Monday, January 9, 2012

é by José Andrés - Las Vegas

é by Jose Andres

If Ferran Adrià is thought of by many as the great inventor of contemporary Spanish cuisine, than José Andrés is surely its great ambassador. Where Adrià, chef of the now-closed el Bulli, has dedicated his culinary career to the relentless pursuit of creativity and creation, Andrés (who trained with Adrià at el Bulli) has been equally dedicated to the promotion of both traditional and contemporary Spanish cooking in the U.S., and has perhaps achieved more recognition and success in doing so than any other chef of the past twenty years.

Andrés opened Jaleo, a tapas bar and restaurant offering a wide range of traditional Spanish regional dishes, in Washington DC in 1993. Before the decade had closed, he was recognized as a James Beard Rising Star Chef, followed in 2003 with an award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. That same year, he opened minibar, which showcased some of the products of the culinary revolution that was overtaking Spain, spearheaded by Adrià and others.

The format of minibar was unique. Described as a "restaurant within a restaurant," physically it was really nothing more than a six-seat sushi bar tucked into a corner of an upper floor of his Café Atlántico restaurant, with a few kitchen tools (circulator, blender, fryer, a couple portable burners) jerry-rigged behind it.[1] The menu of 25+ small dishes, many of which were one- or two-bite "munchies" or "snacks," was undoubtedly inspired by the sprawling tasting menus of el Bulli. So were many of the dishes themselves, some of which had direct antecedents in Adrià's work. But the "minibar" format also brought another intriguing element - interactivity, with two chefs working directly in front of the diners to do the final preparation and plating of the dishes. With only six seats and only two seatings a night, minibar is perennially one of the toughest reservations to score in DC.

Since opening minibar, Andrés has expanded the geographic scope of his ambassadorship, moving into Los Angeles with The Bazaar in 2008, and into Las Vegas in 2010 with a branch of Jaleo along with China Poblano, both in the Cosmopolitan resort. Also tucked away within Jaleo is é: an 8-seat "restaurant within a restaurant" featuring only a set degustation menu, very much along the same lines as minibar. Virtually nothing is done to promote é: there's just a one-page website listing an email address for reservation requests; it's not even listed on the website of the parent company for Andrés' ventures, Think Food Group. But it's definitely worth knowing about.[2]

(You can see all my pictures in this é by José Andrés flickr set).


Unlike minibar, where you're literally sitting in a corner of the main dining area, é gets its own private room within Jaleo. The centerpiece is the kitchen bar, a rounded arc with eight seats circled around an open "kitchen" (though it's really more plating than cooking that goes on here).[3] The effect is decidedly theatrical, and the sense of having stepped into the middle of some sort of performance is enhanced by a space that feels more theater set than dining room, walls lined with card catalog drawers and various knick-knacks. A team of three chefs performs final preparations and plates each of the dishes, which are then handed directly to the diners.[4]

Much of the cooking at é is what got called, until recently, "molecular gastronomy," and now seems to have taken on the sobriquet of "modernist cuisine." In other words, there's liquid nitrogen, and foams, and lots of other textural transformations at work. I'll circle back to the issue of whether, as some might claim, this style of cooking is already passé in light of the advent of what gets called the "New Naturalism."[5] I bring it up here only to note that the interactivity and intimacy has an interesting effect: the ability of the diners to see the preparations, hear the story behind each dish as it's presented, and ask questions of the chefs, creates a connection to the food that might not be otherwise established in the same way. It won't necessarily make a dish taste any better, but I think it demystifies food that some find alienating and inaccessible, without taking away any of the novelty of its presentation.

We visited é in late December and they were serving a special holiday menu loaded with luxury ingredients (and priced quite a bit more than the "regular" menu), so the meal you see here may not be entirely representative. Even so, some of my favorite dishes were those with the humblest components.

gin & tonic

The meal started, as good meals often do, with a cocktail: a "Gin and Tonic," to be precise. With evaporating liquid nitrogen billowing across the workspace, one of the chefs prepared a gin sorbet a la minute, which was then topped with a tonic froth and a grating of fresh citrus zest - a refreshing rearrangement of the traditional drink.


