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The career of chef JohnPaul Damato has come full circle. The man who used to oversee all three Jaleos left his position in Jose Andres‘ empire in January 2007 to become the executive chef at Mio. Damato didn’t stay long; he left the budding Thomas Circle restaurant in June 2007, just a month after it opened, to rejoin Andres at his THINKfoodGROUP. The reunion, however, didn’t go as expected.

“As much as we were still friends and family, we didn’t have the right opportunity [for Damato] at the right time,” says Rob Wilder, CEO of THINKfoodGROUP. “It was sort of a mismatch of what his dreams were and what the reality of our positions were.”

As a result, Damato and THINK parted ways in February 2008, less than a year after the chef had rejoined the company to work in the special projects section. But five short months later, Damato was back, once again, in the family fold. He accepted a position as chef of the Jaleo in Bethesda, which has been, in my experience, the weakest performer of the three tapas joints. Perhaps this wasn’t the plum job Damato wanted with THINK—-hell, technically it’s a demotion from his previous gig overseeing all the Jaleos—-but it also struck me as a smart move. Damato might re-energize the place.

I went to the Bethesda location on Sunday to see if he had. I mean, Damato has been there for nearly seven months; his stamp had to be on the place by now.

My dining companion and I ordered a half-dozen tapas, and once we devoured them, we agreed that this was the best meal we’ve had at the Bethesda location, maybe at any of the Jaleo locations. The jamon Iberico ‘Fermin’ was a stupid choice, of course, given that all the kitchen had to do was slice the prized pig meat, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to stuff my face with the buttery strips of cured ham, each with a deep nutty flavor that ends only when you take a bite of something else.

We took many other bites, and almost all were winners: the meticulous sour-salty-woodsy harmony of the grilled leeks with goat cheese, microgreens, and slivered almonds; the warm unctuousness of the fresh pasta stuffed with “pork foie gras” and smothered in bechamel; and the feather-soft mouthfeel of the ethereal salt-cod fritters dipped in honey aioli. The only weakness was the plate of fried dates wrapped in bacon, which were made leaden, I thought, with the wholly unnecessary step of battering and frying the bite-size morsels. Not that said leadenness stopped me from eating them all.