I hereby declare 2020 to be the year of beets and kale.
No, it's not an "eat healthy" New Year's resolution thing. I am simultaneously declaring 2020 to be the year of sherry cocktails, and maybe "gin tonics," too. And all because of Estadio.
That's the new Spanish-style bar and restaurant that opened on Spring Street back in October. There is plenty of sherry, which you can drink by itself in a glass or shaken into an oloroso old fashioned ($12) or a refreshing Manzanilla gimlet ($11). There are also Basque ciders, frozen wine "slushitos," and all sort of other things, many punctuated by exclamation points —"¡Vermut! On Tap," "¡We Have Porróns!"
If you're considering the seafood paella ($28) — and you should — learn from my error and put in that order along with your drinks, before you get lost in the pintxos and tapas. We'll get to the paella later.
First there are things on skewers, like a quartet of royal red shrimp ($12) stretched straight, grilled brown and crisp around the edges, and basted with salsa verde. The traditional pintxo gilda ($2.50) is deceptively simple: a single green olive, a folded anchovy, and a thin hot green pepper speared on a toothpick, a bite that builds from tart to briny to heat.
I always order patatas bravas at tapas places because a) the name is fun to say and b) done right, they are delicious. But they are also really easy to screw up, resulting in sad bowls of soggy spuds in limpid tomato sauce. Not at Estadio. Their patatas are brown and crisp, with fat squiggles of pale yellow aioli criss-crossing the peppery red sauce. The potatoes stay crisp, too, so you keep coming back to them as you graze your way through the rest of the tapas, making the last forkful is as good as the first.
A single meatball arrives in a round white plate amid a pool of thick tomato sauce, and it sparked some debate at our table. Some felt it too mild and plain — especially at $10 a pop — but others (that is, me) found it pleasingly savory with a subtle dose of spicy heat.
I was underwhelmed by the croquetas, though. There are three options — jamon ($11), rock shrimp ($12), and boletus ($11) — but regardless of which you choose you get three, fried light-golden brown. Beneath the pleasantly crisp crust is a gooey gob of mild bechamel, really more fried cream balls than anything. Blindfolded, I might not be able to pick out which was the jamon and which the shrimp.
Admittedly, my judgment here may be slanted because those innocuous, creamy mouthfuls were sampled amid so many other bites that absolutely explode with flavor.
Estadio's "seven minute" eggs ($3) have a perfectly jammy center, and they're sliced in half and topped with shredded, herb-flecked tuna and orange roe. The oily richness of red-rimmed mackerel crudo ($11) is balanced by the sparkle of sliced citrus and the crunch of crushed hazelnuts. Equally brilliant is the "mackerel con potato chip" ($3). A dollop of creme fraiche laced with bits of mackerel rests atop a paper-thin slice of fried potato, with a spicy pepper ring atop — a great crisp bite followed by a big punch of heat.
And go figure this: Among such a swirl of beguiling flavors, what really stand out are the beets and kale. You read that correctly.
A tiny hollow cylinder is carved from a roasted red beet ($2) and filled with a tart green puree of parsley and feta, giving an acidic pop against the earthiness of the edible container. The vividly green sopa de kale ($7) is a creamy, vegetal blend of kale and potato that sparkles with lemon and floral herbs.
If you find me sitting in my office, fingers poised motionless over my keyboard, staring blankly out the window at the gray January sky, odds are I'm daydreaming about those parsley-stuffed beets and that creamy kale soup.
And we haven't even gotten to the paella.
Estadio's Spanish-focused wine list is impressive, with 14 tempranillos from Rioja and Ribera del Duero alone and many more bottles from around the Iberian Peninsula. If that's not enough, there's an entire "gin tonic" program with rare gins collected from around Spain — a passion project for owner Max Kuller and his bar director Adam Bernbach (as they explained to cuisine editor Mary Scott Hardaway last year).
Waiting for that paella gives one plenty of time to survey the room. The place is organized around an open kitchen wrapped by a big L-shaped bar. A single row of rough-hewn tables line the two exterior walls, which are accented by stylish red trim and red and gold Moorish-patterned tile.
It's a tight space, especially as aspiring diners crush up to the bar (Estadio doesn't take reservations) and servers in pale blue T-shirts weave their way around to deposit small plates on the tables.
But it's a pleasant kind of crowded, buzzing with energy. This is not the kind of place to sip a contemplative cocktail but rather to order a porrón of red wine — a lamp-like glass pitcher with a long spout protruding from the side — and pass it around so everyone in your crowd can pour half of a stream directly into their mouths and the rest down their shirt. (I'm pretty sure that's how it would have gone down had my party been brave enough to try it.)
Floor-to-ceiling windows fill the room with light before sundown and offer a fine view of Spring Street afterwards, which to an old timer seems surprisingly bustling at 8 p.m. at night. But the newly built building that houses Estadio has eight Airbnb rentals above, and more stretch down what was once Sanctuary Alley and dot each side of Spring: a hotel district without any visible hotels.
And then that damned paella finally arrives, a broad pan filled with tender rice topped with shrimp, squid, and clams in the shell and crisscrossed with yellow aioli. The savory rice is laced with sofrito and saffron — spicy but just slightly so. The texture is splendid, but when you start scraping away the crispy socarrat, rice charred to the flat metal pan . . . well, it's simply out of this world, and absolutely worth the wait.
We should note that the Charleston Estadio is not the first; it's an outpost of a D.C. restaurant that opened in 2010 to much acclaim. Over the years, I've been less than impressed with most attempts to import successful "concepts" from somewhere else. What wows the crowds in other cities rarely clicks here.
Notably, though, Estadio isn't a lift-and-shift of the same restaurant from our nation's capital. "We aren't going to take a salad from here and recreate it in Charleston," Kuller told Eater DC last year.
The interior design, the slushitos, the porróns — those are all pretty much the same. But Kuller teamed up with talented local chef, Alex Lira, who proved himself first at The Lot and then at Bar Normandy. They traveled through Spain for fresh inspiration, and within the tapas format, Lira has pretty free reign. The Charleston menu bears only a passing resemblance to the original, not just with different dishes, but completely different headings and ingredients.
The seafood in the paella is all local, as is the fish in the crudo, which might be flounder, beeliner snapper, or king mackerel depending on the week. There's an aged South Carolina gouda, and those grilled royal reds are what Mark Marhefka of Abundant Seafood brings up from Florida waters when local shrimp aren't in season.
The tapas mode and aesthetic is well suited to Charleston, and the format allows Lira to highlight local flavors without resorting to tired Southern-fusion tropes. There's no pimento cheese on the patatas bravas. Nothing is perched upon a fried green tomato. Instead there are bold but balanced flavors, with fresh local ingredients prepared in unexpected ways.
I've been wondering what Charleston dining in the Airbnb era might look like. It doesn't have to be all brunches and burgers. Maybe it looks like Estadio?