- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

When you climb the six old-fashioned iron steps to Komi on 17th Street Northwest, just above P Street, you’ll be surprised. Light and airy, the long narrow room with its stark, unadorned white walls — perhaps a bit too stark — and attractive two-toned wooden tables is an oasis in the hustle and bustle of the Dupont east neighborhood.

Komi occupies the space that once housed Roberto Donna’s Radicchio. It’s a small neighborhood restaurant with original dishes prepared by the young chef/owner, Johnny Monis. Jocelyn, our waitress on several occasions, was attentive and well-informed about every dish and the wines; eager, like the entire staff, to please.

Dinner begins with a treat from the chef. At a recent meal, it was a taste of a deliciously subtle cauliflower and curry soup with undercurrents of apple, just enough to whet the appetite for one of the kitchen’s outstanding appetizers.

The menu is not extensive, but the 10 first courses and seven entrees are carefully chosen to accommodate a variety of tastes. Chilled puree of corn soup with bits of bacon and arugula is a fine soup, creamy and flavorful, and might be even better served warm.

Small fresh sardines, crisp, hot and boned, are excellent. They’re served with a spoonful of tangy pickled lemon, similar to a tart chutney and fresh spinach.

A slim rectangle of roasted romaine lettuce is the foundation of an unusual and beautiful salad, dressed with yogurt and accompanied by a strip of crisp bacon and baby beets alternating with small chunks of blue cheese. A lovely combination of happily married flavors.

The chicken pistachio pate, served with house-made mustard and pickled vegetables (thin rounds of carrots and white radish and gherkins) is rich, creamy and full of flavor. It’s a sophisticated rendition of a traditional first course with the nuts adding texture as well as flavor.

Other first courses include black mission figs in a salad with goat cheese; grilled mushrooms; charred cuttlefish; oysters prettily presented with a dab of creme fraiche, and wild salmon pastrami — salmon that is smoked and treated like pastrami — and served with avocado and a quail egg. All highly original and well conceived.

The pork tenderloin is an unusually good main course. Two small pieces of meat, one from the tenderloin and the other from the belly, are crusted with black tea, and served with a huckleberry sauce. The pork is tender and delicious, the two pieces offering slightly different textures and tastes and enhanced by the sweetness of the huckleberries.

Equally delicious is the hanger steak, which has the full, rich flavor of a sirloin. Crusty on the outside, the thin slices of beef are tender on the inside. The meat is served with barely blanched French beans and roasted potatoes. A little more cooking time for the slim, bright green beans would give them additional flavor.

Olive-steamed halibut is one of the best fish dishes. The sweet, moist flesh is served in a little broth with a combination of tiny tomatoes, little olives, baby carrots and slices of new potatoes and onions. There’s a hint of lemon. It’s a fragrant and healthy dish that leaves the fish as the star.

Equally successful are the grilled day-boat scallops, served on a bed of quinoa with sunflower seeds. The quinoa is reminiscent of fine couscous but with a more pronounced nutty flavor, and a pleasant change from rice as an accompaniment to scallops.

Komi’s main-course menu is rounded out with cinnamon-braised veal with celery root and mushrooms; poached lamb loin with black lentils, and collards and summer harame (fish) with black-eyed peas.

Vegetable side dishes, some of which are served with the entrees, priced at $4 each, are as interesting and unusual as the rest of the menu. Black lentils are mixed with collards, French green beans are combined with oyster mushrooms, brussels sprouts are paired with bacon and green apples. We tried the mixture of black-eyed peas, pancetta and crunchy bits of pear and found it worked well as a combination.

Crispy squash dumplings with buttermilk pudding floating in maple syrup beckoned us at dessert time. The dumplings resemble hot, fried empanadas with a smooth, slightly sweet squash filling. They’re balanced by the cool pudding, which is crowned with thin slivers of candied orange peel. The maple syrup adds an additional element of sweetness.

Black mission fig crostata with goat cheese ice cream; peanut butter panna cotta, and a chocolate marquise round out the desserts.

Komi offers an excellent selection of wines by the glass, priced at $6 to $8, including bottles from Portugal, Greece, Austria and France among the whites, and Sicily, Spain and South Africa for the reds, and several sparkling wines from France, Spain and Italy as well as California wines. Bottles are reasonably priced, too, ranging primarily from $25 to $35, although there are a number of more expensive wines as well.

Komi is a treat, as is the lime-flavored house-made lollipop that sometimes comes with the bill.

It’s noisy enough to make conversation difficult when the restaurant is full, and sometimes the wait between courses is a little long, but it’s worth it.

RESTAURANT: Komi, 1509 17th St. NW; 202/332-9200

HOURS: Dinner only, 5:30 to 10 or 10:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday

PRICES: Starters, $8 to $12; main courses, $18 to $24; desserts, $7 and $8

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking, which can be difficult on weekends

ACCESS: Not wheelchair accessible

METRO: Dupont Circle (Red Line)

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