Saturday, July 25, 2009

alinea, chicago, july 18 (postscript)

final thoughts on alinea. i promise:

* so, here are my top seven dishes from the meal. i know i said 10, but that's when i thought there had been 24 courses. 10 of 22 seems silly to me right now in a way that, say, 7 of 22 does not. plus, it's my list. they are not necessarily in any particular order. but might be.

-- black truffle explosion
-- bubble gum
-- chocolate
-- wagyu beef
-- hot potato, cold potato
-- blue crab
-- mustard

* dinner took 4 1/2 hours. that's a personal record. we had nothing better to do anyway.

* in fact, dinner took longer than the time between lunch and dinner. now it just seems silly.

* i am rarely awestruck by someone's mere presence, but i was a little taken aback in meeting grant achatz. (that and wine-buzzed, so i didn't really say anything, in a rare fit of good sense.) i find him to be remarkable on a number of levels. i will not get into the whole story, but click here to read the new yorker story about him. it is inspiring. it was awesome to watch him create right at our table, tho. and i hope i get a chance to see him do a demo or something sometime.

* possibly my favorite point of the night was when our waiter asked us what we did in the industry. i always wonder what conversations at other tables must sound like, because we get a question along that line so many places. i love the fact that our banter makes it seem to people in the food industry that we are too. we're just geeks, we assured him. our role in the industry: observer from as close as they'll let us get.

* favorite quote: about 3/4 through dinner, jeremy bowers says, "i think i have survivor's guilt." i knew exactly what he meant, because i think that is a good description of how i felt at french laundry.

* if i could go back and do the blog over, i would have riffed on seuss in the soft shell crab description instead of lucy in the sky. i think i could have been much more effective with seuss. oh well.

* after reading the posts, my pal laura, a professional eater, had a salient question: "was it delicious?" answer: almost all of it. i loved many things, and i didn't dislike any of the food. and i understood all of it. there were surprises, but nothing confounding. i have had food at far more traditional places that was far less comprehendible.

* this was my first extensive experience with "molecular gastronomy," and the rap is that it is soulless. maybe some places, but not here.

* i thought it was funny that there was no real indication on the front of the building as to what the building was. that makes four of the country's top restaurants that i have been to that kind of hide themselves. charlie trotter's just has a little plaque on a wall that doesn't face the street, chez panisse has a wood-carved sign that was covered in vines when we went there, and french laundry has a sign, but i missed it like 4 times before we found it. so if you want to have a world class restaurant, apparently the best strategy is to hide at all costs.

* the chocolate course where chef achatz and his sous turned our dessert into a table-sized work of abstract art was really cool because i felt like i had been in on that since the idea was hatched. a few months ago, he posted an open question on twitter ( that was something like, "what if the food was served right on the table without plates?" which spurred discussion. then a couple weeks ago i saw they were starting it on a trial basis and that they were working out the kinks and trying to be able to do it larger scale. i didn't know if there was even a reason to hope that we'd get the treatment, so i didn't think about it. but when they cleared the table and asked some of us to move, i was pretty sure i knew what was going on. it was so cool, but such a time commitment from such important people to the operation, i can see why there are issues with how many guests get the experience. i loved it though, and am very grateful.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

alinea, chicago, july 18 (part 2)

(we now return to the alinea meal already in progress.)

(when we left the last blog post, our team of intrepid eaters had just completed the first wave of savory dishes. we now pick up with the first wave of desserts.)

