Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cafe Atlantico, Washington DC

In planning the DC trip I got shut out on minibar and decided instead to sample Andres’ from a more casual standpoint – three lunches during the visit. Having experienced Zaytinya on Saturday it seemed only logical that I should follow that visit up with a trip to the famous Latino Dim Sum at Café Atlantico. Described as “Nuevo Latino” the menu runs the gamut from $2 to $10, a single bite to a full plate, and from Latin to Asian to just plain bizarre. Open for nearly two decades I’d heard that the experience wasn’t as novel as it may have been in the past but overall the reviews were solid, the reservation was available, and the menu was loaded with dishes that sounded at least interesting and at best downright brilliant.

Arriving as the restaurant opened its doors we sat at the bar for only 10 minutes before being led upstairs by our server, a lovely young lady named Lauren. Guiding us through the menu options, suggested number of courses, and fielding questions about various dishes for my picky family she was knowledgeable and friendly – in addition to this our beverages were kept full to the brim throughout the meal – for myself coffee and water, for my aunt the Dominican Lemonade, for mother the mint limeade, and for my sister hot tea. Without going into excessive detail I will also note that my mother, a longtime Meniere’s sufferer, had a rather severe attack midway through our brunch and both Lauren and two other servers checked in immediately to make sure everything was okay – after explaining the condition they offered to do anything they could to help, an appreciated gesture although there was really nothing they could do but wait for the spell to pass.

The above noted I have to say I was quite taken by the colors, layout, and atmosphere of Café Atlantico. Seated just across from the famous minibar the room was spacious and light with high ceilings, four layers, and a centrally located kitchen wide open for viewing. Casual but refined the platings were well manicured and colorful while the individual course presentations were accurate, appropriate in temperature, and served at a pace that was neither too quick nor overly long – the ability to order in waves was also appreciated, especially given my mother’s condition.

Kicking off the meal we opted for Andres’ famous Tableside Guacamole with corn chips and Cotija cheese – at $14 I rather expected something excellent but what we received was merely “good.” Opting for “medium” spiciness the flavor was actually quite mild – less tasty and less spicy than the mild version at Topolobampo. While I enjoyed the tableside preparation the man making it said little and merely plopped the stone bowl down after finishing – without adding the cheese. Approximately a minute later (as we sat there wondering if the cheese had been incorporated without our noticing) the manager arrived with the cheese and topped the dish, acting largely as if this were planned when it was clearly forgotten. With the added sharpness and salinity of the cheese the flavors were indeed improved – but not in line with the price.

For our first round of savories we received the Pineapple shavings with plantain powder and tamarind oil and Hot & cold foie gras and corn soup plus two cute Chinese take-out boxes. First tasting the Pineapple all I can say was that it was bland – almost as if the pineapple simply was not fresh. With a bit of spice and a unique banana tinge my aunt notably liked the dish, but overall the added flavors did nothing for me. Moving on to the soup, essentially a double-shot containing warm corn chowder topped with chilly foie gras froth – it was again good, but not great. Tasting almost like a liquid corn bread I liked the hot/cold interplay and the manner in which the initial taste was sweet corn while the lingering flavor on the palate was the sapor of the foie gras.


Contained in the take out boxes were two starch dishes, the Cauliflower-quinoa “cous-cous” and the Coconut rice, crispy rice & ginger. Beginning with the quinoa, quite frankly this fit right in the Chinese Take-Out box. With almost imperceivable flecks of crispy cauliflower dotting the well prepared quinoa the overall flavor was merely salty and soy – this was my least favorite dish of the meal, though my sister (who ordered it) quite liked it. The second box was much more well composed, more nuanced, and a favorite amongst all at the table. Essentially a savory risotto taking on elements of rice pudding I loved the manner in which the mild coconut essence rose to the palate while hints of ginger and sweetness pleased the tongue. Adding contrast were rice puffs, only somewhat more crispy than those made by the folks at Kellogg’s – somehow it worked perfectly.

Moving on to our next round of courses, again served in pairs separated by 7-15 minutes, the first pairing received was Mushrooms with egg 63 and Huitlacoche & wild mushroom quesadilla. Beginning with the egg, a sous-vide preparation I’d experienced at The Bazaar but this time paired with a hearty stew of woodsy mushrooms as opposed to silky potato puree, it was perfect – the creaminess and smoothness of the egg balancing competently with the fibrous and aromatic fungi. Fittingly arriving with the egg was another mushroom dish, this time a pan-crisped house-made tortilla housing layers of silky portabella mushroom, smoky corn-smut, and melted cheese.

