Call it what you will — molecular gastronomy, experimental cuisine, progressive American or modernist — but when you’re dining at a restaurant that specializes in avant-garde, modern cooking and techniques, the experience is nothing short of mind-blowing. For an exhilarating foray into the minds of the some of the most cutting-edge chefs in the country, add these five restaurants to your bucket list of places to go for the ultimate modernist cuisine.
Minibar by José Andrés, Washington, D.C.
Nabbing a reservation at Tastemaker José Andrés’ Minibar can feel a bit like winning the lottery, since there are just 12 seats in the kitchen. But the difficulty is justified. If there is one place in the U.S. to experience molecular cuisine, Minibar is it. The restaurant that earned Andrés his 2011 James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef provides a wholly immersive, interactive, 25- to 30-course revelation. You are seated right in the kitchen and get to watch as chefs prepare and serve every dish — each one stretching the imagination and forcing you to give up preconceived notions of what something should taste like, look like or smell like. The menu starts off with small snacks, progressing to larger courses, such as the Vietnamese pig ear, a huge pig ear chicharrón filled with braised curried pork shoulder and a green papaya and mango salad.
Insider tip: If you can’t get a reservation for Minibar, go next door to Barmini, where you can enjoy a culinary cocktail and taste snacks created by the Minibar kitchen. Cost: $250 for a 25- to 30-course tasting menu.
wd-50, New York City
There are no tablecloths at Wylie Dufresne’s veteran wd-50. The servers are clad in jeans, and the whole vibe is much more casual than you would expect at a place whose chef has been nominated for 11 James Beard Awards, but you don’t go to wd-50 for a stuffy evening. You go there to taste things such as Dufresne’s deconstructed eggs Benedict, a dish that took him a year to perfect, or to try his famous deconstructed tongue sandwich, which is topped with deep-fried mayonnaise. Dishes like these — the ones he is known for — are offered in a five-course tasting menu, while newer creations, such as his shrimp and grits (in which the shrimp is grounded and made into the texture of grits), appear on his 12-course tasting option.
Insider tip: If you don’t have time to do a full tasting, get there early and grab a seat at the bar, where you can order dishes off the menu, à la carte. Cost: $155 for 12 courses; $90 for five courses.
Celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year, Homaro Cantu’s Moto is still one of the best restaurants for avant-garde, technique-driven, molecular cuisine. Helmed by Top Chef contestant and executive chef Richard Farina, the weekly-changing menu is whimsical and fun. “We want it to be a multi-sensory experience, so that you’re smelling things, tasting things and seeing things,” Farina says. With “Fallen Log,” are you eating mulch, flowers and bark? Or is it actually salsify, leak ash and mushrooms, plated in such a way that it looks more like a study on nature than food? The chicken dish arrives on a bed of hay. The cheese course looks like a picnic and comes complete with the smell of fresh-cut grass, a tuft of green wheatgrass and a blanket.
Insider tip: Book the newly launched “lab” experience to get a one-on-one demo with Farina himself, along with a seat inside the lab, where all the action takes place. Cost: $175 for 15 courses; $125 for the eight-course lab experience.
Atelier Crenn, San Francisco
At Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, Dominique Crenn doesn’t just write menus or come up with dishes. It’s a much more organic process, born out of her love for poetry and her unique ability to create food that expresses verse, something she calls “poetic culinaria.” The menus, which change every season, take the form of a poem, wherein each line represents a dish. The poems are personal, emotional and of-the-moment. Her “Walk in the Forest,” for instance, is a nod to the time she spent in the woods with her dad. “The forest represents life to me,” she says. “You feel warmth, humidity, different textures, the crispness of spring.” Using mushrooms and blackberries, the dish is laid out on an elongated plate to mimic a walk through nature as you taste the different elements.
Insider tip: Don’t be afraid to talk to Crenn, who says dining in her restaurant should be like being in her living room. Cost: $120 for nine courses; $195 for 17 courses.
You’ll have to buy a ticket approximately three months in advance to get a taste of chef Grant Achatz’s Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Alinea. Offering one of the most innovative meals available, the restaurant is among the best in the world. “We want our guests to experience as much emotion, excitement and satisfaction as possible when they dine with us,” Achatz says. The result is a culinary journey into the realm of possibilities: 17 courses of surprise and delight, like his ingenious green apple balloon, which arrives at the table on the string. You are instructed to kiss the balloon, inhale the helium and then speak, before eating the balloon and string — made of taffy — altogether.
Insider tip: Log onto Alinea’s Facebook or Twitter pages daily to snag last-minute ticket releases, but act fast, because they go quickly. Cost: $210 to $265, depending on the day.
Photos Courtesy of Ron Armstrong and wd-50