By Albert Eisele - 11/18/09 12:34 AM EST
Just ask Executive Chef Anthony Acinapura Jr. what he recommends as he inspects a showcase display of more than a dozen varieties of fresh seafood arrayed on a bed of ice in the center of the dining room, and he’ll point out his favorites.
“These are red mullets,” he says, spritzing water over sardine-like fish called barbounia. “And these are king shrimp from Madagascar,” he says as he sprays what looks like shrimp on steroids. “And this is red snapper,” he says, pointing to a large fish from Greece called fagri, prized for its delicate white flesh. “They just arrived, and if you want something you won’t find anywhere else, I suggest you try all three. You can split the red snapper, and start with a Greek salad.”
As I wait for Alex, I peruse the complex menu and gargantuan wine list dominated by Greek wines — “kellari” is Greek for “wine cellar.” I order a glass of the wine of the month, a Moschofilero ($8) billed as “lively aromatic [with] an understated power,” which I find too understated for my taste. When Alex arrives, I tell him he doesn’t have a choice because we’re having what the chef suggested, and ask our waiter to recommend a white wine that’s a little less understated. He brings us each a glass of Assyrtiko ($9), which is much better.
Our waiter is a pleasant young man named Daniel Heider who knows his way around Greek cuisine. A 22-year-old “off and on” student at George Washington University, his uncle owns a hotel on the Greek island of Syros, where he’s spent every summer since he was 12. We tell him we want what the chef suggested, and order an appetizer of plevakia (lamb riblets) and side dishes of fasolakia (green beans) and spanakorizo (spinach with orzo), both $6.95.
As we enjoy some complimentary hummus and black olives, General Manager Yacine Tazi, a native of Casablanca whom I’d met earlier, comes by to say we may have ordered more food than we can eat, and suggests we opt for a small, rather than full-sized red snapper, which we do.
Our lamb riblets ($12.95), slow roasted and sprinkled with oregano, are sensational, with the fatty meat falling off the bone. An instant heart attack, my cardiologist would say. There are eight of them, and like the fish, they’re sold by weight.
Two of our three seafood choices are equally impressive. The four barbounia or red mullets ($25.06) are simply grilled with olive oil, salt and herbs, and are crisp and delicious. The fagri or red snapper, the most expensive item on the menu at $34.95 a pound — our one-and-a-third pound fish came to $46.48 — is served with capers and lemon juice and is as good as any Dover sole I’ve tasted.
But the four giant shrimp ($45.36) prove to be the menu’s Achilles heel; they must have been flexing their muscles all the way from Madagascar because they’re tough and rubbery, and neither of us finishes them. Nor can we finish our tasty side dishes. So we call it a night as I enjoy a glass of retsina ($9), the resin-flavored white wine that tastes better than it sounds, and we finish with two sweet and dense Greek coffees ($6).
Kellari Taverna, which opened only last month, seems determined to succeed in a location (1700 K St. NW) that has seen two other restaurants, Jimmy’s on K Street and Restaurant K, fail. It’s expensive — our meal with tax and tip came to a whopping $267.87 — but worth it for a special occasion.
After all, where else can you have lunch, as I did last week, with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew? Well, I didn’t exactly have lunch with them, but I was sampling the excellent bar menu when they arrived. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.
Maybe I’ll invite Sarah Palin to dinner at Kellari Taverna when she’s in town promoting her book.