Tuesday November 24, 2009
Andrés, like most great chefs, admires the uncomplicated. In his kitchens that usually involves small plates, an expansion of the Spanish tapas concept that appeared in New York at least a quarter-century ago at two revered, long-gone restaurants, The Ballroom and El Internacional.
America in recent years has became obsessed with undersized portions—the inexpensiveness, the informality, the joy of knowing that if the food turns out to be not quite what you had in mind, you aren’t stuck with a lot of it. There’s even intimacy in small plates, the sharing of a couple of bites. Nobody does this better or more expansively than Andrés, and it’s no coincidence that the five dishes I liked best at his restaurants in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles are all miniaturized. I could eat all five at one sitting, and I would do so if traveling didn’t make it impractical.
Spain has infinite variations on the potato omelet, and I guarantee that Andrés’s version isn’t like any of them. The standard tortilla de patatas is a cake of fried potatoes, eggs, and onions of varying thicknesses, usually served at room temperature. What I ate at Jaleo was an archetypal, creamy French omelet with a potato filling. Even in French restaurants, that’s hard to find. Cooks simply don’t learn how to make them properly anymore, with a shell of beaten eggs encasing soft, barely cooked eggs and sautéed potatoes. Andrés told me the story behind the dish: On a Sunday in 1993, the legendary French chef Jean-Louis Palladin, who had a restaurant in D.C., walked into Jaleo. He ordered tortilla de patatas, sent it back, and told Andrés to do it the right way. “At first I had no idea who he was,” Andrés says. Palladin dragged Andrés back into the Jaleo kitchen, and taught him how to make an omelet the French way. Now, sixteen years later, it’s still made according to Palladin’s specifications. A wonderful story. A lovely omelet.
Spherification for breakfast! That would be a first, if only Minibar served breakfast, but this is simply one item on the Minibar tasting menu. The migas here are Spanish breadcrumbs, not Tex Mex corn-tortilla strips mixed into a scramble of eggs. A bonus the day I ate at Minibar was a side of orange chanterelles—did everybody but me know that exotic chanterelles grow wild in Maryland? The tricky part of this dish is the egg whites. They consist of egg-white powder and parmesan cheese that’s been grated into hot water. Then comes the famous Ferran Adrià trick of encasing them (as well as a fresh quail-egg yolk) in a thin, colorless, tasteless shell made with sodium alginate. There you have it, an egg that tastes as though it was hatched by an Italian hen. So much better than the real thing, even if it isn’t free range.