Fractals are soulless. Fractals are cool to look at, but they are soulless. It is not often you hear people discuss science as a component of art to an inspiring end. Sure, Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans for helicopters things like that made him a scientist as well as an artist, rather than making him a better artist. In the common consciousness, scientists are not artists and artists are seldom scientists.
At some point, someone (I am suspicious it was one of the chefs themselves) branded the practitioners of what I call the "New Food" food scientists. People love to have things named, categorized, and sensationalized, but the truth is not many things without merit command respect and attention for very long. Good food has a soul and branding this food science does it an injustice in my opinion. The tops of the class in this new school are entering their sophomore years and, with Ferran Adrià as their laboratory-ensconced, studious headmaster, some of these ingénues are in our midsts now, offering some of the world's most exciting cuisine.
My most recent stop on my tour of edge-cutters was the Mini Bar project at the Café Atlantico in Washington DC. Mini Bar is six seats on the third floor of Café Atlantico (a big place that makes a great mojito and has the lava bowls for table-side guacamole, but didn't impress much beyond that). Once you are seated at Mini Bar, your attention is so commanded you may as well be sitting at a sporting match. You are aware that you are in a crowd in the middle of a bustling restaurant, but all your attention is focused on the action of the chefs and seldom strays past the six seats. Mini Bar ends up feeling like a creative little oasis in a sea of the expected. The people you pass to get to your seat are happily scooping up guacamole, seemingly unaware of the adventure tucked away in the corner of the third floor.
This cuisine is entirely chef-driven: you are either a maestro, or a failure and, like any other art, being able to discuss the process and inspiration with the person making the choices helps lends credibility to the artist and his art. Understanding this, Mini Bar has trapped the guys making your food in a small box right in front of you. They make the food, they serve the food, and they explain the food. If you are wondering how the quinoa got so crunchy, all you really need do is wonder aloud and they will tell you.
The whole daunting process of dehydrating, re-hydrating, cooking for 3 days in olive oil held precisely at 121 degrees Fahrenheit, then putting in a coffee bean blender, adding to distilled water, fortifying with agar-agar protein, putting in a whipped cream can, and spraying onto a plate as a process to find the essence of the flavor of an ingredient, can easily be explained as a couple of simple choices to achieve an end.
Jose Andrés (the uncle of this movement to Ferran Adria's papa) is the executive chef of Mini Bar and had been in the restaurant, dining, prior to our arrival. The guys actually organizing and presenting our dishes were Edgar and Michael, with Ruben playing the role of choosing and serving wine, keeping us set with utensils for eating, and clearing. All was orchestrated by the chef de cuisine Katsuya who would regularly pop up from Café Atlantico's main kitchen to present, discuss process, and make sure we were as enthralled as could be. So, around nine o' clock on Friday night Mudslide, Bear, Thursday, and I sat down to watch this unfold:
- Olive Oil Bonbon: The components of a vinaigrette, consisting primarily a Greek olive oil, are trapped and served in a teardrop of hard sugar. You pop it in your mouth, crack the shell with your teeth, and a wash of greenness covers your palate.
- Pork Rinds with Maple Syrup: Served in a closed paper bag, to be split between two diners, these snacks are salty, sweet, and rounded out by a little cayenne pepper. It makes perfect sense to absentmindedly pluck these from their torn, open sack and chew them down while watching the chefs work their magic.
- Salmon Roe Cone: Bagels and lox is the inspiration for this one -- a simple white bread cone filled with salmon roe and crème fraiche.
- Popcorn Envelope: It was a strangely warm day for January, with so much fog that the local schools had a delayed opening. As a result, the humidity compromised the integrity of this envelope that had been made of powdered popcorn so much that they decided not to serve this course. Of course, seeing the envelopes being thrown out made me insist on trying one, so I ate it out of my hand when Katsuya gave one to me. It was filled with dried butter, with a touch of sweetness. Its integrity was definitely compromised by the fact that bits of it stuck to both our hands, but it tasted great and I am glad he decided to let me try it anyway.
- Passion Fruit Whiskey Sour: In a shot glass, two layers. First, whiskey sour, topped with a passion fruit crème. We sipped it, then we shot it.
- Beet Tumbleweed: A thread of beet flesh made crunchy and formed into a woven ball. The primary ingredient being air rather than the beet, the couple of micro greens that had been added gave it the appearance of having rolled through a desert and gathered a couple of small things to it along the way.
