Washington, D.C. Opening: Barmini

Superchef José Andrés owns several of the hottest restaurants in Washington, D.C., like the always-fun Zaytinya, but it’s Minibar that holds the greatest allure, with foodies making reservations months in advance to enjoy a tasting menu of 30+ mindblowing dishes created using inventive ingredients and ultramodern techniques. The same philosophy goes into the drinks at Barmini, which just opened at the same address. Cocktail hour will never be the same.

It’s the bleeding edge of mixology as applied to classic cocktails courtesy of drink wizard Juan Coronado. Think "airs," barrel aging, infusions, and a few ingredients and techniques we’ve never even heard of. Since you’d best have some food in your belly during an evening of drinking on this level, a few light bites are also on the menu, like Butternut Squash Meringue with Yogurt and Honey, but they play second fiddle to the sublime artistry in the antique glass in front of you. There are precisely 100 cocktails to choose from, one of which is the weird and cool Scandinavian Cup,  with coriander aquavit, white vermouth, grapefruit bitters, absinthe and Viking syrup, a blend of chamomile, citrus peel, cloves and brown sugar made popular by the Vikings. Yeah, ain’t that some stuff. 

The small, er, mini bar is likely to be just as popular as its restaurant counterpart, so be sure to get reservations (through the website) well in advance. Drink prices range from $14-$20, which is the same you’d pay for a vodka tonic at some overhyped velvet rope spot, so, on some weird level, they’re a bargain. 

[Related: BlackBook Washington D.C. Guide]

The Micro Restaurant Trend Has Hit the Big Time From Nashville to New York

It’s a Tuesday night at Atera, a restaurant cloaked behind smoky windows on a quiet street in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. The stone countertop is occupied by two couples sipping cocktails in Necco Wafer pastels garnished with geranium leaves and sorrel stems. They gaze over the U-shaped bar into a glass-walled kitchen where a small army of cooks armed with tweezers perform surgery on a bowl of lime- and cream-colored ribbons flecked with black sesame seeds. Coos and soft murmurs hover over the curious plated landscapes that appear every few moments. Throughout the evening, two sets of 16 diners arrive, sit, and bemusedly take in their $150, 20-plus course tasting menu.

No menus. Counter seats. Cocktails as food. Impossible reservations. Open kitchens. Moss, nasturtium, tarragon dust, and beets that resemble lava rocks. And tweezers. Always tweezers. These are the things you can expect to encounter at micro restaurants like Atera, one of several establishments defining haute-petite dining. And for the restaurateurs behind each they are the definition of a passion project.

“I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants and I can say with a great deal of certitude that no one is doing what we’re doing.” Even over the phone, Chef Phillip Foss’s animation is palpable. “I wanted a place where I do the food, and I wanted my personality to come through.” His 22-seat EL Ideas in downtown Chicago was born of a commissary kitchen he used to prep for his former food truck business, Meatyballs Mobile. When he realized it had a restaurant license, he set up shop with his dining room table from home and started cooking one seating a night for 12 people at $135. Eventually the guest list crept up to 22. “The kitchen is wide open so guests will frequently come back and see what we’re up to,” says Foss. Dishes range from artfully composed mini-forests of snails and mushrooms to beautifully unrecognizable diner fare basics like french fries and ice cream. Though he prefers not to compare the atmosphere to that of a dinner party, the intimate set-up allows diners to interact with one another and the kitchen with a comfortable familiarity. As each of the dozen or so courses appears, a member of the kitchen explains the dish to the entire room: Oohs and ahs, coos and soft murmurs.

Atera and EL Ideas are two models that started small, literally. On the other end of the continuum are restaurateurs like José Andrés and his ThinkFoodGroup, which began with spaces as large as the 300-seat Bazaar in Los Angeles before opening the diminutive six-seat Minibar in an underutilized space at Café Atlántico, a former TFG venue in Washington, D.C.’s Penn Quarter. From a chef/restaurateur’s perspective, Minibar also served as a mad scientist’s dream lab, and it proved to be an effective, brand-boosting tool that paved the way for a pile of accolades. “That was when José’s national and international nominations kicked in,” says Rob Wilder, CEO of TFG. “It was an important part of our story.” “José talked for years about wanting a restaurant with one table,” says Wilder. Minibar originally served two seatings of six each night at $120. Recently reopened at a stand-alone location, the new Minibar serves a $225, 20-course tasting menu to two seatings of 12 a night. True to the laboratory concept, dishes from Minibar have made their way into Andrés’s other ventures: The Bazaar sends out 400-500 air bread and Kobe Philly cheesesteaks a night, while hundreds of salt-air margaritas cross the counters of Oyamel and China Poblano each week.

