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False mango sponge cake; Photography by Greg Powers

A Cut Above

by George W. Stone | DC magazine | April 28, 2011
“It’s refreshing.” That’s what my friend remarked after five courses of Spanish gluttony within the hushed plushness of Taberna del Alabardero, the most anachronistic restaurant in town and easily among the most transporting. Refreshing? When’s the last time a 10,000-calorie feast in a 22-year-old restaurant felt refreshing? But it was—and that’s a warning to all those new acrobatic restaurants out there desperately trying to fly high.    When a night spent tucked into the crimson spectacle of the DC’s authentic Iberian outpost feels like a sensational holiday, it’s time to re-think the million-dollar interiors and celeb-chef fantasies that have begun to drive DC’s dinnertime. One step into this World Bank-area restaurant and you’re in the middle of Madrid. A brassy 10-seat bar protects small-plate tapas treasures, while a full leg of Jamón Ibérico al Corte rests on a jamonera (ham stand), waiting to be thinly sliced.    Tapas? Wasn’t that a Clinton-era mealtime manifestation? Perhaps, but this isn’t your mother’s tapas—it’s your Spanish grandmother’s tapas, in all its authentic glory. Muscle in during happy hour and make your needs known. First, there’s the jamón, succulent, rich, nutty, with powerful flavor packed into razor-thin slices of pork and fat. “OK,” you say. “But they bought this, they did not cook it.” So move on to the next bites. Codfish fritters are a tapas-bar classic, doused in tangy tomato sauce and the perfect complement to a glass of cava. Then consider the triumph of excellent olive oil—peppery and slightly sweet—that binds the forces of fresh shrimp and garlic, and makes possible that most fundamental Spanish flavor of all, tortilla española—an omelet of sliced potatoes that’s a riddle of simple complexity. The idea that you’re supposed to share—or even consider sharing—seems unthinkable. Sherry: maybe. Sharing: no.   The infinitely varied off-menu tapas specials and quick surprises from the kitchen make for DC’s most colorful happy hour. But Taberna lives for dinner. While the bar is tight, the dining room—with its flowing gold curtains and red walls (the national colors writ large), white-lace headrests, crisp tablecloths, degree-carrying servers and antique oil paintings—is a stage set for discovering the soulful thrill of slow food, for lingering over each bite and savoring traditional flavors. When you come here, you come to stay a while.   Case in point: I spoke with one diner, prominent DC attorney Walter Zalenski, who has frequented Taberna as many as three times a week in the past two decades. He’s such a regular that a few years back he sold his BMW to the charismatic, ponytailed bartender, Manolo Gracia, for a dollar, and still insists he got a good deal. “The one cuisine you can do better in DC than in New York is Spanish, and that’s because of Taberna,” he says, acknowledging the high notes of José Andrés’ Jaleo and the aspirations of 14th Street’s Estadio. Indeed, Taberna’s zeitgeist-keeping secret is that it aspires to be neither a human-powered cash machine nor a hipster hub. Instead, it’s the kind of place where locals can wander in and say, “Whatever you want to cook for us, we’ll eat it.” How many places of that ilk still exist in town?    You can credit chef Javier Romero for this generosity of spirit. For every dish on the menu, another teeters in his toque, awaiting an unveiling. This year, Romero has dedicated each month to the cuisine of a different Spanish region. As the year progresses, specific ingredients will get a date with the plate, from Galician gooseneck barnacles to Andalusian fried squid. May is all about Extremadura, the windswept western province famous for its pata negra—black-hoofed pigs that roam in oak forests, gorging themselves on acorns and eventually becoming the priciest cured ham on the planet.    