A gin-infused matcha welcome signals the most notable change at José Andrés’ Minibar, the acclaimed, avant-garde performance space that returned to service after 19 months in October. The refreshing, shiny green cocktail, labeled with gold leaf, kicks off a decidedly Japanese evening in the spirit. Also on a visitor’s horizon here at Penn Quarter are (spoiler alert!) tempura, wagyu beef, abalone, and roasted green tea flavored donuts, a confection served with an amber-colored, caramel-smelling, pleasantly sour aged sake. – “ancient treasure”, indeed.
A longtime follower of the most daring restaurant in Andrés’ portfolio in Washington, I believe the new theme is designed to be the calm after the storm of the past two years. Andrés tells me he’s been thinking about the flavor for a while, though. Remember the Spanish-Japanese restaurant he hoped to open in the Trump Hotel, a project he scrapped after Donald Trump insulted Mexicans on the eve of his presidential campaign? Andrés and Koji Terano, the head of research and development at parent company ThinkFoodGroup, have also been talking for years about doing something that reflects Terano’s homeland. “Japanese and Spanish cuisine have a lot in common”, explains Terano, originally from Osaka, who ticks a few links: “tuna, rice, charcoal cooking”.
I will take it, or almost. If the current Minibar sends less “How did they do that?” dishes than before, the show’s cuisine continues to delight audiences with delicious winks and tantalizing combinations of flavors, colors and textures. Unlike years past, on my recent visit there were no ‘steamed mussels’ designed to be eaten whole (thanks to shells made from frozen squid ink) or LOLs from spheres of mashed broccoli and cheddary potatoes in an enlightened version of Stouffer. Despite everything, the Japanese-inspired format made me discover sublime creations. The prettiest taco in town is also the smallest, a one-bite wonder whose shell is green with seaweed powder and whose filling includes a well-marbled piece of Iberian pork and tomatillo for a whiff of ‘acid. And let the Minibar serve me my first ramen Foil.
Change is a given here, says its founder. It doesn’t matter who’s on the team or what new ideas they come up with, says Andrés, “the heart is the same” at Minibar. Certainly, experience has taught me.
It took me a while to eat there again. Securing a place in the world-famous restaurant takes foresight and speed. If there’s a secret to joining the party, it’s to be nimble and lucky when tickets go live at noon on the first of every month for the following month. Minibars typically stock up within 24 hours, says general manager Dylan Falkenburg. “We are lucky to have this problem,” he said. “If it were up to José, he would have 1,000 seats and it would be free.”
Instead, there are only a dozen seats for people who pay $295 each, a sum that skyrockets when wine pairings are taken into account. Take your pick from “José’s Way” for $195 or the more personalized $550 package. (Minibar isn’t Washington’s most expensive dining destination. That accolade goes to Jônt on 14th Street NW, where dinner starts at $305 for 16 courses.)
Three hundred dollars might seem like a shocking amount of money for just one meal. Consider, however, the time, thought and work that goes into the evening. Terano estimates three months of research went into the current menu. Twenty-five names are credited to the list you take home, “main bearer” included – and rightly so. Have you checked the cost of flights to Tokyo or Barcelona recently? The minibar is as much an escape from routine as it is a dinner party you’ll remember long after dispatching, say, freeze-dried soy sauce caramel, puffy and crispy like chicharrón and a fun stop for a scrumptious guacamole.
The minibar is likely to expose you to ingredients you’ve never eaten before – shirako, for example, the custard-shaped center in a crispy tempura bite presented dramatically on a wavy white plate. The soft texture reminds me of sweetbreads. Shirako translates to milt in English, in this case cod sperm bags.
For all the science and fantasy behind much of this food, Minibar’s current iteration emphasizes Japan’s respect for quality and presentation. Slightly crispy slices of abalone are brushed over one half of the delicacy with tamari and topped with tiny balls of compressed green apple, a detail designed to refresh the palate like pickled ginger at a sushi restaurant. Nature provides the abalone with a plate: its own iridescent shell.
In another reveal, shimmering caviar and premium wagyu beef nestle in a nasturtium cut. “Dig deep”, diners are instructed by head waiters. Proper scooping allows you to get brown buttery croutons – dueling texture – in every decadent dollop. And nowhere have I encountered such elegant eel as at the Minibar, where the fish skewer, brushed with a marinade of rosemary, thyme and smoked Spanish paprika, is just garnished with pale green crystal lettuce.
“Frozen Salad 3.0” marks the transition from salty to sweet and relies on a hand-cranked ice shaver to turn a vegetable into something frosty and refreshing, currently a peppery cucumber salad. It is followed by a whipped cream placed on a sheet of nori and supposed to be a riff on senbei, Japanese rice crackers.
The show moves to a nice clip. the directors experienced the entire menu as diners do, seated in front of the polished wooden counter, and it shows in perfect rhythm. Your eyes will be drawn to the dish the chefs offer you or, in the case of a dessert, the sesame pie, as you feed yourself with a long-handled spoon. If you look behind you, however, take a look at the chalkboard wall, where Sous Chef Melissa Lalli illustrates a handful of recipes in a few select words and sketches. One of them is a haiku for a brilliant dessert with milk sorbet in a strawberry tuile topped with herb nepitella flowers.
If you’ve ever been to the Minibar, the current ending is a lesser time. No one goes from the theater to the lounge bar next door, Barmini, for dessert. (The pandemic is to blame. And trust the team to redesign the exercise, which prolongs the fun.) The bill for drinks and extras also comes in a leather case rather than a surprise: I smile still remembering getting my nesting dolls check back several years ago.
But these are small quibbles in what remains a great adventure. I’m not giving stars at this time – again, blame the pandemic – but if I did, I’d give Minibar by the one and only José Andrés four, my highest rating.
855 E St. NW. 202-393-0812. minibarbyjoseandres.com. Schedule: Meals inside from 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, and 5:15 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday. Price: $295 per person for around 20 lessons, excluding tax and tip. Sound control: 70 decibels / Conversation is easy. Accessibility: Wheelchair users are asked to specify their needs on a pre-arrival form and can be accommodated at a separate chef’s table; restrooms are ADA approved. Pandemic protocols: Staff members are all masked and vaccinated.