- Mojito Spritz: A small, silver spray bottle I imagine was designed to carry Designer Imposters perfume, filled with mojito. We held on to it through the entire meal and, at lulls, we would spray our mouths, refreshing and stimulating them with the limey, rummy goodness. It reeked havoc with the wine, but was great with the food.
FLAVORS & TEXTURES
- Minibar Olives: Using science, somehow they have taken all the matter out of an olive and left only its flavor. Thin membranes contain a green fluid and a black fluid. The green one tastes like a green olive, only more so, and the black like a black one.
- Pineapple Salmon Ravioli with Avocado & Quinoa: The ravioli wrap is the thinnest sheet of pineapple wrapped around the salmon. Texture is an essential element of great food and the puffed quinoa in this dish gives it the lightest crunch, better then I can imagine any other ingredient would.
- Deconstructed Glass of White Wine: A long, rectangular dish contains a thin jelly of a viogner-based wine. On top of it are about a dozen things people taste in white wine, from lemon zest and mint, to butter and vanilla. With your spoon, you scoop up the jelly and flavor-aspect-topping, taste them, and figure out what they might be. When you are finished, the chefs tell you.
- Corn on the Cob: A smoked, mini-corn seared in a pan, garnished with a cornflower and corn nuts. It ends up tasting like summer corn grilled at a barbeque.
- Mellon Tenderloin with Almond Espuma & Micro Salad: The soft bit of the melon that the seeds are tangled in has been picked clean of seeds, (which were replaced by passion fruit seeds,) cut away from the harder, less flavored meat of the fruit, and seared. It is topped with the salad and the almond espuma. It was this course that made me ask what salt they were using. Good salt, well handled, is an amazing thing and, having the chefs right there, you would be a fool not to ask. The answer was Maldon.
- Organized Caesar Salad: A thin sheet of jicama is rolled around brioche croutons and anchovy fillets, and the leaves of the heart of romaine are wrapped like maki, sliced and placed next to a dollop of Caesar dressing. One roll is topped with a quail egg, the other with finally grated Parmigiano.
- Cotton Candy Foie Gras: A simple, little cube of foie rolled in crushed corn-nuts, ensconced in a white wrap of cotton candy. Sweet and rich with the added dynamic of air and salt.
- Conch Fritters: On the outside, the oddly-shaped deep brown caramel of a typical conch fritter, on the inside, a thick liquid I can only describe as rich conch bisque.
- Oysters and "Champagne": An oyster in a bowl with all kinds of tiny little spikes of flavor, immersed in Cava foam.
- Zucchini in Textures: Bear declared this the dish that disproves intelligent design, because if there were truly a wise being guiding along the development of things on the planet earth, this would be what zucchini tasted like. Had you told me a dish that had, as its major component, a layer of jellied zucchini seeds would be the one that knocked me out, I would have been doubtful before this meal.
- Hot and Cold Foie Gras Soup: Served in a cappuccino cup, this looks as unassuming as can be. In reality, it is all the richness of paté and all the unctuousness of seared foie gras, devoid of the oil inherent to their traditional preparations.
- "Guacamole": A spicy tomato sorbet is wrapped in the thinnest slices of avocado I have ever seen, with crumbled Fritos dusted on top. This is a solution to the dilemma of how to eat things that depend on tomato as an ingredient, when all the tomatoes are crappy Floridian pink baseballs.
- Feta Linguine: the water from making feta is tightened and formed into noodles with the addition of a protein. These noodles are tossed with feta and end up as the flavors you dream of when eating pasta in a creamy cheese sauce.
- Frozen Beet Soup with Bay Scallop: The components of borsht, deconstructed and made better by the addition of a scallop.
- Egg 147º with Caviar: Michael explained that the white of an egg sets at 145º F and the yellow sets at 150º, so by cooking the egg and holding the water at a 147°, you can cook the white without setting the yellow, creating a perfectly soft-boiled egg.
- Lobster Americaine: The poached tail of a lobster is served skewered by a plastic pipette that is filled with a reduction of the lobster's other components (the coral, the tamale and the bodies). When you pull the slice of tail off the needle of the syringe, you simply squeeze the bulb and your mouth is filled with the briny essence of the lobster.
- Sea Urchin with Pomegranate Air: A slice of uni under a pile of pomegranate-flavored bubbles.
