An urge to watch the latest Pedro Almodóvar film last weekend chimed in at the same time the desire for a nearby place for me to brunch with my friends. My first visit to the Spanish restaurant, Jaleo, was to its mothership branch in the Penn Quarter many moons ago when they first opened, and I was quite impressed with their Tapas fare of which I became familiar with during my year abroad in Spain. This time, the group and I headed to their sister restaurant in the busy Bethesda Row lined with boutique shops and swanky eateries. Walking into their festive-looking space, we took our seats and perused the menu, but our attention was quickly drawn to the Restaurant Week 4-course special that was quite a bargain. After the whole table agreed to go with the offer, we placed our orders and nibbled on the crusty sourdough bread while dipping it into the grassy fruity olive oil supped up by fresh rosemary with its pine-like essence and a clove of raw garlic lending its slightly acrid bite.
My first course was Croquetas de Pollo. Four of these pillowy bites arrived sitting on some decorative paper that offset these fried batons. One bite sent me back to my college exchange program days in Madrid, Spain, where I would watch with anticipation my house lady preparing these classic Spanish appetizers. These were perfectly fried, with little trace of oil, tasting very clean. Under the crispy exterior was a filling that was extraordinarily smooth, creamy, savory, and meaty from fine strands of chicken. I was glad that the course came with the quartet since they were that good, and a lesser amount would not have sufficed. It was definitely a good start indeed.
What arrived next was Empedrat de Mongetes. The menu lists the dish as a traditional Catalan bean salad with tomatoes, onion, black olives and sherry dressing. The white beans were perfectly cooked with no chalkiness, the black olives briny and a bit oily but different from the Kalamata kind, all brought together by a dressing consisting of crushed tomatoes, sherry vinegar, and fruity olive oil. The salad reminded me of a good gazpacho from the dressing, made heartier with the vegetable and beans that added the right brininess, body, and a slight crunch from the onion and green pepper bits. Despite being winter, I quite enjoyed this summer dish that was both light and satisfying to the senses.
The meat dish was Lomo de Cerdo con Salsa de queso Valdeón. A piece of pork loin sat on strands of onion, topped with a brown sauce and bits of Spanish blue cheese. The pork was a bit tough, having sat a bit too long on the grill, but it was mild tasting and devoid of any extraneous porkiness. What brought more moisture and flavor to the loin was the demi-glace sauce that was thick and rich, tasting of a good reduced stock. The light crumble of blue cheese added the creaminess and the pungent notes that were on the verge of overtaking the dish – thank goodness for the light hand here. The onions were not as sweet and tender as I expected, which would have added a counterpoint to the pungent cheese. Overall, it was quite a good dish, but another note, maybe acid in nature, would have elevated it even further.
For the final course, I had to go with a Spanish classic dessert – Flan al estilo tradicional de mamá Marisa con espuma de crema Catalana. The title caught my curiosity since it purports to be the chef’s mother’s traditional recipe. The first mouthful revealed it all: creamy, not too dense, silky, and just the right amount sugar in the custard, which was both sumptuous and decadent enough without excess. The caramel was not cloyingly sweet with hints of cinnamon, a note that was echoed in the whipped cream thickened with gelatin to give it a pudding-like mouth-feel. Across from me, I couldn’t help but to ogle at a friend’s trio of fruit sorbet due to its visual appeal. The cold bite was very fruity and not too sweet at all. The biscotti was chockful with crushed almond that complemented the fruit flavors well. Definitely a satisfying and not too sweet happy ending!
Jaleo was worth a revisit, and it was long overdue. Despite some timing issues from the kitchen which made for an awkward moment for the diners who had to wait for their main course while another one and I dined on ours, what saved the occasion were the well-executed dishes that were full of flavor and made with quality products, all making a nod to the hallmark cuisine of this establishment without coming across as stodgy and predictable. And at $16 for all four courses, it was quite a steal. I suggest you grab it as soon as you can.