First of all, I know there is a real mix of folks that stop by here, so for those of you who are already familiar with minibar, not a ton of new info here since the menu doesn’t change that often. Also, I’m someone who focuses on remaining immersed in the experience vs. trying to remember to take notes and snap photos with my crappy camera. So apologies for the missing photos, bad photos, and my less than stellar memory when it comes to the finer points of sauces, accompaniments, etc. Now, with the disclaimers out of the way……
Jose Andres’ “minibar” is a restaurant within a restaurant, located upstairs in Cafe Atlantico, a stone’s throw from the National Archives in DC. I did eat at Cafe Atlantico in March when I was in town on business, and the experience prompted me to do all I could to secure seats at minibar once I found out I was going to be in town on vacation last week. Basically, minibar only has six seats which are filled twice per night, and you have to call right at 10am one month to the day in advance to get a reservation. I dialed and redialed on two phones on the morning of April 30th, finally getting in at about 10:04, at which time I scored the last 2 seats for the 6pm seating. After talking to people in DC, I really got lucky since it was my first try and I only had a 2 day window for dinner. Once you score a reservation, then you work with the coordinator to email personal information back and forth……dietary restrictions, credit card info, etc. I know to many people this all has to sound pretty pretentious, and I will admit this type of experience is not for everyone. However, this type of dining is right up my alley…….small bites of exotic and delicious food over the course of 2+ hours. Don’t get me wrong, I do look at this type of meal as the ULTIMATE special occasion….from both a caloric and monetary standpoint. This is in no way a normal experience for me. The last time I did something similar was at Manresa a couple of years ago. So it was one long month between the time I made the reservations and when we were seated……
My date and I got to the Penn Quarter area pretty early in the evening, arriving at Cafe Atlantico right at 5pm so that we could sit and relax with a drink and chat for a while before being escorted upstairs. We enjoyed a couple of signature cocktails…..a “Magic Mojito” and a Pineapple Caipharina. Before long, our server Daniel came down to discuss our drink and wine selections for dinner. I settled on the same bottle of Adelsheim Rose that I enjoyed in March. It’s a very tasty wine that is just dry enough….and I thought it would be a safe bet flavorwise with the extreme diversity of flavors ahead of us. The party of four that would be joining us was running a little late, so we got to our seats at 6:10 and they ran us through all of the “instructions”. I know, instructions on how to eat dinner…..but in this format it’s necessary. Basically, the setup is like a sushi bar, so as courses are available you pull them off of the counter, and the servers constantly come up behind you to take away plates, refill glasses and provide you with course-specific flatware.
PREP WORK (Prior to launch and during service)
I have to say, there is nothing like sitting and watching what goes on in the minibar “kitchen”. It’s part laboratory, with things like liquid nitrogen and thermal immersion circulators, and part gourmet kitchen, with all manner of containers and ingredients meticulously spread out on the counter. Our chefs for the evening were Brad and Ryan, and the efficiency with which they worked reminded me of Taylor’s “time and motion studies” in the early 20th century…..there is absolutely no wasted movement from start to finish. To be honest, at one point I thought the service was going way too fast…but when I looked at the actual time between courses it was just fine…what was throwing me off was watching how quickly Brad and Ryan were working and how they ping-ponged off of one another to get one dish out while the others were being prepped. The level of detail is excruciatingly amazing…..elements like using a big pair of surgical tweezers to grab single bits of lime zest off of a microplane before gently placing it on top of a dish…and that sort of precision was the theme throughout the evening. Later on, one of the chefs mentioned that what we don’t get to see is the 8-9 hours of prep time that has to happen before we are seated. When you have to do things like pick out individual zucchini seeds for an hour for one dish, I’m surprised it doesn’t take even longer.
And now to the FOOD……
1. “Nitro” Sangria
It’s kind of like a Slurpee. That is, if your 7-Eleven has delicious sangria that they “slushify” using liquid nitrogen right in front of you. On the bottom is an extremely well chilled cube of watermelon. Good start to the evening.
2. Parmesan “Pringles”
Good munche to go along with the sangria. Basically the “Pringles” are made with Parmesan and on the side is a nice yogurt dipping sauce.