- New England Clam Chowder: The parts of great chowder, decomposed. Potatoes and milk are foamed, the clam is raw, the onions are a chive oil, all the parts separated, concentrated, and brought back together as a more prononced flavor in your mouth.
- Breaded Cigala: Cigala is a giant prawn that is usually served breaded in Spain. At Mini Bar, they take the thinnest slice of brioche and sear the flesh to it, giving a light buttery crunch to the otherwise soft langoustine with a spike of scorch to offset the meats sweetness.
- "Philly Cheese Steak" Mini Bar, Katsuya, and the boys, obviously love to take the familiar apart into its fundamental flavor components and reorganize them into something that makes an impact. The flavors of a great Philly steak are steak, cheese, hoagie loaf, and sometimes mushrooms. Here we have a tiny French baguette, but just the crust, filled with a foam that is just the flavor of whiz without the goopy texture, then black truffle slices are laid on top, under slices of Kobe beef. This is then cooked with a hand-held torch. If you've ever wondered what is to be gained by "playing with your food," this is the dish that should make you encourage this behavior. It is the best cheese steak I have ever had.
- Watermelon Air: In the role of intermezzo here was a bowl filled with watermelon bubbles. A trough of watermelon water that has had a light protein added to it is mixed with an immersion blender. The bubbles that are formed on top are spooned into a dish and served to provide this transition to dessert.
- Apples with red wine "Freddy Girardet": When we first arrived, little round balls were being tossed in a sauté pan with a dark liquid. From their look, I deemed them meatballs and from the sweetish smell I guessed the liquid yuzu. It was actually this: the balls were apple, the liquid was cabernet and, after caramelizing for a couple of hours, they were our first dessert. An adaptation of the famous Swiss/French chef Freddy Girardet's apples cooked in spiced Bordeaux. Served with homemade sorbets.
- Piña Colada: The last deconstruction of the evening -- layers of vanilla, rum, coconut, and bits of pineapple all layered in a dessert-wine glass.
- Saffron Gumdrop: Saffron and sweet; two great tastes. Wrapped in a tart, edible, clear wrapper.
- Fruit Cocktail: The pipette appears again, this time the bowl is full of a concentrated fruit puree, with small fruits spiked on it. Here I feel the need to mention, fruit out of season never makes sense to me and this focused on raspberries, which taste right in July.
- Maracuya Marshmallows: A passion fruit-flavored marshmallows.
- Chocolate Covered Corn Nuts: I tend away from sweets, they're just not my thing, but bitter chocolate and salty corn snacks, that's genius.
- Halls Lollipop: A thin, powerfully minty, hard-sugar lolly on a stick.
- To make up for the loss of the popcorn envelope, we were presented with a curry-flavored puff made of powdered popcorn that was spun in cotton candy. Very cool textures and flavor.
- The wines we had were solid. Some Chilean some European all backing up the food which was star by staying out of the way. Ask Ruben to pick and trust him it worked for us.
This really is a new movement, and the practitioners are figuring out what works best for what. At Alinea, Grant Achatz has created the multi-course, multi-hour, fine-dining experience that includes things like seared olive oil. He has excelled at adapting finery to these creative concepts and presentations. At Mini Bar, José and Katsuya have made the experience entirely about exploration. This meal more invigorates than sates. You sit on a backless stool, at a nondescript bar that from a distance looks like a sushi bar jammed into a local Hunan House . There is an enjoyable informality that encourages you to relax and be convivial with your fellow explorers, whom you sit abreast of, as well as your tour guides right in front of you in the kitchen.
Good things come in small packages. If you are a person able to give yourself over to Mini Bar's experience, you will be amazed at all the mini things you will discover. All in all, there is enough of each course to experience the tastes (I would say the biggest course was four bits and the smallest was one). At it’s end, you have had more of an adventure than a meal, each little stop a creative dish made by talented artist; each one unique and perfect. And the best part is that the check is mini as well. Compared to every other interlude I have ever made in fine dining, this one somehow manages to be come in at about one third the cost of my previous experiences. Bear suggested they managed to keep prices down by giving us the flavor and selling the actual food again somewhere else. Whatever the methods, DC has a real gem to show for itself and, as anyone that owns a ring will tell you, a tiny perfect diamond kicks the crud out of a huge, beautiful zircon, once you look deep into it.