Jaleo

Jaleo (https://www.jaleo.com/location/jaleo-disney-springs/) is an upscale Spanish restaurant, founded by the successful celebrity chef, restauranteur, and humanitarian Jose Andres.  When he’s not feeding people in international crisis zones with his World Central Kitchen charity, he runs several other restaurants, including China Chilcano, the Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese restaurant in Washington, D.C., which I ate at and reviewed in 2019.  But Jaleo, featuring the tastes of his native Spain, is probably his most famous, with locations in D.C., Chicago, Las Vegas, and right here in Orlando.

The two-story Jaleo location at Disney Springs is absolute huge and beautiful.  It is almost like sensory overload in there, with so much to look at even before your senses are overwhelmed by the tapas coming your way. 

The design really is busy, but stunning.

Peep these gorgeous hanging hams.  As Michael Jackson might have said, “JAMON!”

This location opened in March 2019, and I had been wanting to go since the beginning.  But with COVID, major medical stuff, a job change, and lots of other life stuff getting in the way, I finally made it to Jaleo earlier this year, back in May, which seems like a lifetime ago.   I went for a leisurely lunch with three colleagues from work, all top-notch librarians I don’t get to work directly with anymore, but I think the world of them.  None of us had ever been here before, so we shared almost everything, which is the best way to do Jaleo — in a group with friends who understand sharing is caring.  Each of us ordered a few dishes and paid our own way, so I will present our epic meal more of less in order of how things came out from the kitchen.

Two colleagues shared this pitcher of sangria, which they seemed to like.  I don’t know how much it cost and didn’t try it because I don’t drink, but it’s Spanish red wine mixed with fruit, so I’m sure you can’t go too wrong.

This is pan con tomate ($14), toasted slices of bread rubbed with fresh tomato, which sounds too simple to be good, and definitely too simple to be worth $14.  But it was worth it, even split four ways.  Better than tomato-rubbed toast has any right to be!  It was so good, another person in my party ordered a second portion for the table.

This was the coca Idiazabal ($10), a handmade rosemary and olive oil cracker topped with membrillo (a jelly-like paste made of the quince fruit, so rich, sticky, and sweet!) and Idiazabal cheese, grated into soft, silky strands.  I had never had quince before, but it reminded me of the guava paste that is ubiquitous in pastelitos and other Cuban desserts from growing up in Miami.  We cracked the coca cracker into quarters as best we could and enjoyed the blend of sweet and salty, crunchy and gooey.   

This was my vegetarian colleague’s manzanas con hinojo y queso Manchego ($13), a salad of sliced apples, fennel, Manchego cheese (a Spanish cheese made from sheep milk), walnuts, and sherry dressing.  I don’t remember much about the bite I got, but I do love fragrant fennel (I like to use it in pasta con la sarde, a dish of pasta and sardines) and salty Manchego.   It would be a great palate cleanser to take bites of between heavier, richer, meaty dishes.   

I definitely ordered this dish, which I swear looked a lot more appetizing in person: the cebolla asada ($11), a huge roasted sweet onion topped with pine nuts and funky-but-delicious Valdeón blue cheese.  Everyone knows how much I love onions, especially when they are marinated and/or caramelized.  This was magnificent, especially with the blue cheese on top.  Part of me imagined enjoying a gigantic, juicy burger topped with this bad boy, but that wouldn’t be Jaleo’s style.

So many months have passed, I think this soup my one vegetarian colleague ordered is the gazpacho de remolacha con queso de cabra ($11), red beet gazpacho with goat cheese, oranges, and pistachios.  It was the only thing on the table I did not sample, but if that’s indeed what it is, it sounds good enough to even win over Lisa Simpson’s gazpacho-mocking family at that one cookout.

Me being the connoisseur of cured meats, I couldn’t go to Jaleo and not order the jamon Serrano ($13), a platter of the most delicious Serrano ham, cured for 24 months.  These paper-thin slices were served with these delightful little crispy bread twists to wrap them around.  Like the best prosciutto, this jamon was salty and unctuous and could melt away in your mouth.  My one male colleague seemed to like it; the ladies wanted nothing to do with it, so more for me!

This was the espinacas a la Catalana ($14), sautéed spinach with pine nuts, raisins and apples.  Once again, I can’t take credit for ordering such a healthy, wholesome dish, but it was so amazing.  I think we had leftovers of a few things at the end of our lunch, including this, and I took them all home because I am shameless.  My wife tried it and loved it, and I attempted a copycat recipe not long after that was okay, but not nearly as good as this.  I mean, look at this!   I do love cooked greens, and the slight sweetness from the fruit made such a difference, especially with the tender crunch of the apples and the chewiness of the raisins (“Nature’s candy,” as my mom would say, trying desperately to convince my brother and I as little kids, and probably herself as well.)

