December 22, 2009
Alinea: The Best Meal I’ve Ever Had
I like the tasty meal. We’ve been fortunate to have some truly spectacular dinners over the past few years, like our 16-course wedding dinner at Joël Robuchon, and dinners in Japan (including Kobe beef in Kobe and a nine-course kaiseki ryoti at Tawaraya in Kyoto), and several dinners at Jean-Georges‘ in NYC, but I can say, after our dinner in Chicago on Saturday night, that I’ve never had a better, more delicious, more creative, more fun meal than dinner at Alinea. As AEJ put it, Chef Grant Achatz is a poet. 30 courses. 11 wines. FIVE HOURS. I took over 300 photographs. Below are the best 52 of them. Get comfy, and don’t read this if you’re hungry… (A note about the images: The restaurant was dark, so every shot was at ISO 6400. There wasn’t as much noise as you’d expect as such a high ISO — thank you, Canon 5D MK II — but I eliminated most of it with Dfine 2.0. Camera body is a Canon 5D Mark II, and the lens is a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L.)
Finding the restaurant was the first challenge. We had the address, but we passed it twice because — as my friend Travis Cross said — Alinea is “a restaurant that’s so fancy it doesn’t need a sign.” (I wish we’d known that ahead of time.) We eventually spotted a small folded sign on the ground, offering valet parking, and we knew we were at the right place. When you enter, a member of the staff (which seems to total at least twice the number of customers) offers to take your coat, and asks if you came by taxi — so that if you did, they can have one waiting for you when you finish dining. “This seems nice,” I thought. I had no idea what was coming.
After waiting for only a minute, we were taken to our table in the corner of the second floor. Our waiter placed a centerpiece of fresh rosemary on the table.
He already knew, from the instructions we gave when we made the reservation, that AEJ is allergic to shellfish, and he asked if there were any other things he should know about any food restrictions. We told him that we’d rather not eat venison. (Having a herd of them living in our yard in Austin has made us feel like deer are more like pets than food.)
He told us that they didn’t have an open bar, but had extensive wine offerings, and he would recommend that we use their wine pairings “for an upcharge” (yeah, no kidding) — specially selected small glasses of wine to go with each course (but with several wines carrying through several courses; this wouldn’t be 30 glasses of wine). We told him that we probably wouldn’t go with the pairings, since there would be a lot of reds, and we really preferred white wine. He clarified that this wasn’t a problem. Only four of the twelve wines in the pairing were red anyway, and our wine steward would fine suitable replacements for those. Alright — if we’re going to do this, let’s really do it.
The first wine was really a cocktail of Henroit Brut with Chartreuse, Akvavit, and orange Curacao. Moments later: course number 1, “osetra with traditional garnishes.” Osetra is black caviar. The “traditional garnishes” were really more of a joke, as everything “traditional” had been chemically transformed to remove its texture, leaving you with only the texture of caviar. This, in a single course, demonstrates the philosophy of Alinea — commonly called “molecular gastronomy.” The brioche that would normally support the caviar has been transformed into foam (yes, that foam on top somehow had something to do with brioche toast at one point), underneath the caviar is an onion and creme fraiche puree, and that little thing on the right is an egg yolk emulsion. The only thing still recognizable by both taste and texture was the caviar.
Things started to get crazy on the second course: “yuba” — shrimp, miso, and togarashi. (AEJ’s shrimp was replaced with chicken.) Yuba, we were told, is dried bean curd skin. As our waiter explained, you basically cook down the bean curd and skim the skin off the top, then deep fry it. (He told us this as if we might go try this ourselves.) The shrimp-wrapped yuba is sitting in a tiny bowl of miso. It was — and I’ll probably say this about every course — incredible, but the first bite was kind of a “wtf?” That was common in this meal. Bite one: what the hell am I eating? I have never tasted this before. Bite two: oh my god, I’ve never tasted anything like this.
On the right of the picture above is “chao tom” — sugar cane, shrimp, and mint. The thing is, you can’t eat raw sugar cane. Our instructions were to chew it, taste it, and spit it into a napkin they provide. That’s right. It’s like gourmet gum that you chew for 30 seconds then spit out. (More about the creation on Alinea’s blog.)
Next: pork belly with iceberg lettuce, cucumber, and Thai distillation. That shot glass on the left is the “Thai distillation” — the essence of the flavors of Thai cooking, reduced to a tiny non-alcoholic shot.
