D.C. Says Ole to Spanish Success Story
Little could restaurant novice Father Luis de Lezama have imagined the success he would have had or how far his vision would reach when, more than 25 years ago, he rented a 16th-century townhouse outside the Royal Palace in Madrid and began serving Spanish cuisine at La Taberna del Alabardero (“Tavern of the Palace Guards”). Today, there are three Tabernas, one of them in Washington, Lezama’s first venture outside of Spain (the other is in Seattle).
This year, D.C.’s Taberna del Alabardero’s celebrates 20 years, underscoring Lezama’s success in exposing Americans to authentic and innovative Spanish cuisine in all its diversity and complexity. Lezama, executive chef Dani Arana, restaurant manager Javier Velázquez, and sommelier Gustavo Iniesta are planning a yearlong celebration with special offers and events to mark the milestone, which is no mean feat given the volatility of the city’s restaurant industry.
After two decades, Taberna del Alabardero remains unabashedly opulent. Deep blood-red walls, heavily dressed windows, linen-draped tables, chairs upholstered in rich fabrics, and velvet banquets with lace antimacassars conjure up a regal feel, more the domain of palace royals than guards. The atmosphere is subdued with a refined, almost hushed feel that is a welcome change from the cacophony of many other popular eateries.
The richness of Taberna’s atmosphere is matched by the menu developed by executive chef Arana, who offers diners many choices — from tapas ranging from the mundane to the sublime, to classic paellas, to exquisitely prepared fishes and meats. He has even included a full vegetarian menu, an unusual offering for Spanish cuisine.
In creating his dishes, chef Arana (a native of Huelva in southern Spain, a region noted for its Serrano ham) demonstrates that it is not necessary to be locked into traditional preparations and ingredients to remain true to a cuisine’s essence. Many of his tapas for instance are straightforward and notable for their simplicity and purity of flavors. Particularly satisfying are the fried potatoes with a spicy brava sauce, grilled chorizo and shrimp baked in olive oil, garlic, cayenne pepper and parsley. More complex in construction and flavor, the marinated salmon stuffed with porcini mousse as well as the sautéed artichokes with sweet sherry and foie gras shavings are equally delicious.
Arana’s appetizers are even more inventive. A rich and creamy chestnut soup is accented with an unusual but appealing pairing of sweet and tart sherry-soaked cranberries and diced, slightly smoky-flavored pork belly. Fresh spring asparagus is stuffed with Basque-style crabmeat and sautéed spinach, covered in a thin crust and dressed with a rich lobster bisque. And in a dish that brings comfort food to new heights, soaked brioche is served with porcini mushroom, green asparagus, poached farm egg and shrimp brochette.
Arana offers three different paellas: a classic seafood version featuring lobster, another that incorporates beef, and a third meatless variety that highlights wild mushrooms. All are delicious with the rice cooked to a perfect firmness. The only pity is that each version is only prepared for two or more people, making it necessary to bring a large party to try them all (or giving you an excuse to visit frequently).
Meat and fish entrées are for the most part prepared simply, with only a few flavors paired to enhance the main ingredient. Arana is a master of this technique. On the fish side, grouper is served au gratin with a light garlic sauce over caramelized red onions and port wine. Grilled monkfish is accompanied by a delicate sweet cream of carrot, tender French beans and a drizzle of a squid ink-based reduction. Among the meats, the pork is outstanding. Center-cut pork chops are marinated to achieve a light garlic essence and served with a sweet apple compote and mild cinnamon sauce. Taberna is one of the few restaurants in D.C. that offers suckling pig. The meltingly tender pork is served simply, with a not too sweet grapefruit marmalade and frisée salad
As each dish arrives, one is struck by the presentation, which mirrors the elegance of the surroundings. The dishes are as visually appealing as the pictures on the walls and are designed with palates of color and texture that shows the kitchen’s artistry is not restricted to combinations of flavors.
This visual parade culminates with desserts, which are so perfectly constructed that it is almost a pity to eat them. Where the tapas and main courses tend to have limited elements, the desserts are complicated, delicious concoctions of cakes, creams, sauces and fruits. Most delightful of all is the chocolate egg. A tiny egg shell-shaped basket of crushed almond chocolate is filled with pale Cava mousse and a splotch of yellow mango sauce for the yolk. The little cup is served with two slices of moist chocolate biscuit, fresh berries and a chocolate squiggle. Not quite as dramatic but very nice, the light coconut flan is topped with a thick Frangelico cream and served with buttery ice cream. Several house-made sorbets and ice creams are available for those wishing something simpler, and a nice selection of Spanish cheeses also make a savory finish to the meal.
Long noted for the depth and quality of its wine list, and particularly for its selection of rare Spanish varieties, Taberna del Alabardero has been recognized twice with Rammy nominations for its beverage program. For those with simpler tastes, the sangria is irresistible.
Taberna del Alabardero holds the unique distinction of having been designated the best Spanish restaurant outside of Spain by the Spanish government. It’s been a 20-year sojourn as the restaurant resisted pressure to modernize its concept. It remains classic, elegant and refined, and it draws its strength from a confident knowledge of what it wants to accomplish. That is not to say it is staid. Chef Arana was only 8 years old when the restaurant first opened. He brings to his role an almost congenital understanding of classical Spanish cuisine that he marries with contemporary trends in haute cuisine, breathing new life into traditional dishes while maintaining their essence. His works bodes well for the next 20 years of this Washington masterpiece.
About the Author
Rachel G. Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.