Thursday, May 20, 2010

Jaleo, Washington DC

Having already experienced Zaytinya and Café Atlantico it was only natural that my trip to Washington include some uproar, revelry, and merry-making at Jaleo. Citing that Spanish definition of the word and realizing that this was perhaps José Andrés most well known restaurant I will admit I was at first somewhat hesitant to book reservations – how original could something be that had already been replicated twice? With fears set aside by some assuring word of mouth and an extensive menu that would certainly please all in my family I concluded the worst it could be was generic – and quite frankly, generic and Andres just don’t seem to belong in the same sentence.

Arriving early in the lunch hour we were greeted by the hostess and led to a cozy four-top in the back corner of the restaurant – an odd choice given the fact that there was only one other couple present when we arrived. With the extensive menu of 70+ items and 10 more daily specials presented it was suggested that 2-3 items each would likely suffice and we were left to make decisions. Water sat empty for some time before our waiter, perhaps the most disinterested server since Norma’s in New York – a man named John P arrived. When he finally stopped by he filled water and took drink orders – two Iced teas and two of us sticking with water. Returning with the iced tea he left before we could order…and didn’t return (bear in mind, there were approximately 10 people in the whole restaurant at this point, though it would fill up later.) Eventually catching the eye of another server I gave him a “head nod” and he walked over – explaining the situation orders were quickly taken and later we saw John P taken aside by the dining room manager…service would subsequently improve, though certainly not to the level of Atlantico or Zaytinya.

With orders placed the table bread arrived – a crusty and warm Sourdough paired with a sweet olive oil poured tableside over a whole clove of crushed garlic – an excellent bread with a crust so hefty and crumbly that making a mess was required.

While it took our table nearly 30 minutes to place orders I must say that the speed of preparation and delivery was vastly more efficient – ordering all at once the dishes began to arrive fast, furious, and fresh from the kitchen. Options arriving during the first wave, each with excellent descriptions by a variety of runners, included Flores de calabaza con queso Idiazabal y jamon (Squash Blossoms with Idiazabal Cheese and Ham,) Pan con tomate (Toasted slices of rustic bread brushed with fresh tomato and Pasamontés farmhouse Manchego,) and Manzanas con hinojo y queso Manchego (Sliced apples and fennel salad with Manchego cheese, walnuts and Sherry dressing.) Each featuring a combination of cheese and vegetables I was quite pleased with the Tomato bread and Salad ordered, but I knew I would be – we’d had them both at Bazaar in the past. The most unique item of this round was from the daily specials, the Squash Blossoms with Idiazabal and Ham – unfortunately it was also the worst (and priciest.) Tasting largely like good ham and excellent cheese on toasted bread there was nothing wrong with the sandwich – but from the menu description I simply figured the featured flavor would be the largely untastable blossoms.

The second round of courses, arriving as we worked on the first dishes, included two new options - Erizos de mar con pipirrana (A spoonful of sea urchin with diced peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers) and Arroz de pato ‘Jean-Louis Palladin’ (Rice with duck confit, duck breast and foie gras cream.) Pricey at $6 I will say that from the small bite of the Erizos I tasted the urchin was phenomenal and paired well with the salsa-esque compontents. Better yet, and much more substantial in portion, was the Arroz de pato, a rich and hearty comfort-food presentation with perfectly prepared rice balanced against rich cream and rare pan seared duck.

Datiles con tocino ‘como hace todo el mundo’(Fried dates wrapped in bacon that you will want to eat every day,) Croquetas de pollo (Traditional chicken fritters,) and Salmón con coliflor y frambuesas (Seared salmon with cauliflower purée and raspberries) would arrive next – each well prepared and delicious, though the first two certainly best as tapas for sharing and the last more suited as a “main course.” Sweet and Savory the dates were everything I expected and the fritters, another flashback to The Bazaar, were creamy and smooth. With regard to the salmon I must note it was slightly overcooked for my tasted, but paired well with the creamy cauliflower puree and zesty raspberry reduction while the crispy cauliflower and whole berries added a fibrous contrast.

