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Mar de Plata is so outwardly modest, so taco-shop-like in the way it sits unassumingly on the center of its block, that I initially believe it’s only partially visible to the people who pass by. I ask a friend who lives down the street from the place how long it’s been around. She figures it may actually be new, although how new she has no idea. Maybe a month old. Maybe half a year. At a bar across the street from Plata, I run into another neighborhood dweller, who asks where I’d had dinner. The restaurant is visible through the bar’s window, so I point and tell him, “Mar de Plata, this new Spanish place.” He looks through the window. He looks back at me: “Where?”
Residents of Plata’s neighborhood aren’t used to seeing new restaurants, much less new white-tablecloth restaurants, opening on the stretch of 14th Street NW north of downtown where the restaurant resides—which likely accounts for the less-than-sizable crowds I encounter during most of Plata’s early existence. Typically, upstart urban restaurants mark their arrival with a torrent of news releases touting some spectacular new era in dining-outdom. Plata’s different. A few months back, its owners just opened the doors as if they’d been doing so for years. Such moderation suggests that the owners are trying to nurture something a little more human than a risky business. On a recent night, it’s clear that a favorable Post review has helped to usher in a good crowd. One of the maitre d’s looks so much like a father as he proudly shows the article off to his customers that I half-expect someone to start handing out cigars.
Plata is humble and vaguely old-school, with little to distinguish it design-wise except for checked tile floors, some hunks of cheese by the open kitchen, and a sign outside that looks lifted from a movie set in ’50s Madrid. Its candlelit elegance is heightened by the comfort in knowing that dinner won’t involve the forced feeding of some architect’s sharp angles or some chef’s eccentric quirks. Plata is simply a narrow, two-level restaurant run by Salvadorans who realize how much this part of Washington can use a fine European restaurant that doesn’t strain too hard to be American.
With the exception of a ham-garlic soup in which we detect very little of either, Plata’s tapas and starters are notable for being good even when they’re flawed. Grilled chorizos, for example, are streaked with a little too much black—the tip of one leaves behind the taste of a burned match—but the sausages themselves are robust and delectably oily, just the kind of stuff you want to wash back with a glass of crisp Spanish red that you’ve never tasted before. Fried pork doesn’t impart as much flavor, but the accompanying yuca rods are marvelous—soft but dense, crackly at the surface, earthy as fine potatoes but with a texture that’ll hold your concentration longer than a few chews.
Marinated boquerones—think herring, only delicate—are sharply tart and totally invigorating, and they’re a good primer for the tangy and fresh-tasting seafood dishes that permeate the rest of the tapas list: Tiny, chili-charged black clams splashed with lime. Crisp-grilled sardines tucked into a shrub of greens. Lemony octopus tossed with peppers, olive oil, and onions. Ceviche so citric it stings. Chicken-and-ham croquettes make a fine tablemate for any of the above, if only because their creamy center has a nice way of calming down a pucker.
Plata’s kitchen isn’t big on pyrotechnics, and if it’s on any mission, that mission is to instill a renewed reverence for scalloped potatoes; they’re a common side item, and they’re indicative of the kitchen’s no-nonsense approach. The seafood is straightforward and priced fairly—16 bucks for salmon grilled to a melting pink, less than that for monkfish set in a pool of subtle lobster sauce—although one of the staples falls flat: Skip the dry, straight paella and order its squid-ink cousin instead, for a musky, jet-black kick.
Or, better yet, insulate yourself from the cold with something hearty. Plata’s servers push a lot of seafood specials, but I’ll be returning with an eye toward its meat. Pork tenderloin is rolled up with a “vegetable” stuffing so flavorful that we suspect that there’s sausage involved; it falls apart under a fork. And just when I think that the entrees aren’t going to have any shock value, I dip into a stew of shredded flank steak and get stimulated to the point of blacking out. Here’s what I remember: strands of meat that just keep coming, like spaghetti, but juicy and gravy-soaked and chewy in a good way. By the time I come to, I’m pounding cosmopolitans across the street, trying to ease my way back into that blissful oblivion.
Plata’s staff is green, but not charmlessly so. One night we get stranded nursing tap water for so long that we figure that our waitress has gotten fired or quit. But once someone’s on the case, our wait is forgotten—the rioja’s that good, heady and cool (contrary to popular belief, red wine should not be as hot as the room it’s poured in), and the tapas arrive in no time. The staff’s not all over you; they’re just there. On the first night of the snowstorm, I call to find out if the restaurant’s open. “Why would we close?” responds the guy on the other line. It’s a good question. The roads may be treacherous, but he’s still got people to feed.
Mar de Plata, 1410 14th St. NW, (202) 234-2679.
After reading a past column on the new occupant of Lauriol Plaza’s old digs, one reader had to write in to tell us about Lilian’s. Eating there just makes him sad. He likes the enchiladas fine, and he’s had worse margaritas. The thing is, he loved the old Birchmere—”Now there was a place to have dinner!” he writes—and because Lilian’s now occupies the music club’s former address, the reader can’t help letting his nostalgia for the old days overshadow whatever ends up on his plate. I’ll admit to having a similar problem, although I find that an order of corn tamales goes a long way toward easing the pain.
Lilian’s, 3901 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, (703) 837-8494. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.