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How much has Minibar improved since it reopened in a new Penn Quarter location late last year? This much: When I’d finished the last of 28 courses and walked out sated but not stuffed, the question I was left asking was not “Who does José Andrés think he is, charging $225 a person for dinner?” It was the question the restaurant itself not-so-implicitly poses: Is it art?
Many chefs present themselves as artists, copping the aesthetic of the gallery or museum to lend their restaurants gravitas: spare setting, sacramental quiet, portentous explications of the works on view. But are these chefs making art—that is, challenging our assumptions, altering the way we look at things—or are they creating something merely artful, pushing within the confines of the known to bring us beauty on the plate?
I don’t take anything away from a chef—who is also a businessperson—for choosing artfulness over art. We don’t go out to dinner, after all, to question ourselves, unless it’s to dither over whether it’ll be the duck or the lamb. There’s a reason the phrase “comfort food” is so beloved—it speaks to the soulful embrace many of us seek in these homes away from home.
This is why Minibar is so endlessly fascinating, and why its eye-popping cost isn’t what ultimately defines it.
What does? That it puts its creator’s idiosyncratic desires above the customer’s needs. That it delivers not so much a purely culinary experience as a purely aesthetic one. That it dares to tempt the public’s ire with its blithe dismissal of conventional expectation. Not even Damien Hirst pushes more buttons with his in-your-face installations.
Of all the top meals in town, Minibar’s is the most hubristic (the $225-per-person charge doesn’t include the beverage “packages” that start at $45 and go up to $200), the most presumptive (you don’t call to make a reservation—you e-mail until you’re chosen), and the most control-freak in its methods (nearly every dish is accompanied by instructions on how to eat it).
It’s also the most inventive, the most exacting, and the most playful.
In fact, once you’re caught up in its seamless orchestration, it’s easy to lose sight of what Andrés is doing. This is Minibar’s triumph, that a radical attack should be presented as a high-wire circus act.
In its previous incarnation, Minibar accommodated 12 people a night on six stools inside the now-defunct Café Atlántico. Since relocated to the former home of Zola Wine & Kitchen, the restaurant serves 24 people a night on 12 stools. Given the price and the limited seating, it would be easy to accuse Andrés of fostering an air of exclusivity, but foremost in his mind was to create a sense of immediacy and intimacy.
You sit at a curved bar that looks onto a kitchen of three cooks (with five more working behind the scenes), present at the creation, as the flamboyantly grandiose Andrés might have it. Unlike many chefs who try to handle their ingredients as little as possible, Andrés—like his Spanish brethren Ferran Adrià and Juan Mari Arzak—loves to see what strange new diamonds might be produced by subjecting a common ingredient to atypical applications of heat, cold, or pressure—hence the battery of implements that owe more to a lab than to a kitchen: liquid-nitrogen bath, smoke guns, and heat sealers. One night, I watched a cook cycle through 12 different procedures over 25 minutes for a dish of two bites.
It almost goes without saying that a meal like this is not for everybody. But Minibar is even more not for everybody than such four-star destinations as the Inn at Little Washington and Komi, where the goal is to ease you into the soothing bath of a great and sumptuous meal.
If the conventional good restaurant is a showcase of dishes, Minibar is a parade of flavors. French Laundry chef Thomas Keller has said that a dish ceases to be interesting after three or four bites, and throughout the beginning of the night Andrés seldom even grants you that many.
The first several courses pose a fanciful question: What if Andrés had commandeered a Lay’s snack factory? A cigar-like roll that combined the layering of baklava with the lightness of crisped rice was so insubstantial, it was like eating sculpted air. But it crunched like a Dorito, and its flavors of shiso, sesame, and pine nut lingered like a complex curry. Then came a candied-walnut shell spilling cream that tasted more strongly of walnut than a walnut—a Whitman’s sampler by way of the haute Parisian confectioner Ladurée.
This is a favorite trope of Andrés’s and recurs throughout the meal, nowhere as virtuosically as in a carrot dish that arrives midway through. There are no carrots; the gel-like orange dabs on the plate resemble baby food. But the taste! It’s like an idealized form of carrot, more intense than even an extract or liqueur. Likewise, the mango that accompanies coconut sticky rice isn’t mango; it’s a sorbet held together with a starch from the rice. Why go to such lengths to make mango when you could simply serve the fruit? Because, Andrés might answer, his engineered mango tastes stronger and more pure.
It’s a middle finger to the local, seasonal aesthetic that prevails in today’s food world. One of the 11 locally sourced items on the menu is the snipped branch of a pine tree, for a snow-inspired dessert—and it’s not meant to be eaten.
For many chefs, dining at the highest level is a retreat into pampering luxury. For Andrés, it’s principally an invitation to enter The Mind of Andrés. Many courses are little more than delivery systems for an idea, like a study in temperature (the hot/cold of his mezcal-flavored snowball) or an exploration of textures (a voluptuously rich pig-tail curry sandwiched between two meringues). Meat might be the primary component in most French cooking, but the Spaniard Andrés often relegates it to the margins (a take on shawarma features chicken skin, not chicken; a churro is filled not with beef but with its gelatinous tendon).
Initially, I admired the showy ingenuity more often than I enjoyed it. But courses have been tweaked and sometimes overhauled. The compositions have become tighter, the cooking more exacting. And there are a handful of new dishes—including a grilled lobster tail and luscious squab breast that turn up in the final movement—giving the meal a substantiality it lacked on my prior visit. An intensely cerebral exercise is now also a feast for the senses.
Take a variation on risotto with truffles, a dish that initially looks like little more than a clever inversion, with mushrooms subbing for rice. A tiny, clear plastic bag is placed before you and snipped with scissors, sending up an aroma of such richness, it hardly seems possible it was derived without meat. Beech-mushroom caps, tiny as pearls, float atop a dark pool of beech-mushroom broth. Now a generous amount of black truffle is shaved, the warmth of the broth releasing that musky perfume. You eat this dish of uncommon intimacy with a small spoon, slurping its rich, jus-like cooking liquid. It’s impossible to go fast even if you want to.
Like so much else at Minibar, you’re compelled at the start to study it. You end up simply submitting to it.
This article appears in the May 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.