Do You Believe In Magic? (Alinea -- Chicago, IL)
I am at a loss. It must be the apocalypse.
How, how, HOW do I begin to explain the genius, the beauty, the revelation that is Alinea?
Let's start by putting it in Restaurant Whore terms: It's the food equivalent of Tantric sex.
I'll also pass on a little tidbit. When leaving Alinea, Jon said the following: "That may have been the best meal I've ever had."
I couldn't think of any reason to disagree with him.
So, kids, grab yourselves a beer and sit back in dad's recliner, because this is going to be my longest post yet. Not surprising considering the meal itself was five and half hours long.
So...when I was in French Polynesia, I received an e-mail from Nick Kokonos, co-owner of Alinea. "So are you coming to Chicago or what?," he asked. That's pretty fucking cool that he dipped down low enough to care, I thought. He even had a sense of humor and stayed super cool about the fact that when I first heard about Alinea, I said this. I got even more excited about the visit. Just about peed my pants, in fact.
I had wanted to go to Alinea since the first time I heard of it. Why? Because it must be one fucking talented dude that makes Thomas Keller say "Hey, you know what? You need to go spend some time with my boy Ferran who has the mad skillz." At least that's how it goes in my head. In any case, when there is a man that TK thinks could hack it in the El Bulli kitchen, he must be a serious culinary mofo. And he is.
Now keep in mind that this was no ordinary dinner. Fatemeh happened to have a conference in the area at the perfect time and made the reservation for an event we couldn't say "no" to (yeah, take THAT Nancy Reagan -- "just say no" my ass!). We would be there for their one year anniversary, where the menu would be a parade of greatest hits. I felt so special that I seriously considered bringing (and wearing) my tiara. Yes, I have one. No, I did not wear it. But I should have.
Alinea, as far as I can tell, either means the paragraph symbol or is the name of a Queen. Who cares, right? It's just fucking great.
Now, keep in mind, I had just spent six days in Washington, DC in the charge of sixty-five 8th graders. I returned home on Friday with the beginnings of a cold, and a definite need for some hard booze. Add to that the fact that I was running on -32 hours of sleep and the last thing I wanted to do was board a plane again Saturday morning. And then again Sunday night. Truly, we were going to Chicago for a meal. The expectations were set higher than crack ho Sally on two for one day.
We arrived in Chicago and even managed to sneak in a little Margarita action at Frontera Grill before meeting up with our darlings, Fatemeh & C. The four of us were so positively giddy about the upcoming meal that you could have powered a small boat from our collective excitement.
As we got ready, and changed into surprisingly similar clothing (fucking dorks that we are), I called to them:
"Hey, you know what's crazy fucked up?"
"We haven't even been friends for a year."
Yet here we were, sharing a hotel room and preparing for a meal that was sure to show how truly hot I can get over fine food. It would either make or break the friendship.
On the taxi ride over, I confessed that I felt nervous, and a little bit sick. I sometimes get this way before a highly anticipated meal. Was it the enormous expectations (I mean it really is ridiculous to fly somewhere for one meal)? The fear that I wouldn't be able to manage twenty two courses? In any case, C and Fatemeh were on the same page. Jon was too busy chatting up the cab driver. Must be that Midwestern blood.
And then we were there.
First, there is an address. No name. You enter the door and go down a hallway straight out of Alice in Wonderland. I looked for a door but didn't see one. As I peered down the hallway, two doors next to me shot open and I jumped back and gasped in sheer delight. I feel bad that I was the only one to experience it as the others were behind me. Still, I didn't feel so bad that I wished it didn't happen to me. I'm selfish like that.
We were greeted by two women who had the smiles of angels. When told of our reservation, they checked NOTHING and simply said our table was ready. They then escorted us upstairs to our table.
Pure magic, and the meal hasn't even started yet.
The room we were in was done in neutrals with the most comfortable chairs ever. In fact, when hearing that Chef Keller would be dining at Alinea later in the month, Jon told our server to "tell him to take the chairs back with him." The table was dark wood and completely bare. Super sexy.