Next up we have the gambas al ajillo ($19), or according to the menu, “The very, very famous tapa of shrimp sautéed with garlic.”  I don’t really care how famous they are, but they were some of the tastiest shrimp I’ve ever had.  I can’t rave enough about how perfectly every dish in this epic lunch was seasoned, and the gambas were no exception.

My mighty colleague ordered this paella of the day for himself, and our patient server warned us it would take about 45 minutes.  It came toward the end of the meal, when we were all visibly fatigued, but I honorably and dutifully helped him get through it.  Constant readers, I wish I could tell you what this exact paella of the day was, but that memory is lost in time, like tears in the rain.  The menu narrows down the kind of rice to “Bomba rice from Valencia or Calasparra from Murcia,” and it definitely included tender chicken, some kind of pork, and also shrimp, with a swirl of garlic aioli on the plate, as if it wasn’t rich enough already.  Not everything is worth the wait, but this paella was.This is where I admit I’ve had bad experiences with paella elsewhere.  Usually you pay a lot and wait a long time, and the rice comes out underdone.  Just disheartening experiences overall, which is why I didn’t order a traditional rice-based paella for myself, even in this temple of Spanish cuisine, with a menu created by one of the greatest chefs in the world.  Because the rice was tender and everything came together, it was probably the best paella I’ve ever had.

This was the last dish I ordered myself: rossejat negra ($32), a different kind of paella made with toasted Catalonian fideos pasta instead of rice, head-on shrimp, squid ink, calamari sofrito, and dollops of creamy, garlicky aioli.  The picture isn’t great, because it looks like some burnt crud on the pan, but that was actually pasta dyed black with squid ink, a gourmet treat that always impresses my wife and me whenever we see it, maybe because we are goths at heart.  I cannot vouch for the placement of the huge shrimp in this dish, but I’m sure there was no ill intent.  The pasta was al dente in places, but the edges that touched the pan were crispy like pegao, the crispy rice from the bottom of the rice cooker that some people dismiss but others (like my wife) love.  The dollops of creamy, garlicky aioli stood out against the blackness of the pasta and the blackness of the pan, reminding me of a line Alan Moore wrote in the comic book Top Ten #8, later plagiarized by Nic Pizzolatto in the first season finale of True Detective, about seeing stars shining in the night sky, and how there is so much darkness out there, but just to see any light at all means the light is winning.  Well, nobody else wanted anything to do with my rossejat negra, which means I was definitely winning!

My colleague who is a huge Disney fan ordered this dessert, and I honestly don’t remember if I tried a bite or not.  It is the Selva Negra ($14), created to celebrate Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary, lasting throughout 2022 and into March 2023.  The menu describes “a decadent mousse made of Manjari 64% chocolate atop a crunchy feulletine base with black cherry chocolate sponge cake and topped with a chocolate glace.”  That’s pretty impressive to me, considering my favorite dessert is a creamy citrus pie in a crust made of crushed Ritz crackers.  This right here is some serious gourmet… stuff.

I don’t know why it has taken me over half a year to finish writing this review.  Needless to say, the four of us ate like royalty this day.  But the fact that it was four generous and mostly adventurous people made it the ideal situation at Jaleo.  The tapas-style portions aren’t gigantic, but most are bigger than you think, definitely big enough to share with a group this size.  And that’s the way to do tapas correctly — to order a bunch of different things and share them.  Share with friends, with family, with dates and mates, even with former co-workers.  A meal like this lends itself to sharing, so as many people as possible can experience the majestic flavors of Spain and the creative brilliance and love of Chef Jose Andres and his talented kitchen staff.  You could go alone and order a couple of dishes, but I don’t know if that experience would be the same.  That’s why it took me so long to finally make it to Jaleo, and why I won’t return until the circumstances are right, and I can bring more people I care about to share with.  Sharing food (and even information about food) is one of my love languages for sure (you’re welcome!), and one of Chef Andres’ too, as he continues to lead World Central Kitchen to feed people at disaster sites and war zones around the world.  He’s a true mensch, and he deserves our support.  You can donate to World Central Kitchen, AND you can also enjoy a sumptuous, unforgettable meal at Jaleo next time you’re down near Disney.

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Washington D.C. Part 5: Momofuku CCDC

EDITOR’S NOTE: Momofuku CCDC closed in May 2020.

