On the far northwestern edge of Crete lies a cerulean-hued lagoon famed for its isolation, azure waters, and celebrity visitors. On Monday, December 4, Dupont welcomed an eponymous ode to the sun-kissed seaside destination known as Balos (1940 N Street NW).
Longtime friends and industry vets Stefanos Vouvoudakis, Tom Tsiplakos, and Joe Ragonese make their Greek heritage come to life across a dinnertime menu full of traditional dishes coupled with modern touches. All grandchildren of Greek immigrants, the trio imports their idyllic country’s vacay vibe in D.C. with the opening of a 6,500-square-foot upscale “estiatorio.” Lighting, pottery, and even stone elements were flown in from Greece, bringing over sand and earth tones from across the ocean.
The open and airy newcomer draws from “Hellenic tradition of shared meals filled with animated conversation,” says Ragonese, which explains why there’s no listed section for entrees.
In honor of its watery muse, seafood is heavily featured in many shared plates. See: a raw bar sending out oysters, shrimp, and tuna tartare, plus a seafood “plateau” with four kinds of catch. Cooked seafood includes king salmon, scallops, and a sea bass “plaki” in a tomato fish broth.
The star of the sea show, however, is the whole fish program. Four kinds of fish inhabit this section, each of them arriving at the table deboned and butterflied. Three of the four are flown in daily from Greece (lavraki, dorado, fagri) and one is Atlantic (black sea bass). Each fish is followed by a description of its flavor, from lean and mild to firm and sweet.
One surprise appearance is sashimi, which reflects its surge in popularity over the last decade across the Mediterranean. Here the raw fish feels more at home in Crete than Japan, arriving with accents like honey and lemon.
Non-fish apps hew to the traditional. The Greek salad, with tomato, cuke, and feta, is “like our guacamole,” Ragonese says. There’s also phyllo-wrapped spanakopita, grilled halloumi under a blanket of spicy honey, and lightly fried calamari. One dish that’s a bit more modern is the Balos Chips: paper-thin, shallow-fried zucchini, and eggplant slices are plunged in Greek olive oil in a single layer to stay “shatteringly crisp.” The Jenga-like presentation stretches a foot high above the table.
Naturally, there’s also variety spreads: hummus, tzatziki, spicy feta, melitzanosalata (eggplant dip), and taramasalata (creamy fish roe dip).
The Mediterranean cuisine is clearly having a moment in D.C. Chef Nick Stefanelli recently revived his luxe Greek restaurant Philotimo and its next-door wine bar downtown, and three-level waterfront showpiece Limani made a big splash at the Wharf last month.
Balos’ emphasis on appetizers, snacks, sides, and dips is “how Greeks eat – its stereotypical but we like lots of sides,” says Ragonese. Balos’ dishes arrive when they’re ready in order to encourage lingering around shared plates. Land-based dishes include roast chicken over lemony potatoes, lamb chops, and a kebab made with filet mignon instead of steak chunks.
Beyond the fish, Balos also flew in chef Jean-Charles Métayer from his perch at a Michelin Guide restaurant in Athens. Ragonese also brought in his mom to remake childhood dishes with Métayer, who interpreted them for the American table.
“The dishes are fairly traditional,” Ragonese says. “We didn’t want to go hybrid or fusion.”
Balos keeps things streamlined from start to finish, with flaky baklava and creamy Greek yogurt with Greek cherries for dessert.
Ragonese hails from a NYC restaurant background, having opened Philippe Chow and directed operations for Greek clubstauratant Kyma, while Vouvoudakis and Tsiplakos run ForFive Coffee — the NY-born roaster that boasts several locations across the D.C. area.
The blending of their resumes is most evident in the drinks, specifically, a jazzed-up espresso martini program that relies on freshly ground coffee from ForFive. Though straying somewhat from traditional Greek elements, the drinks play up the owners’ strengths and the social vibe they’re going for.
The caffeinated cocktails come in classic, salted caramel, and raspberry varieties. The 10-drink menu is also home to a “Filthy Greek” dirty martini (made with kalamata juice and feta stuffed kalamata olives) and a Mediterranean Martini featuring Greek’s beloved liquor mastiha and cucumber.
“Our cocktail program offers classics that we “Greekify” with Greek liquor, garnishes, and spirits,” says Ragonese.
As for the wine, “we want people to see grapes they know, but also introduce new kinds of wine from Greece.” One pour they want the diner to be acquainted with is Assyrtiko, a dry white indigenous to Santorini. The beer selection (all four) is solely of Greek origin.
Above the stone-gray banquette that lines the length of the dining room, a wavy white-and-blue woven tapestry hangs on the wall, evocative of rocky Mediterranean isles. Blonde wood and wicker chairs bring a casual air. An outdoor patio will be used in warmer months.
“It’s the transformation from D.C. to the Greek island namesake,” he says.