(remember, click on photos to make them bigger. i made them small for fear of running out of internet.)

mustard, passionfruit, allspice: a small disc is placed in front of us, upon which sits another disc with a pin sticking out of it. we are instructed to pick up the pin, put the disc in our mouths and let it melt on our tongues. then were are asked to guess what the flavor is. just as it started melting on my tongue and the burning started, we are told it is mustard ice cream.

bacon, butterscotch, apple, thyme: this is one of the dishes i had targeted in the cookbook as one i'd like to make. the bacon is dehydrated, the apple turned into strands of fruit roll-up and twisted around the bacon as it hangs from its bow. in my version, there will probably be more butterscotch.

sweet potato, bourbon, brown sugar, smoldering cinnamon: the cinnamon is like the popsicle stick for a sweet potato ice cream-y thing. mine was falling off the stick, but i managed.i'm a trooper like that.

that concluded the first phase of dessert. now we restart the meal with phase 2 of the savories. the coolest concept ever.

hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter: this is another i targeted from the book that i want to make. you've got a small paraffin bowl filled with cold potato soup. piercing the side of the bowl is a pick which suspends over the soup a small cube of parmesan, a small cube of butter, and a hot potato ball with a slice of black truffle sitting atop it. the idea is you pull the pick out of the side of the bowl, the hot potato, truffle, butter and cheese drop into the soup and you slurp it down. that is fine engineering. very tasty. i'm not making any paraffin bowls, but i'll make this dish.

yuba, shrimp, miso, togarashi: so, you can't prove that i just went back to wikipedia to find out what yuba is. wait, its tofu skin? really? huh. well, this dish sort of looked like a pen in an ink well. a long stick of yuba -- which is tofu skin, btw -- sticking up out of the miso-sauce filled blotter. the yuba stick was wrapped with a long, thing strip of sweet shrimp. outta sight.

white asparagus, arugula, white pepper, honey: this dish came to the table plated in a large cylinder inside its bowl. the idea was to pick up the clear cylinder and let the composed elements of the soup fall together. i didn't take a picture until after the cylinder was lifted. my bad. the table got pretty quiet during this course. there was much reverence.

foie gras, peach, fennel, shiso: we were handed a bowl about the size of a baseball with a little bit of peach soup in it, and a fork straddled across with a few bits of foie on it. perfect.

lilac, scallop, shellfish, honeydew: i wasn't sure i got the lilac, but i loved the celery. i'm allergic to most melons, so i was nervous while eating the honeydew, but it was fine.

wagyu beef, powdered a1, potato, chips: at french laundry, rommie was nearly in tears over the wagyu course. at alinea, almost all of us were. at french laundry, when i was down to about one bite of the wagyu, rommie asked "are you sad that its almost gone?" and when i was eating the wagyu at alinea, i kept hearing him say that in my head, because i was. it was a beautifully cooked, remarkably tender chunk of beef. on the side was a small bar with powder in it that was a dehydrated and powdered version of a1 steak sauce, using the ingredients found in the original recipe for the steak sauce. not the current version, we were assured. anchovy, tamarind, raisin and clove. wow. i have no idea what was in the potato cube, but i kept finding myself cutting that in half, too, to make it last longer.

this was also the course in which the vase came into play. the course was meant to evoke the feeling of a cookout. but the beef was cooked sous vide, which means it was sealed in a bag and put in water at a temperature that was the target for the final temperature of the meat. no smoke at all. so some liquid was poured into the vase, and smoke billowed out over the table. it was cool and had the vague scent of a bbq. a lot of fun. you can watch below.

now, on to phase 2 of desserts.

transparency of raspberry, yogurt: i broke mine. it was still good. basically the best fruit rollup ever, and it was crisp. you were supposed to pick it up by the clip, but i must have grazed the fan of raspberry instead and it shattered. i picked up the pieces. it was still good. i didn't get a good photo of it. in this dessert trio photo, it is the coral-fan looking thing on the left.

bubble gum, long pepper, hibiscus, creme fraiche:
how many favorites am i allowed to have? because this was one. w
e are presented a clear plastic tube with three colors in it. we are told to pick up the tube and suck out the contents all at once and chew. it was like being hit in the mouth with a bubble gum milkshake. when i got home, the first thing i did was look to see if this was in the cookbook. if not to make it, just to figure out what was in there. i suspect the biggest layer carried most of the flavor and texture, and i suspect that was where the creme fraiche was, and that it was full of tapioca. anything else is just guessing. actually, that much was just guessing. it is in the middle, on the plate, in the photo.

