BETHESDA — I have a love-hate relationship with famous chefs and their trendy restaurants.
I see them on TV, read about them and often love their food the first and second time I try it. But then they start building empires. They give more interviews and put their names on eateries in Vegas and Miami, on cruise ships and in airports. You go back to that little place where they started and suddenly it’s overpriced and mediocre. You suspect they haven’t been back in ages.
But there’s one man who hasn’t let me down — yet. He’s Jose Andres, the Spanish chef behind the tapas restaurant Jaleo. Granted, I haven’t tried Jaleo in Vegas, but the meals I’ve had at his restaurants in Washington, D.C., and suburban Maryland have never disappointed.
Tapas are small plates, a Spanish tradition that’s not always done well in the U.S., even though Americanized versions have become ubiquitous on pseudo-sophisticated bar menus from Brooklyn, New York, to Tulsa, Oklahoma. What makes Jaleo so good, time after time, is that the menu is both enormous and simple — peasant food fit for a king’s feast. There are so many tempting options that you can find new favorites every time you go. The plates are easily shared by two or three people, and the meal works for lunch or dinner. The sangria’s great, too.
I’m a cheese-lover, and I can’t resist the Idiazabal, which the menu describes as “a smoked, nutty-flavored raw sheep’s milk cheese,” served with quince paste. Salads I’ve loved include ensaladilla rusa, which is potato salad with tuna, carrots, peas and mayonnaise. The verduras section of the menu is enough to turn a carnivore into a vegetarian, with dishes like sauteed cauliflower with dates and olives; a Moorish stew of chickpeas and spinach; and a melange of roasted red pepper, eggplant and onion. Other irresistible items include seared piquillo peppers filled with goat cheese and wrinkled baby potatoes served with green and red sauces.
And then there are the meats, poultry and fish. Fried baby squid, seared scallops, chicken fritters, chorizo sausage, mussels, calamari, rabbit confit, grilled quail — it’s all good. But the one thing you MUST try is some iteration of what is repeatedly described on the menu as “cured ham from the legendary acorn-fed, black-footed Iberico pigs of Spain.” Friends and I like to read every option involving the legendary pig aloud, just for fun.
Now, I must tell you that the first time we ate at Jaleo, we ordered the most expensive ham they had — a $22 sample of the 48-month cured ham — just to try it. But we learned on subsequent visits that at least to our uneducated palates, all the legendary pigs on the menu were equally yummy, so you don’t need to splurge. You can also order dishes that use it as one of several ingredients.
Sometimes I wish Andres would open a Jaleo in New York, where I live, so I could go there more often. But then I remember how expansion has ruined some of my other favorite restaurants, and I’m just as glad that I can only find it in someone else’s hometown.