As a former chef in the ThinkFoodGroup, Mike Isabella wasn't about to launch a place that would recreate the experience at Jaleo, the downtown restaurant where his old boss, José Andrés, introduced many Washingtonians to the concept of Spanish tapas. So next year when Isabella opens Arroz, his Spanish-influenced restaurant in the Marriott Marquis, he won't feature buttery slices of long-aged Iberico ham or plates of Valdeón and Idiazábal cheeses.
Instead, Isabella will simultaneously narrow the focus and widen the scope of Arroz, which will feature dishes from southern Spain, Portugal and Morocco.
“I consider a lot of the restaurants here more northern-style Spanish restaurants, or more just total Spanish, the whole country," Isabella said during a phone interview. “I’m not looking to do cheese plates and jamón plates and patatas bravas and padrón peppers with sea salt. I’m not looking to do any of that stuff, which is considered to my [mind] more mainstream-style Spanish stuff.”
Arroz will serve Isabella's versions of tortilla de camarones (shrimp fritters) from Andalusia, vegetable and seafood tagines from North Africa, soupy rices from Valencia, savory bastilla pies from Morocco and a variety of regional tapas. The restaurant will also pour plenty of Spanish and Portuguese wines and stir up gin and tonics. If Arroz offers a more familiar dish – perhaps pan con tomate or patatas bravas – it will be executed in the style known to southern Spain, Isabella said, not in the style diners recognize from Jaleo, Boqueria or Estadio.
"You have a similarity across the board of what you’re going to get when you go to those restaurants," Isabella said. "I don’t want to have that comparison.” If anything, Isabella added, Arroz will be more conceptually aligned with another ThinkFoodGroup restaurant, Zaytinya in Penn Quarter, where Andrés borrows from Greek, Turkish and Lebanese culinary traditions. Isabella used to lead the kitchen at Zaytinya before he opened his first restaurant, Graffiato, in Chinatown in 2011.
By Isabella's estimation, he has, over the years, spent about two months in Spain and North Africa. He's visited Spain with Andrés; he's dined at the finest Spanish restaurants in-country; and he's even broken bread with his beverage director Taha Ismail in Morocco, the bar man's native country. Isabella and his team also have another trip planned to Spain before Arroz opens in early 2017.
In short, Isabella said he has the experience and knowledge to open a restaurant dedicated to these disparate cuisines. But more to the point, Isabella emphasized that Arroz will not be some reclamation project, trying to recreate the dishes of Portugal, Morocco or southern Spain with historical accuracy. His will be interpretations, just as his Italian and Greek dishes have been interpretations at Graffiato and Kapnos.
"We take the classics, and we break them down. We put them back together in a way that looks pretty, tastes really good but still has that authenticity where you taste it and you kind of know what you’re eating. But it’s your touch on it. It’s your play on it," Isabella said. "I think that’s what a lot of restaurants and a lot of good chefs are doing."
Incidentally, the Arroz inside the Marriott Marquis in the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood will likely open months before the Arroz inside Isabella Eatery at Tysons Galleria. The Marriott Marquis Arroz, featuring Spanish and Moroccan-influenced interiors by the Natalie Park Design Studio, will also vary from the mall location, Isabella said. The hotel version will incorporate more Moroccan and Portuguese influences in its cooking, while the Tysons Galleria location "is going to be more classic Spanish tapas."
Arroz will open in early 2017 at 901 Massachusetts Ave. NW in the Marriott Marquis.