Sunday, August 14, 2011

Komi and Minibar

Komi serves a set multi-course dinner, upwards of 20 small plates over the course of two and a half hours.  Because Minibar had set the bar so high for this genre, it took me a long time to go to Komi, for fear of being disappointed. But I was not.

Like Minibar, and like El Bulli, the restaurant in Catalonia where it all began, Komi delights in the paradox of presenting you with familiar dishes whose component ingredients have been put together in unfamilar ways, while elevating their essential taste to exquisite heights. It is at once a highly intellectual culinary style and an effort to take you back to childhood delights and a sense of primal pleasure.

But Komi is also different. For one thing, it is Greek inflected.  Chef Monis grew up in Arlington of Greek heritage, and he draws both on local flavors and on time spent with his grandparents on the Greek island of Chios -- Komi is the name of a beach there. The deeper difference with Minibar is that Chef Monis allows himself a more varied palette with which to express the sensuality of food. You'll see in a moment...

Of the parade of tastings and small plates, these are the ones that have stayed with me several weeks after the meal:

Wild caught smoked salmon, creme fraiche, "everything" salt, and a lacy, black filigree of squid-ink toast; the sexiest sense of a bagel and lox, lingering on the tongue and then gone. Ethereal, but still true to its pedestrian nature.

Spanakopita with a liquid center, which we are urged to eat it in one bite. From the outside, it looks a bit like a chicken nugget. When I pop it in my mouth and bite down, a fountain of warm spinach spurts out. It even tastes green. Before it can get too far down my throat, the breading catches up with it, surrounds it, and there, you have spanakopita in its most essential form. Heightened and exaggerated and at the same time exactly like spanakopita tastes.

Chris' favorite plate is Komi's tribute to DC: the half smoke. They arrive in twos, side by side on the plate. The miniature three inch buns are home made, with fat sausages inside, puffed up and cartoonish. They are adorned with spicy tomato relish and pickled zucchini. 

Other things that stand out in my memory: bright yellow puree of corn swooshed around a salad of crunchy caperberries, pinenuts and currants. The famous mascarpone stuffed dates, sprinkled with olive and sea salt -- I like them far better than the more commonly served bacon wrapped ones.

Finally we get to the main course. It's a surprise -- Minibar doesn't have a "main course", and lots of people have remarked that Komi's hunk of goat seems out of place in the center of the more delicate morsels. But this is what I mean: the Komi experience is less committed to gadgetry (like syringes to withdraw lobster juice) and technological wizardry (like spherification) than to presenting a variety of ways to playfully reconnect with primordial experiences. Liquid centered spanakopita with essence of spinach was one way, but a hunk of spit roasted goat plunked down on a plate with flat bread is another. It's not carved, cubed or even cut into portions. We are encouraged to tear bits of it off and eat with our hands. Either way, you are getting to a kind of sensual space. 

So which is better, Komi or Minibar?

My colleague Lesly put it this way:  "...overall I think the food was better at Komi. However, Minibar was so much fun that you forget those dishes that miss the mark." I think she's right. At Minibar, I laughed through the entire evening. At Komi, I smiled and left with a sigh of satisfaction.

Footnote: If you want to eat in the six seat Minibar -- its original format -- you need to act fast. Minibar is currently housed in the same space as America Eats Tavern, which is a pop-up restaurant timed to coincide with an exhibit of American culinary history at the National Archives. When the exhibit closes on January 3, Minibar will expand into the entire three story restaurant building. To make a reservation, you need to call one month in advance to the day, calling as soon as the reservation line is open and being prepared to hit redial until you get through.

Update, December 28, 2011:  Latest intel is that Jose Andres has in mind to have 12-16 tables only, for the expanded Minibar. Those will be located on the second level of the restaurant. Guests will be seated in the center of the space and surrounded by a circular kitchen. The first floor will be a bar area, while the third level will be a library where guests can relax with after dinner drinks. That sounds a whole lot better!

Komi on Urbanspoon

Minibar By Jose Andres on Urbanspoon

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