Category Archives: Evangelical Christianity

100th Post! The Greatest Meal of My Life…

100th Post!  What took so damn long?  Oh boy!  I eat the fancy food!  I eat the fancies!  And the pretties! The pretties and the fancies!

To the most logical extreme within the boundaries of my level of supreme over-spending on dining, I’ve eaten some pretty good stuff. It’s much easier to justify that incarnation of a crippling addiction…it’s socially acceptable, delicious, and fun to talk about.  I forget how far from normal I am sometimes with the OCD sourcing, dining, planning and cooking. But the freakishness makes me the go-to guy for people who need a recommendation.  Either I can point you to “the very best of whatever”, or I have resources that can handle whatever I can’t answer. “Your death row meal”….”best bite you’ve ever eaten”….and a thousand other topics that have sparked Penthouse letter level discussions of meals gone by. A topic about restaurant health violations on another blog had me going back and rattling my memory for horror stories, and it made me think of the best meal I’ve ever had. It was not the pretties.  The fancies….about as far from the fancies as a mule pissing on a flat rock and having it splash way down into your shoelaces.  However, what was arguably the best meal I’ve ever eaten in my life was in the spring of 1990, while sitting in a gutter in Tepec, Mexico. I was 20.

This was back during when I was trying to decide what I wanted to do in ministry, and I spent a year in The Masters Commission program in Phoenix, Arizona.  Basically, it’s a ministry school of sorts where the church gets free unlimited labor for a year, and you get to send a TON of timber up to your mansion in heaven.  That was the year my brother died, and upon returning to Phoenix after his funeral and the holidays I was a bit out of sorts.  Filtering the grieving process through God’s will and all of that…an existential crisis that had to be wedged into the confines of black and white redneck theology.  But FANCY redneck theology…this was a superchurch that predated superchurches…Phoenix First Assembly…and I was one of the lucky few chosen for The Masters Commission/We’re Better Than The Mormons program.  If Jesus had a Seal Team 6, we were it.  So anyway, no less than a million stories THERE, but back to Tepec…

A bunch of people in the program got peeled off to go on a missions trip to El Salvador for a couple of months. I was kind of “in jail” because of my attitude and inability to let the Holy Spirit rush me through my grief, so I didn’t get chosen for that.  Two guys were picked to drive a 1973 school bus all the way from Phoenix to San Salvador, as a gift for the children’s missionary who ran the ministry that was hosting the group. Obviously, I wasn’t chosen for that task either. BUT there was no task that was crazier, more dangerous or just “out there” in general…so I had to go for the glory and street-cred and get in on some of that.  I called up Lloyd, our leader, and asked if I could not only go on the missions trip, but also be on the bus….I felt “led” to ask him, and I thought it was something that could give me a much needed boost.  No idea what my real motivation was at the time…glory and popularity chasing mixed with a bit of a deathwish…but long story short, he agreed to it, in part, because “even though you’re not old enough for us to insure as a driver on the bus, you will be good at keeping the other two from killing each other”.

Mark was a great mechanic and Andy knew Spanish.  They could both drive a bus. And someone really may have died if it was just the two of them. As it was, Mark and I had a very serious discussion about whether or not we could muster enough Spanish to get through the borders of Guatemala and El Salvador without Andy. Andy was a total douche who often put us in unnecessary danger, and as we drank two highly-forbidden bottles of Corona we weighed our options and by the slightest, tiniest margin decided NOT to leave him on the side of the road in southernmost Mexico.  Our leader’s instincts were correct…even though I did not drive the bus one foot during the 2000+ mile, eight day trip, my contributions were vital. Nobody died. And that was mostly luck. It wasn’t a big deal playing referee with those two or anything, there are just five million different ways to get killed on a trip like that and we bumped up against twelve thousand of them.  