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It’s hard to choose what was the best meal of my trip.  China Chilcano‘s Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese fusion feast with friends was legendary, and the Union Market was everything I love, with a trifecta of sandwiches, again shared with friends.  (Well, we shared the experience, but they didn’t want any of my three sandwiches, even though I offered!)  But Momofuku CCDC (https://ccdc.momofuku.com/), the Washington D.C. outpost of celebrity chef David Chang’s New York City restaurant empire, was also a meal to remember — once again improved exponentially by the excellent company.

I had sampled one of David Chang’s iconic dishes once before, his pork belly bao, when I visited the Momofuku-affiliated Milk Bar bakery on our NYC honeymoon back in 2009.  As great as delightful Chef Christina Tosi’s baked goods were, I was overjoyed that they were serving those famous bao there, and so lucky I got to try it.  I’ve tried to duplicate that pork belly bao at home over the years, but I’ve been waiting a decade for a chance to sample more food from the Momofuku family.

I am in a group that held an evening business meeting at our big professional conference, and we scheduled some dine-arounds for our members after the meeting.  There was a list of D.C. restaurants near the convention center for people to choose from, and I volunteered to “host” a group at Momofuku CCDC, just because I wanted to eat there so badly.  Four people signed up, and the five of us walked over together.  I knew most of them, but mostly just by their impeccable reputations, and none of them knew each other.  I made everyone do an icebreaker (which could have gone badly but didn’t), and by the end of our incredible dinner, I think everyone parted as frolleagues — colleagues who had become friends.

One of the CCDC specialties is bing bread, which is kind of like a cross between a pancake, a tortilla, and a pita.  It was soft and fluffy and warm and steamy, and perfect to spread things on or rip pieces off to dip into stuff.  Somehow a group of information professionals failed to make any “Bing” jokes, but it had been a long day and we were hungry.

My bing bread came with salted chili pimento cheese, topped with bread and butter pickled kohlrabi ($7).  Pimento cheese is rapidly joining onion rings as something I’ll order whenever it’s on the menu, and I loved it.  It has been a few weeks since this meal, but I’m 90% sure this was served chilled, which I always prefer to warm versions.DSC02445

One of my companions got the bing bread with chicken liver mousse, topped with fennel jam, Chinese five spice seasoning, and toasted almonds ($15).  I desperately wanted to try it because I love chopped chicken liver, but we had just met on the walk over here, and I didn’t dare ask her for a taste.  She seemed to really enjoy it, though.DSC02449

These were my garlic noodles, with crab, shrimp, corn, green tomato relish, and Thai basil ($33, which is out of my comfort zone for what I’d normally order as an entree, but I was at Momofuku CCDC and probably won’t ever make it back!).  I’m so glad I splurged, because it was amazing.  DSC02446

Someone else ordered charred broccoli with smoked béarnaise sauce ($13).  It normally comes with XO vinaigrette, but she’s a vegetarian so she asked them to hold it.  I discovered XO sauce recently, and now I’m a little obsessed with it — a rich, savory umami-bomb of a condiment made with dried shrimp and scallops, cured Chinese ham (or bacon or lap xeong Chinese sausage), chilies, onions, garlic, soy sauce, and/or oyster sauce, cooked into a thick jam, sometimes with oil added, and in this case, vinegar.  I should have asked if they would serve the XO vinaigrette on the side so I could try it, but it didn’t occur to me until just now, because these are the things I dwell on, weeks after the fact.DSC02448

I’m not seeing this on the menu, but it looks like the same charred broccoli dish served with softshell crab, so that must have been a special that night.  My colleague demonstrated his good taste, between the softshell crab and his seersucker jacket.  (I was sporting mine too, and miraculously didn’t get anything on it.)DSC02447

And this has to be the spicy cucumber, served with crushed almonds and togarashi seasoning ($7).  This would be a great restaurant for vegetarians, since they had several options that are much more interesting and luxurious than their usual choices of fries or a salad.DSC02450

After dinner, four of the five of us, now bonded over this magnificent meal, piled into a Lyft to attend a fancy party at the Library of Congress.  (Not a hoax, a dream, or an imaginary story!)  Then we split up almost immediately once we got there, but at least we’re all cool now.  And at least they didn’t see me completely wipe out on some slippery marble stairs in the Great Hall.  Luckily I wasn’t carrying anything and didn’t hurt myself, or worse yet, anyone else.

