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

Top Spanish Cafe and Catering

The Petworth neighborhood in DC has a reputation for its share of funkiness and shadiness. It tends to contain characters from lower-income levels that lead a “marginal” lifestyle which would make anyone a bit uneasy walking up and down Georgia Ave, its main thoroughfare. To make matters worse, its reputation for the drug activity during its yesteryears still haunts this part of town. But this is where I chose to go on a Friday night with a dining companion to try out a Spanish-style restaurant. Walking up to the place, the artistically challenged outside sign sadly does not exactly invite the street-walker (not the other kind) to pass through its doors. Furthermore, its location across from “The House” (look at the reflection in the door in the photo below – that’s the telltale sign), had many online bloggers hesitant to visit this eatery. However, in the same sweep of the pen (well, keyboard), they also praised the place for some noteworthy dishes that they claim make the trip worthwhile – I had to check it out.

Top Spanish Cafe and Catering

Upon entering Top Spanish Cafe & Catering, you will notice all the wood everywhere, from the half-paneling on the walls, the small bar across the front door covered in similar fashion, to the high-lacquered solid wood tables and chairs. It is obvious that this place has gone through some renovation, and the end-to-end large windows create the necessary barrier between the observer and the observed (which is which is usually determined by the characters involved). It was quite sparse on a Friday night with only another couple across from us. A sudden storm must have also scared some folks away with its veracity and high winds – it turned out to be a microburst that brought down many trees. However, despite the challenging circumstances and my friend’s uneasiness siting next to the window, I was eagerly anticipating discovering what the other bloggers had been raving about.

Red Wine Sangria>I decided to order a glass of Sangria, which I had read about online. It had the right balance of red wine, fruit juices, a hint of cinnamon and cloves without going overboard, and it came in a large glass with chunks of fresh apples and slice of orange. This was the perfect thirst quencher that I needed after dealing with the challenges of getting to the place. What I appreciated about this sip was that it was not overwhelming with alcohol nor was it too diluted with juice. It reminded me of my college days in Spain when I was sitting in a mesón waiting for an extremely tardy friend who did not show up until nearly an hour later – when he got there I was quite tipsy and I discovered Sangria overconsumption. Time and wisdom have proven to me that all I needed was just one big glass of this juice-wine cocktail, and it was worth the $5 cost.
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Mussels a la Romana

For the appetizer, we honed in on a couple of tapas, and the first was Mejillones a la Romana. The bowl arrived filled with medium-sized mussels sitting on a pool of sauce. These mollusks were plump, fresh (not “leathery” when not at their prime), and quite briny to the point of being slightly oversalty – the waitress checked with the chef and he said he did not add any salt to the already saline bivalves. The sauce at the bottom was packed with garlic and slightly acidic from the use of white wine and some tomato sauce. I wished we had pieces of Spanish bread to dip into this wonderful elixir. It was a great start and promising beginning to this experience.

Grilled Squid Salad

The next starter was the Tender Grilled Calamari. Pieces of the shellfish sat on a bed of lettuce, chunks of tomato, and red onion. The seafood was marinated in garlic, soy sauce, herbs, and olive oil. The pieces were so tender and smoky from the grilling, and we both were amazed by its texture and flavor that made these morsels extremely delectable. The green bed underneath was the perfect pairing with the squid, which provided the fresh light contrast to the smoky bites. I only wish there were more pieces of the delectable squid, but the quantity was justified given that it was an appetizer, and costing only $6 like the above mussel dish.

Seafood Paella

What I came here waiting to try was the Spanish Seafood Paella. Many bloggers and reviewers had mentioned that the dish was a must-order, and ever since my first blog about another Spanish eatery, La Churreria de Madrid (see blog), I have been scouting for another locale serving this dish. And this restaurant’s rendition does not disappoint at all. The dish arrived on the table with a ring of opened mussels, surrounding a mound brimming with clams, squid, shrimp, scallops, fish, peas, sweet peppers, and Valencian rice. The kernels of rice were the right kind being the medium-grain starchier type (should only be this varietal, no other), and they were cooked slightly al dente while exuding some starchiness, perfumed by some real saffron and sweet paprika, and enriched by a good seafood stock. My companion and I were totally amazed by the amount of food, the freshness of the seafood (the mussels were equally briny as the appetizer dish), and the rich flavorings that permeated each morsel. It is a pity that another friend did not make it to this gathering, or not we would have ordered a large pan (paellera) of this Spanish delicacy. Upon speaking with the chef, he told us that his parents hail from Spain, and he sure knows what he is doing with authentic Spanish paella. Yes, the bloggers got this call right, and this seafood wonder cannot be overlooked here, especially when priced at $16 per serving!

Churrasco Argentino

The chef has done stints at high-end Spanish and Latin American restaurants (Jaleo, Café Atlántico), hence the hodgepodge presence of some Latin American dishes among the Spanish ones in the menu. I couldn’t help but notice the Churrasco Argentino when perusing the menu and I decided to give it a try. The dish arrived with pieces of beef tenderloin, accompanied with wedges of roast new potatoes and thick slices of sautéed zucchini. The beef had a rich beef flavor from some proper ageing, slight smokiness from a good stay on the grill while remaining tender and juicy, and the chimichurri sauce consisting of a blend of garlic, onion, parsley, vinegar and oil provided the interesting notes that took the meat to another level. The sides were equally impressive: the baked red potatoes were crispy and fragrant from a rub of garlic and parsley with a crispy exterior and soft fluffy interior; the zucchini slices were thick and cooked just right while maintaining some bite while exuding a slight natural sweetness which brought the some lightness to the overall meat dish. I could not get enough of this dish even though I’m not the usual beef lover. But on this night I was nearly made a convert by this tasty and relatively light (in flavor, not quantity) steak dish.

Top Spanish Cafe and Catering offers Spanish-styled dishes that range from the common Tex-Mex fare to some Latin American and Spanish classics. Realizing that this is not downtown DC and in order to survive in their neighborhood, they have to cater to their surroundings with some rather pedestrian sounding dishes – interestingly, some bloggers have given complements to their Texas Nachos and Burritos. However, among them are some star dishes that point to a kitchen with expert hands that prepare some authentic and extremely delectable dishes, as in the Grilled Squid, The Mussels in Wine, Seafood Paella, and the Steak Dish. I’m looking forward to paying it another visit and savouring The Chicken in Chipotle Barbeque Sauce, The Steamed Salmon with Mango Bourbon White Wine Sauce, The Shrimp Asopao (Latin rissotto), and the Spanish Seafood Soup. This is definitely not your typical neighborhood dive with these kinds of offerings. As some bloggers have commented, this is truly a hidden gem that is worth discovering, and I can see myself a regular at this establishment in the future, waiting to dig into some good Spanish Seafood Paella. I’m quite sure you would be too after you have savoured a heavenly bite of that seafood deliciousness.

Top Spanish Cafe & Catering on Urbanspoon

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!

Churreria Madrid on Urbanspoon