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January 24, 2006

Las Tablas will add spice to your life

The White House has weighed in. Speaking to the Washington Post recently, newly appointed Chef Cristeta Comerford said, “I like the flavors of the ingredients to stand out. I want them to taste the way they are supposed to, and I don’t like to mask them with spicing.”

That’s a common line these days: Heavy spices and fresh ingredients are somehow antagonistic. Somehow the movement toward fresh, high-quality ingredients has mutated into a culture war on spices. Fortunately for seasonings everywhere, restaurants like Las Tablas are prepared to prove that strong flavors are no enemy of fresh food.

Las Tablas bills itself as a Colombian steak house, but the menu runs much deeper than steak. The restaurant’s signature dish is their churrasco, a New York strip steak smothered in pepper. Our steaks—ordered rare, medium rare, and medium well—were all delivered medium rare, but after tasting them no one really minded.

Don’t skip the appetizers; most are under $4, and they contain some of the most delicate flavors the restaurant offers. Arepa con queso, a cornmeal pancake, has a pound-cake texture and a cheesy bite. Plantano aborrajado, a split plantain with guava and cheese, is an outstanding and startlingly natural blend of sharp and sweet flavors. The tartness of the restaurant’s chimichurri, a spicy herb sauce, complements the other flavors perfectly.

You’ll also want the appetizers to help you wait for your food. The servers were friendly, but their service was indifferent and slow. Nothing shines except the food itself, but the food makes up for everything.

The atmosphere, too, is conducive to lingering. Heavy wooden tables and simulated porches overhead create the feel of a cozy patio picnic. The crowd is cheerful but low-key. On the night we visited, a few 20-something couples talked quietly and a family fumed about an absent daughter’s elopement to Iran.

The restaurant is BYOB, and most customers had brought something. Either beer or red wine would go well with the spicy food, and both were being poured at other tables. There is no corkage fee, but you’d better bring out the booze early: A sign on the wall warns against drinking too long after your meal is done. For nonalcoholic drinks, Las Tablas has an extensive selection of Colombian juices and sodas.

The steak is the undisputed star of the menu, but don’t neglect the other options. Conveniently, the menu contains a long list of combination plates. With most between $16 and $20, they are only slightly more expensive than the single entrees, and well worth it. Most plates could probably serve two, but you won’t want to share. The seafood combinations, especially, should not be missed. The calamari is tender and lightly charred without any of the rubbery texture that so often ruins it. The pulpitos, baby octopi, were slightly tougher, but perfectly charred and perfectly complemented by the chimichurri.

All the entrees come with several garnishes and sides, and the produce used in them was very fresh. Many are accompanied by yuca, a starchy, nutty root, fried until soft enough to dissolve in your mouth. The salad accompanying the combination plates was a chopped mixture of lettuce, herbs, and very good tomatoes. It would have been unremarkable in August, but to use such superior produce in a garnish in January speaks well of the restaurant’s devotion to quality.

After the appetizers and gargantuan entrees, you may not be very interested in desserts. If you are, the coconut flan is worth trying. The coconut is perceptible but not overpowering, and the texture is flawlessly smooth.

The range of tastes that Las Tablas combines into a coherent meal is stunning. The prices are high for college students and the service is mediocre, but let neither that nor the Bush administration keep you away from those flavors.