How long ago was it that we became accepting of the idea that a good restaurant can maintain its quality if there's more than one location, and that some chefs can manage multiple restaurants very effectively? There was a time when I would have felt uncomfortable about recommending a suburban restaurant that was a branch of a major chef's mother house.
Jose Andres may well have been the guy who made tapas a player in the game to attract American diners. He's currently at the helm of several very different restaurants in Washington with the now-almost-mandatory Las Vegas outpost. Jaleo, his primarily tapas restaurant, now has four locations. The Arlington, VA, location, in a neighborhood known as Crystal City, fed me well last week.
The area appears at first to be a collection of high-rise office buildings, many with corporate or organization logos. But plenty of similar-looking buildings on those blocks are actually apartments or condos, so the area doesn't become a ghost town at night. Folks sprawl at sidewalk tables, neighbors walking dogs stop to chat, a breeze seems to come off the Potomac River a half-mile or so to the east. Weekends are busy enough that a second dining room is in use, and on a Saturday evening with no reservation (yes, another rule broken; I had no idea when I'd be able to eat dinner), it was eat at the bar or wait an estimated thirty minutes for a table.
A woman eating alone at a bar once was an invitation to annoyance, but those days, at most places, are long gone. They're great places to watch how a restaurant works, listen to staff conversation and eat without feeling faintly guilty that you're using a table for two when other folks are waiting to sit down. It's often easier to catch a bartender's eye than a server who usually has to cover a lot more territory than what's right in front of you. And the bartenders in places like this, I've found, are just as knowledgeable about the menu as any other server. An unexpected second visit with some local friends gave even more of a look at the menu.
Everything I ate, with one exception, comes as a tapas-sized serving, although the gazpacho, ruddy red, thick enough to be a sauce, and shockingly creamy, would have been hard to share, as it arrived in a glass. Fish soup on any menu always beckons, and here it offered shrimp, mussels and clams in a clear, very saffron-laced broth. Stunning, although this is the first brothy fish soup I've found that wasn't just as good as a dunk for the toasted bread. Somehow, it lost savor.
Pan con tomate is a must for tomato lovers. Grilled bread is rubbed with a clove of garlic and then a cut tomato is rubbed quite firmly on the bread, in effect shredding the tomato. It's very traditional, and at Jaleo can be had with serrano ham, manchego cheese or marinated anchovies. (And what an easy dish to reproduce at home as grilling and tomato seasons go into high gear!) A salad sports pine nuts, capers and cheese with tender lettuces and a sherry vinaigrette.
Special mention has to be made of the botifarra with sauteed white beans "Daniel Patrick Moynihan". Obviously, the late senator from New York, who loved this dish, knew his sausage. Coarsely ground, slightly lumpy, very juicy, tasting of black pepper and garlic and a myriad of mysterious other seasonings, it's stunning. The beans are even more garlicky, their texture slightly chewy here and there from their reheat in a saute pan. It's a platonic dish. The chef walked by, and I saluted the dish to him. "Three days to make those beans," he responded, and began to discuss them. "But the sausage," I begged, "What's in it?" He smiled. "It's one of those have-to-kill-me stories, if I told. Chef Jose sent a guy to Spain for a year to learn how to make them. They wouldn't kill you. They'd kill me if I told - but I don't know, either."
Plenty of deeply tempting things on the menu, including tripe, which I decided to forego, because I know most folks who read this still think it's horrid. The only disappointment was the potatoes bravas, another traditional tapas snack, beloved of students who nosh on what's traditionally an inexpensive dish to go with wine or beer at a cafe. Thick slices of fingerling potatoes were fried until done but not crisp and served on a bed of a little tomato sauce that wasn't as spicy as it could have been, and topped with a couple of dollops of aioli. The aioli was excellent, but the potatoes were nothing remarkable and the tomato sauce invisible until discovered by accident after eating about 20% of the potatoes.
On Sunday evenings, and only at this location, Jaleo has quite a deal. Paella, which is always available on the dinner menu, starting at $34, is their special. For $20, there's a first and second course, each with several choices, your choice of at least two paellas, plus dessert. And this is - prepare yourself - all you can eat. I had a chicken and mixed mushroom paella, my friends had the vegetarian one, which featured porcini mushrooms and black and green olives, plus smaller pieces of other vegetables. Paella isn't for those who like their rice light and fluffy; it's closer to risotto, minus the creamy sauce. Musky with the mushrooms and lashings of saffron, the mushrooms and chicken generously added, it satisfies. And the serving was large enough that half went back with me. Once upon a time I didn't like saffron...just goes to show.
The bartender/server encouraged me to try the Basque cake from the dessert menu. A small individual cake, shortbread-ish on the outside is creamy inside, rich, perhaps a little brandy in there with the vanilla. So rich, in fact, that it's served with ice milk rather than ice cream, and what a good idea that is, much more refreshing and light. Flan is quite remarkable, silky-smooth, extremely tender, with an orange-scented whipped cream, the whole thing only lightly sweet and a far cry from some of its cousins appearing in restaurants around the country.
Generous quantities of Spanish rose' accompanied the second meal; I tried the house sangria for the first. Service was exemplary, and with a good, deep knowledge of the menu. And the menu is very vegetarian-friendly, if that's a concern.
2250A Crystal Drive, Arlington, VA
(and other locations)
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good