When in Washington, do as the Washingtonians do. Ok look, I’m pretty sure a lot of the people in Jaleo with us a few weeks ago were tourists, just like us. However, I know plenty of Beltway insiders who count Jaleo and Jose Andres’ newer installations, like Zaytinya and Oyamel, among the best eats in the city. Of course, Andres also is something of a media darling, collecting Tony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern as devoted fans, and having worked with Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Spain, the recently closed but always-and-forever cradle of molecular gastronomy. I first ate at Jaleo’s Bethesda location in 2005, and the memory of a few, key dishes is seared into my tummy such that I still make my own version of one of the dishes I’ll tell you about in a sec for some parties.
This time in DC, I visited Jaleo on 7th St. with boss K and colleague L, neither of whom are big, but both of whom were as hungry as I. I didn’t bust out my trusty notebook, because I didn’t want to miss a second of scintillating conversation, but the pictures I took of the delicious parade of tapas that graced our table will jog my sangria-addled memory enough to recap. I think…
This stained-glass-meat vision is called pan con tomate with jamon Serrano. It is one of the first things on Jaleo’s exemplary tapas menu, and it or one of its tomato bread compadres MUST cross your path at Jaleo. I’ve never been to Spain, but seeing as I could willingly and happily subsist on just this for at least a week, I’m pretty sure I’d like it there. Think crusty, rustic-yet-light-as-air, charred slabs of white bread rubbed, massaged, and infused with fresh tomatoes, then draped with delicate slices of prosciutto-adjacent, lightly salty/porky/earthy Serrano ham. The whole affair is drizzled with Spanish olive oil and brought to you simply unadorned, ready for you to hork down in a heady, hedonistic haze of pure delight. Do not let the SPANISH FOOD label scare you away from a great meal. This dish is a Jaleo classic, and consists of bread, tomato and ham, which isn’t too scary, if you ask me.
Our efficient but friendly waiter suggested we try a cheese board. We were a table of three women; we were NOT about to say no to cheese, so we chose a manchego, the iconic Spanish sheep’s milk varietal paired with apples; a creamy, sweet goat cheese paired with raisin walnut bread and fig jam; and a bleu cheese wedge with wine-poached pears and pine nuts. All three were creamy, dreamy, and matched simply and stunningly with their accoutrements. I think the goat cheese and bread were my favorite, but then, I am having a goat cheese love affair at the moment, so this poses no surprise.
Earlier, I alluded to the fact that I still serve one of Jaleo’s tapas selections at parties, and this next one is it. Endibias con queso de cabra y naranjas is a really hard to pronounce name for goat cheese, mandarin oranges, toasted almonds, and a light honey vinaigrette served in little endive leaf boats. It is simple, but different; light, but delectable. I love to serve these at my Miss America party, because the tiny smidge of semi-soft goat cheese is unlikely to completely derail my guests’ New Years diets, and because they’re insanely simple to throw together. I make my dressing with honey and rice wine vinegar, although I’m sure Jaleo is using white balsamic or champagne vinegar or something fancier. These babies are bright, light, and scrumptious, so I encourage you to try them when you visit.
K wanted to try the bacon-wrapped dates. Having just had Hops Spot’s version during my BHS photo shoot earlier this summer, I remember the meat candy-ness of this dish, and flashed the two thumbs up in her general direction. This adaptation was deep-fried and served on top of a finger-licking-good apple-mustard sauce that was both sweet and hot – a spicy, fitting foil for all the rich sweetness of bacon-wrapped nuggets of dried fruit.
K also chose the next stunner: house-made chorizo slices perched on a bed of mashed potatoes so smooth, it must be one dude’s job just to rice them in the back kitchen. The chorizo was bursting with paprika and spice without being overwhelmingly salty or hot, and the apple cider sauce (maybe a gastrique?) served around the mashed potato fortress was piquant and provided needed acid to address the fatty richness of the sausage. This is a classic tapas tradition, and a good one that’s not too risky if you’re a first-timer.
Ensalada de coles de Bruselas con albaricoques, manzanas y jamón Serrano was the next dish ushered to our table by a procession of Latino lookers. Translation: warm brussel sprout salad with apricots and ham. This was another light, refreshing dish that each of us kept going back to for one more spoonful. The brussel sprout leaves were separated and crisp-tender, gorgeously bright green and ever-so-slightly dressed with the fruit and Serrano. Another salty-sweet success, but this one anchored by the funky, clean taste of the sprouts.
