Joan And Randy Go To minibar

WARNING: This is a lengthy post.  It is a very detailed description of one of the most incredible meals I’ve ever experienced, and I wanted to record it before the details find their way out of my aging and rapidly deteriorating mind.

I never saw “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle”, but I suspect that it was a sophomoric  film about two stoners who get the munchies late at night and try to get to White Castle for a 12-pack of little burgers before they close — and of course many surrealistic and mad-cap adventures along the way.

Joan and Randy’s adventure with minibar by josé andrés was not nearly as colorful, but noteworthy nonetheless.  But we did get really baked before we went.

OK, just kidding.

Joan hates pot, and I haven’t touched the stuff since the 90’s.  But I have to say that after attending two back-to-back Widespread Panic shows for New Year’s there is something about the smell and the culture that kind of sucks me in — just for a moment!  It must not be as good as it was in the 90’s though, because they do seem to have to smoke an awful lot of it.

I like White Castle burgers though.  Even the frozen ones in the grocery store are pretty good if you heat them just right.  But you have to be careful.  They’re really tasty until you eat “one too many”, and you never know which one that is until you’ve had it.

Minibar is a restaurant in Washington, D.C. by José Andrés.  Chef Andrés is best friends with fellow Spaniard Ferran Adria, and is doing the closest thing to the now closed and well-famed El Bulli that we have in America.  I will also add that it has the proud designation (from at least one writer) to be one of the “11 Toughest Reservations In The World”.

We have had the pleasure of dining at Jaleo in Las Vegas (our first date actually), and also at his America Eats that was open for a limited time in D.C. last year.  I’ve tried to get us reservations at minibar the last two trips to Maryland, but it ain’t easy.

The newly redesigned and relocated restaurant has only 12 seats.  They seat it twice nightly, six at a time, so only 24 lucky diners get to experience Andrés’ magic each day — and magic it is!  Reservations are taken by email only.  They don’t have a phone.  Emails are received each day at 10:00 am Eastern for reservations on the same date one month later.

I employed the use of a free web-based service called Letter Me Later that allows users to schedule emails to be sent at a future time.  I set up emails to go to minibar beginning at 9:55 am, and every minute after until 10:00.  The instructions are very specific about what needs to be in the email, and says that someone will be in touch within 48 hours IF there is availability.

I didn’t hear anything, and sent emails everyday for the next week.  The final day that corresponded to our last opportunity to dine there I actually sent a total of about 70 emails from two different addresses beginning at 9:30 am.

The following day I received this:

Congratulations!

We apologize in the delay in our response, as we have been experiencing technical difficulties with our servers. 

However, we are pleased to inform you that we are able to grant your reservation request for minibar by josé andrés.

Talk about a day maker!!!

I remember exactly where I was when I got the email on my phone.  I recall it as well as I remember where I was and what I was doing when the report came that Jerry Garcia had died, and when the news of the attack on the World Trade Center broke on the morning of September 11, 2001.

We were actually confirmed for my very first attempt.  I thought it fitting that we should enjoy this rare and decadent experience on 12/21/12 — the day that life as we know it was to come to an end.

Dinner is $225 per person, and was alleged to be comprised of 22 courses, non of which are divulged in advance.  We were asked to select a beverage package in advance as well.  Since neither of us drink we selected the Virtue Selection which was to consist of “A creative and mouth-watering collection of cocktails and concoctions, all without alcohol”.  That one was the cheapest, and it was $45 per guest.

We were informed that dinner would begin promptly at 6:00 for all six diners, and that if we were 30 minutes late or more we would lose our table, so as not to disrupt the experience for other diners.

We left western Maryland at 4:00 to get to the train station in Rockville and arrive a the Chinatown Metro stop by 5:40.  No problem right?

I don’t know why I can’t ever remember what traffic is like within 50 miles of D.C. in all directions.  At the last minute we…no I…made a decision to abandon the train and drive into the city.  The red lights didn’t cease.  Fellow travelers filled the streets ahead.  At one point a brilliant flash of light in the rearview mirror lit up the night sky, indicating that I was probably driving a little too fast.  There will inevitably be photographic evidence of my exact speed coming in the mail shortly, along with a request for a donation to the county’s treasury.

I swerved in and out of traffic with cat-like dexterity, and we arrived at the unmarked front of minibar at 6:02.  A valet took custody of our vehicle, and we stepped inside an empty 6’x10′ foyer with embossed sheer white walls and ceiling just as the phone rang.

“Is this Mr. Page?”

“Yes, and we just walked in the door!”

“Great!  We’ll see you in a moment.”

