>> Saturday, September 14, 2013
This is the final post in the short series A Weekend in Our Nation's Capital, which covers the few meals I caught in DC while visiting the city for a wedding. Other posts in this series include Zaytinya (José Andrés) and A&J Restaurant (Taiwanese).
In some ways, it felt like we had entered another world.
Like Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, or a surreal Dali painting.
An oversized clock had numbers in all the wrong places, suggesting that in a place like this, time doesn't matter. A single flame flickered fleetingly, dancing around its small glass enclosure as if beckoning diners to come just a little closer.
And then a man dressed smartly in a suit (or was it a tuxedo?) asked if we wanted anything to drink.
"Perhaps an aperitif? Or maybe some cava?"
Cava sounds wonderful, thank you so much.
Soon after, the man came back, this time with something that looked like a large, leather-bound book.
"Some light reading while you wait."
He opened up the book and we gasped. Inside were delicate nori (seaweed) puffed rice crackers. They were light as a feather, sort of reminding me of those Chinese shrimp chips that they serve with roasted duck, yet much, much more delicate.
We munched on these for several more minutes until all the guests from our 6:30PM seating had arrived.
"Hello everyone. Welcome to minibar. Please come in."
They pushed aside a long, white curtain and then we entered in.
Minibar was originally a tiny, six-seater, hidden restaurant-within-a-restaurant (that restaurant being Café Atlántico). It was a place where José Andrés executed his most creative dishes, inspired by Ferrán Adriá’s (his mentor's) school of modern cuisine. Reservations were notoriously difficult to obtain. Hopeful diners had to to call exactly one month in advance - at precisely 10AM - to try and secure one of those six coveted spots. Needless to say, many people did not get through.
In October of 2012, Andres announced that minibar had moved locations, increased the number of seats to 12, and changed its reservation system to email only. Prices of the meals also went up, and a new bar serving all sorts of interesting cocktails and drinks, called "barmini", would open in the adjacent space. Barmini opened in February of 2013.
We were part of the first reservation, two of six people. Minibar takes reservations at 6PM, 6:30PM, 8:30PM, and 9:00PM. There are twelve seats, with parties of six being seated at once. After about two hours, guests are ushered into the adjacent "barmini" to finish their desserts. A new wave of diners enter, and the show begins once again.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the beginning of the meal, which is where I had left off.
We entered into a living, breathing kitchen. In front of us was a flurry of activity as the chefs prepared our first course. From experience, Bryan and I knew this meal would move quickly. Both Samm and é by José Andrés worked that way.
20+ courses in just over two hours.
It seriously takes an entire team to pull that off.
It's fascinating to watch, and everyone has front row seats at a bar facing the kitchen.
We began with a simple Oaxacan Cocktail Marshmallow, which sat on top of a bed of ice. It reminded me of gelato - creamy, herbaceous, with notes of lemon and lime.
Next came these beautiful Asian “Coca de Vidrio”. Coca de Vidrio is traditionally a crystallized sugar covered "glass flatbread." This Asian version was made with a paper-thin coating embedded with black sesame seeds. As we bit into it, the delicate shell cracked like breaking glass.
A maple leaf shaped "cracker" called Parmesan Leaf came next, made from puffed up Parmesan and rice purée and topped with lemon cream.
Fun, whimsical Popcorn Empanadas were a far cry from a traditional empanada, a Spanish deep fried pastry typically filled with meat, cheese, and/or vegetables. These delicate "empanadas" were filled with corn butter and almost melted in your mouth as you ate it.
How cute are these? Named “When Pigs Fly”, these mini piglets reminded me of macarons. They were tart, fruity and chewy. Inside, they were filled with a creamy bacon ice cream.
A single Foie Bomb was creamy and delicate. Though I usually don't love anything with liver-like flavors, I actually appreciated and enjoyed this subtle but sophisticated bite.
By this point it should be pretty clear that José André loves creating food that looks like or is inspired by a certain type of Spanish dish, but tastes completely different. Churros are typically long pieces of fried dough that are dusted with cinnamon and sugar.
This Churro Tendon was a savory version made wth veal tendon. The tendon was surprisingly soft (almost melt-in-your-mouth), yet the crunchy covering was still sweet. It was unique, unusual, but still very good.
