Minibar is a must-try-it-once DC experience that sits at the crossroads of food, art and science. The only problem with that crossroads is that it just has six seats and getting a reservation can be more than a little troublesome. But once you've infiltrated the moat outside of Cafe Atlantico, you're led to Jose Andres' mad scientist lab and presented with (approximately) 30 courses, each concocted before your eyes with techniques that will make your brain hurt just to comprehend and your taste buds explode.
It was here that Angela and I decided to celebrate our one-year anniversary. Having based about eighty-five percent of our relationship on a mutual love for food, it seemed only natural that an anniversary would be celebrated with a pinnacle DC food adventure (We already did Komi as a mutual Christmas present). We arrived a little early, and took a seat at Cafe Atlantico's bar. So, before we even get to all that food, let's take a quick look at some of their cocktails.
The first of our drinks was the trademark Jose Andres Salt & Lime Air Margarita. We've had these before as you can get the same cocktails at Cafe Atlantico and Oyamel. In a previous post I discussed my love for the genius 'Salt & Lime Air' and described how you can make it at home.
Angela had the Winter Citrus Caipirinha. It was loaded with bold fruity flavors, combining Meyer Lemons and blood oranges with the Brazilian Pitu Cachaca. A past favorite is the Magic Mojito, where the mojito is poured over a martini full of cotton candy.
Lastly, we tried the Passion Fruit Martini, which blended passion fruit juices with Orange Rum and a ginger-jalapeno infusion. The drink's consistency was almost as thick as a custard and it had a really nice kick, thanks to the welcomed inclusion of jalapeno.
But on to the food! A soon as the six of us were seated at the minibar, we were introduced to our chefs for the evening and the mad scientist wizardry began.
Course #1 - Did I say food? Our first course was actually... you got it... another cocktail. Ironically, it was pretty similar to the passion fruit martini I'd just ordered. (If only I'd known!) Our Passion Fruit Mezcal-Margarita was a delicious sherbet-thick drink with a foam air topper. Foams, as any molecular gastronomist will tell you, are thicker and more like mousse. But the sudsy, bubbly toppers that accompany many dishes (and drinks) should be referred to as 'airs.' This drink was served in the freeze-dried shell of the passion fruit.
Course #2 - This is the first of the mystery items (we were given a menu at the end of the meal that listed most of our courses). We were told it was a bite of "Popcorn". I know that Jose Andres' menus often include popcorn dishes (that feature actual popcorn) like the Dragon's Breath Popcorn or the Chicken Curry Popcorn. However, this bite seemed to be composed of an edible cellophane wrapper and filled with a combination of powdery seasonings that combined to taste like flavored popcorn.
Course #3 - Our next course to hit the table was one of the most beautiful bites we were served all night. The Beet Tumbleweed was an impressively mangled but now rigid string of beet. Angela accurately pointed out that the familiar taste reminded her of Terra chips. While I was busy trying to figure out how the beets were were hardened into the tumbleweed shape, Angela discovered that they were julienned beets that had been fried into a little bundle of crispy delight.
Course #4 - The Sea Bean Tempura was next. I'm not sure I've ever had a 'sea bean' before, but we were told that its exactly what it sounds like, and of course it came smothered in tempura batter and presumably fried (though it's always wrong to presume anything at Minibar. Their every intention is to defy your expectations for how things should be cooked and how things should taste).
Course #5 - The Tomato Crisp with Anchovy "Caviar" was another intriguing amuse-bouche. While I know that the term 'Anchovy Caviar' is an idiom used to refer to something that's a complete fabrication or completely impossible (like 'pigeon's milk'), I do wish I had asked more about how their "caviar" was a play on the phrase. The tomato crisp was very fragile and had been created in what sounded like an intense process of dehydration and re-hydration and dehydration and...
Course #6 - The house's take on a "Ferrero Rocher" may have been a tiny bite, but it was certainly one of the best candies I've ever had. Typically this Italian candy is packaged in little gold wrappers (chances are you've had one before). The mass-produced version is a whole roasted hazelnut encased in a thin wafer filled with hazelnut cream and covered in milk chocolate. This version was similar, but the hazelnut on the inside was liquefied somehow, resulting in a squirt of nutty creamy goodness upon eating.
