You would no more expect a famous chef to express his admiration for McDonald’s than to find Mickey D’s zigzagging its special sauce. Especially not a famous chef given to spinning out “airs” and “foams” in discrete, precious bites in a six-seat restaurant-within-a-restaurant. But one day last spring, as he talked excitedly over lunch about new techniques and new kitchen technologies, José Andrés let slip his fascination with the fast-food chain’s use of TV monitors to expedite orders; in fact, he told me, he planned to copy it.

It was a telling reminder that Andrés, who gave the chattering classes their introduction to tapas in 1993, when he opened Jaleo on 7th Street NW, and continues to set trends with his Minibar at Cafe Atlantico, has long straddled the line between rarefied artist and popularizer. He enjoys his rep as a purveyor of the experimental while continuing to open restaurants that are determinedly casual, even middlebrow, in their appeal.

This fall, as the chef opened his third Jaleo—his seventh restaurant—I decided to do a little experimenting of my own. Eager to see if the expansion-minded Andrés could maintain the quality expected of his pioneering downtown jewel at its second and third knockoffs, I paid unannounced visits to each of the three restaurants. I ordered the same trio of menu standbys at each: patatas bravas (crispy cubed potatoes with red-pepper sauce and alioli), garlic shrimp, and eggplant flan.

I began my investigation one evening in the cheerful, airy Bethesda branch—which has been dogged, since its 2000 opening, by complaints that its cooking is not as attentive as the original’s. It was easy to see why. The potatoes were fine, browned if not quite crispy, and not too oily. The problem was the two sauces, indiscriminately applied and lacking in depth. Where was the kick in the alioli?

Jaleo no longer serves its garlic shrimp in a long-handled ceramic crock, and though I’m not prepared to say that a change in crockery has brought with it a decline in rusticity, Bethesda’s version does seem slightly divorced from its roots. The shrimp (small, with their veins) were underwhelming, but more disappointing was the discovery that the pool of olive oil at the bottom of the bowl was less flavorful than I expected. And Bethesda’s flan was far from the soft, melting custard suggested by the title. Served too cold, it took some time to open up—for several minutes, I was getting only a hit of sweet red pepper. Then, at room temperature, its smokiness supplanted even the eggplant as the pre-eminent flavor.

The difference between the Jaleo in Bethesda and the Jaleo downtown was starker than it ought to be at two restaurants that bear the same name and menu. On a Thursday night, the older restaurant’s smaller, more darkly lit space was buzzing. There were telling differences coming from the kitchen, too. The potato cubes, nearly twice the size of those in the Bethesda location, were slightly undercooked; on the other hand, all the oomph that was absent from the alioli in Bethesda was here, and then some. All by itself, this white garlic sauce nearly elevated a flawed dish to distinction. And the garlic shrimp, which in Bethesda had seemed a dish of independent, discretely functioning elements, was neatly harmonized. The shrimp were, if anything, less impressive than in Bethesda, but their oil was sharper and more pungent, owing to deeply caramelized garlic. The biggest difference, though, was the flan. The texture was coarser, with long strands of sweet onion to go with the strands of sweet red pepper, both of them, in concert, balancing the smokiness.

The downtown restaurant is referred to, in the oft-repeated, on-message phrase of Jaleo management, as “your grandmother’s house.” This is somehow meant to situate the 7-week-old Crystal City location as a destination of up-to-the-minute hipness. The plate-glass windows, the soaring ceiling, the open, sprawling dining room—the place is a looker. But its kitchen proved to be the weakest of the three, with dishes that were at best (during a relatively quiet lunch) uneven, at worst (during a busy midweek dinner) sloppy and unfocused. The patatas bravas combined the more unfortunate elements of Bethesda and downtown, consisting as they did of bland, undercooked potatoes with dull saucing. Ditto the lifeless garlic shrimp. The flan was dreadful: spongy and sweet, with a cool, watery interior.

I later shared my findings with Andrés, noting, in particular, the vast differences among the three flans. The chef, typically disarming, began by praising my discriminating taste.

“Todd, I am so glad you brought this up. We have been working on it, and testing a different one at each location. At one, we purée everything. One, we purée half. One, we leave chunky.”

Uh, OK.

“Look,” Andrés went on, “a restaurant is a living thing, a changing thing….Even if the recipes are the same, they’re not always going to taste the same. I mean, that’s just a fact.”

How, then, to ensure quality and consistency? Jaleo is no longer just a restaurant; it has become a brand, with the tacit promise that each location will be like all the others. It’s not quite McDonald’s—far from it—but it’s edging further and further from fine dining.

Andrés seemed to acknowledge the change in Jaleo’s mission: “I could be in one restaurant, doing 30 covers a night. And doing a great job and being unique and different. But I am doing this and being unique and different. Someone has to feed the masses, and why not me?”

—Todd Kliman

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