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Whimsy on a Plate

We pull back the curtain on minibar’s menu development process. 

Plating the carrot escabeche at minibar

Guests of José Andrés’ avant-garde gastro-wonderland minibar are treated to an unforgettable evening. Part magic show and part modernist culinary tour de force, the epic tasting menu—more than 20 courses—is constantly evolving, and it fully changes three times a year. Head Chef Josh Hermias and more than a dozen kitchen staff start working on new dishes months in advance by focusing on an ingredient, such as California strawberries or blowfish sourced from the Chesapeake Bay. No expense is spared. Products are flown in from around the world for the team’s experimental sessions, while Hermias and his colleagues head to other cities, farms, vineyards and beyond on their days off to discover new foodstuffs to add to their pantry. After determining a dish’s core components, it’s a matter of deciding which cooking techniques are best suited to highlighting its flavors, creating a sense of whimsy and incorporating an element of surprise. “When guests say wow or use an expletive, we know we’ve done our job,” says Hermias.

The team comes up with dozens of ideas for each new menu, many of which are scrawled on the chalkboard walls encircling minibar’s open kitchen. Both the winning concepts and those that don’t make it to the plate are methodically catalogued in a massive digital database for potential future use. This virtual cookbook contains recipes dating back to the restaurant’s debut in 2003, when it was a six-seat counter inside Cafe Atlantico in Penn Quarter (minibar opened in its present location in 2012).

Andrés himself is intimately involved in the creative process, often inviting the team over to his Bethesda, Md., home to work on ideas in his kitchen. “He tastes every dish,” says Hermias. “He adds the last finesse to its style, flavor or presentation—that extra something.” Minibar is meticulously designed to be a one-of-a-kind dining experience, from the moment guests walk in the door, one that eschews the paradigms of the past. “We’re not stuffy,” says Hermias. “There are no white tablecloths. It’s loose, modern and welcoming. It’s luxury in a new way.” Meals end with a flurry of fantastical mignardises (petit treats), such as a bourbon-filled “peanut” made of caramelized sugar, or sticks of dehydrated rhubarb coated in chocolate. It’s a wild epicurean utopia not to miss. $275 per person, 855 E St. NW, 202.393.0812 

A minibar chef undertakes the delicate work that’s part of the cauliflower and caviar dish.