Best New Restaurant

Little Serow
1511 17th St. NW
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Otherworldly—that’s perhaps the best word to describe the way that Komi chef Johnny Monis has converted this former basement-level Dunkin Donuts into something sublime. You’ll hear other restaurateurs boast about attaining this sort of transcendence through their various design theories. Most fall far short. I’m looking at you, Lost Society: “You may not be able to define a time, place, or genre of restaurant but you certainly do not feel like you are in D.C.”

Little Serow actually achieves this.

The bizarre paint job sets the tone. Walls of otherwise exposed brick are bathed in a vexing color variously described as sea green, minty blue, and even pistachio. One server likened it to the vibrant tint preferred by a particular Italian bicycle company, Bianchi: celeste. Others say it sort of changes colors depending on the time of day.

“There is no name for the color—we mixed it ourselves,” explains co-owner Anne Marler, also Monis’ wife. “The walls are a color of green that you see on rusted-out, corrugated buildings and old scooters in Thailand, and just about nothing else anymore. It’s intended to take you back to a time when people cared for things instead of throwing them away or trading them in for a newer model.”

That’s funny, coming from the culinary powerhouse couple behind Komi, often cited as Washington’s highest temple of haute cuisine. In this case, the newer model just so happens to be the most exciting and fun place to eat in the entire District in 2012.

Few, if any, restaurants manage to attain such spot-on standards of service to merit a coveted three-star rating from the Washington Post right out of the gate. Komi certainly didn’t. Little Serow is that rare gem. City Paper can’t help but pile on the praise.

The cuisine is unlike anything else in town, and certainly like no Thai food you’ve probably ever encountered: No drunken noodles. No pad Thai. None of your typical Thaiphoon or Thai Tanic fare of any kind. Little Serow taps into the eclectic Isaan style of Northern Thailand, where the spice level has apparently switched scales from Scoville to Richter.

Thankfully, the infernal flavor-quake of a feast (the menu changes weekly) comes equipped with a bountiful basket of leafy greens, cucumbers, and other earthly coolants. The veggies are also good for scooping up Monis’ laap pla duk—a scintillating minced catfish with shallots that packs a wallop only surpassed during my most recent visit by the crispy fried tofu, served in a scorching salad of peppers and greens. The pièce de résistance: pork ribs, slathered in an ambrosial Mekhong whiskey sauce with dill that’s like Calgon for your palate.

Yes, the pretense level is off the charts. Little Serow doesn’t take reservations. It doesn’t even have a phone number on its website. Even if you show up early, you’ll still probably spend at least part of the night drinking at Hank’s Oyster Bar while waiting for your table.

And the servers, uniformed in vintage floral dresses—many wearing thick-rimmed glasses—have that look that seems to foretell unprecedented levels of über-hipster rudeness. To the contrary, the waitstaff is unbelievably courteous and nice.

But overall, it’s a unique D.C. experience. In a bigger city, the crowds might crush it; in a smaller one, the owners couldn’t thumb their noses quite so easily at commercial convention. For that reason alone, Little Serow stands out as the most important and definitive D.C. dining destination of the moment.