Atmosphere: Bar with tables downstairs; spacious, informal dining room upstairs.
Price Range: Main courses range from $6.95 for chicken and sausage with rice to $11.50 for parrillada Asturiana, a Spanish seafood platter.
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 to 2:30 Monday through Friday; dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Spanish hors d'oeuvres and drinks served Monday through Saturday until 2 a.m.
Credit Cards: American Express, Carte Blanche, Master Charge, Visa.
Special Facilities: No highchairs or booster seats; steps up to restaurant make access for handicapped patrons difficult.
A visit to Los Asturianos on Capitol Hill is a good introduction to the little-known and delicious cuisine of Spain -- as long as you keep in mind that the food served is only a sampling and not necessarily the best that Spanish cooking has to offer.
Spanish cuisine, represented in Washington by only a handful of restaurants, is based on the ingredients plentiful on the Iberian Peninsula: olive oil, garlic, parsley, eggs, dairy products, and an infinite variety of fresh seafood. There is almost no similarity between Spanish food and Mexican food.
Although the name Los Asturianos indicates the cooking of Asturias, a province on the northwest coast of Spain, the menu offers dishes from all over the country, including the Spanish dish most familiar to Americans: paella ($8.95).
Los Asturianos, which opened about a year ago, is a welcome addition to Barracks Row; a born-again section of Eighth Street SE where an international set of restaurants includes The Broker (Swiss) and La Casita (Mexican). The Spanish establishment consists of a first floor bar and a spacious second-floor dining room done in oak butcher block tables, exposed brick and reproductions of Spanish paintings. The only original decorating note is struck by a silk Spanish shawl hanging in the stairwell leading to the restaurant.
A phone call to make reservations produced the information that the restaurant had no high chairs, so we brought one along to accommodate our friends' 17-month-old daughter, Caitlin. A waiter met us at the door, carried the high chair upstairs and wiped the rain off it. The service continued to be efficient, courteous and very tolerant of the children -- our own daughters, 6 and 3, as well as our friends baby.
Once we had secured some excellent French bread and butter to keep the kids happy, we turned our attention to pre-dinner refreshment and were happily surprised to find that chilled manzanilla was available.
Manzanilla is what Carmen drinks in the opera of the same name, and as if that isn't reason enough to drink it, it's a very pale dry sherry made from grapes grown near the sea, which impart a unique salty tang.
To go with the manzanilla, we ordered one plate of varied hors d'oeuvres ($4.50) and one plate of fried squid ($3). The squid rings were deep fried, crisp and delicious. The hors d'oeuvres consisted of cold pickled mussels topped with chopped red and green peppers and onions -- an original and excellent appetizer, some very good chorizo, or Spanish-style sausage, sardines and ham. We found ourselves wishing that there were a greater variety of these hors d'oeuvres, called tapas.
For our two daughters, we asked for one order of arroz con pollo y chorizo, rice with chicken and sausage, to be split two ways for $6.95. The waiter divided it for them, and each child had more than enough. They were only mildly put off by the fact that the rice was yellow from saffron, and they ate the chicken, leaving only the peppers and sausages, which the adults quickly claimed.
My husband's choice, almejas en salsa verde ($7.95), consisted of steamed cherrystone clams bathed in a pungent, garlickly cream sauce colored with finely chopped parsley. His only complaint was that the clams should have been Little Necks, since the larger cherrystones are too formidable to pop into one's mouth gracefully.
My vieras ($7.95) turned out to be scallops and shrimp in a light cream sauce served in a scallop shell. The scallops tasted reasonably fresh, but the shrimp seemed old and dry.
A slight dryness was the only complaint of one of our friends about her choice -- a broiled filet of sole that was a speciality of the day. Her husband, who ordered rabbit in red wine, said the rabbit was also slightly dry. This problem, however, was alleviated by immersing it in the sauce, which he had feared might be heavy and sweet but which turned out to be rich and savory.
White rice came with all these dishes, and we gave most of it to Caitlin, who chewed on it happily in her high chair. No vegetables were included, so we ordered an avocado salad ($2.50), a pitted and sliced avocado, topped with chopped sweet peppers and dressed in a tangy vinaigrette. All the adults shared the salad, as well as a single dessert, the Spanish caramel custard flan ($1.75).
Our two daughters finished their meal long before we did and kept asking permission to visit the ladies room, a request we readily assented to. At the end of the meal, we discovered where they were really going: to a bowl of mints near the door that, by the time of our departure was almost empty.
When we go the bill -- 69.90 for four adults, two children, and a baby -- we felt momentarily that we deserved all the mints we could eat. However, when we tallied up all we had consumed -- manzanilla, sherry, Mexican beer, some of the house white wine, cokes and milk, as well as two kinds of appetizers, five main dishes, a salad, a dessert and expresso, we decided the bill was reasonable.
On our next visit, we will probably try to make a meal of just tapas, perhaps supplemented by sopa de ajo, garlic soup, topped with a poached egg for $1.95. It would, however, be hard to resist the temptation to order the clams in green sauce again.