Photo by Anthony MairPico de gallo at China Pablano.
Photo by Anthony MairSeared scallops with romesco sauce at Jaléo
José Andres is a force of nature, a proud Spaniard in chef’s whites who cuts a swath through his dining rooms like a tornado. He’s the Cervantes of American chefs. What Juan Carlos is to the monarchy and Javier Bardem is to the silver screen, he is to the tapas bar, the paella pan, the Pacojet and the reverse griddle.
He’s also the chef taking Las Vegas dining to the next level, at the newly opened Cosmopolitan. He’s reimagined his Washington, D.C., flagship, Jaléo, with vivid colors, designer furniture and a fire pit with logs of burning orangewood. And that’s not all. His fresh Chinese/Mexican concept, China Poblano, is just downstairs. Ay, caramba!
Jaléo is a restaurant where you can spend a fast 20 minutes snacking while standing as you might in Barcelona, eating croquetas and blistered potatoes, or sit for a modern Spanish dinner. It is host to an eight-seat inner sanctum called E, offering a 10-12-course dinner of tiny, alchemic bites eaten without tableware. Don’t call it molecular. “It’s just food that you put into your mouth,” the chef says.
Jaléo means “revelry” in Spanish, and that’s already the buzz it’s generating. The restaurant is filled with multicolored banquettes that look Gaudi-esque, avant-garde works from contempo Spanish artists, a wooden floor and outrageous murals. The design is from the Rockwell Group. The inspiration is as Iberian as a Goya painting.
What you eat will make you rethink any previous ideas you might have had about Spanish cuisine. Croquetas are crisp, golden cylinders filled with shredded chicken and Béchamel. Crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside, they are simply the best croquettes I’ve ever tasted. Patatas arrugas—tiny, firm potatoes colored an alabaster white on their surfaces from a salt bath—are paired with two salsas: roja and verde, fiery red and green pastes from the Canary Islands.
Real paella Valenciana is prepared in the room’s dead center by chef Rodolfo Guzmán, who has been with Andres for 18 years. It is cooked over a wood flame, which does for Bomba rice—paella’s rice varietal—what wood ovens do for pizza crust.
You should also try jamón Ibérico or pata negra, the world’s two best hams. The latter is made from black-footed Spanish pigs who subsist on acorns, and it’s a delicacy at $36 a racion (Spanish for “serving portion”). There are more than 40 tapas here, from anchovy-stuffed olives to esoteric cubes of pastry filled with coddled egg and caviar. Leave any preconceived notions about this food in your living room. And bring your socks.
China Poblano is something else. It bills itself as a noodle and taco bar, and indeed, there is a window for take-out Mexican food where you can get, say, a lengua (tongue taco) for $4.
Don’t call it a fusion restaurant. The two cuisines here, Chinese and Mexican, are mostly kept separate and distinct, except for a five-dish menu called China Meets Mexico, which features a tuna seviche with soy sauce, pecans and toasted amaranth seeds, and jicama crab siu mai, little dumplings topped with marinated salmon roe.
One side of the room features a dim sum station with a bona fide noodle master. The other side has two comals for hand-made tortillas, and a plancha, or flat metal grill. Amid all the playful décor, digital panels flash Asian faces, such as those of Mao and the Dalai Lama.
From Mexico, there is a fresh hearts of palm salad (it’s nothing like the canned vegetable) and a huge variety of tacos. The Chinese menu is eclectic. Don’t miss rou jai mo, which is red braised pork in a steamy bun, or kao lao lao, tiny crepe-like noodles made from oat flour.
The exotic but logical connections between China and Mexico are explained at the bottom of the menu. Andres does it with the food.