Review: Mike Isabella's Kapnos Kouzina
Our critic is mostly a fan of the celebrity chef's Bethesda outpost
Greek fare at Kapnos Kouzina includes, clockwise from top left, melltzanosalata (eggplant dip), tyrokaftari (feta and smoked manouri cheese spread), crudité, saganaki (melted cheese), hummus and spanakopita.
Moments after I walk into Kapnos Kouzina, the bustling restaurant that celebrity chef Mike Isabella opened at Bethesda Row in February, the sound of shattering glass reverberates throughout the 5,200-square-foot space and jump-starts my attention. It’s something I experience on every visit, both literally (there is either some flaw in the glassware or a chronic clumsiness issue) and figuratively—meals interspersed with jolting moments.
The metaphor extends to Isabella himself, who expands his empire fission-like, with bravado, ambition and energy. Kapnos Kouzina (kapnos means smoke in Greek; kouzina is kitchen) is the second offspring of Kapnos restaurant in Washington, D.C.; the first is Kapnos Taverna in Arlington, Virginia. The Mike Isabella Concepts portfolio also includes two Graffiatos, two airport concessions, one ballpark concession, a sandwich shop (G by Mike Isabella), a Mexican cantina (Pepita) and two restaurants (Yona and Requin) owned in partnership with other chefs. In the works: a 40,000-square-foot, 10-outlet food court in Tysons Galleria and a second location of Requin.
Executive chef George Pagonis oversees the kitchens of all three Kapnos locations.
In Bethesda, the Kapnos space, formerly housing Vapiano, seats 160, including at tables on the patio. Inside, a street-level mezzanine overlooks a seating area that contains an open kitchen with a 12-seat white-marble counter, a 24-seat horseshoe-shaped oak bar and a chef’s table for 12. Light-wood floors and tables, bench-seat booths and green accent walls outfit the large, loud space, which brings to mind a fun, buzzy canteen.
The company creatively maintains that the three restaurants are markedly different, with Kapnos focusing on Northern Greek cooking, Kapnos Taverna on coastal cuisine, and Kapnos Kouzina on home-style cooking. But there is such overlap in the small plates, spreads and large-format dishes they offer that you have to wonder at what point it’s time to mention the ch-word (chain) and celebrate the similitude.
I can attest already to the superiority of the brand’s spreads, among them the luscious whipped taramasalata (carp roe dip); the smoky eggplant, walnut, feta cheese and roasted red pepper mélange; the favasalata of puréed yellow lentils with black garlic vinaigrette and pine nuts; and the hard-to-resist blend of smoky manouri cheese and kicky grains of paradise spice. I also know saganaki—a skillet of honey-touched, bubbly kefalograviera cheese—to be irresistible.
My previous visits to the other Kapnos restaurants allowed a quality control check on Kouzina’s spanakopita, hummus and falafel. I found the spanakopita to still be the best rendition of the buttery, flaky spinach-and-feta phyllo pie I’ve ever had. The hummus reigns over other eateries’ versions thanks to the neat formation of mint, ginger, golden raisins and red chili chutney lined atop it. Chickpea fritters are light and verdant from parsley, their fresh herb salad an enlivening foil.
As to the dishes I’ve tried for the first time, I love Kouzina’s Caesar salad, its whole leaves fully dressed with creamy, tangy feta dressing and topped with feta crumbles, pita croutons, watermelon radish and pickled red onions. Crab flatbread, one of three, is a marvelous, summer-fresh salad of lump crabmeat, avocado and tzatziki in pizza form. From the souvlaki section, grilled ground duck patties are moist and tasty, their sublime flavor enhanced by a dip in charred scallion purée.
The large dining room at Kapnos Kouzina overlooks an open kitchen.
Tuna tartare is problematic. On one visit, the hand-cut tuna cubes are so overmarinated that acid transforms their texture into mush and obliterates the fish’s brightness. (Is it ceviche or tartare?) On another occasion, the tuna is perfect, but its avocado purée base is brownish.
Other fish dishes excel. King salmon chunks, grilled perfectly to medium, sing when swiped in their cauliflower purée accompaniment, so smooth, rich and yellow it evokes hollandaise sauce. De-skewered swordfish, red pepper and onion are lemony and deftly grilled, peeking from under a pile of dilly herb salad. Dill is the predominant flavor in a ragout of spinach and large lima-like gigante beans underneath poached shrimp.
Among the shareable items, green olive and lemon juice brine suffuses Kouzina’s fried half or whole chicken, the pieces tender and juicy beneath a crunchy coating. Honey harissa (spicy red pepper paste) dipping sauce adds notes of sweet and heat.
Some not-to-miss dishes at Kapnos Kouzina include (clockwise from top left) lamb shank kampama, yogurt panna cotta with minted citrus, fried chicken and crab flatbread.
A Flintstone-size lamb shank braised to tenderness in a red-wine tomato sauce heady with cinnamon, allspice and clove is pure melt-in-your-mouth satisfaction. You’d hope a Greek restaurant gets roasted rack of lamb right, and Kouzina does, accompanying it with roasted fingerlings, harissa, tzatziki and a garlicky oregano and rosemary salsa verde.
The service, though affable and attentive, needs work. Basic questions about menu items sometimes stump the staff. The first item I order, one of beverage director Taha Ismail’s delightful cocktails called the Papadapolous, contains, along with grapefruit juice, unfamiliar ingredients: Tetteris mastiha, hum and burlesque bitters. When I ask what they are, the server has to seek answers. (They are, respectively, a liqueur made from mastic evergreen resin, an amaro, and hibiscus and acai bitters.)
For dessert, I could eat an entire bowl of the brown butter coffee ice cream that comes with a perfectly respectable chocolate torte. Yogurt panna cotta topped with fresh grapefruit and orange segments, mint, honey and a buttery, orange-laced kataifi (shredded phyllo) refreshes and delights without being overly sweet or heavy. That makes it a meal ender worthy of raising a glass over. Just don’t drop it, please.
4900 Hampden Lane, Bethesda, 301-986-8500, kapnoskouzina.com
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.