Saturday, October 11, 2014

DC Spotlight: The Minibar Experience

First, my apologies to any regular readers out there who have been wondering where I have been the last couple of months.  To be honest, I've been pondering how to go about my next post, which features a destination restaurant that so many professional food writers already have reviewed (see here, here, and here, for example).

As those reviewers will tell you, at Minibar by Jose Andres, you don't just have dinner - you have "an experience."  And because those reviewers already have covered the basics, I will not attempt to describe the wizadry and performance art of molecular gastronomy (or how I was directed to consume a couple of dishes within seven seconds after they were served, because who knew that food could be so "time sensitive"?).  Nor will I glorify the exclusivity of being one of six people in a private seating who is pampered by a team of highly trained chefs and servers.  And finally, I will not, no matter what, dwell on the the exorbitant cost of the Minibar experience or bemoan that, even after 28 courses, I left feeling a little hungry.  

The wizadry and performance art of molecular gastronomy - in action!  Here they are preparing the first course, a "hot and cold pisco sour" (and the second of many, many more alcoholic drinks to come - the first is that near-empty glass of cava sitting on the counter!)

Here the chefs are creating an "almond tart with blue cheese."

Instead, I will focus on what gets me really excited - a first-class restaurant experience that welcomes vegetarians with open arms.  Of course, given the exorbitant cost (okay, I digress for a word of warning: you may need to take out a second mortgage on your home to cover the bill), any vegetarian willing to spend the amount of money required to participate in the Minibar experience (not to mention the patience and persistence required to score a reservation) should be welcomed with open arms.  But Minibar makes it known up front.  The website states:

"We always strive to make accommodations for our guests' dietary needs or restrictions.  All dietary restrictions and food allergies for the entire party should be noted and specified during the reservation procedure so that we can best accommodate your needs.  In particular cases, a chef may contact you to discuss the restrictions.  In the case of potentially life-threatening food allergies or other serious health issues, please speak directly to manager or chef in advance and explain your situation.  The minibar menu cannot be made to accommodate vegan diners."
   
While unfortunate for vegans (indeed, cream and cheese were recurring ingredients in a number of dishes), I was over the moon that both my dining partner with food allergies and I could enjoy this experience together (and it may be worth noting that my dining partner's wheat allergy needed very little accommodation, as most of the menu is naturally gluten-free, according to the host).  After a number of detailed email exchanges with the restaurant to discuss our dietary restrictions, the standard 28-course meal was customized specially for us.  So, while a number of the dishes were naturally meat-free and did not need to be modified, a number of others were changed substantially (and even became the objects of envy for several omnivores in our seating).  This "rubber ducky," for example, was filled with green apple sorbet for us instead of foie gras ice cream, as it was for other diners.

The vegetarian "rubber ducky" is filled with green apple sorbet instead of foie gras ice cream.

As other reviewers have written, the focus of each dish is intense flavor and texture.  The evening I was there, there also seemed to be an emphasis on Spanish and Japanese themed ingredients.  Some of the more interesting dishes I experienced are pictured below.


The "frozen lake" is a thin layer of ice dressed with sherry vinegar, freeze dried powders, edible flowers, and whipped cream that sits atop a layer of applewood smoke.

Pesto Fusilli (the fusilli pasta actually is injected with pesto, for a super intense flavor)

Andalucian Tofu

Fabada Asturiana (Spanish bean stew)

Parmesan Egg with Migas

The dishes are served one at a time, as the chefs provide elaborate expalantions of each, and the waitstaff serves up drink pairings and attends to your every need.  Right when you think the evening can't get any more magical, the waitstaff welcomes you into the adjacent Barmini (you can read the Washington Post write-up here), a luxurious cocktail bar with the atmosphere of a posh boutique hotel lobby.  There, you will have the opportunity to order more drinks (probably not needed, but what the heck), while the waitstaff showers you with an array of sweets and desserts.


The dessert phase of my Minibar experience (which actually takes place at the adjacent Barmini) included raspberry wasabi bonbons, chocolate minibars, saffron pate with fruit, ice-cream filled doughnuts, and whisky bottles . . . plus coffee, tea, and more drinks!

A cotton candy cake for the members of my seating who were celebrating birthdays

TIP:  To improve your chances of scoring a reservation, let the restaurant know that you are flexible with respect to your preferred date and time.  Also, definitely tell them if you are celebrating a special occasion, so that the guest of honor can be showered with extra special attention.  And finally, for the sake of your fellow Minibar experience goers, treat this upscale, once-in-a-lifetime (for most of us, at least, with regular jobs) adventure with the respect it deserves, and dress to the nines!   

minibar by Jose Andres on Urbanspoon
 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Miami Beach, Florida (June 2014)

Here are a few updates from a recent trip to South Beach.  Click here for my previous post.

