Saturday, February 14, 2009
Chef Ryan welcomes us to minibar.
minibar by Jose Andres in Cafe Atlantico has to be some of the most difficult seats to reserve in the entire mid-Atlantic. Actually, the difficulty I've had reserving a seat is second only to Andres' mentors' restaurant: El Bulli in Roses, Spain.
It works like this: on any given morning, at 10am Eastern time, you must call quickly and speak with Bonji to reserve your seats exactly one month ahead of time. It's a lot of precision and planning, which just runs against the core of my existence. I'm not very good at planning where I'm going to be one month from today, much less where I'm going to eat.
It also requires mental acuity in understanding the dynamics of the time-space continuum. Just because you're calling Bonji on a Saturday doesn't mean you're reserving for that Saturday a month away. It's exactly one month, which means the day you're calling to reserve is actually a Tuesday. That could be a problem
You have to remember to call at exactly 10am. Exactly. A minute later and "game over" - all the seats will be filled. Everyone and their mother is trying to get a seat at minibar and they go extremely quickly. Afterall, there's only six seats. Add another six because there's two seatings per night and you're fighting that guys' mother for a total of twelve seats. It's vicious.
I obtained my reservation with my usual M.O. - I had remembered to call two weeks ago after the designated time but called Bonji anyway at 11:30am one morning. I told her I would like to eat at the minibar. I expected her to get rid of me. She asked how many? I told her I'll take whatever she could give me, from one seat to the whole minibar. She came back with an offer of one seat at the 8:30pm second seating. I'll take it!
The first part of the reservation process is relatively simple compared to the second part. They email you a confirmation form to print out, complete with credit card info and signature, then fax back to them. It's a ridiculous practice that's just dumb. You've got my Amex number, what's the deal with the paperwork for my left kidney? But, I had heard so much about minibar that I wanted to check it out and complied. Left kidney and all.
Olive Oil "Bon Bon"
minibar is just that. A small bar for six people on the upper level of Cafe Atlantico. A restaurant within a restaurant. And while it's considered the showpiece in Jose Andres' empire of cuisine that stretches across America, from sea to shining sea, it's also the red headed stepchild. The crown jewel that shines brightly but doesn't make them money.
Huh? How could you say that, you ask? Don't they charge $120 per person at minibar? Isn't that a bit insane? Well, maybe. According to the staff, the ingredient costs are pretty high - out of whack with the margins restaurants normally operate, which means that while minibar may cover their expenses, they don't necessarily generate profit.
And this is kinda reflected in the minibar itself. The immersion circulator they're using is old and crusted with mineral deposits. The workspace itself is made up of haphazard remnants of underbar equipment, including an old, beat up glass washer. They're using electric hot plates instead of the now chic induction. After hearing so much about the food, I had expected minibar to be outfitted slick and beautiful. Like a mini Alinea or per se. Instead, the chefs were making do with cutting boards stacked on bus tubs, stacked on boxes that are stacked on equipment stands.
They may be using wild chemicals to create the cuisine and have a PacoJet stashed in a cabinet, but outside of the patina'd All Clan stainless saute pans, minibar is decidedly lowbrow in its' equipment and setup. While this may seem like an indictment of minibar, it's not. When you see and experience the cuisine at minibar, you really can't believe they're doing all of that with such equipment. It proves you don't have to have the fanciest of gear to produce truly excellent food.
I arrived at Cafe Atlantico at least a half hour early because one never knows how the traffic between Baltimore and Washington DC will flow in the evenings. Sometimes it's smooth sailing. Other times, you're dead. Happily, this trip was the former. The hostesses greeted me then led me to the bar to cool my jets where I started off with "A New Americano" - touting itself as "A new all-American twist on Barack Obama's Favorite Cocktail 'The Americano.'" I had never heard of it, so I was game.
This is where it started. It was now 8pm and I hadn't eaten since 2pm. I was hungry. My stomach was empty. Perhaps this was not the time to consume a beverage of gin, vermouth and campari. By the time we headed upstairs, I was feeling it.
Our servers' name was Dan but for the life of me, I don't know why we would need a server at minibar. It's extraneous and a waste. To be quite frank, the presence of a server did nothing to enhance the experience. His interaction was limited to greeting us at the bar, giving us the wine menu, taking our wine order, pouring the wines and clearing plates as we ate and collecting the bill (with tip) at the end. I paid a $45 tip to a guy who really didn't do much of anything all night. As I drove home later, I couldn't help but think that this guy, who did practically nothing except stand there all night doing not much of anything just made a $45 tip from me while everyone else did the work.
