Words By Logan Hollers, Photos By Clarissa Villondo
If you’ve read BYT, like, ever, you know we’re pretty huge fans of José Andrés. The dude’s a legend in D.C., and with good reason. His recent (and well-deserved) Michelin stars aside, Andrés presides over a slew of first-class spots in and around D.C.
A key driver of the revitalization of Penn Quarter from a desolate downtown wasteland to a bustling hub of activity, Andrés owns a multitude of restaurants in a five-block radius in downtown D.C., including one of the nation’s first / best tapas restaurants, Jaleo; one of D.C.’s finest / most fun Mexican restaurants, Oyamel; one of D.C.’s only Chinese / Japanese / Peruvian restaurants, China Chilcano; and an oasis of Mediterranean / Greek coastal cuisine (that just so happens to be served in the most beautiful dining room in D.C.), Zaytinya.
With the recent move of ThinkFoodGroup’s headquarters to D St. NW, Andrés can now make the rounds of each of the four spots above to check in on things. And thus was born the idea for Tour de José, an interactive, walkable tasting menu featuring some of the chef’s favorite drinks and dishes at four of his Penn Quarter restaurants. (Sorry, all – no minibar or barmini. We asked.)
Here’s the deal: $195 (I know, it sounds like a lot…but read on) gets you a tailored selection of three to four dishes and two to three drinks each from Zaytinya, Jaleo, Oyamel, and China Chilcano. Each stop includes a brief rundown of what Andrés has selected for you to eat and drink, and why each dish means something personal to him. Sounds cheesy, sure, but it’s a laid-back, super fun affair that warrants the price tag. The tour takes a little over three hours, and you’re kept on schedule by the hosts, waiters, and GMs of each restaurant.
The event starts at Zaytinya, where you’re immediately presented with a glass of sparkling rosé and a trio of Mediterranean-inspired spreads: a fresh and creamy tzatziki, a deeply nutty hummus, and a briny taramosalata. Octopus Santorini, impossibly tender and charred from the grill, and Avgotaraho, a grey mullet roe similar to bottarga laid on top of bread puffs, came next, paired with a minerally and stony assyrtiko white from Greece. Great start.
After finishing up at each location, the GM of the respective restaurant personally escorts you to the next spot, chatting you up along the way and giving you some history on Chef Andrés’ Penn Quarter empire.
Stop two on the Tour de José is Jaleo, D.C.’s original Spanish tapas restaurant, and perhaps the best known of the Think Food Group stable. Waiting for you at the table is a pitcher of Jaleo’s house-made red sangria and bowls of a bright, acidic gazpacho, the perfect vehicle for showcasing the tail end of summer tomatoes. According to the GM, Jaleo has a special place in Andrés’ heart, as it was one of his first restaurants, and one where he was able to pay homage to some of his culinary heroes.
Case in point: both the “Aceitunas ‘Ferran Adria’” and the “Cono de salmon crudo con huevas de trucha.” The former, a spherified olive taken in one bite that bursts with salinity and umami, is a tribute to one of Andrés’ mentors, Ferran Adria of El Bulli; the latter, a riff on Chef Thomas Keller’s signature salmon tartare cornets. Simpler, but just as delicious, were the chicken croquetas, gooey and comforting, and the pan de cristal con tomate, a crunchy, airy flatbread brushed with fresh tomato. The bite of the night, however? Easily the jamon iberico, an 8-month cured ham from acorn-fed, free-range iberico pigs of Spain. This was my favorite plate of the entire trip, and quite possibly one of my favorite plates of 2016. Intensely smoky and fatty, the paper-thin slices of shaved ham hit every pleasure center in the brain.
Naturally, an 8-month cured ham is a tough act to follow…taking up the challenge was our next stop, Oyamel, often regarded as one of Andrés most fun restaurants. And, true to form, Oyamel was again packed, even on a lazy fall Sunday evening. Immediately dropped at the table were fresh chips and Oyamel’s signature roasted chile salsa, along with Andrés’ take on a margarita, made with tequila blanco, fresh lime juice, and a salt air foam.
Guacamole is practically mandatory here; the tableside presentation and description certainly doesn’t hurt. But don’t fill up on chips alone – there’s also Gulf shrimp with chiles, peppers, and black garlic, and an outstanding taco that combines the restaurant’s house-made corn tortillas with a sticky pork confit, a tart green tomatillo sauce, onions, cilantro, and crispy pork rinds. This is where we started to get really, really full. And semi-drunk. (Told you it was worth the price tag.)
But press on you must – four is the magic number on this tour. After a (too) brief walk across the street, we were ushered into China Chilcano for the finale of the Tour de José. China Chilcano is unique in D.C.; it’s a traditional Peruvian restaurant that also focuses heavily on the unique interplay of Asian and Peruvian cuisines – in this case, the Chinese / Peruvian mashup known as Chifa, and the Japanese / Peruvian combination known as Nikkei.
We were greeted with a perfect pisco sour, and stuck with Peru to begin: out came a classic ceviche composed of cubes of red snapper, sweet potato, red onion, puffed corn, and cilantro, with a fiery and tart leche de tigre. The Chifa combination came in the form of a trio of dumplings that included the Dorado, a mix of pork, shrimp, mushroom, and a silky quail egg yolk; the Concha, with scallop, pork, jicama, and a crown of tobiko; and the Pollo, filled with chicken, scallion, mushroom, and aji amarillo pepper.
As the final leg in the Tour de José, China Chilcano is responsible for the sweets portion of the experience. This is not a coincidence. I don’t like desserts. I loved one of these desserts. There was a crispy-fried spiral cookie that combined the strong flavors of coffee and chocolate, two of my least favorite things. I bet most people would like this.
The surprise of the night, however, came in the form of the second dessert: spirals of sweetened, condensed milk custard topped with both soft dollops and crunchy logs of meringue, edible flowers, and Algarrobina (a Peruvian syrup made from the Black Carob tree) ice cream. Textures, flavors, temperatures…this dish was outstanding, and a fitting end to an awesome experience.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: everything José Andrés touches seems to turn to gold. Find more information on the tours and purchase tickets at josesway.com.