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Watch Johnny Monis salting dough in the midst of the dinner rush at Komi and you begin to understand how this virtually untested young chef could even attempt such a thing as to beat the master at his own game.
His technique is faultless: right arm high above his head, elbow bent at a right angle, the salt falling from his moving fingers like a light snow. He seems oblivious to the idea that anyone in the dining room of his new Dupont Circle restaurant might be watching him. But they are watching him—oh, yes, male and female customers alike—as fixed on this olive-skinned chef with the lank black hair that droops Depp-like over his furrowed brow as he is on his little lump of dough.
Monis’ obliviousness explains a lot. It explains how a chef with no prior experience running his own business could take over the home of Vivo!, once an outpost of überchef Roberto Donna’s 13-restaurant empire; set it up as a chef-owned, chef-driven neighborhood bistro with a similar Mediterranean-inspired menu; and even go so far as to invite direct comparisons to Donna’s trattoria with his restaurant’s exotic-sounding, what-the-hell-is-it-supposed-to-mean four-letter name.
Monis, who most recently headed up the kitchen at Chef Geoff’s downtown, is only 24 years old, and the notion of his one day lording over a restaurant empire of his own is probably premature. And yet I can’t say that I would bet against him. Because what he might lack at this point in experience, he more than makes up for in ego: The guy clearly has ambition to burn.
The menu is billed as American with Mediterranean accents, but the label hardly begins to convey the dizzying array of styles that Monis is attempting to pull off—and pull together—in Komi’s spare, cozy space. Often, eclecticism comes across as a desperate attempt to satisfy all the people, all the time; in Monis’ case, it appears to have less to do with audience and more to do with youthful exuberance. And so you get the artfully composed salads and delicately adorned soups you’re accustomed to finding at special-occasion places, and the upscale comfort food that has become de rigueur for every self-respecting midlevel restaurant in town, and the handful of dishes that are designed to show off Monis’ clever interpretation of raw fish, and the homemade pizzas that let you know that for all his flash the chef knows the value of simplicity.
A strong sense of play pervades the seasonal menu, from the can of Pabst Blue Ribbon (“Wisconsin, $2”) that shares space on the beer list with the more expected microbrews to the homemade lollipops that come with the check. Such bits of whimsy come across as displays of an enormous self-confidence—proof that Monis can reach for the moon and still kick back and have a laugh every now and again.
Monis appears to share a certain gustatory sympathy with Mark Twain, whose The Adventures of Tom Sawyer contains this commentary on a campfire meal of fish fried in bacon: “They…were astonished; for no fish had ever seemed so delicious before.” The chef likes to lard on. On a recent midweek menu, two of the three available fish dishes were cholesterol-enhanced: a crispy walleye with black-eyed peas and bits of crumbled applewood-smoked bacon, and a black cod in a lobster reduction that was given an additional boost by some merguez. The grilled arctic char, a menu standby, seems comparatively Spartan, with only black mission figs, charred scallions, and a spattering of sunflower seeds as complement; then again, the fillet, silken and flaky and boasting a wonderfully crisped skin, doesn’t really need it.
Nor are vegetables exempt from Monis’ penchant for animal fat. Perhaps as a way of counteracting diners’ presumed fear of Brussels sprouts, Monis has dressed up his version with rendered bacon, sliced apples, and braised turnips. It’s delicious, but it’s overly oily. Similarly, a too-liberal hand with the olive oil sogs up—and nearly ruins—an otherwise appealing side of grilled endive. The lightly caramelized canoes hardly require this kind of gilding, strewn as they are with so many crispy, crumbled bits of prosciutto that you can be forgiven for confusing what you actually ordered with a side of prosciutto with endive.
Recently, I wondered if Monis, in replacing a luscious beef hanger steak served with slices of sweet potato and smoked bacon with a lighter buffalo hanger steak with grilled endive, had been rethinking some of his notions. What was more, a tempting entree of braised fresh bacon—really, a slow-cooked slab of salty pork belly—was gone from the menu. Was there something to be divined from the fact that Monis was now putting his pork belly in a secondary role, as a bit player to the cinnamon-braised rabbit? Not exactly. The roster-juggling evidently has more to do with Monis’ being an inveterate tweaker—he writes a new menu every day—than with any wholesale changes of approach. The bacon as entree will return, he says.
The wood-roasted baby chicken, Monis adds, might also return at some point in the spring. The later, the better. The bird was overdone the first time I tried it and underdone the second; and the cloying-sweet cherry glaze would in itself be enough to kill my enthusiasm even for a chicken that had been perfectly cooked. The other notable disappointment have been the “Pizzetti,” which come with gorgeous, fresh toppings that somehow never seem to mingle with their doughy, undercooked bottoms.
No entree tops $20, and at times, working your way through the menu, you sense a tug-of-war between what Monis as chef wants to do and what as a businessman he feels compelled to do. A compromise, of sorts, is to be found in the “Crudo” section of the menu, which allows Monis to extend himself a bit, to dabble in the kinds of dishes that he is probably not yet comfortable in devoting an entire menu to. I’m fondest of the crispy sardines. The little fish are dredged in cornmeal and flash-fried, retaining a wonderful, bracing wateryness on the inside that enables them, I suppose, to pass for raw; a drizzle of pickled lime sauce supplies an unexpectedly zingy, and inspired, counterpoint. A plate of mock-oysters on the mock-half-shell—a half-dozen marinated baby scallops nestled inside molded plastic clamshells, with cucumber water subbing for the mollusk’s natural liquor—and a kind of sushi napoleon—raw tuna sandwiched between layers of cucumber, Asian pear, and chocolate mint, with a mango-yuzu-horseradish sauce for dipping—are more interesting than delicious.
Still, I’d like to see even more such dishes on the menu, not fewer—dishes that exist as much to satisfy the chef’s particular aesthetic needs as anything else. It may seem like self-indulgence, but it’s self-indulgence of a particularly productive kind. Here’s hoping Monis continues to experiment—and grow by way of his experimentation. A restaurant needs to cultivate its regulars, of course, but a bit more of Monis’ brand of cheffy obliviousness couldn’t hurt, could it?
Komi, 1509 17th St. NW. (202) 332-9200. —Todd Kliman
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