Innovation’s great, but it needs elevation
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, December 9, 2012
Fabes con almejas -- beans with clams -- at the recently relocated Minibar by Jose Andres is one of those dishes you marvel at when it arrives and discuss with your companions the next day. Showcased in a shell-shaped bowl, the clams are each encased in a gel made with their liquor: clams with edible shells! Bite down, and you experience a rush of hot sea and sweet meat. The accompanying beans, pretty little orbs made with favas pureed with garlic and onions, are no less special, brought to life with the aid of a silicone mold.
So why am I checking my watch during dinner in Penn Quarter rather than scraping clean the flurry of plates landing in front of me? Because those clams and beans are the first dish I’ve flipped for -- and they’re course No. 16.
Preceding the shellfish phenom are too many bites I don’t care if I see again: a Oaxacan “snowball” that goes down like a semi-frozen marshmallow, a stamp-size red “pillow” of PB&J that leaves an unpleasant slick on the tongue, a sugar-dusted churro that snaps open to find jellylike beef tendon. Then there’s a “panini” made from what smacks of pumpkin-flavored meringue lined with chewy braised pig tail. Most are oddly complicated twists on some of the world’s most popular foods, none of them improvements on the originals.
Inattentiveness creeps in, too. A risotto of beech mushrooms, unleashed with scissors from their see-through cooking pouch, smells of black truffles but tastes mostly of salt.
Andres has called Minibar “a place of collaboration, of creativity, of love. Here we honor the past and traditions and translate that into ideas for our future.”
If this represents the future, I’m going to start stockpiling roast chicken.
A note about process. I typically make multiple visits to a new restaurant before assigning star ratings. In this case, I made a rare exception and dined just once, partly because Minibar by Jose Andres is the world-famous chef’s second incarnation of his avant-garde concept, the first having opened in 2003 with just six seats at a small counter on the second floor of his late Cafe Atlantico. His team had the summer to rehearse its new show, prices for which have shot up $75, to $225 for the food alone.
Andres’s new place, in the former Zola Wine & Kitchen, feels fresh. Kudos to the Spanish designer Juli Capella for coming up with a forward-looking series of rooms that nevertheless put the focus on the table.
What Andres’s army of aprons is doing in its futuristic food lab, however, at least in these early weeks, is similar to what has been done before. This diner wonders why more, and more polished, magic tricks weren’t whipped up during all those months off, especially given Minibar’s status as a trailblazer for molecular gastronomy, a descriptor Andres has famously renounced.
There are moments approaching ecstasy, compositions that reveal Andres’s genius. Sea cucumbers are teamed with bone marrow (who woulda thought?), a vision in white ribbons that’s one of the most ethereal and indulgent dishes I’ve ever tasted. “Jose calls it Catalan surf and turf,” one of his acolytes says of the dish finished with a peppery froth of butter and racy capers. Chicken shawarma is reimagined as transparent, light-as-air cigars veined with puffed matchsticks of roasted chicken skin and bright herbs served alongside yogurt espuma that melts on the tongue. That display of fall foliage on the countertop? Poke around the bowl, and you’ll find edible leaves made from Parmesan and rice. You can’t say Minibar lacks imagination.
But the restaurant is too much of a softie. “This is the first dish I need teeth for,” a companion whispers as she bites into that shawarma. No wonder we never see a knife at Minibar! “Air” and froths and meringues -- the techniques behind so much of this cooking here -- make for a better AP chemistry class than a meal. It doesn’t help that the start of the dinner is mostly sweet and that baby food textures dominate, as if no one on staff actually sat down and ate this extravaganza as a paying diner would.
The scrunched intimacy of the original experience has been replaced by two broad oak counters that look onto a pristine kitchen and seat up to six participants each. Hovering over our heads are gold-colored domes that originated as boat shells. The performance space is clean and modern, if suggestive of an operating theater when you factor in the chefs in their whites bending over dishes manipulated by tweezers, tongs, liquid nitrogen and cloches galore.
The only decision you have to make is which of four beverage packages you want for dinner. The Virtue Package ($45) is composed of alcohol-free drinks, the Experience Package ($75) features artisanal soft beverages and wines from around the world, and the Celebration Package ($125) highlights bubbles exclusively. For those who want to indulge as the “60 Minutes” profile subject would, there’s the Jose Package. The last costs a dear $200, and while the liquid treasures run to a Vouvray from Domaine Huet and a Burgundy from Nicholas Rossignol, the pours are as restrained as what you’re allowed at Communion. The hero of the night is mixologist Juan Coronado, whose booze-free pairings -- a mango lassi as vivid as in India, a spicy faux daiquiri, a fizzy chai soda -- fuel conversation in a way most of the plates do not.
Minibar is stocked with servers, yet the chefs do most of the delivering. They are earnest and engaging company, although prone to missing their marks now and then. A dish might be presented, but not introduced, or delivered without utensils. (Take it from me, you don’t want to confront a soft-cooked egg with your fingers.)
Dessert begins with an olive oil soup garnished with freeze-dried Mandarin orange that is every bit as unappetizing as it sounds, not unlike slurping vinaigrette, and the convoy moves on to some faux snow drizzled with Greek honey from a pine bough, a clever idea that tastes better in concept. Before my group is escorted to a salon to the side, which a guide likens to a visit to Andres’s home, we swoon over a rope of coconut sticky rice with frozen mango sorbet that hints of chili heat.
Coffee, tea, spirits and bon bons, including a luscious frozen pina colada in “tablet” form, are served in this retreat, a high-ceilinged white room made whimsical with stools designed to look like giant apples and a puffy couch that looks like a cartoon cactus. The interrogation-style lighting in some parts is a buzz-kill, but I appreciate the segue from one room to the next, which actually begins before dinner with a drink and snacks in an intimate front lounge.
At the original Minibar, which I awarded 31
2 stars in this space in 2010, the end of the show was always a smash. No matter how many times you watched your waiter set what appeared to be a whole egg in front of you, and crush it with her fist -- behold, the check inside! -- you always marveled at the ship-in-a-bottle trick. At the reincarnation, a heavy wooden paddle conveys the damage, which is serious. Gasps all around as guests take turns looking at the bill: after tip, nearly $1,800 for the four of us.
I’ve paid lots for a night out in the area before, but I’ve always left the modern Greek Komi, the romantic Inn at Little Washington and the omakase experience at Sushi Taro feeling warm and fuzzy, exhilarated and elevated. Dinner at the second Minibar is like watching a bunch of trailers when you’re hungry for a movie. It’s not that I’m against novel approaches to cooking but, rather, food that places the intellectual above the delicious -- the head before the heart.