To bestow the title of “institution” in the world of restaurants is always fraught with points and counterpoints. In a city brimming with new ideas, concepts, and newfound levels of quality in unobtrusive settings, the existence of places like Taberna del Alabardero is much a less harkening back to a simpler time, and more so a reminder of what D.C. used to be. And at a time when a “Best of ____ (insert month here)” list can steer you to latest and greatest, the adherence to classical refinement tuned over 30 years makes Taberna del Alabardero a breath of fresh air in a city quickly becoming cluttered with quality destinations.
Since 1989, Taberna del Alabardero has been a gallery of Spanish cuisine without any of the injections of postmodernism or culinary deconstruction. The Paella Festival, which runs until November 30th, is the first time Taberna has put the spotlight on one of the prized dishes of Spanish cuisine. In the lead up to my dinner at Taberna on November 8, I had to remind myself that the last time I actually had paella was nearly 10 years ago. Much of what greets you upon entering Taberna is enveloped in a classic sheen of royal crimson stretching wall-to-wall. The ornate decor gives the entire interior on air of conservative seriousness. There are few places like this in D.C., and even fewer that feel natural being bastions of a bygone era. The intricate detail of Taberna runs through every fiber—from the classic uniforms of the waitstaff to the colorful original tile lining the expansive kitchen. And while all of this is great in a “this is what dining used to be in D.C.” type of way, the attention to standards of yesterday fortunately extends to the paella.
At the risk of dumbing down the intricacies of paella, at its core the dish is comprised of a base of Bomba rice layered with a slew of ingredients, ranging from purely vegetable or something more adventurous involving seafood. The Bomba rice gives the whole thing a thick chewy composition you imagine someone would eat before spending 12-hours doing farm work. While the Paella Festival will feature eight different variations, on this specific night we only tried two types of seafood paella: one with shrimp, baby squid, mussels, and clams; and another with lobster, shrimp, and clams.
Both paellas, especially the first, danced from flavor to flavor creating an ebb-and-flow of seafood flavor bursting with sweet brine and hints of saffron. The texture only complemented the full-bodied flavor of baby squid and mussels, resulting in a refined dance of sweetness, saltiness, and low-drum creaminess. The thick Bomba rice absorbed each flavor, delivering a perfect refined summation of the dish with every bite. The lobster variant was tad bit more sweet than the first, much of it due to the flaky lobster meat that imparted a more nuanced, balanced sweet note to entire dish.
A dish, especially one with so much importance in the Spanish cuisine, should represent the restaurant that dares to make it. The paella at Taberna del Alabardero is unrelentingly classic; going from point A to point B with no hint of cut corners or adjudications to a modern standard. Each flavor is pieced together like notes on a sheet of music, connected by purpose and vision. The term “institution” is not easily earned, but the paella at Taberna del Alabardero makes a strong argument for that sort of recognition.