I discovered something about myself this week. I’m not quite sure that I enjoy eating food as much as I enjoy creating it. If I go to a restaurant and there’s a wonderful dish complete with new techniques and flavors, I usually can’t wait to get home and try to recreate it myself. That happens most every time I eat out (at a notable spot) and I love trying new things as a way to further my own skills and palate, all the while inspiring me when I am faced with creating that next menu for a client or am feeling stumped at the grocery store. The joy of eating is tangled up with the joy of creation and the challenge to my skills. Shockingly, I think I’m a practical diner.
This realization was yet to be had as I drove to my dinner extravaganza at Minibar by Jose Andres in Washington DC on Friday night. However, I was prepared for it to not be my favorite meal ever. In spite of being over the moon thrilled at the prospect of my last-minute reservation at this el Bulliesque temple of molecular gastronomy, I knew it wasn’t food I loved to make, was inclined to create or really even savored. That all said, I was prepared to be wowed and bow forth at the altar of these creative culinary geniuses and shell over the $225 it costs PLUS the $55 for the non-alcoholic drink pairing option PLUS tax and tip.
As the six of us in the first seating of the night pulled up stools to the counter for our three hours of eating, the head chef welcomed us and then very pointedly watched each of us to see our reactions to the first bites of food we experienced. It was like he wanted to see what he was dealing with: a young Australian couple on their honeymoon, three friends celebrating birthdays and me. Frankly, I was glad to be alone and be allowed to absorb all of the intricate work going on just a foot in front of me. A small brigade of chefs moved seamlessly, around the pristine kitchen, pulling mis en place after mis en place out of lowboys and onto trays. Brightly colored gels and sauces were painstakingly piped from disposable pastry bags, herbs arranged just so with chef’s tweezers, hushed tones as what was happening here was different from cooking, it was a chemistry lab.
Twenty-six unique bites of food passed through my lips, and no, I’m not going to go through each ad nauseum, but wanted to highlight some of the most amazing and playful creations. I may not be heading home to try and recreate any of these, but I will tuck away little nuggets like the use of black pepper as more than just a seasoning and aerated yoghurt as a drink and curried pork shoulder and using oblate as a wrapper and the use of sherry vinegar to sharpen up even the most fatty dish.
You might remember my recent post about the el Bulli exhibition at Somerset House in London? Well, this was as close as I was ever going to get to a meal at that legendary destination. And luckily, much of the night referenced Jose Andres’s Spanish roots while also acknowledging the years when he worked under Ferran Adria early in his career. A flourless marcona tart with blue cheese, uni Iberico ham consomme, smoked oysters escabeche, white beans with clams, squab with oysters and seaweed. Meanwhile, other items were inspired by the street food from Vietnam, Turkey, New England and Italy.
Watching the chefs plate the dishes was illuminating as they took their time, without a sense of haste, precisely achieving perfection – so different from the pressure cooker environment I had worked in at restaurant kitchens. The theater of this experience was as much a part of the night as the food as bags of beech mushrooms en papillot were cut open right in front of us to release their heavenly aroma and glass cloches full of smoke were lifted and waved in front of our faces so I could anticipate the smokey flavor of the oysters on the plate.
So, my favorites of the night? Those teeny tiny mushrooms in the video above. What you didn’t see was the generous sprinkling of Burgandy truffles chef sliced on after the bag was open. A play on pressed flowers presented in a book, the edible blossoms captured within brittle, edible cellophane, was magical. The Espardeneyes with bone marrow was casually described by the chef as bone marrow with seafood. What I didn’t know was that this variety of Catalan sea cucumber is extraordinarily rare and quite the culinary treat. This was probably the best dish to my taste – buttery, peppery, and full of textures reminiscent of New England lobster rolls but with that bite of two precisely placed capers on a dot of sherry vinegar. The chicken shawarma was full of flavor and the yoghurt that accompanied it like the best yoghurt you’ll ever eat. Oh, and the fried pigs ear, like a soft taco folded around creamy curried pig shoulder with a crunchy Vietnamese salad and herbs on top. Finally, the Coconut Cuttlefish, a prawn and coconut broth with delicate dumplings stuck to the side of the bowl. You dunk the dumplings in the fragrant broth and then drink the remaining broth only to wish you had a whole vat to yourself.
It seems just as much care went into the many drinks I was served – not just your typical fruit juice and tea-based non-alcoholic drinks, but white kimchee water with a watermelon radish, horchata and rice water in a sake-like drink, aerated greek yoghurt with white pepper and sea salt, truffled parmesan water, pomegranate ale, cucumber juice with hibiscus, apple gastrique. The kitchen and bar work on these delights 50/50 to ensure a good fit with the food. I had hoped that it would be $55 well-spent when I decided to go this way, figuring they had to be mighty creative to pull this off, and pull it off they did, with aplomb!
One of the desserts I ate, (yes, I said one of) was perhaps my favorite dessert ever. It’s their take on an After Eight mint – tingling minty freshness in a cold airy exterior and a liquid chocolate center. We were then ushered from our stools in the dining room into the adjoining Barmini, a colorful, whimsical space, somewhat of a shock after the staid kitchen/dining room we’d been ensconced in. Our every need still attended to, we were assigned to different spots around the room, a new vantage point from which to watch Team Andres at work. Coffee to accompany the last few morsels: lemon marshmallow, raspberry bon bon, Mezcal gummy bear, a Thai Pocky stick, and finally, a donut that was really a chocolate covered Krispy Kreme donut flavored ice cream.
Somehow, as I paid the staggering bill, I wasn’t bursting at the seams. In fact, I was quite intrigued by the posh toasted sandwiches and sliders that I could see being prepared in the kitchen for the Barmini crowd. And although I will not be taking white beans, pureeing them and then reconstituting them in the shape of beans using calcium any time soon, it makes me happy to know that there are nutty people out there who do. It wasn’t my favorite meal of all time, but it did make me realize something about myself and let’s face it, it was delicious.