Thursday, September 18, 2008

Happy Birthday

Downtown has many places to do a power lunch, but few venues that can walk the line between an ordinary evening out and occasion dining. We had a birthday to celebrate and another to anticipate, so we decided to have dinner at Café Atlantico.

I like Zaytinya, Oyamel and Jaleo very much, but Café Atlantico is my favorite outpost of Chef José Andrés' empire. House in a three-story building a block away from the Navy Memorial, the restaurant features a full bar in the ground floor, an open kitchen in the second floor, ample seating throughout. The service is always attentive and friendly and the decor incorporates Caribbean elements (in lovely washes of red, orange and turquoise in fabrics) without going into sensory overload or full-blown kitsch. The first level of the third story, where we sat, has a view of the famed MiniBar, the limited-seating restaurant within a restaurant.

The restaurant's signature cocktails are well worth their own trip. The mojitos are made with fresh ingredients (you can always taste the preservatives in a mix, no matter how good or expensive it is) and proper garnishes, the passion fruit martini is a great seasonal drink, and the air Margarita is the best use of a foam I've seen in a drink: the lime zest and salt literally float on top of the lime juice and tequila, giving it the consistency of a frothy cappuccino.

Like Oyamel, its sister restaurant, Café Atlantico offers guacamole, which can be prepared table-side (a traditional preparation with fresh chili, diced onions and tomatoes that can give the famed one at Rosa Mexicano a run for its money) or prepared in the kitchen with Cotija, un-aged cheese. The latter is an interesting take on a classic, but we opted for the table-side last night. Prepared in a traditional molcajete (a mortar made of volcanic rock, typical of Mexico) and served with tortilla chips.

The menu is a tour of Latinamerican culinary traditions and ingredients and the Dim Sum brunch, served on Sundays, has great examples of Nuevo Latino and Avant-Garde cooking. Patrons used to the prices at Jaleo and Zaytinia may find Café Atlantico to be far more expensive, but keep in mind that these are full dinner portions, not tapas or mezze. Since we had guacamole and wanted to leave room for dessert, we went straight to entrees. O. had the Duck Confit, a cured duck leg poached in its own fat, Pedro Ximenez sherry, accompanied with Brussel sprouts, apples and raisins, garnished with pine nuts, a fantastic dish to mark the beginning of Autumn. Jd. had the flank steak, grilled and accompanied by malanga (a root vegetable closely related to the Taro Root, found in the Caribbean)two ways, as a puree and as chips, providing three very distinct textures in one plate. Jl. opted for a scallop appetizer that could be doubled for an entree, scallops with coconut rice, crispy rice, ginger, squid and squid ink oil. The oil provided the aromatics without coloring the delicate rice black, and the crispy rice kept the dish from being too creamy. I went full-on Caribbean and had the Jerk Chicken, wonderfully spiced (with clear and present notes of anise, clove and cinnamon) and accompanied with a take on Puerto Rican Mofongo, a plantain puree seasoned with garlic, olive oil and pork crackings, garnished with bacon bits, roasted garlic and pearl onions that seeped the jerk seasonings.

Though we were fully satisfied after the first two courses, birthday etiquette mandated that desserts be had. We ordered the sorbet of the day, passion fruit (to keep with the theme) and the Bizcocho, a warm chocolate cake with a Venezuelan chocolate flan (that was too runny to be an actual flan, more like a creme anglaise, but it still tasted wonderful), banana foam, and a banana slices squirted with lime juice, a staple of Latin fruit plates. The plate was small but layered textures masterfully, from firm to gooey to airy.

A great place to celebrate, be it friends or food.

Cafe Atlantico
405 8th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 393-0812 view menu
Café Atlántico on Urbanspoon

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