The missing ingredient at the late Conosci in Mount Vernon Triangle: a full kitchen.
Conceived as an intimate crudo bar, the jewel in the crown of Washington restaurants by the Boston-based Michael Schlow lacked a grill, a fryer and space to accommodate both an a la carte list and a tasting menu. When Schlow convened his team to come up with a replacement for the space, which adjoined his Italian spot, Alta Strada, the idea that got the most votes was a tapas bar.
Kudos to Schlow, who hopes to find a bigger roost for Conosci, for leaving the interior untouched. The original gold walls, leafy chandeliers and dark-blue banquettes remain, making "C5," as the staff calls the pop-up, the city's most glamorous backdrop for Spanish small plates.
With the help of some heat, in the form of new equipment, and some recipes from Spanish enthusiast George Rodrigues, formerly the chef at Tico on 14th Street NW, Calle Cinco began serving sherry, fried calamari and churros in September.
The newly relaxed idea finds Rodrigues, 36, occasionally leaving his post behind the counter to drop off a plate. One of the most striking dishes features piquillo peppers. Served two per order and drizzled with spiced honey, the crimson vegetables are garnished with crackling pine nuts and minced parsley. Once the flesh of the peppers is cut, tangy goat cheese makes an appearance: The combination makes an ideal salad.
My initial grazing expedition proved a mixed bag, mostly due to timid seasoning. Calle Cinco's beef-and-lamb meatballs reminded me more of my Minnesota mom's meatloaf than anything I've knocked back in San Sebastian, and tortilla Espanola was spongy. "Good if you were in an airport lounge," a companion whispered of the small plates, and I nodded.
Time helps. A return visit, which found me strolling into a cloud of garlic and included dessert, had me comparing C5 favorably to Jaleo, the city's standard-bearer for Spanish. Piping-hot papas bravas, lashed with creamy aioli, didn't last through much of a cooling-down period. And the reason the menu refers to the chef's seafood salad as "famous" turns out to be supple poached shrimp and squid on a pool of biting gazpacho — pure joy spurred by rings of pickled Fresno chiles. Slender, sugar-dusted churros from pastry chef Alex Levin are lovely on their own, crazy-making after a dunk in satiny dark chocolate sauce. In a nod to Spain's affection for gin and tonics, Levin offers a gin-and-tonic sorbet that goes down like snow kissed with lime. Even the servers' black T-shirts made me smile: "You had me at boquerones," read one.
No one knows how long Calle Cinco will stick around. Schlow says replacement possibilities include a Japanese sushi bar and a Northeastern seafood spot. But as of now, the temporary tapas destination is revving up its happy hour (4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily) by serving grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches known as "bikinis" and a challenge: Whoever can manage a spill-free drink of cava from a traditional porron (long-spouted glass pitcher) held an arm's length away gets a gratis tapa.
Game on, amigos!
465 K St. NW. 202-629-4662. callecincodc.com. Tapas, $6 to $15.