Though Chef David Chang’s 12-seat Momofuku Ko in New York is often cited as the driving model behind the current micro restaurant trend, Minibar opened in 2003, a full five years prior. “When Ferran [Adrià] was operating El Bulli [in Spain], it was a required experience,” says Wilder. “It was a big inspiration for the creation of Minibar.” Certainly the proliferation of Adriá’s modern cooking techniques has played a pivotal role in inspiring the micro restaurant trend. At the moment, New York—specifically Brooklyn— is a petri dish of Adrià–inspired, aspirational, nutshell spaces, including Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and Blanca, a project from the team behind Williamsburg’s popular pizza restaurant Roberta’s. However influential modern cooking has been on any of their menus, this style of dining is a clear derivation of Japanese omakase menus—from direct interaction with chefs over counter-style seating to the surrender diners make to a meandering, menuless meal. And this new hybrid of personal attention, extended experience, and enthusiastic submission seems to be sitting well with those responsible for handing out Michelin stars: Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare was awarded three in the 2013 Michelin Guide, Atera and Momofuku Ko earned two apiece, and newcomer Blanca garnered one.

In Nashville, Tennessee, where Michelin stars don’t exist, Max and Ben Goldberg have opened The Catbird Seat in a rambling old home above genteel cocktail bar The Patterson House. “The impetus for The Catbird Seat was the ability to work with chefs Josh [Habiger] and Erik [Anderson],” says Ben Goldberg. “They have complete creative control, and we wanted to realize their hopes, dreams, and aspirations.” Like other scaled-down ventures, diners sit around a U-shaped bar or at one of two banquettes—32 to 36 per night—and wander through seven to eleven courses served directly by the chefs, including variations of Nashville standards like hot chicken—spicy chicken skin, dill pickle salt, and Wonder Bread puree. “They touch every plate that leaves the kitchen. Josh and Eric wanted to stay true to that standard,” says Goldberg, “so it forced us to open a really small restaurant.” It would be naïve to assume that the chefs and owners of The Catbird Seat do not enjoy the recognition they’ve received for the beautifully quirky experience they have created, but like all micro restaurants, it’s about the passion they bring to each plate. “I don’t see myself doing a restaurant like this anywhere else,” Goldberg admits. “Honestly, this is a love of the game situation.”

Washington, D.C. Opening: Minibar by José Andrés

Conceived originally as a concept-within-a-concept, Minibar was a component of star chef Jose Andres’ ephemeral but popular America Eats Tavern inside DC’s National Archives building. Fully intended to be split off as its own entity, it has now found a more fashionable home in the Penn Quarter.

With a supremely stylish and slightly surreal interior by Juli Capella (known for Barcelona’s super hip Hotel Omm), Andres’ avant-garde proclivities are allowed to run wild (olive oil bonbons, cotton candied eel–you get the idea) under a bizarrely magnificent sailboat-hull ceiling installation. Mad, innit?

The Fantastic DC Inauguration Dinners You Won’t Be Attending

Remember your very own small-town prom, and how you impressed your frilly date by scooping a table at the singular nice restaurant around? Then you put your glasses back on and realized you were surrounded by fellow high schoolers — it was your first lesson in supply versus demand. Welcome to Washington DC next month, when America’s coolness crashes the capital, and the capital tries desperately to bring it in return. At this point, forget about inaugural balls, exclusive gold-specked VIP tickets, and the password-protected after-after parties. Where’s dinner? K Street’s been counting restaurants on fingers and claims it can handle all that glitterati — just like New Orleans found everyone a seat in the Superdome. Where you dine on the night of the Second Coming defines how many degrees of separation lie between you and the Obamas. Inauguration also settles any longstanding office squabbles about Washington’s top restaurants. It’s quite simple this time: Who’s booked and who ain’t?

Like the president’s first term, CityZen is four years old; unlike the president, the Mandarin Oriental’s showcase restaurant still looks astonishingly fresh and wrinkle-free. Young and full of vigor and hope, chef Eric Ziebold was christened this year’s James Beard award winner, which is only one explanation for CityZen’s inaugural blackout. The lucky few with reservations will devour miniature Parker House rolls kissed with sea salt and be wowed by a Bible-length wine list. Still want in? You could apply as a waiter, but then, can you turn tables without touching the napkins?

