480 7th St. NW | Cuisine: Spanish | $$$
Culinary innovator José Andrés strives for perfection in each of his 27 award-winning restaurants around the country and the world. Famous for his avant-garde cuisine, Andrés established Jaleo in Penn Quarter to celebrate his Spanish roots. Employing daring creativity in elevating his favorite childhood dishes, Jaleo’s chef and owner delivers “authentic Spain with finesse” through a series of beautifully presented, scrumptious creations.
This homely setting first opened its doors in 1993 and is now celebrating 24 years of innovation of regional Spanish fare. As diners walk past the glass-paved foosball tables and beehive-patterned walls, they become fully immersed in the whimsical atmosphere Andrés has created in honor of his lively homeland.
My party started off with an excellent selection of Spanish hams — including legendary 48-month cured, acorn-fed iberico ($22) — free-range pork chorizo ($12), and paprika and garlic tenderloin ($15).
Some exceptional tapas followed our luscious tasting. The torta Pascualete ($26) featured four pieces of toasted pan de cristal spread with silky quince paste, fig jam and raw sheep’s milk cheese. The aceitunas rellenas, house-made stuffed olives with anchovies and roasted piquillo peppers ($7.50), were a simple yet fabulous appetizer.
A small section of the menu, titled “José’s Way,” offers a fresh take on traditional Spanish market fare. The ensaladilla rusa ($15.50) elevates a Spanish culinary rite of passage — tangy potato salad with tuna, peas and mayonnaise — with an unexpected salty note of trout roe. A Catalonian delight, the coca con erizos de mar ($24) features crusty pan de cristal topped with sea urchin.
The gazpacho de remolacha ($10) is foolproof: chilled beets and tomatoes give it a unique freshness, while goat cheese and pistachios create a luscious texture. For those feeling adventurous, try the ensalada con queso ($9): mixed greens topped with a thick crust of melted idiazábal cheese.
As the menu wisely states, “Frying is overrated … yeah right,” Jaleo’s fried bites embody Andrés’ passion for innovating fried foods. The fried potatoes with tomato sauce and aioli ($7.50) and the ibérico ham fritters ($12) are bound to satisfy those craving a little spice. The bacon-wrapped dates with apple-mustard sauce ($7) are a true delight, offering a heightened, sophisticated version of pigs-in-a-blanket.
For those craving heftier portions, the secreto iberico ($60) is the perfect sharing plate, featuring skirt steak from black-footed ibérico pork. On the other hand, those seeking various smaller plates should try any of Andrés’ tasting menus. The Jaleo Experience ($70 per person) offers a tour of Spain’s traditional and modern tapas. Jose’s Way ($95) invites diners to “eat like José” by presenting them with a selection of the chef’s top culinary tapas. The Spanish Sips ($30) allows guests to enjoy a selection of Spanish wines and beverages to pair to any of the tasting menus.
Andrés recalls his experiences as a young boy helping his father cook paella by offering costumers the paella valenciana ($45), with classic rabbit, chicken and green beans. The large dish is meant to be shared among friends, much like in Andrés’ gatherings back in Spain. The black fideo with calamari, squid ink and octopus ($48) competes with the paella for the title of supreme main dish.
Jaleo has also substantially expanded its cocktail offering in the last few years. A nod to Spain’s craze for gin and tonic, Andrés has added eight feature choices made with varying tonic waters and aromatic herbs. José’s Choice ($14) is one of the classic interpretations, featuring lemon and juniper. The London Dry ($14) is as piercing as its name suggests, with mint, grapefruit, lemon and white pepper.
For diners who manage to make it to dessert, do not miss the chewy olive oil ice cream on pink grapefruit ($8). The flan al estilo de mama ($8) is a nostalgic look at a childhood desert. Its custard and Catalan cream foam go perfectly with a carajillo ($8) — espresso with a splash of Spanish brandy that is sure to leave daring palates spellbound.
Although its sharing portions might be as extravagant in price as they are in flavor, Jaleo remains one of the jewels in Penn Quarter and offers one of D.C.’s most consistently delicious meals. Although more expensive than other eateries, the quality of the food will make for a memorable experience worthy of the price tag. An ideal location for students and young professionals, Jaleo offers a relaxed ambiance to enjoy a very serious meal, filled with flavor discoveries and cultural enrichment.
Along with its signature tapas, superb sangria and a wide selection of unique Spanish creations, Jaleo proves an exciting yet reliable destination. In Andrés’ words, “[Spain]’s tradition and whimsy all in one bite.”
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