minibar and the spark of a major gastronomic journey

July 28, 2019

When I lived in Alexandria, Virginia from June 2013 until August 2016, I took advantage of every opportunity to explore the culinary landscape across the national capital region. I began in Old Town, conveniently located less than two miles from my apartment. On the weekends, I rode the metro train into Washington, DC to dine at the multitude of restaurants there, both vanguards and newcomers alike. I Uber-ed endlessly around the political heart of the nation, eating solo at first and later with an eclectic mix of friends and strangers. I was constrained neither by time nor by distance. I indulged in all types of food buoyed by unbridled enthusiasm and an unapologetic appetite.  Without realizing it at the time, I was also falling in love with food, not just the diversity and availability of cuisines but by the idea of what food could be, what it could represent, and also its ability to shape and evolve my perspective on life. Food quickly became both metaphor and philosophy.

Washington, DC was also the place I tried a tasting menu for the first time. In May 2015, a foodie friend invited me to minibar, the most avant-garde restaurant among Chef José Andrés’ culinary empire in the city. I said yes immediately. I had already studied the website and been sufficiently dazzled by the wondrous colors and shapes of strange-looking components that purported to be food. In truth, they resembled more the futuristic building blocks of some mad science experiment conducted by lunatic scientists…or perhaps scientists masquerading as chefs. At the time, I had just returned from a military deployment where daily meals had consisted of assembly-lined, cafeteria-styled food. Hence, I could not resist an invitation to this wonderland of a restaurant. When the evening finally arrived, I was giddy with excitement.

Over the course of several hours, I dined on “pizza” topped with small dollops of caviar, a dish elevated by a luxury ingredient and yet remained playfully casual by its placement on a paper plate. I munched eagerly on a beef tartare “burger” that was small enough to hold between my index finger and thumb. It disappeared with one bite. Dried chicken skin was used in one course, pressed flat and dessicated to give the appearance of a thick chiccharón. It tasted remarkably similar, too, a blissful, nostalgic reminder of the beloved New Mexican snack from childhood I ate long before understanding the concept of fine dining. This upscale version, so far removed from the trappings of my proletariat upbringing, was accompanied delicious lobster and citrusy finger lime.

Drinks arrived decorated with flower petals, some infused with exotic ingredients like yuzu and quince, and others bearing visual flourishes like billowing smoke. They were visual stimulation for my eyes as much as my palate, as I would later learn. More creative courses came in the guise of foam, pork-flavored gels, and even delicate meringue cleverly shaped to resemble a child’s rubber ducky toy, all supported on whimsical and sometimes strange-looking platforms like wire mesh. When the savory courses were completed, desserts were no less jaw dropping. I ate one that resembled baby carrots freshly pulled from the dirt, delighted in another that reshaped marshmallows to simulate caterpillars lounging on green leaves, and smiled from pleasure when biting into a chilled “peanut” candy filled with bourbon and liquid sugar. Every taste was heavenly.

Growing up, my mom often cooked at home, so our family never dined out often. Olive Garden, in my young mind at the time, represented not just Italian cuisine but the exemplar by which all other Italian food should be judged. Similarly, I viewed Red Lobster as the epitome of a fine-dining restaurant. So eating at minibar felt like I had just been transported to a whole new world—an alien planet, in fact. Up to that point, I had never even considered eating more than a handful of courses in one sitting. At minibar, I was served twenty-five courses that first titillated, then dazzled all my senses and emotions. The wizardry and theatrics had made me swoon enough to be spellbound. More than just a witness, I had tasted culinary magic. Most importantly though, I believed in it.

After the marvelous evening finally ended, I felt like I had just experienced the greatest dinner and show. The experience had left me reeling with complete fascination by the transformative nature of food, beyond the science of molecular gastronomy, and deeply shifted my culinary beliefs. I was enveloped by zeal and wanted more. Much more. That was the moment I realized my gastronomic journey had only just begun. I imagined there was a vast galaxy out there full of visual wonders and epicurean delights yet to be explored.

