Neighborhood: Cleveland Park
With a new chef and a revamped menu in tow, Official Co-Writer/Fiancee of DCWD Texas and I were invited to sample the changes at Cleveland Park's Pulpo.
Pulpo sits in the former Tackle Box space on Connecticut, a space that holds a dear place in our hearts, since this was one of the first spots we ever went to together, back when Texas was still just an official Friend of the blog. Since the restaurants turned over a year ago, Pulpo hasn't done much to change the physical architecture of the space, save for replacing a few picnic-style tables with more high-end group settings. The two-level exposed-ceiling, refurbished-warehouse feel remains. Instead, the shift has come in decor: a fresh coat of red and yellow paint, a few portraits of the octopus logo on the walls, and what was once the raw bar has been turned into an ice bucket for cold sherry storage.
Two soups started our meal, both described as gazpacho, though neither hewing towards the tomato base the name might portend. The first was a watermelon gazpacho, bits of chopped up watermelon and tomato in a long-and-thin bowl, topped off with housemade ricotta and some basil. The second was perhaps an even further departure from the standard: an asparagus gazpacho, centered by a saffron soft-boiled egg and black caviar. Of the two, the watermelon was the far superior, with a tartness to each bite that I quite enjoyed (though Texas thought it was a bit acid heavy). Bites that blended the ricotta did a much better job of mellowing the dish out, and made the whole affair a good refreshing start to the meal. On the other hand, the asparagus one is perhaps the definition of the word "interesting." The dish's concept blends three incredibly strong flavors (asparagus, egg, caviar) which results in a forward flavor of salt. Again, for both of us, our thought on the soup was "this is intriguing, we've never had this before, not sure I would need to order it again."
The dishes came fast and furious after that, in sets of two. Round two brought us a plate of bacon brussels sprouts, and a chorizo pate atop an avocado mousse among pickled cauliflower. Our server proudly proclaimed that the bacon brussels sprouts is a dish that had survived the menu purge, a popular dish that frequently populates customers' orders and Yelp reviews. Still, he admits that the recipe itself is constantly tinkered with, meaning the blackened and dressed sprouts we received were different than the more-heavily-battered version of yore. The dish is good, with a strong char taste that's quite enjoyable. The variable here is the size of the sprout; smaller ones are more cooked through and are softer than the larger ones, resulting in perhaps an even textural finish. Really, this is mostly only a concern for those who like their sprouts one way or the other, but since Texas and I are split on that spectrum, the bowl is eagerly finished.
As for the chorizo pate, they arrive as inch-long cubes and are wonderful bits packed with flavor. The avocado mousse and cauliflower seemed secondary here, and added little to the pate, but the overall feeling on this dish was a pleasant one.
Our next set was a plate of ropa vieja, shredded beef atop a bed of black beans and tostones; as well as a basket of chicharrones with garlic aioli. The ropa vieja, a traditional Spanish dish, is brilliant and our favorite entree of the evening. The meat was a bit drier than perhaps we had expected, but was packed with spice and when mixed with the beans and crunchy tortillas bits below, was a wonderful textural mix that recalled a friendly homemade meal.
On the flip side, the chicharonnes (or perhaps as you know them, pork rinds) were reminiscent of more grab-and-go affairs. Light, airy, and with a hint of piquant, these were quite snackable and would make for perfect bar food, though perhaps not something to be regularly ordered for a dinner.
Our last round was a bit of seafood: a plate of sea scallops with blistered padron peppers and "angry" popcorn atop a sweetcorn puree; and the restaurant's eponymous octopus prepared with quinoa, olives, oranges, and parsley. Our server had noted that the menu itself, though recently redesigned, was still in a constant state of fine-tuning, and much like the asparagus gazpacho, the scallops pointed to that. To wit, the scallops themselves were wonderfully seared, and when taken together with the peppers was a fairly traditional, fairly savory bite. But the popcorn here confused us: dusted with a dash of heat, they were again "interesting," but we were unclear on their place in the large concept of the dish.
The octopus (the menu's central feature, given the name of the restaurant) was also interesting, but in a better way. The bits of octopus were rendered much differently than in other establishments, resulting in a less chewy, more tender bite. The accompaniments could have punched it all up a bit more, but the dish as a whole was nice.
Our last dish was also perhaps our favorite of the night: a take on tres leches with a layers of angel food cake mixed with goat cheese frosting, dulce de leche, a sheep's milk foam, blueberries, and crumble. For both of us, tres leches can verge on the edge of saccharine or overly cloying and syrupy. This was far from that: a dessert that managed to be both milky and gooey but light, one that mixed the more traditional hints of caramel with mellowing flavors of goat cheese. One of the better desserts we've had this year.
Still evolving even after the recent menu change, so some of the dishes are still a work in progress. But there are some wonderful bites to be had here.
Food Rating: *** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Quiet Drinks
Cost: $$$ (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing: Browse for some offbeat gifts at the quirky Wake Up Little Suzie, a small store on the same block.