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SEA THIS Each night, guests may order a whole fish preparation with mussels and clams.

Grand Escape

by Nevin Martell | Photography by Greg Powers | DC magazine | July 8, 2016

It’s an otherwise unremarkable and warm May evening, but Kapnos Kouzina is booming. Perched at the corner of Hampden Lane on Bethesda Row, the 160-seat Greek powerhouse from a pair of Top Chef alums—chef-restaurateur Mike Isabella and his business partner, executive chef George Pagonis—is alive with the hum of diners hungry for a spot imbued with culinary cool. Outgoing servers, dressed in olive-green shirts and brushed evergreen aprons, hustle and bustle with impressively high energy.

The striking 5,200-square-foot space was brought to life by Natalie Park Design Studio and Eimer Design. Shades of green dominate, accented with flashes of white and sandy-hued wood, and vivified by the day’s last burst of sunlight peeking through the wraparound windows. The freestanding island bar floats near the center of the room, like Crete off Greece’s mainland, while gray-veined white marble serves as a backdrop to the showcase kitchen with counter seating. The rest of the seating is divided between booths, traditional tables and high-tops; though the aim is to offer an alfresco patio experience by late summer.

The Grecian eatery, which opened this spring, follows in the footsteps of Kapnos on 14th Street. But don’t mistake it as a carbon copy. The menu of small plates and family-style entrees is almost completely new—though it does include a few fan favorites. The stellar spreads are here, including the tyrokaftari (rich feta leavened by fresh dill and jalapenos) and taramosalata (a smooth, decadent mix of carp roe, caviar and cauliflower). They all come with your choice of feathery, freshly fired pita brushed with olive oil or a rainbow of pickled vegetables.

There’s also the well-loved Greek Caesar—Romaine with dilly dressing, plenty of pepper rings, feta and crispy pita chips in lieu of croutons—and hot-from-the-oven saganaki cheese with chewy edges and a molten middle topped with black-pepper honey and plenty of dill to cut the richness.

Fresh additions include pyde, open-faced, canoe-shaped flatbreads. A relative of the recently trendy Turkish pide, these are lighter than their cheese-heavy cousins. The crust of my favorite is slathered with tzatziki and crowned with crab, diced avocado and chiles for a hit of heat. Another welcome newcomer is the deftly charred salmon kebabs accompanied by a springy, slightly sweet slaw.

The fried chicken is a must-order. First brined in a mixture of olive and preserved lemon rinds, it’s double dredged to trap the meat’s juices and create a crackly exterior that’s a joy to crunch through. It’s finished with a dusting of lemon zest and served with a harissa-spiked honey for dunking.

Beverage Director Taha Ismail’s latest cocktails are an excellent complement to the fare. Cardamom lurks amid the delightfully rind-forward Papadapolous made with grapefruit juice and licorice-vibe mastic liqueur. For a true Mediterranean-sip session, order ouzo, raki, Greek beers or a number of Aegean varietals.

To end the meal, there’s a compact dessert menu worthy of your time, attention and whatever space might remain in your belly. Housemade scoops are a surefire bet. Baklava ice cream is like the Greek version of chocolate-chip cookie dough, featuring chunklets and swirls of the honeyed pastry. A summery blueberry lemon sorbet—not too sweet, not too tart—has the smooth consistency of classic Italian ice. Speaking of svelte, the silky panna cotta is a winner, lavished with honey and citrus segments.

After a strong cup of Greek coffee, it’s time to go. Standing on the sidewalk in the growing darkness, the joyful buzz of the restaurant carries outside, serving as a fond reminder of the experience and luring the next round of diners.

KAPNOS KOUZINA
4900 Hampden Lane, Bethesda, Md., 301.986.8500
Small plates, $8-$24; family style entrees, $23-$52; desserts, $7-$8

Mon.-Thu., 11:30am-10pm; Fri., 11:30am-11pm; Sat.,11am-11pm; Sun.,11am-9pm

Greek to Go
The gourmet Grecian goodies packing the floor-to-ceiling shelving by the front door aren’t just for show—they’re for sale. The carefully curated selection of imports in the Greek pantry includes everything from olive oil and vinegars to sodas and sugary treats. Many items are used in the kitchen, so diners can try before they buy.

Pop Stars
There’s just as much thought put into the nonalcoholic drinks as the cocktails. A trio of housemade sodas impresses with their deep and creative flavors. There’s refreshing, palate-cleansing pineapple-lemongrass, punchy grapefruit-cinnamon and sarsaparilla ginger beer, which packs a welcome zing.