We were greeted by Peter, a server who either loved or hated us (we couldn't tell). In fact, most of the staff was not quite sure what to do with these four young(ish) diners with an obvious lust for (and knowledge of) food and wine. He took our bubbly orders (Feuillatte Brut Rose '97 for F&C, Pommery "Cuvee Louise" '90 for Jon and me), and showed us the menu.
The fucking genius menu.
Bubbles next to each item indicated it's size, by the size of the bubble. These same bubbles also told you how sweet a dish was (the farther to the right, the sweeter it was). He then explained the wine pairing options (standard or balls to the wall -- we chose the latter with Fatemeh and I doing half-pairings so as not to completely embarrass ourselves) and started the show.
At this point, I was so charmed that I was wishing I had brought a change of panties. And we hadn't even had any food yet.
So, are you ready? I'll try my best with the recall but I can only promise so much. Here's the food for you:
1. Hot potato (cold potato, black truffle, Parmesan).
OH MY CHRIST. A little bowl made of wax (Fatemeh discovered this for us by breaking hers. Jon was a gentleman and traded bowls with her so she wouldn't be embarrassed). In the bowl was a cold potato truffle soup. Skewered over the bowl was a piece of Parmesan, a cube of butter, a chive and a hot peeled little tater with a big fat piece o' truffle draped over it. Fuck yeah. You pull out the "pin" and slurp down the soup. I started to get concerned -- how was the rest of the meal going to live up to this? Who cares? I could've left after that bite knowing that my trip to Chicago was not in vain.
2. Lamb (akudjura, nicoise olive, eucalyptus veil).
This looked like a bowl of leaves with a pin sticking up in the middle. And it was. The leaves were baked eucalyptus leaves and at the end of the pin was a piece of lamb (or in my case, bass) with a nicoise olive on top. While in the bowl, the lamb/bass rested on fava bean puree which coated the bottom of the meat. Now we are talking about a piece of meat that is no more than a square centimeter. And it is cooked PERFECTLY (and this is also why Michael Mina is a failure in my book -- GA kicks his sorry ass in the little bits department). It is delicious. And the smell really does add to the whole experience. I am slowly falling in love with Grant Achatz. This was one of three dishes where I had a different meat than the rest of the table. I was astounded that no other elements of the dishes were ever changed, and yet, my preparations worked as seamlessly as the original versions. It was incredible.
Now, by the way, we have the fucking paparazzi at the goddamn table. Jon and C are clicking away like maniacs. It is at this time that we meet Greg, super fucking rad sommelier extraordinaire. Greg really rocks. So did just about everyone we met, but we were pretty sucky and only learned the names of Peter and Greg.
Also, as a side note, a bunch of e-Gullet folks were at the table behind ours. OK, back to our regular programming.
3. Mango (sesame oil, soy, bonito).
OK, this dish was crazy fucked up. In a good way. Little disks of frozen mango puree with frozen sesame oil in the center a dollop of soy on top in the middle and shaved bonito over the whole bitchin' thing. We were instructed to pick up our pins and let the tiny morsel melt in our mouths slowly. This was like the gum that Violet Beauregarde chews. First you get sweet, then salty, then umami, then more salty and sweet. Home run, baby.
We're feeling good -- portions are little, chairs are comfortable -- we're feeling like the seemingly insurmountable task of 22 courses is now achievable. All right bitches, BRING. IT. ON.
It was then that our silverware stages were set. I shit you not. Silverware stages. Little pillows were placed in front of us near the center of the table. Every time new silverware came out, it went on the stage. Pretentious? Yes. Silly? Yes. Awesome? Also yes.
4. Dungeness Crab (raw parsnip, young coconut, cashews).
A'ight, let me break it down for you. A rectangle made of raw pureed parsnip, young coconut and cashew with hunks of the D-crab laid on top. Ribbons of young coconut (we know how I feel about young coconut), a parsnip chip, some cashews. Roxanne Klein style. The base had the texture of a nice silken tofu (but much tastier) and the whole thing came together beautifully. As did we, because it was so damn good. With this we were presented with a Susana Blabo "Crios" Torrontes '04. F had had it before. Crisp, floral and totally lovely.
