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Spanish heaven in Vegas at Jaleo by José Andrés

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The best tapas in the world? That’s a claim that gets bandied about by the culinary cognoscenti of Vegas – and after a recent meal at Jaleo that was marked by a surfeit of playful creativity and ingenious flavor combinations, we’ll happily second that honorific.

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Chef José Andrés opened the first Jaleo in D.C. in 1993 – and the subsequent two metropolitan Washington iterations made Jaleo a beloved local institution. Andrés’ fourth Jaleo outpost opened at the Cosmopolitan in 2011 and was quickly awarded “Best New Restaurant” in Vegas.

It’s a natural fit, given that Jaleo means “revelry” in Spanish. This, after all, is a restaurant where the open kitchen with its olivewood fire pit sends flames leaping into the air as patrons happily drape themselves around wooden tables and brightly-colored banquettes to eat Andrés’ inspired food.

Start with the sangria – or a signature G&T. What sounds simple, maybe even pedestrian, becomes elevated in the hands and mind of Chef Andrés.

The Jaleo G&T is made with Hendricks gin and a local tonic, but it’s the story behind the drink – and the flowers floating in the glass – that will keep you remembering this cocktail

According to a server, one with a romantic streak, Chef Andrés spent a summer day with his two young daughters in a meadow – and whenever the chef wasn’t looking, his daughters would drop wildflowers into his drink, thinking that he was unaware.

The Jaleo G&T is Andrés’ way of remembering that perfect day in Spain.

Molecular gastronomy makes an appearance in Jaleo’s liquid olives, dedicated to “Ferran Adria” of El Bulli: spherical blobs like tiny black egg yolks – and loaded with concentrated flavor. You want to keep spooning them into your mouth like caviar.

Tiny baby potatoes, like doll fingers, are served with two sauces from the Canary Islands. You could easily snack on an entire bag of these while watching an Almodovar trilogy.

As the plates keep arriving, each one complementing the one before and the one after, the question keeps arising, “What’s your favorite? Which one do you like best?”

Traditional chicken fritters served in a tennis shoe. Or a shooter of chilled gazpacho. Endive leaves laden with goat cheese, oranges, and almonds.

The “pan con tomate” is the epitome of summer simplicity: toasted slices of rustic bread slathered with garlic and fresh tomatoes. A warm Brussels sprout salad is flecked with apricots, apples and bits of Serrano ham – while a fennel salad is a tasty tangle of Manchego cheese, walnuts, and apples, dressed in sherry.

And then there’s the paella: smoky and delicious, reminding you of your first trip to Spain and the culinary revelations that ensued. You were young, a guest at someone’s home, and there was family and sangria, lots of sangria, and it was summer and everyone was laughing. The best summer of your life.

That’s what a meal at Jaleo does for you: it reminds you of what you love best about life. No wonder it’s so beloved.

Oh, and one more inspiring fact: Chef José Andrés is the culinary spokesperson for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private initiative that works to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions.

Clean Cookstoves’ ambitious but achievable goal is to foster the adoption of clean cookstoves and fuels in 100 million households by 2020.

One more good reason to enjoy Jaleo’s heavenly paella.