Whew! That was a close one.

We passed on an opportunity for a quick cocktail, and sat in a swanky little waiting area with two other couples until the chefs were ready to receive us.  After about 10 minutes we were taken through wispy gold curtains into the kitchen/dining room.

minibarA curved bar with a light colored wood top had six stools and three autumn-themed centerpieces.  Down the other side of the room was the exact same setup, and the kitchen was in the center.  Nine young chefs worked hurriedly, quietly, and with surgical precision to assemble various trays, platters, bowls, and groups of ingredients to be used in the dishes ahead.

The first course was a Oaxaca Snowball, an airy white frozen puff nestled on a mound of shaved ice.  The ball was slightly sweet, and contained a bit of Mezcal.  Having asked in advance that my menu contained no alcohol, I was given instead a champagne flute filled with a glistening golden beverage called Faux Secco.  It was made from Riesling wine that had been cooked to remove the alcohol, made into a syrup, and carbonated with sparkling water.  It was then laden with gold luster dust that constantly churned and changed shape and shimmered from the ascending bubbles.  Not only was it tasty but it truly was a joy just to look at!

I think the Snowball was the only course that Joan thought was a little devoid of excitement.  I did cheat and take a small bite.  It was ok.

no-photosMaintaining loyalty to our credo to not take pictures of premium dining experiences, there are no pictures.  Sadly, as we were given the welcome and introduction to the experience by the chefs we were told that they actually encourage photographs.

None of the other diners were taking pictures, so we stuck to our guns.  However, earlier in the month the same menu was offered, and another lucky patron did take pictures.  They can be found here, but I will proceed by describing each magnificent course as if to paint a mental portrait!

Parmesan Leaf and Mimetic Walnut
Part of the centerpiece on the table when we first arrived.  Deep brown, puffy crisps of parmesan cheese in the shape of maple leaves with little dots of a parmesan sauce were intermingled with dried oak leaves and whole walnut shells.  The leaves so delicate and wispy — intense with salty parmesan sabor.

Inside the walnut shell was what appeared to be a walnut.  We picked up the shell and knocked the nut back into our mouths.  A paper thin integument gave way to an explosion of liquid walnut!  We grinned like school children.

After some research I discovered that this is likely a version of Adria’s Mimetic Peanut, in which peanuts and peanut oil are ground to a liquid, frozen in a nut shaped mould, and dipped in melted mannitol.  I will be attempting this as soon as possible.  This was one of the coolest things I’ve ever eaten, and certainly a high-point of this experience!

Asian “Coca de Vidrio”
Translates to “glass coconut”.  This was a sheet of obulato or oblate paper, which is a clear, super-thin edible paper made from potato starch.  They are made in Japan where they are used to package hard-to-swallow medicines.  In this dish the obulato was made into a crispy roulade speckled with various Asian herbs and a strip of black sesame paste.  Two delicate bites — very tasty and unique!

Pillow of PB&J
Another spectacular use of obulato!  The paper is formed into a small package that is filled with ground peanuts and peanut oil.  The package is sealed with a heat sealer, coated with freeze-dried strawberry powder, and dehydrated to create a crispy shell.  We popped the packet into our mouths and again giggled like children at the magical explosion of flavors and textures.  We could have made an entire meal of these things!

“When Pigs Fly”
A wooden box came to us filled with something that looked like a cross between shredded tobacco leaves and crushed cocoa nibs.  On top of the bed of substrate rested two adorable little pink pigs.  The pigs were made of apple-flavored meringue and filled with bacon ice cream.  We were instructed to eat the heads first.  Interesting.  Not a strong apple or bacon flavor, but tasty nonetheless.  A brilliant and whimsical idea and execution.

Foie Bomb
OK, when I said that we could have had an entire meal of PB&J Pillows I forgot about the Foie Bomb.

Andrés has this thing he does called an Olive Oil Bon Bon that is basically olive oil dropped into a molten sheet of isomalt.  The isomalt cools as it drops, and forms a not-too-sweet candy-like shell around a liquid oil center.  I had seen the video of them being made, and was really hoping to get one.

Now, take that concept and replace the olive oil with foie gras mousse!

‘Nuff said.  To hell with olive oil…and PB&J — maybe even sex!

Churro Tendon
What appeared to be a cinnamon sugar encrusted miniature version of the Spanish version of a doughnut, about the size of one’s pinky, was actually a jelly-like finger of veal tendon that was coated with a delicate crust and deep fried, then dusted with cinnamon sugar.

Magnificent!

