Cafe Atlantico: The Luck of the Draw?
This was our fourth visit to Cafe Atlantico in the past 18 months or so and surprisingly, a disappointing one. We sat by the back wall of the second floor directly across from the MiniBar. I should note here that I love MiniBar and believe it is well worth the frustrating effort to get a seat. It is a unique experience that anyone who is serious about food should have. Both of the chefs at MiniBar were the same from our visit six months ago. If anyone does go try to sit on the right facing them; the chef on the right side of the MiniBar is far more talkative and engaging than the other who seems to focus more on food prep. Personally, I believe a personable "chef/ambassador" adds to the experience.
On the three previous Cafe Atlantico visits we've had several great dishes including "foie gras" soup and, I think, one of the city's best guacamoles. Last night in about an hour I noted at least fifteen of these coming out of the kitchen one level down from us.
I also noted a lot of foam.
The deconstructed Feijao Tropeiro, my heirloom tomato and watermelon salad and several other dishes all had what we thought was basically a rather bland, flavorless foam resting on top. The heirloom tomatoes were especially disappointing: for the last month or so I've driven the 45 miles roundtrip from Reston to the "road to Waterford" off of route 9 to buy heirloom tomatoes from Jim Riley who grows seven or eight different kinds. I've left his farm stand with almost 20 pounds of tomatoes for ourselves and our neighbors. They are that good. But he is not alone: there are excellent heirloom tomatoes in a number of places around the D. C. area.
But not last night in Cafe Atlantico. Nor is the foam viniagrette that puffs on top of them very tasty. Nor the two small crumbs of pistachio that finished the summer salad's description. It was a huge disappointment. Carrott soup had a nice presentation. While we both thought it was very good, it just didn't really taste "special."
The real disappointment of the evening was the Striped Bass Veracruz which had a fairly small crisp, lightly battered and grilled filet resting on a small bed of olives, capers, raisins and tomatoes. It was good. But again, just not a dish that would make me want to make a reservation for next weekend. A diver scallop dish did find delicious scallops with a very good cauliflower "American caviar couscous."
A year or so ago a good friend arranged a small dinner for eight of us at Cafe Atlantico. He specified the courses (which included a superb foie gras soup) and a number of other courses that found us back at CA two weeks later. We also became serious about experiencing MiniBar and eventually had an incredible evening there (including a man next to us resting on his knee proposing marriage after dinner!).
Last night was different. It was good. But it wasn't...exceptionately good.
Perhaps it was our luck of the draw but I left with a concern. Jose has the hottest restaurant in L. A. now, Bazaar, which has four stars from the L. A. Times. His television show, Made in Spain, helps ensure that Cafe Atlantico will be full almost every night.
But was it really the luck of our draw or is his founding restaurant off of his radar? I sincerely hope that the responses I receive to this tell me that they have had an entirely different recent experience. Jose Andres is an anchor of the D. C. restaurant industry.
I had the same experience at Atlantico for the dim sum bruch that I've had at Jaleo and Oyamel - 33% of the dishes we ordered were great; 34% so-so and 33% honestly terrible. I think it's a classic case of a chef stretched too thin, although I moved here well after he had expanded his empire so I'm not sure how they were when it was a smaller operation.
On a side note; the only application of a foam that I've seen that truly elevates a dish is the salt foam on the margaritas at Oyamel. It leads to a perfect distribution of salt and you don't run out of salt before margarita.