Thu 2 Apr 2009
In most restaurants, a twenty-eight course meal would be unfathomable, an exercise in excess guaranteed to end with lots of wasted food and serious discomfort. But at Jose Andres’ minibar, the focus on quality and artistry results in a parade of bite-sized dishes that add up to one of the most unique (and sought-after) dining experiences on the East Coast.
Simple math will tell you that the six seats at the minibar represent a logistical challenge for anyone hoping to experience the restaurant that has earned “Outstanding Chef” nominations from the James Beard Foundation for Jose Andres two years in a row now. With two seatings a night from Tuesday through Saturday, the minibar can only accomodate 60 guests in a given week. Is it any wonder, then, that eager diners hover over their phones waiting for 10 AM to roll around on the morning exactly thirty days before they hope to dine? Or that the twelve seats available that morning are often booked by 10:15?
In any event, Elizabeth and I found ourselves arriving at Cafe Atlantico on Saturday eagerly awaiting our 8:30 seating. We knew we were in for a treat, and we were psyched to be sharing it with two friends in from out of town. Though we hadn’t been fasting, we were definitely ready to take on as many courses as the chefs could throw at us. Cotton candy wrapped around something savory? Bring it on. A “composed salad” instead of the usual mess of lettuce and dressing? You know it. We were ready to take on the “art and science” that goes into this kind of innovative cuisine.
Plenty of photos and descriptions after the jump!
We got to Atlantico early, foodie fans who didn’t want to miss a thing. Knowing we would have a wait, we made our way to the bar, which offers a menu that combines classics (maybe the best Dark & Stormy I’ve had in DC) with minibar-esque concoctions like a margarita featuring salt and lime “air.” While we were waiting for our turn upstairs, we were approached by the single server who would be attending to us during our dinner. She presented us with an extensive wine list, warning that the variety of dishes that would be offered was best paired with lighter reds, whites, or sparkling wines. Though they offer “mini bottles at mini bar” – 375 mL splits – the best deals come in the form of a trio of pairings. Whether sparkling wines, roses, or a ‘taste of Spain,’ each one offers a flight of five glasses chosen to complement the overall experience, rather than matching up with specific dishes.
Then the word came that it was time to head upstairs. It’s hard not to feel a little special as you’re ushered to the six bar stools facing the open kitchen in the front corner of the Cafe Atlantico dining room. We took our seats and were greeted by Brad and Ryan, our chefs for the evening. That’s right – six people, two chefs.
They explained that they would be presenting us with a series of twenty-eight dishes, the majority of which were the size of your average amuse bouche. In some cases, the chefs warned, they would be offering advice on how best to attack a course – telling us to eat it one bite or reminding us to be sure and get some of each component into every mouthful.
It should be noted that many of the best dishes work precisely because they’re operating on such a small scale. The intensity of the flavors and the creatvity of many of the concepts would simply be overwhelming in entree-sized portions. These courses are small wonders that are meant to be savored for a moment – and then remembered fondly before the uniqueness has a chance to wear off.
With the formalities thus dispatched, it was on to the show! After a relatively straightforward welcoming cocktail – a pisco sour – we began our journey through “Munchies,” “Flavors & Textures,” “Pre-Dessert,” “Dessert,” and “Sweet Endings.” Though the menu changes from time to time, many of the dishes have earned long-standing places in the lineup at this point. Although your experience may vary from ours, here’s what we had:
- Beet “tumbleweed.” This nest of shredded beets has a salty flavor and a mildly fried texture, but the basic sweetness of the beet shines through. Good, but it reminded me of shoestring sweet potato fries.
- Olive Oil “Bon-bon.” The first example of the kind of cooking that put minibar on the map in the first place. Isomalt sugar is used to encase Spanish olive oil in a droplet shape, which is then served atop a bed of powdered vinegar. Pretty freaking awesome.
- “Mojito.” Another example of ‘molecular gastronomy’ (I swear, that’s the only time I’ll use the phrase), this sphere of carbonated beverage is contained in an alginate that allows it to sit like a grape until you pop it into your mouth and let the fizzy drink burst over your tastebuds.
