Monday, November 21, 2011

big flavors, little serow

I have never dined at Komi.

I'm stating that up front because it's known far and wide to be one of the best restaurants (or perhaps "dining experiences") in DC. Johnny Monis has received national accolades for his Mediterranean tasting menu; add a fantastic wine list and exquisite service, and it's no wonder it's one of the first places the Obamas went for a special occasion night out after moving here.

In the past few years, though, I've not had reason or inclination to go all-in for the multi-course Komi adventure. It's not that I doubt I'd enjoy it; it just never quite made it onto my must-do list.

And then.

Two weeks ago, the Komi team opened the doors on a new project: Little Serow. Serving a set menu of northern Thai (Isaan) dishes family-style, the tiny underground space with no signage doesn't take reservations; Tuesday through Saturday, you just have to show up and take a chance -- or wait for a text message telling you your table is ready if you don't get in on the first seating when they open the doors. The wine and beer menu, curated by Komi sommelier Kat Bangs, doesn't provide suggested pairings, but the staff  guide you through your tastings with matches if you so choose. The early buzz, all positive, had my mouth watering. I wasn't about to leave DC without trying it out.

Ed and I met there at 5:30 on Friday night. Over the next ninety-plus minutes, we sampled the following:

jeow dtap bpet  crispy pork / duck liver / shrimp paste
yaam het   pet mushroom / cured egg / lime
laap pla   duk catfish / shallots / chiles
khao tod   fermented cabbage / lime leaf / peanuts
sai oua   pork sausage / kaffir / basil
jin tup   beef / charred & hammered
kaeng hung lay   pork rib / tamarind / ginger

The first dish was like Thai chips and dip -- house-made pork rinds dipped in addictively spicy pate. Along with it came a dish full of herbs and cooling raw vegetables, and a basket of sticky rice, from which we were encouraged to scoop with our fingers for picking up items from the next three dishes. These salads played with spice and texture; the mushrooms were earthy while the house-cured egg shavings added crunch, as did the the crispy shallots over the spicy minced catfish. Our favorite was the fermented cabbage dish, an umami-rich interplay of sour and spice.

Slices of pork sausage, redolant of herbs, came with a huge sprig of basil, the leaves of which served as utensiles and wrappers for each bite. The last two dishes -- fantastically charred beef with a piquant dipping sauce, and just-shy-of-falling-off-the-bone pork ribs with a curry gravy -- cried out for more of the sticky rice to help sop up every fragrant, satisfying  morsel. Two small squares of mint-coconut sticky rice finished off the meal perfectly, just a little hit of sweetness after the layers of herbs, spices, and heat.

Thai is not usually my favorite of the readily-available Asian cuisines; I gravitate more toward Japanese and Vietnamese -- the latter because of its focus on sour, salt, and spice as much as sweet. The food at Little Serow played into this kind of profile, abandoning sweet or coconut-milk-laden oversaucing in lieu of fresh and herbaceous spiciness.

Seven courses and several drinks (very nicely matched cider and a Thai beer for Ed; a sparkling Gruner Veltliner and then a Willamette pinot noir for me; and we each got a taste of a brandy-fortified wine from the Willamette valley as well, which went nicely with the salads) later, finished eating but not even close to finished discussing the interesting presentations and compositions of flavors and textures of the meal, we made our way into the chillier-than-anticipated DC night. I may still not have gotten to Komi, but I am a big fan of Little Serow.