“I don’t know why I always think I have to get here so early.”
I remarked to my brother, who was accompanying me to an as-soon-as-they-open brunch reservation.
Penn Quarter’s 9th Street was as quiet as the dropping of crumbs when we arrived for Boqueria’s New Year’s Day Bottomless Brunch.
Little was known about the establishment before making the reservation.
I knew the restaurant centered their menu around an eccentric assortment of tapas, a small plate of any Spanish food originating from Spain.
And I knew they featured creative, authentic dishes scribed in Spanish words I could only translate by reading the description:
PÀ AMB TOMÀQUET Y TORTILLA ESPAÑOLA V
“Ah, french toast.”
Right now, however, I want to focus on this early-arriving thing.
The warm welcome we received in spite of our early arrival is important.
Especially when you’ve dined at restaurants that act like attentive service is as hard as putting two-inches of hair into a ponytail.
Like their battery has already drained to 50% in preparation for opening.
Boqueria wasn’t like this; there isn’t an exchange of kindness for service; for energy.
The atmosphere at Boqueria burgeons with excitement and liveliness at the very start of opening.
The hostesses smile, and even employees spotted around, seem to be moderately enthused while executing everyday preparatory tasks.
Inspired by the buzzy Barcelona streets lined with bars, Boqueria — first staking ground in NYC — is a replica of the energy present at those ubiquitous tapa bars in Spain.
Energy inviting you to spend money without caring if you cut into your weekly Starbucks budget.
But for $42 per person, you may not have to; your three-time-knocked-back brunch mimosa is included.
Like with any bottomless brunch order, their enticing dishes come to the table as many times as you’d like within a two-hour frame.
Our waiter, an older Ethiopian woman who could pass for every bit of 25 as a 25-year old, showed a kindness that appreciated our being present for the first time.
“Just try everything!” she gleamed, flashing a bright smile, her cheeks squishing into her under eyes. “I want you to have a good time…it’s all about having a good time.”
We didn’t resist her suggestion at all, giving way to a steady stream of shareable small plates.
We watched the focused preparation of the surtido de tapas, a sampling of small cubes of manchego cheese, Jamón serrano, and olives, complemented with a Bloody Mary shot, a slice of country bread, and salsa verde, served in a rectangular wooden tray.
I felt anticipation; I felt excitement, and like a climactic scene was reaching near with a heart-pounding rhythm.
Our surtido de tapas arrived, we assumed our positions — taking pictures first — and then looking to each other as a cue to dig in with our forks.
The chatter settled, and the silence broke in.
At every restaurant, no matter how astute and curated the dishes are, there are always a few throwaways; THIS was one.
Possibly due to personal taste — I will never grow to love the briny taste of olives and didn’t care for a salt-crusted shot of Bloody Mary– but also because of the confusion of not knowing how to piece the dish altogether.
Should I eat the manchego cheese individually, or combine it with the bread in a sort of folded pizza fashion?
I doubt any direction would’ve made the experience anymore palatable.
There were a few other throwaways too.
I’ll always order calamari on any menu, but the Calamares Frito — room-temperature fried squid– didn’t represent the tender, glossy tentacles of past fried squid I’ve eaten; leathery and served with a “spicy” tomato sauce that left it’s spice back at the prep station.
And, still, I ordered the squid yet again, and again, it was like chewing an unrendered fat cap.
Then there was the ever underwhelming pà amb tomàquet y tortilla español, arriving discreetly on a pristinely white plate, a single slice of stiffened grilled bread swiped with tomato, garlic, and olive oil that seemed to take on a hit of cool wind before arriving tableside.
There’s not much to be said here, because there wasn’t much to taste; one bite, and you’re done.
If you must have veggies as the star of your show, know you won’t find much of a contender with the ensalada de collogos, which is muy abbrido, which is Spanish for “so boring.”
