- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Cafe Atlantico in Washington’s Penn Quarter serves incredible culinary creations, especially at its weekend brunches and the Minibar restaurant on the third floor.

How about hot-and-cold foie-gras-and-corn soup or duck confit with passion-fruit oil? Executive chef Jose Andres, with his team, is a master of these and other scrumptious dishes, which match traditional ingredients with new cooking techniques and unexpected combinations.

On Saturdays and Sundays, Cafe Atlantico chef Katsuya Fukushima presents 32 of Team Andres’ exciting and unpredictable creations as part of the Nuevo Latino Dim Sum Brunch, a unique midday dining experience in Washington. Most of the dishes are exquisite; a few are not so successful.

More important, ordering the full tasting menu’s 32 courses definitely is too much of a good thing.

“Yes, you really should just take a bite of each thing if you’re having the tasting menu,” our waiter said as we began the 25th or so course. We could have used those words of wisdom a little earlier in the day. The service on the whole is attentive, knowledgeable and speedy, if not particularly friendly.

We arrived at 11:30 a.m. and promptly ordered coffee and drinks. Drinks include refreshing, slightly sweetened nonalcoholic limeades and mint limeades from the selection of aguas frescas as well as an assortment of alcoholic offerings, including a very tasty Bloody Mary. True to form, Mr. Andres would never let the Bloody Mary arrive with the traditional celery stalk. Instead, celery and a pinch of salt are whipped into a foam that covers the top like the frothed milk of a cappuccino.

The culinary creativity continues as the small, but larger-than-bite-size, dishes start arriving. The potato-and-vanilla mousse with American caviar served in a small glass is not just a cute, innovative idea, but very tasty; flavors and textures — the popping of the fish eggs and the smoothness of the mousse — blend nicely.

Another excellent seafood dish is the scallops with orange oil. The consistency of the lightly pan-seared scallops is perfect — done, but not chewy. This, like most dishes, arrives artfully displayed on a small white plate. This is a refined brunch experience, complete with white linen and a full-service bar.

The red snapper with avocado puree offers a strange, unexpected combination, but it really works, as do the oysters with flavorful yet mild mango-lime oil.

The tasting menu is heavy on seafood, with 12 options. Most are deliciously creative, but others simply don’t work. The tuna ceviche with coconut was slimy, and the coconut rice, crispy rice and squid was unexpected. The coconut rice is rich and creamy, and the palate wants something sweet (orange? brown sugar and cinnamon?) to follow. Instead, a fishy squid flavor lingers.

Among the vegetarian options, of which there are 14, the chilled cucumber-and-tomatillo soup is a great choice. It is slightly textured (like a gazpacho) and has a nice kick to it. It could be the perfect summer food — fresh and light. Another great veggie dish is spinach with pumpkin seeds and raisins. The fresh spinach is lightly sauteed and combines nicely with the chewiness of the pumpkin seeds and raisins.

Here too, there is a bad apple, in this case a bad watermelon, seared with a citrus vinaigrette. The flavor was way off, tasting fishy. (Pan not properly cleaned?)

The remaining options are five of fowl and egg, and one red-meat dish — incredibly tender beef sirloin medallions with a tamarind sauce. It arrived mid- to late meal, and we still wanted more, which says a lot for this beef.

Among the bird varieties, the duck confit with passion-fruit oil was the best. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, and the flavor was full but mild and slightly sweet.

The meal caps with a pan dulce with cinnamon syrup (reminiscent of French toast), which is welcome in its relative blandness after all the flavorful dishes, particularly the seafood. And that’s just it. Even if 90 percent of the tasting menu is fantastic, it’s just too much, too rich and too flavorful.

The tasting menu, however, is a great value. Pay $34.95, and you get about $150 worth of food. Still, we would recommend ordering a la carte. That way, certain garnishes (such as chives and quinoa) and ingredients (such as salmon and avocado) won’t repeat, and appetites will not be oversated. This food deserves to be savored.

RESTAURANT: Cafe Atlantico, 405 Eighth St. NW; 202/393-0812

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

PRICES: Nuevo Latino Dim Sum Brunch, $1.95 to $9 for individual dishes; vegetarian tasting menu $24.95; deluxe tasting menu $34.95.

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

METRO: Gallery Place-Arena on the Red, Green and Yellow lines

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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