Latin American, Spanish, Tapas
$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Guardado's: Here, The Tapas Are Tops

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2007

This is my idea of a tapa: a curl of lobster tail and a pristinely shucked claw lounging on a ramekin-size divan of lobster custard. Turn me over, as Saint Lawrence would say, I'm done.

There are times when it seems tapas have taken over the world. And although it's not entirely José Andrés's fault -- his Jaleo-Cafe Atlantico-Zaytinya-Oyamel mini-empire didn't invent the trend, it only set the standard -- it may send a shiver of overextension dread down the spine when members of his former kitchen staff start opening their own tapas joints.

The good new is, Andrés's former employees (like those of Michel Richard's and Roberto Donna's, who are gradually spreading the French and Italian gospels throughout the Washington area) must have been paying attention. Case in point: Nicolas José Guardado, owner and executive chef of Guardado's Restaurant in Bethesda. A native of El Salvador who worked a series of grunt jobs at local restaurants before being hired at the downtown Jaleo as a salad chef, Guardado was packed off by Andrés in 1993, at age 29, to cooking school to learn classical culinary techniques. Guardado eventually rose to become head chef of Jaleo in Bethesda, and, a few months ago, he opened this family-style Spanish-Latino cafe that pays homage to his training and his background.

There are certainly reminders of Jaleo, especially given that the Bethesda branch is only a few blocks away (the sangria is a dead ringer), but in general, Guardado and Luis Zelaya, another Jaleo alum (former downtown sous chef) who helped design the menu and stuck around for the first few weeks, have tried to flatter without flagrantly imitating: adding ham to the croquetas, for instance, and topping grilled tuna with slightly quirky brandy tomato sauce and the potato salad with brandade and pea mayonnaise. Guardado's has a more homey feel, too, and a menu that ranges a little farther south with pupusas and taquitos (indeed, the menu lists both tapas and antojitos, the less formal "little bites" of Latin America) and to the mall with such universalized fare as Buffalo-style wings; a "Mexicana" taco salad with guacamole-grilled chicken; and beef- or chicken-stuffed plantains with melted mozzarella, which sounds like one of those Caribbean fast-food hybrids.

In general, the tapas are the prize here. Those croquetas are direly addictive, resembling crisp tater tots but far more silken inside, filled with a bechamel sauce infused with ground chicken and just a scent of Spanish ham. Pulpo a la vinagreta is uncommonly tender octopus topped with a fresh tomato salsa. Fried calamari is also remarkably tender, with a delicate breading that shakes aside its deep-fat dousing.

The tortilla de patatas, a mild potato omelet, and the pupusas are simple comfort food; the pickled cabbage that complements the pupusas is on the delicate side. The sauteed spinach is a slick green delight, studded with raisins and orange sections. Steamed mussels are rather ordinary, though a generous dozen-plus.

But the weekend specials will seal the deal, especially when you get the bill. That lobster souffle tapa was $11.95, and a mushroom-topped filet mignon, which was at least six ounces -- formerly the norm for that cut -- was only $8.50, prices that not only should persuade a lot of other restaurateurs to stop inflating their price points but also suggest that the regular $18.95 filet is seriously supersized.

There have been a few slips, most having to do with a slightly too effusive dosing of salt. The paella was plenty for two, with a broad smatter of seafood, chicken and chorizo, but the cooking had rendered all the flavors somehow too similar as well as too salty. And a final drifting of salt was the only flaw in the pan-seared scallops, which were carefully cooked and served with a fine green pea risotto and light lobster sauce.

As a matter of fact, the Italian-style risotto was served at the same time as a classic Spanish yellow rice, which was equally fine but completely different, even a different grain, a nicety not always observed. The yellow rice came with a very moist "airline cut" of chicken breast (i.e., minus the tenderloin scrap but with the first joint of the wing attached) lightly marinated with chipotles and pan-seared.

As yet, the wine list is pretty limited and middle-of-the-road, but all affordable, and a couple of sherry choices are in the offing, which would make tapasizing more fun. Still, Guardado's is picking up steam, and staff, and along with its neighbor, Hard Times Cafe, is a welcome, affordable entry into the increasingly upscale Bethesda restaurant scene.