Tuesday, November 5, 2013

minibar - 10/29/2013

855 E Street NW
Washington DC 20004
(202) 393-0812

Considering it had been over a year and a half since my last visit to minibar I was more than due for a return visit. Last time I went, minibar was still a six seat bar in America Eats Tavern, formerly Cafe Atlantico. minibar finally moved into its own space in November of 2012 and with the move comes a more streamlined e-mail based reservation system. I don't know if its actually any easier to get a reservation but it is certainly less time consuming and less frustrating than dialing over and over only to get a busy tone each time.

Guests that arrive early are invited to sit in a lounge that looks like it might have taken a cue from Alice in Wonderland. I was shown to the "marble" chair in the corner and feted with some cava and snacks while I waited for the rest of my sextet.

Fried Rice Paper with Nori Dust, Sea Salt, and Lime
NV Maria Casanovas Brut de Brut, Spain
While waiting for our table to be set up we were treated to glasses of dry cava and some snacks made from fried rice paper. The rice paper was fantastically airy and crisp but packed loads of salty citrus interplay, arguably the best "chip" I've ever eaten. The cava was one of the best examples I've had in a while, a brut natural, the bubbly was dry and crisp but didn't have that unpleasant astringency that I usually find with zero dosage sparklers.

Once the entire party has arrived, the group was shown to the main dining room. The cavernous space is built around a spacious show kitchen with two long tables each accommodating six diners. Much of the finishing touches are done table side and most courses are presented with a brief background with diners encouraged to ask questions. There is also a table in the back ostensibly reserved for private parties that can accommodate another six though with a $3,000 price tag it doesn't see much use and honestly a big part of minibar's appeal comes from the interaction with the chefs something that's lost at the private dining room.

Hot and Cold Pisco Sour
Like Saam and é, the meal at minibar opens with a welcoming cocktail. I've always been a fan of Andres' frozen cocktails but he ratchets things up another notch with his hot and cold pisco sour. The warm foam is thick and frothy but leaves behind a lip-smacking astringency while the cold is cool and creamy, the perfect alcoholic sorbet. The drink is a bit time-sensitive, but that first sip couples an otherworldly explosion of bright citrus and a fantastic interplay of hot and cold.

Pineapple Short Bread
Krug Grande Cuvée Brut Champagne, France
With a sweet creamy topping the short bread combines the subdued tropical notes of cooked pineapple with the buttery savor of short bread. The finish reminded me of a Hawaiian pizza and paired beautifully with the toasty character of the Krug.

Parmesan Canalé
Krug Grande Cuvée Brut Champagne, France
The second snack was as rich and pungent as the first was sweet. The canale as a crusty airy feel to it and is saturated with a viscous Parmesan cream. A light touch of citrus brings a sharp contrasting relief to the potency of the cheese.

Pizza Margarita
Krug Grande Cuvée Brut Champagne, France
The final of our initial snacks was a paper thin slice of "pizza." The fragrant basil is immediately apparent as is the creamy body of the mozzarella. The tomato was a bit lost at first but I got a distinct flavor of dried ripened tomato towards the finish. With hardly any substance to the pizza, just a few flecks of red pepper packs quite a bit of heat that lingered long after the rest of the snack.

Pressed Flowers
Krug Grande Cuvée Brut Champagne, France
This snack is an edible play on the Victorian era craft of pressing flowers. Sandwiched between the pages of each book is a thin layer of pressed flowers trapped in sugar. The resulting treat is redolent of wildflowers with a delicate airy crunch that fits with the ephemeral feel of the flowers.

Almond Tart with Blue Cheese
Krug Grande Cuvée Brut Champagne, France
This was one of the holdovers from my last visit. The "tart" is a frozen almond cream, sweet and nutty with a cool creamy mouth feel. The filling of Queso de Valdeón adds a classic blue pungency that compliments the tart perfectly

Rubber Ducky
2010 Dr. H. Thanisch Riesling Kabinett Berncastler Doctor Mosel, Germany
This was probably my favorite of the snacks. Inside the bright yellow ducky is a filling of foie gras ice cream. With a perfect savory-sweet balance, the fatty liver ice cream has a fantastic flavor, coupling the buttery of foie gras with the sweetness of an ice cream. I couldn't help but draw comparisons between the carrot course I had at Saam earlier. This surpasses it in every way, more whimsical aesthetics, more solid construction, and vastly superior flavor.

Beef Tendon Churro
2010 Dr. H. Thanisch Riesling Kabinett Berncastler Doctor Mosel, Germany
Beneath the crunchy cinnamon-sugar exterior is a perfectly smooth gelatinous piece of braised tendon. The combination is an amazing play on texture though I found the flavor of sweet tendon a bit disconcerting.

