A Hamburger Today
First Look: Mike Isabella's Kapnos, Washington DC
Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
Washington, D.C.'s deluge of spring restaurant openings may have tapered off a bit, but there are still a few left to watch. Take Kapnos (meaning 'smoke' in Greek), for instance. The latest establishment from Top Chef alum Mike Isabella welcomed its first customers last Friday to its fare share of fanfare. Isabella, formerly executive chef at Zaytinya, one of the city's Greek mainstays, has his roots in the cuisine—while Graffiato, his first Washington oeuvre, centers around the Italian-American food that he grew up with, Kapnos represents the food he cut his teeth on professionally. Isabella describes the menu as "focused, traditional; not your neighborhood gyro joint."
Don't expect the typical fare that hails from southern Greece. "Most Americans associate Greek food with seafood and island cuisine," says Isabella. "While Kapnos draws inspiration from all over Greece, we're focusing on more meats from the North because we wanted to showcase a different side of Greek cooking." One step inside Kapnos and that intention is immediately apparent. Absent is the customary white and blue, replaced with earth tones, the dark purples and greens associated with the nation's north. Just past the prominently featured communal chef's table is a massive open kitchen, featuring two hickory wood-fire grills with whole animals on rotating spits. "No one else in D.C. is cooking whole animals on this level," Isabella explains. He's referring to the roughly 35 animals Kapnos goes through each week, including lamb, goat, suckling pig, duck, and chicken.
While the spit-roasted animals might be the flashiest thing at Kapnos, they're far from dominating the restaurant's menu. Roughly 60% of the selection is vegetarian or fish. The rest is broken up into a selection of spreads, accompanied by flatbreads, raw mezze, vegetable mezze, and seafood mezze. Plates like the Melitzanosalata Spread ($8; smoky eggplant, roasted peppers, walnuts, feta) and the Smoky Beets ($8; beets, yogurt, green peppercorn, citrus) make direct reference to the restaurant's namesake. By and large, dishes feature characteristically Mediterranean flavors—eggplant, cucumber, yogurts, and the like—but with a self-described Byzantine touch.
For those craving more traditional Greek fare—at least as its perceived in America—Isabella includes a "Classics" menu of rotating daily specials. Dishes like a Moussaka ($9) and Keftedes ($8) will be available on different days of the week, along with larger, family-style dishes for the table like a Whole Bronzino ($34) or a Whole Lamb Shoulder ($79). Can't make up your mind? Diners can also reserve a dinner at the chef's table for a multi-course meal that includes tastes from across the menu, along with a whole lamb shoulder carved table-side by the chef.
Over at the bar, Isabella's longstanding beverage director, Taha Ismail, is crafting seasonal cocktails. For a Greek touch, there are kegged lemonades ($11 glass; $42 bottle) coming in gin, rum, and Skinos (a Mediterranean liqueur) varieties. Rounding out the beverage program are a few summer wines on tap, a broader selection of domestic and European wines, and select cocktails served in shareable jugs.
For a sampling of what Isabella is doing at Kapnos, check out some of the dishes in the slideshow »