Taberna del Alabardero: 20 years old and counting

Maybe because it’s located within a piedra’s throw of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, it doesn’t seem to have noticed that the American — and global — economy has been gored like one of those thrill-seekers who fails to outrun the bulls at Pamplona.

 Or maybe it’s because many of its customers are like the six business types at a nearby table Monday night who were talking about their plan to grab a multimillion-dollar slice of President Obama’s stimulus package.

 Whatever the reason, Taberna del Alabardero, the hard-to-pronounce classic Spanish restaurant — the name means “Tavern of the Palace Guard” — that celebrated its 20th anniversary last week isn’t a place for the budget-minded or fiscally faint of heart.

 Granted, Executive Chef Daniel Arana’s cooking is first-rate, as is the snap-to service and Iberian ambiance, and it clearly deserves its recognition by the Spanish government as the best Spanish restaurant outside of Spain. Indeed, I think it is one of Washington’s finest restaurants, as I wrote when I reviewed it in 1997.

 But that was then and this is now, so don’t expect to get out of here without dropping a bundle of pesetas. My solo dinner, with aperitif, appetizer, entrée, a glass of wine, dessert and coffee, plus tax and tip, set me back $104 and change. And that’s even without $10.25 for the glass of Spanish chardonnay that I later noticed I wasn’t charged for.

 Still, the steep prices don’t seem to bother those looking for a culinary adventure. By the time I finished my meal early in the evening with a dessert of coconut flan and Frangelico ice cream ($12.50) and a single espresso ($4.50) and signaled for my check, the restaurant was almost full.

 But Taberna’s prices really aren’t that much out of line with most other high-end local restaurants, and it’s a great place to mark a special occasion. There’s a lively bar as well, with a tapas menu offering 18 choices, half-price at happy hour from 3 to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays.

The scarlet walls, floor and ceiling and balloon lights make for a warm atmosphere that evokes Old Spain, and the noise level is low, even when crowded. The walls are covered with photographs of King Juan Carlos and Spanish icons Pablo Picasso, Pablo Casals, Maria Callas and Salvador Dali, as well as famed tenor Placido Domingo, currently general director of the Washington National Opera, who celebrated his wife’s birthday here in 1997.

 But it’s Chef Arana’s sensational cuisine from Spain’s regions, including the Basque, Andalucia, Valencia and Galicia, that stands out. I had hardly sat down next to a window where I watched weary commuters hurrying by before I was presented with a basket of crusty bread and olive oil, a dish of green and black olives and marinated garlic cloves and two small, tasty sausages.

 I enjoyed an excellent dry sherry while I perused the elaborate menu and even more elaborate 16-page wine list, which includes a wide selection of American wines and a much wider selection of Spanish wines, 315 in all. For my appetizer, I passed up the $32 Jamon Iberico, the ham from acorn-fed hogs that is considered the finest in the world, and chose the El Mar y la Montana, an exquisite combination of sautéed squid, scallops, wild mushrooms and veal sweetbreads ($18.75).

 Unfortunately, I couldn’t sample Chef Arana’s paellas since they’re for a minimum of two people, which may be just as well since I had my eye on the lobster paella, which goes for $39.50 per person. But I was just as pleased with the entrée of Chesapeake Bay rockfish au gratin, infused with garlic and served over caramelized red onions with port wine ($36.75). Next time, I’ll try the Cochinillo Asado y Ensalada, suckling pig with country-style salad.

 The original Taberna was opened in Madrid in 1973 by a Basque Catholic priest, the Rev. Luis de Lezama, to give opportunity to homeless children. The parent company, Grupo Lezama, now operates 20 restaurants, 18 of them in Spain and two in the U.S., including one opened last year in the other Washington — in Seattle. The company employs over 700 people and operates cooking schools in Seville and Zaragoza that enroll over 500 students.

 For a special occasion, you can’t do better than a meal at this unique restaurant.