Almond Tart with Blue Cheese
We had seen the making of this little delicacy on YouTube.  Marcona almonds are fried and blended with water into a fine paste.  A small ladle is dipped in liquid nitrogen, and then the back is coated with the almond paste and frozen in nitrogen, forming a perfect little frozen cup of the world’s finest roasted almonds.

The cup is filled with blue cheese mousse spritzed from an iSi canister, and the little canapé is served on a bed of smooth river rocks.  So simple, but so pure and muy delicioso!

Pigtail Curry Panini
Actually more of a hoagie.  A little two-bite sandwich made not from bread but from the lightest of meringues (possibly derived of methylcellulose).  Filled with a mixture of curried pork — kind of Thai, kind of Indian, not sure which, but damned tasty and light as air.

Chicken “Shawarma”
Possibly the least impressive dish of the evening.  Very tasty, but I wouldn’t have called it Shawarma.  A perfectly manicured leaf of Romaine lettuce filled with crispy chicken skin and herbs is wrapped with oblate paper.  An airy and pungent version of tzatziki was served alongside, and was a perfect accompaniment!

Sea Urchin Ceviche with Hibiscus
We’re tired of seeing sea urchin, but unfortunately I think we’re in the middle of a trend.  When we booked the reservation I was frighteningly certain that something like half of the courses that we would be served would be comprised of some bizarre seafood, but I was willing.

Turns out we had very little seafood, but what we did have was the worst of the worst — sessile little creatures that filter the crap off of the bottom of the oceans.  Raw nonetheless!

Sea urchin was paired with a foam of sweet, fragrant, and citrusy hibiscus.

I have had sea urchin twice before and found it repugnant at best — reminiscent of putrid, decaying aquatic life with a twinge of sea water and iodine.

Andrés’ sea urchin was fresh, plump, and full of life.  A healthy and not at all unpleasant brininess that paired perfectly with the hibiscus.  I won’t be ordering sea urchin on purpose, but I did get to experience what it’s really all about I think!  Not bad — but probably should still be left alone to scrub the ocean floor for all of humanity!

Baby Carrots with Coconut
One of the most recognizable features of modern cuisine is “spherification”, and while I’ve experimented with it I haven’t really had it at a restaurant.  Chef Andrés is famous for his versions of Adria’s creations — namely the Ferran Adria Olive.  This was the first of several dishes that took well-known ingredients, converted them into a liquid, and reconstructed them into a form similar to the original using a combination of calcium salt and alginate (a seaweed extractive).

The bottom of a shallow bowl was coated with fragrantly seasoned coconut milk and garnished with several 3/4″ long spherified “carrots”.  Simply brilliant!  Two spoons were necessary, as the little liquid carrots are very delicate.  One gently pushes a carrot and a little sauce with one spoon onto another and then eats.  I could do this all day!

Coconut, ginger, sesame (an oft recurring flavor throughout the meal), lime.  Outstanding!

Beech Mushroom Risotto with Truffle
We were presented with an empty glass bowl.  Then came a chef and plopped down an inflated plastic bag in each of our bowls.  At first I thought the bags contained aquarium fish fresh from the pet store, and I thought, “Damn, this just got weird”.

Then I thought, “Hmmm…an edible bag?  Is this gonna be as cool as the Apple Balloon at Alinea?”

No, not an edible bag — and not a goldfish.

The bag was filled with about 25 or 30 tiny little white mushroom caps, some butter, and perhaps some truffle oil.  A waiter came around and cut each of the bags open and we were encouraged to bury our faces in the bag quickly and take in a deep breath of fabulous buttery, woodsy aroma.  Moments later a chef came around with a truffle slicer and shaved off a few slices of Georgia Pecan Truffle into each bag.

Absolutely ethereal and magical!  Yes!

Smoked Oysters with Escabeche
Two plump little oysters arrived on a plate with a brunoise of tart apple, enveloped in a smoky applewood foam — the whole thing covered with a glass dome which when lifted released a cloud of applewood smoke.  The smoke placed there undoubtedly with the use of a “Smoking Gun“, one of the newer items in the culinary equipment arsenal (though not really that new).

The whole thing was based I believe on what was called an electric bong back in the 80’s, but a much more streamlined version.  Some of those folks at the concert would have enjoyed having one…and some may have!

Nonetheless, the oysters — only the second oysters I’ve ever eaten in my life — were pretty tasty with all the other accouterments.  For me the smoke was too raw.  I like the flavor of more mellow smoke that has infused with the food.  This was just right off the smoldering tree.  Still good, and the non-alcoholic beverage that we were served at this interval was a smoked raspberry drink that paired quite well!  That actually may have saved the dish.

