Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Spaniard and the Dane

I'm a lucky man, twice over.
I landed reservations at Minibar, Jose Andres’ six-seat restaurant/chemistry demonstration. Two weeks later, I found myself in Noma, Denmark’s den of molecular gastronomy.
In many ways, both restaurants are quite similar. Both are headed by a chef known for pushing the traditional understanding of food -- the way it's prepared and the way it's consumed. Both earned their chops working for Ferran Adria, the king fish of molecular gastronomy and chef/proprietor of Spain’s El Bulli.
That’s about where the similarities end. Sure René Redzepi has a few clever dishes on his menu at Noma, but nothing to match the unending assault on the senses Andres throws at his Minibar patrons. I don’t know if it’s Redzepi or a Danish thing, but for all the imagination at work in Noma’s kitchen, the restaurant (i.e. service) is quite staid. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Staid is the standard for the high-end restaurant industry.
Restraint is the other difference. Of the seven courses and four amuse-bouches the missus and I had at Noma, half were playful creations meant to surprise as much as please. The smoked quail egg served in a smoking ceramic egg, the carrots planted in a tiny pot filled with edible dirt, the razor clams sheathed in asparagus skin, served with shaved frozen horseradish root and a warm broth of dill and mussel juice, and the “snowman” made from carrot sorbet and strawberry meringue cookie. The other dishes were much more straightforward: marrow with pickled vegetables, black radishes served with seaweed and egg yolk, short ribs with beets. Although all of Redzepi’s dishes utilize Danish ingredients, the less theatrical ones in particular seem designed to showcase the products. This local focus may have been something Redzepi picked up from his other famous former boss, Thomas Keller.
The restaurant, itself, looks like a polished ski lodge. Although situated on the water, there are few seats that can appreciate the view.
Minibar, on the other hand, knows no restraint. For two and a half hours, a pair of Andres’ chefs stands before you serving up whatever his and their imaginations could come up with. The food is delicious, but you’re there for the ride. Maybe it’s Andres’ Spanish influence or the fact that the group I was with that night took up all six seats at the sushi bar-like restaurant -- or the ass jokes Peter Falk and I were making -- but the evening and the restaurant was much more lively than Noma. Our group was talking and laughing. The chefs were talking and laughing. It was hardly a staid evening.
Whether it’s my taste in restaurants or the experiences I had, but it’s only Minibar that I’m eager to return to. Noma was nice, but Minibar was an experience.
Now, I took no pictures of the food. I’m uncomfortable doing so, particularly at Minibar when the chefs are four feet from you, but after watching a discussion between Tony Bourdain and David Chang on the subject, I decided it’s best to enjoy the food and tell the story.
I will, however, share the menus:

Munchies: Pisco Sour; Beet “Tumbleweed”; Olive Oil “Bon-Bon”; “Mojito”; “Bagels and Lox”; Blue Cheese and Almond; “Dragon’s Breath” Popcorn; “Cornbread”; Boneless Chicken Wing; Steamed Brioche Bun with Caviar; Cotton Candy Eel.

Flavors & Textures: “Sun Dried” Tomato Salad; Zucchini in Textures; “Caesar Salad”; Parmesan “Egg” with Migas; “Guacamole”; Salmon Pineapple “Ravioli” with Crispy Quinoa; Smoked Oysters with Apples and Juniper; New England Clam Chowder; Breaded Cigala with Sea Salad; “Philly Cheesesteak.”

Pre-Dessert: Kumquats & Pumpkin Seed Oil

Dessert: Frozen Yogurt and Honey; Thai Dessert.

Sweet Endings: Chocolate Covered Corn Nuts; Mango Box; Saffron Gumdrop with Edible Wrapper.

Amuse-Bouche: Smoked Quail Egg; Rye Bread, Chicken Skin and Smoked Cheese; Carrots, Soil and Herbs; Toast, Herbs, Cod Fish Roe and Apple Vinegar.

Main Courses: Razor Clams and Parsley, Dill and Mussel Juice; Cauliflower and Elderberry Capers, Fresh Cheese and Brown Butter Sauce; Radishes from Lammefjorden, Sea Weed and Egg Yolk; Marrow and Pickled Vegetables, Herbs and Bouillon; Short Rib of Beef and Roses, Beets and Malt; Snowman from Lammefjorden; Caramelized Milk and Yogurt, Golden Sorrel and Rape Seed Oil.

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