After opening four Italian restaurants around Washington, Fabio Trabocchi is switching allegiances. His latest dining destination, the seafood-themed Del Mar in the sprawling District Wharf, is Spanish, a nod to his co-owner's heritage.
"This one's for Maria," Trabocchi's wife, says the James Beard awarding-winning chef of the dramatic, two-story addition to the Southwest waterfront. Spaniards and Italians, says the chef, are linked by many things, one of which is both groups are forever asking "Where are we going to eat?"
What are we going to eat is more the question at Del Mar, where the initial possibilities embrace hot and cold tapas and move on to whole fish and family-style platters. Expect to see classic Spanish small plates through the eyes of an exacting chef. Briny oysters might show up in a bowl of ice set into a vessel in the shape of a sea snail, and scarlet peppers stuffed with sweet Maryland crab arrive on an orange lake of buttery sea urchin sauce, sharpened with ginger and aged Jerez vinegar. Langoustines, perfumed from their brush with hot charcoal, make for succulent garnishes.
Of course there's Iberico ham. Displayed on a cart with a sharp knife, the rosy marbled flesh is best enjoyed as aged shoulder meat (paleta), slices of which are draped on the dome of a white votive so the fat is gently warmed. Ham also stars in a trio of crisp fritters whose centers release a rivulet of bechamel flavored with well-marbled Mangalitsa ham, from a heritage breed of pig originating in Hungary.
The ground floor dining room shows off the work of a Barcelona-based designer and nine craftsmen from Galicia, who over the course of 10 weeks unpacked and assembled the contents of nine containers of furniture and artwork. The eye candy includes lighting in the form of a giant fish sculpture swimming above diners' heads, hand-painted blue tiles depicting both a mermaid and a merman, and the snazzy jackets — seersucker interspersed with floral prints — worn by the servers. The second story, which has its own kitchen, includes several luxe private dining rooms and a Potomac-facing terrace, expected to see guests next spring.
If you only get one dish, make it paella and ask for the pan with seafood: lobster, calamari, mussels and prawns that taste straight out of the ocean, arranged on short-grained bomba rice that's cooked as it should be, "with crispy parts that families fight over," jokes a server. The Spanish classic, cooked on a dedicated paella stove, needs nothing but a fork to enjoy, although the accompanying aioli nudges the dish into bucket-list territory.
Excess (exuberance?) is a Trabocchi trademark. Exhibit Z at Del Mar is a plate of warm churros with tunnels of hazelnut-flavored chocolate in each cinnamon-sugar-sprinkled wand. Given the richness of everything that's come before, the silken flan, hinting of maple and served with blood orange marmalade and tiny basil meringues, is my inclination.
Trabocchi can be seen center stage in the exhibition kitchen, where he figures he'll be through January, until chef Brinn Sinnott takes over. The move will find Sinnott wearing two toques as culinary director for both Del Mar and Fiola Mare, the Trabocchis breezy Italian seafood restaurant in Georgetown, which Maria Trabocchi says may someday be linked by a boat to ferry guests from one destination to the other.
In typical generous fashion, she wants to stock the vessel with oysters and beer.
791 Wharf St. SW. 202-525-1402. delmardc.com. Entrees, $30 to $80 (for whole fish).