The second pairing to arrive, ordered by my aunt and sister respectively, were Endive with Queso Fresco Espuma Walnuts and pomegranate and Scallops with cauliflower puree. Without belaboring the point significantly I will note the Endive was rather uninspired – bitter greens, a flavorless cloud of foam, a chopped walnut or two, and some pomegranate…the overall flavor was simply dull with only the pomegranate showing any pizzazz. Contrary to the bland Endive were the Scallops – fresh, immense, buttery and only pan-kissed they would have been excellent on their own – paired with a mild puree of what seemed to be only sieved cauliflower and garlic they were flawless.

It was around this time that my mother’s vertigo flared – the servers were confused and things were slightly delayed, but after everything settled down and I explained the situation the meal was back on pace – with six dishes arriving only moments apart. Beginning first with the dish ordered but not tasted by my mother, Chicken Wing, Sweet Potato Puree, Blue Cheese I will say that these boneless wings were crisp, juicy, and not at all spicy – instead they were mildly sweet and well complimented by the bite of the cheese and the smoothness of the sieved potatoes. Arriving along with the Chicken wings were the Malanga chips Plantains and curry, a light and tasty dish of paper thin taro flash fried and well accented with sweet plantains and pungent curry.

Two seafood dishes arrived quickly – the first my aunt’s Seared crabcake with citrus and the second the famous Conch fritters with a liquid center ordered by myself. An excellent crabcake light on filler and heavy on crab the dish was compact yet tasty – the sweet crab well matched with two bitter-sweet slices of grapefruit and a small salad. More impressive than the crab, however, were the Conch fritters – literally a corndog style ball loaded with a creamy cheese and chunks of fresh conch. Three to the box, eat-smile-repeat.

Our final two savories were Tuna ceviche with coconut and Fried egg with mashed black beans & pork. Straight forward and citrus kissed the nearly raw tuna was fresh and complimented texturally by the crunchy and smooth coconut. With small specks that tasted almost like graham crackers dotting the plate I quite liked the small bite my sister allowed me to taste. The second dish – essentially the most savory “ham n’ eggs” you can imagine. Crispy on the exterior yet runny inside the egg simply melted together with the heavy flavors of the black beans and smoky pulled pork while crunchy tortillas added texture.

With mom feeling better but still not up for eating we decided to order dessert – at $9 we selected three options and they all arrived simultaneously. Selecting the chocolate item du jour my aunt received warm chocolate cake with Venezuelan chocolate flan,banana foam and fresh banana-lime salad. While I personally did not note the lime, there was certainly a citrus accent to the plate that worked unexpectedly well with the lava-style cake and smear of chocolate flan – it prevented this from being a simple exercise in chocolate and bananas that predominates so many dessert menus these days.

My sister’s option was warm Apples & Raisins with cinnamon brick dough, green apple sorbet & tamarind sauce. Crisp and somewhat akin to a strudel I found the entire dish quite tart with only the raisins acting to add sweetness. With the apples served warm the apple sorbet melted quickly and again seemed too sour for my palate – perhaps I just like sweet desserts…

Speaking of sweet desserts, my choice for dessert was Cuatro Leches “Morir Soñando” - leche merengada ice cream, oranges and almond. Having tasted tres leches multiple times in the past this dish added almond milk and true to form was intensely sweet. With an almost butter-cake texture to the pastry itself I loved the mingling of sweet-milky tones and particularly enjoyed the notes of almond milk and crumbled almonds as they contrasted with the citrusy orange slices.

When the meal was finished my mother opted to return to the hotel with my aunt while my sister and I opted for the National Gallery - with our big family meal planned at The Inn at Little Washington that evening mom needed some time to get her strength back while we needed to walk off some of Jose Andres’ handiwork. Looking back on the meal I have to say it was the least impressive of the ThinkFoodGroup’s offerings, but certainly not a bad or overpriced meal for the quality of the food and service. While some items shined others left me wondering what the big deal was – unlike The Bazaar, Zaytinya, or the vast majority of our tapas at Jaleo. At some point I’d still like to get back to minibar, regardless – especially if it happened to be on a night when Andres was in the kitchen.

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