At this point anyone who knows me has stopped reading because they have suffered through twenty years of the same El Salvador stories and are horrified that I have found a new audience.  I don’t think I’ve abused this particular story that badly, because it’s not as fun to tell as the ones where things were exploding…this was at a time when fierce fighting between govt troops and rebels was just winding down.  But it was like Monte Carlo compared to that goddamn bus.  The way it worked was this: Since you only have a few hundred miles of actual highway as you head down the Pacific coast of Mexico, it takes way, way, way longer to get anywhere.  Especially when you are driving a twenty year old school bus that has been freshly painted bright white with neon red lettering down the sides spelling out a poorly translated slogan “Because The Children Need Jesus”, that happens to be loaded down with a ton of puppets, toys, canned goods, and a bunch of other crap that gets rifled through five times each day by federal troops searching for drugs. A translator with the most broken sense of comedic timing and the assumption that all Mexicans have the same sense of humor tends to lose you some time as well. We’d have to drive from sun up to sun down, between twelve and sixteen hours per day and it still took us about eight days to get to our destination.  At night we’d stop at whatever town was closest, and normally two of us would get a cheap (even by Mexican standards) hotel room and the third guy would sleep on the bus to keep an eye on it. A lot of well meaning, well travelled, upper middle class liberal white people would lead you to believe that there aren’t any dangerous places in the world because bad things can happen anywhere…and it’s inherently bad and downright rude to put labels on anyone or anything.  Well, take it from me when I tell you that if you’re travelling through the entirety of rural western Mexico, when it gets dark you want to be in a well populated area for the night.  Time never moves slower than when your Jesus-beacon bus is broken down between two towns with thirty miles of jungle road separating them, and it is long past dark. It is a worst case scenario that we tried our best to avoid, and is what landed us in Tepec.

We skipped solid food for at least a couple of days based solely on the conditions of the Pemex gas station bathrooms. That, plus the fact that once you get into the more tropical parts of Mexico there aren’t many great places to pull off to the side of the road and walk into the jungle for a dump. The terrain is unpredictable and there is stuff alive out there. And as I mentioned before, towns can be very far apart and twenty miles can turn in to five hours.  The oppressive heat also makes it easier to stick to fluids.  While I never really regretted volunteering for the adventure, it was one of those things you knew would look a hell of a lot better in hindsight.  If I remember correctly, the day leading up to our stop in Tepec was extraordinarily brutal.  The high elevation scenery was not unlike Tony’s arrival in Colombia in the movie Scarface. Very scenic, green, misty, other-worldly. And you’d catch glimpses of that in between shit like staring wide-eyed every time you rounded a bend in the road to see whether or not your lane had been washed down the mountainside. Or the ubiquitous cow in the middle of the fucking road.  Or learning the unwritten Mexican law of the mountain road “if I rear end you and you can still drive your vehicle, I don’t have to stop”.  It was just a bad day, but they were all pretty much like that. And I think our plan was to try and make it to whatever town was past Tepec, and even though we arrived there right as it got dark we probably would have kept going.  But that fucking place just swallowed us up.

Most nights, one of us would be stuck sleeping on the bus. Which was total shit, because the “children who need Jesus” would stop by in droves to see what was up, and those little fuckers are mean…terrorizing you for not throwing open the doors and giving them toys at 3am, beating on the doors, throwing stuff at the windows…and you know as soon as you flip out on one of them you’ll have a whole Mexican village drawing and quartering you.  On a couple of occasions, all three of us were stuck on the bus all night. After trying to navigate through a maze of freakishly narrow streets to either find a hotel or the way out of town, Tepec was just such an occasion. That town sucked. And either we kept circling in the worst neighborhood, or the whole city is just cursed. If you’re one of those annoying people who get all offended and assume any negative comment about another country is spoken by an “ugly American”, go fuck yourself. The ‘hood is the ‘hood, in any language, and I’m quite familiar with the fine line between the types of areas where white people venture in order to get some level of liberal-guilt street cred, and the types of areas where you just do not belong. This particular area was just south of somewhere we did not belong, so we found a parking lot and planned to hole up there until morning.  The rest of Tepec might have gold-paved streets for all I know. We just happened to stumble upon the area where the workers who pave those streets go raping.

