review: a tropical umbrella…
I can’t believe that I lived in Washington, D.C. and never once stepped foot in Cafe Atlantico.
Jaleo, yes. But never Cafe Atlantico.
Neither did I visit Jose Andres’s Mediterranean “mezze” restaurant, Zaytinya, which opened shortly before I moved away, or minibar, which always seemed (and still seems) like too much of a hassle.
Cafe Atlantico’s “Latino Dim Sum,” served only on Sundays, sounds like the kind of cultural collision I generally try to avoid. But everyone raves about it.
There’s nothing tremendously earth-shattering about the food here now, though it might have been slightly more so when the restaurant first opened two decades ago (in 1990).
Andres’s Latino “dim sum” is, basically, a smattering of creative tapas served with chopsticks, a fork, a knife, and a spoon. It’s a mish-mash of tropical ingredients and flavors from around the globe. He calls it “Nuevo Latino” cuisine.
Some of the dishes seemed Asian-inspired, like cubes of raw tuna wrapped in tissue-thin shavings of coconut (“Tuna Ceviche with Coconut“). There are slices of grilled eel topped with tissue-thin slices of pineapple (“Pineapple-Unagi“). And there’s a bowl of “Coconut Rice,” a creamy, savory risotto garnished with chives and rice puffs.
Some of it seemed like it could be straight from the Caribbean, or Norman Van Aiken’s kitchen. There are “Malanga Chips” – crispy chips of taro and plantain seasoned with a musky curry spice. There’s a fried dough ball – a “fritter” – with a hollow core oozing with cream sauce studded with diced conch meat (“Conch Fritters“).
And all of it somehow falls convincingly under the umbrella of new Latino cuisine.
My friend Houston asked her friend, Indo, to join us. The three of us decided to make ordering simple and opted for the 14-course dim sum tasting menu ($35 per person; $25 for the 12-course vegetarian tasting menu).*
The question of value of the tasting menu is worth considering here. A la carte, the dishes ranged in price between $3 to $8, with the average probably being somewhere around $4.75.
Some of the dishes came with two portions (there were two scallops – large ones – on the “Scallops with Cauliflower Puree” dish, two oysters on the “Oyster with Mango-Lime Oil,” and two conch fritters). Most seemed to come with three pieces to a dish – three cigalas halves, three endives, three pieces of tuna. However, it is difficult to know whether these were their normal a la carte portions, or if they were tailored to our three-person tasting menu format. Our situation was even more difficult to assess since Indo couldn’t have crustacea. Our server ended up bringing out 18 different dishes to accommodate Indo’s allergy. She even brought out multiples of the ones we particularly liked, though I have no idea whether this was the normal course of business, or whether it was her attempt to make up for the cocktail she accidentally poured over half our table. I suspect that individual dish portion sizes for a single person tasting menu would be smaller.
Assuming that the quantity of food we got was normal, then it turns out that ordering the tasting menu was slightly less expensive than if we had ordered those same dishes a la carte.
On top of the 18 dishes we were served as a part of the tasting menu, we also added three savory dishes and two desserts from the a la carte menu.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal.
Endive with Queso Fresco Espuma
Walnuts and pomegranate ($3)
Plantains and curry ($3)
Avocado sauce ($6.50)
With a liquid center($5)
Potato & Vanilla Mousse
American Caviar ($4) (x3)
Hot & Cold Foie Gras and Corn Soup ($5) (x3)
Huitlacoche & Wild Mushroom Quesadilla ($7) (x2)
Crispy rice and ginger ($4) (x2)
Pork Belly Confit
Passion fruit oil ($7.50) (x2)
Cinnamon syrup ($5)
Date marmalade and queso fresco ($4.50)
As far as brunch goes, Cafe Atlantico’s Latino dim sum adds a splash of color to an otherwise predictable slate of options.
The food is all very good, and I suppose it’s a novel experience. But it didn’t leave me raving.
True to the dim sum experience, there’s a factory feel to it all.
Here, instead of steaming carts with loud-mouthed drivers, you have servers mad-dashing about the crowded, three-level dining room with trays stacked with dishes. Some might find it festive. I call it chaotic.
