Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Taberna del Alabardero Evolution of Tradition Tasting Series Media Preview

DC is up to its ears of late with flashy, modern restaurants; so I take particular delight in visiting (dining at) a true classic. Taberna del Alabardero is one such place, fresh off celebrating its silver anniversary last year. 25 years in this city is a true accomplishment... even more remarkable when you consider Luis Lezama led the way in delivering sensational Spanish cuisine to the nation's capital, long before José Andrés arrived on the scene. Suffice it to say: Taberna del Alabardero is an institution. But enough with the history lesson... DC Outlook is all about the here and now (at least when it comes to food) and we had the privilege of previewing Alabardero's Evolution of Tradition Tasting Series the other night. The results are as tasty as they are predictable: Places this good don't seem to make mistakes.

It starts with location, 1776 Eye Street, NW, just a stone's throw from the World Bank and another block or two to the White House. Once inside, it's hard not to feel a little overwhelmed by all the history and countless fine meals devoured over the past two and a half decades. We were escorted into a private dining room with various bloggers, critics and foodies... lucky folks, one and all.

Executive Chef Javier Romero

Allow me to qualify the following "review." It's not really a review per se, but rather a partial inspection. Reason being, I (the fool that I am) had to leave early (half-way through, to be exact) in order to cover the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Opening Night. Sadly, I'm not making this up: I really did leave early... right before the paellas, in fact; so I could sit in an arena with thousands of screaming children (and elephants and lions, and tigers, oh my.) And you thought being a food critic was all glamour and glitz.

Incredible Bread

New General Manager Jose Javier Perez was on hand to guide us through the extensive (more on that later) tasting, along with Executive Chef Javier Romero and Sommelier extraordinaire Gustavo Iniesta. Lest you think I didn't have much to eat... think again. 19 different tapas (in addition to to-die-for bread) crossed my path in just over an hour. I wouldn't dare write about them all, focusing instead on a few favorites.

Ensalada de Questo de Burrata, Salmorejo y Anchoas del Cantabrico

Our tasting began with Something Fresh, namely Ensalada de Questo de Burrata, Salmorejo y Anchoas del Cantabrico, a beautiful assembly of burrata cheese, creamy tomato soup and salty anchovies. Every spring or summer evening should start off so nicely. Nice and light, with just enough of a bite (anchovies) to keep things interesting.

Pan-Tumaca de Tomate y Jamon Serrano

Pan-Tumaca de Tomate y Jamon Serrano provided my first encounter with Alabardero's bread. Sweet mercy: You could hand me two loaves, tuck me away in a corner and I'd be a happy camper. Here, it's rubbed with garlic and topped with Iberian Ham (quite simply the best ham in the world, or close to it.) That's it. Once again, nothing fancy but wondrous in its simplicity. I make the same at home with proscuitto; but bet your bottom dollar, I'll be trolling for Iberian ham this weekend (Dean & DeLuca, here I come.)

Gambas al Ajillo

You can't officially call it a tapas dinner without shrimp, and I literally emptied my entire bowl of Gambas al Ajillo. It's far from complicated... Shrimp, garlic, olive oil and a few dashes of cayenne pepper for some kick; but the best Spanish food (in my humble opinion) often has four or less ingredients. Great texture to the shrimp, and Alabardero's house olive oil tastes absolutely amazing.

Pulpo a la Gallega

Staying "of the Sea," an impressive tower of Pulpo a la Gallega arrived next. Now this is simple (grilled octopus, sprinkled with paprika and sea salt.) This is also delicious, but impossible to finish: How is this a tapa? It's more like dinner for two. When I go back (and I will go back... soon) I can only hope this is still on the menu: I could spend half an hour, finishing this plate alone. Given a choice between grilled octopus and lobster, I'll choose the former almost every time.

Best Wine: Val Sotillo Crianza Tempranillo 2011

Unfortunately, there wasn't much time in between dishes. Chef Romero sets a very fast pace, and I had a hard time keeping up. Of course, this was a far cry from anyone's idea of a normal dinner. Tastings allow you to try lots of different items. My problem is, I like to finish a plate (especially if it's good great.)

Croquetas Cuadradas de Jamon

Back ashore, it was time to sample "of the land," starting with an incredible slab of Croquetas Cuadradas de Jamon, the first significant fried item of the tasting. Under normal circumstances, all eight would have disappeared in a matter of minutes; but I was close to capacity, with seemingly no end of food in sight. What I had (sadly, only three) were delicate yet slightly crunchy with more of that lovely Iberian ham tucked safely inside. Chef Romero has a way with texture (and flavor.) These croquettes are worth traveling to Spain for.

Empanadillas de Pollo, Berenjen y Cabrales

Staying "in the fryer," I devoured an Empanadilla de Pollo, Berenjen y Cabrales - a gorgeous combination of cabrales cheese, chicken and eggplant wrapped in a divine shell of fried bread. I could have sworn it had raisins in there; but whatever it was, had perfect texture (a bit of crunch, otherwise soft) and a number of powerful flavors (eggplant! eggplant!) All it needed was a hint or two of salt: Otherwise, close to perfection.

Lomo de Orza, Queso Valdeon y Pan Crujiente

That's only half-a-dozen tapas... less than a third of what I tried. However, it doesn't include my favorite plate of the night... Lomo de Orza, Queso Valdeon y Pan Crujiente, yet another work of (culinary) art featuring pork loin and crumbs of valdeon blue cheese atop strips of crispy bread. Again, so simple, yet so delicious. The pork was nicely marinated, and incredibly tender; and the cheese gives the dish a lovely pop. Adding more of that amazing bread (crispy this time) delivers a nice crunch, that balances the comparatively silky pork loin to a tee.

Ceviche al Jerez, Pourrusalada Ahumada y Huevas de Salmon

Alabardero's full menu is impossible to tackle in three or four sittings, yet alone one abridged visit. I'm still kicking myself over missing three different kinds of paellas (Cod Fish, Octopus and Pork Cheek) not to mention Spanish Cream Brûlée with Orange Ice Cream for dessert. It's clear I have work to do; and I can't wait to get to it.

Almejas en Salsa Verde con Alcachofas

Again, I must apologize for what I consider a subpar review. Under normal circumstances, I like to write about each bite; but there were simply too many of them, and not enough time in between to reflect, write notes, etc. It's clear, I need to get my priorities back in order. Hopefully I'll have a chance to return and eat a lot less, but report back to you with a lot more. Stay tuned.