I don’t remember what we’d talk about on those nights when we’d all have to sleep on the bus.  Once we were just so wiped I don’t think we said anything at all…until about 3am when a soldier came beating on the door and we realized we’d pulled over to sleep at the entrance of a huge military base. We were pretty big on re-capping anything insane that stuck out in particular from that day. And we talked about food quite a bit. Overall, we were in pretty good spirits…this was all for God and we were looking forward to meeting up with our friends who had already flown into El Salvador.  You’d chit chat until you were ready to pass out though, because there’s no good way to sleep on a school bus. The floor is too filthy and there is zero air movement. The seats are too narrow and short to get a good position.  In the end, the best you can hope for is putting boxes or something in the aisle between the two seats to give your legs someplace to rest. But still, lying across the seats means those little bastard kids can crawl up to the windows and almost be in your face. And it was usually very hot.  Hot enough for me to get over any fear of going shirtless in front of others when it was time to get to sleep.

I wish I could remember the logic we used to get off of the bus in the middle of this neighborhood in the middle of the night in order to go and break a solid-food fast with something that was sure to have us soiling ourselves for days to come.  I think there was some talk of just two of us going, one to still watch the bus and be ready to come pick us up if something started happening…or power in numbers if three of us went.  Whether we all went or not is hard to remember, and what we’d find once we got there was a total pig in a poke. What I do recall is lying there generally pissed off, bored, and a little scared when the smell of cooking meat made its way across the parking lot. Grill smoke is a universal language, and we were starving.  The little cart/stand was about half a block from where we sat, and by this time in the evening it’s not like it was being overrun with people…which made it a little scarier actually. Some elaborate trap to lure us gringos out into the open with the promise of grilled meats.  In reality, we were about fifteen hundred miles away from anyone who cared being able to hear us scream, so if we were dead men we were already dead, so may as well have some food.

The little food stands are just everywhere in Mexican towns.  Tepec was the point at which we went from avoiding them altogether to the OTHER extreme…we started eating anything and everything we could find.  We avoided the bags of juice drinks kids sold because of the water, but other than that we ate a ton of stuff that would be Travel Channel-worthy.  In the ‘hood in Tepec, it was your typical little family food stand where they were selling some and feeding the family at the same time.  If I were the culinary genius back then that I am today I’m sure I’d have some involved descriptions of the food and condiments. Surprisingly, instead of tacos, tamales and things of that nature, we arrived to find…hot dogs and hamburgers.  Well, by Tepec standards perhaps.  The relatively identifiable shapes of the meats and buns were the only things giving them away. The hamburgers were slider-sized and overcooked, with a tiny bun and way too much of a mayo/crema/onion/pepper mixture on top.  The hot dogs were really different….think of a freakishly fat leg stuffed into some kind of spandex, with random slits in the fabric where the fat presses out…and instead of tied/twisted off ends to close the hot dog the casing is just open with some meat coming out.  All I can remember is some kind of green hot sauce with those.

Now, I’m not going to pretend I have some Mexican hot dog poetry planned here…there isn’t some crescendo that surpasses all of the words I’ve dedicated to temples of gastronomy in New York and San Francisco.  I was a twenty year old kid with several days worth of filth on him, hungry and dehydrated, sitting on a curb in Mexico with his feet planted in a nasty gutter, eating deliciously charred mystery meats like his life depended on it.  It’s funny what you can be thankful for when you’re at a place way on down the road you never expected to see, and you find something familiar and comforting in the scariest of surroundings.  We ate with a speed and volume that amused anyone who happened to stop by for a meal, and we downed God knows how many sodas.  Without question, the best meal of my life thus far. It was a turning point that happened in the midst of a much larger turning point that I can look back at now in the comfort of the past twenty years and know in my heart there isn’t a hell of a lot in life as nice as finding something good to eat instead of worrying about whether or not you are approaching the twilight of your existence.

