“The Girl Who Ate Boston” Nibbles DC: Minibar

Following the release of D.C.’s first-ever Michelin Guide in October, I want to tell you about a meal in that city so memorable that I still talk about it two years later.

I am recovering Michelin list addict with 37 stars under my belt as of October 2016. (Here is the list.) I was unsurprised that Minibar rightfully made the round-up.

This post is overdue. Shortly after returning to Boston, I switched to a new laptop and misplaced my Minibar blog-post draft and photos. But after speaking with the Boston Globe’s Nestor Ramos for his article on DC’s addition to the Michelin guides, I decided to embark upon an archaeological dig through my living room in search of my old laptops to recover this post.

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The sign outside Minibar, Jose Andres’ restaurant in Washington, D.C.

May 1, 2014. Nowadays, diners book reservations at Minibar by purchasing “tickets” online, but back in the spring of 2014, aspiring patrons like myself had to book via email. Having heard how difficult it was to score a reservation, I sent a rather ridiculous email (“do you have any availability for a party of three between April 27 and June 19?”). Success! I arranged the Boston-to-DC road trip around the meal.

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We faced this mysterious curtain in the waiting area. It took all the self-restraint I had not to peek behind it.

The experience began in a small waiting area. A strange clock with nonsensical numbers hung on the wall, overlooking the start of our meal. A waiter told us that Chef Andres wants us to lose track of time and experience the moment.

The waiter soon returned holding a couple books. Reading material while we wait for dinner to begin? Nope! Our first course was hidden within.

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We then moved into the main dining area: a small bar inside the kitchen. There is no such thing as “behind the scenes” at Minibar. The cooking itself is a show.

Our main meal began with a hot-then-cold pisco sour starring sorbet, made at the counter with liquid nitrogen and then melted by warm foam. (I missed a photo, regrettably.) We chased it with three small amuse-bouches: a pineapple shortbread, which was an unapologetic bite of butter and my favorite of the three; a margarita pizza on a thin, crispy crust; and a parmesan canelé, a tiny pastry with custard filling.

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Parmesan canelé.
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Pineapple shortbread on the left; margarita pizza in the background; and on the right, instead of the canelé, a cheese-adverse member of the group got a beet tumbleweed with crispy strands.

The next two courses were chilly, though I didn’t realize it at first glance.

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Almond tart with blue cheese filling.

The almond tart’s semi-sphere shell rested on chilled rocks. It was cold to the touch, starting to melt on my fingers as I picked it up—just an excuse to lick my fingers!

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Chicky! A meringue exterior and foie gras ice cream inside.

I’m not big on foie gras—I know, I’m a terrible patron of haute cuisine—and I usually dislike marshmallows shaped like cute animals because they tend to look better than they taste, but I was quite a fan of this fluffy chicklet. On the sweet/savory divide, it leaned slightly towards the former.

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Late-night chicken shawarma in lettuce rolls wrapped in edible potato-paper cellophane, with a yogurt sauce for dipping (or smothering, if you’re me). It was paired with ayran, a Middle Eastern drink of salted and chilled yogurt.

Next up were my first encounters with pig ear and spot prawn, both served with a Southeast Asian “iced tea” of orange juice, ginger, lime, and Thai basil.

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Vietnamese pig ear with curried pork shoulder and chili oil, served with a Southeast Asian “iced tea.”
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Chilled spot prawn with wasabi and a side of apple-miso ice.

The pesto fusilli was one of my favorite courses of the night, not because it employed any crazy molecular gastronomy techniques, but because the flavor palette was up my alley with every single ingredient. Egg! Truffle! Parmesan! Pine nut! All served upon hot plates that began to slowly cook the yolks.

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Pesto fusilli with egg white, egg yolk, truffle, and parmesan. It came with a lemon-mint “South Side” mocktail.

The plates were repurposed from El Bulli, the now-closed longtime epicenter of the haute cuisine universe, where Jose Andres had trained early in his career.

And as much as I was won over by the simplicity of the pesto fusilli, the tofu-and-gazpacho dish that followed was one of the most spectacular creations I have ever tasted.

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“Andalusian tofu.” Cubes of mock tofu made from almond soup, with clarified gazpacho.

You’re looking at the photo and wondering where the gazpacho is, right? The taste of bright tomato and sharp vinegar is hiding in those pale ice crystals. I had expected that diluted color meant diluted flavor, but somehow the culinary magicians at Minibar managed to pull a bait-and-switch: ice in the bowl, gazpacho in your mouth.

…HOW?!

Next up, for a twist on a Japanese hotpot dish, we used tweezer-like utensils to dip the thin, silky dumplings into a rich beef broth.

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An interpretation of shabu-shabu, a Japanese hotpot dish, with translucent “dumplings” and beef broth. The drink pairing was a bitter saffron tonic with lime, salt, and apple blossom.

After devouring said dumplings, we picked up our bowls and drank the remaining broth straight … and continued to another amazing liquid-based course.

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For the “Iberico tendon” dish, the Minibar team used a consommé made from high-quality Iberico ham to create a gelatin mimicking a tendon, in a pool of fragrant onion broth with a quail yolk.

And then I encountered a sea cucumber for the first time in my culinary travels.