5. Salsify (parsley, smoked salmon, steelhead roe).
This was the amnesia dish. We kept forgetting we had it when trying to recount the items we'd eaten at different points in the meal. I don't know why -- it was great. I think we're just a little slow. Ribbons of carmelized salsify with a smoked salmon cream and big fat steelhead roe. EX.CELL.ENT.
Wine: a very pleasing Wieninger Nussberg "Alte Reben" '03.
6. Hearts of Palm (in five sections).
I had been waiting for this. When it got presented, I started bouncing in my chair. This was the biggest dish so far, and when we saw it, we were a little concerned about our stomach capacity. It looked manageable, though, and nothing so far had been more than three bites.
Wine for this? Qunitarelli Bianco Secco "Ca del Merlo", '04. Not easy to pair a wine with five different flavors but it worked on most levels. Honestly, the wines were all exceptional. I had not one that disappointed my picky bitch sensibilities.
Now the presentation here was unreal. Five little pedestals, each with a section of crisp, fresh hearts (heart?) of palm, each filled with something different. We were told to turn each pedestal sideways to let the section roll into our mouths. So we did.
The first was filled with vanilla pudding. That's right -- vanilla fucking pudding. It was topped with something green (my memory fails me here) and a little thai chili. I had no idea food could taste that good. Next one was filled with fava bean and had a bit of zest from a preserved lemon on top. Also amazing, but very scary. Why? Because it was filling and we were, again, concerned about our capacity. It was all so good, though, so how could we stop?
3rd filling? Bulgar Wheat. Whole grains with a homemade mayonnaise. On top? A garlic chip. Kill me now because it can't possibly get any better.
#4: Prune filling, nicoise olive on top. I don't like either of those things, but I ate it and liked it and started to wonder if the whole meal had been laced with tar heroin.
Last? The piece de resistance. Pumpernickel and truffle. Now I need to die again. This was favored by all at the table (although I think the vanilla pudding is a close rival).
That last bit reminds me of the bread. Four choices: Cracked wheat, ciabatta, pumpernickel and something with olives. Pumpernickel was the favorite of all. Did I mention most of us didn't even LIKE pumpernickel prior to this? And the butter? Yeah, two kinds. Cow butter and goat butter. You've got to be fucking kidding me. I was very, very good, eating only 1/3 of a piece of bread. As Derrick and Melissa would say, it's the silent killer of any good meal (if you don't believe me, ask them about Guy Savoy).
7. Asparagus (egg yolk drops).
OK, what the fuck? Egg yolk drops? Here's how it goes, bitches: a cup with the tip of an asparagus spear poking it's phallic head through a foam of it's own making. On the side, little egg yolk drops made, we're told, by having THREE chefs use eyedroppers to drop bits of yolk into butter for poaching. Fatemeh doesn't like eggs, but I think I caught her licking out the inside of her bowl. She described the yolk drops as "egg yolk dip-n-dots" -- cute, no? This was a freakin' insane in the membrane take on the classic asparagus with shaved egg. It was crazy good.
8. PB&J (grape, peanut, bread).
I was waiting for this dish. I had read about it. Plus, I loves me some PB&J (Confession: I eat it for lunch at least once a week. Before you laugh at me, I have to eat Kosher AND vegetarian at the school I work at so go fuck yourself). A peeled grape, still on the stem is coated in peanut puree and then a thin slice of brioche is wrapped around the sexy little orb and toasted. It arrives on a weird wire contraption (there are many of these), and you lift it out and eat it Cleopatra style. One little bite. It tastes like the best PB&J you've ever had -- mostly like a mini version of the classic with 100X the flavor. Definitely worth the wait.
9. Snap peas (tofu, pillow of lavender air, ham).
Wine check: Dirler Pinot Gris, '02. Awww, yeah, baby, there's my Alsatian lover.
The dish itself had tasty peas with what seemed like whipped tofu (light, airy, etc., etc.). Tiny ham cubes and a wisp of some fried ham that looked and tasted like jamon serrano to me plus a bammin' yuzu emulsion. And really, is there anything more bitchin' than yuzu? Or than pairing tofu with ham?
