Celebrity chef Mike Isabella’s hotly anticipated new Bethesda Row restaurant is nearly ready to open.
Kapnos Kouzina will open for lunch service March 7 and then start dinner service March 11.
“It took a while, but we’re finally there,” Isabella said Monday in an interview with Bethesda Beat.
Isabella had originally planned to open the Greek concept in the fall of 2015, but construction issues and other delays pushed back the opening by several months. Workers are expected to continue putting the finishing touches over the next two weeks on the 160-seat restaurant that will fill the former Vapiano space at the corner of Woodmont Avenue and Hampden Lane.
The restaurant will be Isabella’s third full-service Kapnos restaurant. It follows in the footsteps of the much-lauded original Kapnos on 14th Street in Washington, D.C., which serves a variety of spit-roasted whole animals, and the more seafood-focused Kapnos Taverna in Arlington.
Unlike those two, the Bethesda location will have more of a homestyle feel, Isabella said. Kouzina means kitchen in Greek and the design of the restaurant will include shelving throughout displaying retail products such as Santorini tomatoes, fig jams and olive oils. The menu, composed by the restaurant’s executive chef George Pagonis, will include dishes such as lamb shanks, charred octopus, a fried half-chicken with a preserved lemon brine, and moussaka with roasted eggplant. At lunchtime, the restaurant will offer a $15 “express lunch” featuring a variety of gyros, Greek side dishes and house-made soda.
Like the other Kapnos restaurants, the Bethesda location will also serve Greek spreads and breads and a selection of small plates.
Isabella said both he and Pagonis will regularly be at the restaurant, and Pagonis will be cooking occasionally, although day-to-day duties will be handled by chef Greg Basalla, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, who worked as Isabella’s sous chef at the José Andrés Mediterranean restaurant Zaytinya in Washington, D.C. Basalla is currently the chef de cuisine at Kapnos Taverna and will be transitioning from that restaurant to the new eatery in Bethesda, where he lives.
“We’re going to move him closer to home,” Isabella said.
The chef said the restaurant will start with lunch service to help the staff train before diving into the busier dinner service—the same strategy Isabella piloted when he opened Kapnos Taverna in Arlington.
“It’s a little bit easier for the kitchen to get settled, the team to get settled,” Isabella said. “During lunch people are not drinking as much, so the bar isn’t as busy, but by the end of the week we’ll be rolling into dinner.”
Isabella, who opened his first restaurant, Graffiato, in 2011 in the District, is expanding his restaurant business, which has grown to include more than a half-dozen full-service restaurants in the region as well as three fast-casual eateries at airports and Nationals Park. Isabella, who made his name helming the kitchen for three years at Zaytinya, gained fame after appearing on season six of the Bravo TV network’s Top Chef in 2009. Isabella’s counterpart, Pagonis, appeared on the cooking show last year.
Isabella said Monday he attributed his recent success and expansion to hard work and maintaining a great team.
“Most of my team has been with me from five to nine years,” Isabella said. “We do a lot of promoting from within and I think that’s a big part of [our success]. Everyone knows how we like things and how it works. Cooks become chefs, bartenders become beverage directors and servers become general managers. It’s the longevity that makes us successful.”
As for the Kapnos expansion, Isabella says the lack of competition in upscale Greek cuisine in the region has enabled him to continue opening more restaurants.
“There’s nothing like it,” Isabella said. “We’re good at what we do—we know Greek food.”
Above photo: Chef Mike Isabella. Kapnos D.C.
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