 

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DC Grub 2011: Komi

Tuesday Night at Komi…

At Komi, when it comes to taking pictures, the decision is made for you…you can’t do it. It’s a rule of the house, and rightfully so. It’s located in a cool little walk-up, above a dry cleaner in Dupont Circle, so it’s a pretty narrow Quaker-Mediterranean decorated space with a very mellow vibe…so the last thing anyone would want is for the snapping and flashing of photography. And if that’s too much for your entitled mind to grasp, then you would REALLY hate the dining format…..no menu, you just eat what is put in front of you. It’s a set-price, 13 or 14 course menu with a Greek/Mediterranean mezze theme…..for the most part. Chef Johnny Monis seems to be a polarizing figure of sorts in the DC food community…..I read comments calling him overrated, genius, and everything in between. In my opinion, if you live in a town with all of the restaurants I’ve been talking about within twenty minutes of your doorstep, you are pretty fortunate. So with that said, as someone from “flyover country”, I say that if you think Komi sucks then you’re pretty damn lucky to have the options and experience with which to make that type of observation. Now, I’ve had enough “faincy” meals to say that I would NOT go throwing the GENIUS label at Monis, and I can absolutely understand that it would not be everyone’s cup of tea….but I had one heck of a great time, and this will probably be the first place I visit with my wife when I return.

Oh the sounds of Morrissey and chick guitar music on the stereo, and none of those annoying DC business boys who get progressively louder and more aggressively political as they drink. My reservation was at 5:30, so the room was super-mellow for a while. Business and the noise did pick up as the night went on, but nothing that would inhibit quiet conversation. The staff was definitely on the younger side and extremely enthusiastic about the food. To drink I had some of their housemade ginger beer and some Sprecher’s Cola. A couple of the servers mentioned to me how they’ve seen a huge trend in the offering of upscale non-alcoholic drinks, and from a business perspective….wise move. Now, you’re never going to make wine money on soft drinks, but you can EASILY match your mixed drink profits because there really isn’t much of a difference in what I paid for a “fancy” non-alcoholic drink and what I would have paid for bourbon or beer. And I’ll order way more soft drinks during a three hour meal than I would mixed drinks, obviously. Good to hear some places are at least thinking in that direction, I will say that housemade cola is one of my favorite finds recently. Soooo…..friendly staff eager to hear what you thought about each course, warm and mellow room, pretty “cool” fellow diners….overall I’d say the vibe at Komi (and definitely Eola) were closest to my personal favorite comfort zone. Very relaxed with a little jolt of excitement in the room. AND for me, the perfect amount of food (other than the mega-sized goat should). No bariatric sweats, not even once, which means some folks may leave pissed off that they didn’t get enough to eat.

The first course was a bit of finger-food, Steamed Brioche with Smoked Trout Roe (and crème fraiche?), a twist on a classic canapé and good little intro to the meal. I totally spaced on some of these courses….they did provide me with a copy of the menu at the end, but it was pretty much a list of single words, so that plus my bad memory….you get the idea. In case you don’t know anything about Komi, the general idea is that as the meal progresses, the flavors and portions get bigger…a culinary crescendo.

Next up was a crudo trio… Hamachi w/Salt, Madai (Snapper) w/Fried Caper Berry and Kindai ( Blue Fun Tuna) w/Fresh Grated Wasabi. I am NOT an expert, but all were very good examples of crudo in my limited experience. The first two were perfectly sliced, not too warm and not too cold, and the third was a finely diced quenelle.

Scallop Two Ways– first was a horizontal slice with blood orange, and the second was diced with caramelized coconut. Loved this dish, I could have eaten three or four more of the first one.