An evening at minibar means you're interacting with the chefs preparing your meal. They're telling you how things were made, describing the dishes and serving them to you. All you really need is a busser to clear the plates, reset silverware and pour wine. While I never confirmed it, I certainly hope that the chefs got a cut of my tip 'cause they did all the work.
When it comes to imbibing at minibar, there are several options: wines by the glass, wines in half bottles, wines in whole bottles and flights of wines, with the highlight of the flights being presented in their "Grand Progression - a tour highlighting selections from our extensive half-bottle collection." It cost $90 and I decided that I would go for it. These are the wines in order of presentation:
Tradition Brut, Premier Cru
Dizy, France - Non-Vintage
Gruner Veltliner Privat
Kremstal, Austria - 2007
Santa Ynez Valley, California 2007
Russian River Valley, California 2006
Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc
Casablanca Valley, Chile 2006
They were nice wines, but I really didn't fancy any of them. I tend to like big, fruity, oak-y wines. These may have been some great wines but I just wasn't into them that much. Sadly, it make me realize once again that maybe I really don't like wines with my meals. Maybe I just don't "get it." Maybe I'm just a charlatan. These were wine flights and not wine pairings, so they weren't designed to be perfect to any one dish, just a flight of wines and I'm just not feeling it.
I've only had one (maybe two) experiences where the wine paired brilliantly with the food. Usually, they're just there. Not necessarily clashing but not quite complimenting each other either. I've found greater joy in wine by ordering a bottle that I enjoy and drinking it through most or the entire meal. Forget the wine/red rules. Just drink what you enjoy and all is well.
Along with the wine was the choice of still, sparkling or iced water. Judging from the bill later, the latter must have been plain tap water because my water cost me six dollars. It wasn't bad nor too expensive but I always think it's not very clever to present water in this fashion - as though you're making a choice when really the server is steering you towards padding your bill (and their tip).
"Bagels and Lox"
The highlight of the minibar experience is the food and the presenting chefs. Ryan and Lyndon were great in preparing our meal, telling us about the dishes, answering our never-ending questions about the ingredients and techniques involved. The stuff they're doing is absolutely amazing. It's technically brilliant. Like the carbonated mojito sphere - that's cool. Or the zucchini textures - wow.
The progression goes from the technically wild, like the parmesan "egg", to the relatively simple breaded cigala. Both of which were delicious and amazing to watch being created.
Which is how it goes at minibar. They prepare the dishes right in front of you. You see everything. From the prep to the cooking to the plating. For someone who's interested in this level of preparation, it's stunning. You want to burn the memory card on your camera using the video mode. You wish you had a video camera - or at least audio recorder. The amount of information on everything that these guys are willing to share is massive.
"Dragon's Breath" Popcorn
Just from chatting with them, I sense that they share the same sensibilities as many of my friends and peers: there are no secrets. They engaged in open discussion about everything. Ask them about technique and they tell you. How long do you bathe the sphere in the chloride bath? One minute. And then they tell you what happens if you hold it longer, or too long.
Within the group, there's an open dialogue. A dialogue that, ostensibly, extends itself from the minibar to the larger world of cuisine where they discuss trials and techniques with Grant Achatz of Alinea, or Wylie Dufresne of WD-50, all the way to the Grand Master himself: Ferran Adria of El Bulli. Oooh. Aaaah. Of course, there's the stories about that guy from Moto in Chicago who won't talk to anyone, where everything is a secret and people have to sign a non-disclosure agreement before stepping into Moto's kitchen under penalty of civil lawsuit. Sounds like a friendly guy, that one.
Our meal was comprised of twenty-six courses. Some really fantastic (like the cigala), some really cool ("Dragon's Breath" Popcorn), and others were just not to my tastes (New England Clam Chowder). In fact, I really disliked the clam chowder. There was something about the flavor of the clam that just turned me off and stayed on my palate for quite a while. Unpleasant would be the best description.
Of course, in 26 courses, not all of them can be perfect. There will be courses you hate (like the clam chowder). That should be expected since you're pushing the boundaries.