First, my favorite go-to spot for casual Cuban food, David's Cuban Cafe, has closed.  While I was a bit devastated by this discovery, I quickly recovered upon learning that Lario's on the Beach, Gloria Estefan's longstanding restaurant on Ocean Drive, recently reopened after being closed for more than a year for renovations.  The place looks gorgeous -- very tropical and romantic -- and still features live Cuban music.  While the menu offers a few vegetarian entrees, I decided to piece together an authentic Cuban meal with all traditional side dishes -- black beans, white rice, sweet plantains, and fried yucca (click here to read more about how I ate my way through Havana, Cuba).  But I started with a more contemporary-style avocado salad, which was beautifully presented and also delicious.

Fresh avocado served with tomato, red onion, and diced cucumber, and tossed in a cilantro-lime vinaigrette

A hearty vegetarian meal made with traditional Cuban side dishes -- white rice, black beans, sweet plantains, and fried yucca

Larios on the Beach's newly renovated dining room (photo from the restaurant's website)

Second, my fellow Washingtonian and favorite celebrity chef, Jose Andres, has opened The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel.  This place offers a true first-class dining experience, with outstanding service in an upscale but very comfortable dining room (I felt like I was being served in the living room of a very fancy but somewhat quirky mansion).  The host took note that I was there to celebrate a special occasion, and immediately welcomed me with a glass of sparkling wine.  This theme continued throughout the night, from the beginning when I was seated at a special table, to the end when I learned that my server had comped the dessert.  The food also was outstanding, and most importantly, the vegetarian options were plentiful!  The restaurant blends traditional Spanish cuisine with flavors from around the world.  Each dish is tapa-sized and uniquely presented, and each bite bursts with intense flavor and texture -- everything was delicious!  

Mini gazpachos, served with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, breadsticks, and sherry vinegar

Watermelon and tomato skewers with pistachios

Twenty-vegetable quinoa "couscous," served in a tamarind broth

Pisto - vegetable stew, with zucchini, eggplant, and a golden egg (and bread on the side)

TIP:  If you want to check out The Bazaar, but don't want to break the bank, go instead to Bar Centro, which is the restaurant's outdoor lounge, where you can order a drink and sample a couple of tapas.

Finally, for a more laid back (and much less expensive) meal, head to The Cafe at Books & Books on Lincoln Road, where you can dine outdoors and choose from an expansive selection of healthy and hearty vegetarian dishes, including an entire listing of vegan entrees.  


Grilled organic tofu and avocado salad, with carrots, sprouts and snow peas on a bed of greens, served with orange-miso dressing

Warm organic quinoa and red bean salad, topped kale and crispy chickpeas (special)

Larios on the Beach on Urbanspoon

 The Bazaar by José Andrés on Urbanspoon

The Café at Books & Books on Urbanspoon


Saturday, June 21, 2014

DC Spotlight: Dinner at Proof

Vegetarians who also are wine lovers will fall in with love Proof, a romantic wine bar located in DC's Penn Quarter/Chinatown neighborhood.  

Proof is the first of a trio of first-class sister restaurants that also include Estadio and Doi Moi (read my write-ups of the those two here and here).  Although Proof does not (yet) have a separate vegetarian menu like its sister restaurants, it always offers a number of hearty meat-free appetizers, salads, and cheese plates, in addition to several tasty side dishes.  All three restaurants are featured on the Washington, DC Restaurants page of this website.

Proof's dinner menu changes a little each season, but fortunately for me, my favorite vegetarian entree -- the napoleon of crispy tofu, wild mushrooms, and spring vegetables -- is a year-round staple. 

Napoleon of crispy tofu, wild mushrooms, and spring vegetables, including baby bok choy, snow peas, green beans, and served with a sweet chili garlic sauce
TIP:  This place books up well in advance, so make your reservations early, especially if you want to dine there on the weekend.  And don't forget to try the wine!

Proof on Urbanspoon





Friday, May 30, 2014

Santa Barbara, California (May 2014)

I just returned from a few days in Santa Barbara, which, like many places in California, is a city where vegetarians will not go hungry.  Californians certainly love healthy eating -- and the vast array of smoothie bars (check out Backyard Bowls) and veg-friendly cafes (check out The Natural Cafe) make it easy for vegetarian travelers to find a quick bite.  

But as always, I was on the lookout for a first-class dining experience, and was delighted to find just that at Pierre Lafond's State Street WineBistro.  

