By Elana Schor - 01/19/12 12:07 AM EST
When your first restaurant is revered enough to be spoken of in the hushed tones of a tryst, how do you follow it? When a reservation for your cooking is so hard to procure that your phones are jammed a month in advance, how do you find a new challenge?
For Johnny Monis, who eight years ago began modernizing and elevating the Greek cuisine of his family at Komi, the answer is a funky, 180-degree turn to northeastern Thailand. In an unmarked basement next to Komi, where the first couple stepped out in 2010, the chef is delivering lustily spicy and intellectually engaging cuisine inspired by the Thai Isan region that he and wife Anne Marler, a co-owner, hold dear.
Consider the Mekhong whiskey ribs, palm-sized cuts of pork marinated in spicy red chili paste, garlic and sugar before a long, slow journey over heat that leaves tendrils of meat curling off each munchable bone. (Yes, you can and should nibble a bone.) The presentation may be universal, but the taste is not — Monis is unafraid to bring out his marinade’s sour and bitter as well as sweet-spicy notes, a typical trait of Isan cuisine that makes his ribs more complex than the average barbecue.
On another night, the heady sight of those ribs might be preceded by a bowl of pliant rice noodles, tender Wagyu beef brisket and creamy duck egg, bathed in a tamarind-scented sauce that crowns an equally fragrant broth. These dishes might be catnip to diners with a keen appreciation of spice, but the unexpected intellectual demand of consuming them asks more of Monis’s customers than the average Pad Thai.
Simply put, Little Serow is a challenge worth taking. For those sensitive to strong flavor, frequent visits to the free basket of lettuce, cabbage, cucumber and other vegetables are recommended. The charming cast of servers, most of whom seem to have stepped out of an Urban Outfitters catalog, are also a helpful resource for questions about the seasoning and ideal technique for discovering the hidden secrets of each course.
For example, the coins of dusky sausage known as sai oua are best eaten wrapped individually in the small leaves of vibrant Thai basil that arrive in the vegetable basket, as one server explained. The fennel-esque tang of the herb mates well with the sausage’s bright notes of kaffir lime and galangal, a smokier Southeast Asian member of the ginger family.
Another memorable Monis creation, a dip made from duck liver and shrimp paste, almost fell flat after its accompanying crispy pork skins disappeared too quickly in our eager hands. After another server noticed my companion lamenting that the grease of each pork rind proved too strong a match for the merlot-hued dip, she pointed to the grapefruit-sized mound of sticky rice that also comes gratis with the vegetable basket and advised us to use a blander medium for appreciating its density.
Needless to say, the dip’s bowl was picked clean with swipes of rice. Little Serow’s largely female staff is on point like that, a crew of Gals Friday trained to swoop by with a quip or a tip. They also do not hesitate to offer generous tastes of each wine before it is delivered, a boon to any customer who has trouble choosing between a refreshing glass of the in-house infused “wines on ice” or a bottle of Thailand’s favorite Chang lager.
Effortlessly explanatory service is a hallmark that Komi shares, but the similarities in the two kitchens’ ambiences stops there. While Monis’s upstairs flagship is a font of romance, paneled in dark wood that tends to swallow the reverent whispers sparked by its menu, Komi’s new little cousin has a more boisterous and down-home vibe designed to match the simple, countrified ethos of its Isan fare.
To that end, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton tunes spool from the stereo at the volume of a rollicking house party, and the unadorned walls are painted a bright, cheeky seafoam green. Little Serow might offer food with more layers than an Austrian dessert — such as a cold eggplant salad that plays off the vegetable’s texture to give it the starring role of a spiced meat — but its décor encourages visitors to kick off their shoes and have fun.
Perhaps the biggest pity, then, is how quickly a feast can fly by as each course arrives in rapid succession. On one visit, I had not managed to move from that eggplant salad and its addictive trails of pickled garlic to the next round, a minced catfish salad that fluffs into an irresistible cloud of shallot-laden spice, when a third course of shrimp arrived on its heels.
Though the succession is dizzying in a good way, you would be forgiven for crying uncle after such a rapid succession of food meant to slowly savor. The problem here is a good one: At more run-of-the-mill Thai spots, a plate of curry or drunken noodles tends to arrive tasting and appearing familiar, triggering your sense memories of previous encounters.
That shrimp, however, is served cold in a kicky, lemongrass-infused vinegar that also manages to cut the spice of the tongue-teasing catfish with cool lime leaf. It’s like no other mid-menu respite served by a top D.C. chef, and the more time to digest it, the better.
Yet there is no rest for the stimulated at Little Serow, where the family-style portions can leave customers stuffed to the gills by course five or still hungry even after the last rib is gone — depending on the number of diners and how many drinks are brought to table. Few of Monis’s quirky Isan creations hold up well upon reheating, but don’t be afraid to ask for a to-go container; I found that his succulent fried meatballs, coated in a pleasingly sticky turmeric-basil sauce, came back to life after being reheated.
If you would not expect the encouragement of leftover-toting at classy Komi’s sequel, you aren’t alone. Then again, little about Little Serow is predictable. But in a city where truly adventurous dining is just beginning to make its mark, everything about the restaurant is worth a trip.