Grilled chicken thighs with parsley puree and garlic sauce were not my favorite, but that’s not to say they were bad. Chicken thighs just don’t happen to strike my fancy – a little chewy for me, and there wasn’t a ton of chicken flavor there. The sauce was tasty, maybe tinged with some tomato and paprika or piquillo pepper, but it didn’t really ring my bell. I would skip this one.
Another tapas must-do is gambas al ajillo, garlic shrimp. I believe Jaleo has changed its recipe for this classic since my last visit, as I remember a less-red bowl of yum, but I still loved the overt garliciciousness enrobing the gigantic, perfectly cooked shrimp. I liked this much more than the version I had at Beso in Staten Island in June, though my shellfish-averse tablemates demurred from sampling the pungent, black-olive-laced dish.
The crowning achievement and Best Dish of the night, in my opinion, was the Canelones de cerdo y foie con béchamel. Even before I provide translation for that, it sounds pretty epic, am I right? Well get a load of this: pork and foie gras canalones in béchamel sauce is what the menu says, but my mouth said HOLY CRAP, THIS IS HEAVEN. This was mild, milky, rich, cheesy, salty, homey, comforting and warming. The pork flavor took a backseat to the rich foie gras, which was mellowed out with the expansive milky cream sauce, and then haloed in a bubbling, browned blanket of broiled, just slightly sharp cheese. The canalones, which I assume are cousins to Italian cannelloni, were tender as can be, all but disappearing into the béchamel, which may have been kissed with the lightest touch of nutmeg. I could not get enough of this, and honestly could have polished off the entire thing myself. Oink. I will be desperately trying to recreate this concoction at home in the years to come, and I suspect, to no avail.
Oh but wait, there was dessert. Of course. Again, three women, an effort at ordering some vegetable dishes to offset all that pork, you know we had to have something sweet! The dark chocolate mousse with cocoa sponge cake and hazelnut ice cream didn’t really knock me over. You know, it was…chocolately. Bonus points for the odd ice cream flavor, except that I couldn’t identify it as hazelnut and had to ask the waiter. I mean, my taste buds may have been blown out at that point by all the foie gras, but who can say?
The watershed moment came from an unlikely place: rice pudding. I’ll wait a moment while you gasp. This is NOT gran’s rice pudding, dear readers. This is a smooth rice-derived custard, punched up with vanilla and cinnamon, studded with electric candied lemon zest chunks and showered with crispy, crunchy, puffed, caramelized rice. There was texture, shocking brightness and sugary-acid from the lemon pieces, and mile upon dreamy mile of whipped cream and pudding. It also was a huge portion, so as each of us worked through the layers of flavor, exclaiming delight and surprise, we didn’t run out of fuel for our culinary journey. Despite your previous rice pudding assumptions, order this treat when you hit up Jaleo.
Unlike Beso in SI, and other tapas joints I’ve haunted, Jaleo is modern and swanky. There’s pop art, installations of traditional Spanish serveware displayed in bright, white towers, cool lighting and fun music. They want you to linger over multiple courses of Andres’ traditional, simple, stunning food. Nothing here was heavy, yet everything had a depth and maturity that belies why this has become one of DC’s most beloved institutions. I’m going ahead with a 10 on the BHS scale, because the food is so different from anything I can get around here, but still familiar and unchallenging. These are not acquired tastes, but they do surprise and enchant, with a whimsy and gusto very much reminiscent of the chef who created them. On your next visit to our nation’s capital, check out Jaleo, and I dare you, eat even more pork than I did;) My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!
PS – Baked Euphoria’s Café is now open on Washington Ave in Endicott. It is supremely close for those of you who work with me, and is serving up pretty delicious sandwiches along with predictably decadent desserts. The antipasto sandwich on ciabatta I had Tuesday was bursting with salted, cured meats, fresh veggies, and acidic vinaigrette, and the Mexican hot chocolate cupcake had a surprise inside: marshmallow fluff filling. They still have some organizing and polishing to do in order to make service a success, but go ahead and give it a try for breakfast or lunch!