Magic. Fun, awe-inspiring and belief-defying, magic delights the soul. The experience at Jose Andres’ minibar, currently a restaurant within a restaurant with-in the Pan-Latin themed Cafe Atlantico, offers a magical experience that indeed delights the soul, but it also delights the palate, something few good magic shows provide. Though much magic is based on illusion, the food at minibar is quite real and quite good.
I’d been to minibar twice before (sort of) and each time had a wonderful experience. A recounting of my first minibar experience can be found here. Our second time wasn’t a pure minibar experience, though it incorporated a lot of minibar dishes into a special anniversary meal at Cafe Atlantico at a table adjacent to the minibar and was just about as amgical.The food, the closest thing to an elBulli experience available outside of Spain, is playful and creative, but with more of an American reference point than one would find at elBulli or the other creative restaurants of Spain. When I saw a dinner for 6 – inclusive of wine pairings, tax and gratuity – pop up on an online auction to benefit the Culinary Institute of America last spring, I bid to win and succeeded.
The perfect opportunity to use my auction win presented itself this past September to celebrate my good friend, Tom Person’s 50th birthday. We decided to celebrate with a weekend in DC along with our wives and our mutual good friends, Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa of Ideas in Food. We arrived on Friday in time for a fantastic lunch at Bread Line, followed by a truly inspiring dinner at The Oval Room. On Saturday, we visited another Jose Andres restaurant, the impressive Oyamel for a superb Mexican lunch, eating early enough so as to not spoil our appetites for our 8PM seating at minibar.
The auction was for 6 seats at minibar, which meant that we had that entire seating of minibar (there are two seatings per evening – at 6 and at 8:30PM) to ourselves since the restaurant only has 6 seats. Of course the upper parts of Cafe Atlantico blanket the small corner that is minibar, but the feeling is of a totally separate restaurant.
Staying just down the street from Cafe Atlantico/minibar at the lovely Kimpton Monaco Hotel, we arrived a touch early for our reservation, in time to enjoy a cocktail at the bar on the first floor of Cafe Atlantico. Once our table was ready, we were ushered upstairs to a different set of barstools, those of our ultimate destination. My wife and I were the only ones of the six of us who had previously dined there, so it was fun for us to watch the looks on our guests faces as we arrived at the intimate bar setting.
No sooner had we sat down and were introduced to the three gentlemen who would be so ably manning the kitchen (Nate Garyantes, Jorge Hernandez and Justin Olsen) then the fun began. The menu that we received at the end of the meal divided the meal into five sections similar to how a meal at elBulli is divided, only with different words used. For example, at elBulli a meal is introduced with a number of intense small bites and cocktails called appropriately enough “snacks.” As is evidenced by some of Ferran’s alternate restaurant concepts, i.e. “Fast Good” and the upcoming “Tickets,” he likes English names despite the fact that he does not speak it (at least not strongly, though I believe he understands quite a bit). At minibar, the term “munchies” is used for a similarly styled introduction of multiple intense, fast-paced small bites.
Clearly Jose Andres and Ruben Garcia, both elBulli veterans, owe a lot to the Adrias in terms of technique, however, with a few exceptions, none of which we encountered at this meal, the dishes served are original in concept, design and execution. Though the closest thing to elBulli on this side of the Atlantic (with the possible exception of Andres’ Bazaar in Los Angeles), minibar is not simply a clone of elBulli or a place to experience classic elBulli dishes like at Adria’s La Alqueria in the Hacienda Benasuza elBulli Hotel in Sevilla, Spain. Instead, minibar is a place to experience the spirit of elBulli’s cuisine, but with an American accent.
elBulli’s edible cocktails are truly unique. They are clever, fun, delicious and a great way to open a meal and rid the air of anxiety. Andres and his team have seized upon that concept and offer their own inspired versions of edible cocktails. Our meal, of course, started with one – the Nitro Sangria. The use of liquid nitrogen is no longer a novelty in contemporary kitchens around the world, but that is because chefs like the Adrias in Spain and Jose Andres with his team including Chef Katsuya Fukushima (since departed ThinkFoodGroup to pursue his own interests) and Chef Ruben Garcia, amongst others, did much of the groundwork to demonstrate the possibilities of the technique. The sangria had been frozen in liquid nitrogen in a shape and appearance not unlike a raw hamburger patty. It was accompanied by a skewer of watermelon. We were advised to eat the sangria with our utensils and to follow that with the spiked watermelon. Quite refreshing! This was not the Yago Sangria I came of age with. The sangria that entered the liquid nitrogen bath consisted of a syrah that had been blended with cognac, Citron vodka, an Austrian pine liqueur. and a house made multi-citrus syrup. The same cocktail is also compressed into the watermelon resulting in a bit of a different experience.
