The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2019 Spring Dining Guide.
You hardly need a menu to order at what always feels like a celebration. Looking around and sniffing works almost as well. The scent of garlic and lemon, for instance, leads us to a plate of sauteed shrimp, and who can resist silvery anchovies, freckled with orange zest, when they ride through the dining room with a thatch of housemade potato chips? Executive chef Marc Vidal’s pet entree, roast chicken with salsa verde, is likely to become yours once you taste his youthful memory from his native Barcelona.
Not every dish is a score (Jaleo makes a superior tortilla Espanola), but enough of the menu is. Make time for crudo and for pork ribs glazed with sherry. Also, the seasonal sangria and the stuffed churros are great bookends to a meal. If I could change one thing in this Penn Quarter spinoff of a Dupont Circle draw, it would be the clamor. For better or worse, Boqueria is a blast.
2 1/2 stars
Boqueria: 777 Ninth St. NW. 202-552-3268. boqueriarestaurant.com.
Open: Dinner daily, lunch weekdays, brunch weekends.
Prices: Tapas $5 to $36, large plates $36 to $45.
Sound check: 77 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following preview was originally published April 3, 2019.
The new Boqueria in Penn Quarter knows how to throw a party, starting with roast chicken
Something tells me I’m going to like the spinoff of a popular Spanish restaurant before I even leave buttoned-up Washington on the street. Parked on the sidewalk is a chalkboard sign that more or less invites me to loosen my tie: “Jamon in,” it reads. “We’re open!”
I follow the directive, pull open a heavy glass door and encounter a bevy of smiles at the host podium and the roar of a crowd at the SRO bar. To my right is a series of tall tables; unless you’re Sun Mingming, your toes aren’t likely to touch the floor. In the distance, I spot more seating, more scenesters and an open kitchen. I have yet to glance at the menu I’ve been handed, but I’m mentally placing my order by what looks good floating from the lair of chef Marc Vidal to the diners around me.
Definitely, we want some sauteed shrimp, which leave a trail of garlic and lemon in their wake. For sure, we’re going to ask for the cod, ringed with tiny Manila clams and draped in a glistening emerald puree of parsley, garlic and olive oil. The potato chips accompanying the silvery anchovies, freckled with orange zest, call to me, too. Should we start the evening off with one of several sangrias or a sherry? Sí and sí. The blood orange sangria is particularly restoring, the Pastrana Manzanilla Pasada Hidalgo expectedly nutty, with a hint of green olive.
Boqueria in Penn Quarter is an offshoot of the same-named restaurant in Dupont Circle and an import from New York, which now claims four such Spanish restaurants. The brains behind the brand is the Parisian-born Yann de Rochefort. If he wasn’t weaned on the food that has made him a success, the restaurateur has an affinity for Washington, where he graduated from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University 30 years ago.
The freshly minted Boqueria has an advantage over its sibling in the form of a rotisserie, which turns out to be the source of one of the restaurant’s most enticing dishes: roasted organic chicken. Vidal calls it his choice dish, because it reminds the Barcelona native of “the way we eat in Spain.” The recipe calls for generously seasoning the bird with salt and pepper and leaving it in a cooler for a day — a dry brine. The chicken is later cooked with fistfuls of bay leaf and other herbs, as well as lemon and lard, and basted frequently. The outcome summons flashbacks for Vidal, who remembers eating similarly flavored chicken with his family on Sundays, when their Barcelona restaurant was closed, and at a summer house on the Costa Brava, with potato chips.
Thanks for the memories, chef.
The staff is attentive but never pushy. Tell your server you want to order a few dishes at a time, and — unlike at the many restaurants that practically demand you tell them everything at once, because that’s the way chef likes it — your wish is granted. Plates come out at a pace that suggests the kitchen is eavesdropping on your appetite. Early on, you realize you’re in good hands with Vidal, chef de cuisine George Rodrigues (late of Proof and a roll call of Michael Schlow restaurants, including the shuttered Calle Cinco) and the rest of the crew.
The cooks can fry, based on a stack of crusty confit potatoes rising from smoky tomato sauce and striped with garlicky aioli, a.k.a. patatas bravas, one of the best ways to eat spuds anywhere in the world.
They know how to treat fish and seafood. A crudo is a crudo is a crudo, but Vidal improves on the expected with coins of raw scallops that practically melt on the tongue, and same-size slices of turnip in the arrangement. The ivory ingredients look so similar, you don’t know which is which until it crosses your lips. Strategically placed Mandarin orange slices lend the cool seafood salad a subtle sweetness. Of the cooked seafood dishes, gambas al ajillo are as heady as they appear. The pearly shrimp show up beneath a shower of minced parsley, with garlic slivers and a suggestion of brandy in the pan.
Most of the portion sizes fall somewhere between tapas and entrees. “We want to please people,” says Vidal. He makes his point in a part of town near some of the most popular attractions in Washington, including the Capital One Arena. (From my vantage point one night, a clutch of hockey fans in jerseys seemed to be digging their pregame spread.)
Do Spaniards eat Brussels sprouts? In my travels to Barcelona, Madrid and San Sebastian, I’ve never seen them in a market let alone a restaurant. Vidal puts the vegetable on his menu because, well, doesn’t every chef in America? His sprouts get the Spanish treatment with the addition of bits of chorizo and lemon. “They fly,” he says, and a taster can see why.
The tortilla Espanola is, despite a whip of aioli, too mellow, just potatoes and onions and not much more in the way of flavor. Jaleo has this version beat. And as much as I admire the perfectly cooked squid, mussels and more on the paella, available in medium and large, they’re scattered on a mere veneer of bomba rice. Eating it makes me wish I was digging into the model at Del Mar.
With three days’ notice and for a minimum of six people, Boqueria will prepare a suckling pig. The closest I’ve come so far is to order some pork ribs and strip the abundant meat from their bones. Half the pleasure is licking the glaze from your lips. The taste of dates and figs, cocoa and licorice, are hallmarks of the Pedro Ximenez sherry used to sauce the ribs, which, like the chicken, benefit from a spin on the rotisserie.
Indecisive types have the option of letting the chefs simply send out what they think is best. For $49, explore the range of the menu in seven or so tastes.
Boqueria reminds us that not all churros are cut from the same dough. The kitchen makes several types, the most dangerous being the most delicious. Stubby, sugar-dusted Los Rellenos churros gathered in a hot bouquet keep your choice of dip inside the fried dough, which means every bite results in projectile dulce de leche or Nutella — on your chin, on your plate, on the table (guess I’m headed to the dry cleaners tomorrow). What a mess — but what a hoot. Another dessert with mass appeal, Torta Turron, crowds pieces of almond-hazelnut cake, honey-laced dulce de leche ice cream and tufts of whipped cream in a bowl that’s best shared.
The restaurant requires that you lean in, which has nada to do with Sheryl Sandberg and everything to do with the volume at Boqueria. I get that dinner in public isn’t meant to sound like a wake, but the amount of craning and repeating a diner has to do to follow a conversation is ridiculous.
Before I set down my fork as a professional eater for the last time, I’d love to tell you about a good — affordable, accessible — restaurant where the decibel count measured 70 or below. A guy can fantasize, right?
Until then, put up with the clamor. Boqueria is a party you don’t want to miss.