With the craze for tapas showing no sign of letting up, Washingtonians have a particularly good venue for enjoying it. I'm always glad to return to Jaleo, with locations in Washington's gallery district on Seventh Street NW, in restaurant-rich Bethesda, and most recently in Crystal City.
The décor of the Seventh Street location is an interesting blend of Old World charm and modern flair. From the street, looking in through café curtains, you might think that Jaleo is a very traditional Spanish restaurant. But inside the door you're met by bold colors, unusual shapes and spaces, and a decidedly trendy environment.
The popularity of this place, combined with a no-reservations policy, virtually ensures that you'll have a bit of a wait if you arrive after 7 p.m. Fortunately, a lively bar scene and a generous selection of wines and spirits makes the time fly by.
A vast selection of tapas offerings await you at Jaleo. Listed under three major categories, you'll be tempted by tapas frias (cold), tapas calientes (hot), and tapas de temporada (seasonal offerings). Within the cold selections, Queso de tupi 'abuelo tunica' is among the most unusual I've found anywhere. Made with aged, imported cow's milk cheese fermented with Spanish liquor and served with dried fig purée, this is a riot of flavors and aromas that meld together in a most satisfying way.
Endive, goat cheese, oranges, and almonds are combined in a more subtle yet just as interesting creation. It's a surprising mixture of textures, flavors, and contrasts that had me thinking about its effect for days. More traditional is the eggplant flan with red pepper sauce. Its notable accomplishment is the still-firm eggplant filling and velvety pepper sauce that didn't overpower the flaky-crusted flan.
A seasonal creation of Catalan flat bread topped with onions, black olives, red peppers and Manchego cheese is crunchy and delicious. It's Catalan "pizza" if you will.
While not something that everyone would be inclined to try, blood sausage with garlic sauce was one of my favorite hot tapas dishes. It brought back pleasant memories of my German-American roots. Admittedly, it's an acquired taste. More mainstream in appeal are bay scallops with Serrano ham. While the scallops are fresh and tender, the strong flavor of the ham tends to overpower their delicate taste.
Lest you begin thinking that Jaleo serves only tapas, let me acquaint you with a couple of entrées from its small but interesting list of main courses.
Duck leg confit (also available as a small plate) is bursting with flavor, and perfectly partnered with a slightly tart cherry sauce. No less pleasing is a grilled chicken breast served with green sauce, mushrooms and garlic, although the chicken was just a little overcooked. The slightly smoky notes from the grilling were not lost in the medley.
If you're willing to wait 45 minutes for its preparation, Jaleo will serve up its version of paella, a classic rice dish of lobster and chicken originating in the Levante region of Spain. Three other variations of paella, including a vegetarian offering, are also available and each serves two to four people.
Perhaps surprisingly, there are more dessert choices here than main courses. They range from the traditional to the inspired. A classic Spanish flan with Catalan cream and oranges is executed with skill, as is Basque cake with semolina cream and cinnamon-vanilla sauce. But apple charlotte flavored with Pedro Ximénez (a Spanish liqueur) takes the prize.
If menu variety is important to you, you won't be disappointed at Jaleo, where dozens of interesting tapas selections are sure to offer something to your liking.