Steamed Brioche Bun with Osetra Caviar
I really enjoyed the Beet "Tumbleweed", "Bagels and Lox" and "Dragon's Breath" Popcorn. The tumbleweed was essentially a friend ball of beet string. Fantastic. Bagels and lox was very reminiscent of Thomas Kellers' amuse bouche at both The French Laundry and per se, though I have to say that the salmon roe used at minibar was so vibrant and full of flavor that it really did the trick. Dragon's Breath was just cool. A cake of popcorn dipped in liquid nitrogen so that while you ate it, chilled "smoke" would emanate from your mouth and/or nose.
For me, the steamed brioche bun was slightly sweet and pillowy soft. It reminded me of a rather expensive sio pao, and being topped with osetra caviar reminded me of that extravagant weekend in Moscow a year ago. The cornbread was pretty good but it tasted so strongly of roasted cornnuts that it overwhelmed any connection to actual cornbread. Not to say that it was bad, it just didn't connect as strongly - even though I loved eating CornNuts as a child.
Boneless Chicken Wing
Blue Cheese and Almond
Cotton Candy Eel
When you see them start to spin the little tub contraption, you wonder what is going on? There's some nice slices of eel. He's taking some shiso leaf and adding thin slices of cucumber and pickled ginger but what is with the tub? Once he wraps the eel with the leaf and sauce, he plunges it (along with his hand) into the spinning tub and out comes a cotton candy coated eel. Lovely. I really like roasted eel in a soy based sauce but wrapped in cotton candy is just wild.
"Sun Dried" Tomato Salad
I found the "sun dried tomatoes" in the salad to be just fantastic. They basically take tomato juice, make it into spheres and then dehydrate to create a pseudo sun dried tomato. Very cool. The Zucchini in Textures had to be one of my favorite dishes of the evening. Puree of zucchini at the bottom, stewed zucchini seeds and a top layer of gelatinized zucchini juice. Wonderful. The flavors were nice but the textures were so dramatic. Well played guys, well played.
Zucchini in Textures
Parmesan "Egg" with Migas
One of the most powerful presentations was the parmesan "egg". I believe it was poached egg yolk enrobed in a parmesan, egg white mixture that encapsulated the yolk. Brilliant. Someday, I want to rip that idea off of these guys. Maybe they'll share with me their technique. It would be a great homage to them. The "guacamole" was interesting with a tomato sorbet wrapped by avocado slices but it just didn't have enough "pop" to connect me with real guacamole. I like boldly seasoned guacamole - let the salt, lime, cilantro and peppers flow, baby - and this interpretation just didn't catch me.
Smoked Oysters with Apples and Juniper
Salmon-Pineapple "Ravioli" with Crispy Quinoa
New England Clam Chowder
As I said earlier, it was the clam chowder that I couldn't connect with. Just something about that clammy, briny flavor that I just didn't like. While I love raw oysters, I don't think I'm a raw clam fan, and this dish just didn't click with me. The smoked oyster was nice with the apple and juniper but it definitely wasn't a strong player in the presentation.
Breaded Cigala with Sea Salad
After two courses of rocky dishes, they sprung back with a monster: the breaded cigala was killer. Prepared oh so simply with a little breading and sauteed in olive oil, it was smashing - and it was the most traditionally prepared method of all the dishes. Just simple and stellar ingredients to mark the hallmark course of the evening.
Kumquats and Pumpkin Seed Oil
Our "Pre-Dessert" course of kumquats and pumpkin seed oil was captivating to watch them prepare. Alternating circles of pumpkin oil and kumquat puree dotted with candied pumpkin seed, centered around a kumquat filled with kumquat sorbet. Nice idea, nice execution and the tartness of the dish prepared the palate for the sweet courses to come.
The first dessert course, Thai Dessert, was a mixture of peanuts and curry and ice cream. It captured the main flavor elements of a well-made Pad Thai: peanuts, curry, cilantro. I almost thought I was eating a sweet Pad Thai. It was very good.
Frozen Yogurt and Honey
The next course was a technical stunner. Evidently, if you balance the water and fat ratio in yogurt, freeze it and then spin it in a PacoJet (doesn't everyone have these in their kitchen?) you can create a frozen powder. Take that frozen powder and heap it with a powdered honey from Ferran Adria and you've got a truly space-age dessert. It's kind of like NASA freeze-dried ice cream meets El Bulli. Tantalizing on your tongue but you better hurry because the yogurt will thaw into liquid form.
Mango Box, Saffron Gumdrop with Edible Wrapper and Chocolate Covered Corn Nuts.
Brewed coffee - can you spell B-O-R-I-N-G?