Course #7 - And yet another cocktail course. Minibar's "Mojito" is carbonated and 'spherified'- a process that allows liquids to be formed into liquid-filled beads using calcium chlorate and alginate. The result is an intense burst of flavor which is best enjoyed in one bite. Unless you feel like wearing spherified mojito on your shirt.
Course #8 - I scream, you scream, we all scream for... fish eggs? That is certainly the case in Minibar's take on "Bagels and Lox". Their creative version is served in a little ice cream cone filled with delicious salmon roe. Its taste far surpassed any perceived gimmick. This little cone-shaped treat was incredible.
Course #9 - The Blue Cheese and Almond Tart was like an interesting experiment in texture and temperature. It was served in shell made from pureed marcona almonds that are frozen in liquid nitrogen. Inside the bowl-shaped shell is a blue cheese mouse topped with shaved almond. We were advised to eat it as fast as we could, as some or all of its components had been frozen in liquid nitrogen. We were also advised not to eat the rocks.
Course #10 - Here comes some really high praise. You ready? I don't normally like mushrooms, and the Steamed Brioche with Black Trumpet Mushrooms was amongst my favorite courses of the evening. The way this smoky, buttery mushroom tasted between the amazing steamed brioche bun, I may have seen the mushroom light.
Course #11 - I jumped right into this sweet and savory treat, because I thought I heard them say 'veal'. Upon biting into it, I realized my error. They had said Cotton Candy Eel. E-E-L. And I should've known, right? I mean, what else would you pair with cotton candy? While I may enjoy Unagi slightly less than I enjoy veal, I reward bonus points for creativity. With the the ever-evolving menu having been changed, it seems that I missed out on their Cotton Candy Foie Gras.
Course #12 - This was one of the lesser dishes for me, though Angela really enjoyed it. The Zucchini in Textures was very creative. The bottom featured a layer of caramelized zucchini puree, while the top was a gelled-zucchini embedded with zucchini seeds. I feel bad because it takes one chef two hours to select enough zucchini seeds for all 12 nightly diners, but at the end of the day, it still tasted like zucchini. After scraping my little bowl clean, I was impressed but ready to move on.
Course #13 - On to more goodness! Next we had the Smoked Oysters with Apple, a small dish that brilliantly combined the flavors and textures of the apple and oyster and topped it with some florals and more foamy 'air'. Angela was extremely delighted that the raw oyster tasted smoky. The chefs were happy to explain how the oyster had been specially cold-smoked (but left raw) using some sort of a gun.
Course #14 - One of Jose Andres' more noteworthy dishes, the "Guacamole" has become a staple at Minibar. Avocado is rolled maki-style around a thickened tomato puree in this deconstruction of the classic dip. Additionally, you have micro-cilantro, tomato brunoise and lime cells. In lieu of chips, this guac is served with Frito crumbles over the top, so you get all the textures and flavors you'd expect in each bite.
Course #15 - A play on Ajo Blanco - which is a cold, Spanish soup that heavily favors almonds - the Fresh Green Almonds with Raisins was a simple-seeming deconstruction. Upon further investigation, those almonds and raisins actually 'pop' in your mouth revealing that, like our 'mojito', they have also been through the spherification process. This was so surprisingly delicious I wanted to lick the bowl clean.
Course #16 - Any guesses as to what this is or how it was made are welcomed. They called this Sweet Peas Catalan Style, and the peas appeared to be encapsulated inside a gelatinous substance. I vaguely recall that dark red puree (at left) as being a Blood Pudding.
Course #17 - One of the more fun dishes we had all night, was the Organic Carrots with Coconut, in which those 'carrots' were once again a spherified gel of liquefied or pureed carrot. The great thing about these spherified capsules of liquid is that what's inside can be any flavors that the chefs want. While they maintained the carrot taste, it was certainly embellished with incredible supplementary flavors.
Course #18 - This one was fun to watch. Minibar's "Tzatziki" takes a scoop of the Greek yogurt and dips it in liquid nitrogen. Frozen only on the outside, the yogurt is still soft and creamy once you crack into the middle. It comes served with garlic oil and juvenile cucumber flowers (lest we forget that traditional tzatziki is made with cucumber).