In the months and years following that impactful meal, I continued to seek out other tasting menus within and beyond Washington, DC. I would compare and contrast these new experiences against that seminal one which, over a stretch of time and space, had begun to appear less and less illustrious, much like an effervescent dream where the brilliant, beautiful contours quickly recede upon awakening. In hindsight, the first minibar dinner was more creative than delicious and I would say, likely more spectacle than substance. At the time, I could not have articulated this honest assessment when caught in the throes of a monumental experience where I lacked both knowledge and context. My sheer excitement back then had created an initial impression that was quite forgiving of the food. Much later though, after careful reflection, an evening that once appeared rather extraordinary had diminished considerably. As with many rites of passage, age and maturity have an inevitable way of elucidating the memories, often enhanced by embellishments and fabulations, of earlier times.

After four years away, I came back to dine at minibar. What would the restaurant offer me this time? What could it offer me? I was somewhat apprehensive coming home, metaphorically speaking. I felt like I had been away for a lifetime, yet I remained hopeful my experience would be different this time.  However, I was no longer that eager novice who was so easily stimulated by every visual and gustatory caress. I now came armed with knowledge, of ingredients and techniques, composition and plating, and execution. In truth, I had primed my defenses even when knowing there was now a new team in place and I, in all likelihood, would have a much different encounter than last time.

Suffice to say, minibar has lost none of its ability to poke, to prod, and to challenge. At the same time, they continue to surprise, and ultimately, to delight the diner. All the amazing luxuries are still present, but the current chefs now have a greater command of flavors, timing, and delivery. Not only do the courses bear gorgeous visages in all their various presentations, they are also downright delicious. When dining there two months ago, I did not encounter a single impotent dish among minibar’s vast repertoire. Even when the cuisine is at its most esoteric, when the risk of goading foodies too far and derailing the entire fantastic ride is present, minibar never quite missteps. They manage to maintain an internal rhythm and consistency for the entire evening without leading diners astray.

The food at minibar draws influence freely and deliberately across the international stage from classic cuisine to nouvelle. Spread across 30 individual bites and courses, I marveled at many Spanish ingredients, was pleasantly reminded of delicious Vietnamese street food (from my upbringing in the US and also from overseas travels as an adult), basked in the warmth of an early Italian summer, was further delighted by an impeccable vegetable from France, and in eating seafood from Japan, felt its gravitational influence upon the haute cooking of many Western countries. However, minibar is not just borrowing and incorporating aspects of different cuisines haphazardly in piecemeal fashion. They have expertly taken culinary snippets where appropriate to meld flavors and memories together that organically coalesce into their own unique vision. The totality of the meal is more largesse than excess, utilizing tradition as the base, inspiration as an anchor, and invention as the crucial steps to creating their own identity.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the exceptional service here. Unlike many other fine-dining restaurants that offer tasting menus, minibar has no actual servers. Instead, the entire team consisting of over two dozen chefs, sommeliers, and cooks, serve the diners themselves. The counter seating is located just a few feet away from the open kitchen, allowing an unimpeded view. This setup, with such close proximity to the preparation of the courses, further erodes the boundary between those that cook and those that eat. No walls or barriers exist here. By closing the gap between the service staff and the diners, minibar facilitates generous interaction and intimacy between the restaurant personnel and the patrons who are the final arbiters of what lands on the plate.

Besides creating a more personable experience, seeing the staff up close is a stark reminder that real human beings cook and serve this food. They are not nameless faces employed by some corporate machine. The employees are here because they want to be; their hospitality reflects that mindset. Working close, literally, to the diners allows the minibar staff to receive feedback in real time. If necessary, they can adjust the dining experience expeditiously. Based on intelligence gleaned from overheard conversations, the team can spontaneously take proactive action to tailor the dining experience. For example, a customer who ate there recently told her companion that she had never tried Shake Shack before. Upon learning this information, minibar, without her knowledge, sent a runner to procure the burger and served it to the surprised guest as the final course. Now, that is world-class hospitality in action!

