“Bread is like a religion in Spain,” my server says as he sets down a basket full of various kinds on the table. I had initially declined the complimentary pre-meal offering, not wanting to fill up before my main course at SER, the new Spanish restaurant in Arlington, but soon, I’m glad my decision was overridden.
Using it to sop up the sauce left over from my gambas al ajillo starter, I thank my host in between bites. While the classic shrimp dish was tasty, I think I enjoyed the garlicky oil-drenched bread even more.
SER, winner of Ballston’s Restaurant Challenge last summer (which included an 11-year lease, free year’s rent and several other perks), is a refreshing entry into the Northern Virginia restaurant lineup – especially in a place like Ballston which doesn’t exactly have the most diverse dining scene.
Located on the outer edge of the neighborhood on N. Glebe Road, SER – which stands for both “Simple. Easy. Real.” and the Spanish verb “to be” – is a beautiful space. Thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows, the big, bright and airy dining room is highlighted by the restaurant’s name in lights hanging overtop a window looking in on the kitchen. There’s also a pair of bars – one for booze, the other for charcuterie and raw bar fare – and a giant patio almost the size of the restaurant itself.
But while the space is gorgeous, the food is what sets SER apart from its competition. Traditional Spanish tapas like the gambas are solid, as are the lightly fried and salty puntillitas (calamari) though the jalapeno on our squid added little-to-no heat to the dish and barely registered with us. Hitting on all notes, however, were the croquetas, small pockets of breaded and fried bechamel mixed with either chicken, ham or spinach. The ham was our favorite but rather than just one variety, they’ll happily serve up a mix of them all.
At lunch, it’s mostly sandwiches but good luck finding a turkey club or chicken salad – at SER, the pig takes center stage. A hero combines jamon Serrano (a dry-cured Spanish ham) with Manchego and garlic-olive oil and the Serranito tops grilled pork loin with deep fried peppers and jalapeno mayo. For those wanting a bit more, there’s the Sara Montiel mixing a fried egg and garlic chips with Serrano ham in addition to a hefty Mahon cheese-and-bacon-topped burger that I couldn’t quite finish. Thanks a lot, bread basket. (Though it may have been the side of papas bravas – perfectly fried, crispy, salty hunks of potato – that made me tap out.)
The menu expands quite a bit at dinner with the addition of a plethora of seafood dishes ranging from cold offerings including oysters, shrimp, lobster and stone crab to hot dishes like squid served in its own ink and salted cod called bacalao. On the turf front, there’s a roast suckling pig big enough to serve three, a braised lamb shank and a cornish hen with almonds and saffron. We opted for the carrilleras de Iberico, or braised pork cheeks, which were rich and tender but, accompanied by only a smattering of zucchini, they were gobbled up in a flash. This time, there was plenty of room for more bread.
And, of course, there’s paella. Available at both lunch and dinner, the Spanish favorite is served table-side for two and comes in seafood, squid ink, meat, vegetarian and lobster options.
Rivaling SER’s dining room aesthetics is its plating, with just about every dish we came across worthy of a spot on Instagram. Churros come in a playful twist on a chocolate-dusted plate, surrounding a bowl of rich and thick “hot cocoa” while tableside-sliced jamon pata negra draws plenty of stares from nearby diners. Even the deceptively plain-sounding market salad elicited “oooohs” when it came to the table, looking more like a rainbow in a bowl than a $9 salad. Changing daily depending on what the kitchen finds at the market that day, our version was packed with micro greens, watermelon radish, Mandarin oranges, tomatoes, bleu cheese and more.
When it comes to SER’s prices, they can be a bit puzzling. During lunch, all sandwiches but the burger ($12) are incredibly affordable, coming in at $9 or less, but if you want to add a starter or side dish to your meal, expect the bill to double. Dinner sees a bump up in cost with most mains in the mid-to-upper $20s, with the two-person paella and suckling pig coming in at $48 and $68, respectively. Helping out the thrifty, however, is the happy hour menu, offered daily from 4 – 7 p.m., filled with $7 small plates and plenty of booze specials (including $5 sangria).
In addition to its regular fare, SER is hosting a series of “txotx ritual” cider dinners this summer, inspired by an annual Basque cider house tradition. Through the end of August, a special, all-inclusive four-course prix fixe dinner along with unlimited cider pours will be offered every Wednesday at 7 p.m. for $80.
SER | 1110 N. Glebe Road, Arlington | 703-746-9822 | ser-restaurant.com