watermelon, lime, nasturtium:
a shot glass with a little globe inside. you drink back the globe, it shatters in your mouth and next thing you know you just swallowed a watermelon. again, i ignored allergy to try that, to no ill effect. it is on the right in the photo above.

rhubarb, goat milk, onion, lavender air: first, they bring you a pillow. you need a nap, but that isn't what its for. no, the pillow is filled with lavender-scented air. then your plate is brought to the table and placed on top of the pillow. this begins the process by which the lavender air is pushed out of the pillow and surrounds your plate while you eat the dessert. if i was just reading this, i would be thinking "that is sooo stupid." it was not. plus, there was cotton candy.

chocolate, blueberry, tobacco, maple: ok, sit back. we are told to move our chairs to make room on either side of the table. jeremy and i suspect we know what is coming. the table is completely cleared. silicone mats are brought out, and we are asked to help roll them out to cover the table. then a bunch of plates holding various ingredients are brought to the table. then chef grant achatz and a sous come to the table, standing on opposite sides, and start painting the table with the ingredients of the dessert. there is a blueberry sauce at the base. there are globules of berry. there are globules of maple, derived from boiling the wood, i think. there is a tobacco-flavored cream. there are shards of chocolate. then there are two mounds of chocolate malt ice cream that are placed on the table and shattered, the pieces falling where they may. then we shake hands with the chef and pick up our spoons. every element of the dessert was fabulous on its own, and like other dishes, you could combine the elements in any number of ways to give you something totally unique in each bite. this part of the experience doesn't happen for everyone. because of the time and the logistics, most people get this dessert plated. it was a real treat to get the table plating, and we were immensely grateful for it. it was singularly spectacular.

pound cake, strawberry, lemon, vanilla bean: our final taste of the night, it was exactly what it sounds like, with the bean serving like a lollipop stick. when we were done with the cake, we dropped the beans into our coffee while we finished the evening by doing hard math, probably a little too loud. perfect.

the team of servers were amazing. everything was there when or before we needed it. explanations were complete and funny. great care was taken to foresee needs and meet them. it was just out of control.

it had been suggested to me that i might skip the wine pairings for a variety of reasons. and while i am sure they were excellent wines, i wish i had. in the past when i've done pairings, i usually felt like it was too much wine, and in this case, i definitely felt like i had too much, and i didn't even finish all of them. also, most other times i have done pairings, i found a wine that i really liked and wanted to try to find, even if i have never actually been successful doing that. (except once, at the french laundry, when i had acutally bought a wine i liked before we had it at dinner. still one of my crowning achie
vements.) i talked to jeremy, whose opinion on wine i trust, and he liked the them. he thought they were well paired with their courses and he was glad he did it. so it could just be me. anyway, there was nothing that i loved, and the bottom-line part of me would have enjoyed the meal even exponentially more if it had not included the cost of the wine. now i know.

and that is good information to have. because while i have walked away from other crazy-cool dining experiences thinking that a return trip was prohibitive and/or unnecessary, i don't feel that way about alinea. i can totally see going back. i
mean, i'm not buying plane tickets or anything, but i can see it.

coming tomorrow: the postscript

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

alinea, chicago, july 18 (part 1)

in the past i have gone to awkward pains to not rank a restaurant or meal as the best i have had. i've done posts like this for almost 60 restaurants over the past five years, and i have never said that "this is the best restaurant i have been too." certainly, at the time, it could have been true. several times. and it almost hurt me to not say it after the french laundry, but i couldn't stop dollar-cost averaging that experience, even as good as it was.

and on top of that unofficial policy, i was initially less than interested in alinea for a number of reasons. it made me roll my eyes that a restaurant was being called the best in chicago -- and maybe the best in the country -- before it opened. and i wasn't sure i bought into the whole science project as dinner concept, whatever tags you may or may not want to attach to that style.