3. Beet “Tumbleweed”
You can’t really see it here, but the ball of dehydrated beet resembles the inside of a golf ball…..a single bite that is very reminiscent of what a sweet potato-potato chip would taste like.
4. Olive Oil “Bon-Bon”
This is a shot of very good Spanish olive oil encapsulated in an isomalt shell. For any Top Chef fans, this is the technique Marcel couldn’t get right in Hawaii because of the humidity. The shell was thicker than I was expecting, but did not detract from the flavor of the wonderful olive oil, accentuated with a small amount of vinegar and few grains of salt.
No picture here, but the dish was simply a shot of carbonated mojto inside an algenate sphere, with a few flecks of lime zest on top. Tasted just like a mojito, very fun presentation on a spoon.
6. “Bagels & Lox”
I had enjoyed everything up to this point, but this is where the tastebuds started to get fired up. The crisp little cornet is filled with cream cheese and salmon roe with a little dill……..I’m assuming it’s a friendly nod to Thomas Keller’s famous bite.
7. Blue Cheese and Almond
This is an almond shell that is formed in a bath of liquid nitrogen and filled with a blue cheese cream sauce and almond pieces on top. It was a dish that we were instructed to “eat quickly before it melts”, and I wish I’d waited a little longer because I found the shell to be tooth-achingly, brain freezing cold. Good cheese flavor. I will mention what a trooper my girl was during dinner. She hates blue cheese and tried it anyway. For someone who was brand new to “molecular gastronomy”, she really went with it and we both had a blast.
8. “Dragon’s Breath” Popcorn
Sorry for not having a pic, but it was another one to “eat quickly”…….basically just a curry flavored bite-sized ball of popcorn that has been treated with liquid nitrogen. It’s a tasty bite, but the fun thing is when you eat it and breathe out through your nose like the chefs tell you, huge billows of “smoke” pour out of your nostrils.
9. Boneless Chicken Wing
I’m actually bummed out that I don’t have a picture of this dish because it was the first one to get a HUGE positive reaction out of me. LOVED IT. It’s a single bite of chicken wing that is heavily spiced and a brown sugar mixture is placed on top and torched. I could eat a lot of these. One of the tastiest single bites I’ve had.
10. Steamed Brioche Bun with Caviar
This incredibly cute little dish in a one-bite steamer provided a wonderful counterpoint to the previous, spicy course. It’s a small bun of steamed brioche with some kind of cream/cream cheese in the middle, and osetra caviar and lemon air on the top. A nice little comforting “bread course”.
11. Cotton Candy Eel
Super duper rock star dish. I kid you not. One out of many now that I think about it. After the chicken wing dish we were on a whole new playing field of flavor. These two bites are pretty involved, and it was a blast to watch the prep. The soy cotton candy with a sprinkling of spice sits on top of a piece of lightly sauced grilled eel that is wrapped in a shiso leaf. We were instructed to eat “one end and then the other”…..first bite was fantastic, and the second bite had a little surprise…..a wee bit of wasabi was tucked in the opposite end. I loves me some eel, in fact, it was the unagi dish I had at Cafe Atlantico that convinced me I had to come back at some point. I know eel sounds like too much to some people, but I promise you that when cooked correctly you would never know the difference between it and the tastiest mild and meaty light-fleshed fish. Delicious dish.
FLAVORS & TEXTURES
12. Green Almonds and Pedro Ximenez “Raisins”
And the hits just kept on coming. For the life of me I can’t remember what the creamy sauce was made of, but for such a simple dish we LOVED IT. Raw almonds have such a different texture…more like a water chestnut. The two darker almonds have a marcona praline coating, and the lighter one is all natural. The dark dots are “raisins” made out of Pedro Ximenez that has been treated somehow to maintain a raisinish shape. And the sea beans…..I love sea beans. Somehow this whole thing was unctious, clean and full of wonderful textures. I’d eat it again.
13. Zucchini in Three Textures
You can’t see this very well, but it is a layered dish that has a creamy zucchini puree on the bottom and a single, beautiful layer of zucchini seeds in a gel on top of that. When I read about this dish I thought “eh”, but it ended up being very impressive. Besides the obvious work that goes into preparing it, there is way more flavor than one would expect from the humble squash. Plus it was seasoned perfectly…..juuuuust enough salt to make it an addictive little treat.