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Espardenyes (sea cucumber) and bone marrow with butter foam. Butter foam. BUTTER FOAM. Why isn’t all food served with butter foam?

Honestly, at the time I ate it, I could not have confidently told you if the sea cucumber was an animal or a plant. (Spoiler: It’s an animal that looks like a plant, as if a fish-worm tried to disguise itself as a vegetable.)

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Mini bottle from Koerner!

The sea cucumber’s slippery texture was more memorable than the muted flavor, but paired with bone marrow in a quirky take on surf-and-turf, the dish worked.

The drink pairing—a “yuzu phosphate” with made with the citrus fruits yuzu and sudachi, with cucumber and phosphoric acid—was served in a super-cute itty-bitty Coke bottle.

I was so taken with the mini bottle that I inquired with the staff about where it was from. A few minutes later, a staff member returned with the name of the company (Koerner Co.) and my very own MINI BOTTLE FROM MINIBAR.

+100 customer service points.

The next course tied with O Ya’s mushroom sashimi for my all-time favorite preparation of mushrooms.

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Beech mushroom papillot with truffle, paired with an “A^3” drink of almond milk, asparagus water, and anise syrup.

The itty-bitty mushrooms were cooked en papillote, in a plastic bag that was cut open in front of us. The aroma of the mushrooms was heightened by the addition of shaved black truffle: nutty, earthy, and shamelessly uncomplicated. The flavor palate needed nothing more.

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The heaviest of our main courses was juicy lamb shoulder with whey and dill, paired with a “barley beer” of barley, coffee, and coriander.

And here is another drink to show why I skip the wine pairings. I’m sure that the wine served at Minibar-level restaurants is fantastic, and I’m equally sure that I wouldn’t be able to appreciate it because I haven’t had enough experience with wine. But this orange blossom derby? You didn’t need any prior experience. It is magical, no matter whether this is your first “mocktail” or thousandth.

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“Orange blossom derby.” Orange blossom, grapefruit, honey … + pretty fog?

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The olive oil bonbon is one of Jose Andres’ signature items at Minibar. If you’re curious about the cooking techniques and maybe even adventurous enough to try them for yourself, Andres’ ThinkFoodGroup made a video showing how it’s done. Unfortunately, the olive oil bonbon was only for the cheese-adverse member of the group—the rest got a cheese puff—but it was reportedly amazing.

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An “olive-oil bonbon”: heavenly olive oil encapsulated in a super-thin shell of sugar.
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Bonne-bouche cheese puff. (“Bonne bouche,” which literally translates from French as “good mouth,” is a type of goat cheese.)

Our next course, aptly titled “spring thaw,” was somewhere in between a palate cleanser and a dessert. The cool cucumber was a beautiful base for a hint of spicy ginger.

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“Spring thaw”: Cucumber, asparagus, star anise, with candied ginger and sprinkled with buttermilk snow.

The finale was a home run, of course: a chocolate-mint soufflé, with a playful hot-then-cold temperature trick reflecting the pisco sour drink that we were first served when brought to the main bar area of Minibar.

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Dinner and a show! The kitchen staff flambeed the chocolate-mint soufflé right in front of us.
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The exterior of the soufflé had a hot minty flavor, while the inside was cool chocolate.

The main meal was over, but the magic wasn’t done quite yet. The staff moved us from the bar in the kitchen to a second room: BarMini, Jose Andres’ cocktail lounge. We lingered in bliss, enjoying a few more creative bites.

It was during this dessert encore that I had another of the most marvelous bites of my life. And I really do mean that it was just a bite.

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BEHOLD: a MINI DOUGHNUT of DOUGHNUT ICE CREAM!!!

Our waiter told us that this bite had been an actual Krispy Kreme doughnut until the Minibar folk got hold of it and turned it into ice cream. Most people would have stopped there—I certainly would have, having immediately eaten the entire batch—but apparently overachievers at Minibar weren’t satisfied with having created Krispy Kreme ice cream, because they had to turn it back into a doughnut.

The Michelin guide gave Minibar two stars. I would have given three.

I watched a 60 Minutes segment about Jose Andres when I was 17 years old. I finally started to explore food shortly after turning 18. At 19, I started this food blog, and at 20, I attended an in-person lecture by Jose Andres at Harvard and knew that his critically-claimed Minibar was a restaurant I had to cross off my list. I was 21 when I finally got to dine at Minibar—the only culinary curiosity I had harbored before I got into food.

Minibar was the third restaurant I had been to that was famous for its molecular gastronomy. (First wd~50 in NYC, now closed; then Moto in Chicago, also now closed, blog post here; and a couple months after Minibar, Alinea in Chicago.)

I hesitate to use the term “molecular gastronomy” because some chefs dislike it, but it remains the quickest descriptor to communicate the idea. Still, as someone with far more experience consuming food than creating it, my insights about the term “molecular gastronomy” would be of little substantive value.

For me, struggling to describe the cuisine is reflects the fun of eating it: you can’t describe it. You can’t imagine it. You can watch it on television but that doesn’t convey the taste. You just need to experience it yourself.

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INFORMATION as of December 2016
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Official website: minibarbyjoseandres.com/minibar
Twitter: @MinibarByJose, @ChefJoseAndres
Instagram: @MinibarByJose, @ChefJoseAndres

Address & Phone
855 E Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 393-0812

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