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With a Japanese bent, Minibar by José Andrés still dazzles diners

7 min

Unrated during the pandemic.

You still wait in the Seussian lounge with the melting clock until you’re escorted to your seat in a dining room that resembles theater-in-the-round.

As before the pandemic, you don’t get a menu until just before you leave. The 10 or so chefs behind the 20 or so dishes prefer to keep you in suspense while they’re introducing their magic tricks from the other side of the counter.

Minibar takes fun into the future

A welcome of gin-infused matcha signals the most notable change at Minibar by José Andrés, the acclaimed, avant-garde performance space that returned to service after 19 months in October. The refreshing, brilliant-green cocktail, tagged with gold leaf, kicks off an evening that’s decidedly Japanese in spirit. Also on a visitor’s horizon here in Penn Quarter are (spoiler alert!) tempura, wagyu beef, abalone and doughnuts flavored with roasted green tea, a confection served with an aged sake the color of amber, smelling of toffee and pleasantly acidic — “ancient treasure,” indeed.

A longtime follower of the most daring restaurant in Andrés’s Washington portfolio, I figure the new theme is designed to be the calm following the storm of the past two years. Andrés tells me he’s been mulling the flavor for a while, though. Remember the Spanish-Japanese restaurant he hoped to open in the Trump hotel, a project he left after Donald Trump insulted Mexicans at the dawn of his presidential campaign? Andrés and Koji Terano, the research and development chef at parent company ThinkFoodGroup, have also been talking for years about doing something reflective of Terano’s homeland. “Japanese and Spanish food have a lot in common,” says Terano, a native of Osaka, who ticks off some links: “tuna, rice, cooking over charcoal.”

I’ll take it, or most of it. If the current Minibar is sending out fewer “How did they do that?” dishes than before, the exhibition kitchen continues to delight audiences with delicious winks and fetching combinations of flavors, colors and textures. Unlike years past, there weren’t on my recent visit any “steamed mussels” designed to be eaten whole (thanks to shells made from frozen squid ink) or LOLs from spheres of pureed broccoli and cheddary potatoes in an enlightened version of Stouffer’s. Even so, the Japanese-inspired format introduced me to some sublime creations. The most beautiful taco in town is also the most petite, a one-bite wonder whose shell is green with powdered seaweed and whose filling includes a morsel of well-marbled Iberian pork and tomatillo for a jolt of acid. And leave it to Minibar to serve me my first ramen en papillote.

Change is a given here, says its founder. No matter who’s on the team or what new ideas they’re serving, Andrés says, “the heart is the same” at Minibar. True, experience has taught me.

It took me awhile to eat there again. Securing a seat in the world-famous restaurant takes forethought and speed. If there’s a secret to joining the party, it’s being nimble and lucky when the tickets go online at noon the first of every month for the following month. Typically, Minibar books up within 24 hours, says general manager Dylan Falkenburg. “We’re lucky to have this problem,” he says. “If it were up to José, he’d have 1,000 seats and it would be free.”

Instead, there are just a dozen seats for people who pay $295 each, a sum that soars when wine pairings are factored in. Take your pick from “José’s Way” for $195 or the more bespoke $550 package. (Minibar is not the most expensive dining destination in Washington. That distinction goes to Jônt on 14th Street NW, where dinner starts at $305 for 16 courses.)

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Three hundred dollars might sound like a shocking amount of money for a single meal. Consider, however, the time, thought and labor that go into the evening. Terano figures three months of research was devoted to the current menu. Twenty-five names are credited on the list you take home, “lead porter” included — and rightly so. Have you checked the cost of flights to Tokyo or Barcelona lately? Minibar is as much a vacation from the routine as a dinner to remember long after you’ve dispatched, say, freeze-dried soy sauce caramel, puffy and crisp as chicharrón and a fun stage for luscious guacamole.

Minibar is likely to expose you to ingredients you’ve never eaten — shirako, for instance, the custard-like center in a bite of crisp tempura that’s dramatically presented on a rippled white plate. The soft texture reminds me of sweetbreads. Shirako translates to milt in English, in this case, cod sperm sacs.

For all the science and whimsy behind a lot of this food, the current iteration of Minibar emphasizes Japan’s reverence for quality and presentation. Slices of gently crisp abalone are brushed on one half of the delicacy with tamari and garnished with tiny balls of compressed green apple, a detail designed to refresh the palate like pickled ginger in a sushi restaurant. Nature provides the abalone with a plate: its own iridescent shell.

In another eye-opener, glistening caviar and prime wagyu beef nestle inside a nasturtium cup. “Dig deep,” diners are instructed by the chef-servers. Proper excavation gets you brown butter croutons — dueling texture — in each decadent spoonful. And nowhere have I encountered eel as elegant as at Minibar, where the skewered fish, brushed with a marinade of rosemary, thyme and Spanish smoked paprika, is garnished just so with pale green crystal lettuce.

“Frozen salad 3.0” marks the transition from savory to sweet and relies on a hand-cranked ice shaver to turn a vegetable into something frosty and refreshing, at present a peppery cucumber salad. It is followed by chantilly cream piped onto a sheet of nori and meant to be a riff on senbei, Japanese rice crackers.

The show moves at a nice clip. The principals have experienced the entire menu as diners do, seated before the buffed wood counter, and it shows in perfect pacing. Your eyes will be trained on whatever course the chefs are setting before you or, in the case of one dessert, sesame tart, feeding you off a long-handled spoon. Should you look behind you, however, check out the chalkboard wall, where sous-chef Melissa Lalli illustrates a handful of recipes in a few choice words and sketches. One of them is haiku for a brilliant dessert featuring milk sorbet in a strawberry tuile garnished with herby nepitella blossoms.

If you’ve been to Minibar before, the present ending is a lesser moment. No one moves from the theater to cocktail lounge next door, Barmini, for dessert. (Blame the pandemic. And trust that the team will rethink the drill, which extends the fun.) The bill for drinks and extras is also presented in a leather holder rather than as a surprise: I still smile at the memory of retrieving my check from nesting dolls several years ago.

But those are small quibbles in what remains a grand adventure. I’m not issuing stars right now — again, blame the pandemic — but if I were, I’d shower four of them, my highest rating, on Minibar by the one and only José Andrés.

Minibar by José Andrés

855 E St. NW. 202-393-0812. Open: Indoor dining beginning at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, and 5:15 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday. Price: $295 per person for 20 or so courses, excluding tax and tip. Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: Guests in wheelchairs are asked to specify needs on a pre-arrival form and may be accommodated at a separate chef’s table; restrooms are ADA-approved. Pandemic protocols: Staff members are all masked and vaccinated.