I have this thing about chefs who have cooking shows but when you show up at their restaurant and the meal is less than exciting, it’s well, annoying. Chef José Andrés of Jaleo and Café Atlantico fame is not one of those chefs. The skill and execution of his dishes plus the range of colors being plated will make even the most reluctant eater want to try many dishes they otherwise might fear. (Octopus and tripe in particular come to mind.)
But here’s the first problem. The menu is incredibly extensive, so much so that you actually don’t know where to begin when ordering. Chef Andrés has a lot of items on the menu with certain dishes under the heading “tapas modernas” and “tapas clásicas” not to mention soup, salad, meat and fish selections. Initially, I tried to get our female server to just “bring us out some dishes until we tell you we’re done,” but she opened her eyes in horror at the thought of having to choose for us. Consequently, it took me a good 15 minutes to finally decide what to eat but here’s what we had for lunch that day:
Apple and fennel salad with red onion, manchego cheese, walnuts and sherry vinegar
Red peppers stuffed with goat cheese
Crab salad with tiny cubes of green peppers, tomatoes, onions and marinated cauliflower
Shrimp (described as “gambas” but not really) in a very garlicky olive oil
Boiled octopus drenched in more olive oil
And finally, homemade chorizo with a tasty potato purée.
Dishes are small, usually just a bite or two for each person and priced from $6.00-$11.00. This is a great way to eat if you want to try lots of different things or if you’re not particularly hungry. Bottom line: the food was exquisitely tasty and although the wine list was intriguing, we had a five hour drive home ahead of us so settled for two small carafes (actually barely a glass each) of a Spanish wine.
After all these little nibbles did we still want dessert? You betcha! We picked an apple charlotte with vanilla ice cream plus a couple of espressos with a “shot” of milk before we hit the road.
We had been looking forward to going back to Jaleo since our summer visit so when we found ourselves in Washington for 24 hours we immediately thought of eating tapas. An 8 p.m. reservation on a Saturday night in Washington is well, interesting. We were by far the oldest people in the place (besides I believe our waiter but maybe he just looked old) and the noise level as they like to say on Open Table was “energetic.” I’m still wishing one of the chefs or even a manager would put together a tapas selection that they just bring to you so you could relax and enjoy the ambiance because once again I was faced with too many interesting choices! Making matters even more complicated, there were also a list of specials that night that looked particularly intriguing. Looking at Lynn who I know was staggering under the weight of such important decisions, I ordered for the both of us. Here was the very lengthy line-up, some of which were repeat dishes from our summer lunch.
To start: Jamón Serrano – thin slices of the famous Spanish ham on a plate, followed by a grilled octopus and tomato salad, grilled red peppers stuffed with goat cheese and a crab salad with diced tomatoes and scallions. An additional special that evening was a small plate of grilled leeks with some crumbled goat cheese on top. With all of our “starters,” we also made our way through a basket of crunchy bread that we kept dipping into a bowl filled with a single clove of garlic and a fragrant sprig of rosemary drowning in a fruity green olive oil that had been poured tableside. Of the tapas “starters,” I thought the crab and tomato salad and the octopus and tomato salad had too many of the same components but that was my fault in ordering.
Onward: fried pasta with shrimp cooked in a seafood broth as if it were paella and served with a thick aioli sauce to eat with it, a plate of fried potatoes drizzled with what looked like ketchup but was described as a “spicy tomato sauce” and two small “canelones” (their spelling) filled with pork and covered with a rich bechamel sauce. (After eating that dish, it’s the only way I ever want to eat cannelloni again.) Also on the menu: a perfectly seared piece of trout that was encased in more of the delicious Serrano ham so when eaten had a smoky salty flavor which was all that simple piece of fish needed.
But let me diverge here. Halfway through the courses, I saw a chef from the kitchen walk out with his knife set. Did he quit? Was he fired? I doubt his shift had ended in the middle of Saturday night service so I was curious. I also noticed that although the cold tapas plates came out in speedy fashion, some of the grilled and hot dishes took a bit longer to reach us. This meant that sometimes we often had two or three dishes brought to us at the same time and then we would sit and have a lengthy wait for another round. In between courses, we drank a Spanish cabernet and watched the 20 year olds around us drinking sangria and sharing big platters of paella, then drop a couple of 20’s on the table and move on. I have to think that it being Saturday night, Jaleo was only one of many stops for them that evening.
Finally, two lamb chops that had been seasoned with sea salt and rosemary and a tiny grilled quail which was difficult to split because of its small size was put before us. We pondered dessert and decided to order a cheese plate which I thought was a tad pricey at $16.00 compared to the other prices on the menu but the six cheese portion was generous and all Spanish. The ending? The apple charlotte we had the last time which unfortunately turned out to be soggy and tasteless. (Maybe the chef who left was responsible for that dessert?)
Our waiter, tickled that we had asked his advice about some of the dishes promptly removed the offending dish not only from the table but from the final bill as well. A fun evening made even better by the fact that unlike our lunch visit, we weren’t facing a long drive home.