The Tumbleweed of Beets has become a signature of sorts for Andres and minibar. It is a single light and airy bite of pure beet flavor. It is an extremely ephemeral, but also pleasurable, lasting but a moment in the mouth, but much, much longer in the memory. This was one of a few dishes that my wife and I had experienced previously at minibar. They have a model of a hand in the back of the kitchen that makes an ideal serving piece for the beet, but they have not yet been able to accumulate enough of them to use for that purpose.
A flurry of munchies came in quick succession starting with the “pop”corn empanada, made with edible starch paper, a popcorn nougat ground into a fine powder and centered on the starch paper along with freeze dried roasted corn and corn nuts. These ingredients are placed atop the starch paper and placed under a broiler to caramelize the sugars before the paper is folded onto itself to create the empanada shape with a corn mousse piped in side at the last moment. The result -a giggle and a taste memory for each of us – Capt. Crunch cereal, though so much better!
With the empanada eaten in two quick bites as advised, it wasn’t long before we were presented with a nice taste of Jewish American comfort food a la minibar – their version of Bagels, Cream Cheese and Lox. This was another two-biter. Though it looked a bit like Thomas Keller’s salmon cornets, the similarity ended there. This was a great example of Andres’ penchant for re-interpreting American culinary classics, reworking them so that they are novel, fun and still tasty – in some cases surpassing the dishes that inspired them, while in other cases perhaps not, but still high on the fun factor. This dish fell into that latter category. A good bagel with cream cheese and salmon is one of my favorite breakfasts and not easily surpassed by alternate approaches.
Sea Beans in Tempura with Coconut and Tamarind came next and was our first foray of the evening into the flavors of Asia, providing a pleasantly sour and crunchy couple of bites.
Ferrero Rocher’s are popular and tasty Italian chocolate confections. Using a visual reference to the original, the minibar theme came up with a savory version that doesn’t use chocolate at all and has an edible gold-leaf wrapper. Eaten in one bite, it had the nutty flavor of hazelnuts without being overtly sweet.
With the pace still moving quickly, we received a flour-less Valdeon Blue Cheese and Marcona Almond Tart, a cold dish which we were told was a bit time-sensitive and should be eaten quickly, i.e. we were warned not to dilly-dally with the cameras. This was perhaps the most inherently “Spanish” dish of the night, utilizing as it did the blue cheese from Asturias as well as the famous Spanish almonds. The shell was made from liquid nitrogen ladle-dipped Marcona almond cream using a technique similar to the one Albert Adriá developed for his classic dessert “Colibri” with the hummingbird wings made the same way. The result, as with Adria’s – beautiful and tasty. It is when used with techniques like this where I feel the use of liquid nitrogen has really added to the culinary armamentarium.
The pace began to ease a little bit and we were given dish of “Chicken and Eggs.” Since this was minibar, this would not be a conventional chicken and/or egg dish. It consisted of crispy chicken skin served on a piece of Granville, N.Y. slate with carp roe mousse on top of the chicken skin and coriander blossoms placed delicately atop the mousse. Unlike many of the other one or two bite dishes, it was suggested that we eat this “in as many bites” as (we) would like. Nice.
We had been drinking wine, a nice Sancerre from Alphonse Mellot, but the next dish, another “two-bite” dish, was another cocktail. This one was a deconstructed “Bloody Mary” with the components served on a celery stick.
The next munchie was very Mediterranean in ingredients and flavor, though visually it looked Chinese as it was prepared and served from a dim sum steamer box. It consisted of a steamed pita sandwiching grey mullet bottarga (avgotaraho), yogurt and radish. The pita was positively pillowy, but as would be expected the bottarga left a bit of a bitter after-taste – not my favorite dish of the night.
The final “munchie” a one bite regular spun sugar cotton candy called “Coco Thai” was pure fun to eat, as each of us stuffed the cloud directly into our gaping, welcoming mouths. Despite the sugar, it was a savory cotton candy that included basil, tamarind, lime, coconut, chile, black sesame and salt in its deceptive form.
The munchies were fun and tasty. Though clearly of the same lineage as elBulli’s “snacks”, they were more like cousins than siblings. At elBulli, Ferran Adria’s snacks tended to aim for an essence of intense flavor as with his classic spherical olives (since adopted by Andres too, though not in this meal). The most elBulli “snack”-like “munchie” was the Tumbleweed of Beet, though the Sea Beans in Tempura would not have been out of place as a “snack” in my experience at elBulli. The principle difference though, between the two approaches is a frame of reference.While minibar has a soul born of elBulli,and even though its creator and current director are both Spanish born, it remains an American interpretation, in attitude and approach. This was even more evident in the next phase of our meal – Flavors and Textures.
