Words by Stefanie Gans Photos by Ray Lopez
SER announces itself with Hollywood lights. The name, Spanish for “to be,” and also standing for Simple Easy Real, is written in bright white bulbs on the exterior of a big brick building interrupted with floor-to-ceiling windows. Around the corner from a stretch of restaurants clustered in Ballston, it feels isolated with a huge patio destined for pitchers of sangria.
“We’re not tapas, but we have a lot of starters,” our waitress says, introducing the menu concept. The domination of small plates-themed restaurants now calls for restaurants to explain how they don’t require an onslaught of ordering multiple dishes. Though at a Spanish restaurant, where the tapas life originates, it is an important notation.
We start with a ton of bites from the kitchen nonetheless.
Croquetas reveal bits of chicken and ham in a creamed, mashed potato-like state. There’s no actual potato in these fried balls, explains chef Josu Zubikarai, who co-owns the restaurant with Javier Candon. Instead the kitchen constantly stirs bechamel sauce for up to an hour and a half to bring it to that thick consistency. Grilled sardines become a Mediterranean version of a tea sandwich with slim cuts of housemade bread, pan de cristal, adhered to each side. Porcini cream sits on the side for dipping, but it lacks a brightness, a completeness of pleasing flavors.
That’s what happens most of the time at SER. In this beautiful, airy, light-filled space with funky light fixtures and water glasses that, thankfully, aren’t Mason jars, the food doesn’t elicit the same promising vibrations.
Octopus, sliced thin and braised in red wine, mostly tastes of its accompanying chive oil. The luscious meatiness of this sea creature can’t puncture its drab surroundings. Shrimp also fall hostage to the cloak of oil. Infected with burnt garlic, the oil is ruined in gambas al ajillo, which should be a fireworks display of garlic and red pepper flakes.
The time between the generous bread basket and the tapas can last a few minutes or what feels like 20, same for the gaps between entrees, dessert and check. Servers can lack general knowledge—when the papas bravas arrived sans aioli and we requested a dip, the server asked what we had in mind instead of knowing the menu and its standard accompaniment to the fried potatoes—and tend to disappear.
A dish of salted cod does much better to honor Spain’s culinary prowess. This rendition showcases tender fish with softened vegetables to match. In fact, if you’ve never warmed to the underwhelming green pepper, this might make you rethink the maligned pizza topping: It still contains the bite but is also coaxed into something luxe.
Braised pork cheeks, while overwhelmingly meaty tasting, are easy to eat; the rest of dish, a pisto (Spanish version of ratatouille) of zucchini, doesn’t offer a sign of life.
The smell of paella—and no, I never fully appreciated the distinct paella smell until dishes of it were everywhere—comes from mini tables around the room where the for-a-group dish is stationed. It’s served tableside and left next to you. It’s hard not to reach over ourselves and check for the crusty bits of rice, socarrat, nuzzling into the bottom of the giant carbon steel pan. The man serving our paella either didn’t scrape it for us, or it wasn’t there. But that is forgiven. The rice is fragrant and chewy. Glossy with the drippings of meat, especially because of its genesis in duck broth. The meat paella provides protein through chunks of chicken, rabbit and duck. The meats have dried out slightly, but the saffron-yellowed rice makes up for it.
Though the Spanish connection is unclear, a dark chocolate souffle is so good I could only describe it with curse words in my notes. It’s almost like brownie batter: creamy, fudgy, not yet cakey. The server drops salted caramel ice cream into its middle, cooling down the baked dessert so we could spoon into it right away.
The sweet haze left us feeling happy about the meal. That is, until we were at the restaurant … waiting for the check … Servers should take a hint from what the lights spell out: be here, be around, be.
Don’t get stuck in a sangria rut. Try the almost 10 different sherry varieties.
Appetizers: $8-$19; Entrees:
Lunch on weekdays, dinner daily and brunch on weekends.
1110 N. Glebe Road, Arlington