A Taberna standard—and Spain’s most iconic dish—is paella, an infinitely variable saffron-rice dish native to Valencia and known for featuring everything from black squid ink to snails, chorizo, chicken and seafood. Taberna’s paella de langosta is a classic two-person feast of scallops, squid, shrimp and a lobster split in two. Served tableside from a hot copper paellera, the aromatic entrée feels truly from the sea, presenting a rare experience in a restaurant: full-force comfort-food satisfaction.    Not all iconic dishes get their due. Roast suckling pig is a standard-bearer and the signature of the world’s oldest restaurant, Sobrino de Botín in Madrid, where Francisco Goya once worked as a waiter, and a young Ernest Hemingway porked out. Often served as a pig in a pan, Taberna’s dainty, composed version wins points for neatness—it resembles a square of lasagna—but not for temperature. Mine arrived lukewarm, atop tepid garlic-paprika potatoes and drab snow peas. One dining companion said, “That’s the best pulled pork I’ve ever eaten,” which sounds good until you envision how hot, meaty, fatty and, frankly, un-pretty a great suckling pig is supposed to be. If it’s full cochinillo you’re seeking (and who isn’t?), call a day ahead to reserve one for the table.   Two sublime dishes garnered universal olés. An appetizer of grilled duck foie gras was hot, toasty brown on the outside and softly gooey on the inside, with the buttery liver complemented by a sweet cherry Pedro Ximénez sauce. The pitch-perfect pairing felt effortless. But it was the bacalao confitado—vividly fresh, dense codfish confit—that stole the night. The Galician specialty of small grilled octopus, dressed in olive oil and sprinkled with paprika and sea salt, created an octo-ring around a velvety potato purée and brought an earthy touchdown to the fish fest in the middle of the plate. It was a taste of a place—in this case, just north of Portugal.   Sommelier Gustavo Iniesta had the classic complement—an Albariño from the Rias Baixas wine-growing region of southern Galicia, where they know seafood, grapes and how to pair them. With its apricot nose and marked acidity, the white wine worked wonders with both the cod and the lobster paella. Earthier bites call for a Bierzo, a complex, fragrant, deep-red Mencia-grape wine that speaks volumes of the colorful and affordable depth of the restaurant’s Spain-centric cellar. One of the desserts demanded a return of the sommelier, and that was the mysteriously named false mango sponge cake in herbed syrup. What’s a false mango, anyway? A pear in tropical drag? Turns out it’s a misplaced modifier, and sponge cake—not the mango—was going incognito as a dense, fruity membrillo-like slice of intensity, whose sweetness is wonderfully cut by a bracing scoop of coconut ice cream. A chilled sparkling moscatel proved the ideal partner, exchanging floral notes from glass to plate.   Taberna is not a rollicking midnight scene—no salsa dancers materialize from the woodwork to unleash their Andalusian duende. Upon reflection, the absence of theatricality—or anything resembling molecular gastronomy—comes as a relief. There were no flames, foams, trompe l’oeil dishes or philosophical foods. Am I getting boring? Or is flavorful authenticity enough for me? I feel like telling DC’s designer-driven restaurants, hey—don’t try so hard. But that would only make them try harder. This old restaurant is getting better and more unique with each passing year by being true to itself. How many others can claim the same?    Taberna del Alabardero  Rating **** 1776 I St. NW, 202.429.2200, alabardero.com   Who’s There: Spaniards and those who love authentic, regional Iberian cuisine more than foamy flights of fancy inspired by El Bulli.    Why Go? A staycation is only appealing if you manage to conjure the sensations and satisfactions of having escaped to an exotic place—in this instance, Barcelona or Andalusia.   Fun Fact: What is an alabardero, anyway? It’s a guard who carries a halberd—an axe-topped weapon.   Good to Know: Lots of dishes don’t appear on the menu. Become a regular for the chef’s rewards.    Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-2:30pm; Dinner Mon.-Thu. 5:30-10:30pm; Fri.-Sat. 5:30-11pm; Sunday brunch 11:30am-3:30pm   Prices: Dinner appetizers $16.50-$32; Dinner entrées $28.50-$38; Desserts $11; Tapas $3.75-$19.50