Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cafe Atlantico - Latino Dim Sum

Check another one off the TwoDo List! When B asked me to pick a brunch spot for a Sunday morning, I jumped at the chance to check out Cafe Atlantico's Latino Dim Sum. You might ask what makes it dim sum and not tapas. Cafe Atlantico calls it their "spin on the Chinese traditional family-style brunch" and it is served only from 11:30am to 1:30pm on Sundays. Think of it as tapas that you eat during brunch. So I wouldn't go expecting classic dim sum dishes because there isn't a char sui bao in sight...

Cafe Atlantico is located on 8th Street near the Navy Memorial in a multi-level building. The steep stairs can be hell after drinking more than one of their amazing cocktails. Do NOT attempt the stairs without the handrail after partaking in the wine pairing at MiniBar (see our thoughts here). Though the stairs can be tricky, the unique set up provides amazing views of their open kitchen. Our table was perched one level above the kitchen and we had a great view of the masters at work.

Cafe Atlantico is known for their cocktails. The reputation is well-deserved and I recommend their mojitos. The cotton candy mojito is more fun than tasty, but it is worth a try once. For brunch, we just weren't in the mood for booze so B tried their Dominican Lemonade (cranberry, lemon-line, pineapple, orange, grapefruit). This sunset-colored beauty was as delicious as it was pretty. I was delighted with a refillable pot of their chai tea with vanilla syrup.

Though our very kind waiter offered us a chance to look over the menu, we were on a mission and went straight for the Chef's Selection Tasting Menu. For $35 you get 14 dishes ($25 for 12 vegetarian dishes). Given that the cost of a regular old french toast and mimosa brunch is inching toward $20 a person at many local restaurants, this is a real deal. Factoring in the inventiveness and creativity behind each of the 14 dishes, it makes you feel like you're stealing a seat at MiniBar for a fraction of the price.

I now present to you, Latino Dim Sum (cue the trumpets playing and angels singing):

Endive with queso fresco espuma, walnuts and mandarin oranges. My piece of endive was a little soggy so it watered down the cheese a bit, but I liked the crunch of the walnuts contrasted with the creamy cheese.

Mango-anchovy ravioli. This is a prime example of why you need a good waiter to deliver your dishes when dining like this. Our waiter was fantastic but he didn't bring out this dish and the guy who served it couldn't tell us what it was. My eyes grew wide when I realized that the "ravioli" wasn't pasta but rather a thinly-sliced piece of mango. So creative and so good, and one of B's favorites.

Tuna ceviche with coconut. Dainty in appearance but packed a flavor punch.

I would be an oyster fan if every oyster tasted like these babies. The mango-lime oil masked the oystery taste of the oyster and made for a silky smooth treat.

Taking mashed potatoes and turning them up to an 11, the chefs created a mousse of potato and vanilla, squirted it out of a whip cream dispenser and layered it over American caviar.

Jose Andres and his team of molecular gastronomers (think of them as food astronauts) are masters at contrasting temperatures. This hot and cold foie gras and corn soup was so interesting that it almost made me forget I don't like foie gras. I thought I tasted CornNuts on top and I was right. How can you not smile when you're eating a dish that pairs foie gras with CornNuts?

The conch fritters get an A+ for presentation (love the little to-go boxes) but a B for eatability because it squirted all over me and the table when I bit into it. Would have been good if the person who dropped it off mentioned the liquid center. Be careful, it was hot!

A smile just crept onto my face when I saw this picture. Pineapple unagi (eel) with avocado sauce, topped with crispy little quinoa nuggets. More please!

If you've watched Top Chef or any other cooking shows, you might have heard about the 63 degree egg. Someone figured out that an egg white begins to set at 63 degrees Celsius (63 degrees Fahrenheit would just give you a runny tepid egg). B can probably explain the science behind all of this but from my completely non-scientific point of view, this egg was dreamy. Cracking the yolk and letting it mix with the meaty/salty mushrooms is a little bowl of brunch heaven.

When our mostly mute non-waiter set this down he said simply "carne asada." I couldn't have described it better myself. This was carne asada. It was good carne asada, but not so interesting.

For some reason, toward the end of the meal the kitchen started sending out two of each dish. According to the waiter, you're only supposed to get one dish to share between two people but we didn't complain. Unfortunately, the double the pleasure began with a dish that featured beans and eggs. B doesn't like beans or eggs but he will eat anything that Jose Andres deems worthy of serving. He managed to eat (and enjoy!) his own little bowl o' beans with a fried egg on top.

Lucky for me, we also got two of the next dish: coconut rice, crispy rice, and ginger. The waiter kept saying that we didn't "have to finish it if we didn't want to," but I'm glad he didn't try to take it away from me. I might have bitten his hand. I love coconut rice and this version was the best I've ever had.

At this point I was really getting full but who am I to turn away a fat slab of pork belly with a passion fruit oil glaze? The passion fruit oil was bruleed on the top which made for a crackling finish. Sorry arteries.

The final piece of this gastronomically-dazzling puzzle was the pan dulce with cinnamon syrup. It tasted just like the cinnamon toast my sister and I used to make as kids but with fancier bread than the Weber's white bread we used to use. Luckily I have a separate dessert stomach that comes in handy in marathon meals like this.

Second Thoughts From B

As J mentioned, this was like Minibar-lite. A completely delightful circus of flavors, aromas, textures, temperatures, and colors. Food as art, in Jose Andres' signature style. All of that would be great but here's the thing... it was $35.

In their Latino Dim Sum, Cafe Atlantico has created the gateway drug for future foodies. Never has elite fine dining been so accessible. Chef Andres is playful and creative, yet his food never feels exclusive. It is familiar, yet so interestingly different at the same time.

I think it was captured particularly well in the recent 60 Minutes piece on Chef Andres that you can see here.

J and I love treating ourselves to chef's menus for special occasions. We have come to appreciate some of the finer nuances of the kitchen, so this is right up our alley. But we also know that not everyone cares. For many, a simple burger is all they need. However, for anyone slightly intrigued by this, for anyone who enjoys food as more than just nourishment, find your way into the good hands of Chef Andres because there's a whole new world out there for you.
Café Atlántico on Urbanspoon


iEatDC said...

This is one of my favorite meals in the past year, and definitely the best brunch. I loved the liquid-center conch fritter and basically everything else that hit the table. I agree with what you said about CA as a gateway drug, because it IS accessible but still super fun. Glad you enjoyed it!

Angela said...

GREAT post! I definitely need to go now, my boyfriend and I just went to Minibar and were talking about how we wish we could go again soon. This seems like a more affordable options...

Alix said...

Ooh that looks good! I don't know if it was the same piece, but I caught a segment on CBS Sunday Morning about Jose Andres and it was really interesting - especially when he was volunteering at DC Central Kitchen. I'd be happy to spend money at his restaurants!