Fabes con Almejas
A traditional Spanish stew of clams and beans, this version featured white beans that were puréed and reassembled through spherification, a thick white bean broth, and two little clams perfectly cooked and encapsulated in spheres of clam juice.  Very ethereal, whimsical to look at, inventive, and quite tasty!  Kudos.

Parmesan Egg with Migas
Perhaps the crowning dish of the evening, and a YouTube “must watch”!

Parmesan cheese is made into a broth with water and then spherified around a quail egg yolk.  The completed mock egg is poached in a sous vide style bath and served alongside super-thin shaved bread that is lightly fried in olive oil.

Looked like an egg!  Had the texture of a perfect poached egg.  Tasted like cheese.

I wanted more toast — and two more eggs!

Espardenya_(animal)

Espardenyes with Bone Marrow
This was really good!  I’m still trying to figure out what it was.

Espardenyes, from what I can gather, are another ocean floor grazing critter.  They were described at minibar as “sea cucumbers”.  Some poorly translated research called them sea slugs, and that’s what this little guy looks like to me.

They do hail from the Mediterranean, and are very popular in Barcelona.  It appears that they are either the digestive tract of the animal or its gonads.  They get their name because they supposedly resemble a shoe by the same name.  See if you can figure it out.

Espardenyes-at-Paco-Meralgo-Barcelona-by-Bill-Sinclair   barcelona shoes

Anyway, they’re pretty good sautéed up with some bone marrow.  They have a texture similar to squid, and a flavor similar to lobster crossed with scallops.  I would eat them again, but I don’t need to know anything more about them!

Thai Soup
Reminiscent of Vietnamese Pho, I don’t know why they called it Thai Soup.  A really cool stoneware bowl came decorated with a couple tablespoons of clear, intensely flavored broth made from veal tendon, some herbs, and several little capsule-like pieces of gelified coconut water.  A side plate contained a delicate gold filigree leaf that was topped with the traditional Pho condiments — basil, bean sprouts, etc.

It has been so long since I’ve had a nice steaming bowl of Pho!  This was just a tease, and it made me want the real thing.  But if I were to imagine a modern version of this great dish, it would have been done just like this!

Olive Oil Soup with Mandarin
Joan liked this more than I did.  We are used to José Andrés putting olive oil in places that you don’t usually see it (kind of like how algebra has letters where there should be numbers), and in this case I wouldn’t call it brilliant.  Last year’s Olive Oil Ice Cream with Grapefruit, yes…Olive Oil Soup, not so much.

Imagine a light sugar syrup emulsified with olive oil, and tiny micro-shoots of 5 different herbs.  We were supposed to experience each herb separately.  I couldn’t taste any of them, nor could I taste olive oil.

The edge of the plate was garnished with dots of intensely flavored mandarin orange puree (each one accented by a smaller dot of black sesame paste, which at this point seems to have become obligatory), and a single section of freeze-dried mandarin orange.  These components were very flavorful, but a whole dish they did not make.

The dish was billed as “an introduction to dessert”.  Hope it gets better!

Dragon’s Breath
Really fun!

We were presented with two little quarter-sized round medallions of compressed, lightly curry-flavored popcorn.  They dropped them into a bubbling bath of liquid nitrogen for a few seconds, and then place them back on the plate before us.  We were instructed to put the morsel in our mouths, look at each other, and breath out through our noses.

The popcorn was really tasty, and huge clouds of cool “smoke” rushed out of our noses.  There was a brief giggle.

Man I really do have to get some liquid nitrogen!

Pine Snow with Honey
We were brought a plate with that held a little mound of powdered ice (snow) that was lightly flavored with pine.  I could have sworn there was a slight coconut component, but I could be mistaken.

There was lots of coconut throughout the meal.  This was one of few dishes that didn’t have black sesame paste on it.  One of the chefs actually mentioned halfway through the meal that black sesame praline was one of their favorite things currently.  It showed.

A rosemary sprig accompanied the snow, and a chef came behind and drizzled Greek honey over it.

It reminded me of a dessert we had at Andrés’ America Eats last year that mimicked the New England tradition of pouring molten maple syrup into snow.

Both concepts were light, refreshing, and tasty!

Coconut Sticky Rice with Mango
This was the most elaborate, and probably the best dessert of the evening.

A finger sized line of smooth, white, coconut-flavored “rice pudding” was piped onto a plate connecting two perfectly cut wedges of what looked like mango. Upon closer view the mango wedges were actually perfectly formed slices of mango sorbet — the outside coated with strawberry powder to imitate the blush of a ripe mango’s skin.