My return experience to minibar was nothing short of astounding from beginning to end. The creativity and innovation of the food were as admirable as the first time. Moreover, the flavors had evolved significantly and were more craveable and delicious. The restaurant’s charm, its ability to enchant, remained intact, courtesy of remarkable cuisine and service prepared by a well-trained, conscientious team. The people working here delivered a stellar dining experience with plenty of gusto and smiles. This is a group with a fecundity of ideas, a wellspring that, having earned them two Michelin stars, pushes the restaurant undeniably toward its third in the very near future.

In reminiscing, I am uncertain I could have asked for a better introduction to tasting menus four years ago. While time and experience certainly put my foray into fine dining in its proper perspective, my second visit allayed a fear that had lingered for some time. My initial encounter was not some crush that turned out to be a grand and disappointing illusion. Nor was it merely a one-time rendezvous. It was the beginning of a wonderful journey, one that has introduced me to engaging people, captivating travels, and fascinating foods. That first minibar experience, not so long ago, was an affection that planted deep roots and blossomed with grace and maturity, and in doing so, became a love that has endured.

Snacks

Course 1:  These “olives” were a bit of culinary trompe l’oeil that tasted like its namesake fruit with very subtle hints of apple and orange. They served as an homage to the spherical olives that came out of the legendary El Bulli restaurant where Chef José Andrés worked before coming to the US. The purple one represented an Alfonso olive, the green a Castelvetrano, and the light peach-colored variety was possibly a Cornicabra olive.

olives

Course 2:  A natsume vessel traditionally used to hold dry matcha tea was re-purposed to serve this course. This refreshing matcha-cucumber dish, made with Gin Mare, also contained notes of olives, thyme, rosemary, and basil.

matcha and cucumber

Course 3:  A pork-free chip topped with chunky guacamole. This terrific bite, full of creamy mouthfeel, convinced my tastebuds I was consuming an animal product rather than the familiar legume.

soy chicharrón

Course 4:  Coca de cebolla is a Catalan flatbread traditionally made with caramelized sugar. The minibar team reimagined it as a crispy chip, adding caramelized onion jus and topping the dish with alpine cheese and lemon thyme. Savory, crunchy, and completely satisfying as an opening snack.

coca de cebolla

Course 5:  We were presented a vegetable-based wafer cookie with a small tin of Osetra caviar layered on top of almond crema. A mother-of-pearl spoon was provided to spread the caviar-cream combination onto the thin cookie before consuming. The beet flavor of the cookie was diminished, purposely I believe, to allow the lovely oceanic notes of the caviar, as well as the richness of the cream, to be highlighted.

beet pizzelle with Osetra caviar

Main Courses

Course 6:  The faux baguette was constructed from apple meringue and acted as bread to contain sweet Dungeness crab, fresh herbs, and pickles. This was a delightful play on the popular Vietnamese sandwich that was equal parts flavorful, texturally pleasing, and overall delicious. It was one of the best courses of the evening.

crab bánh mì

Course 7:  A warm oyster flavored with chicken escabeche, amaranth, and apple. It was designed to be consumed as a single shot. An excellent bite.

oyster escabeche

Course 8: Salmorejo, in much of Spain, is essentially pan con tomate as a puree with roots that hail from the Andalusian region of Spain, specifically from Córdoba (the name of the capital city as well as the province). It is served as a cold soup, similar to gazpacho, but thicker and creamier in consistency. However, the inspiration for this course is actually not that particular salmorejo but salmorejo canario which is a marinade originating from the Canary Islands. There, it is used as a flavoring agent for meats, typically for rabbit, when preparing the famous specialty conejo en salmorejo. At minibar, deliciously tender eel, pierced by a knotted piece of bamboo, was brushed with this sauce to impart delicious notes of garlic, paprika, and peppers. The eel was also punctuated by acidic finger lime. It was quite an outstanding course.

Course 9:  A savory “Danish” made with Parmesan cheese, lemon marmalade, and Italian summer truffle. The inside was airy and fluffy, combining into a soft texture. The course was quite tasty with an earthy overtone.