A collection of little snacks followed.

(continued ...)

Spanish "clavel"

A Spanish "Clavel" is a red carnation, here taking the form of a flower fashioned from raspberry "paper," presented in an outstretched palm modeled after Chef Andrés' own hand. This was almost weightless, but had a vivid, bright, tart berry flavor.

beet jewelry

"Beet Jewelry" was a couple of coiled springs of crispy beet, sprinkled with gold and silver powders and presented in their own jewel box. This was a more ornate version of the beet "tumbleweed" I'd had at minibar a few years earlier, and as I said then, I could eat a bag of these.

caramelized pork rinds

Caramelized Pork Rinds needed no ornate presentation: tucked into a paper bag, these were feather-light, perfectly crispy, and graced with a hint of honeyed sweetness.

"Brazo de Gitano"

"Brazo de Gitano" (literally, "Gypsy's Arm") is a traditional Spanish rolled sponge cake, usually with a cream filling. Here, it's been recreated as a crispy, airy tube of an apple-flavored meringue with a blue cheese filling within. Interestingly, a similar apple meringue served as the "bread" for a mojito and apple flute we had at el Bulli a year earlier.

nitro almond cup

Andrés devised a clever technique for making this frozen cup out of a marcona almond purée: he dips the back of a ladle into liquid nitrogen, then coats it with the purée, which promptly freezes into the bowl shape of the ladle (you can see it done here). The cups were filled with a creamy almond purée and a dollop of Almas Aria caviar, produced in the rivers of Granada, Spain. To keep them from melting before being eaten, the cups were served over stones that were likewise cooled in liquid nitrogen, a sort of reversal of the Japanese custom of cooking over hot rocks called ishi-yaki. The flavor combination here, with the almond highlighting the nuttiness of the caviar, was again reminiscent of a dish we had at el Bulli pairing caviar and hazelnut.

crispy chicken skin in escabache

One of the joys of cooking a chicken is getting to pick at the best parts. The trilogy of "chef's treats" for me is the liver, the extra skin, and the chicken oysters tucked away along the backbone. This dish got two of the three: a sheet of crispy, well-seasoned chicken skin, with chicken oysters cooked in escabache, topped with a thyme "air." Just a magnificently delicious bite, one of my favorites of the meal.

José taco

Then it was back to caviar, with a "José Taco:" a slice of jamón ibérico, meant to be wrapped around a generous dollop of more Almas Ara caviar. I was expecting this to be overwhelmingly salty, but the combination worked much more effectively than I anticipated, each of the two components playing off different aspects of salinity, sweetness and nuttiness while the fish roe added a marine quality as well. This is about as luxurious as surf n turf (or "mar y montaña," as the Spaniards call it) can get.

oliva sferica Ferran Adriá

These "olives" are an unequivocal homage to Adrià; indeed the menu, provided after the meal, described them as "Oliva Sferica Ferran Adrià," and the chefs explained their lineage for the diners unfamiliar with the reference.

bocata de "calamares"

Speaking of which: a menu like this, which in several instances involved plays on traditional Spanish dishes, makes me consider the question of how much recognition of the reference points matters to the enjoyment of a meal. Food should be delicious; it should be delicious whether you "understand" the dish or not, and whether or not the dish is part of your culinary memory bank. And yet the dining experience is not just flavor: it is memory, and history, and place.

This sandwich was, in itself, a wonderful, flavorful bite: sea urchin, gently fried with the most delicate of batters encasing it,[6] on a little roll generously slathered with good aioli. But does it change the experience that Andrés calls this a "Bocata de 'Calamares'," and that it's intended to mimic the wonderful fried calamari sandwiches you can find all around Madrid? If you know that reference point, then the dish triggers not merely its own taste experience, but an experience that is enhanced and multiplied by the memory of eating a similar sandwich, in some tapas bar in Madrid, throwing your used napkins on the floor. It provides depth, and context.[7]

cava sangria

While not everyone has had the good fortune to eat a bocata de calamares in Madrid, just about everyone has tried sangria. Not necessarily in this form, though: spherified, with bits of fruit and herb suspended within the sphere. A gorgeous presentation and a nice sensation, with the burst of the sphere releasing its flavors and a hint of cava's bubbly fizz as well.[8]

Through this point, all of the dishes were eaten only with the hands, like the "snacks" that start a meal at el Bulli or the "munchies" that started my minibar meal. The next several courses were more substantial and marked the introduction of silverware to the table.


