While I was in DC this past weekend for the Fancy Food Show (more on that in a later post) I dined at Little Serow, the newest restaurant from Johnny Monis. I have been a fan of this Beard-nominated chef since the early days of Komi, his modern Greek restaurant. A Thai place – and one focusing on the cooking of the Isaan region in the north, near Laos – was the last thing I expected of this Greek-American chef. But he pulls it off – with typical quirkiness and (as far as I can tell) authenticity.
Both the quirks and the cuisine warrant a few cautions. Little Serow (which, as the website explains, rhymes with arrow and is a kind of goat) accepts no reservations for its 28 stools in a dim, bare-bones but cool space that features brick walls painted sea green and a rippled metal ceiling. There’s no phone. Parties larger than four are not allowed. Diners line up outside the basement space (next door to Komi, in Dupont Circle East) and wait for seats to open up. The restaurant will text you when they become available, so going for a drink nearby makes this a non-issue.
Little Serow serves a seven-course dinner of small shared plates, for $45. The menu changes weekly; no substitutions are allowed. If you have allergies, forget about it. Don’t like fresh cilantro? You’ll encounter it often. Can’t tolerate spicy chile heat? You are hereby warned. As for myself, I love cilantro but have my limits on firepower. The food here did not exceed them, and the abundant fresh chilies add such depth of flavor, such soulful resonance, it’s impossible to imagine the dishes without them.
My party of four opted to go with matching beverages for a reasonable $35 additional. These proved as intriguing as the food, and ridiculously well thought out. Here are brief descriptions of all (just assume chilies feature in everything but dessert):
First to arrive was a basket of light, airy, crisp, grease-free but immensely flavorful pork rinds with an addictive dipping condiment (naam phrik ong) of minced pork, shrimp paste, and tomato. Paired with this was a cocktail from a section of the wine and beer list labeled “wine on ice.” Ours was a combination of Riesling with house-made Armagnac (I could have sworn our personable and informative server said Carmagnac, but that doesn’t seem to exist), plus a good dose of coriander, which gave it a pleasing herbal quality, and cinnamon (not enough to be noticeable).
Next came these irresistible lettuce cups (miang kham), each with a dollop of a mixture of dried shrimp, fermented cabbage, tamarind, ginger, chilies, and peanuts in light dressing the flavor of which conjured hoisin sauce. A dry Riesling was the perfect accompaniment.
Next up was a dish of wonderfully crispy shredded ingredients (laap meuang) – pork, shallots, and fresh green sawtooth (an herb sometimes called culantro), and this and the following dish went beautifully with our first beer, a hoppy but not overly hoppy IPA.
The next, fifth, dish was perhaps my favorite: a mound of chunks of what the menu called crispy rice (khad tod) – and was probably chunks of crisp-cooked sticky rice but tasted for all the world like rice cakes coated with a tasty spicy sauce and tossed with tons of fresh mint sprigs, cilantro, and peanuts. With it: a sweet Riesling – like, dessert-sweet – that played off beautifully against the formidable heat.
Next came a supposedly less fire-filled mix of greens (yum phak), including fava leaves (!), and spring pea pods tossed in a tamarind sauce with crunchy shallots on top. Here was the only drink none of the four of us in my party liked: a French hard cider – usually a favorite! – but really funky. My group’s tasting notes include “Band-aids” and “sports body spray.” Oh dear.
After that, the dish that became everyone else’s favorite, and with good reason: pork ribs the size of fat thumbs (si krong muu). They come on the bone but the meat just about falls off. These showstoppers are drier rather than wet, and deeply flavored with Mekhong whiskey and dill. To accompany: smoked beer. That’s right, smoked…beer. So smoky only a cigar aficionado could love it. (But I see where Monis was going with this.)
This was one of the most memorable meals I’ve had in a long time. My only complaint is that the food and drink came too fast – I would have liked to have savored each a bit more. On the other hand, we did not feel pressured to leave. (My thanks to Jennifer Haskins for the food photos. She managed to take good shots even after we were asked not to use flash.)
For a dining experience closer to home, check out my review of Osteria Morini, the Bernardsville outpost of Michael White’s famed SoHo eatery. (The print version appears in the July issue of New Jersey Monthly.) Osteria Morini took over the space that had been Due Terre – another property of White’s Altamarea Group. Among the veterans producing White’s signature takes on rustic Italian fare at Osteria Morini are Bill Dorrler (formerly at Due Mari in New Brunswick, another White property), Kevin Knevals (chef de cuisine here), and Francois Rousseau (one of the managers, also from Due Mari).
Now that I have you hankering to dine out…..
It’s just about time for the first NJ-based Eat Drink Local Week! To help celebrate its fifth anniversary, Edible Jersey magazine is inaugurating this festival, for which more than 30 of the state’s top restaurants will celebrate farm-fresh ingredients with special seasonal menus at special prices, from June 23 to June 30. Among the offers: elements in Princeton is featuring a 3-course dinner for $39 and New Brunswick’s Frog & Peach has a prix fixe menu for $35. For the full list of restaurants, from A (A Toute Heure, Cranford) to V (Via 45, Red Bank) click here.