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“Wait,” says José Andrés, with a firm, crossing-guard’s halt of his hand. “Allow me to show you.”
Having just reached for the fresh cup of coffee our waiter has set down on the table, I withdraw my hand, chastened. We’ve been talking for the better part of an hour about Andrés’ inspiration for the restaurant-within-a-restaurant at Café Atlántico called Minibar, and now he’s going to demonstrate: He tilts the little pitcher of cream over a spoon, pours just enough to coat it, then, with his free hand, breaks open a pack of sugar. He taps the packet, sprinkling a few grains atop the creamed spoon. Finally, he skims the spoon across the surface of the coffee, gently, so as not to disturb the tiny bubbles of air.
He hands me the spoon. I slide it into my mouth. He watches.
“Essence of coffee,” says Andrés. “A whisper of coffee.”
A meal at Minibar is not a meal by any standard definition of the term, except, perhaps, in the sense that in the two-and-a-half hours it takes to go from a small dish of curry-chicken popcorn to a procession of sweet snacks that’s capped by a Halls lollipop, food is consumed. But even this notion of “food” is a slippery one, because Andrés is not all that interested in the usual bourgeois satisfactions to be had from fine dining—the pleasure of a full belly, for instance. What he is interested in is,yes, the essence of a dish, taste, the sensual signal of flavor as it registers on the tongue.
Andrés, who served his apprenticeship at Spain’s renowned El Bulli under Ferran Adria—the chef who famously brought a bicycle pump into the kitchen one day and exploded an entire crate of tomatoes in pursuit of the perfect expression of the pulpy fruit—is so zealous in his quest to find essences, or to concoct interesting, often startling combinations in the hope of arriving at new ones, that he pushes his menu beyond the ridiculous.
Forget that homey, rib-sticking trinity of protein-starch-vegetable. Forget sides, or plates, or courses. Or, for that matter, chewing or swallowing. At Minibar, you’re about as likely to encounter a “foam” as you are anything so conventional as a sauce or a reduction. A foam, by the way, is not to be confused with an “air,” which is how Andrés opts to present his taste of watermelon; and an air is altogether different from a “spritz,” the preferred method for serving up mojitos.
The 34 sequential “tastes” of the $65 Minibar experience are, quite literally, spoon-fed to six diners who, in two separate seatings a night, sidle up to what looks for all the world like a tricked-out sushi bar, with its profusion of toys, including a child’s cotton-candy maker, its team of blurry-handed chefs, and, not least, its flat-screen TV, flashing pictures of the food. Margaret Cho once joked that eating a meal while watching Emeril was akin to having sex while watching a porno, and you could make a strong case that eating at the Minibar has an intrinsic pornographic appeal, in that it manages to reduce the experience of being in a restaurant to the sheer, fetishistic spectacle of putting things in your mouth. Minibar is not about food; it’s about taste. Only taste.
The fifth taste on a recent midweek night was a chocolate foie-gras truffle. It looked like candy, and it tasted like candy, too, at least until the foie gras dissolved on my tongue and I quickly decided I had eaten something savory. But no: The fatty, creamy richness yielded suddenly, disconcertingly, to a squirting liquid center—a tamarind essence—and I had to rethink again. It was at this point that I finally registered the almost bitter exterior of cocoa powder that was now coating my mouth and was forced to declare a tie: equal parts savory and sweet.
Andrés prides himself on this kind of push-pull, and I was tempted to conclude that he is motivated solely by the desire to cram a meal’s worth of complexity into a single bite, the smaller the better. But then, two courses later, along came a thumb-sized ice-cream cone packed down with cream cheese and topped with salmon roe, and I realized that something else was occurring, too. The cone offered a simple taste, nearly as simple as the truffle was complex, and although visually it called to mind a sushi hand roll, I couldn’t help but think, as I devoured it all in one salty, fishy, creamy bite: bagels and lox.
Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to describe Andrés’ method as Proustian—the cone was not my madeleine; I didn’t engage in any long, meandering reminiscences of Sunday breakfast with my family as I sat there on my backless stool awaiting the next course. And although Andrés is fond of the term “deconstruction” to describe his methods, the word conjures for me the grim, politicized agendas of all those joyless French critics of a generation ago, determined above all to remove the power and authority of the author. If anything, Andrés is ratifying the power and authority of the chef, and it’s hard to imagine any auteur in any medium enjoying himself more.
Take Andrés’ “deconstructed white wine”: A gelée of grape juice, left out overnight to ferment, is spread like a jam across a long, rectangular plate and topped with eight “flavor components,” among which are apple, mint, pineapple, and vanilla. Just before you dig in, one of the chefs at the bar perfumes the plate with a spritz of white wine. The effect is, ultimately, to reorder the components of that original in new and different ways, as the cubists and impressionists strove to do. In this same vein is Andrés’ “new” New England clam chowder, also dubbed a “deconstruction.” On a large spoon sits a single, sweet clam atop a pool of potato foam, around which the kitchen has drizzled concentric rings of bacon-infused cream, onion jam, and chive oil; a sprinkle of crispy potato matchsticks adds an element of crunch. The wine and the chowder are complete only when you complete them; they make sense, if they make any sense at all, only after the various, disparate parts, having come together in your mouth, are tasted, chewed, and understood.
By the way: I loved the chowder; the wine I found merely interesting. Critics will often talk about a dish as “working” or not; at Minibar, this kind of consumer-driven critique has been rendered almost meaningless. After all, a diner, armed with a traditional review, can’t exactly arrive hoping to load up on three of No. 28, the breaded sardines, and skip Nos. 16 through 18. What matters is not the meal itself but the idea of the meal.
About halfway through my session, a “corn on the cob” arrived: baby corn, sitting on a corn purée, with a thin, silky strip of yellow called a corn sprout that seemed to have stuck to the cob like a stray piece of wrapping-paper ribbon. CornNuts—yes, the junk-food staple—were sprinkled on top. Delicious. Only later did it become apparent that Andrés was actually introducing a motif, that corn in one way or another—CornNuts again, for instance, or a couple of crumbled Fritos—would weave its way through the meal, accenting and complementing and sometimes starring.
All this begins to sound hopelessly intellectual, but Minibar manages at the same time to be playfully sensual. Push, pull. The range and variety of textures on display is enormous, even encyclopedic, especially for a single meal. There are individual little essays here on soft (the nearly melting jicama “wraps,” one filled with tuna, the other with guacamole); on soft and crunchy (the parfait-like “cauliflower in textures”: a layer of cauliflower puree, a layer of black-truffle gelée, a crumble of cauliflower); on hot and cold (seared scallops in a puddle of chilled beet soup).
Andrés speaks of Minibar as a dream come true, and it’s not simply his own wish that he’s fulfilled; he’s living the dream of ambitious chefs everywhere, which is to be able to control, to a degree that is unparalleled, virtually every aspect of a diner’s experience. Because the menu is handed to you only after the last of the tastes has been cleared away, the sense of being kept off-balance is taken to an almost tantric extreme. Bereft of a guide, not to mention the familiar narrative arc that helps organize what is after all the strangely intimate experience of dining out, you’re left entirely in Andrés’ hands.
The evening, once you’ve had a chance to step back from it, seems to have been conceived simultaneously to whet your appetite for a second or third bite of courses that by design have vanished in a single taste and to mock this very same desire. If it’s frustrating at times, reminding you of the extent to which you have surrendered to the cult of the chef, it’s also oddly pleasurable. You leave satisfied if not sated, a happy captive to Andrés’ obsession.
Minibar at Café Atlántico, 405 8th St. NW, (202) 393-0812. —Todd Kliman
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