The restaurant was packed. They seated us 20 minutes after our reservation time. We might have been delayed even longer had I not checked in with the host about 15 minutes into our wait and mentioned that my friend and I were both needing to catch a flight out later that afternoon. While at no point did we feel rushed, other than by our own time constraints, getting people in and out efficiently seemed to be top-of-mind for the staff. There was a steady stream of diners exiting and entering throughout the two hours we were there.
Dishes were churned out with the same slapdash affect as at a dim sum house. The food wasn’t sloppily plated, necessarily, but most if it looked like it rolled off an assembly line; attempted order.
Yet, almost everything was properly cooked.
My favorite dishes were the more traditional, hearty Spanish ones. The “Grilled Skirt Steak ‘Carne Asada,'” for example, was simple, straightforward, and tasty. The strips of meat were tender and juicy. “Pork Belly Confit” was amazing – the layers of melting collagen and tender meat were almost indistinguishable from each other.
The egg dishes – all of them – were great, especially the one with a delicious layer of pork-stewed beans (“Fried Egg with Black Beans & Pork“).
The “Coconut Rice” was also very good, an unexpectedly savory comfort (I had expected something more akin to sweet rice pudding). And the “Huitlacoche & Wild Mushroom Quesadilla” were great – a toasty tortilla sandwich layered with a beefy, layer of silky mushrooms glued together with melted cheese.
Other than the cigalas, which were mushy (Could they have been frozen? Past experience suggests so.), there were few truly disappointing dishes. The “Hot & Cold Foie Gras and Corn Soup” sounded better than it tasted: warm corn soup with a cold foie gras froth, it tasted like a mistake. I like my soups either all hot or all cold. This just left me feeling lukewarm, literally.
The balance of our fare fell somewhere between forgettable and good. The scallops were good (and, at $6 for two, giant U-8s, the best buy of the day), as were the oysters. The packets of anchovy mousse wrapped in thinly shaved sheets of mango were creative – admirable for the subtlety – but not terribly moving (“Mango-Anchovy Ravioli“). Even less interesting was “Endive with Queso Fresco Espuma,” another casualty of the iSi epidemic.** Crunchy endive leaves beg for a hefty partner – a cloud-like foam is not it.
The “Cauliflower-Quinoa Cous Cous” was more quinoa than cauliflower. In fact, the only cauliflower I found in the dish was a tiny swatch of what seemed like cauliflower puree beneath the mound of quinoa. But the quinoa was delicious.
Our two a la carte desserts were both good, but hardly worth the $9 price tag (I recall them being listed at $6ish on the menu). The poetically named “Cuatro Leches ‘Morir Soñando‘” (“to die dreaming”) featured the three traditional “leches” plus a fourth – almond milk. The “Warm Apples & Raisins,” brightened by a swatch of tamarind paste, was a more-tart-than-sweet version of an apple and raisin streudel; the icy green apple sorbet was a poor accompaniment. These warm, silky chunks of apples needed something creamier.
The “Pan Dulce,” the dessert that was included in our tasting menu, was my favorite sweet dish. Like the other dishes I favored, it was simple and comforting. This was essentially stuffed French toast – custardy slices of pan-fried bread layered with a bubbly layer of melted cheese and doused with cinnamon syrup. It was very good.
Like the refreshing and well-made limeade, our “Latino dim sum” brunch at Cafe Atlantico was a bubbly and fun occasion, much more because of the company than the food. Unless someone lands a reservation to minibar and invites me, I won’t be rushing back.
405 8th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004
latino dim sum brunch: 14-course tasting ($35 p/person) plus supplements and desserts.
first visit: late march, 2010
* We were seated about 20 minutes after our reservation time, which put us just past the 1:30 p.m. deadline for ordering the tasting menu. Our server talked to the manager, who let us order the tasting menu.
** I do not object to the use of iSi chargers, or any other new-fangled “modernista” culinary maneuvers, as long as it serves a compelling purpose, or add something valuable to the plate.