Don't expect tapas from SER, the new Spanish restaurant coming to Ballston from Taberna del Alabardero veterans Christiana Campos-Candon, her husband Javier Candon and chef Josu Zubikarai.
"In Spain, nobody eats tapas at home. You eat them in restaurants," said Candon. "In your house, your mother doesn’t prepare tapas. You have an appetizer and a main course. That’s what we’re trying to do."
When the restaurant, winner of the Ballston BID Restaurant Challenge, opens at 1110 N. Glebe Rd. on
Feb. 17 (Update: The restaurant has pushed its opening date back to March 2), it will feature Spanish homestyle cooking: One section of the menu is even titled "From our grandmothers." In addition to the Spanish classics Americans have come to know and love -- Iberico ham, croquettes and paella, to name a few -- there will be a few more-rare dishes on SER's menu, where you'll also see steamed gooseneck barnacles and angulas, or baby eels, sometimes called "Spanish caviar."
They look like squiggly little worms, often served with garlic and olive oil, and they're considered an expensive delicacy because eels are "slithering towards the endangered list," as Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold explained. They must be cooked live.
Another specialty from Zubikarai is bacalao al pilpil, or salted cod with an olive oil emulsion. "If somebody doesn’t know what it is, I don’t like to give it to them," said Zubikarai. "If you’re not really a foodie, you won’t really appreciate it."
Challenge accepted, say the foodies of the D.C. region. For everyone else, don't worry: SER will have something for you, too. Situated at a busy intersection, the restaurant will also cater to nearby office workers with grab-and-go sandwiches that are Spanish-inspired, but Americanized enough to attract a broad lunchtime crowd -- think fried chicken, a reuben, and grilled cheese, as well as some Spanish classics like tortilla Española. At night, that area will be transformed into a raw bar and, on special nights, an area for cooking classes that the Candons will host.
A six-seat counter will have a prime view of the kitchen's paella pans in action, and a 12-seat "family table" can be reserved for parties. In warmer weather, an outdoor patio will add 100 dog-friendly seats. And with a wine list that averages around $40 for bottles, SER aims to make happy hour a big draw.
The restaurant was born amid some controversy. As the Washington City Paper reported, contestants in the Ballston BID's Restaurant Challenge felt misled by the contest's rules and procedures, which included a public vote during the Taste of Arlington event that was essentially meaningless. Kristen Robinson, formerly of Westend Bistro, won the public contest, but it didn't earn her anything more than public recognition, and she did not advance to the finals, in which the Candons were to face off against Victor Albisu of Del Campo. Albisu conceded to the SER team before the final cook-off.
"I was just so thrilled we were given this opportunity," said Campos-Candon. "So I guess I personally wasn’t focused on the controversy, I knew that it wasn’t about us."
Candon says that he felt the process was transparent.
"It was very clear that we had to cook for 20,000 people, and those people were going to vote, but the winner of the popular vote was just the popular winner. It didn’t have anything to do with going to the finals," he said. "The people who were judging ... to be honest with you, that was our focus. That’s why we did the dish that we did – we knew that this dish was not going to be appealing for 20,000 people, because we cooked codfish jowls with clams and rock shrimp and peas."
Their winnings included an 11-year lease with the first year rent-free, and subsequent rents below market rate at $16 per square foot -- as well as free legal services, financial advising, and a $245,000 interest-free loan. But it wasn't enough to cover the costs, so the team launched a Kickstarter, earning more than $17,000 -- exceeding their goal by $2,000. Campos-Candon says those two sources of funds were "not even half" of what they needed to get the restaurant launched. To save money, she even found herself DIYing things like table runners.
Campos-Candon hopes that touch of home will come across to the diners she'll be welcoming in two weeks.
"We want this to be like dinners that are at our house," she said.
SER, 1110 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington. (Metro: Ballston). Opens Feb. 17.
Correction: A previous version of this story said the restaurant's management used personal savings, in addition to an interest-free loan and Kickstarter campaign, to launch SER. The additional funds were provided by investors.