In between writing up this post, I came across a comment on lisaabend.com from Christian Puglisi of Relae in Copenhagen on his time staging at elBulli. When asked about what part of elBulli’s mis-en-place he liked the least, he replied, “Removing the seeds from zucchini for the risotto dish. There’s no future use for that.” I don’t think Jose Andres agreed and with this dish, neither do I. Zucchini in Textures is a dish that was presented to us as “zucchini, zucchini and more zucchini.” The bottom of the dish was a puree made from the white part of the zucchini, which had been started with a little bit of butter until it was caramelized, deglazed with water and mixed with a little cream. In the center was a number of “arduously” hand picked seeds. The water released during the collection of the seeds was collected and combined with a little gelatin and layered on top. Spanish olive oil was poured on top along with a bit of garlic and Maldon sea salt. The texture was mostly soft with the seeds providing contrast. The dish was subtle but quite delicious, one of my favorites of the evening.
A significant marker of the transition from the munchies to the main body of the meal was the arrival of utensils. The munchies were essentially all finger foods and though they may have been somewhat complex to make, they were generally less elaborate dishes than the F&T’s. The spoon certainly came in handy for the zucchini course and it did again for the apple-wood smoked Kumamoto oyster with juniper garnished with an edible white borage flower. It was recommended that we eat the whole thing in one tasty bite.
One of the major modern approaches really embraced at minibar is culinary deconstruction. A perfect example of that was the next dish, “Guacamole,” one of a number that I had eaten previously at minibar. In this dish, as with all deconstructed dishes, the component elements are taken apart and put back together in a different form, but with the end result at least matching or ideally surpassing the original inspiration, all while being fun and clever. While I can’t say that this version of guacamole surpassed the outstanding, freshly made traditional version that we had earlier that day at lunch at Oyamel, it was still quite tasty and better than most. The additional refinement, fun and cleverness did elevate the dish in the end.
Sea urchin is one of my favorite ingredients. I also adore full flavored shrimp like spot prawns. According to the printed menu, we were supposed to get “spot prawns ‘en brioche,'” but we didn’t. In its place, we were served Sea Urchin Ceviche with Hibiscus Air. Not having had the spot prawns I can’t say whether we got a better or a lesser dish with the substitution, but whether it was due to the presence of superior sea urchin or the lack of superior spot prawns, I have to trust that the kitchen served what they felt was best at that time. Had the shrimp course not been the one on the printed menu, I would never have had an idea that there was a course substitution. While it may sound like one, this is not a criticism. I would rather be served what is felt by the chef(s) to be the better dish at that time rather than to have a dish simply because it is listed on a pre-planned menu.
Organic “Carrots” with Coconut is a dish that has taken the next level of spherification and run with it. Originally, as the name implies, spherification resulted in spheres of encapsulated liquid, however, the technique has evolved so that liquids can be encapsulated in shapes, as with these carrots, intensely flavored juice encapsulated in the shape of baby carrots. These carrots, unlike their original were rather delicate and we were instructed to take great care when eating them, “or else….” The technique combines the use of a heat resistant sodium alginate, calcium gluconate, heat sensitive gelatin and an intense carrot puree. The pureee is combined with gelatin and piped out into carrotshapes, then put them in the alginate bath, after which they are warmed up so the internal gelatin re-liquefies. The technique was developed at elBulli for the 2009 season. The result was, playful, fun and tasty.
The next two dishes I had previously eaten and I had seen their preparations demo’ed at the 2009 Starchefs ICC. The first one, Jose Andres’ New New England Clam Chowder combined all the traditional components of a New England Clam Chowder, but in different forms and textures. One of the key elements of this wonderful dish were the clams encapsulated in their own juice. The origins of the dish stem from a time at Gramercy Tavern when Andres wanted to make a variation of an American classic for Pierre Gagnaire. It has undergone a number of iterations since then, with this one being the latest. This was an example of a deconstructed dish being more than simply clever and fun. This dish was superior in every way to just about any clam chowder I have had – and I do like clam chowder!
The other dish presented at Starchefs was the Handmade Baby Corn with Huitlacoche. The kernels are shaved off of baby corn cobs with a mandoline and methylcellulose is folded in with the kernels. This is wrapped around corn water gelatin that was set with agar agar. It is then worked back into the original corn cob shape. When the cobs are seared off the methylcellulose binds it all together. The result is gastronomically superior as the process removes the inedible cob and replaces it with more corn flavor. That it is clever and fun too, pulling together all sorts of corn elements like corn nuts, huitlacoche and more along with some supporting elements like epazote makes it even better. This is not just a deconstruction. It is more like a re-engineering.
One of the more intriguing aspects of minibar is the fact that they put together so much interesting and delicious food with a minimal finishing set-up. As for actual cooking equipment, it is extremely minimalist with essentially just “two hot plates and a toaster oven” to complete the dishes in the minibar kitchen. Of course, for their prep work they have full access to the complete Cafe Atlantico kitchen. They are able to complete some intensive pre-service prep work there, but that doesn’t take away the fact that they are able to do so much, so well, with so little equipment.