Crisp rice, some micro-shoots of herbs, and little pellets of agar set coconut jelly were sprinkled on top of the rice pudding.  Believe it or not, there were a couple little dots of black sesame praline paste.

Extremely well done and delicious!  Also light and refreshing.  I would love another!

Piña Colada Tablet
Following the Sticky Rice dessert (which seems to have been the main dessert of the evening) we were escorted to the lounge for the rest of the experience.  Each of the three couples were taken specifically to a different region of the room where we could have some space to ourselves, and where the minibar staff could serve us with more personal and intimate attention.  I’ve never experienced anything like it, and it was kind of neat.

Joan mentioned that it had a weird kind of feel, like we were in a swanky waiting lounge, and at some point we would all be called back to a special room for an upscale, exclusive orgy.  I suppose it did feel like that, but no, it was just dessert and drinks (coffee for us).

Two little planks of a frozen pineapple mixture were enrobed in a shell of coconut milk and inserted into a little bowl filled with shaved ice.  Fabulous!  Fresh, invigorating, flavorful!  Might have been some rum involved, might not have been — but they were tasty!  Probably the best of the small sweets.

Sablé Bon Bon
A relatively uninteresting little bite of tangy apricot puree inside a capsule of cookie dough?  I would liked to have seen more of a crisp cookie filled with the same mixture.  It would have been much more impressive.  What we got had good flavor, but was just texturally void.

Joan put a little box of Chinese “Panda” cookies in my stocking for Christmas.  They were amazing little crisp and delicate cookies filled with chocolate.  Why couldn’t we have had something like that?  I guess they’re not on the same aisle as the sesame paste.

TerraMisu
Not one of my favorite things, but not bad.  A play on words as a well-known Italian dessert is transformed into a earthy-looking, chocolate-covered liquid explosion of flavor.  The bite-sized nugget resembled a freshly dug up truffle (of the fungal variety…not chocolate).  It was good and unique, just not magical.  Perhaps our magic fuse was burned out at this point.

Rhubarb Binchotan
Binchotan is a type of specialized charcoal made in Japan.

The pastry chefs at minibar take charred ash from herbs and spices and mix it with white chocolate that enrobes tiny logs of freeze-dried rhubarb.  Stylish, minimalistic, tangy, light, and refreshing.

I wouldn’t call it dessert.  Joan didn’t think much of it, but I liked it as a sweet snack.

And that’s it folks!  Twenty seven courses (plus a cup of coffee).

As we left we were presented with souvenir menus, and I have written this exaustive account of each dish to help me to dedicate every little detail to memory.  It really was worth it!

minibar menu cover   minibar menu

I don’t remember all of the drinks that we had, and they weren’t on the menu, but to anyone fortunate enough to have the minibar experience, I heartily recommend the Virtue Selection, and then order wine by the glass in addition if need be.

In addition to my Faux Secco starter, I can recall Tomato Water with Pomegranate, Ginger/Pomegranate Soda, De-Alcoholized Bitter Belgian Orange Ale,  White Grape Juice with Mint/Cucumber Foam, Smoked Raspberry, and Mango Lassi.  There may have been another one or two, all served in a variety of tiny glasses with really cool, perfectly square little ice cubes.

The non-alcoholic drink selections were fantastic, and paired with the food very well!  Wine is wine — there’s good wine, better wine, different wine — but at the end of the day it’s still wine.  Our drinks were fabulous, and the wine drinkers were jealous!

As the experience came to a close in the lounge, various members of the staff stopped by our private little booth and visited with us.  It was explained to us that Chef Andrés wants each guest to enjoy the restaurant as if it were his own home that we were invited to.  We did!

Finally the Maitre d’ presented us with an egg and invited me to smash it.  The egg shell shattered, and out from the delicate rubble emerged our check.  After taxes, tip, and valet the grand total was $762 and some change.

For dinner for two?

Yep.

Was it worth it?

Many would say not.  Some that have eaten there think it’s a bit overpriced, and apparently it was half that last year before Andrés relocated the restaurant.  Maybe that’s what it takes to pay for $800 Cerruti Baleri footstools.

But over the next year I will undoubtedly spend at least ten times that on food that I will not derive nearly as much pleasure from.

Nowhere but Las Vegas can one experience Las Vegas.  The only way to see the Grand Canyon is to go there.  And only by breaking open the piggy bank can one experience the magic of minibar — and what better way to say goodbye to civilization!

Can’t take it with you anyway!

Now I think I’ll go and watch the Harold and Kumar movie — sans bong-hits!