Thanks for filling the gap, sir, with a restaurant that looks backward and forward but also lets diners savor the here and now.
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I’ve been to The Bazaar, introduced last month, three times now, and I still feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of a menu that weighs as much as a book and reads like the son of Spain’s résumé. Be prepared, then, to spend lots of face time with your waiter as he introduces you to the sweep of it all. And brace yourself to be amused, challenged and well-fed at what became one of the hottest tickets in town the day it set sail.
The eyes don’t know where to focus. Nearby, we observe a carver expertly sliding a sharp knife through the ever-slimmer cured leg of an Iberian pig fed a diet of acorns (yours for $40 an ounce). Closer still is a table of diners watching their caipirinha getting whipped up from a bowl of liquid nitrogen, the spirit cachaça and fresh lime juice. “Cotton candy foie gras,” a server says as he brings three of us our own little snacks. I’m acquainted with the treat made popular by Minibar yet I still smile at the confection, now widely copied, which finds a cube of cognac-spiked foie gras torchon beneath a pink tuft of spun sugar.
Meanwhile, the Spanish designer Lárazo Rosa-Violán has dressed the space with all manner of opulent details: handmade tiles, fringed fabrics, velvet banquettes and a forest of plants. Multiple long tables in the restaurant reinforce the chef’s long-held idea of the American Dream: “Longer tables,” says Andrés, “not higher walls.”
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Some history. Andrés originally planned to stage a special-occasion restaurant in this space before it involved lodging and before Donald Trump announced his plans to make a run for the White House. The chef pulled out after the then-candidate disparaged Mexican immigrants and went on to open the Trump hotel, within which went BLT Prime by David Burke, a steakhouse and the only D.C. restaurant Trump dined in during his administration. Today, the lone detail linking then and now is the bird’s-eye view of the lobby from the second-floor dining room.
Even earlier background: Andrés was 23 and cooking at Jaleo when he befriended Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a frequent customer and ardent supporter of downtown spaces. (Moynihan Train Hall in New York is named after the late Democratic senator.) As the chef recalls it, the senator imagined a hotel within Washington’s historic post office, to which Andrés responded, “I’ll have a restaurant there!”
The new Bazaar has siblings in Miami, Las Vegas and Chicago and will next expand to Los Angeles, where it made its debut in 2008. “I feel like a baby, opening a new toy,” says the chef, fresh off a trip that took him to Syria, Turkey and Ukraine. He sees the Washington Bazaar as a “gift to my city” for having made him who he is today.
With some dishes, The Bazaar functions as a time machine, whisking diners back to America Eats Tavern, the pop-up Andrés opened in Penn Quarter in 2011 in partnership with the National Archives and later relocated to Georgetown. The “Philly cheesesteak” is a high-end makeover of the Philadelphia classic in which slices of torched Wagyu beef cling to the outside of a blimp of “air bread” with the texture and flavor of oyster crackers. The expected flavors are there, albeit in fresh guises; filling the air bread is cheddar cheese espuma. “Eat it over the plate,” a waiter instructs us. Keep a napkin handy, I’d add. Crab Louie, created with seafood from the Chesapeake and sauced with what tastes like Thousand Island dressing, is stuffed into fragile, Lilliputian cones with creamy avocado mousse. The single-bite sensations come with a PSA: “These are time-sensitive,” we’re informed. (Delays lead to soggy pastry; shoot any photos fast.) The Bazaar also serves the country’s daintiest chicken wings, which are confited, deboned, pressed, fried and treated to a doll-size cube of blue cheese and a housemade hot sauce enriched with chicken jus. Served on skewers, the goodness sidesteps the need for — take your pick — moist towelettes or licking fingers.
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In contrast to those trips down memory lane, the “Eisenhower stew” is pleasant if staid. An assembly of beef cheeks and bright vegetables, it’s lightly sweet with tomatoes and sherry vinegar, and the sort of dish you’d expect of a play-it-straight hotel restaurant, a mold The Bazaar resists with most of its dishes.
The food shows up in well-paced waves. Some dishes will make you laugh, like the ceviche that arrives in what appears to be sea foam but is in fact passionfruit-infused leche de tigre, the citrus-based marinade used to “cook” raw fish. “Dig deep with your spoons,” coaches a server. The chuckles yield to murmurs of pleasure as we retrieve bites of cobia, sparkling with lime. Other combinations lead you to believe Andrés partnered with Willy Wonka. Take the demitasse of onion soup that’s piping-hot stock on the bottom, cool whipped foie gras “cappuccino” on top and garnished with tiny diced apple. In lesser hands, these could be mere gimmicks. At The Bazaar, where David Thomas, the brand’s “concept chef partner,” heads a kitchen staff of 45, the flights of fancy are designed for all the senses — taste most of all. “Some of the modern tapas are so beautiful, I hate to see people eat them,” a waiter tells us one night. Yes, I took a photograph of the baby Japanese peaches artfully arranged with fresh burrata, hazelnut praline and a sherry reduction.
Frying and fritters are fascinations of the star chef and humanitarian. Make them yours. The Bazaar serves sumptuous conch fritters — near-liquid with béchamel and onion inside, with a shell as light as the best tempura — and oxtail croquettes so rich with beef and truffles that each ball tastes like a full meal. Andrés thinks of the former, better than anything Florida has served me, as a “must” experience at The Bazaar; the latter is found among the “traditional” tapas, which are essentially upgrades of small plates at Jaleo and include cheese-stuffed piquillo peppers decorated with same-shaped tuiles made from piquillo puree. At Jaleo, the tapa, tangy with goat cheese, goes for $9. The Bazaar charges $14 for the glamour treatment, whose filling features three-milk, hay-smoked cheese from the Canary Islands. Both are good, but who doesn’t appreciate being bumped from coach to first class?
One of the costliest dishes on the menu — Monterey abalone ringed in frothy smoked butter and sliced over a rustic chickpea stew — is priced at $42. But one of the admirable things about The Bazaar, something important to the man on the marquee, is the relative affordability of his latest attraction. Let me be clear. This is no populist Jaleo. But it isn’t as exclusive — price- or otherwise — as the 12-seat Minibar or any number of Washington-area tasting-menu destinations. The Bazaar might be a challenge to reserve, but once you’re there, there’s no required minimum purchase.
The few desserts are a reflection of a staff required to serve three meals a day. An airy wedge of espresso-fueled meringue topped with mascarpone tastes in keeping with what precedes it.
Served on the ground floor, lunch is a trimmed-down version of dinner, easier to access (a companion and I strolled in on a recent Friday afternoon without a reservation) and less operatic, although even as I type that, I have to admit the “ah!” and awe attached to “José’s taco,” which emphasizes great ingredients over cooking and arrives atop a white ceramic brick. Picture a thin sheet of nori arranged with a sliver of that prized nutty jamon, a dab of osetra caviar and shimmering gold leaf. What tasted like a celestial last meal request was heightened by — I kid you not — harp music wafting from the lobby on my visit.
Divine intervention? No, it’s just José Andrés making us glad he never settles for ordinary.
The Bazaar by José Andrés
1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-868-5088. thebazaar.com. Open for indoor dining for breakfast 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. daily, for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, for dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Snacks, tapas and medium-size dishes $9 to $68 (for a Waygu rib-eye steak). Sound check: 71 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can enter the hotel via a ramp and reach the second-floor dining room via an elevator; ADA-compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Staff are not required to wear masks or be vaccinated.