Lobster– sadly, I don’t remember a damn thing…bisque? Weird, I generally remember a lobster dish, but this one is lost to the ages….

Spanikopita– another weeeee bit of finger food…the classic in cube form, on a little bed of tzatziki you can roll it in before eating.

Egg Ravioli with Shaved Smoked Tuna– now THIS BITE, this bite was way up on the southern cusp of “gay jock hate crime of love” territory. Absolutely fantastic….nice thin ravioli noodle, perfectly creamy egg yolk and then the punch of that tuna…smoked and then shaved on what had to be the thinnest setting on a truffle grater. One of the most perfect bites of food in the world today.

House Cured Smoked Foie Gras– this was described by my server as “a hint of the dishes to come”…and I guess it made sense, so far it went raw-raw-creamy-fried-smoked-smoked…..so where there’s smoke there’s going to be fire? Anyway, this was a tasty and creative little bite of foie gras….but after you’ve had the bacon cured version at Eola, there probably won’t be another comparable cured/smoked version found in your lifetime.

And then out of nowhere, all of the hint-dropping suddenly revealed itself in the Half Smoke with Old Bay Pork Rind. Okay, I know, sounds a bit gimmicky…the whole culinary crescendo thing, but I’ll be damned if this wasn’t one fantastic hot dog. A little three bite version…spicy, perfectly grilled, delicious bun and relish, with an Old Bay pork rind on the side. I’d eat these all the time if I could.

Then, the Mascarpone Filled Date– a very warm roasted date split open, filled with mascarpone cheese and then sprinkled with a generous amount of salt. Totally worked…better than any similar version I’ve tasted at any tapas place.

Gnocchi– Damn, I really don’t remember what came with the gnocchi. They were very good texturally, and I think it was parmesan and some other things, nothing elaborate.

Casarelli– This was a little portion of housemade fusilli with ragu. The pasta itself was pretty impressive… homemade fusilli isn’t something I see on many menus, and the ragu had that rich, acidic kick you can only get from a long, slow simmer. Good dish.

And then, it was time for….the biggest and most irreverent dish of the evening- Katsikki– this monster of a dish consisted of a slow roasted young goat shoulder, homemade pita, tzatziki, pickled cabbage, hot sauce, herb salt and eggplant puree. A “do it yourself gyro” plate. It was really pretty glorious. No way to get into this thing than to squeeze on some fresh lemon and then dive in up your elbows in all of that roasted meat and slather on the condiments. This thing would have been a huge single meal on its own, much less the finale to so many other smaller bites. Trying the various condiments with pieces of the tender, roasted goat was what it was all about. I think they hand out a beach towel with this dish to keep the splatter-factor down. Obviously, when it comes to that much solid protein I’m done for, so they packed up most of it for me and it was one HELL of a midnight mega-snack. Yeah, very very tasty, kind of funny, Chef Monis is okay in my book.

Oh, then the most gloriously ironic course that I thought must have been invented with me in mind: a one-bite Mizithra cheese course. Just a little sandwich of cheese, less than a bite. I told them to let the chef know he is doing God’s work with this one.

Lemon– I think this was a cookie and ice cream dessert…can’t recall much about it.

Chocolate– This was AWESOME, and I’m not the biggest dessert guy. Chef Monis loves his salt, but unlike a lot of restaurants who have jumped on the salted caramel bandwagon, he does not overdo it. This was similar to that Kit Kat bar at Central, except tiny, less than 2 bites, and in my opinion way better. Chocolate, salted caramel and peanut butter, with some sort of crisp through the middle.

Lollipops– a little homemade sucker of a fruit I can’t recall and some black pepper.

