Kapnos Kouzina review: Mike Isabella’s latest Greek outpost is homey and green

There is no greener restaurant in Bethesda at this moment than Kapnos Kouzina, and I mean that in a good way. Yes, the place opened just last month, on a corner previously claimed by the fast-casual Vapiano. But the latest spin on a popular Greek recipe from chef-entrepreneur Mike Isabella would feel alive even if it weren’t operating at full tilt every night of the week.

The chairs are a shade of basil, servers in olive-colored T-shirts deliver food on sage plates and the communal table near the bar faces a wall whose two arches frame faux vines. Little pots of fresh herbs grace the shelves of the light-filled restaurant, ringed with bench-style seating near the windows. The only reason you know you’re not in a garden is the absence of a breeze or bugs.

Isabella could have easily taken Kapnos, his original Greek oasis in the District, a celebration of that country’s northern dishes, and replicated it down to the last dill-freckled zucchini fritter. But each iteration of the brand comes with specific talking points. Kapnos Taverna in Ballston plays to crowds with a seafood menu and a watery color scheme; Kapnos Kouzina, the chef’s first foray into Maryland, showcases homestyle cooking.

Which is not to say there aren’t carryovers, for the most part mezze, or small plates, from Kouzina’s siblings. If you’ve ever checked into Kapnos or dropped anchor at Taverna, the opening spreads will be familiar. If you’re new to the dips, allow me to bring you up to speed. Easier done than said, taramasalata is carp roe and cauliflower whipped into a pale pink cloud and garnished with a teaspoon of steely paddlefish caviar. Pureed yellow split peas, bold with saffron, are spread like sunshine on the plate, then finished with a stripe of pine nuts and black garlic, the fermented version of the stinking rose. Roasted, smoked eggplant, red peppers, assertive feta cheese and toasted walnuts inject swagger into the chunky melitzanosalata . The best way to sample the dips is as a trio for $24, including floppy, house-baked flatbread delivered warm and dispatched quickly.

Dolmades are another easy entry point: rice-stuffed, allspice-tweaked grape leaves that pick up tang from lemon vinaigrette and arrive on a slick of yogurt embellished with mint leaves and sliced grilled grapes. Indeed, Kapnos Kouzina makes it simple to forgo meat and not just with the obvious Greek defaults such as spanakopita. Israeli couscous bulked up with roasted mushrooms and threaded with spinach and butternut squash may be the single best bloom among the “garden” mezze. And of the “ocean” mezze, chunks of lemony swordfish stand out for their succulence.

Fair warning: It’s easy to fill up on appetizers at the expense of what distinguishes this restaurant from its pack.

The mugs in the open kouzina are known commodities: executive chef George Pagonis — like his business partner, a “Top Chef” alum — and chef de cuisine Greg Basalla. The two veterans of the Isabella camp ensure that what you had on Tuesday will bring you the same satisfaction on Saturday. Helping maintain the bar is beverage director Taha Ismail. His cocktails — a Campari-tinted riff on a pisco sour, a bourbon/Benedictine/cherry brandy blend that lives up to its starry billing (“Hollywood”) — may be the best in Bethesda right now.

Different from its kin, Kapnos Kouzina devotes a category to souvlaki, skewered grilled meat. Kebabs of ground duck are juicy and springy, offered on a smear of charred scallion puree amid a salad tarted up with sumac and sliced watermelon radishes; ground beef-and-lamb are more traditional, but no less appealing, bites of meat. Also specific to the Bethesda restaurant are pide, boat-shaped pizzas by way of Turkey that are tasty, but not better than another dip and some flatbread (a point an honest server made when we inquired about the savory pies).

Unlike Kapnos, which features whole animals cooked on a spit, Kouzina wasn’t built with a wood-fired hearth. But the new restaurant makes up for the absence with family platters of the sort Pagonis says he grew up with as the son of a restaurateur in Alexandria. (Dad owned the late Four Seasons, a Greek diner.) Surprisingly, rack of lamb takes a back seat to the kitchen’s fried chicken, brined in feta water and rolled in chickpea flour for exceptional flavor and crunch. The bird, arranged on a swipe of harissa and honey, is what KFC might have been had the colonel come from Athens.

The main dish that puts me in a Greek mama’s kitchen is mushroom moussaka. Sufficient for a quartet of diners, the casserole crams in mushrooms, potatoes and eggplant beneath a rich top layer of nutmeg-laced white sauce and toasted bread crumbs. (Fewer than four of you, and I see a doggie bag in your future.)

Need some olive oil or mastic candy for home? Kapnos Kouzina sells those and other Greek staples near the host stand. The retail aspect detracts from the restaurant’s al fresco appeal, but not so much that you feel like you’re in an advertisement for Olympus Foods.

Cover the dining scene for any length of time, and you, too, might be recognized despite attempts not to be. That may explain why my service at Kouzina is pretty much the way I like it — there as needed, engaging but not intrusive — although even I got upsold on a bottle of wine after I gave a waiter my price range one night.

That garden I mentioned? It’s not always Eden. But it’s consistently appetizing as far as the cooking is concerned and another instance of empire-building at its most expansive.


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