Jaleo

Jaleo, Bethesda, MD

Jaleo, Bethesda, MDAn 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.

Chicken Croquetas - Jaleo, Bethesda, MD

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.

Catalan Bean Salad - Jaleo, Bethesda, MD

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.

Pork Loin, Onion, Blue Cheese Sauce - Jaleo, Bethesda, MD

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.

Flan, Catalan Cream - Jaleo, Bethesda, MD

Fruit Sorbet - Jaleo, Bethesda, MD
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, Bethesda, MDJaleo 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.

Jaleo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

La Churrería de Madrid

As a study abroad student spending a semester in Spain, I fell in love with Spanish food cooked by my house-mothers whom I insisted that they prepared the most authentic local fare.  At times I would come home to find a wonderful Paella with little crabs, or a very tasty rabbit in garlic and beer stew, or even some freshly bought blood sausage that I developed an affinity for – it was truly a six-month culinary eye-opening experience.  In between the home-cooked meals, I would savor tasty bites at Tapas bars, restaurants, carnival stands, and street stalls.

Upon graduating from college in the DC area in the early 90’s, I went on a culinary mission and stumbled across La Churrería de Madrid in the busy Adams Morgan area.  The first few visits were rewarded by wonderfully authentic cooking that took me back to the Iberian Peninsula.  However, in time, the restaurant fell off my culinary list as the area became overcrowded with an upsurge of new restaurants and their patrons, which made parking around there close to impossible.  Recently, upon happenstance, I stumbled upon this old culinary friend and I decided to pay it another visit.

On my last visit, I tentatively walked into the place that had a “Cash Only” sign plastered on its door.  The restaurant looked much liked it did in previous years – a bit dark and nearly lifeless, with a soccer match playing on the large flat screen.  My entrance appeared to interrupt the staff’s well-guarded solitude at the bar.  I was brought upstairs where the dining room is, and I had no problems finding the choice table by the window to get some excellent window photo shots since I was the only customer at that time.

I asked the waiter if the original Spanish owners were still around since I didn’t notice them.  He replied that the place had changed hands and that they had gone back to Spain to retire.  At this point, some reservations about the  quality of food I could expect from the kitchen started to rouse within me.  Perusing the menu, few changes had been made, such as the absence of the more exotic dishes like Rabbit Stew and Blood Sausage – obviously they were catering to a more general clientele.

Entremés 4x4

I decided to go the Tapas route and order a slew of small bites as my meal.  I started off with the Appetizer Platter (Entremés 4X4) that consisted of creamy light Chicken Croquettes (Croquetas), pillowy soft Spanish Potato Egg Bites (Tortilla Española), meaty Beef and Olive Patties (Empanadillas), and robust Green Olives (Aceitunas).  The first bite of each Tapas brought me back to my collegial days in that sunny country, and I was unexpectedly awakened by a sense of expectation and anticipation; the tapas were well-prepared and perfectly seasoned, greaseless, and they tasted like creations prepared by a true master.  I asked the waiter who was in charge of the kitchen; he replied that the cook was the daughter of the previous one – this, a tradition definitely well passed on.   I later learned that the restaurant was not in the hands of strangers, but the previous owner’s nieces – this  indeed was reassuring to this writer.

Champiñones Salteados

My next dish was Mushrooms sautéed with Shallots, Garlic in Sherry sauce (Champiñones Salteados).  It had a wonderful woodsy earthiness, mellowed out by sweet shallots, and rounded off by a dark boozy sauce.  This was so satisfying that it could easily replace a meat course.  Fortunately, there was lots of sliced bread that I used to sop up every drop of that rich tasty liquor.

Patatas Bravas

A side of potatoes would not usually conjure up much excitement, but I had to order Patatas Bravas, or Angry Potatoes, as it is a Tapas standard fare and the litmus test of a good Spanish kitchen.  This kitchen’s rendition did indeed pass with high marks.  The wedges of potato were perfectly cooked and nearly greaseless, lightly coated with a spicy tangy sauce that makes them completely irresistible.   Potato never tasted this good!

Milanesa de Pollo

I took a stab at my table companion’s Breaded Chicken Scallopine (Milanesa de Pollo).  Normally, I am not too fond of this rather quite pedestrian dish but this version did take me by surprise.  The chicken was coated fairly lightly with well-seasoned breadcrumbs, and it was crispy with a bare hint of grease from the frying.  More importantly, the thin slice of chicken was still moist and flavorful, which, otherwise, could be a dry stodgy mess under lesser hands – I had to take a couple more stabs at my companion’s meal with mild surprise.  The accompanying black beans and rice were quite tasty but nothing exceptional.

Spanish Churros
Most times, especially after scoffing down a satisfying meal, I would resist ordering dessert .  But a visit to La Churrería would not be complete without ordering the signature dessert that this “Churro stand” is known for – Churros.  As a student living in Madrid, I would stumble out of the Metro station, either tired or a bit boozed-up from cheap beers, looking for a snack before walking back to my apartment.  Without fail, there would always be a stand selling freshly fried churros with a side serving of lava-like hot chocolate, thick enough to stand a churro in the middle of the cup.  La Churrería did not disappoint me again, and I was savoring the finger-wide, crispy outside, soft inside fried dough sticks as if I were suffering from “the munchies”.

Churro in Hot ChocolateThe thick hot chocolate that came in an espresso cup was just adequate enough to fulfil all the churro-dunking.   I later learned from the waiter that what makes Spanish churros unique from other versions is the high content of yucca/cassava in the dough that results in a smoother inside.

I walked out of La Churrería into the gray winter’s cold as if walking into the Spanish sun, sated and feeling fulfilled by a wonderful culinary experience while reliving youthful memories with this surprisingly delightful meal.  I promised myself not to let too much time pass by again  before revisiting this Spanish treasure and savoring the Paella that I used to enjoy in previous years – at $34 for two persons, it is high on my list. ¡Viva España!

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