Of all the modern dining experiences I've come across, by far the quirkiest is Jose Andres' Mini-Bar. Located on the second floor of his Cafe Atlantico in Washington D.C., the Mini-Bar is literally that - a small copper counter where six diners get to enjoy a thirty-two course meal over a two and a half hour period. Adding to the experience is the open kitchen and the proximity to the chefs. The food is prepared right in front of your eyes, and each time they hand you a dish from across the counter, the chefs explain the different facets of each dish including how it was made or what the purpose of the dish might be.
The Mini-Bar offers two seatings, Mondays through Fridays, one at 6:00pm and one at 8:30pm. We visited on a Wednesday evening and had reserved two seats for the earlier seating. When we arrived we found that our fellow diners had already been seated and they were waiting for us to begin. Since people who are dining at Mini-Bar are treated as a "table for six", the chefs can't begin the service until everyone is present. We sipped on glasses of cava while waiting for the festivities to begin, then one of the chefs asked for our attention and he explained how the meal was going to work. He explained how the food would be prepared, and how they would hand us the food. Then just like that we were on our way. Six eager diners with three talented chefs perforrming a culinary ballet right in front of their eyes.
We began with a flight of what they call "Bar Snacks." First an olive oil and vinegar bonbon. The candy shell broke easily and a small burst of vinegar laced olive oil coated your tongue. It actually did a good job of readying your palate for the rest of the meal. Then a bag of maple syrup pork rinds with lotus chips and star anise. The pork rinds were excellent. Sweet from the maple syrup, and easily something Andres could package and sell commercially with great success. Then a Passion Fruit Whisky Sour which had nice viscocity as well as nice slug of Jack Daniels. Beet Tumbleweed was another delicious tidbit with commercial potential. Sort of high class beet flavored Terra Chips in the form of a ball. Then and a Mojito served in an atomizer which I thought was one of the more ordinary things we were served all evening.
The next part of the menu is called "Flavors and Textures". It started with watermelon two ways, with balsamic and grated parmesan cheese. Then pineapple salmon ravioli with avocado and quince which was interesting. Jicama wraps, served like sushi, then a deconstructed glass of white wine. Though none of these were particularly bad, this sequence was my least favorite part of the meal. Because the intention was to make you think about what you were eating, I found it too focused on the theoretical apects of dining where the intention was to make you think about flavors and textures. While I find this aspect of a meal interesting, I don't understand why chefs have concluded that one has to forego pleasure in order to think about food. Can't they incorporate both things in a dish? This flight of dishes also lacked the whimsy that other parts of the meal had.
Abstraction made way for some delicious culinary substance with a melon tenderloin paired with almond espuma and a micro Salad. They take the heart of a melon and they pick the pits out by hand. They gently saute it just to the point of it being warm and serve it with an almond espuma which is both sweet and has a savoury element to it. Superb and a great example of how modern techniques can create food that offers sensual pleasure. Then what they call "Zucchini in Textures" but which was more like a zucchini seed flan. Another very good dish that tasted of the essence of zucchini but which had the most unique texture bcause of the combination of the seeds and the custardy like flan. Organized Caesar salad saw the salad deconstructed into parts. Nice touch but not as exquisite as the melon and zucchini dishes. Then feta cheese "linguine" which was excellent. They take the water that feta cheese soaks in, add gelatin and then chill it to make sheets which they then cut into pasta. I told Kaz the chef that they should put the stuff in jars and sell it so people could use it at home.
Slow Cooked Egg 147 with Uraguayan Osetra Caviar was cooked for some ridiculously long period of time at some ridiculously low temperature. Very nice but on the plain side as far as egg dishes go these days. Then what they call liquid melon ravioli. The six "raviolis" you see in the photo were nothing but melon juice in a container before they were spooned into a pan filled with sodium alginate (I think I got that right.) Immediately the alginate would form a thin membrane around the melon juice to create the ravioli. After letting them sit in the pan for a few minutes, they are placed on serving spoons and handed to each diner. The result is a pretty intense melon flavor bursting into your mouth. Then barbecued baby sweet corn with carbon oil and a corn foam. Very sweet corn taste and the carbon oil tasted like bacon. Very nice and another dish that I wouldn't mind eating as a more substantial vegetable dish.
