Roberto Donna last night made me thankful that my wife and I did not go to Spain to eat at El Bulli last weekend. Despite a real disappointment at 2941 we were fortunate to get a last minute reservation for Laboratorio. (Thank you to whoever cancelled!) Without leaving any suspence: this was one of the finest meals that I have ever had in my life with no less than five of what I call a "Great Dish" meaning that each was as good as I have ever had in my life, perhaps even the best. This was out of twelve courses in a meal that spanned close to four hours and six thousand calories with not a single one wasted.
I have only had one meal which had six "Great Dishes" and this was a 17 course meal at the Michelin three star El Raco de Can Fabes outside of Barcelona. In the U. S. the French Laundry has never done better than two while Alain Ducasse in Paris had three, both similarly multi course prix fixe meals. Other than Citronelle and Maestro I cannot remember a "Great Dish" at any other Washngton area restaurant.
About six weeks ago I posted my wife and my experiences at a Smithsonian sponsored Monday night Laboratorio dinner. This was somewhat different, both longer and more elaborate.
Roberto, who has won a James Beard Award as the finest chef in the United States, cooks himself with three helpers in his open kitchen. Last night there were seven tables with a total of 26 diners. Table #7 is the best table-it is five feet from the counter that Roberto stands at to prepare and assemble each dish.
This is not an elegant room, nor is it formal. In fact despite each male wearing a coat and tie the room is much more relaxed, quite comfortable actually to the style of presentation. It is this presentation, in addition to the incredible food, that makes this one of the most unique dining experiences not just in Washington, D. C. but, without exaggeration, anywhere in the world.
Throughout the 12 courses Roberto welcomes you to stand and watch him cook, to almost surround the "preparation area" if you want; he is totally open, thoroughly, passionately enthusiastic in sharing his love of food with everyone. He and Michel Richard (whose son also cooks in the Laboratorio) are as fine of ambassadors as exist anywhere in the world; here you can almost cook "with him," sipping wine and sharing experiences. Roberto loves to eat and cook as much as anyone on this board. And he has gone out of his way to indulge this, frequently travelling to Europe in search of new ideas and experiences that he can bring back here. (He has been to El Bulli twice.)
It is this extra dimension, the ability to interact with him one on one or part of a group that in combination with an extraordinary succession of the most intensely delicious courses that one will ever taste that makes Laboratorio one of the finest restaurants in the world.
Fully, completely, totally taking the place and "filling the shoes" of El Bulli.
Twelve Courses on Friday Night:
1. Sauteed Diver's Sea Scallop with scallop roe and
morel cream sauce. (This is a $4.00 EACH scallop
that Roberto flies in from Maine, prepared baked
in its shell with its coral colored roe. A Great
Dish. In fact the best overall seafood dish of any
kind that I have ever had in the Washington area
and on par with any that I have had anywhere else.
2. Roasted duck liver custard with rhubarb and pumpkin
shoots. (A "creme brulee" type of treatment to
this intensely flavorful, creamy, sweetly crispy
topped "Great Dish." Imaginative, one of a kind,
3. Celery onion soup with fresh shrimp (that's fresh-
almost unobtainable here), fried celery and fried
pancetta. (Another "Great Dish!" Deep stock
reduction for intense flavor contrasted with crispy
textures and impossibly flavorful shrimp.)
4. Asparagus tortelloni with asparagus sauce with
white asparagus. (Four "Great dishes" in a row-
I swear the white asparagus was the sweet German
but I forgot to ask Roberto. I did not even know
this was available in America! But he is a master
with fresh, house made pasta (he gives classes in
Laboratorio) and this was the finest that I have
5. Maccheroncini with tuna and crunchy peas.
(Delicious. Any other restaurant this would
have been the highlight of the evening. Here it
was merely excellent.
6. Risotto with cuttlefish and fava beans. (I have
said before that Roberto makes the finest risotto
in America and the equal of any in Italy; perhaps
even better than anyone in Italy. This was very
good and a different treatment than the seven or
eight other risottos of his I have tasted (or half
dozen I have made from his cookbook). But,
honestly, not quite on the level of his best.
7. Sauteed filet of tuna with shrimp sauce and braised
baby fennel. (My wife and I thought this might
have been a "Great Dish" but decided it was just a
step away. Superb, the fennel was just incredible
and put the whole dish over the top.)
8. Roasted venison with fingerling potatoes, arti-
chokes and black truffle sauce. (The fifth "Great
Dish!" I don't even really like venison, in fact
have never had a venison dish that I could take
more than two or three bites of! This I wanted
to lick the plate, not caring who saw me!)
9. Selection of six cheeses from a cheese trolley.
Galileo has one of the best selections of cheese of
any restaurant in America, on par with many of the
better restaurants in Europe. There are about 65
that he stocks including several that he makes
himself in house. One of these was the highlight
of this course as well as one of the finest cheeses
that I have ever tasted in my life: a homemade
cheese flavored with grappa. He describes this
as "fermented mixed milk cheese, soft, full flavor
and a hint of grappa." This is what one would try
to smuggle past the Customs' Beagle at Dulles it is
10. Bicerin-with rum, espresso and chocolate cream.
Just absolutely delicious, timed perfectly after
the cheese course.
11. The formal dessert was pastiera with orange sauce,
lemon zest and in house made vanilla gelato.
12. Bomboloni, small ping pong ball sized fried dough-
nuts just to make certain that one's belt must be
let out a notch!
All of Roberto's flavors are intense, incorporating long simmered stocks and rich purees which enhance textures and allow aromas that must be savored. This is a restaurant to bend over and inhale each dish, to appreciate its complexity and flavor before the first taste confirms that this will be a fantasy realized.
Laboratorio is very expensive, prix fixe for the twelve course meal on Friday and Saturday is $110 but this I honestly believe is a bargain for what he is serving. Considering that The Inn at Little Washington is $149 prix fixe for weekends with a $300 suppliment for its chef's table (whose personality cannot compare to Roberto) Laboratorio by comparison could be considered an extraordinary bargain for this level.
A wine tasting is offered at $60 per person to compliment the meal while there is also a Wine Spectator Grand Award winning wine list approximately 50 pages long.
Many in the Washington area do not know how fortunate we are to have both his Laboratorio and Maestro at the Ritz Carlton in Tyson's Corner. Again, I insist that these are not only the two best Italian restaurants in America but among the two best anywhere in the world.
They alone would be worth a trip to this city. Not Babbo nor Il Mulino nor Valentino nor Spiaggia can match the incredible back to back indulgence of these two for what could be the culinary weekend of a lifetime.
Frankly even Tosca and Obelisk pale compared to both.
Maestro and Laboratorio are totally different from each other: stylistically, aesthetically even the appearance of what is served on the plate. But they represent a level that having been born and raised here that I thought D. C. would never see. Even more I don't have to cross an ocean, just make a reservation four to six weeks in advance for a weekend and come very, very hungry!
Thank you, Roberto. 21st Street is much closer than Roses, Spain. But every bit as good, every bit as satisfying.