Waldorf Salad
2010 Dr. H. Thanisch Riesling Kabinett Berncastler Doctor Mosel, Germany
Moving past the snacks, we were presented with a play on the classic Waldorf salad, a mixture of celery, and walnuts re-imagined in a "sandwich" of airy apple meringues. The crisp bitterness of the celery is immediately apparent as is the characteristic flavor of walnut. The apple felt a bit underrepresented though perhaps the fruit's flavor was subsumed by the more overt sugary sweetness of the meringue.

Late-Night Chicken Shawarma
2010 Movia Sauvignon Blanc Primorje, Slovenia
Inspired by the staff's favorite after service meal, this course captures all the flavors of a classic chicken shawarma wrapped up in an easy-to-eat spring roll. In a marked improvement since my last visit, the savor of the chicken skin is immediately apparent along with a heady blend of Mediterranean spices. The accompanying greens bring a succulent levity as well as an aromatic bouquet of herbs. A yogurt dipping sauce completes the dish with a potent lactic twang that counters the heft of the chicken. The accompanying Movia exuded tropical notes on the nose but had a bracing grassy dryness on the palate laced with a touch of pineapple and orange zest along with a slate-y minerality.

Frozen Lake
Poma Áurea Sida de Asturias, Spain
This course wins the prize for being the most abstract dish of the night. The sudden rush of stinging smoke from breaking the ice is a bit jarring but the flavor certainly plays well with the caviar and creme fraiche. While water probably made for the most effective liquid for creating frozen lake effect, I think a dashi might have been a more apt companion for the rest of the flavors on the plate. The pairing with this course was an apple cider from Andres' home town in Spain. The naturally fermented libation has a fine creamy bead and boasts a bit of yeasty funk that played nicely with the smoke while the apple provides a dose of fresh lively sweetness.

Ibèrico Sea Urchin
2008 Domaine de Montbourgeau L'Etoile, France
This next course was an umami powerhouse. The gelée of jamon consommé has an ethereally delicate texture but the flavor is pure hammy savor; reminiscent of the most elemental aspects of a Chinese gao tong, the soup base used in Sharks Fin Soup. The uni has a sweeter cast but still plenty of livery richness as well. I forgot to ask what the pickled vegetables were but they certainly packed a punch. Accompanying this umami sledgehammer was a Chardonnay from Jura. The region is known for their oxidated wines; a fantastically complex fragrant and spicy bouquet with plenty of macadamia nut and smoky salinity.

Coconut Cuttlefish
Takasago Shuzo "Ginga Shizuku Divine Droplets" Junmai Daiginjo Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan
Coconut and Cuttlefish isn't a conventional pairing by any means and this being minibar the kitchen had to engage in a little visual trickery as well. The grilled meaty flesh is actually coconut though it does a fairly good job masquerading as cuttlefish. The cuttlefish head is presented as a tartare but real star is the deeply flavored brown sauce made from the cuttlefish body. The resulting dish feels very Thai-like with creamy sweetness and a bit of spice complimenting the potent backbone of shellfish salinity.

Beech Mushroom Papillot with Truffle
2011 François Carillon Chardonnay Puligny-Montrachet 1er "Champs-Gain" Burgundy, France
Throughout the meal I noticed the staff checking a couple bags on the range. Turns out the bags were well worth the wait, immaculate beech mushrooms stewing in a white truffle cream then finished with even more luxurious truffle shavings. On the one hand the flavor is a bit monolithic but its hard to complain when the dominant flavor is truffle. The accompanying Burgundy was one of my favorite wines, beautifully floral on the nose with a mineral-driven salinity on the palate coupled with fresh stone fruit and honey.

Smoked Oysters with Escabeche
2010 Romano Clelia Fiano di Avellino "Colli Di Lapio" Campania, Italy
This was one of the most memorable courses from my first visit and it hasn't lost any of its charms since then. Featuring, Kumamotos wrapped in a lardo veil and a deeply concentrated chicken jus, the dish highlights the best elements of both roast chicken and oysters. A smoke filled dome covers the course which imparts a wood laced flavor to the dish.