14. “Caesar Salad”
This was a good dish, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t one of my favorites of the evening. It’s basically a deconstructed caesar salad, prepared like a maki roll, sitting on top of a caesar dressing with oyster cracker-like “croutons. The wrapper is made of thinly shaved jicama and it is filled with romaine lettuce (probably something else too, can’t remember). One piece has a quail egg yolk on top of it, and the other is topped with shaved parmesan. Like I said, I like it but it was more about presentation than flavor for me.
15. Sea Urchin “Ceviche” with Hibiscus
I love sea urchin. My date got the opportunity to find out she does NOT like sea urchin. A very simple presentation….a nice piece of fresh urchin topped with hibiscus air. Two tasty little bites.
16. Parmesan “Egg” with Migas
This was pretty interesting……a “sphere” of parmesan that resembles a poached egg, filled with parmesan broth and a quail egg yolk. I enjoyed it. Not a broad range of flavors, but I do love a lot of parmesan flavor. The little crisp bits it was served with reminded me of when you dip up your egg yolk with toast.
17. Corn on the Cob
Just a simple, tasty bite of food. Sauteed baby corn served over corn puree with a corn shoot on top. Very cute.
18. Smoked Oyster
This was the point in the meal where the amount of food began catching up with me. I wasn’t “full” but I was getting pickier and pickier about what was going to turn me on. I didn’t dislike this dish, but I could have gave it up to leave room in my stomach. It’s comprised of a small smoked oyster with a bit of juniper and some sliced apple (and I think an apple foam).
A prep nightmare and a hell of a dish. Thinly sliced avocado wrapped around a tomato sorbet and topped with lime, pieces of tomato, crushed fritos and baby cilantro. It was just very refreshing and delicious….and reminiscent of actual guacamole.
20. Salmon-Pineapple “Ravioli” with Crispy Quinoa
Loved it. Another super duper hit. Two perfectly cooked chunks of rich salmon wrapped in the thinnest layer of pineapple, topped with crispy quinoa and sitting alongside a nice avocado puree. Between the texture of the quinoa and the richness of the salmon and avocado, this was a perfect dish. We were both surprised at how much we liked it.
21. New England Clam Chowder
No pic and my least favorite dish of the evening. It just wasn’t for me. It consisted of two fresh clams, a potato puree I believe and (in my opinion) and overly rich and creamy sauce. I guess it just didn’t remind me of clam chowder, and the creaminess of the sauce didn’t go well with the clams. No big deal, this was my only real clunker of the night.
22. Breaded Cigala with Sea Salad
This was a stellar dish, I was just beginning to hit the wall at this point. The cigala is basically the same as a langoustine, and it was cooked as perfectly as any piece of shellfish I’d ever had. It’s topped with a piece of fried breading with my favorite new veggie (sea beans) on the side. I don’t remember what components were in the sauce, but if I had not been as full as I was I would be raving a lot more about this dish.
23. “Philly Cheesesteak”
The death blow. Plus, they took away all of our silverware so that we were for FORCED to make a mess. It was so rich, and I was so done with the savory dishes, but it was so damn good. Thinly sliced wagyu beef is draped over a pastry-like roll that is filled with an aged cheddar (and I’m sure other things) sauce. The sauce goes everywhere, the thing is just delicious, and by the time you make it here you are DONE. I loved this thing.
24. Kumquats & Pumpkin Seed Oil
So at this point I’m done……I can go for some light desserts but I’m not wild about it. Well, this is just the dish I needed to clean and wake up my palate. By wake up my palate, I simply mean that this was, bar none, the single most tart thing I’ve ever eaten. Son-of-a-bitch this was tart. I had a couple of bites and don’t remember all of the different components, but I believe the kumquat was filled with some kind of fizzy liquid and the whole thing was a needed eye-opener. Not necessarily that tasty to me, but absolutely functional.
25. Frozen Yogurt and Honey
I think the only components in this dish were freezed dried yogurt, freeze dried honey, bits of mint and a pool of very good honey. As simple as it sounds, the “texture” of the freeze dried elements mixed in with the honey was delicious. I was surprised at how much I liked this. Gentle, refreshing and merciful after such a rollercoaster of flavors and textures.