This detail shot shows the little garnishes for the pork belly — herbs and flowers meant to be added to taste. I love putting each bite together (I’m looking at you, fajitas), so this was fun — and, surprise, yummy.
Each course had different cutlery. Although most of it was modern…
… the next course used antique silver…
… and antique crystal glasses from the early 1900’s.
Chef Achatz has paired the cutlery and the wine glasses to the time period of the original recipe for the food — a recipe from 1914: trout monseigneur, completely re-imagined. From left to right: butter-poached mushrooms, trout, and three cookie-like dishes called barquettes, with the outer barquettes holding trout puree with trout roe, and the middle holding black truffle puree with a poached quail egg. This was definitely not 1914. (Read more about the history behind this dish on Alinea’s blog.)
The next course was a single bite: goose with stuffing and prune, surrounded by fresh juniper. (You don’t eat the juniper, but you’re supposed to smell its aroma while you eat the goose bite. You can read more about the creation of this dish on Alinea’s blog.) The goose with stuffing and prune is all attached to a single juniper branch, and you bite the goose off of the juniper, not unlike eating a corn dog off of a stick. Well, sort of.
This is “hot potato / cold potato.” The top, on the tiny metal rod, is a hot potato with black truffle on top. The bottom broth is cold, also made from potato. You pull the rod through the hand-made wax bowl (yes, that bowl is wax), and as you pull the rod through the wax, the rod drops the hot potato and garnishes (including a tiny piece of chive — how do they thread that onto the tiny metal rod?!) into the cold potato soup. Then you toss back the contents of the bowl like a shot of potato deliciousness. Hot potato, cold potato.
The next course was optional, but we figured go big or go home, or you’ve got to spend money to make money, or whatever, so we went for it. They paired it with a glass of 1990 Alain Robert ‘Blanc de Blancs Reserve’ — a “grand cru” Champagne. I think “grand cru” is French for “now you’re broke.” This was the white truffle course — risotto, parmesan, brown butter, and white truffles, shaved at the table. Here’s the risotto alone…
… here is the white truffle. (According to the in-depth post about this dish on Alinea’s blog, these mushrooms are $2600+ per pound. I considered pocketing the whole thing while the waiter wasn’t looking.)
They shave the truffle onto the risotto…
… and then top it all with browned butter (from this very nice tiny copper pot).
Next was duck, duck, duck, and duck. Duck with chestnut, mace, and brussels sprouts. The foam? Duck (and also nutmeg and other holiday spices). Don’t ask me how, but the foam really is duck. Then there are pieces of “standard” perfect duck. Also under the foam: duck liver. There were at least four treatments of duck in this single small bowl.
After all of that truffle and duck, it was time for a palate cleanser! It was a trio of “cocktails,” or food inspired by cocktails. (More on the “Cocktail Block” on Alinea’s blog.)
“Passion Fruit” — inspired by a Hurricane — rum, cranberry, and orange:
“Elixir Vegetal” — sugar cube infused with chartreuse, fennel, and lemon:
And “Kumquat” — inspired by a New Orleans drink called a Sazerac — rye, lemon, and demerara (sugar).
And… time for more truffles. This is white truffle, pear, allspice, and white wine. This was one of the dishes that freaked me out when I first tasted it, but I loved it by the end. Why? Because that ice cream is made from white truffles. Yes, earthy truffle ice cream.
The next course was obviously inspired by Elvis and his love of the peanut butter and banana sandwich. I don’t know that he ever added bacon, but it seems like he would. So, peanut butter, banana, and bacon, but as imagined by Grant Achatz. (From left to right, bacon — suspended on some crazy wire — peanut butter “dried and spicy” (and oh my god delicious), and thai banana.
The slice of bacon with butterscotch, apple, and thyme. How can this be so good? And why isn’t all my bacon suspended by a wire?
Here is octopus with green peanut, mint, and dill. (More about this bowl that you can’t put down on Alinea’s blog.)
This is matsutake with pine, otoro (very fancy tuna), and mango.
A detail shot from the other side:
They move the rosemary from the centerpiece to the serving plate for the next course: bison three ways — with red cabbage, eggplant and rosemary fragrance — served on a sizzling iron plank.
Next was a single ravioli — black truffle explosion (like biting into a piece of FreshenUp gum — the “gum that goes ‘squirt!’ “), romaine, and parmesan.
