2016 | Dine

First Taste: Kapnos Kouzina

Greek comfort food marks Mike Isabella's Maryland debut

The chef's counter at Kapnos Kouzina in Bethesda

Laura Hayes

The Story

Restaurateur Mike Isabella makes his Maryland debut with Kapnos Kouzina, completing his Greek hat trick with Kapnos and Kapnos Taverna already thriving in D.C. and Arlington, respectively. Chef and restaurant partner George Pagonis, whose Greek background has proven clutch, is responsible for the comfort food at the rustic restaurant with a secret garden design. Pagonis explains how the newest edition stands out: “We don't have spit roasters, therefore our approach to the menu is different—we focus on roasts and braises and traditional, home-style and cooked-to-order methods.” 

The Food

The menu opens with a deep bench of spreads served with flatbread before moving into sharable “mezze” starters in cold, garden and ocean categories. Consider opening with smoky wild mushroom couscous or a grilled avocado-embellished tuna tartare. If you opt for the cheese saganaki, hold on to a few strips of flatbread served with the dips. The baked cheese comes out bubbling hot, but without bread to offset its richness. 

Marked menu departures from other Kapnos restaurants come in the form of football-shaped flatbreads, which Pagonis says are eaten in Greece as a snack. I’ll order the smoked lamb iteration with eggplant, tangy feta and mint on every visit. Secondly, there’s souvlaki, or small plates of skewered meat.

Dinner offerings include gargantuan, “for the table” entrées guaranteeing leftovers. If the mushroom moussaka tastes like the most mom-made-it dish on the menu, award your taste buds a point. Pagonis says he’s emulating his mom’s recipe. 

Another sharable entrée is the Kapnos fried chicken. Brined in olive juice, the chicken benefits from Mediterranean boosts such as lemon zest and a Greek spice mix, plus a birdbath of burnt honey harissa.  

  

Above: Cheese saganaki with lemon and black pepper honey; Left: Smoked lamb flatbread pyde with eggplant, feta and mint; Right: Kapnos fried chicken (half portion) with burnt honey harissa. Photos by Laura Hayes

Bar Buzz

?Oenophiles with a sense of adventure can explore a wine list heavy on Greek selections, including nine by the glass. Cocktails by Beverage Director Taha Ismail probe the palate with something new. I fell for the “Papadapolous” with mastiha (a mastic tree sap-flavored liqueur), a botanical spirit called “hum,” grapefruit and bitters. The drink is named after a cookie brand that doubles as Pagonis’ nickname. The cookies will soon be sold in a mini-market by the restaurant’s entrance. Finally, beer drinkers won’t go thirsty thanks to a small, but balanced list.

The Vibe

Every seat is taken on a Tuesday evening except for the chef’s counter, which a manager says is left empty to ease service for staff at the two-week-old restaurant. Our server is brisk and efficient, but isn’t warm. A glance around the boisterous, high-decibel dining room outfitted in greens, whites and wood, reveals an enthusiastic crowd. Some even saunter by the open kitchen to snap a picture of Pagonis—call it the Top Chef effect. Pagonis appeared on Season 12 of the show, while Isabella appeared on Season 6 and Season 8—Top Chef All Stars

Go, Wait or Skip?

Go. And then come back again because there are so many ways to enjoy Kapnos Kouzina, such as ordering dips and drinks at the bar with a co-worker or a feast for groups of diners with a mixed bag of tastes. Try it for lunch, dinner or weekend brunch.

4900 Hampden Lane, Bethesda, 301-986-8500, www.kapnoskouzina.com