When we first traveled to the Andalucia region of Spain eight years ago, I had never heard the word “tapas”, and was charmed by the concept of nibbling nonstop whenever we felt hungry instead of being bound by the three-meal-a-day convention. Tapas ranged from simple (fat, juicy olives) to surprising (dates wrapped in Serrano ham) to slimy (freshly-brined snails). Without exception, all used the freshest of ingredients. They were sublime. Better still, all came free, served with The Spouse’s beer and my sangria.
Today, tapas are ubiquitous – we have tapas bars, tapas dinners, and even tapas parties. And none of them come free. Globally, these little nibbles have been elevated to a form of haute cuisine. Having had the opportunity to try tapas in their most basic form in Andalucia, their region of origin, I wanted to sample them in their more fashionable avatar. When I found myself in the Washington DC area last month, I couldn’t think of a better place to do that than at Jaleo (pronounced ha-lay-o), the tapas restaurant owned by José Andrés – the chef who introduced America (and arguably, the rest of the world) to tapas as a standalone fine dining concept.
Tapas: From Humble Origin to Haute Cuisine
“Tapas” comes from the Spanish “tapar”, meaning “to cover”, or “tapa” meaning “lid”. There are many plausible theories as to the origin of tapas; whichever version you choose to believe, there is no disputing the fact that tapas are meant to be small portions of food, not too rich, served with drinks in order to counter the effects of alcohol. By that definition, any dish served as a small portion can be tapas: olives; cheese; a tiny portion of rice; sliced omelete; kebabs. They can be served hot or cold, dry or with a sauce. To my mind, tapeo – the custom of eating tapas – pertains to a manner of eating rather than a preparation style.
No individual has done more to popularize the tapas tradition than chef José Andrés, who trained under the legendary chef Ferran Adrià at the three-Michelin starred El Bulli in Spain. Andrés opened Jaleo in Washington, DC in 1993. Since then, Jaleo has spun off two siblings, one in Bethesda, Md., and one in Crystal City, Va.; Andrés himself has won many accolades, including being named “Chef of the Year” by Bon Appetit magazine in 2004 and defeating Bobby Flay to win the Iron Chef America contest in 2007.
I made a date with my friend Taina Litwak to meet for lunch at Jaleo’s Bethesda location. Taina has an unusual job – she is a scientific illustrator. We have known each other since her older son and The Vacuum Cleaner were in pre-Kindergarten together – in other words, a long time. If there was anyone I wanted to “ir de tapas” with, it was Taina.
Tapas at Jaleo… The Real Deal
I’m not going to waste time describing Jaleo’s interiors; here’s a 360° view that should do the job quite nicely.
We opted to forego the very tempting wine list in favor of a half pitcher of sangria, raising a toast to our friendship, to old times, and to good food.
Deciding what to eat was almost impossible. Taina expressed my feelings perfectly: “Can I have one of everything, please?” Alas, that was not possible. As we continued to hem, haw, and drool over the menu, I decided to take the plunge with Gambas al Ajillo, probably Spain’s most ubiquitous tapa. Taina was sure that she wanted to order something from the special Clementine Festival menu, and The Spouse was intrigued by a tapa named after the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was America’s Ambassador to India in the early Seventies.
Butifarra casera con ‘mongetes’ “Daniel Patrick Moynihan”, so named because Senator Moynihan ordered it whenever he visited Jaleo, turned out to be homemade grilled pork sausage served on a bed of sautéed white beans. This was simple, hearty, and filling, with the texture of the beans providing an interesting offset to the sausage. Though this dish was in no discernible way Spanish, we all enjoyed it immensely.
Taina eventually settled on Calamares a la Plancha con Alcachofas y Clementinas, grilled squid with artichokes and clementines. Spain is the world’s largest of producer of clementines, so this practically seedless citrus fruit features in many traditional Spanish dishes. Jaleo’s presentation was refreshing – the squid hadn’t been sliced into the predictable rings, the artichokes resembled tiny green roses, and the clementines added a bright splash of color. Their distinctive citrus tang married well with the squid and the artichokes. A sprinkling of bacon and chives rounded off the dish.
Gambas al Ajillo translates as “prawns in garlic”. If only it were that simple. Done well, this dish can be a sensory treat – the fragrance of fried garlic, the sputter of hot oil, the texture of shrimp, and a barely-there tingle of chilli pepper combine to create culinary magic. In Spain, this dish is served still-sizzling in a shallow terracotta pan, or cazuela, with crusty bread to mop up the abundant, flavor-infused olive oil that’s left after the shrimp has been devoured. Jaleo serves a somewhat drier version of this classic, and while I enjoyed the flavor and the texture, I missed being able to dunk bread in an abundance of warm, garlic-flavored oil.
By now, we were on a roll. Taina and The Spouse ganged up on me to order Ensalada de coles de Bruselas, a warm, tapa-sized salad of Brussels sprouts, apricots, and Serrano ham. I was horrified. For me, it evoked traumatic memories of the grayish, over-boiled Brussels sprouts I was forced to eat as a hapless child subjected to England’s school lunch program during the 70s. I was intrigued, therefore, by the enthusiastic sounds being emitted by my dining companions, and decided to brave a taste of the salad. What a revelation! Contrary to the psyche-scarring experiences of my childhood, the sprouts were green and crisp, their flavor keen. The salad as a whole was a gorgeous medley of tastes and textures: fruity-chewy (apricot); fruity-tart (green apple); leafy-crunchy (Brussels sprouts); chewy-salty-meaty (Serrano). We all agreed (apologies to Jamie Oliver) that the English do not know how to cook vegetables.
If I’d had my reservations about the Brussels sprouts, Taina expressed serious doubts about the dátiles con tocino ‘como hace todo el mundo, fried dates wrapped in bacon. “That just sounds weird,” she protested. This was something The Spouse and I had sampled before, though, and we knew the flavors worked well together. Taina ended up being unable to stop eating them. As she pointed out, this is an easy and healthy snack to prepare, especially if done in the oven rather than deep-fried.
For me, the highlight of the meal was the final dish we ordered: conejo en salmorejo con purée de albaricoques, Canary Island-style rabbit confit served with apricot purée. I have always felt that rabbit offers too little meat to be worth its price; the folks at Jaleo obviously procure their game from someone who’s feeding the rabbits SuperGro, because there was enough meat on the leg and thigh for all three of us to get a good hunk. A hint of cumin cut the sweetness of the fruit purée down to size. I thought – still think – of this dish as pure culinary genius. It was a fitting finale to our meal.
Could we have eaten more? Maybe. Would I have wanted to? No. Why? Because everything about this meal – the food, the sangria, the ambience, and most importantly the company and the conversation – was just right.