Pics by LMB
Fresh off its World Cup win, Spain is again victorious as Estadio, the Spanish-themed restaurant from the team that brought us Proof, opened last week, to great fanfare. Chef Haidad Karoum, proprietor Mark Kuller, Bar Manager Adam Bernbach, and Wine Director Sebastian Zutant, pooled their talents to create a Spanish-themed restaurant blessed by D.C.s own Spanish son, Jose Andres, who offered guidance as Kuller planned his trip with Chef Karoum to the motherland in preparation for this venture.
The menu includes tapas, pintxos (the Basque version of tapas-sized portions often served on a cocktail stick), and small sandwiches (bocadillos). The bar features Spanish and Argentine wines, sangrias, and a Spanish, alcoholic version of the very American slushie, affectionately dubbed “slushitos” by Bernbach.
On the restaurant’s first night, despite a downpour during peak serving hours, the room was relatively full, and the consensus seemed to be that the food was fabulous but that the service was slow and confused. My experience certainly reflected that: the octopus with potato caper salad was meltingly tender, the jamon wrapped fig with cabrales and marcona almond was the perfect combination of sweet and salty, tender and crunchy (though I wish it had lasted longer than just one bite), and the sauteed chorizo picante bocadillo was flavorful and smokey although the bread, which was made in-house, was unremarkable. I sat at the bar of the open kitchen, and watched the calm but methodical work of the staff, with Chef Karoum checking, plating, and making notes. My waiter, while providing spot-on recommendations, didn’t return after my food was delivered until the cooks were scrubbing the grill, leaving me yearning for a few more morsels. Even worse, by the time I arrived, the slushitos had run out, apparently after the restaurant had gone through four batches of the nectar.
Over the weekend, on my second trip to this 14th street hotspot, the place was past capacity, with servers and managers and even the chef having to jockey among waiting patrons to move through the room. Estadio does not take reservations for parties of less than 6, unless you want to eat between 5 and 6pm, and every arriving guest was quoted (by a very calm, pleasant and patient hostess) a wait time of at least one and a half hours. Because there are many more tables for two, and several large parties had made reservations that night, my group of four waited about an hour and forty minutes to be tapped for a table, but luckily, in the interim, we had secured bar seats, and happily chatted with the bartenders as we sampled the menu’s offerings. This time, I got my slushito (a creation made up of quince, paprika, lemon, sherry and scotch) while my friend opted for the strawberry, lime, tarragon, campari and gin version. After the first sip, we both reacted hesitantly—the herb in each drink hits you a little too strongly at first. But after a few more sips, we simultaneously acknowledged that the drink grew on us, perhaps as we got accustomed to the taste of spice/herb in our drink. However, we both opted for the Tinto de Verano (Red Wine and Lemon Soda) for our second drink (the drink I had to console myself with on my first visit when the slushitos were 86ed), and that was a clear hit from start to finish. Next time, however, I may have to try one of the porro, a pitcher filled with wine which you tip directly into your mouth – no glass required.
Once our drinks were secured, we were able to turn to the food. Sadly, the octopus was not available that night, so we opted for squid a la plancha (grilled on a metal plate). The squid was smoky and slightly chewy, and while it didn’t quite rise to the delicacy of the octopus, it drew fans among my friends. We ordered a selection of cheeses which came with a piece of house-made bread, a square of quince, and a delightfully sugary date, and some chorizo, thinly sliced and simply served on a wooden board with a piece of bread as well. We each ordered the jamon wrapped fig (which I had been thinking about since my previous visit) and added a second pintxo, a chorizo, manchego, and pistachio crusted quince bite. The sweet quince, tart manchego, and smoky, meaty chorizo proved a delicious combination. The heirloom tomato salad was simple (with red onion in a vinaigrette) but exploded with flavor and freshness. The roasted hen of the woods mushrooms (known as maitake in Japan, not sure they are actually found in Spain) had a strong char which brought out the hearty, earthy flavor. And finally (and unnecessarily), we ordered the hanger steak, described as coming with “crushed potatoes and mojo verde.” The steak was perfectly acceptable—well cooked and thickly sliced, but the small streak of essentially mashed potato was unremarkable and frankly rather pitiful. In comparison to the other uniquely delicious, perfectly executed, and incredibly composed dishes, the steak was unmemorable. But if that’s Estadio’s worst offense, it’s in for a long, smooth, successful ride.
In addition to the food and drink, the décor itself is getting a great deal of buzz. Not only does the space boast reclaimed timber, wrought iron details, and a large concrete bar, but the murals throughout, including a cheeky one featuring shirtless soccer players in the women’s restroom (as well as the photos of newly, secretly married Spanish actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, each on the door of the gender appropriate restroom), are sure to leave diners atwitter.
Estadio, 1520 14th St. NW, is open for dinner at 4pm every night and hopes to offer brunch in the fall.