- “Bagels and Lox.” A definite favorite among our group, this course was more about confronting expectations of texture and shape than any out-there technique. The photo from before the jump shows a bagel-cone filled with whipped cream cheese, salmon roe toasted sesame seeds and a sprig of dill. The flavor combination is classic, the presentation is unique.
- Blue Cheese and Almond. Marcona almonds are pureed and formed into little bowls using liquid nitrogen, then filled with a creamy blue cheese and topped with some additional shaved almonds. Brad and Ryan encouraged us to eat this one quickly…the shells melt as they thaw.
- “Dragon’s Breath” popcorn. If you saw Bourdain at minibar on “No Reservations,” you know the effect of liquid nitrogen being shot through these little balls of caramel corn. “Eat it in one bite, then look at each other and exhale through your nose,” came the directions. We did, and everyone got a good laugh.
- “Cornbread.” Chris Rock hit the nail on the head: Ain’t nothing wrong with that. In their presentation, cornbread takes on a variety of textures: a firm cake at the base, a creamy layer, and a topping of crushed corn nuts. The flavor was salty and sweet at the same time.
- Boneless chicken wing. Another dish that highlights good old-fashioned technique in lieu of artifice and ingenuity. The wings are marinated for days and the bones are slid out just prior to grilling. When it comes time to serve them, the skin is brushed with a sugary glaze and crisped under a kitchen torch. A dollop of yogurt sauce and some fresh herbs make this an accessible but tasty dish.
- Steamed brioche bun with caviar. The steamed bun, filled with a light custard, is airy and warm. Topped with osetra caviar and a scoop of salt-lemon air, this is one of those dishes that makes you sit up and take notice – everything from the presentation to the flavor screams “effort.”
- Cotton candy eel. A love it or hate it dish, it features eel and shiso brushed with eel sauce (surprise) and finished in a carnival-style cotton candy maker. It’s crazy to think about biting into cotton candy and coming away with a savory bite of eel (not the most accessible fish to begin with!), but somehow they make it work. The biggest complaint: the eel was a bit juicy inside the cotton candy, leading to some dripping issues.
- “Sun Dried” tomato salad. By reducing tomato soup and adding alginate, the chefs are able to recreate the intense, acidic flavor of sun-dried tomatoes in this ‘salad’ that looks like a painter’s easel. Balsamic vinegar, lemon air, yogurt and herbs make a complex, satisfying dish.
- Zucchini in textures. Hand-picked seeds. A gelatin made from the zucchini water that comes out while picking those seeds. A custard-like puree of zucchini. These three textures combined to create a dish that can get a bit one-note after a while. Even so, it’s a testament to the creativity that went into finding a use for every part of the vegetable.
- “Caesar Salad.” Lamenting the lack of structure in a traditional salad resulted in this concoction that looks like a pair of sushi rolls. Lettuce, parmesan, anchovies and egg (in the form of a quail egg yolk) all find their way into this neat, elegant take on a classic Caesar that comes wrapped in thin sheets of jicama.
- Parmesan “egg” with migas. Another spherified dish, this one hid another quail egg yolk inside an ‘egg’ made from parmesan cheese. Served with shredded, toasted bread, it looked like a plate of eggs and hash browns. The chefs encouraged us to break the egg and allow the yolk to spread across the dish before eating all of the components simultaneously.
- Sea urchin ceviche. The one ‘meh’ dish of the evening across the board, sea urchin is just a bit too strong a flavor for our tastes. It comes across with a metallic taste, and the hibiscus air just didn’t do enough to offset that flavor.
- “Guacamole.” The image from my teaser post on Monday. Thin slices of avocado are wrapped around a tomato granita and chunks of lime. Another dish that looks like a sushi roll, this one packs the clear, acidic punch of good guacamole. A favorite among our group - maybe it was the Fritos?
