The enthusiastic early reviews for R.J. Cooper's Rogue 24, the national renown of Jose Andres's Minibar and the steady stream of praise for Table 21 at Bryan Voltaggio's Volt all seem to be making the D.C. area something of a destination for the culinary trend of molecular gastronomy.
For self-proclaimed foodies and food critics this is good news. But I'm not sure it's good for the District's culinary scene or, indeed, efforts to elevate the city's food culture.
Because of its great influence on food critics and patrons of top restaurants, molecular gastronomy, whatever its artistic merits, discards the capitalist, hospitable, popular traditions that have long made fine dining (in D.C. and elsewhere) the most culturally relevant of the arts.
Some background first: Molecular gastronomy essentially turns restaurant kitchens into chemistry labs. Foams and exotically flavored jellies are typical, and liquid nitrogen, lasers, and chemical baths make their way into most kitchens.
These new tools allow chefs to manipulate their food at a molecular level and give the trend its name. A pretty representative dish from Rogue 24's menu is described as "nage / fall flavors / forest essence." (Nage is a liquid used for poaching. I have no idea what "forest essence" is.)
Menus typically consist of well over a dozen bite-sized dishes. Although chefs have always experimented and made use of new technology (some of the now dated-seeming Escoffier recipes like "floating islands" were considered experimental in their days) modern molecular gastronomy is generally considered to have originated with Ferran Adrià's elBulli in Roses, Catalonia, Spain. Rather than simply evolving, molecular gastronomy, overthrows age-old traditions of cooking and eating.
The result is that enterprises involved with molecular gastronomy often elevate "art," such as it is, above the desire to make money that has driven the restaurant business. (For example, elBulli was among the world's most famous restaurants, but consistently lost money and closed down.) D.C.'s Sensorium, which combined outright theater with a molecular gastronomy menu, didn't outlast its planned pop-up run and, I am told, was half empty most nights.
This "art above service" leads to rudeness. Rather than going out to be pampered and waited on, dining at a molecular gastronomy restaurant can often become a chore. Minibar (where I enjoyed most of my meal) left me with a sore back after sitting more than two hours on a backless bar stool.
Rogue 24 got well-deserved negative publicity for a two-page reservation contract that, among other things, banned mobile phones, required everyone at the table to order the same thing, and imposed a 100 percent charge for late cancellations. Even filling up customers isn't always a priority -- my wife and I seriously thought of stopping at McDonald's after our Minibar dinner.
If top restaurants don't emphasize pleasing customers or making money, they may end up in the critically adored/culturally irrelevant ghetto alongside atonal symphonic music, much academic poetry, and nearly all ballets written in the last 60 years.
Top chefs, even those who preside over the most rarefied dining rooms, can point to real influence on the way people actually eat: echoes of Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters and Jacques Pepin can be found on the menus of Chipotle and Domino's Pizza.
Local-to-D.C. celebrity chefs like the fallen-from-grace Roberto Donna, Jeff Buben (who employed Cooper) and Andres can point to dozens of disciples in kitchens around the region. Molecular gastronomy pioneers (I don't count Andres, molecular gastronomy is a sideline to his more popular, populist places), on the other hand, can't point to anything similar.
Not everything about molecular gastronomy is bad. Some of the food is quite good. But, as a trend, molecular gastronomy threatens to detach "fine dining" from popular food culture. And that's not good for D.C.