Parmesan Danish

Course 10:  Jamón Ibérico consommé, tapioca, and a sauce made from the body of snails comprised this dish. The course was enhanced by the fragrant smell of rosemary torched in front of the diner which stimulated one’s olfactory sense before eating.

snail caviar

Course 11:  Tender white asparagus tips from the Loire Valley in France, accompanied by toffee, spruce tips, and dill blossoms. Such an immaculate and delicious vegetable!

white asparagus toffee

Course 12:  Sunchoke cooked with brown butter and dill, served with a sauce made from cheese aged in hay. Superb!

sunchoke and hay cheese

Course 13:  A multi-part course made from one animal. Turbot skin transformed into a crispy chip, meat scraped from the ribs, mousse made from the rest of the body, and a broth which came from boiling the fish bones. The dish was designed for each component to be eaten separately.

turbot and chestnut honey

Course 14:  A dish celebrating Spring with morels à la crème, peas served two different ways, mint, and chicken rostit (a Catalan word for that beautiful brown sauce made from roasted chicken).

 morel and peas

Course 15:  The large bean was cooked in Jamón Ibérico broth and served with Arbequina olive oil. A side of fresh succulent completed this dish. You eat this course by alternating bites between the soft bean and succulent.

gigante bean

Course 16:  Salumi made from pork belly with a touch of decadence. The richness of the fatty pork was nicely balanced by the salinity of the caviar.

pancetta Ibérico and Osetra caviar

Course 17:  Braised lamb neck, salted rhubarb, spring herbs, and yeasted goat’s milk sauce. The goat-milk sauce accentuated the savory meat of the lamb. A lovely dish that highlighted minibar’s creative pairing of flavors.

lamb neck and goat milk

Desserts

Course 18:  Cherry blossoms on top of a hibiscus meringue “sandwich” filled with sweet huckleberry cream. Delicious.

huckleberry and hibiscus

Course 19:  A rich egg yolk cured in shoyu, plopped on top of ice cream flavored with Madagascan and Ugandan vanilla beans, was layered on a walnut praline. A mind-blowing dessert, bordering on mental and gustatory sexual stimulation.

egg yolk custard

Course 20:  The name “fried donut” is a bit of misdirection here. This was doughnut-flavored ice cream encased inside of a thin fried shell made to resemble the popular confection. A cold treat that was sweet and delicious with every bite.

fried donut

Course 21:  Freeze-dried sweetened condensed milk that was filled with a coffee toffee and covered with a lime zest. It tasted great!

café con leche

Course 22:  Using liquid nitrogen, a metal mold was cooled down to well below -300 degrees Fahrenheit. The device was then plunged into a bath of pumpkin seed oil to create a rosette shell. The tartlet was then filled with mandarin orange and sea salt before it was served.

(mini) Courses 23-30:  The final sweet bites consisted of a series of petit fours served at barmini. All were delicious!
1) Passion fruit caterpillar
2) Freeze-dried apple slice with saffron yogurt
3) Dark-chocolate coconut wheel
4) Caramelized yogurt leaf with huckleberry and lemon granita
5) Key lime pie bon bon with lemon zest
6) Candy rhubarb meant to resemble a binchotan log
7) Honey comb with passion fruit and bee pollen
8) Red Rocks candy

Course 31:  Chocolate egg bearing a surprise toy held inside of a ceramic chicken.

Non-Alcoholic Beverage Pairing (except final drink)

1) Welcome Drink – Jörg Geiger PriSecco Cuvée Nr. 11 (Stuttgart, Germany)
2) Celery chamomile
3) Fennel and grape sharbat
4) Carrot persimmon spice
5) Sage tepache
6) Garden offerings
7) Beet and elderflower soda
8) Jörg Geiger PriSecco Cuvée Nr. 7 (Stuttgart, Germany)
9) Dulce de leche milk tea
10) Yuzu calpico
11) Mint tea
12) Floral Cloud – gin, maraschino, crème de violette, lemon, simple syrup

Team minibar

Back, Left to Right: Jorge Hernández, me, Barna Lazar, Nathan Lumley, Jesús Serrano
Front, Left to Right: Sarah Ravitz, Tammy Saunders, Madison Dion

personalized menu

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s