that said, i went. and having gone, i have trouble foreseeing ever having a better meal. it was mind bending in its quality and presentation.

i thought that the style would overwhelm the substance. there is a lot of attention paid
to new tools and processes, and things i have heard about other practitioners made me wonder if it was too stunt food-y. but i was amazed at how each of the courses -- 24 of them, yes, 24 -- were as familiar as they were surprising. there might have been a texture or a temperature that you didn't expect, but at the end of the course, the carrot tasted like carrot. and if a trick was played on your mind on the way to you eating the carrot, what is the harm in that? and, it was kind of fun to ultimately be surprised that the carrot tasted like a carrot. there is no reason that should surprise you. and that is part of the fun.

the evening started with us getting there a little early. and since our reservation was for the same time it opens, that meant we stood outside the restaurant for about 20 minutes. that gave us a chance to take photos ... in front of the completely nondescript building across from the steppenwolf theater in lincoln park. seriously, a townhouse with an all-black facade, and until they put out the sandwich board for valet parking, there was nothing suggesting you were standing in front of the restaurant that gourmet magazine says is the best in the country.

a few minutes before 5, the door opens, and you are led down a hallway that looks as if it is getting smaller and smaller, and when you get to a point that it looks like you are at a dead end, a door wooshes open and unveils the entrance to the dining areas. we were taken upstairs to a round table in the front room, and upon sitting, jeremy said that this must be how it works when the trilateral commission sits down to determine the fate of the world. he's probably right.

there was no menu-looking to be done. there are only two choices: regular menu,
which is about 12 courses, or the tour, which is 24. we had told them when we made the reservation that we were doing the tour, so it was just a matter of waiting for the good to start coming.

before it did, though, our waiter place
d an oblong black vase at the center of the table (pictured above). there was nothing in it -- or at least, coming out of it -- and the only explanation was that it "was for later."

and then there was a small pillow placed in front of each of us. this was where our silverware would be placed before each course. at least, before courses that required silverware. more on that later.

a suggestion was made at the table that we not declare a favorite course. but for the purposes of this blog, and because the fact that there were 24 -- 24!! -- courses i am going to declare my top 10 dishes in a future post. i invite becky, jeremy, alan and mr. rittner to weigh in with their own faves in the comments. or anyone else who has been, i guess.

i have photos of everything. some of the photos are better than others. since there are so many, i made them small. click on anything you want to see bigger.

the naming convention for dishes at alinea is fairly stark. the name of the dish is the main ingredient, followed by supporting ingredients. i'll list the name, then do my best to describe it as i saw it. or tasted it. or felt it. all of those things are reasonable, actually. i intended to take notes regarding the descriptions, but i had too much trouble concentrating when the dishes were presented, they were so visually arresting. so i am going to get stuff wrong and miss key things, i am sure. but here goes:

roes, traditional garnishes: one of the first molecular gastronomy tricks was taking some sort of liquid and making it look like caviar. so when we got this, i wasn't sure if it was real roe or if it was somehow refabricated into roe. whichever, it was a very nice, light bite to start. the roe was steelhead trout, if i remember correctly. and i think another. see, i should've taken notes.

pork belly, iceberg, cucumber, thai distillation: this was like the best lettuce wrap ever. i love pork belly, even though i sort of wish i didn't (i have some in the freezer that i plan to make momofuku pork buns with). the squares of iceberg lettuce (i love iceberg!) on top and bottom were compressed with cucumber. i presume that means they basically replaced the water in the lettuce with cucumber water. whatever, it was excellent. the little red dot on the plate is red pepper pudding. also, yum. the thai distillation was awesome. it was a totally clear shot of liquid, but it tasted like every flavor you associate with thai food. tremendous. no idea how you do that, but i suspect a centrifuge is involved. i wish it came in 2-liter bottles.