This dish brought a panoply of earthy flavors: tender artichokes, Périgord truffles, vanilla purée, a dark demiglace, with a fluffy lemon sabayon for a bit of relief and contrast. Throughout the meal, these "foams" and "airs" (the standard target of derision for those who are not fans of the "molecular" style of cooking) were effectively used in this manner: to provide a bright dose of some complementary flavor, without adding more than a bare minimum in additional texture.[9] But this was one of the less impressive dishes of the evening - the artichokes were perfectly pleasant, but the truffles' aroma was reticent and nothing about the dish really stood out.


The lull continued with a lobster dish, medallions of the tail (cooked a bit too firm), served with various citrus segments and a jasmine "air." My favorite thing about the dish was the rich, bisque-like crustacean sauce dolloped over the lobster.

chickpea stew

But things quickly got back on track with a Chickpea Stew that was another of my favorites of the night, and again, a dish that relied on no fancy ingredients. The tender "chickpeas" (actually puréed and spherified) floated on a silky, rich jamón ibérico broth (OK, maybe a little fancy), dotted with chorizo oil, parsley oil and olive oil. It was, at heart, a variation on the centuries-old "olla podrida" or "rotten pot," referenced as far back as Don Quixote.[10] It was also a soulfully delicious dish, with a depth and resonance of flavor that belied the delicate presentation.

mushrooms in papillote

mushrooms in papillote

We were back in luxury mode with the next dish, wild mushrooms in a puddle of rich cream prepared en papillote (a heat-proof, transparent bag subbing for the traditional parchment paper or foil), then unsealed tableside and topped with a dollop of rosemary foam and a generous shower of white Alba truffles. This was earthy, woodsy, and intensely aromatic, especially when eight plates are simultaneously garnished with truffles in a small enclosed dining room.


When we were last in Spain, we took a drive along the Basque coast and wound up in a seaside town called Getaria, where virtually every restaurant had outdoor grills set up for grilling fish and seafood, especially rodaballo, or turbot. At é, they took the silky flatfish and reconstructed the filets back into a slab of whole fish (a trick I first saw at Akelaŕe in San Sebastian). Bits of its tender, gelatinous, fins were also featured (the Japanese also have a fondness for these, and you'll sometimes find flounder fin on sushi menus as "engawa"), along with a couple of luscious bone marrow croquettes topped with more dollops of caviar. If the fish was cooked just a bit too far, the marrow and and caviar mostly made up for it.

whole foie gras

foie gras

More luxury followed with a whole lobe of foie gras, cooked in a crust of salt mixed with bergamot tea, then sliced and plated with a streak of cocoa and cubes of citrus gel topped with purple flowers. A fine idea and dramatic presentation were marred by the execution: the liver was slightly undercooked and gooey, not just pink but still a touch bloody at the center.

secreto de iberico

"Secreto de Ibérico" is a cut of pork from behind the shoulder, called a "secret" because the butchers of the black-footed pigs that become jamón ibérico used to keep it for themselves. It has a texture similar to a skirt steak and a deeply porcine flavor. In another reference to Spanish culinary tradition, this was prepared in a mar y montaña style, paired with grilled squid tentacles and a dark black squid ink sauce, with dollops of a green parsley foam as accent marks.

la serena

The transition into sweet dishes was marked by a cheese course, with quenelles of La Serena (a creamy sheeps' milk cheese from the Extremadura region of Spain) scooped directly from the wheel of cheese. These were plated with a spiral of a bittersweet orange pith purée laced with intensely flavored pumpkin seed oil.