26. Thai Dessert
Now, I’m not the biggest dessert person in the world. I like it, but I’d just as soon eat more of a savory dish or have some cheese. So this thing totally took me by surprise. It was not only one of my favorite overall dishes of the evening, it may literally be the favorite dessert of my entire life. Flavorwise it reminded me in many ways of a good Thai or Vietnamese spring roll. I don’t remember the composition of the peanut “blanket”, but the flavor was very similar to a rich Asian peanut sauce. Underneath was a coconut milk (I think) ice cream. There was also a peanut sauce and some tamarind, and baby cilantro on top. What absolutely MADE the dish was the red chile powder on the side that we were instructed to include in every bite. This thing fired on all cylinders, and was probably even better than I remember since I was already so spent. I don’t throw this word around very often because it is so overused, but it was genius. True genius.
27. Fizzy Ball
28. Chocolate Covered Corn Nuts
29. White Chocolate, Black Olive and Mango Box
30. Saffron Gumdrop with Edible Wrapper
A little slate platter filled with tasty mignardises. No big revelations or notes here, but I will say that the white chocolate, black olive and mango box was one of the most interesting flavor combinations I’ve tasted in a while. I’d like to try it again sans food coma so that I could think about it further and decide if I loved it or hated it.
A meal like this requires special utensils.
The bill is playfully presented in an egg shell and smashed on the counter right in front of you. I’m sure some will think I’m crazy when I say this, but the $120.00 per person price tag on the meal (not including tax, tip or drinks) is one of the biggest culinary bargains in the United States.
Okay, so this was absolutely in the top two meals I’ve ever had…..I just can’t say it was BETTER than Manresa because it was so different. From start to finish it was executed perfectly, the service was as good and professional as it gets, and the flavors and textures will stick with me for life. I’d love to go back sometime. I will say that dining companions are important during a meal like this one. When the other two couples arrived I thought we were in trouble. There was a bit of an air of “DC Douchebag” about them…..you know, loud yacking about work, arriving LATE FOR F’ING MINIBAR, etc. But soon we realized what was PROBABLY going on was that the one couple were both for-real food folks, and their male friend, who was pretty cool, was “hooked up” for a first date with the second girl (we could be wrong about this, but the girl and I are very perceptive). And it was the second girl that was the problem……..total prima donna pain in the ass syndrome, and when there are only six seats at the counter it tends to stick out more than it normally would. Seriously, this was her throughout the entire meal…. “Is this the right end of the utensil to use? What about last course? Did I use the right end THEN? WHEN DO WE USE THE OTHER END? Are we good customers? How would you rate us? Would you say we’re the best customers you’ve ever had?”. I kid you not, that was the entire evening for her, she was a broken record. Plus, she was the vegetarian of the group. And I have to hand it to the chefs at minibar, they go out of their way to make the vegetarian experience all that it can be and they time the dishes perfectly to go with the non-veggie options. I’d say at this point I’m about 80% vegetarian with the meals I eat at home, so I have nothing against the lifestyle, but when you need to remind everyone every fifteen seconds that you don’t eat meat AND THEN you go ahead at the end of the meal and suck down one of the Philly Cheesesteaks…….you suck as a human being. Everyone but this girl was a trooper and a well spoken food-savvy individual, so it definitely could have been worse. Plus, you’d have to be dropping mortar fire on me to truly ruin a meal like that or draw my attention from it completely.
Lastly, I’d be crazy not to include the “bariatric” angle here. The amount of food that I’d be consuming was a concern with my gastric bypass. Calorie-wise it was not something I can do very often, but surprisingly I made it through all of the dishes just fine due to the timing and the fact that most were only one or two bites. At one point later in the meal I did get some mild queasiness due to the richness of some courses, but nothing alarming. I would not recommend it for all post-surgery folks because I do have a freakishly strong constitution, but as far as high end dining after gastric bypass goes, I guarantee the most bang for the buck at a restaurant like minibar.
Honestly, I will remember this meal forever for a number of reasons. The food, the theatrical preparations and presentations, and the fact that it was the second date with “the C.H.U.D.”, are all elements that made it the most special of all special occasions.
Now back to my daily intake of tofu, vitamins and protein supplements………….I’m due for the “Five day pouch test” really soon.