5/15/2012 01:10:00 PM

The Best Thing We Ate in DC This Week: José Andrés' Menu at the Garden Café

Rob Shelley © National Gallery of Art, Washington
The Garden Café, a serene lunch spot in the National Gallery West, is one of DC's hidden treasures. Its buffet and boutique à la carte offerings are designed by world class chefs to complement the featured exhibit. Last week, with the opening of Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, the restaurant began serving José Andrés' Catalan menu. We choose a table by its lovely sculpture fountain as a base camp for making several forays on the sumptuous buffet.

Catalan cuisine is distinguished by combining sweet fruit and nuts with savory meats and vegetables. Indeed, in addition to two hearty, traditional stews - one featuring chicken with dried fruit and pine nuts, and one featuring beef cheeks and mushrooms - the buffet is a vegetable lover’s delight. The colorful samfaina, a savory vegetable stew, takes its name from the Catalan verb escalivar, to cook slowly near embers of a fire. We went back for seconds of the cold mélange of white beans, olives and tomatoes, made crunchy with diced cucumber and shallots. There’s also an antipasto-like array of roasted peppers and eggplant, a salad with preserved tuna in romesco sauce, and a spread of Catalan cheeses, served with almonds and quince marmalade.

Still the highlight of meal was the shot glass of Sopa Freda de cireres de Santa Coloma de Cervello, a rich, smooth, tart/sweet cold cherry and tomato soup.  Like the uber-rich crema Catalana, offered for dessert, a little goes a long way.

The price of the buffet is $20.25 a person, with à la carte entrees from $12-$14.50. When you consider that Andrés’ food truck Pepe sells a ham sandwich for $20 (admittedly with Iberico pork), this taste of Spain is a bargain. Iberian wines, beer and sangria add to the celebration.

The Garden Café is in the West Building near the entrance at 6th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; 202-712-7454.

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