Much like the traditional Andalusian dance from which the restaurant gets its name, José Andrés’ Jaleo is a festive cultural experience. A meal at this popular establishment is more than just a few plates of tapas – it’s an adventure for the senses.
Floor-to-ceiling red letters that spell out the restaurant’s name like an urban billboard make it impossible to miss Jaleo in Penn Quarter. The interior décor is just as loud. A stuffed bull wearing a luchador mask watches over diners who are seated below open book chandeliers. Warm-colored quilted honeycombs weave across the ceiling of half the restaurant.
A backlit mural of colorful legs illuminates the bar, which quickly fills up for lunch on a Saturday. A lonely glass-topped foosball table waits patiently for patrons to arrive and use the plates and silverware that have carefully been set up for them.
The cuisine at Jaleo is less eclectic and more traditional than its décor. However, there are still surprises in store.
The “Pan de crystal con tomate” ($8) is a simple dish made of crunchy, thin bread topped with fresh tomato, drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with salt crystals. Accompanying this dish is a “aceitunas ferran adria” – an olive, of sorts, that looks and tastes like an olive, but is liquid and oozes like a runny yolk when you break through its thin shell. Andrés is somewhat of an expert on this process, known as spherification, which originated from chef Ferran Adrià. The two taught a culinary physics class together at Harvard in 2010.
The “Gambas al ajillo” ($12) are a famous tapa consisting of shrimp sautéed in garlic. The shrimp are filling and have a bit of a kick to them. The “Croquetas de pollo,” ($8) cheesy chicken fritters, served in a transparent sneaker, are perfect to neutralize the spice. The shoe shaped dish is puzzling, but plays off the wacky decorations of the surrounding space.
José Andrés’ mastery of Spanish cuisine seems understated in the simple creations he offers. The menu offers a virtually endless list of tapas, Spanish small plates, which are best shared among good company and good wine.