Dain Oswald and Eileen Cavanagh hovered over their computers last week, hoping to snag two of 57 seats for dinner at Pineapple and Pearls. But not just any dinner: This was a nine-course meal prepared by the three chefs the Michelin Guide has declared the best in Washington.
Patrick O’Connell of the Inn at Little Washington, José Andrés of Minibar, and Aaron Silverman of Pineapple and Pearls — each awarded two stars in Michelin’s annual guide to Washington’s best restaurants — teamed up Wednesday for a one-night-only culinary extravaganza.
The dinner, a benefit for Puerto Rico hurricane relief, sold out in seconds. To their surprise and delight, Oswald and Cavanagh landed one of the coveted $595-per-person reservations.
“This is what we do for fun,” said Oswald. “We love to eat out. That’s our thing.”
“We’ve been here before, and we love this place,” said his wife. “And we were worried about the aid that Puerto Rico wasn’t getting. So we thought this would be a great way to contribute to that.”
And the combination of chefs was irresistible, said Oswald: “Tonight, this is a six-star restaurant.”
Which meant foie gras, caviar, bison tartare, lamb carpaccio, Parmesan egg with white truffle, wagyu steak and more. Plus wines, sherry and Dom Pérignon champagne.
With the kitchen open to the small dining room, guests could see more than a dozen chefs (yes, a real-life too many cooks in the kitchen) working together, doing that complicated waltz of any professional kitchen.
“There’s a wonderful vibe in the room,” said O’Connell, a perfectionist who vacillated between excited and nervous most of the night. “We should do more of these, but they’re stressful because so much can go wrong even with the best of intentions on all parts. You just never know what you’re walking into. It’s not improv because you know what you’re serving, but you don’t know what to expect.”
The only one missing was Andrés, who has spent most of the past month in Puerto Rico feeding the victims of Hurricane Maria.
As of this week, his World Central Kitchen has prepared and delivered a million meals, with no end in sight.
Most of his planning for this dinner, conceived before the hurricane hit, came during day trips home or via cellphone from the island.
“He started something big in Puerto Rico, so he’s got to be there,” explained Joshua Hermias, head chef at Andrés’s Minibar. “Every time he was here, we went over the menu to make sure we’re portraying his vision.”
Taking it all in: Silverman, who opened Pineapple and Pearls just 18 months ago.
"I grew up reading about these guys in magazines," he said, referring to O'Connell and Andrés. "They're institutions. They literally set the stage decades ago for us to do what we do today."
Given the demands of elite restaurants, a night off is rare for any executive chef — so the trio of two-star teams working together in a restaurant was a first for Washington.
Anyone who happened to book a reservation at Pineapple and Pearls before the dinner was announced could keep it if they were willing to pay the higher fee (about twice the normal prix fixe rate) to benefit Andrés’s charity.
Most, like Jennifer Epperson and JB Kelly, jumped at the chance. “I think it’s a worthy cause,” Kelly said. “And why would we miss this? It was like a gift.”
The three restaurants divided the menu roughly into thirds, coordinating to create a seamless menu and ensure tiny plate after plate of perfection.
But Washington is not yet perfect, according to Michelin. Tuesday’s announcement, just the second year Michelin has ranked local restaurants, once again gave two stars to Minibar, the Inn at Little Washington and Pineapple and Pearls, and added two restaurants (Komi and Métier) to last year’s list of one-star picks. That didn’t sit well with many food aficionados, who thought the French company had shortchanged and overlooked some of the capital’s best offerings.
“We don’t pretend to have truth with a capital T,” said Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin Guide. “We have a point of view. You can agree with it or not agree with it. The fact that people are passionate about the list means that there’s a thriving food culture here. I would be more worried if we launched a guide and no one cared.”
The Michelin tire company started publishing the guide in 1900, and it quickly became the standard for how great European restaurants were judged. But it didn’t come to the United States until 2005 and to Washington until last year.
As much as chefs obsess about stars, Ellis (an American living in France) says the guide was always designed first and foremost for discerning travelers. Now in 28 countries, Michelin’s inspectors visit restaurants anonymously, pay like any other customer and have exacting standards.
“Michelin stars are tough — really, really tough — to get,” Silverman said. “We’re just a year and a half in. We’re excited to work toward three, but right now, to get two stars is mind-blowing for us.”
“A Frenchman was once asked the difference between a two- and three-star restaurant,” O’Connell said. “He said, ‘Very little. At a two-star restaurant, you expect the food to be absolutely sublime — but if there was a tiny piece of sand in an oyster, you wouldn’t think too much about it. In a three-star restaurant, if there was a piece of sand in your oyster, it would be unthinkable and unforgivable.’ ”
There was no sand in the oysters Wednesday night. The three-hour meal ended with an almond cake with caviar, followed by pesto ice cream, followed by an itty-bitty ice cream cone.
Then waiters delivered a porcelain chicken to each table, from which every guest pulled a golden egg. They cracked the chocolate shell to find a smaller egg, which held a tiny Lego chef. One lucky guest at each of the two seatings found the Lego chef — and a small certificate for a free dinner at Minibar.
“I got the golden ticket — literally!” said Oswald, who floated happily into the night. “We’re never going to have a meal like this again. We’re never going to have a night like this again.”