How two Americans set out to bring Spain's best to a new restaurant in Northwest

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

They were lost. There was no sign of the restaurant. The GPS kept insisting that Mark Kuller and Haidar Karoum drive down a one-way street -- the wrong way. Even if the pair had spoken Spanish, there was no one around on a Sunday afternoon in the Basque city of Vitoria-Gasteiz to guide them to Asada Sagartoki.

The only good news: Neither of them was hungry. Yet.

The previous day had been a marathon of eating. Over lunch and dinner, Kuller, the owner of Penn Quarter restaurant Proof, and Karoum, its chef, had downed 23 dishes apiece including grilled bread with smoked butter and truffles; fresh chorizo; and meaty cockles with grapefruit, parsley and lemon. A plate of baby artichokes, Iberico ham and creamy potato puree was so perfect that Kuller stood up and bear-hugged its creator.

Another set of gastro-tourists might have given up in favor of a nap. But Sagartoki -- wherever it was -- was famous for its pintxos, the bite-size Basque snacks usually served on toothpicks. And Kuller and Karoum had come to Spain to eat. Everything.

How else could the pair, neither of whom had ever been to Spain, open a Spanish restaurant? Estadio, their second venture, was slated to debut in Logan Circle in three months' time.

Eventually, they found the place, tucked along a gloomy street near a cathedral. Inside, the pintxos were displayed on the bar in clear, square plastic cases, a kind of cross between a museum exhibition of precious jewels and the plastic models of sushi employed in Japanese restaurants. Kuller ordered the prize-winning huevos fritos con patatas, a few glasses of Txakoli and a local sparkling white wine, plus some thinly sliced octopus with pimenton for good measure.

When the waiter arrived with the special pintxos, he explained how they were to be eaten: Put the whole thing in your mouth. No sharing.

Kuller and Karoum followed orders. Warm egg, laced with smoky ham, squirted out; the potato melted on their tongues.

With his mouth full, Kuller managed to say, "We are definitely putting this on the menu."

Details, details

Estadio, which is on track to open in early July, originally was to be Italian. But then Posto, Potenza and Bibiana came on the scene, and Kuller decided to change course. Casa Mono and Txikito, the critically acclaimed tapas bars in New York, were among his favorite restaurants. And he loved the diverse crowd and the energy at Mas in Charlottesville, which combines Spanish style with a strict eat-local ethos. Why, Kuller wondered, couldn't he do something similar here?

Kuller, 57, had been a tax lawyer, and a good one, at the former McKee Nelson firm in the District. But in 2006, he decided to try something new. Wine had long been his hobby; in 1984, he tasted a 1966 Chateau Latour and set out to build his own cellar, which now stands at 8,000 bottles.

Restaurants, too, were an obsession. Over the years, Kuller had become a regular and a friend to maitre d's at exclusive restaurants around the country. Once, when the director of marketing at a posh New York hotel was unable to get a client a table at New York's Jean-Georges, he called Kuller, who made it happen.

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