Fri 10 Jul 2009
As a twirtysomething, I’ve noticed brunch has become the new Saturday night. Raucous girls’ nights in Adams Morgan are replaced with cozy dates or -for some – hanging with the kids. Naturally the next best thing to a boozy Saturday night is a stiff Bloody Mary on a Sunday morning. And what better Bloody Mary to sip than a Jill Zimorski version of the classic Bloody Mary with tomato water and celery foam?
The Cafe Atlantico Latino Dim Sum brunch has been on our must-try list for far too long. The weather was warm, our weekend was open and it was time to do something about it. We were joined at brunch by Los Alemanes and their adorable boy Lucas.
We’d been lucky repeat visitors at Andres’ MiniBar upstairs and couldn’t wait to try his unique take on dim sum, a traditional Chinese breakfast. We were not disappointed. Brunch at Atlantico is offered a la carte, with a selection of roughly 25 small plates that can be mixed and matched to create your ideal meal. But they also offer a pair of tasting menus that put your choices in the hands of the chefs for $35 (14 dishes) or $25 (12 vegetarian dishes) and allow you to experience a broader range of tastes in one sitting. We couldn’t help ourselves – we went for the tasting.
The chefs wasted no time getting us started. Out came one of the most intensely flavorful bites I have ever enjoyed at a brunch: a small, silky kushi oyster topped with a sweet mango puree and a few snippets of chive. We exchanged looks around the table and knew that we were all thinking the same thing: Wow. With an opening salvo like that, we couldn’t wait to see what would follow.
A play-by-play of the other thirteen dishes (and a detour for some tableside guacamole) after the jump.
Eclipsed by the oysters, a pair of dishes came out nearly simultaneously. Free-form ravioli offered up contrasting flavors with briny anchovies and sweet mango, but we just couldn’t stop raving about the shellfish dish long enough to truly appreciate them. A tuna ceviche that came wrapped in a thin sheet of jicama and sprinkled with corn nuts fared a bit better, but it still suffered from following so closely upon the oysters.
From there, we had a bit of a break in the action so we were able to get beyond the oysters and focus on what lay ahead. While we sipped our aguas frescas and inventive cocktails, we were all talking about the way the one- or two-bite portion sizes were doing in terms of satisfying our hunger. I’ll admit it, there was some concern that fourteen tastes might not be enough to sate us…and there was that tableside guacamole to think about. Still, we put it aside as the next set of dishes arrived at the table.
Tomato-canteloupe skewers definitely earn the “Truth in Advertising” award for the meal. Each one of us received a wooden skewer that featured half of a cherry tomato and a scoop of canteloupe along with a sprig of microcilantro. It was simple and symmetrical, a definite treat for the eyes…but the only thing out of the ordinary about the taste was the unusual pairing of the two flavors.
We were once again impressed, however, with the potato and vanilla mousse that followed. Served with a dollop of American caviar (paddlefish roe, perhaps?) and a drizzle of oil, the interplay of the potatoes’ saltiness and the rich sweetness of the vanilla was impressive. Clinking could be heard around the table as we each scraped the sides of our shot glasses in an attempt to chase down every last morsel. It takes a particularly creative mind to even think about pairing such unrelated flavors and a skilled hand to make it work. This dish delivered on every bit of Atlantico’s promise.
Conch fritters were next on the menu. Yawn, right? Wrong. Turns out, they make fritters a little bit differently here. Sure they’ve still got their crispy, deep-fried exteriors…but at Atlantico the fritters surround a liquid center. The hot soupy interior reminded us of chowder as it threatened to spill down our shirts while we valiantly tried to corral it. Tasty, but messy.
Moving on, we came to a dish described as “hot & cold foie gras and corn soup.” Another shot glass serving, this one offered a hot soup that delivered all of the advertised flavors but seemed to lack the “cold foie gras” element. But it did give us another small serving of corn nuts, and Mr. Alemane (the biggest foie lover among us) definitely gave it a thumbs up on taste.
Mushrooms and “Egg 63″ are another one of those Andres-special dishes that define a trip to Atlantico. By cooking the egg at 63 degrees Celsius (~145.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in an immersion circulator, they allow the white to solidify without boiling the egg. What emerges looks like the egg equivalent of Jell-O…until you puncture the yolk. At that point, the yellow interior comes gushing out, still perfectly liquid. Mixing it with the mushrooms in the bowl made for a creamy, earthy dish that I especially enjoyed.
Then it was on to the “entree” portion of our meal, where we received three more substantial dishes at the same time. We got a delicious carne asada made from grilled skirt steak that was cooked to a beautiful medium-rare, a pineapple-unagi dish that may or may not have been devoured before I could remember to take a picture, and a bowl of coconut rice, crispy rice and ginger that was tasty, but really more of a side dish than a craveable taste on its own. The carne asada was good enough to have us thinking about requesting a second order, but we were getting full (surprisingly so considering the leisurely pacing and the portion sizes) so we decided to stick with the schedule.
The next two dishes continued the “entree” – confited pork belly and a clever take on migas that offered up tortilla strips, mashed black beans with pork in them, and a truly fried egg. That’s the egg there in the middle, the thing that looks like a large piece of chicken tempura. Points for creativity here, though the flavors came through exactly as you might expect. I hate to say it, but the pork belly really felt like overkill at this point. Although the fat had rendered nicely from this less-than-lean cut of pork, it still had a heaviness to it.
Finally the siren song proved too powerful and we asked our waitress if she could interrupt our tasting with an order of guacamole. She smiled at the request, probably because she knew the allure of the guac (but maybe because she knew we only had one tasting course left at this point). We got to watch the tableside preparation, and our server polled us to find out how spicy we wanted it (very) before mixing in the chiles and mashing up the avocados (three halves). At $13 it was certainly something of a splurge, but it was undeniably delicious. Our request for a spicy preparation had been well-heeded, and even Mrs. Alemane took a drink or two to cool off between bites.
Two hours later – after a wonderfully leisurely meal that was neither hurried nor dragged out – our final course arrived. Described to us as Spanish French toast, pan dulce had a sweet, eggy flavor complemented by a nutty cheese that was seared atop the bread. It was like a vegetarian Monte Cristo sandwich, and we loved every bite of it.
Atlantico’s Latino Dim Sum Brunch was a terrific way to spend an early Sunday afternoon – sitting outside, enjoying great food with some close friends. Although the price tag starts to climb when you order a few cocktails to go with your tasting menu, the $35 baseline is a great value for the quality – and the quantity – of food that you get.