Another of my favorites of the evening was the "Flan," as traditional a Spanish dessert as there could be, but not so much here. Several rounds of a wobbly, orange-inflected flan were interspersed among crunchy crushed ice that had been drizzled with honey. The use of ice was another theme we saw repeated throughout our meal at el Bulli in 2010, which Andrés has co-opted here. The combined effect - creamy, citrus-y, icy, sweet - was uncannily reminiscent of a Creamsicle, in the best possible way.

pan con chocolate

"Pan Con Chocolate" at é was another sweet tradition reinterpreted. The pairing of chocolate, olive oil, salt and bread may sound unusual, but is a Catalan classic. Here it took the form of an avalanche of chocolate powder over a bread espuma, sprinkled with coarse salt, all careening into a pool of olive oil at the bottom of a clear glass bowl. It's a great combination of flavors, and the light textures were appreciated twenty courses in.

arroz con leche

Classics reinterpreted was the theme for at least one more round with "Arroz con Leche," a crispy cone filled with the lightest, fluffiest rice pudding I've ever tasted. An additional surprise lay within as the first bite tasted of nothing but cream, rice and sugar, while the second carried an extra burst of bright lemon.

chocolate truffle espuma

It looks like a truffle, but what kind: melanosporum or chocolate? Actually both, it turned out: mostly the latter, but infused with the former, formed to look like a Périgord truffle, dusted with cocoa, and chilled. It was cold and crumbly and rich, when broken apart, with truffle aroma.

25 second bizcocho, fizzy paper

And for a finale, a trio of desserts:  a 25-second "Bizcocho" studded with bits of crystallized honey, a sheet of "Fizzy Paper" with a citric effervescence, and black and white "Air Chocolates," pumice-like blocks of chocolate studded with bubbles, with a light airy texture.[11]

This was a tremendously fun meal, and for the most part an exceedingly delicious one as well. Though there were a few misses (the lobster and turbot perhaps cooked a bit too much, the foie gras perhaps not quite enough), the flavors were just about always right on target, and a few dishes were genuinely moving: the chicken skin with chicken oysters, the bocata de "calamares," and the chickpea stew all would have certainly made my "Best Dishes of 2011" list had it been compiled after this meal rather than before, and several more were things that I would happily eat again, many times over.

So does it matter that much of what Chef Andrés features on the menu at é is derivative of the work of others, Adrià especially? It depends.

If you think the primary role of the chef is as a creative force, then you'll say it matters plenty. And you'll certainly have a point. But if you think the primary role of the chef is to create a delicious and enjoyable meal, then it may not matter much at all. Indeed, the person who creates the technique is not necessarily the same one who will come up with the best way to use it. There is a genius in innovation, for sure; but there is likewise a genius in the implementation of those ideas.

Our meal was constructed from many building blocks that were borrowed from the past 10-20 years of Spanish "alta cocina" (and many, of course, with much deeper historical foundation). And it was a refined and immensely pleasurable one. It was certainly no less so because of its incorporation of many of the most recognizable tropes of the contemporary Spanish cooking genre.

Nor do I subscribe to the belief that such cooking is already passé, that it has been bypassed by what gets called the "New Naturalism." There has been, no doubt, a see-sawing over the past few years between the primacy of technique on the one hand and ingredients on the other; but trends, and the never-ending quest for the "new," do not mean that what came before has necessarily failed. To the contrary, what Andrés does with those building blocks suggests that there is lasting value: that with ongoing exploration and refinement we can continue to find even better ways to create delicious food with all the tools and techniques available to us. This is where Andrés truly excels.[12]

é by José Andrés
3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas NV

e by Jose Andres on Urbanspoon

[1] Café Atlántico was recently converted into "America Eats Tavern." I had the good fortune to visit minibar a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it: great presentations, a fun experience, and some excellent food. There are a few dishes - a confited and deboned chicken wing with curry spices and a brûléed skin, a puffy brioche bun filled with yogurt and caviar, a green almond "gazpacho" - that I still vividly remember to this day, to the point that I can still taste them.

