27 January 2010

Dinner (?) at minibar, Washington, DC

My Yelp post on minibar pretty much covers the food. This post will answer the question: Why was I there in the first place? It also will share several photos and a short video.

As you may know, minibar is touted as the most difficult reservation to get in Washington, DC. There are only 6 seats and 2 seatings per evening. They open reservations exactly one month in advance, and they recommend calling on the day that you want your reservation. Which, I didn't do. I had a hard time deciding to even seek a reservation. It's expensive. And the whole concept of a 27 course tasting menu that features very unusual flavor combinations and preparation techiques honestly sounded a little daunting. So for my mid-January trip to DC, I didn't make the call until a few days later than the recommended one-month advance.

Actually, at first I was sort of relieved when I was told that both seatings were full for that evening. I just made a reservation at Cafe Atlantico and put my name on the wait list. But it was only a week or so later when I got ... THE CALL. There was a cancellation, and I could have two seats for the 6 p.m. seating. I had planned on having dinner with a colleague at the National Milk Producers Federation. I checked with him to see if he was game. He was. We took it.

That's how it came about that I got a reservation. But, I still haven't answered 'why.' minibar is the creation of a Spanish chef named Jose Andres. I became a fan of Jose Andres from his public television series 'Made in Spain.'

Let me take one more brief diversion and explain why I would be interested in watching a program about Spanish food. When my daughter was in college, she took a summer term in Spain. My wife and I went there for a visit while our daughter was there. We visited Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia. We absolutely loved it. We loved the food, the ambiance, the wines, everything. So when we saw the tv listing for Made in Spain, we decided to give it a try.

We really liked the show. Jose Andres is this quirky, energetic bundle of enthusiasm about food and cooking. I haven't actually tried any of his recipes yet. But they seem to be simple, straightforward presentations that feature high quality ingredients. So I will give it a try some day. One of the visual devices of the show is that he 'shuttles' back and forth from Spain to Washington, DC. (He demonstrates his recipes in his home kitchen.) I checked to see which restaurants he owned in the DC area, and low and behold, I'd actually been to two of them - Cafe Atlantico and Jaleo. I read about minibar on his web site and became intrigued. I had an upcoming trip to DC planned, and no dinner plans for the night I arrived. So I placed the call, and, well, now I'm back to where the story began.

As I commented in my Yelp post, they are extremely accommodating and welcoming to the minibar diners. So we settled in at the counter, looking into the kitchen, and met our chefs for the evening. I asked if Jose ever was there. "Oh, all the time," was the reply. "Will we see him tonight," I asked. "No," I was told. "I don't think he's here tonight." (Rats. Well maybe he showed for the 8:30 seating.)

Before going, I read quite a lot about minibar, from other Yelp reviewers, from the Washington Post restaurant critic, and from the restaurant's own web site. Someone complained that he didn't get enough to eat. So I was thinking about that. The menu includes 27 items. Some items are a single bite. Others are two bites, but I don't think any are three bites or more. So how many bites do you think it takes to eat, for example, a steak at a nice steakhouse? I wasn't hungry when the meal at minibar was over. And as the Post reviewer commented, you're paying for an entertaining evening and an unusual dining experience.

Yes, there is entertainment value and the novelty of some of these unusually prepared foods. But it is also dinner. So I was also wondering - how many calories do you get from those 27 courses?

In my Yelp review, I list the items that I liked the most. I think it's interesting that the ones I listed are mentioned in several other reviews. I suppose that means that while they're constantly experimenting and putting new things on the menu, there are a core of tried-and-true, crowd-pleasing items that they've just got to keep on the menu night after night. And as accommodating as they are, there's no use begging for more of any particular item.

At the end of my Yelp review, I said that I'd recommend minibar, as long as you understand what you're getting for your money. There's a very instructive video on the Washington Post web site. It includes comments from Jose Andres as well as pictures of diners enjoying the show/meal. One of the scenes shows people eating the Dragon's breath popcorn. It really is amazing. Your chef puts this very ordinary looking piece of popcorn on your plate. You pop it in your mouth, chew and swallow. Tastes good. Then you exhale, and 'smoke' comes out of your mouth and nose. How do they do that? I don't know, that that's the kind of experience that makes it so hard to get a reservation.

The video below shows the chef making the Cotton Candy Eel.


Jocelyn said...

Hi Steve,

I enjoyed your post.

Question: What is the photo policy at minibar? I'm dining there next month and was planning on bringing my dSLR. Do the chef discourage picture taking of the dishes? Your thoughts?



SPKrikava said...

Photo policy at minibar - I asked when I was seated, and was told that they are happy for diners to take photos of the food. As you can see from the shots I took, the chefs recognize that they're putting on a show, and they don't mind people capturing that.