José Andrés brings Spanish comfort food — including a lot of eggs — to Bethesda – The Washington Post
Unrated during the pandemic
Sheer slices of toasted Catalan bread slathered with olive-oiled tomato pulp. Pasta that takes you on a holiday. Fresh pineapple slashed into bites made boozy with rum.
Spanish Diner opened two years ago to such great and sustained applause in New York, rainmaker José Andrés says he felt compelled to open a second branch in Washington, specifically Bethesda, where he lives, and where his three daughters insisted he couldn’t close Jaleo unless it was followed by something similarly flavored.
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The girls got their wish, and Bethesda gained something special, in May: a restaurant with the exuberance of his original Spanish tapas draw, but also a greater selection of comfort foods, including a section devoted to eggs, one of the famous chef’s many passions. (Maybe you’ve heard. When he’s not minding his ever-expanding culinary empire, Andrés is saving the world.) While Spanish Diner isn’t immune to the challenges of operating during a pandemic — its early weeks were uneven, and service still needs attention — the newcomer already feels like the right restaurant at the right time.
Andrés says he wants Spanish Diner to be “an everyday place” for different generations that doesn’t require “a lot of thinking.”
There’s no missing Jaleo, since some of its greatest hits, or enhancements of them, remain, along with head chef Daniel Lugo, an eight-year veteran of parent company ThinkFoodGroup. The holdovers include uber-creamy potato salad mixed with Spanish conserved tuna and bright peas and carrots, a mound garnished with filings of cooked egg yolk and circled with stubby breadsticks, plus bronzed fritters rich with four kinds of meat suspended in bechamel. (The croquetas at Jaleo were stuffed just with chicken.)
Like frying, Andrés’s choice cooking method, bechamel is an obsession with the chef. As a kid in his native Spain, Andrés and his brothers used to sneak down to the kitchen after his mother made bechamel, which she stowed in a tray in the refrigerator. “I was always first,” he says. “And then my three younger brothers will follow.” Try as they might to cover their tracks, by smoothing over the batter before returning to bed, they inevitably left behind evidence: complete fingerprints.
Rest assured, ham lovers. As at Jaleo, jamon Iberico from Spain’s acorn-munching, black-hooved pigs can still be had, along with the aforementioned pan con tomate, as blissful a marriage of crackling, thin-crusted bread and summery spread as have ever crossed my lips. Six bucks more gets you the firm anchovies from Santona, Spain’s Basque region. Go fish.
When he opened the first Jaleo in Washington in 1993, Andrés wanted to make sure his cuisine wouldn’t be confused with Mexico’s and shied away from using avocado. Spanish Diner shows how far he, and we, have come. Avocado muscles to the stage in an alluring salad, buttery chunks of green fruit cloaked with mojo verde and dressed with tangy goat cheese and micro-cilantro, punchy as pepper. The vibrant green sauce, a nod to the Canary Islands, makes the dish. The color of new grass, mojo verde pulses with cilantro, cumin and garlic. Too bad it’s not offered as merch. I’d buy.
Eggs get a page of their own, partly because “Spaniards put eggs on a lot of things” but also to underscore the connection to American diners, says Lugo, 30, a native of Puerto Rico whose maternal grandmother is Spanish. Sure enough, customers can order two, four or six eggs atop fried potatoes, plates that can be accessorized with different meats, including jamon and blood sausage. The huevos rotos pay homage to Casa Lucio, the rustic dining destination in Madrid. To achieve lacy brown edges and runny yolks, Spanish Diner cooks eggs in olive oil over high heat.
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The heart of Spanish Diner, for me, is a category of dishes toasting “our grandma’s cuisine,” everyday food you might find in casual dining establishments or in the home of a conscientious Spanish cook. I’m a fool for golden nuggets of fried potatoes and juicy pork meatballs draped with tomato sauce, and grilled squid splayed across a pool of its black ink, its flavor bolstered with pureed onion, bell peppers and fish stock. Along for the ride: garlicky sauteed rice. There’s also a luscious beef stew featuring sliced flatiron steak, its sauce made haunting with star anise and woodsy black trumpet mushrooms.
The most festive plate finds tubes of tender pasta stuffed with shredded chicken, pork and foie gras, a filling that Spaniards associate with holiday leftovers and more decadent for its blanket of bechamel. “Christmas every day!” promises the menu. The dish delivers.
On my last visit, poached salt cod paired with roasted red peppers was being auditioned for a regular role on the menu. My empty returned plate spoke to the special’s specialness. Go now, and you, too, can thrill to fish slowly cooked in garlic oil and confit peppers with the texture of velvet. A sauce, made from the juices of the salt cod, completes the still life.
The interior feels as alive as the man behind the menu. Waves of yellow draw eyes to the ceiling and, as at Jaleo, glass-topped foosball tables double as dining spots. One wall displays an illuminated menu of the sort you’d see in a diner, and even the wood floor demands attention with its sheen. A curved banquette in the main dining room is outfitted with see-through partitions on rollers, a sign of the times some of us hope to say adios to, soon.
The weak link right now is the service. A request for a margarita, “up, no salt,” was followed by tequila and lime on ice and a glass with a salted rim. No big deal if it were a single slip, but the servers at Spanish Diner also talk as if they’re reciting a script and ask how we’re liking everything before we’ve had a taste of anything. One night, we received water after appetizers.
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While I’m ranting, let me grouse about the wine list, priced as if for a luxe hotel and likely to steer you to sangria for the night. I appreciate the descriptive wine notes alongside some selections, but not the “staff picks,” half of which are over $100 a bottle. Something tells me the person ordering Spanish Diner’s (fab) pressed ham and cheese sandwich or any of “grandma’s” food might want to wash it back with something far less dear.
Finally, someone needs to monitor the flat-screen TVs in the bar for content. One night, all of them were on a seemingly endless loop for a graphic hair replacement procedure. Buen provecho, amigos!
(Okay, I feel better now.)
The desserts mostly hew to Spanish Diner’s comfort theme. Picture a world-class arroz con leche, Andrés’ mother’s recipe for (steamed) flan, and a not-too-sweet “burnt-style” goat cheesecake, which I’ll forever associate with the pandemic, given the confection’s appearances at all sorts of restaurants over the past year or so. The eye-opener of the bunch is the pineapple boat, swollen with a rum syrup and bright with mint and lime. Toothpicks inserted into individual chunks invite you to pluck away.
Spanish Diner 7271 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda. 301-284-3700. spanishdiner.com. Open for indoor dining, takeout and delivery 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub and UberEats. Prices: Appetizers $5 to $23, main courses $12 to $20. Accessibility: A ramp leads to the entrance, where a wheelchair user might need help with double doors; ADA-compliant restrooms.
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