Nibbles And Sips Around Town: La Tasca Gets A Culinary Facelift by Jordan Wright

Debuts and re-dos seem to be the thread of late. Restaurants in the DC Metro Area are opening and remixing at a astonishing rate no one could have imagined a few years ago. Forks up!

La Tasca Gets A Culinary Facelift

At La Tasca the privately owned chain of Spanish-themed restaurants, there’s huge buzz with the hiring of Josu Zubikarai, former executive chef at DC’s posh Taberna del Alabardero. The Basque native, whose knowledge of Spain’s authentic regional cuisine has earned him a beloved following, has come back to DC to ratchet up La Tasca’s menus with tapas and paellas both traditional and modern. He’ll work on pairings with his former Alabardero colleague, Aurelio Cabestrero, whose last stint was sommelier at Marcel’s.

Flamenco dancers at La Tasca.

Flamenco dancers at La Tasca. Photo by Jordan Wright.

In my experience Spanish wines are some of the unsung stalwarts of the vineyard. At a recent gathering of sophisticated Spaniards I asked an elegant socialite why she thinks Americans aren’t more enlightened about Spanish wines. “Because we want to keep them all to ourselves!” she cheerfully explained. I’m hoping Cabestrero will be more inclined to share his knowledge from the fantastic wine list he’s assembled.

Berenjenas served with a warm Cabrales cheese dip – Pulpo a la Gallega – Steamed octopus with potato. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Berenjenas served with a warm Cabrales cheese dip – Pulpo a la Gallega – Steamed octopus with potato. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Of the five La Tasca outposts around the DMV, I chose to visit the Old Town Alexandria location. As I approached the sound of flamenco music was pouring out onto the street. A party! Even though the sun was barely setting, the bar was lively, with patrons sipping sherry or drinking pitchers of sangria, some with filled with summer berries or fresh peaches, and nibbling on tapas.

There are over fifty tapas to choose from: traditional nibbles like Manchego Frito, (fried manchego cheese) served with honey orange marmalade and Croquetas de Pollo y Jamon (croquettes with ham and chicken). The list goes on and on. More contemporary tapas like Mejillones Tigres (spicy mussels breaded and deep-fried with a béchamel sauce) are fabulous and you can’t go wrong with a cured meat platter of salchichon, cana de lomo, jamon de Serrano and chorizo served with picos and Marcona almonds or a cheese board of Tetilla, Montenebro, Valdeon, and Manchego that arrives with a delicious fig jam.

Eggplant with almonds and goat cheese – Brazo de Gitano – A rolled sponge cake layered with quince jam and served with Manchego cheese ice cream at La Tasca. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Eggplant with almonds and goat cheese – Brazo de Gitano – A rolled sponge cake layered with quince jam and served with Manchego cheese ice cream at La Tasca. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Some diners never get around to the paellas, but you should venture forth. Most of the rice-based dishes incorporate shellfish along with the traditional peas and peppers. One variety uses chicken and duck. Finish with café cortado or a glass of Gran Torres Orange, a Spanish liqueur, and hot and crispy house made churros or a creamy flan, and you’ll find yourself clicking your heels and shouting olé!

Sofitel Lightens Up 

No matter how critics whine and moan about small plates, they are here to stay. Whether it’s to please grazers whose palates operate like Twitter, or dieters who eschew heaping portions of protein, diners are choosing smaller, lighter and healthier portions.

Sofitel Washington DC. Photo courtesy of Sofitel.

Sofitel Washington DC. Photo courtesy of Sofitel.

To that end Sofitel DC has reintroduced its popular,De-Light by Sofitel, with a lightened up summer lunch menu guaranteed to have business diners served and out in thirty minutes if they so choose, which I do not. Because who wouldn’t want to linger at an outdoor table with a glass of rosé, savoring the cuisine of Executive Chef Franck Loquet and the heavenly macaroons from Pastry Chef Vincent Bitauld?

The 30-minute De-Light luncheon menu from Sofitel. Photo by Jordan Wright.

The 30-minute De-Light luncheon menu from Sofitel. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Or why not dine languorously under the smashing black & white celebrity photo portraits by Gilles Bensimon covering the dining room walls?

But this is news about a quick, well-balanced, low-calorie lunch whose courses are served at the same time.  That’s an appetizer or salad, entrée and dessert with a calorie count of under 200 without sacrificing taste or satiety. There are a few choices to make first – Grilled Asparagus Salad with orange basil dressing or Branzino Tartare scented with lemon, ginger, and vanilla, a delicate Chicken Tagine with fennel and pearl onions or Mixed Grill, an assortment of fish, tomato, lemongrass and glazed baby vegetables. Dessert is a strawberry and milk foam treat called ‘Milky Way’ for its etherealness.

