Opa! Kellari Taverna offers downtown D.C. seafood with a Greek twist


So a Tuesday evening, a chef on his A game and a brand-new restaurant looking to make it in a notoriously tough food town should all add up to one decadent meal. And at Kellari Taverna, Washington’s new high-end seafood spot with a Greek twist, it does — if you average out the highs and lows.

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Kellari opened in mid-October at 17th and K streets NW. It’s the brainchild of New York restaurateur Stavros Aktipis and is a sister location to the Manhattan original. A Greek immigrant who relocated to the U.S. in the late 1980s, Aktipis has partnered with fellow Greek import chef Gregory Zapantis and local executive chef Anthony Acinapura to create an exciting seafood menu with Mediterranean flair.

“We are now in a town that has predominantly been dominated by steakhouses,” Aktipis said. “We’re bringing to this town a simple, tasty and fresh seafood restaurant with a Greek approach.”

This approach includes offering more than a dozen fish grilled whole and seasoned simply with Greek olive oil, oregano, capers and lemon. To demonstrate freshness, Kellari puts its money where diners’ mouths are, with a playful fish display right in the center of the main dining area.

Showcasing daily market catches from the Mediterranean and Atlantic, the impressive array of fresh fish, lobster and prawns on ice is an interesting update on the clichéd lobster tank. It’s a beautiful, multi-tiered display that anchors the contemporary yet homey décor.

Developed by Skordas Design Studio in New York, the Kellari interior features Greek stone floors, antiqued white woodwork, dark wood furniture and glass art accents. Amusing wine casks flank the room as Greek folk, rock and pop filter through the speakers. Adjacent to the dining room, a 30-seat lounge features a copper raw bar and large flat-screen TV.

Though a tad super-solicitous, the knowledgeable wait staff is happy to explain the menu, extolling the fresh seafood options mixed with classic Greek dishes. Expected appetizers like spanakopita (fillo pies with spinach and feta) and tzatziki (a traditional Greek yogurt dip) mingle with more daring fare like taramasalata (carp roe mousse) and sardines grilled with olive oil.

The mussels santorini, served in a tomato, ouzo and herb broth, were a surprising disappointment. The purportedly fresh sea creatures were bland and chewy, the delicate broth over-salted. But the simple katsikisio, goat cheese baked with apricots, almonds and Greek honey, was the perfect antidote. The smooth, salty-yet-sweet spread on crunchy crostini was downright delicious, and not a morsel went to waste.

Selecting a main course at Kellari can be a difficult decision. The dozen-plus daily fresh fish served whole (averaging $25-$35 per pound) include some options difficult to find on the East Coast. Tsipoura, a Mediterranean bream with a reportedly nutty flavor, and the Portuguese Lethrini, a sweet red sea bream, are unusual and unexpected. Safer options include the Dover sole, red snapper, turbot and black sea bass, each grilled with a minimum of seasoning to highlight the flavor of the fish.

The plaki, Chilean sea bass braised with tomatoes, onions and caper berries, was a succulent, flaky joy. The fresh fish, served over grilled onion and tomato, was cooked to perfection, its rich flavor allowed to shine through. An undercooked carrot and potato meant to add texture were instead a distraction, and overuse of rosemary throughout the entree deducted from the overall experience. But the perfection of the sea bass was undeniable and rendered the dish a decided success.

Non-seafood options like organic chicken and certified Angus New York strip are available, along with paidakia, grilled lamb chops with olive oil and oregano roasted potatoes. Served medium-rare, the lamb was high-quality yet partially masked by over-salting and rosemary, an emerging theme at Kellari. In small quantities, rosemary can move mountains. In large helpings, it can overshadow them.

The simplicity of the dish, however — the richness of the meat combined with the modest potatoes — did stand up. Over-seasoning aside, Kellari does meat well, a wise move for a seafood restaurant competing with nearby steakhouses.

Well-portioned courses may leave little room for dessert, but several standouts really shouldn’t be missed. The galatoboureko, a vanilla- and citrus-flavored custard pie, has a very surprising hint of clove that snaps on the tongue. The savory spice traditionally used in meat dishes is an interesting match for the lemony custard, an unexpected take on an otherwise straightforward pastry.

The Kellari sundae, creamy hazelnut gelato with a layer of Nutella and shot of Greek coffee nestled at the bottom, is definitely no kiddy ice cream dish. The unsweetened, put-hair-on-your-chest Greek coffee is a wonderful complement to the sugary gelato, and one cross-sectional spoonful along with fresh whipped cream and salty toasted hazelnuts is positively sinful.

A glass of Muscat “Samos” Vin Doux, a full-flavored fruity dessert wine, is a terrific pairing with any after-dinner treat or a delicious meal-capper on its own. It’s an ideal means to sit back and unwind after such a rich and filling meal.

When it comes to quality products, comfortably classy ambiance and efficient service, Kellari Taverna wins high marks. The Mediterranean seafood spot proves that it can hold its own against high-end downtown competitors with memorable dishes and unusual ingredients. If Kellari can just work out the kinks, it will be all downstream from here.