About two minutes after the photo below was snapped (at Omayel, in D.C. in late April), my conversation with José Andrés proceeded (with a bunch of bear hugs, back slaps and firm handshakes*) as follows:
JA – When you are going to ‘e’?
Me – José, José, José….you know how much I hate tweezer food….and molecular cuisine is soooo 2005, isn’t it?
JA – John, promise me this: Promise me you will go and promise me you go with a closed mind just like you have?
Me – What?
JA – Promise me, John, that you go in expecting to hate it. I want to to expect NOT to like it, so you can see what a wonderful job my team is doing. Will you promise me that?
Me – Huh? Uh…er…okay….I guess. Okay, I’ll go and I’ll keep my mind closed and I’ll expect to hate it and I let your people dazzle me, if they can.
JA – Okay…..then I want your honest opinion of what we are doing there.
Me – Deal.
Then, of course, like a good Greek and Spaniard, we drank on it:
Thus did I become, last week, the 13,326th diner to enter the hallowed door (now in its fifth year of operation) at the back of Jaleo, and take my seat to the 2 1/2 hour, 26 course experience of just about everything I expected to loathe in contemporary, modernist cuisine:
And true to my word to José, I kept up my despising attitude as much as I could, through a panoply of micro’d-this and tweezed-that. But I have to confess, his chefs wore me down with a passion and precision you usually don’t find in Las Vegas restaurants — especially those who aren’t serving a mere sixteen diners a night.
Did I love every dish? Far from it. Two of the cheese courses (mostly variations on “how can we mysteriously package this insanely stinky Spanish cheese?”**):
…seemed so discordant with the elegance of the dishes that preceded and followed them, I wondered if any of the chefs, consultants, or scientists who plan these meals ever taste them. (There is a reason cheese comes at the end of the meal in a classic haute cuisine and Italian dining. Great cheese tends to overwhelm the palate and fill you up, even as it’s helping you digest the other portions of your meal. The proteins and umami depth-charge of strong cheese needs to stand alone, not be sandwiched between other savory courses.)
But we quibble about queso, because by and large you will gasp, you will swoon and you will sing songs of high praise for most of these high concept dishes presented to you throughout your meal.
If you’re now expecting a nerdy, course-by-course rundown of everything served, guess again.
ELV — the man, the myth, the erudite Web site — is not here to give you a Yelp-like recitation of what he liked and didn’t, and what flavors and textures meshed better than others. For that kind of nitpicking, we suggest going to sites and writers who are fascinated by this food, which we are decidedly not.
No, we looked at the entire experience, and tried to judge on the basis of: Is the whole of these teeny-tiny, tweezed, tucked, tortured, transfigured and transformed trifles greater than the sum of its parts?
The verdict: Absolutely. The meal is transporting and transcendent enough to be considered one of the best in the lower 48….and maybe the world. (Caveat: ELV hasn’t eaten molecular cuisine in Spain, its spiritual homeland, and doesn’t plan to, but it’s hard to imagine this sort of food getting any better. Please feel free to discuss in the Comments section.)
It’s a hoot of an experience, and one that can be enjoyed by the most ardent foodie, or even the occasional fine diner. It is definitely not for traditionalists or someone who demands large portions of proteins with their evening meal. It may not even be for most aging boomers (of which yours truly is most definitely a member), or those who like a few carbohydrates with their foamy-this and immersion-circulated-that. (There are practically none.) From what we observed of the seven people we dined with, and the eight that came for the second seating, the average customer for this experience is an upper-middle class, Gen-X gastronaut, for whom this sort of experience is a necessary station on the cross of their culinary education.
Regardless of age, if you want to see five chefs busting their asses for eight people (a ratio that dwarfs the 1:2 ratio of most 3 star joints in France) and love watching them plate exotica like beet gazpacho:
…or the sweetest (unseen) clams you’ve ever eaten, blanketed with an orange espuma (foam):
….or “Iberico Chickpeas”:
….that yes, taste exactly like garbanzo-ham soup — with exactly the dense, otherworldly creaminess of the classic, acorn-fed, black-footed, aged Spanish pork leg — then ‘e’ by José Andrés is a must-stop on your world gastronomic tour.
Man does not live by molecular alone, so there’s even a couple of nods to traditional proteins, in the form of a caviar-topped, gorgeous piece of fluke:
…that is….wait for it….no fluke, and two chunks of wagyu rib eye:
….(including the cap)….that is beef eating at its best.
If there’s a weakness to this sort of eating it is that when you come upon a dish so delicious that you want to have, say, three or four bites instead of one or two, you are SOL. The other is, sometimes there are a lot of cartwheels being done to no great effect, such as in this cylinder of nothingness:
….salvaged only by the wine and anchovy butter, or kalamata “trees”:
…that are funky and fun, but at the end of the day, what’s the point of proving you can make a twig out of a reconstituted olive?
But even when something doesn’t float your boat, you barely have time to complain (and quickly recover), when something as life-changing as a chocolate-foie gras doughnut gets placed before you:
And by the time desserts appear:
…you will be so busy applauding (and scratching your head) you will immediately forget about the few items in your molecular marathon that didn’t make much sense.
Did ‘e’ turn me into a molecular maven? Hardly. I can’t imagine eating a meal like this more than a few times in my lifetime. Deconstructing 25+ courses of food can be exhausting (for the diner as well as the patient, talented and helpful chefs):
….but if you’ll pardon the cliché, it IS a once in a lifetime experience, and a treat that every aspiring (or extant) gastronome should give themselves.
Dinner runs $195 not including tip, pre-meal cocktails or the wine pairings. Whatever you do, get the wine pairings. ELV’s meal, with very upgraded wine pairings, was comped.
‘e’ BY JOSÉ ANDRÉS
In The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino
Reserve at least two weeks in advance by e-mailing: firstname.lastname@example.org
* No conversation with José is without its attendant bear hugs, firm handshakes and back slaps. José Andrés is a big fan of bear hugs, firm handshakes, back slaps in general…as is yours truly….now that we think about it.
** For the record, ELV — the man, the myth, the formidable fromagerieist — is a huge fan of stinky Spanish cheeses