Café Atlantico is like going to the zoo as a kid after you’ve heard stories about the circus. Nearly all the dishes incorporate interesting creatures like octopus and sweetbreads. And yet, striking as they are, they just sit there. You can’t help but wonder what it’d be like if, all the sudden, they jumped out of the shade and started doing tricks.
You see, at Café Atlantico, the circus is always in town, but you’ll only find it tucked into a corner of the restaurant’s second floor. That’s where Minibar, Jose Andres’ eatery/carnival, offers food you might hallucinate in an opium den.
To make matters worse, Marcy and I were seated right next to Minibar – which, it turns out, is quite literally a small bar.
So tiny, in fact, that it only fits six patrons. So tiny, you have to reserve your stool a month in advance. And did I mention Minibar is like the circus? Well, it’s not just because of the highwire acts of frozen popcorn and cotton-candy eel. You have to jump through hoops just to get inside the tent; they only accept reservations on certain days, and you have to call at exactly 10 a.m.
The experience at Café Atlantico was so good, though, that we were mostly able to forget about Minibar. The chef, Terri Cutrino, just got the job last year, although it seems she was always destined to work for Jose Andres; her first job out of college was at AARP – right across the street from Jose’s tapas place, Jaleo. Ten years and a culinary education later, she takes dishes you find at other top-tier modern American restaurants and manages to nudge them a few inches closer to perfection.
The pork belly, for example, was incredibly tender and plump, even better than the big slab you get at Proof. After having it, I’m more biased than ever to agree with Jennifer McLagan that monounsaturated fats are good for you.
Grilled Octopus with sobrasada, salsa verde, fingerling potatoes, arugula
And Chef Cutrino’s octopus actually competes with Chef Isabella’s work at Zaytinya. Instead of the more traditional approach of boiling, Cutrino cooks it sous-vide before grilling. The flavor is, as Sam Sifton would say, head-scratchingly good – Cutrino packs the sous-vide bag with a pungent mix of paprika, oregano, and salt. For unbeatable tentacle texture, I’d go with Isabella’s version, but this was close.
Fried Oysters and Uni with jalapeño, candied ginger, miso dressing, oyster water foam
Another standout dish was fried oysters with sea urchin, miso dressing and candied ginger. A spicy surprise waits for you in the heart of the oyster – a slice of jalapeno. But, like Murray on Flight of the Conchords, the real star is the sidekick: a froth of oyster water mixed with every molecular gastronomist’s favorite ingredient, soy lecithin. If the dish’s greatness doesn’t dizzy you, the lecithin might; vertigo can be a side effect if you have too much.
Café Atlantico gets its moleculista on with foams in a few other dishes, but it really only pays off with the oysters. The place is at its best when content to excel within the more typical boundaries of New American cuisine; it doesn’t quite achieve excellence on its own terms. And the attempts to bring in Central and South American influences sometimes seem half-hearted. If you want to convince me your shrimp and pork are muy autentico, you have to give me more than a smear of guacamole and a sprig of cilantro.
Grilled Shrimp with fingerling and avocado
One thing I love about this place, though, is the portion sizes. We got Chef Cutrino’s tasting menu ($75), and I expected all the dishes to be tapas-esque. Instead, they were like the Mini-Me versions of real entrées, complete with little sides of seasonal mushrooms and raviolis.
Seared Foie Gras with ‘banana nut bread’, sunny-side up quail egg,
banana-passion fruit puree, plantain chip
As I took my last bite, I realized that these six dish-ettes were just the right amount of food. Does this mean my stomach is six times bigger than Mini-Me’s tummy?
I had little time to wonder about such things as Marcy and I were busy harassing our waitress about D.C. Top Chef. We’re convinced that Top Chef's producers have given the area’s best restaurants some insider strategies for scoring invites to the greatest of all Top Chef contests, Restaurant Wars. We were about to head-slam our very pleasant waitress into the Minibar to make her talk when, finally, she referred us to Jose Andres’ business office, THINKfoodGROUP (I called them later, and here’s what I found out).
Next stop: Minibar. I’ve already got a reminder programmed into my cell phone for 10 a.m. this Sunday to nail a reservation at Cirque de Jose. But, for a tasting menu that’s $50 cheaper than Minibar, Café Atlantico is probably the best New American restaurant in D.C. That’s nothing to laugh at, especially without the clowns.
More Cafe Atlantico:
Chimichurri Lamb Shanks with tamarind lentils, poblano chile relleno
Snapper with caviar
Olive Oil Poached Black Cod with marinated olives, smoked tomato, black olive puree, corn gnocchi, avocado, lime air