Thursday, May 15, 2014

"new" but not improved

We went back to minibar almost exactly two years to the day since our last visit, when it was still a six-seat bar hidden within Cafe Atlantico (RIP). Andrew came to town especially for this reservation -- Komi was just a side bonus of his visit -- and I was excited to see how it would compare in its new iteration.  (It was his first trip, although Jay and Melissa had both been with us before.)  It's still a fun, frequently quite delicious experience.  Unfortunately, despite being two-thirds more expensive than our last minibar meal, it's no better -- and in some ways not as good -- as it used to be.  We had a great night, but I'm not sure how strongly I could recommend it unless money was no object to the prospective diner.

While there've been forum complaints about the lack of posted phone number and the opaque email reservation system, I found it to be significantly easier to navigate than the old call-right-on-the-hour-and-hope-to-get-through system.  (I've literally spent hours getting a busy signal and redialing over the years.)  This time, I sent an email at around 1:00 a.m. on March 1 (the day that reservations for April through June opened) listing in order of preference the dates/times that our group was available and secured a six-person reservation for the first seating on the first day that I'd listed.  (I'm left to wonder if the increased capacity and price have decreased demand, and the email system is a way to cloak that.)

I'm torn on the layout and design of the new space.  I found the entry through the empty, white antechamber unwelcoming (but that may have been because I walked in immediately behind a couple without a reservation and, I believe, was mistaken for being with them, so the first thing I heard from the gatekeeping staff member was being told that we couldn't go into the restaurant, although she did nicely direct them into barmini through the left door).  Curtains separating the (otherwise pleasant) waiting area from the seating counters makes the former space seem cramped, and concealing the view of the main restaurant felt like an unnecessary attempt to artificially heighten anticipation.  I liked the clean, neutrally colored design of main dining room, but found the lighting a bit too yellow and missed the abundant natural light that the first seating at the old location enjoyed (much better for photos).  Compared with the old minibar, the wide counters feel spacious and the curve allows for better conversation for a larger group; it was always difficult to talk from one end to the other of the old straight six-person counter.  From a design perspective, the new space is beautiful and I suppose in keeping with what most people expect/want from a meal at this price point, but I think it's to the detriment of the chef interaction experience.  The counters literally put more distance between the diners and the chefs as they're plating our dishes, and the separation within the larger space between cooking and plating/seating areas meant that we couldn't really observe the actual cooking going behind the counters.  Both made conversation with the chefs about the meal more difficult, because we couldn't see much of what was going in the kitchen and it's less natural to be talking to someone who isn't standing quite so close in front of us.  (Maybe this was intentional, to allow the chefs to focus more on their preparations while maintaining a somewhat interactive experience?)  However, layout issues aside, Johnny Spero and the rest of the chefs were great -- answered our (probably increasingly annoying) questions patiently and with a sense of humor.1

My main service complaint is with how the wine program is handled.  We were repeatedly asked whether we wanted to do a pairing (twice over email in connection with confirmations, and again while waiting in the lounge) without being offered an opportunity to see a general list (which had to be requested) or speak to someone about wine.  (A hostess's in-lounge description of the pairings was laughable -- "this one contains mostly whites, but also sparkling and reds."  Oh, so it contains all the wines?  Helpful.  I opted against a pairing, but Melissa and Jay ordered the basic pairing, which turned out to also includ sake, a cocktail, and sherry.)  What I at first took as the sommelier's talking down to us (because of his too-general descriptions) later seemed to be actually lack of familiarity on his part with the wines.  The description of a bottle of champagne we ended up ordering (looking, as is often the case, for something on the toastier sider) turned out to be pretty inaccurate (it was lovely, but light).  To his credit, as he chatted with us over the course of the meal, he was very nice and informative about the Coravin dispenser that he was using to pour glasses of a '96 Harlan Estate and a '98 Guigal La Landonne for Adam and Andrew.  Although I've read about the Coravin system, I'd never seen it in action, and it was a great way to try two beautiful wines that we didn't want to order by the bottle (as well as a half rather than full bottle of 2011 Dauvissat Chablis La Forest).  

So, the food.  Given the time lapse and significant price hike, I was most disappointed that there were so many dishes that were basically unchanged.  (I've included photos from 2012 to highlight the duplication.)  I understand that this sort of food requires a lot of development time, and at this price point they probably don't expect many repeat diners (certainly not frequently).  But after two years and a restaurant move/revamp, we shouldn't have recognized approximately a third of the non-canape/petit four dishes as things we'd eaten in the past.  The meal also felt shorter/less substantial; despite complaints I've read from others over the years, this was the first time that I left minibar still pretty snacky.  (A comparison of this and our last 2012 meal suggests that this one was a bit shorter.)  Luckily barmini's snacks are great.

The expectations-defying hot-and-cold contrast of the opening cocktail was a nice start (reminding us of a hot-and-cold gin fizz that we enjoyed at el bulli almost seven years ago); an icy quenelle of sorbet melted beneath the hot foam (produced from a heated-in-a-waterbath whipper).

Hot and Cold Pisco Sour

The canapes were tasty fun, but none blew me away (which is why I haven't included the individual close-up photos).  We were told that the first is minibar's play on the Adams Morgan classic Jumbo Slice, which I've never had.  I liked the strong pineapple flavor of the butter shaving-topped crisp. I wanted to like the parmesan canale more than I did; I would probably preferred a more traditional canale texture with incorporated cheese.
Pizza Margarita; Pineapple ShortbreadParmesan Canale 

A frozen shell of melt-in-your-mouth (or fingers, if you dally) pureed almond filled with blue cheese is delicious . . . as delicious as it was when we had essentially the same dish years ago.  (To minibar's credit, the addition of the cheese is an improvement on el bulli's original (tiger nut) version, which I described after that meal as "kind of bland.")
Almond Tart with Blue Cheese
April 27, 2012

The apple meringue was filled with foie gras ice cream for the others, which probably would have balanced the sweetness.  I liked this whimsical little dish, but we doubled down on fruitiness with an apple filling instead of the foie gras, which basically made it a dessert.  (An adorable, makes-you-feel-slightly-bloodthirsty-to-bite-off-the-head dessert.)
Rubber Ducky

Another repeat, and not one that I'd ever found to be a standout, but the lettuce-and-red-pepper wrap with yogurt dip was refreshingly crisp after the sweet ducky massacre.  Probably less boring with chicken.
Late Night (Chicken) Schawarma
April 27, 2014

Our first substitution (rather than just ingredient omission) was the weakest dish of the meal.  The salad of edible flowers on snow was beautiful (and definitely fitting after a spring that arrived in fits and starts amid late season snowstorms), but it tasted boring.  Flavoring the shaved ice would have helped significantly.  (If I recall correctly, the carnivores like the pig ear with its pipette of spicy sauce.)
Spring is Coming
Vietnamese Pig Ear

The best dish of the night showed only a very limited, ungimmicky display of modernist technique: a raw spot prawn with shaved apple miso ice was so refined that it would have fit perfectly on the Saison menu.  This was the first of a string of what would turn out to be the strongest dishes of the meal.
Spot Prawn with Apple Miso

My second favorite dish highlighted how precision techniques can be deployed to create truly delicious food: spirals of "pasta" made by dipping a corkscrew into a bath of gelling agent were injected with a vibrant basil pesto.  (Chef Spero kindly brought out some empty fusilli and a syringe to show us how they're filled/let us taste the empties for contrast.)  Sadly, shavings of basically flavorless black truffle didn't add anything, but the rest of the dish was so rich and delicious that it didn't matter much.  (The disappointing truffle reappeared more detrimentally in a later mushroom dish.)
Pesto Fusilli

The "tofu" dish was great -- loved the gazpacho ice -- but I wish the chunks of tofu had been smaller.  They didn't have much flavor themselves -- supposedly almond, maybe? -- and mostly added a textural contrast to the shaved ice; I liked the dish best when the two were combined.
Andalucian Tofu

I preferred the black garlic "ravioli" to the other one (the flavor of which I've forgotten, maybe coconut?), and the broth was delicious.
Shabu Shabu

Another meat course meant another substitution (and another repeat) for us; luckily the garlicky spherified white beans were one of my favorites before, so I didn't mind too much.  (The name refers to a Spanish white bean stew that is usually chock full of pork -- thanks Wikipedia!)  (The gellied meat logs smelled delicious.)
Fabada Asturiana
April 27, 2012
Iberico Tendon

This play on surf-and-turf (just surf for us) was yet another repeat, but I do like the rich (with butter), oceany flavor of the sea cucumbers.  (I bet bone marrow didn't hurt it.)
Espardenyes with Bone Marrow (al Natural for us)
April 27, 2012

Smoke-filled balloons were snipped open with great fanfare to release an enticing, roasty aroma, but when the smoked cleared, we were left with a bowl of not-particularly-exciting mushrooms.  Had that aforementioned black truffle been better (photo is from before it was shaved on my bowl), I could see it helping to layer the earthy flavor, but it was imperceptible in the taste.  (The mushrooms had a liquidy sheen, and I think someone mentioned that there was gold leaf mixed in -- which the choice of gold-flecked bowl would seem to support -- but if that was doing anything beyond throwing more flavorless expense into this dish, I missed it.)

Beech Mushroom Papillot with Truffle

I understand that dietary restrictions can be difficult for restaurants to manage, but those of us who don't eat meat would appreciate if it didn't mean defaulting to retreads.  This habit is more frustrating when the repeat isn't as well done as the first time: in this case, the "white" of the parmesan egg was insufficiently set and therefore dissolved into a puddle -- losing the cool textural similarity to a real egg -- as soon as it was cut open.  (This problem was exacerabted by the switch to a larger bowl.)  I did love this dish in its previous incarnations, and it still tasted good here, but it was a poor way to see us pescatarians out of the savory courses.
Parmesan Egg with Migas
April 27, 2012
Lamb Shoulder with Whey and Dill

The "cheese course" (as we were told) bite was delicious; I happily shared Jay's with Melissa.
Bonne Bouche Cheese Puff

The predessert/palate cleanser/whatever you want to call it was delicious (and gorgeous) -- bursting with herby (parsley?) flavor.
Spring Thaw

The chocolate-minty-marshmallowy cake was controversial.  I really liked it (although it wasn't my favorite of minibar desserts over the years), but some incorrect people2 think that the combination of chocolate and mint is an abomination.
After Eight

At this point we were moved to barmini, where we were later joined by two additional friends for hours of cocktails and snacks from the bar menu.  Our group was seated in the cactus corner; the throne is very comfortable, the couch is not.  (Barmini's cocktails (and food) are great, and comparably priced to other good cocktail bars in D.C., notwithstanding its affiliation with minibar.)  The highlights among the cute petit fours:  The liquid raspberry center of the bon bon was delicious but had only the barest hint of wasabi -- and that might have been mostly the power of suggestion because we were told it was included -- and would likely have been outstanding with more.  (When we mentioned this to Chef Spero, who came by to chat for a minute, he basically agreed but said that some guests don't like spice; hence the pipette with the pig ear.)  We all loved the yuzu marshmallow.  The "doughnuts" were Krispy Kreme ice cream inside; awesomely Momofuku Milk Bar-esque.  The gummy whiskey bottles -- which I've had somewhere else before, made with different types of whiskey if I recall correctly? -- were a fun throwback to the cola bottle gummies that I loved as a kid.
Chocolate Minibar; Raspberry Wasabi Bon Bon
Sesame Pocky Stick
Whiskey Bottles
We're definitely not rushing back, but all-in-all, a very fun evening; Andrew seemed to have enjoyed it enough to be worth the trip.  (Unfortunately, we stayed so long over cocktails that they forgot to give us menus when we left, but someone very helpfully emailed them to me on my subsequent email request.)

1 I do still miss Ryan Moore, though; he was unfailingly friendly and informative at both minibar and later Rogue 24.  I still remember how, long before those little green packets were ubiquitiously nestled next to the yellow, pink, and blue, he plucked tiny blossoms off a plant that he was growing on the window sill so that we could taste how surprisingly sweet Stevia is.  On another occasion, after dinner at Rogue 24 during what turned out to be a glancing blow from a hurricane, Ryan drove us and another couple home himself when we couldn't get cabs.  I hope he's still delighting diners at wherever he is now.
2 coughAdamcough
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