Moving on, both Equinox and Corduroy have been bought out for the night of January 20. Both offer gleeful New American cuisine that’s oh so seasonal and all sourced from a commutable distance. Both are intimate, personable, and cozy as sweet potatoes. Equinox is a parked motorcade’s distance from the White House; Corduroy’s the gentrified pride of an historic African-American neighborhood.

It’s almost too obvious to mention, but José Andres’ elusive, six-seat private table at Minibar is off limits just like every other day of the year — you’ll have to go elsewhere for a breath of watermelon air. Meanwhile, Michel Richard’s $350-per-head Citronelle is “fully booked” but taking names on some imaginary waitlist, “just in case.” Chef Richard lovingly refers to his lower-priced restaurant as the “democratization of Citronelle”, so Central might have presented a worthy consolation … had it not been bought out for the entire day. Alas, on this one night, cheaper does not equal available: U Street’s legendary Ben’s Chili Bowl is the diner in which you are most likely to get trampled. Be warned.

Now that your plebian status is confirmed, fear not — Washington DC is overflowing with second-tier, semi-fine dining spots just waiting to sell you their prix fixe inauguration menu ending in a special chocolatey dessert. The new Adour at the St. Regis is still wide open, and despite Obama’s royal nod; Wolfgang Puck’s The Source is “only taking reservations after January 1st”, which is a Washingtonian euphemism for “slightly overrated.” Establishmentarian favorite The Prime Rib is generously accepting table reservations before 5:30 and after 9:30, and the Four Seasons’ too-new-to-know Bourbon Steak doesn’t have time to fill up. See you in DC, then. All you Hollywood types might want to bring a packed lunch — the rest of us will be hanging out in the bars that will be open for everyone, all night long.

Short Stack: Openings

New YorkZorzi opens, bringing Northern Italy to Murray Hill via salt cod risotto and stewed cuttlefish with polenta. ● The LES makes room for the Sacha Petraskes’ White Star, which he calls a “sipping spirits bar.” Standouts include the cocktail “Death in the Afternoon” — equal parts Champagne and Absinthe. ● Spicy Pickle opens in Brooklyn Heights, taking DIY subs a notch higher.

● Fast food chain Empanada Joe’s opens in Morningside Heights to lukewarm reviews. ● Apotheke opens later this week, taking up residence in Chinatown’s Bloody Angle and serving up medically inspired cocktails “for whatever ails you.” ● After several months of renovations, Home reopens in West Village. The menu’s the same, and the year-round, heated-in-the-winter outdoor garden space is the same, but the kitchen — it’s brand new.

San Francisco ● No wifi, no comfy seating, no fancy drinks, just excellent brew (of the coffee bean varietal). Four Barrel Coffee is open! ● With just two booths and seven stools, mini lounge Minibar opens in Western Addition. This tiny spot showcases local artists, rotating artists every six weeks. ● Spanish eats Joya is open for lunch and dinner on University. ● From boba to booze, Bubble Zone in Richmond has reopened as Sake Zone. ● The Mission welcomes Latin American Limon Rotisserie, sequel to Limon, which closed in June.

Los Angeles ● Gouda, Swiss, Bleu — if those words are like sweet nothings to you, check out Andrew’s Cheese Shop, just open in Santa Monica. Home delivery (by bike, natch) is available. ● Opaque is back. Dine in the dark, this time in a new venue: inside the V Lounge on Wilshire, in Santa Monica. ● Mission Cantina opens in Hollywood, the third spot by George Abou-Daoud in a four-block radius, taking up residence next door to the Delancy and down the street from the Bowery. Look for an extensive Tequila menu. ● Ventura goes upscale with addition of the Watermark. Highlights include the locally grown food, the rooftop bar, and plenty of Central Coast wines. ● Tapas and Wine Bar C opens downtown. Roll out and look for French-maid waitresses in six inch heels, fur-covered walls, flat-screen TVs, and rowdy karaoke. ● Apple Lounge officially opens after Labor Day, the first of three spots to take over where Pearl left off. Apple Lounge will be joined by Apple Restaurant and the Pussycat Dolls Lounge. ● Sashi Sushi + Sake Lounge opens in Manhattan Beach.

Chicago ● Asian Fusion Urban Belly opens in Avondale. Focus is on noodles, but not the ramen kind.