Little Serow: The Hot and Cool

December 2012.  It’s been almost a year since my first dinner at Little Serow.  This really is far too long between visits, but easy to get to it isn’t.  For one thing, I am limited on the number of people who will go with me to this “eat whatever is put before you, because there are no substitutions” restaurant.  I finally am set to go with five friends until we realize that Little Serow only accepts parties of four.  Awkward.  Three people end up bowing out, and I feel guilty but relieved that two friends will still accompany me.  The no reservations policy means getting there early (4:30 pm) and standing in line for an hour for the first seating.  It is certainly possible to time your arrival for a later seating, but we aren’t so willing to put our name down and sit in a bar for an hour or two.  Despite the fact the eating here involves a carefully planned strategy, perhaps it’s part of what captivates and thrills me about Little Serow.

It’s also one of the hottest restaurants in town.  Bon Appétit recently named it one of the ten best new restaurants in America.  On my second visit, we experience the hotness in more ways than one.

The menu at Little Serow changes weekly, so you never really know what to expect, although is posted on the website.  Some favorites this time around are:  ma hor with sour fruit, dried shrimp and palm sugar.  Like almost every dish at Little Serow, it’s spicy, but this has a welcome sweetness to cut into the spice.  Tom kha pla duk is soup with catfish, galangal, and kaffir lime.  It’s a favorite of the night with its blend of savory and sour.  Make sure to dine with people with whom you are comfortable, as you will all be diving into one bowl of soup. Last year’s menu featured nam tuk tow hu, which is tofu with mint, scallion, and rice powder.  It’s here again, but none of us remember the dish being so explosive.  It is searing to the tongue, with heat that increases long after you’ve taken your last bite.  It takes us a while to recover.  This slightly dampens my friends’ enthusiasm about the experience.  I wouldn’t mind if the dish was taken down a notch on the heat-o-meter, but nothing can mar my enjoyment of this dinner.  Pork ribs with mekhong whiskey and dill settle us all back into a happy place.

Little Serow is among my very favorite DC restaurants.  So what if the food makes me cry.  These are most definitely tears of joy.

December 29, 2011  “When I grow up, I want to be cool like you.”  Oh yes, these are the words spoken to three friends and I by a server at Little Serow.  Our gushing about the food created by Chef Johnny Monis at his exciting new restaurant is definitely entertaining the staff.  Can we be the only people to be so enthralled with the place or at least to be so vocal about it? I doubt it.  Can we be cool because we’re the oldest patrons to express such abject appreciation?  Perhaps.  We certainly increase the average age of the diners on this particular night.  But I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear the age reference and dwell on the fact that someone thinks we are cool.  If dining here makes us so, then we’ll take it.

Little Serow is the new sibling to DC’s #1-rated restaurant Komi.  It is a seven-course prix fixe meal featuring dishes from Northern Thailand. There are quite a few no’s that go with this experience.  No reservations, no sign on the door, no telephone, no ordering (it’s a set menu), and absolutely no substitutions.  This isn’t a deterrent for me but it leaves out some of my frequent dining companions, including my husband. No flash photographs allowed means no photos to accompany my review.  Although I’m allowed to take photos without a flash, it is far too dark to have anything usable.

Little Serow’s menu changes every Monday.  If you don’t like something you see, wait a week.  It may be replaced with something else to suit your fancy.

Here’s what we had:
khaep muu
green chilies / bla rah / shrimp paste
laap pla duk
catfish / shallots / chiles
nam tok tow hu
tofu / mint / rice powder
kanom bung na gapi
shrimp / cilantro root / sesame seeds
sai oua
pork sausage / kaffir / basil
neua grapao
Wagyu brisket / duck egg / basil
si krong muu
pork ribs / Mekhong whiskey / crispy garlic

At the outset we are served a plate with assorted fresh vegetables and a basket of sticky rice.  We’re invited to scoop out the rice with our hands. These are the palate cleansers, to be enjoyed between courses as a standalone or to sop up some of the delicious sauces. We’re intrigued.

Two of my three friends are not necessarily fond of extremely spicy food, so I am a bit wary of how this is going to play out.  But attitude is everything and we decide in advance that we are going to be “big girls” and try everything that’s put before us.  As it turns out, there is nothing on this particular menu that challenges my comfort zone. To the contrary.  Everything on the menu appeals to my taste buds in every way.  We all comment about what a nice change of pace it is to not have to make any ordering decisions.  It is almost a relief for me, as at times ordering causes me undue pressure.  Here I can sit back and relax.

As the meal progresses, we get more and more rambunctious.  It may be partly a result of our consumption of wine, but it has more to do with the awakening of our senses.  By the time we get to the sausage with kaffir and basil my friend exclaims loudly “this is excruciatingly delicious.”  A server overhears the comment and relays it to Chef  Johnny.  We’re invited back to meet him when we finish eating.

The meal is a progression of bold flavors and contrasting textures.  The adjectives at our table are flying:  intense, complex, aromatic, unique, a crescendo of flavors, perfection.

The atmosphere at Little Serow is simple and understated.  You sit on stools at high tables in a simple room with concrete walls painted green. In another restaurant, it may be too simple.  Here it is simply…cool.

The end of the meal comes far too quickly.  As a final taste we are presented with a small cube of sticky rice with coconut custard.  It’s delicious but we all agree we want more. It’s a slight dip in a night of many highs.   

One of the things I like best about Little Serow is that it is reasonable at $45 for a seven-course meal.  This makes it approachable for adventurous diners, and because of the changing menu can easily can be enjoyed on multiple occasions.  

We are escorted back to the small open kitchen where we fawn over Johnny and his food.  There are hugs for the servers (which is when we get the “cool” comment) and sadly our night is done.  While we may be cool, I guess we are also old because it’s a little after 7:00 pm, and we’re already heading back to the suburbs.

Little Serow, 1511 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC
My rating (on a 1-5 scale):  4.8
Washingtonian‘s 100 Very Best Restaurants 2012, 3 stars (out of 4)

Washington Post review

Little Serow on Urbanspoon

Questions or comments?
Send an email to