One of our favorite servers was a younger dude with lily white skin and jet black hair. I'm pretty sure he's a vampire. In any case, he seemed to like us, so we asked him how they did the whole lavender pillow deal.
"So, um, have you guys ever been to Amsterdam or used a vaporizer?"
My husband's face lit up. Basically, they use a vaporizer to pump the air into the pillows and punch holes in them at the last second. GA, you are a crazy motherfucker (and a freakin' adorable one, I might add).
10. Litchi (horseradish, chervil juice, oyster cream).
OK, so what they don't mention on the menu is that the oyster cream that sits in the pool of the chervil juice with the horseradish, which is topped with litchi has a big, fat scoop of American caviar on top. When they set the dish in front of me and pulled off the top, I responded roughly as a five year old child does on Christmas morning.
I believe my exact words to the server when the dish was revealed were: "Oh SHUT UP!"
I loved the flavors in this dish. Jon and I both got huge smiles on our faces because it reminded us of our favorite canape ever -- Oysters and Pearls. Not the same, but, as I described it at the time, it was like the renegade child of O&P -- same DNA, with it's own unique personality.
11. Kobe Beef (honeydew, cucumber, lime rocks).
For kicks, I tried Jon's beef (14 years, people), he tried my tuna and we were astounded at how well both meats worked with the same preparation, despite one being a mammal and one being a fish.
Thin squares of honeydew laid out in a line, topped with small, square slices of the beef/tuna (again, tiny, and again, perfectly cooked), ribbons of cucumber across the top and then pink peppercorns and "lime rocks" sprinkled across the top. I don't know how you make lime rocks -- fizzy, crunchy lime bits -- but I'd like a bag of them for the movies, please.
I just about set up camp in this dish. I'm running out of adjectives to describe how great this all was, so just trust me on it. The fucked up thing here? The meal is only half over at this point.
Wine: Elena Walch Gewurztraminer, '04. Gewurztraminer! With beef! I think I'm in love...
12. Pear (curry, celery branch and leaf).
A shot glass with a pool of the celery emulsion at the bottom. An orb infused with madras curry sits in the glass, topped with a celery leaf. Once you do the shot and break the sphere, pear juice explodes into your mouth. We were instructed to keep our mouths closed (no small feat for this group) so as not to let anything squirt out (how many times have I heard that one before?). A flavor burst of the best kind -- unique, delicious and full of surprises (kind of sounds like your mama, right?).
We all tried to guess what the orb was made of. The consensus was white chocolate. We were not so far off -- it was cocoa butter. Check out the big brains on Brad.
13. Turbot (shellfish, water chestnuts, hyacinth vapor).
The turbot became a running joke. We knew we had seen it on the menu, but couldn't remember at what point in the meal it would arrive. I guess this was that point.
Vino: Domaine des Lambrays "Clos des Lambrays" Grand Cru '03. And this would be the point in the meal where I've the amount of wine that allows me to remember that I liked it, but not what it was exactly that I liked about it.
This dish was a bowl within another bowl. The bottom bowl had hyacinth flowers. Once the dish was presented, hot water was poured into that bowl to allow the vapor to rise while we ate. The dish with the food in it had the turbot and shellfish suspended in a custard of water chestnuts. One of the richest dishes of the evening, but mad tasty.
14. Squab (watermelon, foie gras, black licorice).
Let me break it down for you here: two perfect slices of squab, with squab confit (which had a cube of seared foie gras in it -- so fucking rad), foie gras foam, bits of watermelon that compared with the oh-so-perfect Thailand watermelon, a dollop of a licorice reduction. Then, our server, I forget which one, brings over some black licorice to grate over the entire dish. I'd never seen licorice in the raw -- looks like a thick black crayon, mostly.
Best squab ever, really. Really. Tender and juicy, and not too game-y. Plus the watermelon and licorice created a nice contrast to what had the potential to be a very rich dish. So glad those two elements showed up, because I think this dish could've flipped the switch for me otherwise. There would have been no digging myself out of the k-hole had it not been for that little tweak that reminded my brain it had no idea what it was getting. Total shut down averted.
