When you think of tapas and molecular cuisine, the name José Andrés is not far behind. He has been a proponent of both Spanish cuisine and experimental cooking in this country for many years. I'm a big fan of Chef Andrés, a protégé of the famed molecular chef Ferran Adrià, and a king of cuisine in his own right. Anyone who has seen Chef Andrés on his PBS show Made in Spain is familiar with his engaging personality and desire to show the food and culture of his native Spain. Chef Andrés has been lauded and awarded many times over. He won the best chef Mid-Atlantic award from the James Beard Foundation in 2003 and has since taken off. In addition to his restaurants in Washington, DC, he also has Bazaar in Los Angeles and this winter will open two restaurants in Las Vegas.
I was overjoyed when I found out I'd be eating at all of Chef Andrés' restaurants in Washington, DC on my July press trip, which was arranged by Destination DC. Even if I didn't get to meet Chef Andrés, just eating from morning until afternoon at all his restaurants was very memorable. Our goal was to slowly eat our way through all four of his restaurant locations. First, cocktails and appetizers at Café Atlántico with its Nuevo Latino cuisine, Mexican food at Oyamel, Spanish food at Jaleo, and finally Middle Eastern desserts at Zaytinya. Half way through the eating marathon I wasn't sure where I was going to put all the food that remained to be eaten, but as the end neared, somehow I had pleasurably eaten everything and even found room for four desserts.
Café Atlántico is considered Andrés’ main restaurant. It serves Nuevo Latino cuisine, dishes inspired by Central and South American cooking. The three-level restaurant also houses minibar, a six-seat molecular cuisine concept bar. Reservations here are almost impossible to come by. Our group sat right across from the bar and imagined what it would be like to have a full tasting course there. Luckily we were offered a treat from minibar, a perfect olive. It's really a deconstructed olive made from olive purée and then spherified in a solution. You must love olives to enjoy this dish, because it's the essence of olives multiplied times ten. I loved it. I also ordered a cocktail since many at our table were having them—mind you this was 11:30 a.m. I thoroughly enjoyed the farm-to-table cocktail, which is made of ingredients that were of particular interest at the farmers' market that morning. That day it was made with watermelon juice, basil simple syrup, and rum and was garnished with salted diced watermelon. Soon followed a shot glass of carrot soup with passion fruit oil. It was super smooth, sweet, and nicely chilled. Next came a dish that I still think about, tuna tartare with jicama and coconut milk topped with sliced avocado, corn nuts, and micro cilantro. Tuna tartare seemed to be the theme of the week while I was in DC, but this was by far my favorite. We finished our time there with a conch fritter that had a béchamel inside rather than out. It was paired with an avocado mousse encapsulated in a mandolined slice of jicama. Some forethought went into making the dish so special.
Our gastronomical tour continued at Oyamel, Andrés’ homage to Mexican cuisine. The restaurant is a very convivial space with tropical touches. The first things you notice are the butterflies on the ceiling and the fruit stacked up at the bar. It so happened that the restaurant was participating in the squash blossom festival, as a result many of our dishes featured them. Almost as soon as we sat down we were served margaritas, but not necessarily the traditional drink, but one with a molecular twist. The drink features a topping of salt-lime foam floating on the surface like a cloud. You couldn't drink it without getting a foam mustache. Next came guacamole prepared tableside, a custom at many Mexican restaurants. We also had house-made tortilla chips and smoky salsa of tomatoes and chipotle. For our starters we enjoyed a tomato salad with purslane, squash blossoms, and chicharrónes (pork rinds); and a squash blossom quesadilla topped with salsa verde. I loved both these dishes. Even with all the ingredients, the delicate taste of the squash blossoms was not masked. Before we knew it, each of us was presented with two tacos, first an asparagus and lamb's quarters (a type of green) taco with chipotle sauce and a second taco of braised beef tongue, radishes, and roasted chili sauce. I'm not a fan of tongue and after eating the taco was still not a fan of tongue, but I did appreciate the flavors. The asparagus taco was very refreshing and flavorful. Except for a few tough asparagus ends, it was the winner between the two tacos.
Jaleo, Andrés’ authentic Spanish restaurant, was our last stop before dessert. The restaurant from outside looks more like a 1950s diner with its red color scheme, neon sign, and vinyl bar stools than an authentic Spanish eatery. There are a few murals inside that help distinguish the space as a Spanish restaurant. We were no sooner treated to cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, when out came a platter of ham: Jamón Ibérico, including cured ham from black-footed pigs and smoked loin from acorn-fed pigs, and jamón Serrano, salt-cured ham. I really enjoyed the loin. Next came our Mediterranean paella with porcini mushrooms, olives, and shrimp. It was one of the most beautiful I've seen. The mushroom rice tasted too muddy for me and was missing the soccarat, the famous crust on the bottom of the pan. To accompany the paella we had a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon rosé from Bodegas 1+1=3. What an odd name for a wine, but what a wonderful dry and fruity cherry-tasting wine. I've never seen a rosé with such a ruby color.
Last but definitely not least was to be our desserts at Andrés’ Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurant, Zaytinya. The restaurant is located in a corporate building and has a very grandiose and open feeling with a large two-storey space. With white walls and modern furniture, the restaurant captures the clean lines and simplicity of Mediterranean architecture. We were seated on the second level from where we had a bird’s eye view of the main room below. We tasted all the desserts on the menu as well as a selection of sorbets and ice creams. First there was the chocolate vişne, a chocolate panna cotta with sour cherry sorbet. Next, the Turkish delight, walnut ice cream with honey gelée and caramel sauce. Then, the Greek yogurt with Muscat-soaked apricots and apricot sorbet. Finally there was the Turkish coffee chocolate cake with cardamom espuma. I also had a traditional Turkish coffee. Most memorable for me was the walnut ice cream with the Turkish delight as well as two additional ice creams served on the side, the baklava ice cream and olive oil ice cream, oddly very fruity and flavorful.
Any fan of Chef Andrés would be happy to visit one of his restaurants. I luckily had the opportunity to eat at four of them. And I'm very appreciative for that. It was an experience I won't soon forget. If I'm every in DC again, I will try to get a reservation at minibar. I highly recommend any of these restaurants. Oyamel and Jaleo are very authentic in showing of the cuisines of Mexico and Spain, respectively. Café Atlántico is a showplace for Chef Andrés to present his twists on Latin cuisine and his inventive experimental cuisine. Zaytinya blends the cuisines of Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon into one true Middle Eastern/Mediterranean experience minus the actual travel. Choose any of these restaurants for a special meal and you will engage in a world of cuisine imagined by the immensely talented José Andrés.