- Salmon pineapple “ravioli” with crispy quinoa. One of the longest titles for a dish at the minibar, this is a fun riff on ravioli. Thin sheets of pineapple are wrapped around quick-cooked salmon and served with quinoa, the Peruvian grain that gives a nutty, toasted flavor. A creative dish all around.
- Smoked oysters with apples and juniper. A single smoked kushi oyster, accompanied by a fine dice of apple and a little bit of juniper gave off a flavor that was deep and woodsy without being overpowering. It was another solid offering, though it didn’t blow us away.
- New England clam chowder. This is another one of those quintessentially minibar dishes that people rave about. Potato foam fills in for cream as a base that also boasts diced bacon, clams and chive oil. The sound of spoons scraping the bottom of the bowl could be heard almost immediately as everyone devoured this delicious reimagining of a classic soup.
- Breaded cigala with sea salad. I scored some respect from Ryan by correctly identifying the veggie ingredient in this dish as sea beans (apparently many folks ask if it’s baby asparagus). Cigala, a langostine-like crustacean, is served with a crispy crust and a briny foam. This was one of the few dishes I could actually see eating in entree form.
- “Philly Cheesesteak.” American Wagyu beef is hand-seared using a kitchen torch and draped over a cannoli-style pastry filled with piped-in ‘minibar cheez whiz.’ This is a messy pair of bites, as the cheese seeks to escape by any means necessary. When we learned that one of our guests doesn’t usually eat red meat, we practically erupted into a bidding war to claim her cheesesteak. We never got a chance – its allure was too much for her to resist and she ended up loving it.
- Kumquats and pumpkin seed oil. A colorful, artistic ‘pre-dessert’ whose name pretty much speaks for itself. Particularly interesting in this dish was the fact that they hollowed out the kumquats before refilling them with kumquat sorbet (to cut down on the natural bitterness of the fruit). The pumpkin oil had a rich and toasty flavor, like hazelnut oil. We were all scraping our plates again for this one.
- Thai dessert. A dollop of ice cream surrounded by an assortment of spices, ground peanuts and herbs. This one came across as a culinary study – a celebration of the flavors that are central to Thai cooking without any real touchstones to ground it within the cuisine. We resolved right then and there to begin working chili powder into more of our desserts, as the heat was a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the ice cream.
- Frozen yogurt and honey. By freezing the yogurt and the honey into powders, the chefs are able to provide a unique textural approach to the traditional Mediterranean dessert of yogurt and honey. Fresh mint sprigs added some nice flavor to the mixture. The powdered frozen yogurt had a pronounced tartness that I really enjoyed.
- Mango box with white chocolate and olives; Saffron gumdrop with edible wrapper; Chocolate covered corn nuts. These three combined to form our ‘sweet endings,’ the final tastes before the server brings the bill. The mango boxes had a deliciously tart flavor, but that quickly gave way to a briny flavor coming from the powdered olives. The saffron gumdrops were good, though not amazing, and the wrappers really do dissolve on your tongue. Chocolate covered corn nuts were tasty, though they didn’t really do much beyond what you’d expect.
At the end of the meal, we received our check via hand-blown egg which was smashed in front of us. It should be noted that minibar is certainly not cheap – but one of the advantages of securing a reservation 30 days in advance is it gives you some time to save up for the experience. The menu is $120 per person, with $40 basic pairings or $85 for a Grand experience that involves drinking rarer vintages and estates.
Yes, the exclusivity is certainly part of the experience, though it’s a double edged sword for Andres and team. People might assume that the minibar, with its high-end price tag, is raking in the dough. But top quality ingredients come at a price, and there are no economies of scale to be had when you’re only ordering enough for 60 guests a week. If even one of those 12 seats ends up empty on a given night, there goes the razor-thin profit margin. Perhaps the performance of the Bazaar, Andres’ huge new concept space in the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills which seems to be borrowing quite a bit from the minibar’s menu and serving it up on a larger scale, will give an indication as to the likelihood of (frequently rumored) expansion here in DC.
Thanks for sticking with us through this entire rundown. It’s hard to summarize a two-and-a-half hour dining experience as creative as this one in just a few sentences, but the experience was well worth the effort.