Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Review: Jaleo Still Strong After 20 Years

When the Washington Post's Phyllis Richman first reviewed Jaleo soon after it opened in 1993, there was no mention of its location in Penn Quarter (it was called "old downtown" back then), nor was there mention of its not-yet-famous chef-owner José Andrés. My, how the times have changed.

But what hasn't changed for Jaleo, which celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this year, are the raves about its food. It's as vibrant and creative today as it's always been.

Sure, the prices have gone up--Richman noted several times that one of Jaleo's best selling points was its low price--but I would argue Jaleo still delivers good value. People may scoff at the $225 per person Andrés is charging a couple blocks away at Minibar, but of the 10 or so D.C.-area restaurants the Post has rated with 3.5 or 4 stars, Jaleo is the gentlest on your pocketbook. A couple could reasonably enjoy a dinner of six shared tapas and two glasses of wine for $75. Of course, a few rounds of sangria, a paella and some dessert will set you back more, but at least Jaleo offers the chance for young, less well-heeled Washingtonians to dine in style while eating well. This is how you train people to love eating at restaurants.

Our recent dinner at Jaleo was as delightful as any we've had in the 10-plus years since I started eating there. The interior got a needed update last year, turning the corner restaurant with its large glass windows into a colorful, whimsical space in keeping with its Spanish origins. The menu also got a facelift. I remember it used to feature cold tapas, hot tapas, seasonal tapas and entrees. Now small plates are divided by style: appetizers, soups and salads, vegetables, fritters, seafood and meat. There's also the aforementioned paella and a tasting menu option.

Vegetal Gin & Tonic

The food side of the menu isn't the only thing that's a little different: Jaleo also expanded its cocktail offering last year, notably by adding gin & tonic, a nod to the current Spanish "gin tonic" craze. While you may think of Jaleo for its sangria, I'm more excited about its G&Ts: six choices made with varying tonic waters, aromatic herbs and other ingredients. On a previous visit, I enjoyed the José's Choice, which is a pretty traditional interpretation with lemon, lime and juniper. More recently, Chris and I sampled some of the more unusual choices like the Barrel Aged made with pickled ginger, allspice, orange and lemon. It was good, but I preferred the ultra refreshing taste of the Vegetal with fennel, radish, cubeb (a spice berry that resembles a peppercorn), kumquat and Fentiman's tonic water. Chris enjoyed the London Dry with grapefruit, mint, lemon and white pepper, although we were surprised to find it's mixed with club soda instead of tonic water.

Salad of mixed greens with idiazábal cheese, anchovies and garlic anchovy dressing

While I'm sure Jaleo's paella is delicious, I, like most people, come for the tapas. We ordered a mix of new dishes and old favorites across most of the different categories. Dinner started on a very strong note: a salad of mixed greens with idiazábal cheese (like pecorino), spanish anchovies and garlic anchovy dressing. Anyone still harboring an aversion to anchovies needs to get over it. They were delicious in this dish, which got additional briny flavor from capers and was rounded out with pine nuts. Along with that we enjoyed an old favorite: beets with grapefruit, valdeón (Spanish blue) cheese and pistachios.

Sautéed seasonal mushrooms with cheesy potato purée

The next highlight was the sautéed seasonal mushrooms (looked like cremini and chanterelle) with a cheesy potato purée, garlic and herbs. Arriving at about the same time was the warm Brussels sprouts salad with apricots, apple and serrano ham, which was the evening's only disappointing dish. Restaurants are doing marvelous roasted sprouts these days, so I was expecting something more like that than the "warm" sprouts (which really weren't that warm). I also thought the ham was too tough. Nonetheless, this one mediocre dish was offset by the always fabulous Dátiles Con Tocino Como Hace Todo El Mundo, which translates roughly to "dates with bacon how everyone does it." The sweet and smoky fritters may be done by everyone, but I seriously doubt they all do it this good (we've been known to order two plates of this, we like it so much).

Another old favorite then arrived: the classic Spanish tapa of sautéed shrimp with garlic. This is one I remember eating on the street in Madrid back in 1998 (I also remember lots of little pieces of paper and toothpicks everywhere; "tapas detritus" I suppose). It was particularly spicy this time, which I liked. And that garlicky oil they cook the shrimp in is always really great when sopped up with Jaleo's crusty bread. Interesting, this was one of the few dishes Richman didn't enjoy back in the 1993, describing the shrimp as "tasteless" and its "onion-strewn" garlic butter as "watery." Obviously it's been improved since then.

Pork and foie gras canelones

The best was yet to come, however. The pork and foie gras canelones (like the Italian cannelloni) with béchamel sauce were a revelation. If you love macaroni & cheese as much as I do, consider this like a luxe version of that staple with shredded pork. That the cheese around the edge of the plate was a bit crispy just made me love this all the more. I would definitely eat this again and it's probably a good thing that it doesn't come as an entree portion.

Like most of the small-plates restaurants Jaleo inspired, dishes come out as they are ready, although I've noticed the kitchen does try to pace things a bit by bringing the salads and cold dishes first before the hot and meat dishes. At no point did we feel like we had too much on our table. Servers did a got job removing the things we'd finished and never a moment too soon.

That Penn Quarter is now a major foodie neighborhood and José Andrés is one of our nation's best known chefs are part of a greater story about the transformation of DC's restaurant scene from grumbles about expense count lunches to truly a world-class destination of diverse and exciting culinary experiences. Jaleo is one of that story's tastiest and most influential chapters.

Jaleo, 480 7th Street NW (at E Street), Washington, D.C. (Penn Quarter). (202) 628-7949. Reservations: Open Table.

Jaleo on Urbanspoon


  1. This is a terrific review, honey. I appreciate your point about Jaleo being relatively affordable and how it can serve as a kind of "training ground" for young people as they develop a taste for good food. I also agree with your praise for the service, which is top notch. I'm glad we checked in with this place. Isn't it nice to see an old favorite keeping up with the times and maintaining its quality?

    1. Thanks! I wish we could go more often, as it really is a great place to have nearby.