José Andrés, in a gleaming white chef’s coat drawing out blue eyes that dart here and there and never quite stop, because he never quite stops, is not happy with the yellowtail escabeche that has just landed on the table at Bazaar, his new South Beach restaurant at the arty Philippe Starck-designed SLS Hotel.
In just a few hours, the restaurant will open its doors for the first dinner service. And Andrés, who has been in town off and on over the past few months to lead his staff through setting up the sparkling new kitchen, dreaming up several dishes especially for Miami and tweaking other dishes that are big hits at the Beverly Hills Bazaar, has just returned to taste some of the final takes.
“What do you think about the escabeche?,” he asks.
You don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with Andrés, top ambassador of modern Spanish cuisine in the United States (earlier this year, Time magazine named him among the 100 Most Influential People in the World), but the escabeche could use a little ramping up. Luckily, Andrés answers his own question: “Maybe we have made a mistake,” Andrés tells the chef who has brought the dish out and is standing by.
The fish is very fresh, the dish very light, the chef tries to explain. “It’s lacking salt,” Andrés says. “It’s lacking escabeche. I didn’t have to taste it to know that. I see it. I smell it. Si o si?
It’s so light that it’s not escabeche. And I’m missing fried capers. In this case, more is more.”
And with that, the fish disappears from the table, the chef back to the drawing board. Andrés is happier with the Cubano, a Miami take on his “air sandwich,” featuring a crispy bread (it can read more like a cracker) that is hollow inside. There’s Iberico ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, chopped pickle.
“This is my homage to Miami and to Cuban food,” he says. But after his first bite, he decides it’s not quite there yet.
“The cheese is too liquid,” he tells another kitchen staffer who has delivered the bocadito-sized sandwiches. “It’s supposed to be a foam.”
Bazaar’s menu references “molecular gastronomy,” that science-experiment-meets-high-art cuisine born in Spain (Andrés trained at El Bulli under Ferran Adriá, the movement’s leader) but it ultimately keeps itself in check. Sure, you can order a frozen liquid nitrogen caipirinha, whipped up tableside so that you can get off on the laboratory smoke. Or you could go for the salt air margarita, the classic served up with a dollop of aerated saltiness floating on top and dissolving on the tongue. But the offerings here are more down to earth than the outright culinary abstractions and deconstructions Andres concocts at his acclaimed six-seat minibar in Washington.
“These are my mother’s croquetas,” Andrés says as he crunches into an old-school, masterfully fried chicken croquette, crispy outside, velvety inside.
He holds up a tiny cone filled with La Serena cheese (made from Merino sheep’s milk), topped with membrillo and walnut dust. “Nothing strange about this cone, either. Sometimes you can elevate the most traditional dish by just paying attention to the quality of the ingredients and the way you serve it. It’s not the same to drink a paper cup of guarapo on the street as it is to drink the guarapo in a glass, with good clear ice cubes. There is a part that is simply about respecting the food.”
Take the yuca churros served alongside a toothpaste tube filled with peanut butter and honey. “They look like traditional churros. But we had to try over and over again to get them right with the yuca dough. You want them to be light and crispy. And the kitchen has to be able to produce them in quantity,” Andrés says. “There are ways we could make life easier on ourselves, but you only live once. And to me it’s worth investing the time and the thought.”
Andrés, named Outstanding Chef of the Year at the 2011 James Beard Awards, has taught science and cooking courses at Harvard with his mentor and close buddy Adriá, expounding on “soft matter science.” He runs a portfolio of 10 restaurants , including the D.C. area’s Café Atlantico (which focuses on Nuevo Latino cuisine and also houses minibar); Jaleo, a Spanish tapas place with outposts in Bethesda and Arlington; Zaytinya, featuring Greek, Turkish and Lebanese cuisine; and Oyamel, Mexican small plates. In Las Vegas there is another Jaleo, and China Poblano, which marries Mexican cuisine with Chinese.”
What intrigues him most in the kitchen?
“Fruits and vegetables. They awaken the senses much more than a chunk of meat. Meat can be very easy. Even a bad piece of meat you can cook and make taste good,” he says. “But a bad tomato, there is not much you can do with that. There is so much yet to experiment with fruits and vegetables. Zucchini seeds, if you prepare them a certain way, are very much like caviar with a strong concentration of zucchini flavor inside. One day at minibar we came up with a system to boil the zucchini, separate the seeds. We came up with a dish [Zucchini in Textures] that is made of three layers, all just zucchini, smoothed to a cream, in a gelatin, but all zucchini.”
Andrés, 43, arrived in New York in the early 1990s after a spat with Adriá. Something about Adriá questioning Andres’ punctuality.
“It was a nothing fight. We got over it right away and we’re still best friends. I was in my early 20s. He was in his mid 20s. I left and I called him from New York. I figured I’d spend six months away and then go back home,” Andrés says.
Six months turned into more than two decades. “People ask me if after all of these years in the United States, I identify as more Spanish or more American. And in the end, I’m very Spanish, but I think I’m a little like the farmer. The land that you till, the land that you sweat over, that is land that you claim. And my laboring has been in America.”
Suddenly, toward the end of the tasting — Andrés is disappointed that the kitchen has decided the Cuban coffee with foie gras is not ready to serve yet — he notices you’re drinking only water.
“Why doesn’t she have a cocktail?,” he asks a server, who explains they already offered. “What do you mean you offered?,” his yelling fills the dining room, but he’s clearly joking . “You don’t offer, you bring! This is America. People are going to tell you no, especially at lunch. You bring and you pour down their throats!”
And so, just before dessert, several cocktails arrive. Andrés sticks to the Cuba Libre. (“I think Cuba should be free,” reads the menu entry.) But he wants you to sample the agave con leche, the rum sour, the “ultimate gin & and tonic,” made with the rose-petal-and-cucumber-infused Hendricks gin and Fever-Tree’s pristine tonic. What takes it over the top are the fresh lemon verbena and crushed juniper berries, and the single giant ice cube, which keeps the whole thing from melting too quickly.
Andrés is too much the artist to worry about something as rigid as the regular order of courses. Sensation is the thing. So, after sampling caramelized bananas with mojito sorbet, after the pineapple and chili pepper popsicles, he remembers one more thing he wants you to try: Olives stuffed with anchovies and piquillo peppers, which come in an open tin.
“The humble olive,” he says, holding one up between thumb and index finger. “But they’re cured in-house. This is not one of those bad olives everyone has gotten used to eating in this country. This one is carefully cured, and it’s stuffed with a very good piquillo, a very good anchovy. You come here, maybe you just go up to the bar, you order these olives, a martini, and you savor the moment and maybe that is all you need that day.”