Image: Sun Choke and Hay Cheese in media res.
Last Updated: October 2021
Current Status: They have reopened!
Before Times Review:
First Visit: November 2019
To go to minibar is to ponder many big questions about economics, art, time, and taste, among other topics. It is a multi-hour immersive experience. It is to dining what checkers is to chess. It is played on the same board, but it is a whole other game.
The price requires having the economic discussion before talking about the meal. The cost is prohibitive for most. However, a closer scrutiny does put it in perspective. The space is a large kitchen hemmed in by a bar with 12 seats. There is also a chef’s table area off to the side – reversing the chef’s table idea of closeness to the kitchen. Here, the bar is the main dining area. For several hours, diners in those 12 seats will have almost an equal number of cooks prepare their meal, two sommeliers guide them through pairings, and several other staff clear and prepare the 30 or so courses that comprise the meal. That does not include the prep team that has already gone home. To say a meal costs over $500 per person is to risk absurdity. To say an experience that requires the equivalent of two full-time employees per guest (to say nothing of food costs, rent and other overhead), is to ask whether they can create an experience that sustains attention for over 3 hours that justifies that price. When dinner is a show on top of a meal, and Hamilton tickets go for $1000, then maybe $500 is not that crazy for a once-in-a-lifetime memory. However, even for those with the means it is a serious question of value. But if you can afford it, and you are the kind of person who will appreciate it, then the meal justifies the cost.
Because the meal is amazing. Jorge Hernández is currently at the helm of the kitchen, though the spirit of the place is animated by José Andrés and his early years as a chef at the renowned El Bulli. Flavors, textures, and smells come in various presentations, usually a bite or two per course. There are famous courses like the “olives” that are spheres that pop with liquid the flavor of olives, or the crab banh mi with a mini “baguette” made from apple juice and meringue. The pancetta and caviar combination seems crazy but works. It is explained that is Andrés’ favorite flavor combination, which shows he has unique but excellent taste. Some courses are almost traditional like the squab with huckleberry sauce. The snail caviar drank from a snail shell after rosemary is blow-torched for aroma is anything but traditional. And I still don’t know what snail caviar is (I can guess) – but don’t really care.
Dinner begins with drawing back a curtain to reveal the dining area and kitchen. At the appointed hour the experience begins with a cocktail and series of snacks (if you are late they will catch you up to the group but you will want to be on time for the full experience). It ends with moving the group to barmini for the dessert course. On this visit it centered on a small ornamental ceramic tree with sweets on the limbs and around its base. Moving to barmini also allows for a chance to add on a cocktail at the end of the meal (not included in pre-paid amount).
There are two different wine pairing options – one standard (which we went with) and one premium. The pairings are done with great care, though surprisingly lean toward very traditional options like Rioja, Burgundy and Hermitage. There are some surprises like a vin jaune from Jura and a rose champagne in the middle of the savory courses. You can also go non-alcoholic, or go a la carte by glass, bottle or cocktail.
At the end of nearly four hours you leave and attempt to take stock of the waves of sensory surprises and revelations. You may smile at the thought of a fellow diner at the bar who took a bite and blurted out, “Holy Sh–.” You may wonder which of the bites will be remembered in a few years. You may end up where the discussion started by asking, “was it worth it?” The answer may not be universal, but on this night the answer was yes.
Other Guidance: Dress is generally nice but still casual. Cocktail dresses and ties are appropriate but not de rigueur. Allergy and other restrictions are accommodated and double-checked before starting.
Rating: Splurge Worthy
Cuisine: Spanish (by way of El Bulli)
Neighborhood: Chinatown/City Center
Address: 855 E St NW, Washington, DC 20004
Washington Post: Tom gave it 4 Stars in 2017 and put it in his Hall of Fame. Write-up on the new location in 2012, he downgraded to 3.5 at that point.
Washingtonian: #1 in 2019. Numerous other rankings: #14 in 2018; #2 in 2017; #22 in 2016; #2 in 2015. And there are more.
DonRockwell.com – The first entry is his write up from 2003 in the old space. It was $65/person then. With price increases, some began to question the value.
Lori: Featuring a Johnny Spero pic.
Michelin: 2 Stars.
Bites to Start:
Primary Savory Dishes: