The many tentacles of Pulpo

If eating octopus is still on that must-try food list, a new tapas spot in Cleveland Park offers a few different ways to cross it off. And there’s something fitting about dining on the eight-armed sea creature at a place called Pulpo.

Basing its name on the Spanish word for octopus, Pulpo takes over the former Tackle Box space across the street from the Uptown Theater on Connecticut Avenue and adds another choice to the city’s growing tapas scene.

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The menu is a collection of familiar Spanish favorites, including its namesake, but some molecular gastronomy sneaks its way in, too. It looks to be the most Americanized menu of the city’s tapas options, a fact the restaurant acknowledges, labeling itself “American fusion.” It’s a great way for those diners looking to try this style of cuisine to get their feet wet — perhaps with a tentacle.

The setting is an urban, unfinished industrial style, with exposed ductwork and overly distressed walls. The stainless steel bar runs the entire length of the restaurant and is the place to taste a white or red sangria, wines by the glass or even a spicy cocktail like the “Pulpo Picante” with Sambra Mezcal, jalapeño-infused simple syrup and passion fruit puree. 

Welcoming diners is a comic-book style, almost alien-looking octopus in a piece of artwork hanging on a black wall. It nearly dares patrons to give him a try.

And they should.

For $12, the dish that shares the restaurant’s name features a nearly five-inch tentacle portion — complete with suction cups. It comes on top of mustard greens and fingerling potatoes covering a plate smeared with spicy brava sauce. The octopus is cooked perfectly, giving it a meaty texture. (There’s a common misconception that its texture will be rubbery or slimy. Pulpo dispels that notion.) Simple salt and pepper seasoning keep the focus on the octopus flavor, which resembles lobster but is in a class by itself. The greens and potatoes are nice filler on the plate and taste fine with the spicy brava sauce, but the star of this dish is the octopus.

The baby octopus dish, at $11, comes grilled along with fennel, grapefruit and citrus vinaigrette. It tastes and looks like calamari. The citrus flavor and acidity give a great contrast to the pulpo dish. But in a taste test between baby and adult, adult wins.

A skim of the menu reveals octopus popping up in other places: The crispy croquettes include zucchini, ham and octopus; a mini burger trio has angus beef, short ribs and octopus; and a “Pushpop” contains tuna, anchovy and octopus.

The restaurant’s seafood offerings aren’t limited to octopus, however. PEI Mussels arrive in a salty broth with chunks of chorizo sausage, which add spice. The flavorful broth should not be wasted, even if it means asking for a refill of the bread service. 

Other seafood winners are the whole prawns, served head-on with white wine, lemon, olive oil and a potent dose of garlic; and the seared tuna with green beans, olives and “oven-dried” tomato.

The razor clams, on the other hand, missed the mark, arriving cold and flavorless despite the menu’s promise of white wine, garlic and lemon. Cod fritters also came cold in the middle, creating a startling sensation when biting through the battered outer shell.

Beyond the sea, the veggies and cheese on offer include some real winners. The marcona almond-crusted goat cheese is salty, rich and creamy with the telltale tang of goat milk — but it is more dusted than crusted with almonds. Pulpo’s twist on patatas bravas brings skin-on, roasted potatoes circled with garlic aioli and brava sauce instead of the traditional chunks of fried, skinless tubers.

The Serrano mac and cheese covers cooked ziti pasta in a Moli cheese sauce along with peas and is topped off with a piece of crispy Serrano ham. It is an American classic with a Spanish flair, and the mixture results in one of the restaurant’s most successful dishes.

Meanwhile, the kitchen ventures way off the tapas path with the ravioli trio. To the restaurant’s credit, the server is quick to explain that these are not traditional ravioli — not even close. Instead, they’re three separate bites of beet with blue cheese, sweet corn with bacon chips and fresh peas with sea salt. No dough or noodles here, but an acid bath creates a thin layer keeping the filling inside. Three small spoons each contain a quarter-sized “ravioli” designed to be eaten in one bite. The result is lackluster, with a baby food-like consistency and taste. This dish, and some others, is also impossible to share, taking away a key element of the tapas experience.

For sweet endings, desserts lean more American than Spanish. Three silver-dollar-size chocolate cookies come with a cup of steamed milk. They were simple yet tasty enough to be the table favorite. Strawberry shortcake, lemon custard and rice pudding are other options, but it might be better to just have another glass of Sangria to finish off a meal.

Pulpo offers a casual neighborhood option for tapas with a perfect location for a meal before a movie or even after a trip to the National Zoo. Even if octopus isn’t on your should-try list, Pulpo should find a spot.

Pulpo Restaurant

3407 Connecticut Ave. NW

(202) 450-6875

www.pulpodc.com

Hours: Daily, 5 - 10:30 p.m.

Prices: Vegetable tapas range from $5 to $9; seafood and meat tapas range from $8 to $20.

Ideal Meal: Marcona almond-crusted goat cheese, pulpo, PEI mussels and chocolate chip cookies.