The WineBistro is located in the heart of Santa Barbara's lively downtown, and its large windows and outdoor seating make it an ideal place for people watching along State Street.  The restaurant features organic produce and local wines, not to mention great service.  I could not have been more pleased with my meal.  Although it was difficult to decide what to order given the expansive selection of vegetarian options, I settled on this protein-packed red quinoa and sprouted mung bean salad, which was covered in a tasty cilantro-lime vinaigrette.

Red quinoa and sprouted mung bean salad with grape tomatoes, roasted corn, avocado, wilted baby Earth trine kale, and a cilantro-lime vinaigrette

This salad was served as an entree and was so filling that I did not have room to try anything else, which was disappointing because the menu not only had an endless list of vegetarian soups, salads, sandwiches (including a house-made, gluten-free veggie burger!), and flatbreads, but it also had an entire section of other appealing vegetarian entrees.


If I ever return to Santa Barbara, I'll look forward to grabbing another window seat at the WineBistro!

TIP:  Go for lunch or an early dinner while the sun is still out to take advantage of the outdoor seating and large picture windows.  Santa Barbara gets chilly after dark!

Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 13, 2014

DC Spotlight: Dinner at Le Diplomate

Following up on last month's post about new restaurants along 14th Street, this month I review dinner at DC's most popular hotspot, Le Diplomate.

Although I previously had brunch at Le Diplomate (and LOVED it), I was reluctant to try it for dinner because the menu (all French, of course) offers very few vegetarian options and almost no vegan options.  Of those, I tried the green salad and mushroom tart -- both delicious.  The potatoes au gratin (not pictured here) also were delicious.


Green salad

Mushroom tart

But my dining partner, who not only is vegetarian, but also is allergic to nuts and cheese, had a more difficult time finding menu items to enjoy.  Not to worry!  Le Diplomate is a true first-class restaurant, and like so many first-class restaurants (such as those in New Orleans, for example), the outstanding service includes special accommodations for vegetarians and others with dietary restrictions.  Our server spoke to the chef, who happily cooked up this beautiful vegan entree of roasted mushrooms and cauliflower, sauteed spinach, and mashed potatoes.  

Specially made vegan entree of roasted mushrooms and cauliflower, sauteed spinach, and mashed potatoes

From the service to the food, and from the wine list to the cute French decor, this place lives up to the hype, and vegetarians are not left out! 

Le Diplomate on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 2, 2014

DC Spotlight: 14th Street Update - Barcelona, Doi Moi, and Masa 14

It seems like a new restaurant opens up every week along the 14th Street corridor that stretches between the Logan Circle and U Street neighborhoods, and it elates me that so many of them are vegetarian friendly.  I previously reviewed Estadio, Masa 14 (rooftop bar), El Centro D.F., Eatonville, and Kapnos.  Today I add two more to the Washington, DC Restaurants page, and also revisit an older one.

Barcelona is yet another Spanish tapas place, which is fine by me because I love Spanish tapas!  Although it is a chain -- with locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Georgia -- Barcelona offers a unique first-class dining experience.  The cozy atmosphere is reminiscent of the Spanish city's Gothic Quarter (click here for my write-up of the real Barcelona), and the menu includes Spanish tortilla and all of the usual meat-free small plates that are so common in Spanish tapas restaurants.  Although the menu does not clearly identify the vegetarian items, my server was extremely knowledgeable about the menu and sensitive to my dietary restrictions.  I enjoyed everything I ordered, especially the spinach-chickpea cazuela and Manchego cheese plate.

Barcelona's spinach-chickpea cazuela with cumin and roasted garlic

Barcelona's Manchego cheese plate

Doi Moi was opened by the owner of two of my favorite restaurants, Proof and Estadio (click here for write-up of the latter).  Like those two restaurants, Doi Moi offers an elegant and romantic atmosphere with an extensive wine list, and like Estadio, it offers, upon request, a separate gluten-free/vegan/vegetarian menu.  But Doi Moi differs from those two restaurants by specializing in Southeast Asian "street food."  The menu already has changed since I first dined there, but it looks like the delicious mushroom dumplings pictured below are still available.

Doi Moi's pan fried garlic chive and mushroom dumplings with sweet soy-black vinegar dipping sauce
  
Finally, Masa 14 is an old 14th Street favorite with a lively atmosphere and energetic bar scene.  I previously wrote about its tasty rooftop menu here (note that the rooftop menu has changed a bit since then but still offers tasty veg-friendly marinated portobello bao buns, work-seared edamame, and vegetarian handrolls), and like its two sister restaurants by Chef Richard Sandoval (click here for my write-up of El Centro D.F. and here for my write up of Zengo, one of my favorite DC restaurants), Masa 14's regular dinner menu also offers a number of vegetarian items, as well as other items that can be made vegetarian upon request. 

