After much construction, the corner of Connecticut and K Street is once again open for business and has gone Greek under the watch of owner Stavros Aktipis and partner and chef Gregory Zapantis. After successfully establishing Kellari Taverna and Kellari’s Parea Greek Bistro in New York City, the pair has brought their elegantly simple approach to Greek Mediterranean cooking to the Washington dining arena Kellari Taverna.
Chef Zapantis’s path to his current position began early. Born and raised in an Adriatic fishing village on the island of Cephalonia, he learned to fish from his father and to cook from his mother and grandmother while helping out at his family’s dockside tavern. These early cooking forays prepared him to develop the kind of menu Kellari offers, based on fresh ingredients from the Mediterranean prepared in straightforward ways that emphasize the flavors and textures of individual ingredients.
To help interpret their concept, Aktipis and Zapantis have brought on Anthony Acinapura to serve as executive chef. Most recently Acinapura served as chef de cuisine for Stir Food Group’s recently opened Potenza. In developing the menu at Kellari, the team has focused on traditional Greek cuisine, recreating dishes as they are made in Greece using many of the same ingredients that they import directly from producers. Their menu offers lunch and dinner guests many choices to structure their meal, from small plate tastings to a sumptuous Aegean feast.
Kellari’s mezedes, the Greek version of tasting plates, include traditional favorites and less common dishes. Super thin slices of eggplant and zucchini called Kellari chips are fried crisp and served with a particularly garlicky tzatziki sauce. Though a bit greasy, they are a nice way to start the meal and complement the grilled bread, cured olives, hummus and fresh radish that the house provides. A perennial favorite, the spanakopita traditional Greek pastry pairs nicely with the keftedes, beef and lamb meatballs served in an Agiorgitiko wine sauce, or with the plevrakia, small roasted lamb ribs with wild oregano. Two interesting cheese dishes are the saganaki — Graviera cheese flamed with the Greek spirit Metaxa — and the katsikisio, a mild goat cheese baked with apricots, slivered almonds and Greek honey and served with crisp toasted bread chips. Both are the perfect snack for sampling some of the restaurant’s excellent Greek wines.
Kellari also offers quite a few interesting salads. The Patzaria, an arugula salad, made with roasted beets, toasted walnuts and goat cheese, is a well balanced and mild, while the Ahladi — watercress, endive, Bosc pears, crispy onions and Manouri cheese — has a more complex and sharper profile. The Greek salad, meanwhile, is the simple traditional version with big chunks of tomato, onion, cucumber, pepper and feta.
Where the mezedes really shine though is in the seafood dishes. Grilled or pan-fried calamari, sushi-grade octopus, Portuguese sardines grilled with olive oil and lemon, or steamed gulf shrimp are appealing for their simplicity, which emphasizes the freshness of the ingredients. The more complex dishes are equally appealing and some are downright inspired. Among these are the lobster ravioli with a delicate tarragon cream sauce; mussels Santorini potent with ouzo, herbs and feta; fat meaty crab cakes served with olive oil-cured beans; and olive oil-infused sashimi-grade tuna tartare with caviar mousse all demonstrate that while favoring simplicity, Zapantis and Acinapura are equally comfortable working with more layered favors.
While the mezedes are delicious and offer diners excellent options for starters or a full meal, whole fresh fish is the thing at Kellari. Prepared simply, grilled whole, and dressed with Greek olive oil, oregano, capers and lemon, the focus is entirely on the quality of fish. Shipped in daily from across the globe, Kellari boasts an array of seafood choices that rivals any in the city. On ice on the seafood display at the back of the restaurant, diners can choose their individual fish with the expert guidance from the staff, who can discuss the taste, texture, origin and relative merits of each variety. (And some can estimate the weight of each fish with remarkable accuracy.)
The mere sight of the selection is impressive. Enormous king shrimp from Madagascar, some weighing as much a pound each, vie for space with huge strawberry grouper enough for five to share. Meanwhile, little pink barbounia, a rich and sweet pan fish from Senegal, competes for attention with big flat turbot from Greece. Aktipis and Zapantis have focused on species from the Mediterranean, introducing several varieties rarely seen in the area. Wrestling with the choice between the lavraki (a Mediterranean sea bass), fagri (Greek white snapper), and tsipoura (Mediterranean bream), you close your eyes and for a moment, amid the strains of Greek music and the clatter of the happy diners, you are almost transported to a costal village in Greece.
Desserts are a surprise at Kellari, offering both traditional Greek choices as well as more continental choices. Greek yogurt with sour cherry compote, honey and walnuts is light and refreshing. The almond baklava is lighter and less syrupy than many versions, but also less satisfying. The chocolate trio though is heaven for the serious chocolate lover with its dense chocolate crème brûlée, profiteroles with vanilla gelato, and an intensely warm flourless chocolate cake. Likewise, the Kellari sundae is an inspired confection of hazelnut gelato, nutella, whipped cream, chopped hazelnuts and a shot of Greek coffee. It’s worth a trip all by itself.
To transform the old space that was Restaurant K (Alison Swope’s solo venture that closed last year), the partners brought on Yianni Skordas of Skordas Design Studio in New York who handled design for their other two locations. Avoiding the brilliant Aegean blues and whites that have become almost a cliché for a Greek setting, Skordas opted instead for warm earth tones. Honey-colored wood floors echo the swaths of beige cloth draped from the ceiling that rustle as if stirred by gentle unseen winds, while cream and beige walls and antiqued white woodwork glow in the soft lights. Other decorative flourishes are simple — mirrors and a border of Greek words for various fish and grapes.
Kellari means cellar in Greek and the bottles of wine, baskets of bottle, and wine kegs placed strategically through out the space suggest just what type of cellar Kellari is named after. Though the space is too bright and open to feel very cellar-like, it is certainly home to a nice collection of wines. The menu in fact offers more than 350 international varieties with a number of lesser-known but excellent choices from Greece.
The service and atmosphere are variable depending on what time and day you visit. Sometimes it feels like a high-end business lunch place, and has the price point to match, while other times it feels like a family restaurant with large parties celebrating special occasions. Regardless of which version you visit, the food is excellent, the service friendly and knowledgeable, the tables well spaced for privacy, and the wine an interesting journey into unchartered waters. It should be smooth sailing for D.C.’s newest international dining addition.
1700 K St., NW
(202) 535-5274 (KEL-LARI)
Lunch: Monday to Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday from 4 to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 4 to 10 p.m.
Sunday brunch: 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Appetizers: $7.95 to $18.95
Entrees: $19.95 to 37.95
Whole fish: Priced per pound from $27.95 to $38.95
The menu offers a pre theater dinner; a three-course Aegean Fest for $45.00 per person; and a prix fixe business lunch including three courses for $24.95.
About the Author
Rachel G. Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.