Lobster Americaine was rather ordinary and didn't leave any kind of lasting impression. Then their version of guacamole which was also rather ordinary as well as oversalted. Kaz the head chef is handing me the Cotton Candy Foie Gras. It was cute but not one of the better dishes of the meal. Normally I like dishes that are whimsical in this way but for some reason it tasted out of balance to me. Then West Coast sea urchin with pomegranite air was good but not spectacular. The sea urchin wasn't as smooth as the best examples of sea urchin and the balance could have been more in favor of the pomegranite air which also could have been sweeter. I thought this course was sort of a lost opportunity as it was more about the food, but they didn't pull it off to the extent they could have.
The next round started with what was probably the best dish of the night. Warm Foie Gras Soup with Cold Foie Gras Foam (sounds like something you would use during sex no?) Amazingly tasty and the hot/cold combination was both delicious and unctuous. It reminded me of being in Vienna and drinking a hot cup of coffee with thick, cold schlag on top. Senor Andres, more dishes like this por favor. Frozen Beet Soup with Scallop used the sweetest of beets. I found the scallop a bit cold though. They made the Sweet Pea Caviar, a takeoff on El Bulli's caviar sferico right in front of our eyes. It started as a green liquid in long canisters. They release the liquid into a pan and add magic ingredients and poof, caviar. Nice but sort of a repetition of the melon ravioli and the small size of the caviar pearls offer less potential for flavor than peas do.
New New England Clam Chowder featured a clam that was barely cooked which was placed alongside the other components of a chowder. Sometimes these deconstructions are both delicious, interesting, and are reminiscent of the constructed dish. This dish while good didn't really seem to have a connection to clam chowder. Then a vert tasty cigalas. Then delicious "Philly Cheese Steak" with kobe beef and cheese foam. Among the better dishes of the evening. Finally the lightest dish of the evening, a palate cleanser of watermelon air.
Desserts were fun and began with an especially creamy pina colada. Then apples with red wine Freddy Girardet, saffron gumdrop and fruit cocktail, then Maracuya marshmallows, chocolate covered corn nuts and finally and after dinner breath mint in the form of a Hall's lollipop.
Mini-Bar is a fun dining experience and I would go back in a heartbeat. Besides the show that the chefs put on, part of the enjoyment comes from the comraderie that is established among the group of six diners. Because everyone is in such close proximity to each other, you quickly strike up conversations with your fellow diners and you feel like you are at a private party. With the chefs preparing the food right in front of your eyes, all the while explaining the various methods and techniques they are using, and then handing you the food to eat, it is about as interactive a dining experience as you will ever find. In fact I wish I could have this experience with other chefs. Sit down at a counter with Pierrer Gagnaire or Thomas Keller and they cook the food right in front of your eyes, all the while explaining what they are doing.
Is Mini-Bar a great meal? Well it is certainly great theater with a strong dining component attached. A downside that did emerge was that we were still a little bit hungry after the meal. I'm not too proud to admit that after dinner we went downstairs to Cafe Atlantico and split a second dinner of an appetizer and an entree. To me this highlights one of the shortcomings that is often found in modern cuisine. Because the chefs are so focused on making you think (and rethink) about the food you are eating, they typically overlook a necessary and important aspect of the dining experience which is the feeling of leaving sated. Looking at this meal from that perspective, Mini-Bar fell a bit short. It's the difference between 32 courses of pure bite size tapas, or a meal with a heavy focus on tapas and then a few legitimate courses. In my opinion, that would make for a more substantial dinner. And while I don't think of it as a fatal flaw, and I am looking forward to going back sometime this spring, it did remind of something Mrs P said after our first visit to El Bulli. We were in the taxi going back to the hotel and she looked at me and said, "that was great but I feel like having a pizza." Since that is a fairly common thing to hear people say after they have a meal at this type of restaurant, one wonders why the chefs keep turning somewhat of a deaf ear to it. But until the day comes when a greater emphasis is placed on that aspect of the meal (come on guys hurry up), I am happy to give them my support. B