One of the dishes that did get some real finishing cooking (on one of the hot plates) was Charcoal Salmon Belly (Toro) with Black Garlic & Mustard. The fish rested on charred scallion. It was suggested that we take a bite of black garlic with each bite of the salmon. Another component of this dish that I have been seeing a lot of recently was sorrel, in this case a red sorrel layered atop the fish.
Hearts of Palm Ravioli with Bone Marrow came next. The bone marrow came in two forms – roasted and incorporated into a cream and lay underneath the superficial hearts of palm slices.A rich dish, it was very good, but not a standout in the context of the overall meal.
One dish that did standout on every level including concept, presentation and taste was the “Parmesan” Egg. Billed as an “improvement” on the egg white, this egg construction appeared to be a regular poached egg served with toast, albeit a Spanish style toast. The “egg” utilized a quail yolk since they felt they could not “improve upon a yolk.” The white was made with Parmesan water made with equal parts Parmesan cheese and water. The water is brought to a boil and the Parmesan cheese is whisked into it. Left to steep overnight, the mixture separates with the fat rising to the top, the curds falling to the middle and the flavor rich water in the middle. They add egg white powder and calcium gluconate to the water and spherificate it with the quail egg yolk in the center. The eggs are held in olive oil then cooked at 63.5ºC for 9-10 minutes and served on a hot plate. The eggs are to be eaten with the toast, shaved ciabatta fried in olive oil with garlic. Was this an improvement on the egg? I love eggs and while I would never give up the versatility of a natural egg, their case for this particular preparation was pretty compelling. On a number of levels this was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.
The Philly Cheesesteak is another dish that I had previously. I enjoyed it the first time I had it and I enjoyed it again here. I’m proud that I didn’t make a mess of myself! The beef used was Australian wagyu NY strip. The cheese, very un-Philly like was neither provolone nor Whiz. It was aged Vermont white cheddar. This was the last of our Flavors and Textures.
The Pre-dessert, Frozen Yogurt & Honey echoed some of the desserts I have been enjoying a lot lately – not too sweet and packed with texture and flavor-rich powders. The dish was a play on a Spanish cheese-like curd, Cuajada, that is typically made with ewe’s milk ands served with honey and walnuts. In fact, there was walnut powder in the minibar dish too.This dish was the first one served at minibar to come from the creativity of one of the minibar cooks rather than the minibar creative team. The cook behind it was Michael Turner, who was there the first time we ate at minibar. The end result was that both our palates and our plates were cleansed by the time we finished this dish.
Thai food can be quite complex with many ingredients without a deconstruction. minibar’s Thai Dessert contained coconut, peanut, tamarind, cilantro, lime, grapefruit, ginger, basil, curry, cayenne,and salt. With a mix of textures and well balanced this dessert was a winner. Like the pre-dessert, the style of this dessert has become somewhat ubiquitous in top high-end restaurants, however, given that our meal consisted of both newer and older dishes (the Thai Dessert is at least from 2007), it is easy without a frame of reference to think that the food here is derivative and not significantly different than other top modern restaurants. That would be wrong. While the pace of creativity may or may not be what it once was, this meal was a reminder of just how influential Jose Andres and minibar have been (and Albert Adria) . While it is true that minibar freely uses many techniques developed at elBulli (with the Adrias’ blessing), it is also true that Jose Andres, at elBulli from the earliest days of its creative ascent has been a major ally and contributor to the Adrias as well. It is safe to say that the communication has been bi-directional over the years, a point easy to overlook given the meteoric rise of elBulli.
Our meal was finished with a few “Sweet Surprises” including a very delicate Mango Box with White Chocolate and Black Olive, S’Mores (another riff on an iconic American dish) and Bacon and Chocolate. The Mango Box, when served to Albert Adria the day before we were there, was received with the comment, “This looks familiar.” It is his recipe. All were delicious.
The magic of minibar doesn’t come from just one element. It is the whole package. The food is, of course, the main attraction. Some dishes are tastier than others, though none that I had were less than delicious. Magic happens not just on the palate though. In addition to being delicious, the food is clever and whimsical, enough to provoke giggles, laughter and child-like glee and wonder, similar to what happens in Cala Montjoi. Additional magic comes from the interaction with the cooks as they conjure up the dishes not unlike a magician pulls something out of thin air. The best magic of all, though comes from sharing the intimate experience with five other people. If strangers before, they likely won’t be later. If friends already, like we were, so much the better to share the experience. It will be interesting to see what happens when minibar expands in 2012 to take over the entire restaurant and Cafe Atlantico moves to new digs as Jose Andres told me in October in NYC.Yes, minibar will expand – all the way to 16 seats.