Friday, July 5, 2013

Little Serow

Little Serow (rhymes with arrow) serves a family-style dinner of northern and northeastern Thai dishes for $45 per person. The week's seven-course menu is posted online each Tuesday to give diners a heads up since substitutions are unavailable.  Walk-ins only, so be prepared to wait in line for a couple hours in order to snag a seat.  Be warned - if you cannot handle spicy food, this place is not for you.  Closest Metro is Dupont Circle.

Having been just ranked #7 in Washingtonian's 100 Very Best Restaurants 2013, this restaurant from  Chef-Owner Johnny Monis - who is also behind the Mediterranean restaurant Komi, his fine-dining experience upstairs - is proving to be a shining star in our Nation's capitol.  Additionally, GQ's Alan Richman, who in the magazine's March 2013 issue ranks Little Serow as the country's most outstanding restaurant for all of 2012. Despite being critical of the wait and decor, Richman was won over as any critic should - by the food. He writes: "Little Serow is transformational. The preparations are exquisitely focused. The spicing ascends and then descends, as harmoniously as musical scales. This was my finest eating experience of 2012."

The bright lights of this picture are misleading to the true dark basement ambience of the restaurant.
Chef Monis has a hands-on presence with much vigilance that shows off first-rate meats, produce, and spices that are nearly drug-like in their potency.  Washingtonian writes: "If the cooking transports you to the rugged terrain of northern Thailand, where Monis and his wife and business partner, Anne Marler, were married in 2011, the rest of the experience - electric-green walls, a staff decked out in thick-framed glasses, twanging bluegrass on the sound system - channels the vibe of a hipster party, both stylized and determinedly low-key."

Eager diners waiting in the hot sun.
The "waiting in line" ritual is a slight annoyance.  We arrived 4:45pm. Waited until it opened at 5:30pm, and got a table at 7:00pm.  Just enough time for a drink at a nearby bar. The wait was well worth it as the food was terrific, and very interesting.  It is not just a meal, but an adventurous experience. The dishes were level 10 spicy right off the bat and featured exotic ingredients.  But the flavors were superb, and each dish different from the one before it, in taste and texture. We started with Nam Prik Narohk Het, a paste of mushrooms, tamarind, and chilies served with homemade pork skins.  Next, came the two most spicy dishes of the night: Yum Mamuang Pla Mue, shredded green mango with catfish chunks and dried shrimp and Muu Nam Tok, a salad of crispy sliced pig ears on a bed of rice powder and mint.  Both dishes were tossed with potent Thai chilies that immediately numbed my mouth and caused my nose to drip.  The server saw my reaction, laughed and brought over extra napkins while stating: "So good, right?"

Keith was shocked that I not only ate pig ears (!?!!) but that I powered through the spices.  What can I say, but the flavors were sour, salty, spicy - all a dangerous combination that only left me craving more.  Then we were presented with what turned out to be my favorite dish of the night - Gai Laap Chiang Mai.  Another salad-type mixture of chopped chicken livers with an herb called sawtooth (wild coriander), served with slices of cabbage.  I scooped some of the mixture into the cabbage leaf to give me a nice crunchy bite.  This dish had a delayed spice factor that didn't hit your tongue right away, which was mesmerizing.  Continuing the spice trend downwards, we enjoyed the mild Naem Khao Tod made with crispy rice, sour pork sausage pieces, and peanuts and the Gai Lan Bla Kem made with salted fish and fried egg on a bed of bean sprouts.  Both dishes were tasty and comforting.  Finally, the star dish that Keith was waiting for the whole night: Si Krong Muu.  These pork ribs were marinated in Mekhong whiskey and braised so the meat literally fell off the bone with ease.  It was topped with red onions and fresh dill.  I am not a huge fan of ribs or any meat on the bone, but I tried a piece and admit the flavor was intense and impressive.  Keith loved this dish so much and only wished it arrived sooner, so that he wasn't as full and could enjoy it even more.

The complimentary "greens" basket full of lettuce, cucumber, and radish slices was a great addition with the sticky jasmine rice to help cool out each dish.  We enjoyed a bottle of Gew├╝rztraminer with our meal, which several servers commented how it was their favorite wine and perfect to accompany the spicy meal.  For a non-alcoholic beverage, they highly suggested one try the sweet rice milk.  To close the meal, we were treated with a small dessert bite of sweet custard on top of sticky rice.

The atmosphere is a dark basement - sort of urban-trendy. And the service was very attentive, knowledgeable, and welcoming throughout the night.  Accessibility ranks low because there is no sign outside - just a nondescript basement door; no reservations are accepted; walk-ins only and the wait can be up to 2 hours (they send you a text message when a table is ready.)  Also, they can only accommodate groups of four or fewer, and ask that no flash photos or videos be taken.  Nevertheless, we crossed another item off our foodie bucket list and truly enjoyed our spicy adventure at Little Serow.

Total Rating: 4.23
Food: 4.5, Price: 4, Service: 5, Ambience: 3.5, Accessibility: 2

What I ate:
Nam Prik Narohk Het
mushroom / tamarind / chilies 

Yum Mamuang Pla Mue
catfish / green mango / dried shrimp

Muu Nam Tok
pig ears / rice powder / mint

Gai Laap Chiang Mai
chicken liver / sawtooth / long pepper

Naem Khao Tod
crispy rice / sour pork / peanuts

Gai Lan Bla Kem
greens / salted fish / egg

Si Krong Muu
pork ribs / mekhong whiskey / dill 

Little Serow on Urbanspoon

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