This next one was incredible. “Poussin on a fireplace log with pumpernickel and juniper.” (This would have been venison if we hadn’t asked otherwise, but in our version, it was chicken.) It doesn’t just look like a fireplace log — it smells like a fireplace log. It was the most incredible thing. There was actually a still-smoldering small piece of wood hidden behind this large log, so the whole time, it smelled like a burning campfire. This will sound cheesy, but I almost teared up at the brilliance of this. Yes, it was delicious, but smelling a campfire while eating inside a restaurant — and having a log as a plate?! This was genius. (You can read a behind-the-scenes blog entry about the creation of this dish from Alinea’s blog here.)
Unfortunately, the next course was only a single bite — unfortunate because it was so damned good. “Foie gras with cinnamon and apple candy.” It was like a sweet little bite of holiday apple pie — but with a crazy hint of something else going on (caused by adding foie gras — goose liver — to that sweet apple and cinnamon). The waiter presented it on a long, upholstered panel, which he held while we each removed our little treat.
More food on a paddle! This is “lemon soda, one bite.” It’s like a little bag that looks like plastic, but that dissolves as soon as you put it in your mouth, and then… it becomes lemon soda. It was even fizzy! It was the fanciest Pop Rocks in the world!
Now we come to a series of courses, presented simultaneously, that by the end had us literally crying with laughter. First, the waiter took away the silverware, as we were supposed to experience this little “Christmas party” with only our hands.
One of my favorite things at Christmas time is eggnog. Here is the chef’s version of eggnog — “pedro ximenez, benedictine, and buffalo trace.” I don’t know what that means, but I can only imagine that there’s stuff in there — along with that tiny egg yolk — that has nothing to do with eggnog, but is still delicious, and tastes basically like eggnog.
Behind it was this “transparency of raspberry and yogurt.” Pretty literally, Christmas hard candy. It rocked back and forth on the table like a candy pendulum, thanks to that little curved stand.
Our little “Christmas party” was going to get really… suggestive, very fast. On that long, metal rod is “crabapple, hazelnut, bacon, and thyme.” You’re supposed to lean over, take it in your mouth, and pull it off the rod with your teeth.
Finally, this is “bubble gum — long pepper, hibiscus, and creme fraiche.” It’s a test tube.
You’re supposed to “wrap your lips around the end, and suck — as if drinking through a straw.” Yeah, a straw.
When you do suck it, the contents — and I’m not just saying this — go shooting into your mouth at incredible pressure, all while making the loudest “SLURP” sound you’ve ever heard. It was the funniest, most vulgar, awesome thing I’ve ever heard in a restaurant.
Next they bring out these two pillows filled with another juniper, fir, holiday smell. They place the plates on the pillows, and the pillows slowly deflate, releasing this holiday-scented air as you eat.
And this is what’s on that plate: “hay: burnt cugar, coffee, and huckleberry.”
And now… the finale. Dessert. The staff cleared our table, and rolled out this silicon sheet, then placed these bowls on top.
And then… there he was, standing alone at our table: Chef Grant Achatz. Without saying a word, he began creating our dessert, using only spoons, right there on top of the table.
Yes, it’s smoking. (The primary ingredients here are that chocolate and dry ice thing in the middle, along with coconut, hyssop, and — get this — menthol. Read more on Alinea’s blog.)
A detail shot…
And a shot of the whole piece. Those chocolate circles? Those started out as liquid. (He poured hot chocolate into bottomless glasses, and when he lifted the glasses — solid, but still soft, chocolate.) And those little perfect squares? Yes, those, too, were initially round drops of liquid, but the next time we looked, they had turned into perfect squares — without a mold of any kind.
Minutes later, we had devoured it.
And our final bite: pound cake with strawberry and lemon, served on a vanilla bean.
I don’t know what else to say. It was the most amazing five hours I’ve ever spent in a restaurant. It tasted amazing and there were flavors I’d never experienced before (pretty much with every single of the 30 courses). Chef Achatz managed to compose a story with food — a story, or a poem, about Christmas and winter. There was the meal by the campfire. There was pork, goose, and duck. There was the holiday party that goes all sorts of wrong (and by that I mean all sorts of right) after a little too much eggnog. We played “hot potato, cold potato.” We played “duck, duck, goose.” Good lord, even Elvis showed up with a peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwich. And then to have the chef himself construct a beautiful, eatable tablescape for us for dessert — with flavors as unique as menthol — was beyond belief.
Thank you, Chef Grant Achatz and the staff at Alinea. Merry Christmas.