And how's about a Ribas de Cabrera, '00? Si! Si!
Time check? We sat down at 8:30, it is now approaching midnight. Fatemeh and I order some iced tea to keep ourselves going for the rest of the meal (did I mention I had just spent 6 days in Washington DC with 65 adolescents???).
15. Foie gras (rhubarb, sweet onion, walnut).
Now I typically don't eat foie gras. Not because of ethical reasons, more for the richness factor. But I knew I wasn't going to be presented with a whole lobe of foie in this case, so I knew I could deal.
We were presented with the "anti-plate" a bottomless disk with a lip that had a spoon sitting inside (the lip keeps the bowl of the spoon horizontal). In that spoon? A half-moon of foie gras (soft creamy torchon style) filled with rhubarb liquid and topped with sweet onion that resembled pink flaked coconut, and minced walnuts. Divinity itself. I'm now thinking that the whole thing must be a wet dream. It's simply not possible that everything has been this good.
16. Bison (potato, pistachio, sweet spices).
The last of the dishes that had a substitute for me -- a scallop for the bison. It was the first time they had EVER done a scallop in their year of being open. Who's the rockstar now?
The dish had the bison/scallop wrapped with potato straws that resembled dried noodles. There were pistachios on the side with sweet spice around the whole dish. Pistachios as a side dish? Rad. A meat course that isn't just meat, a starch and a lackluster veggie (almost every tasting menu I've ever seen has this, even at the best of the best)? Priceless.
Both the scallop and the bison (again, I tried both) worked it like Missy Elliott. I'm talking 'bout laying down, flipping and reversing that shit. Perfectly cooked. Jon and I told them they should make scallops more often (If I had a nickel for every shitty scallop I had, I'd be able to eat at Alinea every night). The whole thing was just perfect all around. Anyone that makes nuts it's own side dish should automatically be eligible for a James Beard Award, no questions asked.
What are we drinkin'? Chateau Valandraud, '99.
Approaching the home stretch. I couldn't decide if I was relieved or sad. Usually, by the time I get to dessert in a tasting menu, I'm begging God to put me out of my gastrointestinal misery. I had the startling realization that after sixteen courses at Alinea, I was neither sick, nor full. Hallelujah! It was my dream come true. I have always said that my heart's desire is a multi-course meal of canapes.
Oh Shit! Does this mean everything from here on out can only disappoint? Oh wait, there's still El Bulli...
17. Bacon (butterscotch, apple, thyme).
Like the PB&J, I had been waiting for this dish. I'd read and fantasized about it endlessly. Matt and Vivian, the super duper Chicago couple we met in French Polynesia had a twinkle in their eyes when they described it.
It was all about the bacon.
As the server tells it, bacon on a plate was too boring for "Chef," so he had the wire boat-like contraption from which the bacon hangs created for him.
Bacon (dehydrated). Dipped in butterscotch. With dried apple curls and thyme stuck to it.
It was like bacon candy.
Can you think of anything that sounds better than that? Please don't say "sex." It will just make you a pathetic cliche, and you would be wrong anyway.
18. Applewood (muscovado sugar, fenugreek).
No pic here, unfortunately. Jon wasn't happy with how they turned out so it's up to your imagination.
When I saw this on the menu, I wondered how in the hell one makes something edible out of applewood. Something smoked with applewood? Scented? I couldn't figure it out.
Then we got what looked like a little toasted marshmallow on a stick. Now I knew it wasn't a marshmallow, but the illusion had me sold. It was, in fact, an applewood semifreddo like concoction coated in muscovado sugar with a little carmelized fenugreek chip.
What kind of utensils does one use for something like this? Good question. The instructions were, basically, to perform fellatio on this little morsel. That's right, lean over and just suck it off. Apparently I lacked enough decorum in performing this act that I elicited a gasp of "Oh my God, Joy!" from C. Oops.
Super fun dish, and, like everything else, incredibly interesting. The temperature and texture combined with the unusual ingredient had me sold, yet again.
