushroom dish topped with a fried egg. The sauce was sweetly rich. I loved it when I could take a handful of sticky rice and dip it in there.
The mushrooms were small and slightly crispy, and breaking the softly cooked egg enriched everything with yolk. This was another fine dish, and a nice left turn in the flavor parade.


Ribs in Mekong Whiskey and Dill
The last plate featured short pork ribs, surrounded by a sauce with Mekong Whiskey (go figure--the Southeast Asian version of Jack Daniels Ribs) and, of all things, dill. Yes the ribs were perfectly cooked, crispy and falling off the bone, but i have to say the sauce was not something that fell under the category of different. The dill was a surprise, but not enough to make the sauce thrilling.

This place won a James Beard award? Critics from the Washington Post and Washingtonian Magazine rank it in the top 10 of the area? I'd trade that whole meal for a plate full of Queen Bee spring rolls. Damn how I miss that joint. OK, that's a bit harsh, but I was expecting something far more exotic and surprising. 

There was one final unannounced treat, coconut custard on a small square of sweet sticky rice. It was good, but not remarkable. Which is pretty much how I'd sum up the entire meal. Of these hottest restaurants in the DMV area, only Komi has lived up to the hype so far. Minibar was a close 2nd. Let downs have been Le Diplomate, Volt 21 and sadly, Little Serow.

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