- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fish, priced by the pound and usually served simply grilled, is the specialty of the new Kellari Taverna — an offspring of the New York restaurant — at 17th and K streets downtown.

Illuminated Greek names of fish and wines run along the top of the walls, and, most important, an elevated display of fresh fish gets pride of place at the center of the restaurant. The display sparkles and glitters as the overhead light reflects the pink, gray, black and silver scales of the fish resting on a bed of ice.

The fish arrive fresh from the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean. There are huge Madagascar wild shrimp and scaly lobsters, their antennae still twitching on the ice, as if eager to become the dinner of an important lawyer or lobbyist.

Large windows front the white-tablecloth restaurant on K Street. Near the bar, four small round tables along a banquette make a pleasant and informal lunchtime alternative to the dining room.

Except for the display of fish, there’s not much about Kellari to resemble a taverna. It’s a formal and expensive restaurant that serves food, primarily fish, that’s fresh and good. The cooking tends to be on the bland side; the bright, zesty fresh taste of Greece and the islands seems far from K Street.

Appetizers are the most interesting offerings. Small pieces of very tender octopus are charcoal-grilled and served with slivers of red pepper, thin-sliced red onion and capers. It’s a fine starter.

Lamb riblets are marinated and slow-baked, arriving at the table fragrant with Greek oregano. The flavor is excellent, but the riblets have a bit too much fat. Katsikisio is a warm dish of goat cheese baked with apricots and sprinkled with almonds. The cheese is delicate, and the combination with the nuts and apricots is fine, but the dish is on the dry side. A little bit of warm, crumbled goat cheese goes a long way.

Better known to Washington diners are spanakopita (phyllo pastry filled with spinach, leeks and feta cheese), tzatziki (goat yogurt mixed with pieces of cucumber, garlic and dill), keftides (beef and lamb meatballs), grilled calamari and grilled sardines, mussels cooked in ouzo with herbs and feta cheese, and avgolemono soup, the classic Greek mixture of chicken broth, eggs and lemon juice.

Most of the fish are large and easily would serve two or three people. We ordered a small Dover sole, which weighed just 1 pound. It was delicious - delicate, sweet and fresh. The fish are not accompanied by side dishes, so we ordered spinach. Unfortunately, it was bitter.

Kellari’s executive chef and part owner, Gregory Zapantis, prepares other seafood as well, such as sea bass, swordfish, and orzo with shrimp, scallops, mussels and clams. Three meat dishes grace the dinner menu: a juicy chicken breast mushed atop excellent mashed potatoes and beneath grilled onions; lamb chops grilled with olive oil and herbs; and New York strip steak accompanied by french fries. But the fruit of Davy Jones’ locker reigns here.

At lunch, the menu adds salads, a beef and lamb burger and a crab-cake burger to several seafood and meat entrees.

Kellari offers a three-course lunch menu for $25.95 and a three-course pre- and post-theater menu for $29.95. Each includes a choice of soup, salad or a Greek specialty; a choice of fish, moussaka or meat; and a choice of desserts. A lovely, very Greek dessert is a dish of rich, creamy yogurt infused with honey, cherries and nuts.

The wine list is an interesting one with several Greek wines by the bottle or glass.

Kellari’s service needs attention and work. Young men who appear to be waiters stand at attention, waiting to be told what to do by actual waiters, who are few and far between. We waited fully 15 minutes to order drinks, and the wait between courses was longer. Diners in the bar area fared no better. The barman is in charge of serving the little tables, but his appearances are rare, and he tends to forget requests. Perhaps these are merely start-up problems. Kellari shows promise for fish-eaters.

RESTAURANT: Kellari Taverna, 1700 K St. NW, 202/535-5274

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