9 Innovative Kitchens: DC's Forward Thinkers

By Rina Rapuano  |  January 6, 2014
Credit: Ken Wyner

With so many chefs delving back into old-timey, salt-of-the earth cooking styles, we thought we’d highlight a few who continue to look forward, constantly surprising us with new flavors and challenging the way we think about food. Warning: there’s a lot of José Andrés in here - but you have to admit that he’s probably the biggest game in town when it comes to pushing the culinary envelope.

In other cases, a few local businesses are moving the ball forward in terms of ordering and serving fairly commonplace dishes - such as fish, burgers, ice cream and soup - that we took for granted as having gone as far as they could on the innovation train.

Here, we celebrate the future of food:

  • The epitome of José Andrés whimsy...

    Ten years into the avant-garde culinary adventure known as Minibar, it’s as ground-breaking as ever. Here, you know that an order of strawberries and cream will perhaps involve chilled milk skins, and dehydrated fruit and a salad might be inspired by famed glass artist Dale Chihuly. Reservations are notoriously difficult to score, and the price was just bumped to $250 per person - yet we’ve never met a Washingtonian who wasn’t dying to try it.

    The inner circle: Andrés unveiled an even more exclusive option this summer with José's Table, a $3,000 experience for up to six guests in a private dining room behind a flowing white curtain. The hefty price tag includes food, beverage pairings, tax and gratuity - and bragging rights.

    855 E St. NW; 202-393-0812

  • Credit: Greg Powers

    More boundary-pushing from our favorite Spaniard...

    Jaleo plays it fairly safe with the food, except for small glimpses of the chef’s playful side with dishes like Ferrán Adrià’s liquid olives and oysters with lemon, gin and tonic. But the restaurant made waves when it overhauled the Penn Quarter dining room in 2012, bringing in the (now much-sought-after) foosball tables and a modern sensibility with bright lights and orange splashes. The restaurant also offers its full wine and cocktail lists on iPads.

    Techy how-to: Jaleo offers porróns, of course, but drinking out of those beautiful Spanish vessels can be tricky - and intimidating. Luckily, the restaurant produced a handy how-to video that can be viewed on the house iPads starting this week. 

    480 Seventh St. NW; 202-628-7949

  • Credit: Greg Powers

    And then there were cocktails...

    Barmini may share an address with its big brother, Minibar, but it has an identity all its own. The foieffle - a foie gras waffle - has become legendary, and cocktails run the gamut from a perfectly crafted Negroni to a mad-scientist concoction that smokes as it's poured from a beaker. And while the experience barely satisfies the urge to try Minibar, it’s a heck of a lot easier to land a table while you wait to win the reservation lottery - and perhaps the actual lottery.

    Give us some skin: If, like us, you can barely keep your hands off the Thanksgiving turkey skin, you'll love the Buffalo chicken - Andrés-style, of course. A bowl of cool, creamy yogurt dip accompanies the most addictive rectangles of salted and peppered chicken skins that are as translucent as a stained-glass windowpane. Yes, the foieffle is delicious. But we actually preferred these crispy snacks that are new to the menu.

    855 E St. NW; 202-393-4451

  • Fish tales via smartphones...

    In an effort to increase traceability, BlackSalt partnered with Congressional Seafood Co. earlier this year to make it possible for customers to simply scan the QR-code sticker pasted on the glass in front of each fish to find information about the species, harvest location - even fisherman biographies. The restaurant group plans to expand the program to include meat, dairy and produce down the line.

    Also on the hook: It's not just BlackSalt offering the fish info. All Black Restaurant Group establishments - including Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and Republic - have a menu diners can request if they want to scan and find out where their dinner came from. 

    4883 MacArthur Blvd. NW; 202-342-9101

  • Move over Dippin’ Dots…

    Locally based NiceCream Factory might be the real ice cream of the future. Owner Sandra Tran brings a bevy of locally sourced ingredients and a canister of liquid nitrogen to events - like a recent one at The Diner - as well as pop-ups and farmer's markets, allowing customers to choose what goes into each scoop and watch while it’s frozen before their eyes in about a minute. Tran confirms that she's in search of a brick-and-mortar shop - perhaps in Adams Morgan, but she's also looking at other neighborhoods.

    They deliver: The company started a home-delivery service called Pints Please for those who get hooked.


  • One step closer to The Jetsons

    The first-ever Bolt Burgers opened in late 2013 with the following idea: give the people burgers, but make it easier to order them with touch-screen kiosks and online ordering. And since there’s nothing worse than standing at the counter of a new fast-food place and trying to figure out which of the 25 or so toppings would best fit your mood, we’re happy there’s a spot where you can take your time making those choices - without driving the people in line behind you nuts. After all, the computer doesn't care.

    More to come: If you like the idea but don't live or work near the Massachusetts Avenue location, Bolt already has plans to open two to three more locations in the DC area. 

    1010 Massachusetts Ave. NW; 202-320-9200

  • Dinner or magic show? Yeah, it’s both…

    At Rogue 24, chef RJ Cooper’s kitchen is center stage in the middle of the dining room for all the guests to watch as he creates his ultramodern parade of 24 small dishes. Looking like an artistic lab experiment, plates might consist of reindeer moss with whipped hare and acidic berry, or maybe air-dried beef heart with red cabbage, tendon, suet and mustard. There may even be barnacles. 

    We'll drink to that: Why have a bartender when you can have a "chef-tender"? Bryan Tetorakis has that very role, creating elixirs like the Preacher Pauly, a blend of Mezcal Vida, aquavit, celery, absinthe and distilled cilantro.

    922 N St. NW; 202-408-9724

  • You can take the chef out of the laboratorio...

    Alba Osteria, the brand-new project from chef Roberto Donna, features pizzas and pastas - but the inventive chef can’t resist a few dishes that harken back to his Laboratorio del Galileo. Take his zuppa alla cavanesana, which arrives at the table with a cast-iron crock of cheesy bread, a French press and a tiny hourglass. When the time is up, guests can plunge the beef broth in the French press and pour it into the pan to experience a soup that is as delicious as it is just plain fun. We hope he has more tricks up his sleeve.

    Let it settle: There's not a lot of salt in the broth, so the soup tastes better the longer you allow it to soak into the bread - from which it seems to absorb some seasoning from the meat and the cheese. (Also, don't be afraid to order polenta for dessert. You won't be sorry.)

    425 I St. NW; 202-733-4454

  • Innovative for DC, anyway...

    The raw-food movement - something that may be seen as de rigueur in cities like Los Angeles and New York City - has been very slow to catch on in Washington. Elizabeth's Gone Raw started in 2009 as an experiment by founder and breast cancer survivor Elizabeth Petty, but the Friday night dinners are still pretty much the only game in town when it comes to raw fine dining.

    Eating their words: Don't be alarmed if you see something on the six-course, $75 menu like "crab cakes" - a note further down reassures diners: "Any reference to conventional food is for context. The entire menu is plant-based."

    1341 L St. NW; 202-347-8349