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Salted and baked whole fish

Sure Fire

by David Hagedorn | Photography by Greg Powers | DC magazine | September 26, 2013

I have to give chef Mike Isabella credit: He has a knack for hitting trends on their way in and actualizes them in restaurants that intrigue and impress. With Kapnos, his new 160-seat restaurant on the northern end of the action-packed 14th Street corridor, Isabella turns his eye to the cooking of Northern Greece. Along with partners George and Nick Pagonis, the chef de cuisine and general manager, respectively, Isabella coupled mezze, the Greek version of small plates, with the lure of whole animals spit-roasting on rotisseries front and center in the dining room. Kapnos, it should come as no surprise, means smoke in Greek, and the smell of hickory wafts pleasantly through the air to set an olfactory tone.

Streetsense, a Bethesda-based design and architectural firm, is responsible for the decor, which is a mix of Byzantine and Moorish influences. Various wood species figure prominently, from communal tables crafted from mesquite and walnut to oak flooring and dark-stained dining tables and modern, armless side chairs. Accent colors are intensely saturated jewel tones: gold, tufted banquette cushions; water glasses the color of emerald jewels; eggplant-hued velvet draping; burnt orange wall panels outlined with scrollwork to make them resemble tarot cards, which Isabella’s mother likes to read. Colored swirls painted into concrete floors connote smoke plumes and rich Oriental carpet designs.

The menu is divided into spreads and various categories of mezze: barely raw (crudos), cold (salads), garden (vegetarian), ocean and spit-roasted. Isabella, being the detail guy that he is, chose cunning serving pieces as perfect backdrops to his dishes. Fluffy tyrokafteri (whipped feta and smoked manouri cheeses dotted with zesty grains of paradise), melitzanosalata (eggplant, roasted red pepper, walnuts, feta) and silken taramasalata (carp roe and potato spread topped with caviar) come in a free-form granite platter with three wells to harbor the heavenly dips. Neat squares of compressed watermelon—topped with shaved fennel and turfa pepper—or slivers of branzino served gravlax-style line the well of a rectangular clear glass plate. A for-the-table roasted chicken with lemony potatoes rests in the niche of a wooden cutting board.

Kapnos is a veritable haven for those who crave vegetables. Gigandes (think giant beige lima beans) stewed with onion bulbs, seeds and stems are hearty and rib-sticking. Chickpea fries with mizithra cheese and peppercorns may well induce you to give up the potato version. Lemon rind, feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes make smoky grilled asparagus spiffy, while fenugreek lends extra body to a mini-stew of cauliflower, tomatoes and cecis. The real standout, though, is the fava. Normally made with pureed lentils, Isabella leaves the yellow lentils whole, rendering them into a potage-like emulsion that looks like creamed corn kernels. Pearl onions add sweetness to the legumes, and spinach sautéed with vinegar provides acid.

If you adore fish, Isabella impresses. Baked halibut with melted leeks and avgolemono sauce, and roasted swordfish with lahanosalata (a charred cabbage salad with golden raisins) have just the right amount of flair without overpowering the fish. Charred octopus—complemented by crunchy amaranth seeds and resting on a pool of green harissa—is a legitimate tour de force. The tentacle is exquisitely tender, and its charring is a perfect counterpoint to the sauce’s piquancy.

Additionally, the menu features first-rate phyllo pies—such as those filled with fat-rich duck-confit shreds and cherries. Other items for the table include the succulent whole salt-baked fish, whole branzino or a whole-roasted lamb shoulder, which is carved tableside. A daily special, which could be youvarlakia (lamb and rice meatballs in a hollandaise-like avgolemono sauce), moussaka, saganaki or spanakopita are always worth ordering.

As nicely as nonmeat-eaters may fare at Kapnos, the place is a carnivore’s dreamland. If you leave without having ordered the spit-roasted, herb-marinated lamb; suckling pig; or spiced baby goat, you’ll have missed out on the best the menu has to offer. The tenderness of the meat, its light smokiness, its melty fat goodness and bits of crispy, caramelized flesh all conspire to induce overindulgence, especially when adorned with dabs of homemade, bright-red harissa. Throughout your meal, remember to have servers keep the oil-brushed folds of warm, freshly baked pita coming, whether for scooping, stuffing or inhaling.

To libate, start with the Domaine Tselepos Moschofilero Greek sparkler or a bright, boozy lemonade—the one with gin, grilled lemon, honey thyme and soda is my recommendation—but the rum lemonade with verbena tea is a close second. From there, it’s Greek wine all the way. Eminently drinkable and fruit-forward, wines such as Domaine Gerovassiliou’s Malagousia and Gaia Estate’s Agiorgitiko are winners, the latter complementing Kapnos’ roasted meats exquisitely.

Don’t fret if you haven’t left room for the apple strudel-meets-baklava accompanied by apple-ginger sorbet, the rectangle of chocolate mousse enrobed in ganache and dotted with cherry gelee or the pile of fluffy fried-dough balls (loukoumades). On your return visits, you can start with dessert and work backward.

12201 14th St. NW,

Small Plates: $7-$19; desserts: $7-$9

Hours: Mon.-Wed., 5:30-10:30pm; Thu., 5:30-11pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm; Sat. and Sun. brunch, 11am-3pm

Front Row!
Get 10 friends together for the mesquite-butcher-block chef’s table situated in front of the open kitchen. At one end is a built-in cutting board with a juice well, where the chef carves spit-roasted meats from whole animals and places the bounty on family-style platters, along with an array of mezze and spreads.

The Italian Job
Kapnos is attached via a hallway to G, a 46-seat sandwich shop that offers spit-roasted meats from the main dining room. Wednesday through Sunday, consider the four-course, $40 fixed-price Italian tasting menu. Sunday Gravy is a gem: platters of spaghetti with pomodoro sauce, meatballs and sausage.