The final course of the night was a trio of chocolate covered corn nuts (curious), saffron gumdrop wrapped in edible paper (cool) and a mango box (good). This was served along with rather unremarkable coffee. Actually, I had a choice between regular (or decaf) coffee and espresso. I chose the former since I figured I would be gambling less. Sadly, the coffee was unremarkable and not worth the three dollar charge.
Maybe I shouldn't complain. Maybe I should just be thankful. But really, serving such lackluster quality after presenting thoughtful, locally sourced cocktails and exquisite food is just insulting. Why not toss a McDonald's cheeseburger as a minibar course? Sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? But dropping coffee this plain and lame is akin to doing just that.
Three dollars....please... My dad can brew better coffee than this - and he likes Taster's Choice.
Breaking my heart. And the bank.
And that was it. My entire minibar experience was wrapped in an egg - that they crushed in front of you with a big BAM! Inside the egg was The Bill. Time for The Reckoning.
So, how much did this gastronomic escapade cost me? Curiously, there is a thread on egullet.com where a reader was asking people how much it really costs to eat at these kinds of places. Sure, the menu says $120, but how much does it really cost after adding everything together? Can you truly get away eating (relatively) cheaply? Yes and No.
Here's the breakdown:
minibar Tasting $120.00
Nuevo American cocktail $ 12.00
Grand Procession Wine $ 90.00
Still Water $ 6.00
Coffee $ 3.00
DC Tax $ 23.10
Tip- 18% $ 45.00
Three hundred dollars for the meal at minibar. It's not cheap but it's not as expensive as some other places I've eaten. Though I'm still confounded by why they need a server for the minibar. Let the cooks and bussers handle it. Let them earn the tips. They're the ones doing all the work.
Lyndon and Ryan bid a fond adieu.
Let's do the math. Let's pretend that twelve people come in for the minibar experience and only pay $120 per person. That's revenue of $1,440 per night. If they tipped out just the minimum amount of 15%, that would be $216 in tips. Even with a five percent tip out ($11) for the bussers, they're still going home with a minimum of $205 a night. Not bad for just hanging out in the background while the chefs engage the customers the entire time.
Consider that my bill was more than twice that and that most people eating at minibar will spend more than $120 per person and you can see that as a minibar server you can make a good amount of cash for doing very little. Which is why I think they should eliminate the minibar server and let the bussers and chefs keep the tips.
I'll probably get hate mail from servers because of this but that's my observation and I'm sticking with it.
Now that you know the cost, you're probably wondering if it was worth it. Again, my answer is: Yes and No. Actually, there is no "no" answer. Only yes. It's worth it for the experience. To see the cutting edge of cuisine presented in a way that you wouldn't experience at places like Alinea or El Bulli. The chefs are right there, in front of you. You watch them prepare and create your courses. You can ask them questions and they'll tell you just about everything you need to know to mimic the technique at home - even down to the length of time they steep the encapsulation in the chloride.
It's an opportunity to see what you would never see anywhere else and to try new flavors and textures that you wouldn't be able to try in the majority of restaurants worldwide, which makes it so worth the money. In fact, it's relatively so cheap that it makes the rest look like robbers. Of course, one should remember that minibar doesn't really make a profit and that Jose Andres is offering the experience essentially at cost because his restaurant empire supports this expression of his cuisine. The other places do this on a restaurant scale and, therefore, have to charge more to recoup their costs and make money.
A fun story the chefs related to us is that since minibar doesn't turn a profit, they don't always get the latest and greatest equipment and often have to resort to raiding the kitchens of Andres' other restaurants for certain supplies when necessary.
My problem with meals like this is that they're technically brilliant and I learn and experience so much from just eating there, asking questions, and observing, Friends ask me if it was "good" and certainly it was - in fact, it's brilliant. However, it's just not "nourishing." It satisfies my soul and my desire to expand my craft, but it doesn't nourish my soul. It's like dating an incredibly hot model but having no internal connection. Beautiful. Stunning. Your friends envy you. But it's still hollow. You're left unfulfilled on a certain level. That's how I feel after eating these brilliant meals.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not bashing. I love what they do and I'll continue to eat and explore similar restaurants, but is this the level of cuisine that I want to pursue? Maybe. Years ago, I thought this was the level of coffee I wanted to present. Now, I'm not so sure. There's a gut connection that I feel is missing. I want there to be a link between the amazing and fascinating to the fulfilling and nourishing to the soul.
Thanks guys, I had a great time.
405 8th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004