Big things come in little packages

Tapas come in many shapes, sizes and ethnic variations — but what makes them authentic? Food lovers both professional and amateur are still asking that question, nearly eight centuries after Spanish King Alfonso X is said to have invented the small plates by asking for a piece of ham to tapear (cover) his next glass of sherry. 

The debate now continues at Estadio, a sumptuous new Spanish spot that follows in the oenophiliac footsteps of Proof, the previous Penn Quarter project of its owner-chef team, by pairing wines and wine-based cocktails with a pantheon of intriguing tapas. Estadio offers impeccable decor, accommodating service and the same sense of in-crowd chic that seems to seep from the tabletops at Posto and Masa 14, its two neighbors on the capital’s new Restaurant Row in Logan Circle.

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But Estadio also offers a dining experience that may throw Americans for a loop, even in the age of 100-calorie snacks and healthy TGI Friday’s fare: Its portions, from cocktails to Cabrales cheese, tend toward the small. The most successful evenings spent in its lively dining room, where the open kitchen circulates the scent of braising peppers, involve a lot of lingering and the recognition that tapas were originally intended to carry intense flavor in an undersized package.

Of course, few patrons are likely to complain about the need to order an extra portion when the opening acts are as decadent as Estadio’s. Chef Haidar Karoum, who worked wonders with New American cuisine at Proof, perches a greatest-hits collection of Spanish favorites on toothpicks for irresistible pintxos skewers. 

The standout is a tender bomb of fresh fig stuffed with a spicy Marcona almond and wrapped in velvety Serrano ham, but the artichoke and chorizo skewers are also unforgettable. Ordering one or two per person, plus a selection of the mellow house-cured olives or that soft and tangy Cabrales blue cheese, is likely enough for a first course. Those bringing heartier appetites can’t go wrong with a choice of cured meats, among which the Serrano ham is surprisingly outdone by paper-thin, melt-in-your-mouth lomo and a pistachio-studded pork terrine.

Estadio’s servers are apt to suggest a drink that corresponds to a new round of food orders, and their choices tend to hit the mark for diners who can describe their ideal taste profile (e.g., drier, sweeter, spicier). The subtly billed “sparkling” libations, made with the Spanish white wine known as cava, ground their bubbles in the harder stuff of a Hemingway character and are good enough to order twice — particularly the palate-puckering punch of tequila, grapefruit juice and rosemary.

The sangrias are also frequently recommended, though different as night and day. The red version scores by bouncing sugary cachaca liquor off crisp mint, but the white option drowns its smoky and complex tequila in cloying pineapple juice. 

Another category of cocktail hardly needs a nudge from one’s waiter, thanks to its Proustian echo of teenage trips to 7-Eleven. Yes, Estadio does mix adult slushies, and their Technicolor flavors are an adventure worth trying. Be warned, however, that after a sip of the sherry-quince-scotch-lemon slush or a pour from an elaborate glass porron pitcher, a tapas-sized pour of even the best of the wines may seem ho-hum by comparison.

Moving into a main course, Karoum shows the same knack for inventive uses of traditional ingredients that made Proof a local favorite. Beet salad heightens the cool crunch of its red root by adding endives and fat slivers of orange, while the beet’s typical counterpart of fluffy goat cheese meets a better textural match in salty tomato and the sturdy toast of Estadio’s open-faced montadito sandwiches.

The montaditos are pleasingly large but go down best with cheese atop their bread — even oil-cured anchovies failed to make an impression on such a dense starch — but the smaller bocadillo sandwich rolls are uniformly stellar, particularly a pairing of chorizo with idiazabal, a more intense cousin of manchego.

For a lighter accompaniment to a sandwich, try the sherry-infused rapini or charred scallions with sheep’s-milk cheese, rendered sublime by a thick coating of nutty romesco sauce. A more indulgent vegetarian choice is mushroom croquetas dressed with fragrant roasted peppers, their earthy notes not overwhelmed by flash-frying. 

As the menu opens up to its next layers of third and even fourth courses, Estadio’s un-Super-Sized plates may well cease to make an impression. After marveling at the need to order seconds of one tapa, I blushed at finding myself unable to finish the gorgeous hangar steak, cooked to the right side of medium-rare and complemented by garlicky mojo verde.

Had that final offering been one of Karoum’s seafood creations, such as the feather-light scallops that alight on a bed of slightly caramelized cauliflower and peppery saltbixada sauce, leaving a bite uneaten might be a sign of insanity. The fish are the strongest point of a skilled kitchen, relying on hardy spices that stand up to shellfish. The octopus is a step above the rightly famous version served at Jose Andres’s Jaleo, thanks to a stronger dose of onion flavor and a plate design that breaks up the weight of the mollusk with finely chopped potato-chickpea salad.

For those still unconvinced that a single skewer of mouth-watering olive can count as a tapa, a trip to Estadio’s dessert menu will surely change minds. The options are rich enough for royalty, led by a moist chocolate-cherry bread pudding topped with spicy cocoa pearls and silky smooth Crema Catalana that adds citrus and spice to the crème brulee format. 

If any stomachs remain growling by the time the last spoon scrapes the bottom of the custard dish, do as King Alfonso might have done: Call for one more glass of sherry, with a slice of jamón on top.