 Bearnaise – Adventures in Retro French Bistro 

On the opposite end of the spectrum of Gallic cuisine are the cholesterol-heavy dishes of Bearnaise – Spike and Micheline Mendelsohn’s latest endeavor whose steak frites concept beckons like a croupier at a baccarat table. To say this type of cooking is as out of fashion as Carla Bruni, is an understatement. I had thought we were fast-tracking towards healthier fare, not the cardiac unit. Don’t expect to celeb-spot vegan goddess Gwyneth Paltrow slicing into a filet mignon here.

Downstairs dining area at Bearnaise. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Downstairs dining area at Bearnaise. Photo by Jordan Wright.

I enjoy revisiting the past as much as the next memoirist. Traveling back to a more innocent time, before BocuseGuerard, and Vergé gave butter and cream the heave-ho and snubbed their consensual noses at the great Escoffier. Before the culinary renaissance of the 60’s trumpeted nouvelle cuisine and French restaurants reigned supreme, sauciers held sway, crepes suzette were made tableside, and bistros redolent of Gauloises and café filtre could be found on every street corner in France. We are enamored of that sexy epoque and so is the restaurant. Framed posters of Serge GainsbourgBrigitte Bardot, and Coco Chanel dominating the cream-colored walls, are a dead giveaway.

The most difficult decision of the night. Photo by Jordan Wright.

The most difficult decision of the night. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Bearnaise is steak-centric and the tender cuts are cooked to perfection. Serving them with a choice of sauces – béarnaise, spicy béarnaise, au poivre, bordelaise or maître d’hôtel butter – ups the ante. Sides include roasted Portobello mushrooms, Brussel sprouts dripping with bacon and tarragon-infused béarnaise, bone marrow for the Paleos, and potato gratin with lardons in a creamy Reblochon sauce. The night I dined there the soup of the day was vichyssoise that would have benefited from more leeks. But the crispy frites made from Yukon Gold potatoes. Sacre bleu! I dare you not to dip them in one of the exquisitely made sauces!

The bespoke French table at Béarnaise -Steak frites with béarnaise. Photo by Jordan Wright.

The bespoke French table at Béarnaise -Steak frites with béarnaise. Photo by Jordan Wright.

The restaurant prides itself on its affordable French wine list. Over two dozen vintages are offered at $40.00 a bottle or $10.00 per glass. A few, like the 2009 Cardinale Cabernet at $400.00 a pop, are for high rollers only.

So would I eat here again? Mais bien sûr, mes amis! Though I’ll have to eat like a peasant for a month before returning to the French onion soup smothered in melted gruyére, escargots bathed in garlic herb butter and topped with a jaunty pastry beret, flat-iron steaks, unlimited frites and chocolate mousse.

The questions remain. Will the Mendelsohns’ legion of fans that flock to We, The Pizza, and Good Stuff Eatery’s burgers and shakes put their money on steaks frites? Will General Manager Chris Connor bring members from his former gig at the Cosmos Club to the stylish spot? Will Exec Chef Brad Race, formerly of Jose Andres’ Minibar and Michel Richard’s Michel be able to coax diners into dining on bistro cuisine? I’m betting the bank they do.

Malmaison – Not Just for Josephine 

While we’re weighing in as Francophiles, I should mention Omar Popal’s new Malmaison is now serving dinner. Mussel soup, vichysoisse, short ribs Bordelaise, vegetarian bouillabaisse and house made duck confit are a few of the offerings in this hidden Georgetown spot best known for hosting dance parties. Malmaison has jiggered its cavernous space, once an ice factory, to provide diners with a view of the Potomac while dining on dishes from Michelin-starred chef Gerard Pangaud, formerly of Gerard’s Place and sweet treats from pastry chef, Serge Torres, an alumnus of New York’s Le Cirque.

The bespoke French table at Béarnaise -Steak frites with béarnaise. Photo by  Jordan Wright.

Pastries at Malmaison. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Popal’s other hot spot, Napoleon Bistro & Lounge, will be celebrating Bastille Day on Saturday, the 13th with a “Vive la France” party at their Columbia Road address. They’ll be spinning French beats and offering champagne cocktails. The French-themed costume party invites you to sport your best beret, black and white stripes and a moustache – ladies are exempt from the latter.

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