Jose Andres is the legendary Spanish chef behind Cafe Atlantico's Minibar—an exclusive six-seat restaurant within a restaurant serving innovative tasting menus of 26 to 30 dishes each night—and several other restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area, as well as The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills.
He's known both for impeccable traditional cuisine as well as wildly inventive dishes that incorporate so-called molecular gastronomy. So there was no doubt in my mind that his food is amazing—but how would he feed a pair of vegetarians?
Beautifully, it turns out. I'd love to be all nonchalant and objective, but the honest truth? I was giddy as a schoolgirl going in, and the experience exceeded my expectations in most respects.
Not knowing how long to allow for LA traffic, we arrived at about half an hour early. Which turned out just fine, it gave us time to walk through the part of the enormous room devoted to a design exhibition and have a drink at the bar. The space is magical, like a carnival for adults but without the cheese factor. Fantastical, yet tasteful at the same time. One look and you know it is going to be no ordinary dinner.
I started with a "new style" dirty martini. The martini itself was actually clean and crisp, but it was topped with an olive brine "air" (a.k.a. foam). The effect was startling. Each sip started with a little salt and finished with the pure gin and vermouth. We noticed that this subtle control over seasoning is a trademark of Andres' magic. At the bottom of the glass was a spherified olive; biting through the alginate skin released a rush of intense olive juice. My wife's drink was a classic Bellini (champagne with peach puree), with a tiny baby Japanese peach at the bottom.
The Meatless Meal
The menu at The Bazaar is divided into two main sections. Nominally, classic tapas are for the Rojo room and modern dishes are in Blanca. But don't fear, in reality you can order anything at any table. When we met our server, we let him know that we'd like a vegetarian meal and that we couldn't have any nuts. I asked if they could simply select from the menu for us, going heavy on the modern dishes, and he readily agreed.
I love to go this route in good restaurants. (The Japanese word for it is omakase). It signals to the kitchen that you are adventurous and trust them to send their very best dishes. In this instance, I think we would have done even better to make this request in advance with our reservation. The way it played out, our waiter apparently made the selections himself. He certainly didn't do a bad job, but I have the feeling that if whoever was at the helm in the kitchen that night had been involved, it might have been even better.
Our first dish was sweet potato chips with yogurt, tamarind and star anise (pictured above). The chips were long, thin, perfectly crispy and well salted. My first dip in the yogurt made me chuckle out loud. It was in a rather large bowl which worried me that it would be overly filling. Instead it was beaten to a texture like whipped cream. You could take a huge scoop of it and it would just melt in your mouth into a tasty, creamy nothingness.
Next up was tomato and watermelon. Cubes of watermelon skewered with just the seed/gel sections of the tomatoes, and served with a Pedro Ximenez sherry reduction. This dish is so simple, but a tour de force of surprising texture. Eating just the gel of the tomatoes without the flesh is a completely different experience that somehow works with the refreshing melon.
Guacamole in little pouches of super-thin jicama certainly looked pretty, like little Chinese dumplings on the plate. The taste was a bit of a throwaway though—nothing all that special. I think the kitchen freaked out and left out the corn nuts (which aren't nuts, they are corn—so not an allergy issue). Probably with those it would have been better. A little salty crunch would elevated this dish.
The "organized" Caesar salad was delicious. Strips of romaine with a tasty dressing are wrapped into little sushi rolls with a jicama skin and topped with shaved parmigiano. Alongside are tiny little puffed croutons that just burst with more cheese flavor.
From the traditional menu, piquillo peppers were roasted, skinned and stuffed with goat cheese. Then came white asparagus, cooked sous-vide to crisp-tender perfection and packed in a sardine can with a yogurt sauce and black olives. Tiny carrots came on a bed of apple puree and topped with a curry foam. The curry tasted like a typical English-style Madras curry; I think a better blend of spices would improve this rather sweet dish.
Our favorite plate of the night was the "Hilly" cheese steak. An impossibly light pillow of "air" bread, really just a thin crisp but puffed up to the size of a sandwich roll was filled with melted cheese and topped with sauteed oyster mushrooms. I have to learn how it was made. Hint: Tilt this one before you bite in or you might have a handful of gooey cheese. Delicious and surprising.
Somewhere around this point in the meal, the caipirinha cart stopped by. Caipirinha is a Brazilian cocktail made with cachaça (sugarcane spirits), sugar and lime. The Bazaar version is mixed with liquid nitrogen at tableside, producing billowing clouds of steam and a slushy, refreshing drink that you start with a spoon and finish with a slurp. Good fun.
Alright, Back to the Food
Small potatoes were cooked "Canary Island style," which means boiled until dry in water as saline as the ocean, so that they actually develop a thin salt crust, then served with an unsalted salsa verde. Again we see the control over seasoning, though in this case the potato skins were so salty that we could only eat a few.
Cipollini onions are slow-braised until incredibly sweet, tender, and caramelized, then paired with mandarin orange segments and served with a passion fruit sauce and the most flavorful, dark green pumpkin seed oil. A very surprising flavor combination, but we both thought it worked well. I wondered if the mandarins were cleaned using enzymatic peeling.
Next was a small plate of roasted and peeled Japanese eggplant, piquillo peppers and strips of onion, laid out in little lines resembling a small fish, and drizzled with delicious olive oil.
Our final savory dish was a bowl of mushroom risotto. The rice was cooked beautifully, leaving a distinct textural bite to each grain. The mushroom stock was intensely flavored, turning the rice a rich brown. A perfect, satisfying dish that left us full but with just enough room for dessert.
Speaking of dessert, you have the option to have it at your table or move over to the patisserie area. We opted for the latter. We ordered the traditional flan, which was magnificently rich and creamy. We also sampled four bonbons.
The olive lollipop didn't do much for me. It was a little flat piece of white chocolate with a tiny amount of dehydrated black olive dust that I could barely taste. The "After Eight" was a nice piece of dark chocolate with a fresh mint leaf embedded in it. Maldon salt chocolate always works for me. And finally, the house-made chocolate covered Pop Rocks were really fun. They had exactly the classic pop-rock crackle on your tongue, intermingled with fine chocolate.
Service Report Card
Service for our meal was actually kind of uneven. The bartender was terrific, engaging and excited to talk about the drinks and the food we would soon experience. On the other hand, our main waiter seemed very young and awkward. Although he handled our requests competently, there was just this air of discomfort instead of warmth about him. It didn't detract from the amazing dinner, but it failed to add to it in the way that a great connection with a waiter can. When food runners brought the courses, some described each plate in great detail while others dropped it and ran.
Several plates kept arriving at once and it wasn't really clear if that was purposeful or poor timing.
When we moved over to the patisserie, service really took a nose dive. The waiter there gave us his spiel and ran off before my wife could ask a couple of questions. We had to hail him back. Coffee took so long to come out that we had finished all of our desserts first (a pet peeve of mine). In fairness though, he did bring the pop-rocks on the house, as a way to apologize for the slow coffee.
On balance though, I don't at all mean for the complaints about service to give the impression that the evening was anything less than incredible. We dine out a lot and this was one of our all-time favorite meals, and one we'll be talking about for a long time. I particularly appreciated that there was absolutely no sense of being rushed. The whole experience took about three hours, which I really like. This isn't a dinner purely for sustenance, it is sensual and intellectual entertainment. So why would I want it to hurry by?
So, Can Vegetarians Eat Well at The Bazaar?
Yes, very well. The total cost of our meal, including drinks, tax and tip was $240.