Monday, January 04, 2010

Minibar Revolution – Minibar – Washington, DC

For the culinary community, the 00’s were the Molecular Decade – for butter or for wurst. In the 90s Ferran Adria was still figuring out his chemistry set, but it took Y2K to fashion a craze. One cannot fairly say that Cuisine Agape ever dominated, but many culinary capitals birthed restaurants that played games with your food. From Barcelona to Bray, Paris to New York, from the near west side of Chicago to the near north side of Chicago, experimentation was the game’s name. And, it must be said, that the gourmet decade had it all over the political decade. We can look back with satisfaction and not shame; after all those calories we really need some health care.

To end the decade, I returned to Minibar, Chef José Andrés’ outpost in his Café Atlantico in downtown Washington. Short of underground dining, short of El Bulli, Minibar is the toughest reservation to cadge. It took four mornings, calling at the moment that lines were open finally to snag a spot. (There are two seatings of six each. Sorry, Octomom!) The object is to be up-close-and-personal with the chefs: a sushi counter gone wild. Such a structure makes for agreeable conversation with the staff, but perhaps limits what can be produced by the team of four, working in tight quarters under our hawkish gaze.

Minibar - DC - December 2009 - the staff

I had eaten at Minibar two years previous and was impressed with the creativity and panache. How did it wear? Was Minibar a two-trick pony? The answer is complicated.

Artistic revolutions have their life cycles. First, there are the pioneers, the rebels. But there are only so many ideas under the dining moon. In time even the most remarkable sparks of deconstructed genius become matters of routine. The craft remains, but the new dishes are often modifications of canonical recipes. The history of aesthetic insurgency is that of trick or tweak. In time, passion becomes passé: been there, ate that. At that moment, others, more traditional, emerge to pluck the best ideas and blend them with the tried and true: that’s what happened with Careme, Escoffier, nouvelle, and fusion.

We are, it seems, in-between the moments of modification and incorporation. Soon chefs will not strain to foam. But by then even the most conventional chef will place pop rocks in their mise en place for that perfect plate.

Minibar remains an essential restaurant and certainly will be eye-opening for anyone who has never been exposed to molecular cuisine. My challenge was to find the lasting memories among the fusty standards (if a mojito bladder can be derided as fusty or as standard). Depending on how one counts, I was served two dozen courses. Eleven “munchies.” Ten “flavors and textures.” Two desserts and one plate of mignardises (or “sweet surprises”).

Andrés and his chefs are still capable of revelations, even if some dishes are more curious than eternal. A description of twenty four dishes seems excessive even for the most bilious blogger (the photos provide evidence of the chef’s handiwork), but there were some goofs. I was not taken with the “Bagels and Lox,” a small hors d’oeuvre that was little more than loxy balls in a bready cone. The flourless blue cheese and almond tart was tasty enough, but nothing special, although being served in a bowl of rocks was an enjoyable conceit. The carbonated mojito bladder was fun, but more a cunning culinary stunt than a dish that led to seconds. The same could be said for the parmesan “egg” that was more cute than delicious.

What is necessary in our Tweens is for brave chefs to create brilliant dishes. We have moved beyond being satisfied with the astonishment of the concept (Wow, shards of glass in the fruit salad, so this is a blood orange!) to demanding dishes that are luscious, creative, and brimming with sensation. Fortunately there were several dishes at Minibar that deserve this acclaim. Other dishes deserve nods. A hot and cold Pisco sour, a tempura Brussels sprout, a raw smoked oyster with apple and ginger, an inside out reconstructed guacamole, a charcoal salmon with black garlic and lemon-lime pearls all stood firmly on their own. However, I focus on four dishes that represented for me what molecular cuisine can achieve, but often does not.

First, there was the now obligatory cotton candy display: chefs at the funhouse. But at this carnival, cotton candy eel with shiso leaf, wasabi, and ginger really did transcend. Forgot that it was “cotton candy,” but feel the texture and taste the ingredients. The wispy filaments contributed to the exoticism of this proto-Japanese dish with its symphony of senses. It was brilliant, transcending the brittleness of the conceit.

Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Cotton Candy Eel

Second was Zucchini in Textures, a signature Andrés dish (it was served two years ago). The taste was subtle, not boisterous, and the textures were sublime. It elevated this rather pedestrian summer squash to the winter heights. Each level - the water, the seeds, and a puree - was precisely achieved. It is a contemporary classic: quieter than Keller’s Oysters and Pearls or Carlson’s Quail Egg Ravioli, but just as subversively memorable in its spare delight.

Minibar - Washington, DC - December 2009 - Zucchini Three Ways

Third, late in the meal, was Breaded Cigala with Sea Salad (sorrel, I believe). Cigala is a type of Spanish langoustine (perhaps the generic translation of langoustine). Again it was a simple dish, but a pure and wonderful one without fireworks, but with enormous care in the ingredient and the preparation. The salad matched the seafood precisely.

Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Breaded Cigala (Langoustine) with Sea Salad

Finally, the dessert: Thai Cuisine, more molecular than the previous two choices but with the spices of Bangkok banged into surprising shapes and textures: ginger crumbles, cilantro-coconut sorbet, ginger bits. Here was a deconstruction of an impossible construction. This savory sweet was a wonderful fantasia, and a lovely close to a wide array, revealing that molecular cuisine still has much to teach, although perhaps no longer in two dozen courses.

Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Thai Dessert: Grapefruit gelee, cilantro-coconut sorbet, ginger

The rest:
Hot and Cold Pisco Sour
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Hot and Cold Pisco Sour
"Bagels and Lox"
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Bagel and Lox
Boneless Curried Chicken Wing
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Boneless Chicken Wing
Flourless Blue Cheese and Almond Tart
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Flourless Blue Cheese and Almond Tart
"Ferrero Rocher" - savory hazelnut and blue cheese
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - "Ferrero Rocher" - savory hazelnut and blue cheese
Mojito Bubble
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Carbonated Mojito Bubble
Steamed Brioche With Caviar
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Steamed Brioche Bun with Caviar
Brussels Sprout Tempura Rose
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Brussels Sprout Tempura Rose
Dragon's Breath Popcorn
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Dragon's Breath Popcorn
Guacamole Roll
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Guacamole Roll
Smoked Oyster with Green Apple
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Smoked Oyster with Green Apple
Hand Made Corn with Huitlacoche
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Hand Made Corn with Huitlacoche
"Sun-Dried" Tomato Salad with Lemon Foam
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - "Sun-Dried" Tomato Salad with Lemon Foam
Charcoal Salmon Toro with Black Garlic and Lemon-Lime Pearls
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Charcoal Salmon Toro with Black Garlic and Lemon-Lime Pearls
New England Clam Chowder with Bacon Cream and Potato Bits
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - New England Clam Chowder with Bacon Cream and Potato Clubs
Parmesan "Egg" with Migas
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Parmesan "Egg" with Migas
Philly Cheesesteak
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Philly Cheesesteak
Frozen Yogurt, Honey, Olive Oil
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Frozen Yogurt, Honey, Olive Oil, Salt
Mango White Chocolate Box, Smores, Bacon and Chocolate
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Mango White Chocolate Box, "Smores", Bacon and Chocoate
Fizzy Ball
Minibar - DC - December 2009 - Fizzy Ball

Second Floor
405 8th Street NW,
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 393-0812