Washington D.C. Part 3: China Chilcano

On the first night of my conference in D.C., I hung out with a dear friend and two of her awesome business colleagues at our opening reception, then accompanied them on a quest before dinner.  We ended up at the Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese restaurant China Chilcano (https://chinachilcano.com/), owned and operated by the now-legendary chef, philanthropist, and amazing human being José Andrés.  Chef Andrés is currently a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work in Puerto Rico after the devastating Hurricane Maria in 2017. And on top of all of that, he was also the culinary consultant for one of my favorite shows ever, Hannibal, where he worked alongside food stylist Janice Poon and showrunner Bryan Fuller in making Hannibal Lecter’s Grand Guignol gourmet creations look tantalizing and tasty.  It’s an amazing show — far better than the movies! — and you can currently stream all three seasons on Amazon Prime.  Trust me on this one.  It’s one of the best food shows ever, on top of being a ripping psychological thriller.

The China Chilcano website describes the interesting fusion of three cuisines.  Criollo is the native Peruvian style of cooking, “Chifa is where traditional Chinese techniques meet the exotic flair of Peruvian ingredients, while Nikkei features Japanese-inspired dishes using native techniques and ingredients.”  I know Peruvian-Chinese chifa was a thing, but I had somehow made it this far in life without ever trying it.  I’m sadly not that well-versed in traditional Peruvian food either, but this delightfully delicious dinner convinced me to dig deeper into it back home.DSC02393

Here’s the menu, even though it’s also on the website:
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We were lucky enough to get reservations for China Chilcano on a Saturday night, and it was hopping!  When we were first seated, our server brought out a bowl of really crunchy Inca-style roasted corn, similar to the Corn Nuts some people love as snacks.  I gotta admit, I wasn’t a huge fan.  These were way too hard and crunchy for me.
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Lucky for us, we happened to visit during the Ceviche Festival!  I sure love sushi and poke, but I’m not nearly as experienced with ceviche, raw seafood “cooked” by the acid in citrus juices, a staple of Peruvian cuisine.  My very generous dining companions picked up the tab and went all out.  We chose three ceviches dishes and shared everything:dsc02394.jpg

This was the ceviche Nikkei: big eye tuna, soy-cured egg yolk, ponzu sauce, puffed quinoa, avocado, crunchy jicama, red onion, and furikake seasoning.  It looked gorgeous and tasted even better.  DSC02400

This was the salmon tiradito, with Ora king salmon, watermelon radish, avocado, and sweety-drop peppers.  It was one of the most beautiful plates of food I’ve ever been served, and I think we all agreed on that, but its beauty didn’t stop us from devouring it.DSC02403

And this was the ceviche anticuchero (my choice), with smoked mackerel, aji panca leche de tigre (a citrus-based spicy marinade made with a fruity, smoky Peruvian pepper), burnt avocado, potatoes, and onions.  Delicious.  DSC02404DSC02405

These were Szechuan chili wontons, a Chifa-style dish with shrimp and pork dumplings, Szechuan chili oil, and fermented black beans.DSC02409

These were lamb pot stickers called Pegao Norteño, a Criollo-style dish with aderezo norteño (northern dressing?), crispy cumin lace, and gold flake.  I felt bougie and weird eating anything served with gold flake, and I don’t think it added anything to the dish, which was already very beautiful.  Good pot stickers, though — and I always love any preparations of lamb.  The crispy cumin lace was very thin and fragile and easily snapped apart, with the pot stickers easy to remove from underneath.DSC02410

This was the Aeropuerto, a Chifa-style dish with fried rice, egg noodles, crisp sweet potato, seasonal vegetables, soy bean sprouts, and “airplanes” (see the pink leafy thing on top).  I didn’t order this dish, and when our server mentioned it had mushrooms in it, I refrained from trying it.  DSC02413

This final dish was another one of my selections: the Concolon, another Chifa-style dish that was described on the menu as being “perfect for the table.”  It was a crispy fried rice pot with pork belly from Heritage Farm in Seven Springs, NC, egg, lap xeong Chinese sausage (one of my favorite ingredients), bok choy, and rocoto peppers.  I asked them to serve the shitaake mushrooms on the side, for my sake.  I liked the crispy pork rinds on the top and loved the sweet, chewy Chinese sausage, something I’m always happy to see when it turns up in my fried rice.DSC02414

As you can see, it was a pretty legendary dinner.  I am so grateful to my old friend and her teammates, who I am lucky to now consider friends as well, for inviting me along with them and treating me to this sumptuous fusion feast.  This was my first visit to one of Chef José Andrés’ restaurants, and it would not be my last!