Bravo to Pulpo. Last summer, Cleveland Park’s modern American/Spanish tapas restaurant successfully transformed the former Tackle Box space with minimal interior reconstruction. My memory has faded of the picnic tables and steamed clams, replaced by elegant, dark wood, ruffed-up brick, and sweet sangria. Mr. Green Bean and I patronize the under-publicized neighborhood establishment on occasion. We always arrive happy to see the restaurant pleasantly packed. Yet Pulpo is still trying to find just the right formula for success, switching up the menu frequently, offering an all you can eat and drink brunch, advertising extended happy hours and drink specials, and most recently making a staffing change with newly hired general manager David Hansen and executive chef Billy Klein, formerly of Café Saint-Ex. The $25 bottomless brunch smells the most desperate, a ghost of past management that Hansen and Klein are hoping to restructure soon. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Mr. Green Bean and I gave it a go, meeting our newly wedded friends, Weg-Man and Wife, for a midday feast that had its ups and downs.
If there were ever a question of how excessive American culture is, Pulpo’s brunch makes it quite clear. Our waiter, a quiet and mysterious type, handed out menus and allowed us a quick glance before he offered to do the picking on our behalf. He would choose an assortment of tapas from all the menu categories: breakfast items, lunch items, salads and vegetables, taking into account my gluten allergy. Mr. Green Bean was the only one with premonitions about relinquishing our ordering control. The rest of us happily leaned back and awaited our mimosas.
What unfolded from that point was a never ending ensemble of plates, arriving one at a time, in no particular order, and too slowly to explain why requests—such as coffee, milk for our coffee, spoons for stirring the coffee, hot coffee to replace the now cold and milk-less coffee—were granted in a much delayed fashion, or not at all. It turns out that a number of the brunch items contain gluten. Most surprisingly the frittatas, typically a gluten free alternative to quiche, are made in flour-laced pans. The slow service was partly due to chef Klein’s gracious attempt to modify dishes for my diet while keeping up with a restaurant full of expanding stomachs.
We were given a number of naturally gluten-free items to start, including the white bean salad with cucumber, roasted red pepper, olives and feta, the spinach with citrus, and the mushrooms with garlic. While most of the lighter dishes were predictable and forgettable, the golden quinoa made an impression, with perfect pearls of toasted quinoa slightly sweetened by apricots and honey.
We were served a fleet of modified gluten-free dishes such as the shrimp salad without the roll (a preparation preferred by our waiter anyway), meatball sliders slipped off the bun, crostini-less smoked salmon with lemon goat cheese, eggs benedict with smoked salmon served over rice pilaf without the orzo, and pan-fried (rather than deep fried) patatas bravas with garlic aioli.
Most of the plates faired rather ordinary. However, a highlight of the group was a gluten-free version of the roasted pork belly and black bean tostada, a hearty bowl of pulled pork with corn tortilla triangles for scooping. Unfortunately the dish arrived too late to fully enjoy, our stomachs cramping from overindulgence.
The onslaught of food left us confused and disappointed. We would have been better served with a few standout dishes and not all subpar fill-ins that resulted in both overeating and wasted leftovers. Unfortunately, the meal’s only sparsities were refills of our mimosas. Oh, and hot coffee.
Mr. Green Bean and I parted ways with Weg-Man and Wife and walked home reflecting on our more positive dinner experiences at Pulpo. I can’t say I have ever had flawless service at Pulpo, and with a menu that has been restructured a few times it’s difficult to keep up. But I have been pleased on every dinner occasion by more refined menu items that are executed quite well. One ingredient Pulpo makes sure they get right is the sea creature for which the restaurant is named. Pulpo’s newest menu features four octopus dishes. Though I have yet to try them out, my guess is they will fare well based on the success of past octopus preparations .
Pulpo continues to wave around its tentacles hoping something will catch. What has been consistent since the restaurant’s opening is its romantic and cozy interior that sets the mood for a pleasant experience regardless of flaws in food and service. Now that chef Klein has been on board for a few months, perhaps this rocky boat is bound for some smooth sailing.