Jaleo, Penn Quarter

The standard line about Jaleo is that Crystal City and Bethesda are shadows of the original downtown location, and based on my experiences, I tended to agree although these restaurants all wax and wane – my last meal at the DC branch was pleasant, but nothing special.

Jaleo was absolutely packed early on a Sunday evening, with no tables, and only a single hightop that had opened up in the bar area – we nabbed it.

And then waited for it to be cleared.

And waited some more.

And then ten minutes went by, and we sat there and stared at (and smelled) dirty dishes.

Finally, two people got up from the bar, so we abandoned our table, and darted over to where they were sitting. Ironically, it was at least five minutes before we were acknowledged by the bartender, and the hightop actually ended up getting cleared for another couple before our bar area did.

My friend, looking at her watch, said, “I’m giving them exactly two more minutes, and then we’re outta here.” They made it, but not by much.

Jaleo’s Classic ($15, half carafe) is their red sangria made with brandy, lemon juice, and apples, and as a first taste of the night, is bitingly nasty; once the ice begins to dilute it, the fruit kicks in and the aftertaste (I would say “finish,” but this is more appropriately termed “aftertaste”) mellows. Next time, I’d order the sangria made with Cava instead of red wine.

We ordered four tapas:

Pan con Tomate ($5) with Passamontés Farmhouse Manchego (a well-spent $2) – Toasted slices of thick bread brushed with fresh tomatoes and topped with slivers of Manchego cheese

Jamón Serrano ‘Fermin’ ($10) – 18-month, salt-cured Serrano ham

Endibias con Queso de Cabra y Naranjas ($7) – Endives with goat cheese, oranges, and almonds

Dátiles con Tocino ‘Como Hace Todo El Mundo’ ($8.5) – Fried dates wrapped in bacon “that you will want to eat every day”

The endives came out first (which really clashed with the red sangria (the Cava-based would definitely go better with these, but that’s not Jaleo’s fault)), then the ham, then the dates, then the bread – we had finished everything by the time the bread arrived. At about the midway point, we ordered a carafe of impressive 2009 Olivares Altos de la Hoya Monastrell ($13.50) which was by far our favorite thing of the meal. If you’re here looking for a red wine, do consider ordering this one.

As I type this, I’m dancing around, avoiding a generalized slam of this place, but it’s hard. The food here has an aspect of being thrown together in a hurry, and assembled rather than cooked – the endive dish was a fine example of the assembly-line feel that these dishes had – lined up in a row, and looking like something that took about ten seconds to plate.

Even the bacon-wrapped dates – which I think I’ve ordered every time I’ve ever come here – were at a much lower level of quality than I’ve had in the past. They arrived barely above room temperature, with the exterior thick and bland. Yes, the combination of flavors is fine, but the execution was downright awful. The ham was fine, of course, and the bread was very tasty albeit a high-profit item.

I’ve been to Jaleo probably twenty times in my life, and I’ve never once been to La Tasca which I’ve heard is so mediocre that it’s painful. But honestly, if I do ever go to La Tasca, even with very low expectations, I’m going to expect it to be better than this meal was.

Downgraded in the Dining Guide (available only to participating donrockwell.com members).

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