[2] Here's the story on reservations: they are taken by email only - the address is on the website - no earlier than exactly one month before the requested date, first come first serve starting at midnight Pacific time. There are two seatings a night, Wednesdays through Saturdays. If you get a spot, you're required to fill out  a form and provide a credit card, and cancellations on less than 14 days' notice are subject to a 50% cancellation penalty. Once your reservation is confirmed, they will mail you a "golden ticket" for admission to é. I requested our seats exactly a month in advance, and can only say that the email process was much easier than dealing with minibar's telephone system. I have no idea what the odds are of getting a spot on less than a month's notice. And yes, I like the name "Think Food Group."

[3] Another example of what Ulterior Epicure recently described as the "theater in the round" dining experience.

[4] I'm disappointed in myself that I did not write down their names after having been, for a few hours, the beneficiary of their choreographed performance.

[5] It is, of course, a false dichotomy. And a particularly amusing one, since the "New Naturalism" is most commonly associated with the example set by Chef René Redzepi at Copenhagen's Noma. Redzepi gets attention for his hyperlocavoristic ingredient list, while people conveniently ignore that the Noma cookbook doesn't hesitate to resort to the "chemistry set" of the molecular gastronomists - maltodextrin, xanthan, isomalt, trimoline, along with immersion circulators and Thermomixes - when it serves a purpose.

[6] My guess is they used the "Trisol" starch from the Adriàs' "Texturas" product line.

[7] This is possibly one of the weak links to what Adrià once tried to get everyone to call "techno-emotional" cuisine: if the reference point is not already part of your culinary vocabulary, then the dish will not have the intended effect.

[8] At my minibar meal they did a similar effect with a mojito sphere by carbonating the spheres in an iSi canister with carbon dioxide.

[9] Although Adrià gets much of the credit - or blame - for the prevalence of these foams, he had all but stopped using them at el Bulli more than a decade ago.

[10] There's a good history of the dish, and a recipe (not for Andrés' version) here from Clifford Wright.

[11] The microwave sponge cake and the frozen air chocolates are both Albert Adrià techniques; you can see the microwave cake technique here and the frozen chocolate air here.

[12] Indeed, Mrs. F would tell you that she found é to be a much more enjoyable experience than el Bulli. And there are some interesting particular examples. She disliked el Bulli's mojito "sandwich" which used the apple meringue as the "bread" - but she enjoyed the Brazo de Gitano which used the same apple meringue around a blue cheese filling (and she doesn't even like blue cheese). El Bulli's "Frozen Pond," a sheet of ice sprinkled with almost astringently intense mint and matcha tea powder, actually made her angry - but she loved é's flan dish which incorporated a granita-like crushed ice.


  1. Brilliant post, Frod. I haven't been to e yet, but I've been to minibar a few times and to Bazaar. Andres has certainly borrowed freely from the Adrias (btw, that ladle technique with liquid nitrogen is Albert's as well), but most of the dishes are his own interpretation and (de-)construction. The street has not been one-way, however. The Adrias wonderful Tickets owes a lot to Andres in how the dining room is deployed as well as the theatricality of the experience.

    When done well, Modernist cuisine will always be a thrill for me. The problem is that it isn't easy to do well. Many poor practitioners have sullied its name, but in the hands of the Adrias and Andres amongst others, it is an experience to behold.

  2. When Eddie Vanhalen started the finger-tapping revolution, it changed rock & roll (whether for the better or not is argueable). It did not mean that every other cheesy metal guitarist afterwards sounded just like VanHalen, but simply that it expanded the vocabulary with which said cheesy guitarists had available to express their cheesy selves. That's my analogy.
    Very detailed and very thoughtful post!

  3. "expanding the culinary vocabulary" is exactly what I wanted to say - though I'm not sure I would have gone with the Eddie Van Halen analogy.

  4. Excellent peek at "E".
    I always enjoy your posts. Thanks

  5. Insane meal! I bet Andres fingertaps and then power slides across the bar.