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By the time my friend and I reach Estadio, it’s around 10:30 on Saturday night, and the Logan Circle establishment is still packed, providing some small hope that the District has finally outgrown its Ben Franklin-esque early-to-bed, early-to-rise ethos. The Spanish-themed restaurant is so crowded, in fact, we can’t immediately secure a seat. This is a problem.
You see, I didn’t make a reservation because I wanted to stroll in casually, as if we were hopping from one tapas bar to the next, Madrid-style. (Never mind that I was actually strolling in from Union Pub, where I had just watched college football.) I also wanted to eat late, another hallmark of dining in Spain. The issue, however, is that Estadio’s kitchen closes at 11 p.m. on the weekends, and the clock is ticking. By the time we grab a pair of sturdy wooden chairs at the marble bar that rims the open kitchen, we have about 15 minutes, maybe less, to review the menu and place an order. Our waiter is not pushing us, but I’m still feeling pressure to make a decision, just so I won’t keep the kitchen staff from enjoying the rest of its Saturday night.
I can almost feel the sweep of the second hand in my head. With the tension building inside me—hurry, decide, now—it suddenly feels very American in here.
Complicating matters, my quick-decision skills are hampered by the gin and tonic that I’ve been sucking down while waiting. The drink is courtesy of Adam Bernbach, the mixologist better known for his liquid creations over at Proof in Penn Quarter. Bernbach is part of a Proof team—chef Haidar Karoum, wine director Sebastian Zutant, and owner Mark Kuller—that built this wood, marble, and iron temple to the food of northern Spain. Until Bernbach had told me, I didn’t realize gin and tonics were so popular on the Iberian peninsula, where the Brits are apparently still imposing their cultural will via a foothold in Gibraltar.
Bernbach’s G&T is unlike any I’ve ever tasted. Built from house-made tonic and Old Raj gin, the drink sports a sort of rusty mango tint, thanks in part to Bernbach’s syrup, which he makes with thyme, bay leaves, and Valencia orange zest. The syrup tilts the cocktail toward the orange side of the citrus scale, despite a healthy dose of lime, but without dominating the delicate flavors of the saffron-infused gin. It’s a quality sip, more sweet and herbal than the usual clean, woodsy bite of a G&T, and I’m trying hard to make it last.
If Estadio’s gin and tonic is surprising, so is much of its menu. You just have to know where to look among the many small plates, which are clumped together under different headings, from pintxos (skewered dishes) to montaditos (open-faced sandwiches) to raciones (slightly larger plates prepared with fish or meats). I basically avoided the cheese and charcuterie here, for one simple reason: I can buy Spanish meats and cheeses at my local Whole Foods. But I was helpless against Estadio’s narrow tray of olives, a decent assortment of meaty and cured fruits that have been marinated in Karoum’s own citrus-heavy aliño and drizzled with some good Spanish olive oil.
The truth is, I’ve tripped over a number of land mines on Estadio’s menu. The tiny bonito del norte sandwich exploded with the incendiary heat of its innocent-sounding “roasted peppers,… laying waste to the house-made bread, the canned Spanish tuna, and the insides of my mouth. I should have asked the server just to leave the water pitcher instead of refilling my glass every 30 seconds. Conversely, the grilled octopus with potato-caper salad was in dire need of something to boost its flavor profile.
Some of Karoum’s best efforts come from clever interpretations of classic Spanish dishes or ingredients. First among equals is his take on bacalao, the dried salt cod that he desalinates in water and lays in thin strips on a plate and sprinkles with triangles of creamy avocado, ringlets of spicy jalapeño, and sections of sweet Valencia orange. It’s finished with a Pollock-esque scribble of olive oil. When you roll up a section of the cod, it becomes a surprisingly meaty bite, the salt of the fish intensifying the layered flavors sandwiched inside. The dish also scores points for plating, a multi-colored mosaic against a white (cod) canvas, a sort of Spanish street-version of one of Michel Richard’s plates.
The tortilla Española is just as aesthetically pleasing, despite the fact that it’s a mutant thing, a sort of frittata spliced with the inner guts of a potato gratin. As executed by chef de cuisine Ruffino Bautista, the dish assumes a more refined air; it’s a gorgeous plump round of sliced potatoes bound together with eggs and topped with a tangled mess of sweet hot peppers and finished with a healthy drizzle of alioli, the famous Spanish garlic-laced sauce. It’s a deceptively simple-looking dish, and yet there must be a dozen different ways a cook can screw it up. This is a Spanish dish that will linger in memory long after you’ve forgotten about that plate of ham croquetas.
On occasion, Estadio even wanders further south from its established culinary boundaries. Karoum’s “spiced grilled chicken… borrows from North African cooking, a style that has influenced the food in Andalusia. The chicken is almost blackened with curry spices and sambal chili paste, all of which is enhanced and balanced by a labneh-based sauce and its subtle heat. The dish offers a view of Spanish cooking not often seen at tapas restaurants, which tend to avoid ingredients that could confuse newbies.
Some dishes, I’m not even sure how to define them, like the Moscatel sherry float, which seems quintessentially American with its nod to the ice cream soda fountains Hollywood used to romanticize back before we all decided fro-yo would extend our lives. But the float is spiked with Spanish wine and goosed with crunchy brittle, which itself is laced with pepita seeds. It’s a dizzying clash of cultures and yet somehow perfectly Spanish.
Think about it. Spain boasts a cuisine in which some of the defining ingredients arrived from lands far removed from the peninsula: tomatoes from the Americas, rice from China, potatoes from Peru, and oranges from India.
Now Estadio is sneaking an ice cream float into the mix. I like Brittany Frick’s dessert conceptually and I like her dessert in actual spoon-licking practice, too. It’s a dish that fits comfortably within the freewheeling, non-dogmatic confines of Spanish cuisine.
Estadio, 1520 14th St. NW, (202) 319-1404
A FLAKEY APPROACH
The humble empanada has become so aligned with Latin America that it’s easy to forget that it originated in Spain’s Galicia. Then again, in the hands of Panas Gourmet owner Federico Garcia-Lopez, the empanada takes on multiple personalities, with pastries that borrow from Italian, French, Brazilian, Cuban, and Mexican cooking traditions. The “Cubanovo… combines pork rillettes (really, more like diced pork) with onions, cilantro, lime, and Grand Marnier. The “Chicken Melodia… mixes thigh meat with a wine-and-mushroom sauce, while the “BrieArt… features some funk-forward French cheese with mushrooms and artichokes.
Some of the empanadas work well on their own (the Melodia, for example), but others come alive only after a quick dip in one of Garcia-Lopez’s sauces (like the overly sweet “Popeye… empanada of spinach, onions, golden raisins, cream, and goat cheese, which benefits significantly from a dunk in the spicy aji sauce). Regardless of the relative merits of each empanada—some sport dry shells, others soft and flakey ones—each goes down fast, the benefit of these small, 2.5-ounce turnovers.
I must admit, I’ve become quite a fan of Panas, both as a place to eat and as a business model: Its brilliance lies in its ease of execution. The employees need no culinary training. They just pop the empanadas (previously baked in Rockville) into a heating unit and serve them up with the requested sauces (four are available). There’s little chance of kitchen disaster and plenty of opportunities to mix and match pastries with sauces. Panas strikes me as a concept ready to transform this historic Spanish dish into a fast-food franchise.
Panas Gourmet, 2029 P St. NW, (202) 223-2964
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery