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Cafe Atlantico Minibar Report (LONG)


Restaurants & Bars

Cafe Atlantico Minibar Report (LONG)

Doc from New Orleans | Aug 6, 2004 05:16 PM

The following is reposted from my blog (link below), so please forgive any bits that are overly simplistic for Chowhound eyes. Thanks for your help deciding on this wonderful restaurant.

A tiny, sushi-bar-like restaurant within a restaurant, the Minibar does two seatings of six people per night. Altogether, we had 33 tiny courses in three distinct acts, constructed a la minute by Chefs Edgar, Jeff, and Joshua under the orchestration of Chef de Cuisine Katsuya Fukushima, known as Chef Kats. These four guys are "onstage" pretty much nonstop for more than four hours each night, preparing these exquisite little dishes, presenting and explaining them, chatting with diners, all in a space not much larger than a Volkswagen bus. This is the kind of thing I was trying to get at in 'Liquor,' when I wrote about cooks who've worked together enough to know each other's habits, moves, strengths, weak spots, etc. They were beautiful to watch, and behind them was a flat video screen showing mysterious pictures of the courses ahead: you couldn't identify most of this food by looking at it, so the video images didn't spoil the suspense, but heightened the anticipation.

I suppose this is a rarefied and esoteric form of dining that will make some people roll their eyes. All I can say is that if you spend huge parts of your life thinking about food, it's tremendous fun to be shown different ways of looking at it and tasting it. I spent most of this dinner laughing with pure excitement and joy.


Chocolate Foie Gras Truffle with Tamarind. No one in the reviews I've read liked this. None of my fellow diners seemed to like it. For me, it was the candy I'd been waiting for all my life, simultaneously tangy, fatty, salty, rich. I could have eaten a dozen more straightaway.

Crispy Rice with Nori. A sort of extruded white cracker flavored with seaweed.

Lotus Root Chips. Wafer-thin with a nice crunch of coarse salt.

Caramelized Pork Rinds with Vermont Maple Syrup. Like really good Louisiana cracklins with a sweet edge. Served in a little Chinese takeout box.

Mojito Spritz. A cocktail (rum, lime, mint) in a little silver atomizer. You spray it into your mouth.

Passion Fruit Cocktail. A tiny "caipirinha."


Salmon Roe Cone. A cornet made of a fried spring roll wrapper and filled with whipped cream cheese and salmon roe, a.k.a. "bagels and lox."

Jicama Wraps. Tiny "sushi rolls" about the size of dice, wrapped in wafer-thin jicama slices instead of seaweed. Two were filled with fresh tuna, avocado, sesame seeds, and a soy gelee; two contained apples, Cabrales cheese, and almonds.

Pineapple and Salmon Ravioli with Avocado & Crispy Quinoa. Thin-sliced pineapple makes up the ravioli "skin." Love the quinoa (a tiny bead-shaped grain much prized by the Incas).

Deconstructed Glass of White Wine. This is the kind of goofy, witty dish I love (even though I'm not a wine drinker). A pool of fermented grape gelee dotted with the components that make up a wine's flavor: orange, passionfruit, mint, pomegranate, vanilla ...

Melon Tenderloin with Arugula. Arugula became a buzzword for trying-too-hard cuisine in the '80s and '90s. A shame, as it's a wonderfully tasty leaf. This was a tangle of its microgreens served with a seared melon "tenderloin" (the sweetest, softest part of the melon, cut from just below the seeds), a mousse of almonds, and a dot of syrupy balsamic vinegar.

Baby Peach with Yogurt. Three tiny green Japanese peaches atop homemade yogurt, accented with deep green olive oil, Moroccan spices, and pink Hawaiian sea salt.

Study of Zucchini. I don't much like zucchini. I think it tastes like dirty socks. This superconcentrated study of it layered three ways -- thinly sliced and caramelized; the seeds made into "caviar"; gelee -- was eminently edible, which is high praise from me when it comes to zucchini.

Organized "Caesar Salad." Two more jicama wraps, filled with chiffonaded romaine lettuce, brioche croutons, and anchovy fillets, one topped with a raw quail egg yolk, the other with very finely shaved Parmesan.

Egg 147 with Caviar. A whole quail egg poached at 147 degrees for 20 minutes, until it takes on a lovely creamy consistency. Served atop a ring of black caviar with ... wait for it ... passionfruit and banana. I was deeply skeptical when I heard "banana," which I almost never like in savory dishes. Somehow, though, it all melted deliciously together and worked well. It's important to keep in mind that none of these dishes is more than one or two bites. You mightn't want to eat a big bowl of poached eggs, bananas, and caviar, but this taste of it really got this jaded old palate musing.

Tomato, Tomato, Tomato. Three forms of tomato: a layer of intensely flavored gelee topped with "fillets" of tomato seeds and a "sponge" (rather like a meringue) coating yellow grape tomato halves. Stop and think about this: the creamy unctuousness of the previous dish followed by this bright explosion of tomato. See how they keep your palate stimulated and excited, even though you are eating what ultimately adds up to one hell of a lot of food?

"Corn on the Cob." An ear of baby corn (like you get in Chinese stirfries) skewered, seared, served with a corn sprout, a sweet corn sauce, and a sprinkle of crushed Corn Nuts. Corn Nuts are properly revered here, and will become a motif throughout the rest of the meal. Love this. Love the playfulness, love the taste.

Watermelon Flight. Three cubes of watermelon, each hollowed out and filled with a different flavor: olive oil and balsamic vinegar; lemon oil and zest; pistachio cream and fresh pistachio shavings. I think the oil and vinegar was my favorite. Notice how the courses have remained light and brightly flavored. We will slide back toward unctuousness shortly.

Sea Urchin with Pomegranate Air. Two big, briny, bittersweet lobes of Pacific sea urchin topped with one of the Minibar's signature "airs": lighter than a foam, it disappears immediately on entering your mouth, leaving only an intense flavor.

Hot & Cold Foie Gras Soup. I think this was my single favorite course. The diner immediately to my left didn't drink most of his, and I came within a hair's breadth of snatching it away. Actually two soups layered in an espresso cup: a hot, rich foie gras puree on the bottom, topped with a cold, sweet corn soup. Sprinkled with chives and Corn Nuts. You drank it from the cup so that the different flavors, textures, and temperatures mingled in your mouth, creating all forms of ecstasy.

Cotton Candy Foie Gras. Exactly what it sounds like: a ball of foie gras torchon (rather like an extra-tasty, savory wad of raw cookie dough) on a stick, with fresh pink cotton candy spun around it. They actually have one of those little toy cotton candy machines back there. People cluck about this dish especially, but there is a long tradition of serving foie gras with sweet elements; how is this so much more outrageous than the ubiquitous (and not terribly exciting) seared foie with a variety of fruit sauces?

Frozen Mango Soup with Oyster. A frozen mango mousse, a single raw, sweet Malpeque oyster, lime, and thinly sliced squash blossom. I am feeling the first hints of fatigue.

Guacamole and Tomato Sorbet. Thinly sliced avocado topped with a scoop of spicy tomato sorbet, accented with lime zest, red onion oil, and a sprinkle of crushed Fritos. Apparently there was quite some discussion of whether to use Fritos or Doritos in this dish, and they were briefly derailed by executive chef Jose Andres' discovery of actual guacamole-flavored Doritos, but as I could have told him, those things are nasty: to use my friend David's phrase, they have that Mexicali-armpit flavor. At any rate, I think Fritos were definitely the right choice.

"Lobster Americaine," a.k.a. "lobster injection." A tender piece of seared lobster tail skewered on an eyedropper whose bulb is filled with a hot, briny lobster essence. You pull off the meat with your teeth, sate-like, then squeeze the essence into your mouth. Hints pleasantly at illicit drugs whether you've ever had them or not.

New New England Clam Chowder. A single small clam encased in its own gelee, clam foam, chive oil, crispy micro-potato cubes, and a swirl of bacon cream. Chef Kats said he put this on the regular Cafe Atlantico menu one slow night, but the waiters couldn't sell it.

Conch Fritter. The only dish out of 33 that I really didn't care for. Just for the record, I've never succumbed to the alleged charms of conch, though I keep trying it every once in a while just in case I'm missing something. We were to eat this in one bite to get "a liquid explosion of conch," but I found it a little too big for a single bite, and the "liquid explosion" reminded me of nothing so much as an undercooked hushpuppy.

Fresh Cigalas in a Crust. Australian langoustines (rather like small lobsters) seared and "breaded" with an actual thin slice of crisp bread, with lemon marmalade. I'd have liked this better if I hadn't still been recovering from the conch.

"Meat & Potatoes." Tissue-thin, quarter-sized seared circles of Kobe beef atop a porcini mushroom confit and a creamy potato foam, served with ... wait for it again ... a truffle-scented Kleenex you were to hold to your face between bites. This is just the sort of thing food Philistines love to poke fun at, not realizing what sly fun it's already poking at itself. Yes indeed.

Watermelon Air. A palate cleanser.


Deconstructed Pina Colada. It didn't seem all that deconstructed to me, but it was delicious, the tropical-Bali-Hai-taste-of-paradise pina colada I'd always dreamed of but never managed to find. Layers of vanilla-infused rum, coconut gelee, and frozen pineapple.

Apples with Red Wine "Freddy Girardet." Freddy Girardet is a famous Swiss chef. These apples were cut into tiny balls and sauteed in a spiced red wine syrup that tasted of star anise, cardamom, and cloves. Served with apple gelee and orange sorbet; spritzed with red wine just before serving.

Mango Cone. Another little cornet, this one filled with mango sorbet and candied ginger.

Petit Fours. One saffron-flavored gummi, one mango-flavored homemade marshmallow, three chocolate-covered Corn Nuts, and a "fruit injection" (pieces of fresh fruit impaled on an eyedropper containing a fruit syrup, eaten the same way as the "Lobster Americaine"). I am not quite convinced that Corn Nuts and bittersweet chocolate are the best of friends, but I did eat all three. Everything else was very nice, particularly the saffron gummi.

And then, as you're sitting there like some groaning, bloated queen maggot, the server places a whole eggshell on the bar beside you and smashes it with the flat of his hand, and your bill is inside.

Afterward, I floated back to my hotel, across the Mall and through the Smithsonian's scented butterfly garden, under the spell of the nearly-full moon and one of the most fascinating and enjoyable meals of my life.


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