Small plates, big promise
Boqueria nips at the heels of tapas eateries
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 13, 2012
Every server I've encountered at Boqueria talks in exclamation points when chatting about the food, none more so than the young woman who pampered a posse of grazers on a recent weeknight at the inviting new Spanish tapas restaurant in Dupont Circle.
Of the vermicelli noodles stained black with squid ink and decorated with shrimp, clams and cuttlefish, she says, "I eat it every night!"
Is she a cook, I ask after a particularly poetic description of another dish. "I just love food!" she gushes.
The high-octane pitches might not matter if the small plates didn't live up to the hype, but plenty of them do at this recent import from New York.
Braised oxtail tucked into crimson piquillo peppers, scattered with crisp shallots and delivered in a small black skillet with silky potato cream is a feast for both eyes and tongue. Mushrooms shed their heavy image when they're seasoned with lemon zest and fresh thyme and brought out with lashings of cool Manchego cheese.
You take a risk when you order the wrinkly green shishito peppers, or what one server called "Spanish roulette," because a diner never knows which sea-salted pepper might be tame and which might be blistering. I got to No. 4 in an order one night before getting hit. Pow!
Meanwhile, sangria invigorated with gin, pink grapefruit juice and Campari is all too easy to continue saying yes to at the end of a workday.
You're likely to fall in lust right at the door. Boqueria, which takes its name from Mercat de la Boqueria, the popular food market in Barcelona, puts one of its two kitchens on display behind glass at the entrance. (Smart move. Who can resist a plate of jamon serrano when he spots it being sliced inches away?) A glance around the interior finds a U-shaped marble bar, a wall of wine and, just as in the Boquerias in the Flatiron and SoHo in Manhattan, tall tables fronted by equally towering leather stools. The music and laughter that fuel the main dining room, packaged in blond wood, chalkboards and tiled walls, will also see you leaning in to hear your table mates. But seriously, who expects to eat Spanish small plates in a mausoleum?
Boqueria's regular menu is just two pages and includes a lot of what tapas eaters have come to expect. Say hola, then, to grilled bread rubbed with garlic and tomato, potato omelet, croquettes in meaty flavors and garlic shrimp. If they were all you tried at Boqueria, you'd tag the place as a pleasant way to spend an hour with friends. (The food comes out fast, as it does at most tapas purveyors. Stagger your orders if you don't want to be done in the time it takes to read this column.) The items from the lot I'd be happiest to see again are the tender baby squid served with charred scallion, tomato confit and romesco; tomato-sauced lamb meatballs gathered with pinches of sheep's milk cheese; and lightly sauteed spinach and garlic. The vegetable dish gets a sweet pop from golden raisins.
Hanger steak is cooked to a nice blush. While the meat gives my jaw a workout, everything else on its plate - the roasted fingerling potatoes, the cumin-laced green sauce and some of those shishito peppers - proves good company. In contrast, that tomato bread lacks oomph, and the croquettes fused with beef and potatoes summon memories, not altogether unpleasant, of the tater tot hotdish (that's a casserole in Minnesota-ese) of my youth.
Attached to the standing script is a sheet of specials, dishes that are apt to be the most diverting meals of your visit. One dinner is best remembered for the cigar-shaped razor clams dappled with an emerald sauce of parsley, olive oil and garlic thickened with fried bread crumbs. Another evening begins with edible fireworks: torpedoes of toasted bread layered with sweet onion, eggplant, a smear of goat cheese and two kinds of anchovies - so special, I wanted to cancel the rest of my order and just keep eating more of the same. If it's offered, spring for the aforementioned black noodles, cooked in lobster stock and presented as if it were a paella. The dish is flavored not just with seafood, but with garlic mayonnaise. Stir the elements together and you've got a party.
Until Boqueria came along, chef Brian Murphy, formerly of Policy, hadn't cooked Spanish. Eating those specials, a diner is led to believe otherwise.
Well, most of the time. Would you pay $3 for a single croquette? You might if its filling included the esteemed Iberico pork that comes from pigs fed on acorns. But the flavor of the minced meat was lost in the creamy center.
The most refreshing way to close a meal is with a half-boat of sliced pineapple that comes with slender wooden picks for retrieving the juicy chunks, simply brightened with lime zest and dots of molasses on its plate. The time traveler in the group is (insert yawn here) chocolate tart with a liquid core, framed in berries that taste more of winter than spring. The baby of the bunch: pencil-long churros, "made with a machine the chef just got in from Spain!" served with a pot of hot chocolate. The centers could be fluffier, but the combination of fried dough and sugar is still compelling.
The city's best-known tapas destinations, Jaleo in Penn Quarter and Estadio in Logan Circle, needn't sweat the arrival of a like-minded competitor across town - yet. But they should know that the youthful Boqueria has some truly special dishes in its arsenal, and some enthusiastic soldiers gunning for the top.