Like I said, I did enjoy my meal at Komi. So much so, in fact, it will absolutely be at the top of my places to visit the next time I’m in town. I can understand some of the criticism…in some ways the no-menu/flavor progression thing can be a little awkard…..at one point I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to make a Home Alone face and scream, “Holy Fuck! They just gave me a hot dog!”. But in reality, sometimes it’s just too easy to overthink a concept or read too much into what a chef is trying to communicate. In the end, tasty and creative food, fantastic service, wonderful ambience…..and just plain fun. We can’t forget about fun.

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DC Grub 2011: Intro & Eola…

A couple of things before I get into the details of each of the restaurants: First, high end solo dining is awesome. Obviously, the best scenario would have been to have my wife with me so that we could enjoy it all together. BUT if she were with me, there’s no way we would have hit all of these restaurants…this adventure involved a little bit of money.  But as far as going solo, man it is great. In my experience, you are very, very well taken care of…..whether it’s because they feel sorry for the orphan, or because if you are there alone you are there for the food…whatever, no idea. Maybe it’s just me. Not to brag, but if you want the most a restaurant has to offer, I’m  a good dining companion for you. I research the living shit out of restaurants like these before I go, so usually I am familiar with the menu and I constantly engage the staff to discuss the food and various aspects of the service and restaurant itself. I am great at schmoozing….and it’s not fake, I am genuinely happy to be there and if you are good to me I’m your buddy. And I tip really well. So a three and a half hour meal by my lonesome is a hell of a good time. Plus, you get to listen to other conversations and hear things like “Have you had foie gras???  It is SOOOOOOOOO FRENCH!!”. Second, the no-booze thing…..I have this weird inferiority complex, like I’m robbing the restaurant by not ordering wine. So when I declined any cocktails or pairings, it was in an apologetic manner….kind of stupid I guess, because I quickly learned that nobody really cared. Sure, they would love to double your check, but ultimately they want you to have a great experience. Looking at other tables during all of my dinners I saw several folks who, for whatever reason, didn’t order booze. Sure, I miss having wine, but honestly, I just enjoy the food more now….no dulling of my mind and palate from downing a bottle or two. AAANNNNDDD….non-alcoholic drinks and various housemade colas and ginger ales abounded during my stay. No booze was no big deal, and like I said, I tip really, really well….kind of like when you use a gift certificate and you still tip on the original amount.  Part of my tip comes from the fact I just want to give a little extra to my server because I would have normally plunked another hundred bucks onto the bill at a minimum when I drank. Oh, if you are one of those people who subtract tax and alcohol before you figure a tip….please stop reading and go away. Seriously. I hate you.  You are a stupid, stingy fucker with no class and if you’re doing math to save a few dollars off of the hundreds you just dropped, I guarantee you are one of those entitled pain in the ass types who just lacks joy and basic social skills. Fuck off. You are a pariah with a completely flawed philosophy on life. Your spouses and children abhor you and plot against you behind your back.

So now that those pricks are gone, on to the goddamn wonderment….

DISCLAIMER: The following acts were performed by a professional. Do not attempt to recreate this itinerary without extensive research and prior experience.  I shit you not. Money aside, it was very intense. 

DISCLAIMER #2: I have given up on compiling exhaustive and consistent descriptions of dishes. I just jot down whatever hits me, I let go of that bizarre OCD thing.  I’m thankful for others who go to the lengths I used to, I love food porn, but the writing, the picture taking…bleh. I take pictures when it feels appropriate, and always after I get reassurance from a server that the chef and staff don’t think of it as completely douche-y.  But again, I’m not consistent and sometimes I just don’t feel like doing it. I’m there for peace, good conversations, and the food. The food blogger shit is way down on the priority list.

Saturday Night at Eola

Now this is a place I didn’t know existed until I mentioned my love of offal over on eGullet when I began planning this trip.  Initially, the menu sounded a little gimmicky, but the few reviews available were very positive. I actually moved my reservation for Restaurant Eve to Monday night in order to eat at Eola. Smart goddamn move on my part, let me tell you!  Chef Daniel Singhofen is going some amazingly tasty stuff! Wouldn’t it be annoying if I switched into exclamation mark mode when describing the food? WINNING!

