The Best Restaurant in Washington?


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It was dinner to settle a bet about whether health care reform would pass. Justice Scalia owed me. Initially we were scheduled for Komi—a wonderful Washington restaurant whose signature goat dish I recently reviewed. But the Justice did not like the blogosphere's attention to the dinner, and Komi canceled because of an event for an employee's wedding. So, at the suggestion of Richard Wolffe, I took the "strict constructionist" to the restaurant that deconstructs food—José Andrés's Minibar.

I have been a great fan of José's. But I had not been to the Minibar in more than a year. José and his team, especially Brad Race, the chef, have definitely taken it up several notches to clearly make Minibar the best meal in Washington, D.C. And what was surprising to me is that I had not one bite of meat. (Aside from a deconstructed "Philly cheesesteak" on the menu—which I passed on because of the meat-milk kosher thing—this really is a veggie and fish presentation.)

The chefs took an ear of baby corn, shaved off the kernels, and created a liquid corn center with intense corn gelatin.

There were several standards from the old menu, including some of my favorites: beet "tumbleweed," a very thin string of red beet deep-fried; cotton candy eel, a piece of smoked eel wrapped in a cotton candy sphere; and deconstructed guacamole, a thin piece of avocado wrapped over the essence of tomato, sprinkled here and there with cilantro micro-greens and crushed chips.

But the real news is all the new dishes that really soar. One after another, they capture the intense essence of a vegetable or food item and present it in a new way. "Zucchini in textures" is a three-layered dish that has at its top a thin gelée of the zucchini water, followed by hundreds of separated zucchini seeds, with a thick zucchini paste at the bottom. Nothing but zucchini and a tad of butter go into this dish, and the intensity of flavor is amazing. The paste is sweet, because the zucchini is caramelized.

"Organic carrots with coconut" presents fake carrots surrounding a coconut gel. The carrots look like baby carrots but are really an extract in a thin skin that gives off a super intense carrot flavor.

My absolute favorite dish was a charcoal salmon with black garlic. The salmon was cooked on Japanese charcoal; when the skin was removed, the slight charcoal aftertaste remained. Black garlic? This is fermented whole bulbs (like the buried cabbage that makes kimchi) that transforms the garlic into something sweet. The combination of fresh salmon, charcoal, and sweet garlic is divine.

Another diner preferred the deconstructed take on corn. The chefs took an ear of baby corn, shaved off the kernels, and created a liquid corn center with intense corn gelatin. They then wrapped the liquid center with the kernels to reconstruct it to look like a baby corn. The result was a concentrated corn taste with the crunchiness of corn on the cob. The plate also had a puree of huitlacoche, the Mexican fungus that grows on corn and turns the kernels black. Sounds yucky? Think of it as the Mexican equivalent of a wonderful black truffle. It has a sweet, woodsy flavor.

The cheese course is nothing short of amazing, three Japanese baby peaches—small green things about the size of almonds—surrounded by dabs of pure white burrata. These "peaches," which I have never seen before, don't taste like peaches. They have a clarifying but not sweet taste and are a bit crunchy. The gobs of burrata were stringy and delicious.

There was a special "transition" dish between the main courses and the cheese and desserts. It was part sweet, strawberries, and part savory, "sun dried tomatoes," with super-intense sweet balsamic to bridge the flavors. The strawberries tasted as if they had just been picked and sautéed. The tomatoes were tomato paste further reduced to ramp up the intensity, and encapsulated using a trademark Minibar technique that makes them pop in your mouth.

As usual for molecular chefs, there were creations using liquid nitrogen such as "tzatziki," in which Greek yogurt was frozen into a ball with a soft inside, and the foams—a great tart hibiscus foam to go with sea urchin ceviche.

The wine pairings were carefully selected and wonderful. While I do not like bubbly, the Pierre Peters Blanc de Blanc was light and lovely. I preferred the Muller-Catoir 2007 Riesling Spatlese, which had a honey sweetness that went very well with the early dishes. We also had a special Loire valley white, Didier Dagueneau 2005 Silex. We ended with a wonderful Pinot, Vallet Freses 2003 Charmes-Chambertin.

Minibar has really outdone itself and gives Washington a world-class restaurant. And I am beginning to believe José Andrés probably deserved the James Beard Foundation Award for outstanding chef of the year.