Tom Sietsema on Estadio: The reign of Spain continues in Washington with a welcome newcomer

Estadio restuarant, 1520 14th Street, N.W. The table where Tom Sietsema sat, affording a commanding view of the restaurant. Here photographed September 2010. (Sean McCormick)
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By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, October 10, 2010

The best seat in the house at Estadio is the second leather stool from the left at the yellow marble counter in the rear of the restaurant.

Bathed in natural light from a big window, it's a raised perch that takes in the communal tables beneath the weighty iron chandeliers as well as Estadio's central poured-concrete bar, inspired by a bullring. ("Estadio" is Spanish for "stadium.") Even better, the stool that I favor at this dashing new Spanish restaurant gives its occupant a front-row seat to a cooking show.

Behold the tortilla Española, a round cake of thinly sliced potatoes, olive oil and eggs pulled from the oven, flipped out of its skillet and finished with concentric circles of aioli and some sweet hot peppers. And witness the spritz of lemon and the pinch of mint that contribute to the glory of an order of chicken. Who needs a menu when you can see so much enticing food getting readied for its close-up?

Estadio opened this summer following a marathon eating tour in Spain by Mark Kuller and Haidar Karoum, the owner and chef, respectively, of the wine-themed Proof in Penn Quarter. The spread at their second joint project is built around snacks and small plates: deviled eggs stuffed with creamy tuna salad; Marcona almonds that stain fingers red with a Basque spice blend; skewered bites called pintxos, served on slabs of slate; a handful of salads and soups; multiple kinds of sandwiches; and mid-size plates of fish, meat and vegetables. That sounds like more food than it is; if you go with a group, you can cover a lot of ground. Besides, many of the choices are two- or three-biters.

Some items are designed to be just one munch. A spear of manchego, chorizo and a dot of quince paste coated in pistachio crumbs has the tongue doing somersaults with its sweet, salty and spicy notes. The snack brings to mind the city's most exclusive dining experience: "Minibar for the poor," declares the famous food critic accompanying me, referring to chef José Andrés's six-seat food lab inside Cafe Atlantico. A skewer of anchovy and olive, on the other hand, is just a salt assault.

Estadio's bocadillos are sandwiches that remind you that bread can be half of their pleasure. The restaurant bakes its own rolls, which crackle when you bite into them. Blood sausage is simple and wickedly delicious, racier still if you ask for it with Cabrales cheese. The open-faced sandwiches, called montaditos, show off more good shopping: one of them, crusty grilled bread slathered with goat cheese and decorated with alternating wedges of red, green and orange tomatoes, delivers an edible garden.

The larger plates, raciones, would look at home at the contemporary American restaurant Proof, where chef Karoum splits his time. He gives chicken a fresh spin by placing it on rice and a pool of yogurt tinted green with cilantro, then finishing it with a confetti of slaw brightened with fresh mint. The char and juiciness of the chicken, and an undercurrent of jalapeño in the sauce, make a rousing combination. Halibut is a fat fist of crisp fish whose pool of smoky romesco sauce is dotted with soft chickpeas and crisp pumpkin seeds. Smoky octopus curls atop a cake of potato coins that get a nice kick from capers; the dish is very appealing. Find room for some pea shoots in your meal. Lightly sauteed in olive oil, they arrive glistening and gently crisp in a hillock enhanced with garlic. There are also patatas bravas, that quintessential tapas bar staple of potato chunks striped with (creamy) white aioli and (zesty) red tomato sauce. Although I prefer the range and finesse of the cooking at Jaleo in Penn Quarter, Estadio adds agreeable buzz and deliciousness to its part of town.

The plates come out as they're ready, ferried by servers who can be full of enthusiasm for what they're peddling or seemingly bored. To avoid having a jam of dishes -- or to be finished with dinner in 15 minutes -- I tend to order a few tapas at a time.

Kuller takes his liquids as seriously as he does his solids. For Estadio, the restaurateur enlisted Sebastian Zutant to create the mostly Spanish wine card and Adam Bernbach to dream up cocktails to suit Karoum's cooking. The white sangria is lovely, but unless you drink it quickly, its ice dilutes the pleasure. Tequila, grapefruit juice and a splash of fizzy cava, garnished with a sprig of rosemary, lends itself to more leisurely sipping. As for the boozy, crushed-ice "Slushitos," they're amusing a few slurps in, but you probably won't want to make a night of them.

The design is as inviting as much of the food. Online naysayers have compared the setting to a Renaissance fair, but I like the way Spain takes over from Washington when you walk inside. From the heavy wood door in the vestibule that announces Estadio in cursive steel script to the steel rosettes gracing a movable red-leather wall, lots of thought has been lavished on the look. Estadio's chief problem is too few seats (113) and too much demand; you can reserve after 6 p.m. only if you're a party of six or more.

Expect to wait. But expect to be transported, too.


Two and ahalf stars (Good/Excellent)

Estadio, 1520 14th St. NW. 202-319-1404.

Open: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Metro: Dupont Circle. Major credit cards accepted.

Prices: Snacks $1.50 to $10, sandwiches $2.50 to $7, small plates $10 to $14.

Sound check: 76 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

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