A tour of D.C.’s food scene wouldn’t be complete without examining Chef José Andrés‘ restaurant empire. The Think Food Group owns five highly lauded eateries in the metropolitan area: Minibar by Jose Andrés, Café Atlántico, Oyamel, Jaleo, and Zaytinya. Located within walking distance of one another in Penn Quarter, each restaurant has a different vibe and a distinct culinary viewpoint.
On our second day in the city, we enjoyed a progressive lunch at Chef Andrés’ restaurants. My feelings were lukewarm at best after dining at The Bazaar by José Andrés in Los Angeles, so this tour offered the perfect opportunity to experience the chef’s cuisine on his home turf. I was hoping to be wowed.
Minibar by José Andrés
With Minibar tucked into the second floor of Café Atlántico, our first two stops turned out to be one in the same. The six seat Minibar (yep, just six seats!) serves an avant-garde tasting menu with upwards of 30 courses. “This is food that owes as much to art and science as it does to gastronomy, food that is as much about the brain and eye as it is about the tongue and stomach, food that forces the diner to rethink food and its presentation,” states the restaurant’s website.
As a tremendous fan of Spanish molecular gastronomy, I was most excited to experience Minibar. Unfortunately, we were only given a taste, literally and figuratively, of what the restaurant had to offer.
“Olives Ferran Adria” arrived on a porcelain spoon in a shallow pool of olive oil. The spherified green olive encompassed all the qualities of a great olive, minus the proper texture. I’ve experienced these spheres dozens of times, but the sensation of the thin membrane popping and unleashing a flood of flavored liquid never gets old. [Watch Ferran Adria and José Andrés explain the spherification process here.]
The next series of dishes came from Café Atlántico’s kitchen, which is located in between the restaurant’s two stories. The food here has its roots in the cooking traditions of Latin America, but also features elements of molecular gastronomy and Nuevo Latino cuisine.
Even though it was barely noon, it felt appropriate to indulge in a mixed drink to start. I chose the market-inspired “Farm to Glass” cocktail that is only available Friday through Sunday. Dubbed “The Other 8%,” the pretty in pink drink was comprised of watermelon, tequila, and basil infused simple syrup. The spear of salted watermelon cubes brought proper balance to the sweet concoction.
The first small bite to arrive was a bright and lovely shot of chilled carrot soup with passion fruit oil and creme friache.
The next dish was a tuna ceviche bathed in citrus and coconut milk, and topped with slices of avocado and crushed corn nuts. The creamy and mellow flavors of the cooconut milk married deliciously with the fresh fish. This was my favorite dish of the day.
And lastly, a Dominican conch fritter with a warm and oozy Bechamel center. It was accented with mango oil and an avocado-filled jicama ravioli. Even though the jicama was cut paper-thin, its characteristic snap was completely intact. The interplay of varying temperatures in this dish was really fantastic.
Stop number three on the José Andrés restaurant tour brought us to Oyamel, which serves cocina Mexicana. Coming from Los Angeles, the epicenter of the best Mexican food in the country, I approached Oyamel skeptically.
Things got off to an excellent start with the restaurant’s signature margarita. What makes this margarita awesome is the puff of “salt air” that replaces the traditional salt around the rim. I usually find myself salt-less midway through my margaritas, so I was pleasantly surprised that the foam lasted throughout the duration of the drink! This is far and away the best use of foam I’ve ever encountered.
Oyamel’s signature guacamole was also outstanding. Made fresh at the table, the guacamole was comprised of avocados, green tomatoes, serrano chilies, onions, and queso fresco. I ate gobs and gobs of this stuff piled high atop the house made tortilla chips. My cousin Kristine, a D.C. resident, somehow finagled the secrets of this guacamole from Oyamel’s former chef. I hope to get my hands on the recipe soon!
A tomato salad with squash blossoms and chicharrónes was the first dish to arrive. It was light, fresh, and well balanced. I am convinced that chicharrónes are the new croutons.
Next, a quesadilla filled with green chorizo, squash blossoms, and chilies, topped with a tomatillo salsa and onions. The abundance of squash blossoms, “the flower of Mexico’s summer,” across the menu was quite a treat. It was fortunate that we dined here during Oyamel’s Squash Blossom Festival.
The last bites were a duo of tacos. On the left is a vegetarian lamb’s quarter taco with asparagus, avocados, and grilled onions, and on the right a beef tongue taco with radishes. I appreciated how the tacos were filled with challenging ingredients and were superbly flavored. Oyamel certainly does Mexican food justice.
The penultimate stop was at Jaleo, Chef Andrés’ temple of Spanish cuisine. Jaleo offers a selection of tapas, paellas, sangrias, and Spanish wines and Sherries.
We started off with bubbly glasses of cava and a selection of Spanish cured hams: Jamón Ibérico de bellota (cured ham from acorn-fed, black-footed Ibérico pigs of Spain), Lomo Ibérico de bellota (smoked acorn-fed cured pork loin), and Jamón Ibérico (cured ham from non-acorn fed black-footed pigs).
With the flavors of Spain still fresh in my mind, I was a little let down by the ham platter. The meats were certainly good, but not as rich and moreish as what The Astronomer and I tasted in Spain not too long ago. All of the hams were missing that quintessential glossy and fatty sheen that I admired so much during my travels.
The Mediterranean paella with porcini mushrooms, olives, and shrimp wasn’t to my liking either. The paella’s headless and skinless shrimps looked sad and shriveled in comparison to the paellas I ate in Valencia and even the one I made at home. On an upbeat note, I was excited to see arroz negro available on the menu, even though we didn’t get the chance to try it.
The final stop was at Zaytinya, which offers a mezze menu inspired by Turkish, Greek, and Lebanese cuisines. The two-story space has a cool and airy vibe with an abundance of natural light streaming in.
We sampled six varieties of ice creams and sorbets to start, including olive oil, baklava, cheery, strawberry, peach, and saffron. The saffron-laced flavor was pure and simply wonderful.
We were also served a selection of desserts to share. The Turkish Delight, which was centered around a lovely walnut ice cream, was accented with yogurt mousse, honey gelee, orange-caramel sauce, and caramelized pine nuts.
My coffee-loving tablemates really dug the Turkish coffee cake adorned with bittersweet chocolate flan, cardamom espuma, and espresso syrup.
My personal favorite was the Greek yogurt with muscat soaked apricots, vanilla yogurt cream, apricot sorbet, and pistachio powder. After crawling about Penn Quarter and stuffing ourselves silly, it was just the mildly sweet note that I needed to finish on.
With the exception of Jaleo, I thoroughly enjoyed my progressive lunch at Chef Andrés’ restaurants. I was impressed with the quality of the food and the attention to detail and design at each establishment. Restaurant empires can be difficult to manage and maintain, but Chef Andrés does so with aplomb. I’m not sure when I’ll be back in D.C., but a seat at Minibar is a must.
401 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
480 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
701 9th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001