We were twenty minutes into the meal, and we were already on our eighth course. The chefs were clearly focused, extremely skilled, and executed the courses like clockwork.
Our next course was an Almond Tart with Blue Cheese. It was like a de-constucted tart, consisting of a flourless Marcona almond crust and a strong blue cheese cream. Those are just pebbles underneath, put there purely for presentation.
The “Waldorf Salad” was a fun play on the traditional Waldorf Salad. Although the ingredients of the filling, apples, mayo, and walnuts were classic Waldorf salad ingredients. The "bread" was an unusual melt-in-your-mouth material that's hard to describe. It was sort of like if styrofoam and cotton candy produced a kjid or something.
It was most definitely unique and in fact, really really tasty!
The next course, playfully called Chicken “Shawarma”, was filled with a delicious crunchy chicken skin and served alongisde a yogurt cream.
You were supposed to dip the "lettuce wrap" in the yogurt sauce. This dish paired exceptionally well with the drink.
This Thai Soup included an interesting coconut-flavored gel, coconut cream, and a light broth. A delicate leaf topped with herbs, came separately. On the side, they gave us a cocktail that had hints of lime and lots of ginger.
And then we noticed something very familiar.
That ring. You can't miss it. Any MITer would recognize it in an instant.
Bryan waved down the chef.
"Did you go to MIT?"
"Yes, I did."
"What course were you?"
"Course 3." (Material Science)
We told him we both had graduated from MIT - Bryan, "Course 6" (computer science/electrical engineering) and I, "Course 5" (chemistry). He acknowledged that he most certainly wasn't using his degree in the traditional sense in this job. He had realized his passion for food soon after graduation, and had worked in various places before landing here.
Of course, he couldn't chat much (not with the pace of this meal!), so we let him get back to work, plating the whimsically fun dish Baby Carrots with Coconut & Curry.
It looks deceptively simple, but it's really not what you think it is. The little, orange "carrots" were in fact spherified carrot cream made in the shape of carrots. The "carrots" melted in your mouth with pops of intense, carrot cream. The flavors were both strong and complex, the sweet carrot flavor accentuated by black sesame and savory coconut cream.
We both loved the next dish, a Beech Mushroom Risotto with Black Australian Truffle. I was a bit wary of the plastic bag trick, having been disappointed by a similarly-presented dish at Samm in Los Angeles a year ago. I'm happy to report that this dish became one of our favorites of the evening.
Baby beech mushroom and black truffles from Australia were gently cooked in a bag smells heavenly when it was cut open. This bite was phenomenal, with the clean, earthy depth of that pure, mushroom flavor.
I still dream about this dish, it was so good.
At this point I was starting to get a bit full. We were on the thirteenth course and the direction of the tasting was definitely moving towards heavier and richer dishes.
The next dish, Smoked Oysters with Escabeche, came served with a glass dome that captured the smoke. It smelled fantastic!
In this dish, gently cooked oysters were served with chicken of the forest mushrooms, a very meaty mushroom that stands up well the everything else in the dish. We thought it was pretty good, although it was not one of my favorites of the evening.
Contrast that to this next dish, Fabes con Almejas, which became another one of my favorites. There were two types of spherified components on the plate. White bean spheres (the creamy ones) had a delicate skin and "popped" to reveal a deep, flavorful white bean puree inside. The clear spheres are "clams" spherified in their own juices. The entire dish was full of flavor, likely from a lot of ingredients not described (we think they may have mentioned stock from jamon ibero?)
The next dish was Espardenyes with Bone Marrow, their very upscale interpretation of surf & turf with Spanish sea cucumber and bone marrow. This was paired with Krug champagne.
The next two courses paired together oysters and squab in two different ways. The first one was Squab Liver Mousse served on top of an Oyster Leaf.
The second, Roast Squab with Oyster & Seaweed, had an intense raspberry flavor plus the strong notes of oyster sauce. Bryan loved it. I actually found it a bit too intense and I ended up gibing him half.
The next course was a fun little bite called Dragon’s Breath with Hot Toddy Shot. Simple rice cakes were briefly dipped into liquid nitrogen before being served. You're supposed to try to keep your mouth closed when you eat it so you can look like a dragon. Obviously Bryan was much more skilled at it than I was. *Sigh*
Pu-er tea served as a nice interlude.