Fabes con Almejas
2011 Hillberg-Pasquero Brachetto/Barbera Vareij Piedmont, Italy
This course also remains relatively unchanged from what I had last time: a take on the classic Asturian dish of clams and beans dressed up with a bit of minibar flair. The clams come encapsulated in their own juice, a concentrated bitter saline liquor. What look like beans are actually spherifications filled with white bean puree and their creamy nutty savor is key to balancing the harshness of the clams

Espardenyes with Bone Marrow
1998 Guigal Château d’Ampuis, Côte-Rôtie Rhône, France
I've had my share of Chinese Sea Cucumber but this was my first experience with Espardenyes, a sea cucumber native to the Mediterranean. The Espardeneys have a uniquely snappy toothsomeness as well as a delicate salinity augmented by the fatty savor of the marrow.

Roast Squab with Oysters & Seaweed
1998 Guigal Château d’Ampuis, Côte-Rôtie Rhône, France
Our final savory consisted of a perfectly cooked squab breast. Supple slick and dripping with gamy relish, I enjoyed the bird on its own, though the ocean-y flavors imparted by the oysters and seaweed added a countervailing savor that brings out the nuances of the bird's natural flavor. The final two courses featured a wine poured using the Coravin which pumps inert Argon gas into the bottle; the resulting pressure forces the wine out all without the need to pull the cork. The Guigal Château d’Ampuis was easily the best wine of the night. Big beautiful nose of concentrated berry fruit with spice and pepper balanced with herbaceous notes of mint, pepper, and smoke that paired especially well with the squab.

Bonne Bouche Cheese Puff
2010 Jorge Ordonez Moscatel No.1 Selección Especial Malaga, Spain
Our fromage consisted of a potent little sphere of Vermont Creamery's ash ripened Bonne Bouche goat cheese. The cheese is creamy with a pleasing richness tinged with sherry and walnut.

Bloody Beets and Yogurt
A fitting dessert right before Halloween. We were told to either eat the beet spheres whole or pop them and spray a vivid red mess into frozen yogurt snow. I tried one of the spheres and it certainly captured the flavor of beets. The remaining two I mixed into the snow, letting the tang of the yogurt balance things out.

Mango Floating Island
2007 Dagueneau/Pautrat Le Jardins De Babylone Petite Manseng Jurançon, France
I was expecting something heavier for our final composed dessert but this take on the floating island was a light racy finisher. The mango is paired with a lemongrass coconut infusion that brightens the florid mango with a short-lived burst of tart herbaceousness. Likewise, the Jurançon that came with this dessert showed plenty of ripe honeyed sweetness but with a bright acidity to balance things out.

Moving over to barmini we were treated to a few candies and cocktails to end the evening. First up was a lemon marshmallow encased in white chocolate. The sweetness of the chocolate is deftly complimented by the tang of the lemon.

Raspberry Bon Bon
Boozy Bears
Cocktail #9 (bitter-sweet vermouth, raspberry and scotch)
The raspberry bonbon was another well crafted treat pairing a light tangy yogurt with the racy sweetness of the berry. The boozy bear quite a shocker, the innocuous little guy is laced with mezcal and consequently packs an incredible petrol-y kick.

Thai Pocky
The Thai Pocky certainly lived up to its billing with an undertone of savory spice to compliment the classic chocolate and toasty crunch of the biscuit; a grown-up take on an old childhood favorite.

Navazos Palazzi, Brandy de Jerez, Spain
Our final dessert of the night was presented as a Krispy Kreme ice cream doughnut. Beneath the colorful sprinkles and brittle chocolate shell was a magical elixir that tasted like a freshly fried doughnut writ large.

Overall minibar offers a more complete and more polished experience than its younger siblings Saam and é. No doubt each dish represents the culmination of endless experimentation and refinement, but watching the kitchen during service reminded me of a well practiced theater group, an effortless display of culinary technique that is the fruit of countless hours of work. indeed the experience never feels stuffy or overly serious but almost has an air of whimsy about it.

Towards that end, the flavors tend more towards the vivid and lusty rather than sophisticated or overly technical. There might be subtle touches to some of the dishes not all diners might pick up on but the food is damned good by any measure. The only thing I'd consider doing differently is the wine pairing. No disrespect to José and his pairing but with the addition of the Coravin it is just too tempting to try some rare wines I might otherwise never taste. Next time I'd my own pairing from their their Coravin and by the glass options.

Every serious diner should have at least one meal at minibar and for those who haven't, I hope you'll forgive me for already planning my next visit.


Elsie Wong said...

One of the best posts I've read! Really enjoyed it. Yummy.

Charlie Fu said...

when you buying that coravin? :)

Epicuryan said...

You live so close you should just hop a train and try it for yourself.

I'll buy it when you bring a wine worth using it on... maybe 1947 Cheval Blanc or a Jayer Cros Parantoux. The 2-buck chuck swill I usually drink probably tastes better as it it spoils.