Sunday, March 4, 2012

minibar @ America Eats Tavern - 03/01/2012

405 8th St, NW
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 393-0812

A seat at Jose Andrés' vaunted minibar has long been my white whale; after more than 2,000 futile calls, I was beginning to think that I'd never dine at the restaurant. A sliver of hope finally appeared on 1/29 when I was able to get on the waiting list for 2/29. The call finally came on 2/27, the restaurant didn't have any openings on 2/29 but there was a single seat available on 3/1.

minibar is the first and most well known of José Andrés' three "secret" restaurants, the other two being Saam and é. minibar consists of a six seat bar located on the second floor of America Eats Tavern (formerly Cafe Atlantico). The bar is open six days a week and offers two tightly regulated seatings at 6:00 and 8:30.

While the menu at minibar is constantly evolving, with maybe one or two new courses every week; the general structure of the meal remains fairly consistent. Typically the meal starts with a selection of "snacks" followed by more substantial savory courses and finished with a handful of sweets. The total number of courses ranges between 20 and 30 though typically on the higher end of the range. While there is no 20+ glass wine pairing, diners have several options for beverages including: cocktails, by the glass, by the bottle as well as several "pairing" flights.

Meals at minibar frequently open with some form of welcoming cocktail. What we have here is a frozen meringue of mezcal, St Germain, and lemon bitters. The petrol-y funk of the mezcal comes through forcefully but the elderflower liqueur and lemon add some softening floral notes while the bracing chill makes the snowball remarkably invigorating.

We were advised to take the morsel of edible jewelry in two bites. I detected a complex savory sweet interplay that reminded me of eating grapes with Japanese rice crackers. The dish actually consists of a freeze dried lychee filled with yogurt mousse and black garlic.

"PB & J"
I was almost afraid to pick up this delicate morsel. A light dusting of raspberry powder and coriander blossom rest atop a peanut praline crisp filled with a liquid center. Taken in one bite, the liquid center fills the mouth with an explosion of tangy sweetness while the peanut adds a nutty sugariness. The result is a faithfully recreated sensation of "PB & J" albeit more concentrated and urgent.

I've seen sea beans used very effectively many times as an accompaniment but they felt a bit simplistic on their own. Part of the lettuce family the tempura does have a nice crunch but the sapor of the tempura was a bit lost under the strength of the tamarind sauce and coconut.

An extremely time sensitive course, my hemisphere of solidified marcona almond cream was already melting by the time I finished taking pictures. Inspired by a flourless almond tart, the cream provides a subtle sweetness that contrasts vividly with the pungent savoriness of the cheese.

The last of the snacks was another cocktail this time a frozen mojito that Ruben dubbed an "adult popsicle." A very well executed mojito that combines flavors of mint, lime, and sugar into a delicious summer treat.

Next up was a mock oyster shooter featuring a chicken oyster with shallot mignonette and topped with an oyster leaf. The chicken oyster demonstrated its characteristically toothsome texture while the leaf conveyed a sense of brine that deftly mimicked a true oyster

After our faux oyster we were presented with a mirror of sorts featuring a duo of real Kumamotos covered in a thin veil of lardo with mushrooms, scallions, and a chicken jus froth. The lardo gives the tender oysters a sense of richness while the smoke and jus give the dish a hearty sapor; the result conveys the wholesome homey sense of a roast chicken.

The zucchini water gelée and poached seeds conveyed the delicate flavors of fresh zucchini, but the underlying purée that was truly impressive with a smoky caramelized weight that I never would have expected from zucchini.

Next up was creamy cool peanut broth dotted with white and brown "peanuts" made from frozen peanut milk and peanut praline respectively. Other accompaniments include frozen citrus, ginger, and chili oil. The result is a multifaceted affair that masterfully displays the flavor of Thai food but with uniquely reimagined textures.

From Thailand we travel to the Middle East for some "chicken shawarma". Hidden deep inside a wrapper of potato starch and fresh leafy greens is a tube of roasted chicken skin and accompanying the "spring roll" is a yogurt dipping sauce. The result is less about the chicken and more about the vegetal crunch of the greens and the bright tartness of the yogurt. I enjoyed the freshness and levity of the dish but for me it didn't really capture the spirit of a true shawarma.

Continuing on our westward journey, the next course takes us to Spain and is a nod to the food of Andrés' youth. Spanish for beans with clams, the dish is from Asturias in northern Spain and was originally considered peasant food. This presentation consisted of spherified favas and clams encapsulated in spherified clam liquor. The "beans" capture the smoky essence of the beans with none of the gritty texture while the clams fairly burst with a profound ocean-y brine.

