El Patio is a lovely new place to have dinner, especially when you'd like to eat in a garden without the summer heat. The dining room looks like a Georgetown patio moved indoors. There are white wrought iron chairs and white trellises on the ceiling, spilling over with lush green wandering plants; there's a big old lamppost in the middle of the dining room, and even chirping birds -- electronic -- singing away during your meal from speakers hidden above the vines.
We could do with fewer bird songs, but when the food comes you'll hardly notice: It is excellent, if a bit expensive, and perhaps the best Spanish-style cooking we've had around Washington.
The menu is small, perhaps because the restaurant is only three months old, and it doesn't contain many surprises. There are shrimps with garlic or classical paella or beef with onions and peppers, probably no dishes you haven't seen before if you've eaten in other Spanish restaurants. But almost everything is beautifully prepared -- the seafoods barely cooked, the oil sparsely drizzled, the vegetables tenderly crunchy. Even the black beans are uncommonly good, firm instead of mushy. Everything is bold and fresh and brightly colored. If you think Spanish cooking is heavy, El Patio will dissuade you.
Gambas Al Ajillo, shrimps, are almost delicate, with more wine and garlic for sopping than heavy butter. Tiny tender scallops are brushed with lemon and fresh cilantro, with scarcely a trace of oil. One appetizer for two, antipasto El Patio, looks like a Mediterranean palette, with vivid red tomatoes and sienna salamis and dark shredded lettuce and pale cream palm hearts. The platter comes with four marvelous mussels, sprinkled with bits of onion, cilantro, pimento and herbs.
We stopped ordering paella at most restaurants long ago because it's usually overrated. But definitely order El Patio's version, thick with tender clams, mussels and chicken, and flowery, saffron-infused rice. Zarzuela Vasca also is unusually good here, shellfish steamed in white wine and piled with ringlets of ivory-white squid. If you're feeling like something simpler, try the fresh boneless trout, butterflied and pan-fried with a bit of butter and lemon, or half a chicken broiled crisp and fragrant with garlic.
El Patio cakes look a lot better than they taste. The restaurant doesn't make most of the desserts, which is too bad, because everything else is so good. You'd be better off skipping dessert and ending with a stiff black swig of espresso (overpriced at $2). We look forward to going back when El Patio expands its menu, adds a few more adventurous dishes to the repertoire and makes some terrific desserts. Meanwhile, enjoy this undiscovered restaurant just the way it is. We hope the kitchen can keep up the quality when the tables start filling up.