Masa 14's fried tofu with sauteed spinach and sweet and spicy chili sauce

Masa 14's pan-roasted cauliflower with ginger, garlic, and chili

UPDATE:  Click here for my write-up of Le Diplomate, another 14th Street hotspot.

Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Doi Moi on Urbanspoon

Masa 14 on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Jan. 2014)

Brazil may be known for its churrascarias and other meat feasts, but I never went hungry in Rio de Janeiro.  From its juice bars to first-class restaurants, Rio is an excellent destination for vegetarian travelers.

For authentic Brazilian cuisine, check out one of the city's many por quilo restaurants, where you can serve yourself and pay for only what you put on your plate.  Cost is based on weight, so this is a really affordable option for vegetarians (none of my meals cost more than $15.00).  Most of these places are very casual, and some are nicer (and cleaner) than others.  But they all offer countless vegetarian options, with a wide variety of salads, fruits and vegetables, meat-free beans (be sure to confirm that they are "sem carne" if you're unsure), rice, farofa (toasted maniac flour, but make sure you get the kind without bacon bits), and plantains, among other items.  Check out this article from The Rio Times for more information about por quilo dining. 

The nicest por quilo restaurant I found was Broth, which is housed in a charming 1939 Ipanema chalet and is open only for lunch.  The food was fresh and the vegetarian selections were hearty.  See below for a picture of my self-assembled meal.

My por quilo meal at Broth included meat-free black and brown beans, farofa, white rice, tomato salad, garbanzo salad, and green salad.

For cuisine from Brazil's northeast region, check out the cheery, vegetarian-friendly Cafe do Alto in Santa Teresa, Rio's historic downtown neighborhood.  The restaurant has an extensive menu (available in English) with vegetarian markers identifying which dishes are meat-free (vegans may have trouble here, however, as most of the vegetarian dishes seem to contain cheese).  I was excited to try a tapioca crepe (popular Brazilian snack and street food) with queijo coalho (typical Brazilian cheese).  

Cafe de Alto offers an English-language menu that clearly identifies vegetarian dishes.
 
Tapioca crepe with coahlo cheese and roasted tomato at Cafe do Alto
Like most large cities, Rio de Janeiro also has a number of restaurants that are exclusively vegetarian or vegan.  Biocarioca in Copacabana was so close to my hotel that I couldn't resist eating there several times during my one-week stay.  The restaurant offers an extensive regular menu as well as a lengthy daily menu of specials, making the choices overwhelming.  The cuisine is casual and healthy (soups, salads, sandwiches, omelets, etc.), so it is a perfect place to stop after a day at the beach.  Both menus also clearly identify which items are vegan and gluten-free (a limited number of menus in English also are available upon request).  I became addicted to their tofu quiches (all vegan) and freshly squeezed juices.



Green and black olive tofu quiche, green salad, and carrot ginger soup at Biocarioca
Homemade veggie burger patty (made with brown rice, grains, and nuts) served with a spicy mango chutney at Biocarioca

Finally, Rio has no shortage of international cuisine.  It seems like there is a Japanese sushi restaurant on every block, where you can get typical Asian dishes like edamame, vegetable spring rolls, and noodle dishes.  Manekineko, which has several locations around the city, uses vegetarian markers on its menu to help diners identify meat-free items.  I enjoyed the shitake mushrooms and vegetable yakisoba at the Leblon location.  

But one of my favorite meals was at Arab, an upscale Middle Eastern restaurant right on Avenida Atlantica in Copacabana, where you can dine outdoors while staring at the ocean.  The hummus and falafel were some of the best I've ever had, and the freshly baked pita was heavenly.

Freshly baked pita, hummus, and tabboule at Arab
 
Perfectly prepared falafel at Arab
Another first-class restaurant in Copacabana is the Barcelona-style Spanish tapas restaurant El Born (the link will take you to the restaurant's Yelp page, since it does not seem to have a website), named after the Barcelona neighborhood of the same name (click here to read my post about the real Barcelona).  There are a number of meat-free tapas on the menu.  My favorite was this bocadillo (sandwich) of Spanish tortilla and fresh tomato.


Spanish tortilla sandwich with tomato at El Born

TIP:  Following my own advice on the Travel Tips page of this website, I booked a hotel based on rave reviews it received for the included breakfast buffet (and excellent service, among other things).  Each day I began my meal with scrambled eggs or a made-to-order omelet, accompanied by an endless selection of fresh fruit, cheese, pastries, and juices.  If you're looking for a nice place to stay with a wonderful breakfast, Hotel Miramar by Windsor will not disappoint.