How can I best sum up my feelings about SER, the new Ballston restaurant featuring Basque cuisine? It’s simple, easy, and real. Which is a good thing, since that’s the meaning behind the moniker.
The cuisine at SER is based on authentic family recipes from Executive Chef/co-owner Josu Zubikarai. The food isn’t fancy, but the ingredients and technique fuse in just the right way, and can be appreciated for its simplicity. The decor is attractive, but not the main event. The amiable staff, including Josu and his co-owner and front-of-the-house man Javier Candon, add the real pizzazz.
I first visit SER when I attend a preview of their just-launched special TXOTX cider dinner (TXOTX means “break out the cider” in Basque). The ritual cider dinner is offered at SER every Wednesday evening. A group of up to six diners can indulge in all you can drink cider, and a terrific four course dinner created by Chef Josu who has a knack for recreating the taste and feel of his native country. The chef fondly recalls family and friends gathering around a cider barrel as its cracked open, catching the earthy liquid with their glass, and shouting TXOTX (prounced Choch). There’s currently no barrel at SER. But you can practice placing the bottle high above your head and pouring the drink into your glass. It’s harder than you think. The staff is hopeful that an authentic barrel will be shipped from Spain in the fall, adding authenticity to an already genuine Basque experience.
We are captivated from the get-go as Javier Candon delicately slices Iberian ham (Jamon Iberico de Bellota), which is served with slices of wonderfully warm and crusty bread.
Appetizers include lightly fried croquetas with spinach (or chicken), deeply satisfying chorizo cooked in cider, and a classic tortilla de patatas which evoke fond memories of my visit to Spain.
Our second course of bacalao asado (salt cod) con pimientos is beautifully presented, and the explanation of the process for soaking and salting the fish is compelling. The regular dinner menu at SER features the bacalao with a creamy olive oil emulsion. (Watch Chef Zubikarai whip up the bacalao al pilpil con pipirrana on this Washington Post video.)
It’s critical to pace yourself, as the third course is an expertly cooked rib-eye steak. The meat is simply prepared, with a crisp exterior and a very rare interior. A pinch of salt is a perfect finishing touch. It’s not always easy to please a group of seasoned diners, but we all swoon.
Dessert is a gorgeous display of idiazabal cheese from northern Spain, served with quince and walnuts.
I am enamored with the restaurant and head back a few days later, eager to introduce it – and the bacalao- to my husband. He is keen on ordering grilled sardines with porcini cream as a starter, despite the fact that I am not a fan. This version is enjoyable- light and crispy, and not overly fishy tasting.
I have my own mission in mind. I am set on ordering seafood paella, enriched by squid ink and bursting with fresh squid, shrimp, mussels, and clams. The dish is far too much for one person to enjoy but my husband doesn’t eat shellfish, so I have leftovers for two additional meals.
We round out our meal with Crujiente de Pina, crispy pineapple and saffron on a pastry shell topped with ice cream, an appealing combination of warm and cold.
My second visit confirms my initial impression, and then some. SER offers a fresh take on Spanish cuisine, offering classic dishes that are simple and at the same time refined. SER is the real deal….really.
SER, 1110 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington, Virginia
The Txotx Ritual Dinners are $80 per person for an all-inclusive four course tasting menu (including LOTS of Cider, gratuity, and taxes).
Washington Post review by Tom Sietsema: “SER in Ballston: Simple, Easy, Real and Off to a Good Start”