Some restaurants are content to pour plonk and diced fruit in a carafe and call it sangria. Joselito Casa De Comidas shows patrons what an upgrade feels like, as anyone who has ordered the drink at the youthful Capitol Hill restaurant can attest. The divide between average and awesome starts with the bottle, a handsome flask, into which go a respectable tempranillo, along with brandy, triple sec, peach schnapps and grapefruit juice. At the table, the deluxe punch, also available in white, is poured into glasses holding a cube of fruit-packed ice.
One sip, and I’m sold. Joselito’s sangria is the best in town.
Let me suggest you enjoy it with some smoked salt cod on a puree of garlic, parsley and olive oil in a moat of stinging gazpacho, a coolant finished with what could pass for snow but is in reality powder made with tapioca and olive oil. Or maybe baby cuttlefish (a squid relative) sharing a bowl with lima beans, soft potato and a sauce coaxed from wine, cumin, bay leaf and onion. “It was my father’s favorite dish,” says Javier Candon, the dapper ringleader behind the Spanish restaurant he named for his dad, who passed away last year at 90. Like most of the dishes at Joselito, the cuttlefish can be ordered in one of three portions: as a tapa; as a media racion, the size of a main course; and racion, in an amount apportioned for two or more. Also like much of the food here, the seafood dish calls attention to a cuisine that makes an art of subtlety.
If you’ve been to SER in Arlington, Candon’s maiden restaurant, the devotion to details will register. Joselito is no mere replica, however. Whereas SER, which stands for “simple, easy, real,” has the flavor of a block party, the new establishment, decorated with closely set marble tables and floor tiles from Spain, aspires to more sophistication.
Chef David Sierra, 37, lists Fiola Mare on his résumé, a bullet point that shows in the Madrid native’s careful, often beautiful, arrangements. The straightforward-sounding “five seasonal vegetables,” for instance, brings together precise cuts in a mound, sauced at the table with warm vegetable juice (from asparagus in May). But even plainer combinations are dressed for success. Thick strips of well-marbled Iberian pork shoulder, delicately nutty in flavor, are arranged like spokes of a wheel on a bed of mashed potatoes, a singular sensation that is best ordered in a plus size if you’re more than two — and one carnivore is fleet of fork. The combination of melt-on-the-tongue meat, from pigs that feast on acorns, and olive oil-enriched potatoes, a meal draped with a vinegar-sharpened wine sauce, is as irresistible to some of us as Twitter is to Trump.
The ocean is Sierra’s larder. More than a dozen dishes involve seafood. Simple pleasures run from lightly pickled mussels tossed with glossy bell peppers and the creamy white beans called pochas to a Friday lunch special teaming tuna and potatoes in a light stew, teasing with sweet paprika. Joselito’s lone pasta is a turban of thin egg noodles scattered with crab and sea urchin — the latter as common a menu fixture as pork belly — and blended with shrimp butter. The choicest port of call is also one of the simplest: crawfish briefly sauteed with garlic and cayenne and topped with eggs fried in olive oil. Like that Iberian pork, the pasta and the crawfish stay with me. A kitchen that uses good ingredients doesn’t have to do much to get them to sing.
Early on, every visit found me returning to cumin-seasoned fried anchovies served with yuzu aioli. My last rendezvous was a bust of stiff, dull fish food, however. (While I’m carping, let me bust on the bread. Sierra’s sauces deserve better sponges.)
One of the chef’s recent additions, braised oxtail in a red wine reduction, sounds better suited to fall or winter. But the tender, cinnamon-spiced meat is terrific eating, balanced on the plate with crisp Brussels sprouts and marble-size, husk-wrapped gooseberries, golden orbs with an acidity similar to tomatoes.
Early grazers who sit at the bar can take advantage of Hemingway Hour, 4 to 7 p.m. weeknights. That’s when the entire menu is discounted 20 percent. Knocking back Sierra’s pleasing food and the bar’s good drinks feels like you’re getting away with something, and you are: a good deal.
It took some time for diners and even staff to grasp the menu’s portion and price structure. By way of example, tuna carpaccio with avocado mousse is trailed on the menu by the numbers 9/17/33. “That’s not the year the dish was invented,” I overheard a server explain the three prices to a group of diners. The service at Joselito is chief among its charms. Return customers are often treated as friends, which means a meal isn’t over until someone shows up with a house-made liquor, maybe brandy steeped with raisins.
What looks like a square of flan — the dense, egg yolk-yellow custard called tocino de cielo — makes my teeth itch, and warm white chocolate soup is a misuse of the diced fruit it covers. If you want something sweet, ask for what the servers call “Spanish French toast”: bread soaked in milk and sherry, dipped in egg, fried and dunked again in sherry. You’ll never look at the American brunch staple the same way.
Open only since January, the dining room looks as if it’s been around for decades. Indeed, the establishment’s full name, Joselito Casa De Comidas, signals an old-fashioned venue. With no budget for an interior designer, Candon recruited his wife, Christiana Campos, a senior communications strategist with the National Education Association, to re-create the feel of the classic cafes the couple admire in Madrid and Seville.
She has another career if she wants it. The long tilted mirrors over the bar are an especially nice touch, affording everyone at the counter a view of the room. Covering the walls are vintage travel posters from the region where the owner grew up — the state of Huelva, southwest of Seville — and black-and-white photographs of Candon’s clan, some dating to the early 1900s. There are lots of pictures; El Papa sired eight children.
“Family,” says Campos, “is very much a part of our lives.”
She was referencing the framed memories that fill the dining room, but she could just as well have been speaking to the spirit of the beguiling Joselito.
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660 Pennsylvania Ave. SE
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Tapas $8 to $16, entrees, $15 to $31.
Sound check: 71 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.