José Andrés leaned in to inspect the caved-in roof of a whole chocolate cheesecake quivering beneath his nose. The famous chef used an icing spatula and a common butter knife to carve out a slice, watching as a molten, unset center pooled out into the center of a serving plate. “Oh my God!” Andrés said after popping a full spoon into his mouth. “The sauce is in the cake!” For the moment, he was satisfied.
Last week in downtown Bethesda, Maryland, Andrés and a small army of research and development chefs from his ThinkFoodGroup were making their final preparations at Spanish Diner ahead of the home-style Iberian restaurant’s official opening on Thursday, May 13, at 7271 Woodmont Avenue. The chef and humanitarian worker of World Central Kitchen fame floated throughout the renovated space, formerly a branch of pioneering tapas spot Jaleo, and settled at the bar for several rounds of quality control.
At this point in his career, Andrés is more of a coach than the star player in the kitchen. To ensure the proper calibration of traditional comfort foods and all-day breakfast items — including many fried egg dishes, sandwiches, and stews, all studded with jamón ibérico, and all sorts of Spanish sausages — Andrés directed the majority of his fatherly chiding at Nicolas Lopez, the culinary director at Mercado Little Spain who helped make the first Spanish Diner a critical success inside that New York food hall in 2019.
Near the end of last week’s tasting, Lopez presented two individual slices of tarta de queso, which the Spanish Diner menu (see full copy below) traces to San Sebastián on Spain’s northern coast. Both were far lighter than what an American deli might stock, tasting of both Spanish cabra (goat cheese) and mass-market cream cheese. But they completely held their shape, which was unacceptable, because many Spaniards would not want to present it that way to guests sitting at their dining tables.
This week’s opening marks the second location of a now-established brand in Spanish Diner, but it’s got to feel particularly personal to Andrés, because he lives in Bethesda. This restaurant will feed his neighbors. Before he arrived to inspect Spanish Diner last week, he sat down outside the long-running Bethesda Crab House for an appetizer. He double-parked his jeep with the prominent World Central Kitchen decal on the side. Assuming relative anonymity at an outdoor table, he hammered at claws with a wooden mallet and ignored the crab spice seeping into a deep slice on his index finger, a flesh-wound suffered while sabering Champagne bottles for his team of corporate chefs at a backyard barbecue he hosted the previous night. There were nine TFG chefs on-site to assist the opening, including Bethesda head chef Daniel Lugo, corporate executive chef Rick Billings, and Director of R&D Charisse Dickens.
At Spanish Diner, the menu doesn’t tell only Andrés’s story. He points out that his name isn’t attached to the restaurant’s title, and says he only reluctantly slapped “by José Andrés” onto restaurants like two-Michelin-starred Minibar. It was hard to tell if his reactions to all the old-school dishes coming out of the kitchen registered at a more exuberant level than normal. But he did appear childlike when he grabbed two forks and began furiously carving ibérico pork sausages, fidgeting in and out of his wide Nike sneakers while mixing up coins of the peppery links with oil-slicked rice, fried eggs, and a sugar-laced tomato sauce on plate of arroz a la Cubana.
“This is the most Spanish dish that nobody in Spain recognizes as Spanish,” Andrés says between bites. He grew up eating this at least once a week, sometimes without the meat if money was tight. He polished off the whole plate.
The sentimental favorite is not the marquee egg dish at Spanish Diner, though. That status belongs to huevos rotos (broken eggs) Casa Lucio, a reference to a classic Madrid restaurant that’s been in business since 1974. Customers can order plates of two, four, or six eggs, all fried without the “puntilla,” or lacy skirt of browned whites, so they’ll collapse into a bed of rectangular potatoes that have been steamed, refrigerated overnight, and fried. The customization continues with the choice of adding jamón, morcilla (blood sausage), or skinny chistorra sausage.
Another tribute dish is the garbanzos Bar Pinotxo, named after a beloved counter inside Barcelona’s La Boquería Market. Chickpeas sourced from Spain’s La Riojoa region arrive with black morcilla and two fried eggs, this time showing off puntillitas. From a more decadent look at Catalan cooking, customers can order a gratin of canelones, aka cannelloni, comprising pasta tubes full of chicken, pork, and duck foie gras baked with a topping of nutmeg-scented bechamel and browned Manchego cheese. The pasta is typically a way for families to repurpose leftovers on the day after Christmas, but Andrés also made it as a young haute cuisine cook in Barcelona. =
Stews include callos, a Madrid-style vehicle for tripe and chorizo with a broth that bone gelatin makes silky, and fabada Asturiana, in which large white beans bob among chorizo, morcilla, and fatty white bites of smoked Ibérico pork bacon. Cocido Madrileño is the base of two dishes: a soup of chickpeas and angel hair pasta, and the meat filling of bechamel croquettes made from the chicken, beef, and pork that flavored the broth.
Not everything is so heavy. Vasos (cups) of tangy cold gazpacho are presented with chopped garnishes and tiny croutons in clear Duralex cups common in Spanish cupboards. An avocado and goat cheese salad is blanketed in cilantro and dressed with a Canary Islands-style mojo verde. Miguel Lancha, who holds the title of cocktail innovator at TFG, has fine-tuned red sangria with seasonal fruit (strawberries for now) and brought on an appetite-whetting media combinación, an aperitif popularized at Madrid’s Restaurant Lhardy that Lancha describes as sort of a “reverse martini.” Spanish sweet vermouth is the main ingredient, followed by gin, bittersweet Cynar, and Angostura bitters.
Regulars at Jaleo will recognize the space, which has moved from a red motif to yellow and added several TVs at the bar. There are still foosball tables converted to dining tables — Andrés supposedly has one in his house where he’s the figure in the midfield — but the cartoon figures of anthropomorphic pintxos spread throughout the place are specific to Spanish Diner. There’s room for 108 people inside, and a 48-seat patio. Observant customers will spot portable Rensair air purifiers that filter the atmosphere with UVC light. Opening hours are Wednesday though Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Reservations went live on the website this morning.