Course #19 - Next up was a dish that could probably enjoyed (in a larger portion) as an entree. Not too many bells and whistles came with the Charcoal Salmon Toro With Black Garlic - it was just a really well-executed seafood dish, made beautiful with the artsy touch of black garlic.
Courses #20 and #21 - The Pink Shrimp Brioche actually yields a bonus dish. First, we were served the perfectly cooked shrimp in some sort of foamy broth (at left). This is actually the brioche. But isn't brioche supposed to be bread? Apparently, the liquid was constituted of all the raw elements of a brioche (milk, egg, butter, sugar, salt, etc.). Once we'd taken care of that, we were told we couldn't eat the shrimp body without having the head (at right). It was dried and tasted like a crispy, well-seasoned chip.
Course #22 - You wouldn't guess it off-hand but the Parmesan "Egg" with Migas is one of the more creative dishes we were served. In fact, it's not a real egg at all. Using a reverse-spherification process (Okay, I grasped spherification, but I'm just completely lost now) an egg is re-created using the yolk of a quail egg and by employing parmesan to replace the surrounding egg white. I was blown away by the science of it, but thought the parmesan taste was a little overwhelming. The 'migas' (at left) loosely translates as 'crumbs'.
Course #23 - Another mystery course that wasn't featured on the menu was the Cigala and Horchata. While the cigala (like a langoustine) and horchata were both uniquely tasty, we both felt like they were an odd pairing.
Course #24 - We'd been watching them hand sear thinly sliced, rare Wagyu beef for a few minutes now and were really excited when we saw them start to drape the slices over a pita to serve as a Philly Cheesesteak. We discovered where they had hid the cheese upon biting into the warm bread, when a warm liquid cheddar cheese oozed out from the center.
Course #25 - The Kumquats and Pumpkin Seeds were presented beautifully, but I thought the pre-dessert's taste was mostly forgettable. Angela, however, appreciated how well the slightly sweet dish transitioned us from the savory part of the meal to the desserts.
Course #26 - I feel bad doing this, but I'm going to go ahead and say it. As simple as the Thai Dessert may have appeared (compared to everything we ate) it was perfectly executed. Biting into it revealed a hidden agenda of complex flavors that certainly weren't limited to peanut, curry, coconut, lime and grapefruit. It was sweet and salty and spicy and crunchy, and well... probably my favorite thing I ate all night. I would've liked to eat one giant dessert of this.
Course #27 - The interesting thing about this dessert is that it was made almost entirely out of frozen powders. The Frozen Yogurt with Honey combined mint leaves with frozen yogurt powder and frozen honey powders. The surrounding orangey liquid, that's (real, unfrozen) honey. The odd tickle on your tongue (think Dip n' Dots) was balanced with the rich, sweetness of the honey.
Courses #28, #29 and #30 - The dessert was concluded with their Sweet Endings. The three final bites were all served at once. First was the Mango Box, a transparent, crystallized box with a creamy center. On a side note, Angela had disclosed a mango allergy at the beginning of the meal, though nothing was said to us when they served the mango. Perhaps it was just assumed that she'd have the common sense not to put something called 'mango box' into her mouth. Next were the delicious and creamy 'S'mores', followed by my obvious favorite of the three, the Chocolate Bacon.
For our 'final course' we were all presented with an egg, which was then violently smashed by the open palm of our server, revealing our check nestled inside. When it was all finished, we were given this course-by-course menu.
While I could certainly argue that I've had better food (but not much) in my life, Minibar really pulls it together with the addition of memorable dining experience. We had previously been blown away by the food at Komi, but were left wondering how things were made or what ingredients or cooking techniques had been combined to give certain tastes. But at Minibar, the food isn't just a meal. It's also theatre. The chefs and their inventive techniques become another ingredient in the meal, and the diners/audience leave with a richer understanding and appreciation for what just went into their mouths. And (as the above picture of Angela posing with the Chefs behind the bar demonstrates), we walked out with reverse-spherified smiles frozen with liquid nitrogen on our faces... or something like that.