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Food & Travel

A capital place for a restaurant tour

Jose Andres’s establishments heat up D.C.

The ceviche bar at Oyamel. The ceviche bar at Oyamel. (James M. Thresher/The Washington Post)
By Amy Sutherland
Globe Correspondent / July 28, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Not that long ago, the blocks around the National Portrait Gallery were an urban ghost town. Huge “Closed’’ signs in dusty shop windows dotted the eerily empty streetscape. Tourists determined to see Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington braved the gloom with guidebooks pressed tight to their chests like armature. Even if your blood sugar bottomed out you didn’t stop for a bite, but that’s assuming you could find a hot dog stand.

That all really changed when the Verizon Center opened in 1997, followed by the International Spy Museum, the Newseum, and sundry cafes, boutiques, theaters, and hotels. Now Penn Quarter, as it’s known, is one of D.C.’s hippest, where you could get crowded off the sidewalk by a shopping-bag-wielding Washingtonian or an army of tourists. This is also where guidebooks and local residents insist you eat, and many of their recommendations will lead you to chef Jose Andres.

The Spanish-born Andres has four restaurants in an eight-block radius around the Portrait Gallery. On one corner you’ll find his well-loved tapas joint Jaleo. Just down the street, his buoyant Mexican cantina Oyamel claims another corner. A block west you can sup on Andres’s updated Latin cuisine at Cafe Atlantico. A five-minute walk away, you can snack your way through mezze in the crystalline light of Zaytinya. What would seem like geographic overkill offers a rare opportunity to easily sample two or more of a chef’s restaurants in one evening. And you’ll be sampling the work of no ordinary chef.

Andres added another plum to his long list of accolades when GQ magazine named him a man of the year this past fall. Anyone who caught Andres making foie gras cotton candy on “60 Minutes’’ recently, however, probably got the wrong impression — that his experiments are for foodies with a capital F. True, Andres, who got his chops working for the culinary mad scientist Ferran Adria in Spain, is a leading molecular gastronomist on these shores. In fact, he’ll teach a course in it at Harvard University this fall. But as you’ll find in his Penn Quarter digs, with their down-to-earth dishes and prices that won’t drain your kids’ college fund, his cuisine is for anyone with a working set of taste buds.

Jaleo, his festive, flagship restaurant, is a good place to start your Andres tour. In the bright, tile-bedecked room, you can choose among some 70 small plates. You can go classic (patatas bravas and gambas al ajillo) or not (a dab of sea urchin atop diced peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers). Or you can mix and match new and old in one dish, such as Andres’s chilled almond and garlic soup topped with crab meat and green grapes.

At Zaytinya, the flavors and textures hail from Greece, Morocco, and Lebanon. The look of the place, what with the soaring ceiling, white palette, and loads of candles, is Capri serene, but the long bar is happening and loud. Without a rez, that’s where you will likely land, but who needs to talk when your mouth is full of pillow-like taramasalata or silky fried mussels in walnut sauce.

Andres’s Oyamel, with its jelly-bean colored jars of agua frescas on the bar and tin butterfly mobiles circling overhead, is the merriest of the batch. This is where you’ll find families as well as love-struck couples munching tacos of baby pig confit with green tomatillo, ceviche of blue marlin and grapefruit, and fried potatoes with a poblano mole.

You may want to leave Cafe Atlantico for another night, as it largely eschews small plates. The emphasis is on entrees inspired by the flavors of Central and South America. Here you’ll see some of Andres’s molecular gastronomy flourishes, such as the passion fruits “marshmallows’’ atop carrot soup. If that piques your inner food adventurer, head to the fourth floor where you can sample 20 to 40 extraordinary bites at Andres’s Minibar for $120.

But you’ll have to save that for your next trip, because the six-seat restaurant requires reservations well in advance, and you’re already happily full to the gills from your culinary tour.

Jaleo , 480 7th St. N.W., Washington, 202-628-7949, www.jaleo.com Zaytinya , 701 9th St. N.W., Washington, 202-638-0800, www.zaytinya.com Oyamel , 401 7th St. N.W., Washington, 202-628-1005, www.oyamel.com Cafe Atlantico and Minibar , 405 8th St. N.W., Washington, 202-393-0812, www.cafeatlantico.com

Amy Sutherland can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.