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SER review: Thoughtful Spanish dining, if you can hear yourself think

(2 stars)

Order the suckling pig at SER, and the glistening tray’s appealing looks make a powerful first impression. Its sound will, too.

In a bit of tableside theatricality, the pork is presented and chopped with the blunt edge of a plate — a demonstration of its perfectly crisped skin — before being served with a splash of juices that seep into the accompanying roasted potatoes.

"You don't have to use a knife," said chef and co-owner Josu Zubikarai of the Segovian practice. Order the whole pig, and it's customary to smash the plate after the meat has been portioned out; on a recent busy night, "I broke three," Zubikarai said.

Shattering tableware is something he never would have been able to get away with at Taberna del Alabardero, the old-guard Spanish restaurant downtown, where Zubikarai was the opening chef. The transformation on display at SER, which stands for "simple, easy, real," mirrors changes in how diners want to experience Spanish food 26 years later: casually, but with tradition intact.

“The hard thing was that there wasn’t much knowledge here about the Spanish cuisine,” Zubikarai said of Taberna’s 1989 opening. But in José Andrés’s Washington in 2015, the challenge is standing out. SER rises to the occasion, with traditional and homey food and well-executed dramatic flourishes.

That suckling pig isn’t the only dish presented with flair. Order a plate of jamon pata negra, the luxe cured Spanish ham, and a server will wheel over an entire beautiful leg of it, whittling off pieces as if he were a sculptor and you had commissioned his art. Want to learn about sherry? Ask a server to describe the restaurant’s 10 offerings and don’t be surprised to receive a few tastes to aid in the decision-making.

Washingtonians are sophisticated enough to know their basic tapas, all of which are well represented at SER: aioli-striped patatas bravas, croquetas oozing with mashed potato, and the roulette game that is a plate of pimientos del padron, with the occasional spicy bite in the pile of deep-fried peppers.

SER makes brisk business of its slow-cooked paella: So enticing is a version studded with duck, chicken and rabbit that guests who had declared themselves full were able to polish off their plates, and later find room for crujiente de piña, an ice-cream-topped pineapple-saffron tart.

At lunch, the restaurant appeals to office workers with bocadillos, or sandwiches, including classic combinations of Serrano ham and Manchego cheese, or grilled pork loin and green peppers. Most satisfying is the carb-on-carb combo of Spanish tortilla and aioli between slices of bread. Zubikarai lets guests push their boundaries with dishes such as barnacles, the claw-like crustaceans that are steamed and cracked open, and angulas, the baby-eel delicacy sometimes referred to as “Spanish caviar.” (Because they’re so rare, a 3.5-ounce portion of angulas sells for about $130. “To me, it’s not worth it,” a server says. Want to try it? It’s best to call ahead.) More budget-friendly offerings from the seafood bar are a crab cocktail, garnished with flowers atop a bed of fresh salsa, or a $40 seafood platter with a half-dozen oysters, four colossal shrimp and four stone crab claws.

SER’s missteps are few: an oversweet sangria, an unappealingly plated dish of pork cheeks, steak tartare toast delivered without the latter component, and a dining room that, even at half-capacity, can be loud enough to require outdoor voices.

Zubikarai and his partners, husband-and-wife team Javier Candon and Christina Campos-Candon, won the restaurant space in a contest hosted by the Ballston BID that included a year of free rent and a discounted 11-year lease on a light-filled, street-level space in a tower, with a bland view of office buildings from wraparound windows.

Better views can be found facing inward. There’s a touch of the homemade everywhere you look, from the family photos on a wall by the bar, to the charmingly mismatched china and the vintage-y turquoise-painted bureaus used as server stations. Anyone who browses Pinterest will immediately recognize its design influences.

So where does a place like SER fit into the ecosystem of D.C. Spanish restaurants? It's breezy and fun like Jaleo, but with an aesthetic that feels much more American; it's faithful to tradition in the way that Taberna del Alabardero is, but without the deep red decor, Spanish guitar and weight of an Expensive Special Occasion; it's more a neighborhood place than Estadio, and less of a see-and-be-seen socialite spot than Barcelona.

None of that matters to Zubikarai. At SER, where he can smash plates and dish out family recipes, he’s home: “I would say I feel much more comfortable here.”

2 stars

Location: 1110 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington. 703-746-9822.

Open: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Starters $8-$19, entrees $14-$35 .

Sound check: 82 decibels / Extremely loud.

Tom Sietsema is on assignment.

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