I loved this next course, which I believe functioned as a palate cleanser in preparation for dessert. Called, Christmas in July, this dish had a Green apple celery slush topped with buttermilk snow.
I found it extremely refreshing, and I was surprised how well celery and green apple worked together.
Again playing with tricks of the eye, the next course, called Coconut Sticky Rice with Mango, looked like a straightforward Thai inspired dessert at first.
I giggled in delighted as I cut into the "mango" only to reveal that it was actually a spherified mango dusted with just enough green and orange powder to make it look like a real fruit (in fact, I thought it was a fuzzy peach at first!). The black dots on the side are black sesame dots.
The flavors were intense and delicious.
Alas, it was time to move onto the last portion of our tasting. We had tasted about twenty courses at this point and it was time to move onto the other side of this chalkboard wall into barmini to finish off our meal.
Barmini is clean, almost stark, and very modern.
I loved the fancy chemistry equipment (who has ever seem a true rotary evaporator in a kitchen??!!!).
Of course we were in a bar, so we had a chance to get cocktails if we wanted (extra cost, of course). The menu is actually quite huge, and there are many, many interesting cocktails that caught our attention. It's really quite hard to choose.
Bryan decided to order a peanut infused rum cocktail, which was fantastic. It was citrusy but not too sweet, and had a nice, strong peanut flavor. It was most certainly unusual, but it was quite good.
One by one, little finishing bites appeared at our table. I loved these Piña Colada Tablets, which were essentially Piña colada ice tablets covered with white chocolate. It was refreshing and acted as an additoinal palate cleanser.
As part of the tasting, everyone does get Jose's classic gin & tonic, which I'd had before at Jaleo in DC and absolutely loved. TerraMisu was a truffle that tasted like tiramisu. It was OK, but like the Jurassic Park did not blow me away.
One of my favorites bites was the Chicarrón [upper left], which were just fried pork rinds covered with white chocolate and passion fruit powder. Such a simple concept, but it was addictively good. It really makes me want to try my own poor-man's version at home.
The “Jurassic Park” [upper right] was bone shaped chocolate with cinnamon with rosemary.
Sablé Bon Bons [lower left] resembled French cookies and had an apricot filling inside.
Finally, the "Matcha Mochi" (different from the type I make!) looked just like traditional mochi but was actually a meringue filled with lychee sorbet and topped with macha powder. The matcha powder was definitely the dominant flavor in this dessert.
We finished off by sharing a French press pot of coffee, which was excellent.
You can stay at barmini for as long as you want, since the original minibar seats are already filled by the next set of diners, who will be there for another good hour or so. We eventually asked for the check, which came in a whimsical matryoshka (Russian) doll form along with a copy of the menu.
We had really, really enjoyed our meal here. I think I'm just a fan of this general style of dining. I generally get bored eating a large portion of the same dish. So it's natural that I think having close to 30 different bites of unusual and surprising flavor combinations is extraordinarily fun.
Furthermore, the pace is reasonably fast, which I actually like (except for the difficulty in taking photos, but that wouldn't apply to most diners, ha ha). In general, I'm sort of a restless person, and sitting anywhere still for 4-5 hours sort of drives me insane. I like how we are here for only about 2 hours, and we're not even sitting in the same spot the whole time.
Finally, everyone gets an intimate bar seat (always my favorite way of dining at a restaurant), where you can watch the chefs execute some pretty cool techniques. I'm a chemist at heart, so a lot of this modern cuisine (molecular gastronomy, whatever you want to call it) actually fascinates me. I love watching it, and I ever tire of learning about it.
So, for someone like me, these multi-course dining adventures are extremely fun. Of course, the food is the utmost important part. Thankfully, José Andrés is a master at flavors. Several of the bites we tasted pleasantly surprised us with their unusual combinations and complex flavors that just worked incredibly well. Even the more ordinary bites were still perfectly executed still tasted good.
I found virtually no misses here and overall I would most highly recommend trying one of these fun tastings.
minibar by José Andrés
855 E St NW
Washington, DC 20004