oxalis, juniper, gin, sugar: every time the waiter said "oxalis," i nodded and pretended i knew what that was. hold on while i go look it up ... ok, back now. i just went to wikipedia, and oxalis is definitely either an herb or potato. i'm going with herb for this presentation. the dish was tiny, sitting on what looked a bit like a guitar pick. it looked like a tiny ice cube with leaves sticking out the top. i kind of let the cold gel-cube melt on my tongue, and tasted the juniper and gin flavors, and the sweetness, then the leaves were kind of crunchy.

soft shell crab, carrot, five spice, duck: we were told that the next two dishes used the same flavor profiles in different ways. this one, they were hot and crunchy. the plate looked like a diorama mock-up of a set in a lsd movie. and i mean that in a totally good way.

picture yourself on a plate in chicago,
with hearts of palm tunnels and pea shoot umbrellas

that go so incredibly high
somebody serves you, you nibble
quite slowly,
a dish with kaleidoscope eyes.

edible flowers of purple and gr
floating on seas of orange.
bite at the crab with its claws in the air,
and it's gone.

that would've been better if i had time to think about it. anyway. every part of this dish was good, and everytime you took a bit, the different proportions of the different elements made each bite taste like it was a whole different experience. and every one of them was awesome. here is the after picture of my dish, in case there was doubt.

blue crab, carrot, five spice, duck: this was part II of the crab/carrot/fivespice/duck experience, and i may have liked it even more. there were little gingery ice crystals on top, and carrot puree on the bottom, and everytime i got carrot and ginger, it made me happy. tho i was totally happy to start, so maybe that isn't the best indicator. anyway, loved it, too.

black truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan: i had just read about this d
ish not too long ago. and if i recall, what i read was that it was one of chef achatz signature dishes in his previous restaurant, and that he didn't want to bring old dishes to the new restaurant, but that customers said they had to have it, so he reluctantly brought it back. i'm not sure how much play it gets on the alinea menu, but i am so happy we got it, because it was a mouthful of awesome. it is a ravioli on a spoon. you are instructed to eat it in one bite, lest you wear it. the spoon is sitting on what looks like a bowl, but you are informed that what looks like a black bottom of the bowl is actually the table. it's just a ring supporting the spoon. so be careful. you put the ravioli in your mouth and bite ... and learn why it is called the black truffle explosion. i don't even love truffle, and this was one of the best things i have ever tasted. your mouth is just immediately filled with truffle-flavored liquid as you chew the pasta. spectacular.

pigeonneau, a la saint-clair: they brought out the fancy old etched wine glasses and we suspected we were about to get a riff on a classic. apparently, this is a dish developed by escoffier. a small puck of pastry is filled with a mushroom, a pearl onion, a piece of squab breast and two quenelles of foie. all in a remarkably rich sauce.

at this point we are told that it is roughly halftime, and that we will get a round of three "desserts," then basically start over with another meal.


(it was also at about this point that we looked at the vase on the table and noticed it seemed to be freezing from the bottom to about halfway up. we decided to remain calm.)

link to alinea, part 2
link to alinea, postscript

Alinea on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 19, 2009

alinea, the preview

i don't know when i will have enough time, or recovered acuity, to do the full post on alinea, but suffice to say: wow. it may have been the perfect dining experience. and i have been uneasy about using such description of places in the past. not that i expect that that gives me any extra cred, but just as a point of reference.

anyway, it was like 25 courses and i have photos of all of them. some of the photos are better than others, but they get the point across. i am going to try to write at the airport or on the plane, while it is still fresh in my mind.

there is other stuff i will probably blog about from this trip, and while i usually try to post in chronological order, i'm making an exception this time because, well, i can.

above is a photo of "hot potato, cold potato," course 11. which was almost halfway through. almost meaning, not quite halfway.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

where did i go?

june came and went without a post. i suck. i guess it is because i have been spending so much time eating at diner 437. everything is good. i should do a roundup post on that. hmmmmm.

also, i have been cooking burgers to enter in the build a better burger contest. i have some that i like. hopefully judges like them too.

prepare for a mid-month onslaught of posts from toledo, n. michigan and chicago. we have big plans for chicago.