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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Little Serow

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2012 Top 100
Neighborhood: Dupont Circle

The Setup

Having missed a couple opportunities to eat there previously and with Official Friends of DCWD Ana and Matt coming into town, Official Girlfriend/Co-Writer of DCWD Texas and I decided to head to Johnny Monis's new restaurant, Little Serow.

The Vibe

Like its sister restaurant (and next door neighbor) Komi, reservations are fairly hard to come by at Little Serow... which is to say, there are none. Seats are first come, first serve beginning at 5:30; if you miss the first wave, they'll take your cell and text you when your table is ready. Though with the number of seats in the house (three fours, four or five twos, and eight or so seats at the bar), if you don't get there immediately, that might be a while. Luckily, the evening we chose was a little slow and we scored a table at 6, though from our vantage point, we saw party after party turn around at the door with a slightly bemused, slightly dejected look on their face.

Built into an English basement in the building next to Komi, Little Serow's vibe is designed like an expat bar in the middle of the jungle, helped by the dim lighting and the low sheet metal ceiling. The brick and concrete walls have been painted a sea green, and everything has a fairly country home feel, from the repurposed wood and metal furniture to the small drafting table serving as the host stand to the white wood paneled bar and the simple antique adornments behind it. Even the hostess (by far one of the most pleasant and friendly I've ever met) and the waitresses wear vintage dresses, while a steady stream of old country music plays above.

The Food

Plenty of restaurants ask you, "have you dined with us before?" as a matter of discerning if you understand their small plates/tapas/local/sustainable concept. But there was an earnestness to which our server asked us, "do you guys like spicy food?" in much the same manner as warning signs ask you about heart problems before you board a roller coaster. The implication is clear: this family-style seven-course prix fixe menu (incidentally a steal at $45 a head), is a recreation of Isaan cuisine, which apparently ranges in temperature from hot to nuclear. To mitigate the heat somewhat, your table shares a lantern of sticky rice, and a basket of mixed vegetables (lettuce, radish leaves, Thai eggplant, cucumber), which you're encouraged to use to mop up the sauces.

First up was nam prik kai kem: house made pork crackling with a dipping sauce made of salted duck egg, shrimp paste, and green mango. At first, I thought this was a starter dish not the first one on the menu; in my mind, the salted duck egg was going to be a large hardboiled one, not hidden into the paste itself. If anything, this dish was one of the more mild ones, the Thai answer to the soup crackers and duck sauce that start most meals in Chinese restaurants.

Concurrently with that dish was ma hor: dried shrimp on top of pineapple and orange with palm sugar. This was probably one of the more surprising dishes for me, in the sense that I didn't expect a lot out of it; on its surface, it seemed both strange and plain. And yet, it was surprisingly balanced, the shrimp providing nice salt to balance out the sweet, and the sourness of the citrus blending it all together.

The dishes kept coming with number 3: key pa, or marinated cobia cubes with lime, lemongrass, and chilies. This was by far one of my favorites, like an Asian ceviche with just enough heat to keep you sweating. The fish was wonderful, with notes of dill to complement the citrus, but otherwise a pleasant and perfect Asian flavor profile. The fish was soft and fleshy, and continued to hit you with great tangy sweet notes. For me, the best measure of a dish is how quickly someone finishes it; this one might have been done before it hit the table.

At the same time, came the laap meuang: crumbled pork stir fried with shallots and sawtooth. If the preceding dishes were building up a now constant level of perspiration and numbness in my tongue, then this one kicked open the kiln door. At this point in the write-up, it might seem like an obvious statement to say that the heat was intense, but at a certain point, it's a characteristic that somehow both augments the dish but also dampens it as well. In this case, the shredded pork was tender and juicy, well complemented by the luscious shallots (oh how I love shallots).

Dish number 5 was nam tok tow hu: a salad of fried tofu strips, with mint and rice powder. This dish began a slight downward turn for me. As Ana put it, the tofu had been cooked a bit too much, to the point where you could taste the fryer more than anything. I love crispy tofu as much as the next guy, but I was inclined to agree, the blackened taste overwhelming any additional textural fun that came with cooking it to that level. Otherwise, the mint was a good touch and the salad overall was a good interlude.

The real underwhelming dish for us was the khao poon: a tomato-based stew of catfish, bean sprouts, and stinging nettles. The underlying problem was the inconsistency; while our soup was decent, reminding me of a slightly fishy Vietnamese canh chua, Ana and Texas's was overpoweringly fishy, tasting like a piece was less than optimal when it was added. Because of that, a lot of the soup's depth was overtaken, leaving only its piquant to give you solace. This was the only dish we left unfinished.

More than making up for it was our last dish, the si krong muu: pork ribs marinated in Mekong whiskey and dill. These were everything you wanted them to be: fall-off-the-bone tender, sweet with not too much spice, delicious in every way. It's hard not to describe in anything but superlative words, since the table overwhelmingly agreed that either this or the cobia won the day. I would brave the reservation wait over and over for this meal.

The last touch was Little Serow's version of petit-fours: small cubes of rice and coconut cream. A bit of a throwaway, but a nice sweet bite to finish out the night.

The Verdict

Worth all the praise, and Chef Monis's second raging success. That a restaurant like this can exist and thrive in DC excites me greatly.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
: This might be the first pairing we do probably will have to happen before the restaurant date (such is the wait time), but since you'll have to stay close, a few options include Oyster Happy Hour at Hank's, or a sweet treat at Mr. Yogato (full disclosure, my flavor's back!)

Little Serow on Urbanspoon


Lauren Hixson said...

I have a penchant for sweet treats. I would love to have a go with Mr. Yogato had my dentist willeton advised me to stay away from sweets for a week.

Thomas Woodall said...

The way this restaurant had been designed showed how the steel and metal industry grew. Back home, I did not see how difficult to cut thick metal sheets for roofing, however, I appreciated how cool the plasma cutter perth is.

Cassie Francia said...

Lauren Hixon, of course he would advise you that. If I were you, I'd do as he says otherwise he'll advise you to buy expensive dental supplies to cure your tooth decay which you could possibly suffer from. Good luck in resisting that [literally] sweet temptation!

Claudia Burnell said...

Nam Tok Tow Hu - I would love to try that one! I hope they have low calorie desserts too, because if they do, I'll definitely visit Little Serow!

Ollie Cox said...

Reviews like this one should be included in each restaurant's website. It will provide restaurant goers what to expect upon arrival at the site.

Darren Stanley said...

Now this is the perfect example of a good online marketing strategy. The result of the review for that restaurant will really help them to have or to accommodate many guests.

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