With everything served tapas style as it left the kitchen it was somewhat interesting that 2/3 of my aunt’s dishes came out last – no fault of the kitchen, just luck of the draw. Arriving together the Salpicón de cangrejo (Jumbo lump crabmeat with cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, cauliflower and Sherry dressing) and Papas arrugas (Canary Island-style wrinkled baby potatoes served with mojo verde (cilantro, cumin, garlic, Sherry vinegar and olive oil sauce) were both quite excellent. With an ample pile of sweet blue crab balanced with mild vegetables and a fantastic Sherry dressing the crab salad was certainly my favorite cold dish of the meal while the Papas were simple, salty little bites that paired quite nicely with the mildly acidic and heavily nuanced dipping sauce.

Arriving with my aunt’s dishes were two ordered by myself – the Guisantes al natural con huevo (Sautéed organic Tuscarora fresh English peas served with a slow cooked poached egg) and Calamares con piñones y Pedro Ximénez (Seared fresh squid with pine nut praline and a PX reduction)…they also turned out to be my two favorite savories of the meal. Feeling a tad full from the bread and other tapas I’d sampled I started off with the Guisantes…superb and much more than the description would have you believe. Perfectly sautéed in the smoky pork broth with ample hints of mushroom and cumin the peas were sweet yet creamy – and that creamy flavor was only improved by the fresh and luscious egg. More impressive yet, the squid - two large cephalopods stuffed with a sweet pine nut and surrounded by a buttery vinegar reduction…potentially the best “Calamari” I’ve ever tasted.

With myself the only person over ordering everyone else eyed the dessert menu with lust – at least 6 options jumping out at us. Declining coffee but never one to forgo the pastry side of an Andres kitchen I joined in and four desserts were ordered, all arriving at the same time. First, for my mother, the Flan al estilo tradicional de mamá Marisa con espuma de crema Catalana (A classic Spanish custard dessert with ‘espuma’ of Catalan cream and oranges.) Simple, elegant, and wonderful this dish truly did exude tradition as the creamy sweetened flan held up nicely to the fork and the melting cream proved a brilliant foil to the strong citrus of the vinegar reduced oranges.

My sister’s choice, Sopa fría de frutas del bosque con helado de queso fresco (Chilled mixed fruit soup with berries and fresh cheese ice cream,) was not something I would have ordered, but on tasting it I was certainly glad she did. Almost a molecular gastronomy experiment focused on the concept of the cheese cart the dish featured a truly aromatic and pungent ice cream that I’m rather certain was Idiazabal paired wonderfully with a smooth reduction that tasted the very essence of summer – Strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries. Delightful.

My selection of the afternoon, Compota de manzana al pan perdido con Pedro Ximénez (Apple charlotte with Pedro Ximénez & vanilla ice cream,) once again turned out to be my favorite. Essentially a Spanish Bread Pudding the dish reminded me fondly of the version at The Inn at Little Washington with a delicate custard cake seemingly made of semi-solid applesauce paired with creamy vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of sweet vinegar – good at first the dish actually got better with each bite as the bottom was immersed in a caramel/vinegar reduction.

Espuma de avellanas y chocolate (Chocolate and hazelnut mousse torte) was my aunt’s selection and while delicious on its own (think nutella on chocolate cake) the addition of a creamy drizzle of “hot chocolate reduction” and caramelized corn nuts only added to the experience – clever, whimsical, and tasty.

Collecting our plates the check was dropped off – modest for so much quality food, but somehow it seemed high for the experience. Sure, the service was sub-par and some of the food rather pedestrian, but normally good food with family is enough to make me feel the meal was worth it…something about Jaleo just felt generic…like the whole concept could be replicated anywhere with a competent kitchen and some stylish paintings…then I realized it could be – at two other places within 50 miles. A nice place for lunch, hors d’oeuvres, or happy hour – sure, but not a “dining experience.”

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