So, nice walk-up former residence (I assume) just off of Dupont Circle…low lighting, clean and subtle room, comfy, cozy, lots of dark wood…a pleasant amount of the chill-factor.

As it is with most “faincy” restaurants, the service starts off pretty formal and evolves to suit you and your demeanor and attitude. I’m a guy who wants to have fun, enjoy good food, and be the easiest table the staff is going to have all night long. I put a very, very big premium on waitstaff who are emotionally invested in the restaurant and have real opinions on the food, and are enthusiastic about it. I was lucky on this trip, because I got that at every single restaurant.  Another common element was the sensitivity the staff had towards how you would like to pace the meal. I have a tiny stomach now, so I adjusted accordingly in order to let digestion happen and avoid the bariatric-sweats.

Quick note- there was no initial mention of a tasting menu option when my server presented me with the list of dishes. But as soon as I asked, we were off and running.

Deep Fried Pig’s Ear

The ears are brined, slow cooked, sliced and tempura fried, then served with a housemade tartar sauce. Deep fried lip smackity jaw gumming goodness.

Amuse Bouche- Confit of Pork heart with pecan– a “minerally and sweet” intro to the meal that let’s you know what you are in for.

Sous Vide Duck Egg with garlic broth and comte

This was the only dish I was iffy about, It was very tasty and rich, but maybe too subtle.  Either the broth needed a little oomph or it could have used more texture. 

Chicken fried pork tongue- pickled shallots, lentils, spiced apple puree

The brined tongue had more of a corned beef flavor and texture than tongue, and it was rock star good. This was definitely the “it may have sounded gimmicky at first, but this shit is for-real good” moment of the night. Damn,damn, damn good dish. And it was proof that the Chef Singhofen not only knew how to cook tongue, he knew how to do a proper, crispy, flaky chicken fry. Throughout the meal, whatever direction he took the ingredients, he always started with a very solid technical foundation and went from there. I really like this guy.

FBLT- bacon cured foie gras, truffled brioche, micro greens, madeira reduction

Probably the best dish of the night and without question the richest thing  I’ve ever eaten. Completely and utterly insane. When I say it was the richest thing I’ve ever eaten, I’m not fucking around. And it made me emotional. Fortunately for me, there were a handful of these moments during my whole trip, but this was the first instance…a “what the fuck” moment on steroids. So powerful that the only way I can describe it is to paint a picture….the feeling that hit me so strongly the image that came to mind was a college freshman jock still wearing his high school letter jacket like you see in one of those bad Oxygen movies who is gay but is in such deep and painful denial that he overcompensates with overt but awkward manliness until his first year in college when he has a Brokeback moment that goes horribly wrong….joyfully and blissfully locked in a forbidden embrace until the pain of his closeted existence boils over as self-loathing revulsion; and he reacts quickly and violently…so quickly that the joy has not completely left him, so he sobs as he rains blows down upon the object of his affection, tears streaming, snot bubbles the size of oranges…..letter jacket collar askew, soul torn open, lost, guilty, wide eyed and unable to process the moment……….I hated that sandwich…..I loved that sandwich so much….I could not bite it hard enough but I knew with each movement of my jaw our time together dwindled away…..why did it even have to be here?  Who thought this was a good idea?  Why does it make me feel so dirty? OK- so from here on instead of painting that picture over again when I get to one of those dishes I’ll just say something like “it was gay jock hate crime of love good” or something to that effect. If you’ve seen the episode of HBO’s “The Wire” where Chris beats that guy to death so badly it freaks Snoop out….throw some of that in there too. Just bam bam bam bam bam.

Pig Brain Tortellini

Again, sounds offal-trendy, but the pasta itself was absolutely perfect and the consistency of the brains made it a dish you could pass off as cheese filled.  Singhofen’s hand at homemade pasta is top notch, he knows what he is doing…I’d like to see his exploration in pastas in the same way his chicken-fry technique appeals to me.

