A Culinary Crown Jewel
Washington, D.C.’s Minibar elevates cooking from craft to art.
Walking through Washington, D.C.’s Penn Quarter neighborhood is like making an unofficial pilgrimage to famed chef José Andrés’ restaurant empire. There’s Oyamel and Zatinya at the outskirts, serving up modern Mexican and Mediterranean mezze, respectively; then Jaleo — the Spanish tapas bar that first brought him acclaim — near the inner ring. And at the very center lies the jewel of Andrés’ culinary crown: Minibar.
Inside the tiny restaurant, cooking is elevated from craft to art through clever concepts and innovative techniques. Take, for example, a simple dish like Fabes con almejas (beans with clams) that is transformed into anything but simple in Minibar’s science-experiment-filled-kitchen.
Fabes con almejas is a traditional dish where Andrés grew up, in Asturias, Spain. Yet as with everything on the restaurant’s 25-plus-course tasting menu, it’s served with a distinct “avant-garde” flair: The clams are encapsulated in edible shells made of their own liquid, and fava beans are pureed with garlic and onion before being formed into the traditional bean shape.
The dish is created via “reverse spherification,” a technique well known in the world of avant-garde cooking, which seeks to transform common ingredients into culinary diamonds with the help of chemicals and gadgets. Andrés learned this haute cuisine firsthand while apprenticing under elBulli’s Ferran Adrià — considered one of the movement’s best — and then pioneered it himself in the United States.
But despite the many tools and tricks Andrés has up his sleeve, he insists that Minibar stresses taste, not technique. “There aren’t good or bad techniques,” he says, “only cooks who know what to do with them or not.”
Andrés and his sous-chefs not only work the techniques masterfully, but they’re also on-stage performers. Twice a night (Tuesday through Saturday), 12 guests take a seat at one of two light-oak bartops and await their evening’s entertainment. In the center of the small, modern space is a pristine kitchen-turned-theater, where apron-clad chefs lead patrons through a series of whimsical dishes — only a few bites each — that tease all five senses.
There’s a faux bread made in a cotton-candy machine, giving it that characteristic light-as-air feel; a Parmesan egg with migas (traditionally leftover bread), featuring a “poached” quail-egg yolk surrounded by Parmesan-cheese-infused egg white; and bacon-ice-cream-filled apple meringues, shaped like little pigs. The full menu is only revealed to diners as a souvenir at the end of their tasting journey, so that the experience is truly one grand, unfolding surprise — and one that leaves patrons with “a big smile,” or so Andrés hopes.
“Cooking has always taken itself too seriously,” he adds. “I want people to be relaxed, to have fun, to not be afraid of grabbing the wrong fork.”
That lightheartedness is reflected in everything from the culinary concepts and playful interior design on down to how the checks are presented at the end of a meal: folded tightly and hidden in the center of a Russian nesting doll.
And yet the luxury of a dinner here cannot be downplayed — the US$250 price tag makes sure of it, as does the air of exclusivity engendered by the hard-to-come-by reservations. But as Andrés is quick to note, Minibar actually garners the least profit of all 14 restaurants in his empire, given the research-and-development dollars that are pumped into it. It’s his outlet to let his imagination run wild, a creative think tank from which the best ideas emerge before flowing over into his other restaurants.
“It’s where we put our best people,” he says. “Here, we don’t look for the output to be money but pleasure, learning, satisfaction, enjoyment.”
Even still, Andrés is one of the first to acknowledge that Minibar is a privileged place, providing such pleasure for “the very few.” And so, aware of the disparity between the experiences at his restaurants and the realities of life for the majority of the world’s people, he has become a passionate advocate for food and hunger issues. In 2010, he and his wife founded World Central Kitchen, an international nonprofit seeking sustainable solutions to end food insecurity and malnutrition. Life, he says, is not simply about enjoying the world, but also making it better.
Perhaps it’s the drive to find a delicate balance between the two that, more than any flavor combination or creative vision, sets Andres apart as a chef and gives Minibar — his gastronomic gem — an extra bit of sparkle.