Spanish restaurant SER is banking on becoming a destination dining establishment. Located at the base of an office building that used to house Red Parrot Asian Bistro, the restaurant is just outside of Ballston's main hub and away from most foot traffic. Husband-wife owners Javier and Christiana Candon initially had been looking for a location in D.C., but Ballston's Restaurant Challenge last summer drew their attention to a spot they would have otherwise passed on.
The building's landlord, Brookfield Office Properties, and the Ballston BID teamed up to offer some sweet incentives for the location: an 11-year lease with 12 months of free rent, a $245,000 interest-free loan, and free legal services and financial advising. Eight groups competed for the prize in the mess of a competition, in which the criteria for winning were poorly communicated. SER won after Del Campo chef Victor Albisu, a fellow finalist, dropped out of the competition just before a final cook-off.
But the Candons are unfazed by the controversy that surrounded the restaurant challenge: "We were not involved," Javier Candon says. "We were thinking about ourselves. So we were not thinking about all this controversy."
The prize helped fast-track their plans, but it only covered about half the investment in the restaurant. SER also raised $17,845 on Kickstarter and relied on private investors. The building also came with a lot of the kitchen equipment they needed.
"It's going to be harder than doing it on 14th Street for sure," Javier Candon says. But ultimately, he says the perks help lessen the risk.
SER—which stands for "Simple Easy Real"—is set to finally open March 2. The restaurant will focus on Spanish comfort foods and not specifically tapas. Chef Josu Zubikarai, who helped open Taberna del Alabardero decades ago, will lead the kitchen. Javier Candon and Zubikarai used to work together at the downtown Spanish restaurant and later discovered they are actually distant cousins.
Starters include a classic Spanish tortilla, three types of croquetas, lamb sweet breads, and a duck liver terrine. Zubikarai will serve several different paellas, including one with duck, chicken, and rabbit and another with seafood. The paella will be served tableside, as will several other dishes. A salad cart, for example, will display different lettuces, vegetables, proteins, and vinaigrettes that diners can mix-and-match and watch get made in front of them. Iberico ham will also be carved tableside.
Main dishes are divided into three sections: "from the market" using seasonal, local ingredients; "from our travels" (cheese burger and gluten-free angel hair pasta with lime zest and caviar); and "from our grandmothers" featuring family recipes. Among the dishes near and dear to Zubikarai's heart is bacalao al pil pil, a codfish dish served in a clay casserole from his home in the Basque region.
Among the more unusual offerings: steamed gooseneck barnacles and baby eels, which are referred to as "Spanish caviar." The latter will cost more or less around $100, depending on the season and where they're sourced. In the spring, the eels will come live from Maine. The rest of the year, they're imported frozen from Spain. The eels are prepared simply with olive oil and garlic. "It's like short little spaghettis, that's the way they look," Zubikarai says. "But you look at them one by one, you see the eyes and everything." Candon describes that taste like "a bite of the sea."
The wine list will be divided by "everyday" bottles under $40 and a dozen or so "celebratory" wines in the $60 to $120 range. About two-thirds of the wines are from Spain and the rest are international. The cocktail menu will include drinks made with sherry and also coffee. Beers will be mostly local but also Spanish.
A large "family table" near the entrance of the 140-seat restaurant (with a 100-seat patio coming) can be reserved for large parties or double as overflow seating from the bar. Candon says this is also where the staff will have its meals. So if you stop in for a drink at 4 p.m., don't be surprised to see servers and cooks chowing down in the main dining room. "For lunch and for dinner, we're going to sit down here even if we have a few customers around," he says. "A lot of restaurants try to hide sometimes the employees eating."
A chef's table looks onto the paella station of the kitchen through a window. (Arlington wouldn't let them have an open kitchen.) There will also be a charcuterie and raw bar with Spanish hams, sausages, and cheeses plus oysters, shrimp, and seafood towers. The bar will also supply a range of pintxos, bite-sized Spanish snacks that will be advertised daily on a blackboard. Sometime in the future, the area may be used for cooking classes.
In the meantime, the charcuterie and raw bar will transform into a to-go counter selling soups, salads, and sandwiches during the day. While many of the sandwiches have a Spanish bent, there's also a twist on a Reuben and an offering with peanut butter, sliced banana, and persimmon jam. The sandwiches are one of the accommodations SER has made for Ballston. "We were not going to do sandwiches in our original business plan," Candon says. "But for this location, we are going to."
SER, 1110 N. Glebe Road, Arlington. (703) 746-9822; ser-restaurant.com
Photo by Rey Lopez