What’s more mind-boggling is how robust ingredients like hazelnut romesco and Idiazábal cheese fuse in a small bowl with mint leaves and produce so little complexity in taste and depth.
Coliflor con azafrán — crispy cauliflower, golden raisins, over a swipe of saffron yogurt with a punch of licoricey dill — may fare better.
I wouldn’t describe the dish as crispy but would agree to say it lacked salt.
The art of temptation is lost in a few other dishes: the humble patatas bravas served with a smooth, stream of bland garlic aioli mimicking a zigzagging of ketchup over top of fries and sunken into a spiced warm tomato sauce is commonly seen across Spain, but gave little inspiration.
My brother’s enjoyment of soldaditos de pollo — chicken breast rolled in potato chips and served with honey mustard — made me curious, and then made me disappointed.
We clinked chunks of pineapple, drizzled with intensely-flavored molasses and spiked with lime zest.
This dish wasn’t disgusting by any means, the two were quite compatible just prepare for the bite back.
Here’s where the music begins to tempo; the Escalvida.
Fire-roasted eggplant, red pepper, onion, and a labneh yogurt with a herbed housemade Foccacia, with each bite, made me cock my head back with an audible “mmm.”
A dish that was something new, something entrancing almost.
Eggplant, a spongy vegetable I abhorred before, now transformed into an irresistible preparation.
There’s a mellow savoriness of roasted eggplant, red pepper, and labneh yogurt, coalescing into a smooth, refreshing, savory, and crisp bite with that Foccacia.
Albóndigas — juicy Colorado lamb meatballs cradled by tomato sauce and sheep’s milk cheese — is something I didn’t want twice over but offered a gaminess and compatibility I could respect.
I felt this way about Boqueria’s take on steak and eggs (huevos con bistec) too; perfectly seasoned bites of steak, with a hued sunny-side-up egg and a welcomed acidity from salsa verde.
If my previous assertions about some of Boqueria’s brunch dishes seemed a little harsh, Torrija, a caramelized french toast, sprinkled with powdered sugar more than compensates for the others.
And, like most, I’ve had french toast as many places as you can count without falling asleep; with every brunch, french toast is a given.
” A lot of people love the french toast,” our waitress remarked when she checked back in.
And I admitted the french toast was my absolute favorite; I’d choose the french toast over a cool glass of water on a hot summer day.
When I inquired about what made the french toast irresistible, searching for a reveal of crucial ingredients, our waitress said, “It was in the bread.”, leaving behind not one single hint.
This is a mission for Plankton.
And the bread, soaked and caramelized to perfection, is light enough to have over and over again with all the fixins’.
We ordered it three times; the first was lightly goldened on the outside and eliminated the audible sound of the crunch.
But the other two times I ate it, it was crusted with soft crispiness around the edges.
All three variations were equally impressive.
And though dashed with powdered sugar, and drizzled with sticky rich caramel, every bit of it was swiped with french toast.
I appreciated the snappiness and acidity of the seasonal fruit, that seemed to have an undertone of pear too.
I could fall asleep with the smell of it all.
And if you’re wondering: Yes — if you have the luxury — you will want to eat this french toast every day, and it will be okay.
Boqueria’s, of course, has the fried dessert, Churros — traditional in Portugal and Spain– and they serve it with a thick, luscious spiced chocolate sauce for dipping or drinking and cleaning with obnoxious tongue licking.
The latter is way more fun, I’m sure.
But the question still stands, with bottomless brunch in D.C. is Boqueria worth a second-glance?
Is a bottomless as much of a dream-come-true as it seems?
At Boqueria it is.
The service and the flavorful dishes seem to flow a concert where the tracks seem to segue into one another without giving much notice.
The belly of it elicits consistent energy that makes you want to jump on Oprah’s couch like Tom Cruise or at least sit back and bellow with full-bellied laughter without a care in the world.
Just sit back and let Boqueria consume you.
It’s always exciting when you never know what you’re going to get, just know it’s going to be a celebration.