- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

The Spanish Agua Ardiente is trying to make a go of it in the basement of 1250 24th St. NW, where others — including several Asian restaurants and West 24, started by Washington political power folks — have packed up their skillets and left.

So will it work? Well, if the food, which is tapas-focused and wonderfully prepared, has anything to do with it, it should.

The space and location? Less palatable, at least at first, but the heavy red drapes and oversized, vivid paintings that adorn all walls can win guests over, particularly after a glass of wine or two. The wine menu is extensive and arrives in the form of a thick binder with long descriptions of each wine. Very ambitious.

There are several dining rooms of varying sizes — one with red velvet sofas and lounge chairs — and a long bar, home to Agua’s happy hour (4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday), often frequented by Spanish speakers from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank enjoying a variety of $4 drinks.

The music that flows from the speakers is Latin, new and old, and a little loud. But the happy hour crowd seems to like it. No, the biggest obstacle would have to be the location: a little off the beaten path and in the basement, not terribly visible from the street. It has to be a destination, not a place to stumble upon.

So, is it worth being a destination? We think so, because the food makes up for any other shortcomings. The larger-than-usual tapas, by which the menu is dominated, are varied and delicious. A favorite was the Belgian endive salad with Cabrales cheese dressing. The two are perfect for each other: The crisp, fresh, almost flavorless endive, coated with the rich, pungent Cabrales. The dish also included a few slices of Granny Smith, which made it even sweeter.

The roasted yellow beets with blood oranges in pomegranate vinaigrette sauce is another vegetarian winner. The flavor combination is unexpected — the near-bitter beet and the sweet-sour blood orange — but it works.

The gazpacho, however, was a disappointment. The tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers et al. had been churned until smooth (we prefer some texture), but the worst part was an overwhelming amount of olive oil. Gazpacho is meant to be a chilled salad, not an olive oil shake.

But the menu is not just about veggies — most of them out-of-this-world delicious. Chef Carlos Mendes knows his meats and seafood too. Take the medallion of beef tenderloin in a creamy dijon mustard sauce. The meat, which bathed in the rich, mild sauce, was melt-in-the-mouth tender and nicely seasoned.

The grilled quail was fall-off-the-teeny-tiny-bones tender too. The slight gamey flavor combined deliciously with a fennel puree and red wine sauce. This dish is perfect for fall and, as is true for all dishes, artfully presented on a white china plate.

The huevos rotos, fried eggs and chorizo over Spanish fries, was also prepared perfectly — although it’s hard to get used to the soggy Spanish fries, as is eating a version of scrambled eggs and sausage for dinner along with exquisite nuevo cuisine dishes.

Even so, we took another turn with Spanish comfort food: salt codfish stuffed with sweet pepper (this is what the menu says, but it’s actually the other way around: the peppers are stuffed with cod) and shrimp bisque. The dish is nicely prepared, the cod not too dry and the peppers providing a sweet antidote to the salty fish.

The entree menu has a dozen offerings including paella and bullabesa, which we hope to sample another time. We were too stuffed on delicious tapas to try any entrees.

We did, however, have room, as always, for dessert. It was difficult to choose from the eight-dish rich dessert menu, but we settled on the rice pudding with strawberries, the creme brulee and the tres leches with coconut rum, caramel and drunken raisins. It’s hard to pick a favorite; they were all so creamy, flavorful and well-prepared. The creme brulee, for example, had that perfect hard surface and creamy interior and the tres leches was liquor-infused with a melt-in-the-mouth consistency. We loved them all.

The service, too, was endearing. Our waiter had the sad eyes of a bloodhound and the disposition of a character actor of melancholy dramas. But he catered to our every wish and need, cleared and served swiftly, explained and recommended. He left nothing — but perhaps a smile or two — to be desired.

Speaking of desires, we thought Agua Ardiente met most, if not all, of them on a culinary level. The food is well prepared, the ingredients are fresh and the flavor combinations daring and delicious.

The rest? The presentations are kind to the eye and the service is swift. The decor is strange with all the flowing, red silk and velvet, and the light is dim, but one learns to like it. The location is the only real obstacle and we hope that it can be overlooked in order for this surprisingly delightful restaurant get the attendance it deserves. We know we’ll make it a future destination, for sure.

RESTAURANT: Agua Ardiente Restaurant & Lounge, 1250 24th St. NW; 202/833-8500.

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 6 to 11 p.m. Saturday; 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday for dance and drinks, 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday for dance and drinks; Sunday closed.

PRICES: Starters $4 to $16, main course $15 to $28, dessert $6 to $8. Lunch prices are the same except for a $19.95 three-course special.

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards.

PARKING: Limited street parking; valet parking available after 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible.

METRO: Foggy Bottom on the Orange and Blue lines

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