Yet another spectacular course, the grits gnocchi were spectacular, smooth and creamy with a deep flavor of corn to augment shellfish sweetness of the lobster. A foam of bacon and shrimp deepens the savor of the lobster and provides a nice counter to the grainy weight of the grits.

The aroma from the cooking bone marrow had my mouth watering long before this dish ever got to the table. Tissue-thin layers of tender hearts of palm enrobe delicate bone marrow, capers, and a sherry espresso. The result is flavor that is delicately aromatic with subtly rich and piquant accents.

The minibar staff noted that the fatty part of salmon belly is underused part of the popular fish. The fat laden belly is grilled over bincho-tan charcoal imbuing the rich meat with a profoundly smokiness. Bits of lemon and fermented black garlic bring hints of both bright acidity and dark funky bitterness.

Never would I imagine such profound flavor from a simple egg and toast. The poached yolk is encapsulated in a gelatin of parmesan water the zesty cheese and runny yolk contrast nicely to the airy crunch of the toast which has been further enriched by the luxurious aroma of truffles. I think I found a new breakfast staple.

The final savory of the night was a sandwich of foie gras wrapped in two crisp apple meringues. The airy zing of the green apple was especially sharp against the sophistication of the rich creamy liver.

This marked the transition from savory to sweet. Lightly floral olive oil is amped with the almost bitter astringency of the mandarin and the mixture is tempered with generous granules of salt.

Apparently Sugar on Snow is a classic dessert in Vermont during the springtime during maple syrup season. The dessert consists of real snow saved from the winter drizzled with freshly made syrup. This gentrified version comes with a base of mouth puckering lemon gelée and refreshing mint. The sticks are dehydrated maple syrup and their sugary crunch brings the caramelized sweetness of back to the fore.

I thought this was one of the most beautifully presented dishes of the night. Naturally the mango wasn't the fruit in its raw form but a mango sorbet airbrushed with cocoa powder and the resulting flavor was very similar to a mango lassi. The crunch and savor of the puffed rice was especially stark against the saccharine tang of the fruit.

Yet more edible "gold", this beneath the crunch of the nugget's shell is a weighty, savory pistachio flavor with haunting echos of a classic baklava.

Crafted in a classic black truffle shape, the thin chocolate shell hid a rich expresso filling. Though the combination was pretty pedestrian, I quite enjoyed the brittle crunch and subsequent explosion of rich coffee flavor.

Rounding out the meal was a quartet of playful desserts. The profiterole was more like a merignue made of pineapple then stuffed with an alcoholic filling of rum toffee. The apple came coated in a saffron white chocolate, which added a unique musk to the dry apple chip like texture of the fruit. Next up was a straightforward slice of bacon covered in bitter chocolate, whats not to love. My favorite of the group was the fizzy paper, a thin layer of isomalt sugar, citric acid, and yogurt which conveyed a lovely effervescent tang.

Even the check is presented with a flourish. The receipt is stuffed in a hollowed out eggshell that is placed before each party and smashed revealing a crumpled bill. Much to my chagrin, I actually tried a piece of the eggshell only to find out that we weren't supposed to eat it, boy did I have egg on my face.

After all the effort and hype I was afraid minibar wouldn't live up to my expectations, but the meal was a nonstop showcase of flavor, texture, and technique. I left the meal hungry but minibar isn't about satisfying prosaic needs like hunger, rather the interactive format, personal attention, and creativity result turn the meal into an exhibition of culinary artwork. My only complaint about the meal was that it had to end. The only question with regards to minibar, isn't should you go but can you get in.


Rodzilla said...

Can you imagine the bill if you ate until you were sated? What did you grab afterwards, haha.

But really, I'd gladly go to try those flavors and techniques,that mango course was striking right away.

Anonymous said...

Excellent writeup Ryan. Im curious where you would place minibar in Michelin terms


Gastronomer said...

One day... Glad to hear it lived up your expectations!

Epicuryan said...

I don't think I want to imagine what it would cost. I to Oyamel afterwards and had an amazing goat taco.

I'd probably give the restaurant between 2 and 3 stars. The food is without a doubt 3 stars but the seating is a bit cramped and I would have liked a bit more than the 2 hours we were allotted for the meal.

You have to try it, build another DC trip around minibar.