The Hot Plate: Mini Plates With Big Ideas

Posted May 15, 2009 at 3:46pm

At Minibar, chef José Andrés’ Penn Quarter hot spot, dinner is not just a meal — it’s a show.

[IMGCAP(1)]“For us, every day in the Minibar is a different performance,— says Ruben Garcia, director of research and development for parent company THINKfoodGROUP. “We’re performing for 12 people every night.—

The small counter on the second floor of Café Atlantico seats just six people and hosts only two seatings per night. Featuring a $120, 32-course tasting menu, Minibar offers its guests food that tastes, smells and looks amazing. From popcorn dipped in liquid nitrogen to create a smoky effect to gelatin-like olives, every course is a feast for the senses.

“For me it’s the place to find myself,— Garcia says. “It’s the place where all the ideas, imagination, creative stuff we can make it happen.—

Andrés opened Minibar (405 Eighth St. NW) in 2003 as a creative outlet for his cooking. He chose to offer a tasting menu so he would have control over what customers ate and how the meal fit together.

“After years of cooking, I wanted to do something for myself — a space where I could do something different, let my imagination go free, experiment and try new ideas,— the native of Spain says. “To a degree, we always cook to please ourselves, but Minibar was meant to be something different, very open, no set rules.—

While 32 courses may sound like a lot, each dish is usually only one or two bites. The idea is to show off cooking techniques and allow customers to indulge in foods that they won’t find anywhere else.

In addition to being a showcase for the chefs’ talents, Minibar is also a testing ground for Andrés’ THINKfoodGROUP, which, in addition to Minibar, includes Café Atlantico, Oyamel, Jaleo and Zaytinya. The dishes that are created here sometimes wind up on the menu at other restaurants.

“For us, it’s the laboratory,— Garcia says. “It’s the thinking process. It’s the place where we think out of the box and we make it happen.—

[IMGCAP(2)]For example, the chefs at Minibar have recently fallen in love with liquid nitrogen and use it in several of the dishes. One dish, the flourless almond cup with blue cheese, is composed of an almond puree that is frozen into a cup that is later filled with blue cheese. To make the cup, the chefs dip a metal ball into the puree and then dip the puree into a tank of liquid nitrogen. In a few short seconds, the cup has hardened and can be removed from the ball and filled with the cheese.

Another dish, the dragon breath popcorn, consists of popcorn coated in sugar and dipped in liquid nitrogen. When customers place the popcorn in their mouths, steam shoots out of their noses as they chew.

When the chefs aren’t using liquid nitrogen, they use a host of other cooking tricks. The liquid olive is created when a green olive puree is dropped into an alginate solution. The salt mixes with the solution and creates a thin membrane around the puree. The finished product looks like a regular olive, but when customers bite into it, they find that it’s actually very soft and mushy.

“You have to have a sense of humor,— Garcia says of cooking and dining at Minibar, adding that it is important to keep customers entertained during the two-hour dinner.

Beyond having fun, Andrés says he wants his customers to feel a sense of wonder when they visit the restaurant.

“You know when you are a child and everything is new and a revelation and the world is full of magic?— he says. “I want you to some degree feel like a child — surprised, astonished, delighted by what is happening.—