Black Cod- sous vide with black olive paste, Carolina wild rice, cayenne glass

I’d had a ton of food already and been hammered with richness, so it took me a few moments to recover in order to enjoy this course. Totally delicious, the sous vide made it feel and taste like a perfectly cooked sweet scallop. Maybe the best texture of any fish dish I’ve had, and the black olive was prominent without being overpowering.  The more I ate, the more I liked it.  An intriguing combination of flavors I had not experienced before.

Lamb Croquette with arugula puree, barley and barley broth foam

 Very rich, a briney flavor to it, but I was told it had not been brined (and from various staff comments, Singhofen is as big a proponent of brining as Thomas Keller). Would make an incredible breakfast dish, or something you’d eat to comfort you while trapped indoors during a blizzard. 

Braised beef cheek with a red wine reduction and Anson Mill grits

What do you say about something like this? Sunday dinner good. Damn I love beef cheek. I do not know why it isn’t on more menus.

Cheese Course– I don’t actually remember what all was there, but pretty standard stuff. A nice small and manageable amount. I’m pretty much over the cheese course as a concept, with two very notable exceptions in upcoming reviews.

Orange Blossom Panna Cotta

My server told me that as he and the chef discussed the construction of my tasting menu, he knew I’d need something nice and light to finish off the meal. Excellent, excellent choice…..a nice few creamy citrusy bites to cleanse my palate and wake me back up.

Speaking of waking up….I am convinced that restaurants should do away with brewed coffee completely and make the switch to French press.  I roast my own coffee, so I’m a pretty tough customer to impress, and Eola does a good job and actually has a selection of coffees from which to choose. 

I’ll definitely go back to Eola, it was a wonderful experience and scratched the offal itch in a big way. The staff is all about the food and extremely willing to accommodate you in any manner as far as portion sizes and progression of the meal. Top notch, highly recommended.  What a wonderful start to my trip.

 Oh, I will at least MENTION the Nuevo Latino Dim Sum Brunch at Café Atlantico Dim…..not going to do a real review or post pictures. Not because it was bad, it just wasn’t a major component of the trip. Even though some of the dishes are classics from the minibar menu, it’s not even in the same galaxy as the minibar experience. Plus, cranking out such a huge number of the dishes and serving them to so many people at once interferes with the quality of the food and the service. Temperatures were a little off on some of the dishes, and in some cases a runner would drop off the food well before a server could come over and explain it.  At 35 bucks, plus the fact I don’t think they charged me for a couple of extra bites I asked for, it’s still a great deal. It’s just not at the minibar level, or even a regular dinner at Café Atlantico for that matter.  I’m still really loyal to the restaurant, and I’m sure I’ll always find a reason to visit when I’m in town, but maybe not the brunch.

Here’s what is on the chef’s menu right now…

Endive w/Queso Fresco Espuma, walnut and orange

Mango Oyster

Tuna Ceviche w/Coconut

Mango and Anchovy foam ravioli

Conch Fritter

Hot and Cold Foie Gras Soup

Potato with Vanilla and Caviar

Sauteed Mushrooms with 63 degree egg

Carne Asada

Pork Belly Confit with Passion Fruit Oil

Coconut Rice

Fried Egg with Black Bean and Pork

Pineapple Unagi

Pan Dulche

So more reviews to follow….there’s a lot to cover but I knew I had to break it all up.

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minibar, Washington DC

 

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……

 

MUNCHIES

 

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. 

 

 

5. “Mojito”

 

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). 

 

 

19. “Guacamole”

 

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. 

 

 

PRE DESSERT

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. 

 

 

DESSERT

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. 

 

 

SWEET ENDINGS

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. 

 

UTENSILS

 

A meal like this requires special utensils.

 

THE BILL

 

 

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.

 

 

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