19. Sassafras Cream (encapsulated in mandarin ice).
I found it interesting that this was the only dish other than the Hearts of Palm that was described by it's presentation rather than the components of the dish. For the HoP, it made sense as there were so many ingredients in play, but for this dish I was unsure why this choice was made. Not important in the grand scheme of things, just curiouser and curiouser.
The little treat is what would happen if a creamsicle and a rootbeer float had a baby and then that baby went to finishing school. A segment of a cylinder, made of mandarin ice and filled with sassafras cream. Drops of a root beer reduction sit on the side, and the whole job is sprinkled with crumbled shortbread. Could you die? As delicious as it sounds, and really refreshing at this point in the meal.
Oh yeah -- we had some wine, too. Cavalchina "Puergole del Sole" Muller-Thurgau Passito, '03.
I'm now at the place where my fatigue is starting to beat me down. Must. Trudge. On.
20. Sponge Cake (tonka bean, vanilla fragrance).
Fun, fun, fun. Sponge cake on the end of a vanilla bean is coated in carmelized sugar. It resembles rock candy and is meant to use as a spoon to scoop up the tonka bean foam that was studded with itsy bitsy pieces of dried cherry (I think -- Jon seems to recall it being raspberry).
As you eat it, the sugar dissolves and the cake comes apart just as you are finishing using it as a spoon. Tasty.
We started gnawing on the beans and the staff graciously offered to cry-o-vac Fatemeh's bean for her (she took them up on it). How freakin' awesome is that? Kind of reminded me of my TFL toast experience.
21. Chocolate (avocado, lime, mint).
This was a roller coaster like twist of chocolate that looked like it might be ganache, but tasted like a pot de creme. Avocado cream (which we were informed would taste like bananas) and mint syrup dot the sides. There was lime as well -- whether it was in the quenelle of gelato or in the shavings on top, I shamefully cannot remember. It's actually a fucking miracle that I remember anything at all at this point in the meal -- I'm usually past the point of thinking when I reach dessert.
The elements worked together seamlessly and despite the fact that we were now at the second to last course, and should really be on the verge of exploding, we all were members of the clean plate club. Soooo good. Silky, sexy and sublime. Plus it looked cool.
And we're still drinking. Abbazia Novacella Moscato Rosa mixed with Creme de Cassis -- a creation of the house and a brilliant one at that. Couldn't have been more perfect for the chocolate.
22. Peanut (five other flavors).
Alinea's take on petit fours with a five pronged serving piece each with a bit at the end. We've got a bit of celery with peanut butter and a celery leaf. A pate aux fruits with peanut crumbs (revisiting the pb&j taste). A peanut butter fudge with some chocolate (I think). An actual peanut with something. I can't remember the last one. They were all very good, unlike my memory.
There was some coffee (tea in my case). There was some Port and Madeira. There was some exhaustion. There was some chatting with the e-gullet folks and some quizzing of the staff. There was Greg presenting us with two copies of the menu (one with wines -- c'mon did you really think I remembered all that? You know how I am...) and a little Mac photo book of Alinea and it's food. There was me, asking for a piece of paper so I could leave Nick a love note.
And there was nothing else but sheer bliss. What a meal.
It was also the most expensive meal I've ever eaten (what with the fancy pants wines and all). Which makes it all the more crazy that I'm dying to go back. I feel like a fucking junkie.
Before we left, we stopped in the immaculate kitchen. It was 1:30 in the morning. Most of the kitchen staff was gone. But Grant Achatz was still there. He was a portrait in kindness, tolerating our gushing and fawning despite a long night of performing his alchemy. I was still trying to reconcile how this adorable boy-next-door type was creating this crazy shit that still manages to taste good. My favorite part about meeting him? How his whole face lit up when Fatemeh told him that Jon and I would be heading to El Bulli in the fall. He was positively effervescent when he said "You're going to have the BEST time."
Funny that here we were in HIS restaurant, thinking that we already did.
"To eat is a necessity. To eat intelligently is an art."
-- La Rochefoucauld