Plaudits: Washingtonian 2009 #44, Washingtonian 2008 #24
With Official Friend of DCWD OK in town, I had yet another vegetarian to entertain. There are only so many places that I actually want to eat, that also happen to cater to vegetarians. But luckily one of those was Farragut favorite Taberna del Alabardero.
Taberna attracts your attention because of its small but conspicuous patio on 18th St, and because it's an upscale restaurant in a neighborhood of lunch-counter places. It also stands out because of its almost anachronistic decor; stepping inside is like time traveling to turn-of-the-century Spain. The dining area space is dominated by shades of red and gold recalling something straight out of old Madrid, from the long window curtains to the upholstery on the chairs to the soft white lace on the red velvet couches where we sat. The space is divided into sections: a very small bar area with only two or three small round tables, several step-levels of main dining area, and a private dining room in the back.
I really can't emphasize enough how much red and old Spanish decor is going on: bulbed chandeliers, white colonial trim, old painted portraits on crimson walls and matching carpet. It's nice and white cloth, albeit a shade intense. Service was also particularly slow; in this instance, we weren't in any particular rush, but on another night, it would have been bothersome.
The lure of Taberna was its separate vegetarian menu, which really just highlighted the vegetarian options on the regular menu with a few additions. From this menu, OK ordered the patatas a lo pobre and the grilled asparagus. The potatoes, which came with some red cabbage were great, crispy and a little bit spicy, and reminded me favorably of patatas Bravas that I'd had in Spain. On the other end of the spectrum was the asparagus, in a dry tomato vinaigrette with scallions. I'll give them the credit that there's not a lot to be done with this combination, but it seemed pretty uninspired in its conception, though decent in its preparation.
As for me, I ordered three dishes: gambas al ajillo, a tuna tartare, and foie gras (yea, yea, nothing really Spanish, give me a break). The shrimp, described as a casserole, was definitely not a casserole, but more like shrimp cooked in olive oil, garlic, and cayenne. The shrimp were fairly well done, and the cayenne giving the whole dish a nice kick. Still nothing to call home about and there was also the downside of one poorly shelled shrimp, but otherwise nice.
Your feelings on foie gras aside (I just finished The Foie Gras Wars which only confirmed my firm entrenchment in the pro-gastronomy camp), I love the taste of foie gras and will go for it almost anywhere. This particular foie was grilled and placed on a plate of spinach and dry fruits in a sherry wine sauce. My liking of this dish was probably helped by the fact that the sweet/savory combination was right up my alley, and on some level you can't really mess up foie too terribly. But still, I quite liked this one, the creaminess of the foie coming through perfectly.
But the surprise winner of the night was the tuna tartare, mixed with green apple in a cauliflower emulsion. The sweet tart of the apple complemented the tuna's mild flavor and texture, and the emulsion mellowed the whole dish out. Again, my favorable opinion of this dish is probably helped by the fact that I convinced OK (a "because-of-the-sourcing" vegetarian, as I found out that night) to give it a try. But still, a welcome surprise to the meal.
Also a welcome surprise to the meal? The petit fours at the end of the meal. Nice.
Perhaps the meal was less Spanish than it should have been. But if the more typical potatoes and shrimp and the less traditional foie and tuna are any indication, this is a kitchen that excels in making delicious food. And hey, at least they make an effort for vegetarians (clearly my views on vegetarians are softening). If you can catch them at "happy hour" when the tapas are half-priced at the bar (and thus making them more in line with the prices of other tapas places around the city), that's the best of all worlds.
Food Rating: *** 1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Smart Casual
Bar Rating: Suits Scene
Cost: $$$ (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing: Yes, the heat has been almost unbearable the last few days. But if it cools down or you can stand it, there's still a few more free concerts in nearby Farragut Square, including one today. Sounds in the Square, sponsored by the Golden Triangle Business District is a nice series of concerts with nice local bands and some fun giveaways.