Alinea at Home Extra: My dinner at Alinea, part two
And so it continues...
After the triple-play of Mustard, Sweet Potato, and Bacon, our server poured a glass of Bruno Paillard "Première Cuvée" Brut Rosé, Reims. It was a really nice glass of wine (not as much of a hit with me as the Etude Pinor Noir rosé I had at Ad Hoc last summer and now buy by the case because I love it so much) and went well with our next course -- Hot Potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter. Another "signature dish," this is something I had last summer at Alinea and couldn't wait to have again. As you can see in the photo I've linked to, there's a housemade wax bowl holding a silky, rich, "cold" (it's just below room temperature) potato soup. Then, piercing the bowl is a pin which holds an orb and a few cubes of hot Yukon Gold potato and a slice of black truffle. You pull the pin back down through the bowl so that the hot potato pieces fall gently into the cold potato soup, and you tilt the bowl of potato deliciousness into your mouth and enjoy. I loved this dish the first time I had it and I love it even more now. I'm even thinking about making my own wax bowls when I do it for the blog. Shouldn't be that difficult (she says now before the 3rd-degree burns set in).
Our next course was another repeat from last year's menu, and exactly as I remembered (and loved) it: Yuba, shrimp, miso togarashi. This time, though, I felt like it had a little more heat. It was light and crunchy, and the flavors were well balanced, and I could've licked the rest of the miso mayonnaise I hadn't dunked the yuba into right out of its little holding spot. I paid close attention to the crispy texture, too, because I have a feeling this one is going to be a bitch to make here at home.
This next course ranks in my top three of the entire evening. But first, another taste of yet another wine (or in this case, sake): Takasago "Ginja Shizuki" Junmai Daiginjo Sake, Hokkaido, Japan -- otherwise known as "Divine Droplets." Wow and wow and wow. If you click on the link above and read the tasting notes near the end of the writeup, that person says it way better than I could. It couldn't have been more perfect with what we were about to eat next: White Asparagus, sorrel, white pepper, honey. Betcha think you just dip your spoon right in and eat it. No sir. You do not. I leaned in, spoon at the ready, and our server said, "Just a moment," lifted the clear cylinder, and the contents gracefully swooshed into the bowl, filling it out, and perfectly arranged themselves in the most beautiful pattern -- again, whipped into shape telepathically with a stern stare from the chef, I'm sure. So, gorgeous, surprising presentation, yes, but how would it taste? I know it might be in poor taste to talk about dying after eating a certain course, but if I'd had a massive stroke or slipped into a coma, or died of a coronary on the spot, or was gunned down by Spencer and Heidi as they left the joint and this was the last thing I ate? That would be okay with me. Creamy, light, a bit of tapioca, tangy bite of the sorrel, sweet, salt, green, smooth... Jane and I couldn't stop talking about how much we wanted to marry that dish and do unspeakable acts with it day and night. It was the one dish that hit me in my core with such a gush of love for all the work they were doing downstairs, I wanted to get up from the table, walk down the back steps, and make out with every single person in the kitchen, THAT's how good this was. I can still close my eyes and taste it today, and I want to go back and have it a hundred more times.
Our next course, Lilac, scallop, shellfish, honeydew, was paired with a taste of Albert Mann "Vieilles Vignes" Auxerrois, Alsace (2006). It was the most beautiful bowl of shellfish soup (filled with razor clams, littleneck clams, and scallops), and I couldn't stop raving about the honeydew. I don't know about you, but whenever there's a fruit tray at an event, I always load up on the honeydew and I'm ALWAYS disappointed. It tastes plastic, underripe, and just wrong EVERY SINGLE TIME. But this time? It tasted like sunshine. There were these tiny, little parisienne balls of honeydew in the dish, and it bumped everything else up and made it even more fragrant and delicious, I wanted to lick the plate. This was another dish that made me want to kiss everyone in the kitchen (maybe not a full-on makeout, but some schmecken, for sure), and when you click on that link for the photo, can you believe the CELERY all over the place and that I ATE IT AND LOVED IT? Yeah, me either. I need to start keeping a list of all the foods that Alinea at Home and French Laundry at Home have changed my mind about because it's sort of freaking me out. In a good way. Aaaaaaanyway, this dish was gorgeous, the wine was perfect, and the four of us were having the best time. It was such a progression of fun experiences and amazing food, we didn't want it ever to end.
I should mention at this point that there was bread brought out throughout the evening (along with two different kinds of creamy, eyes-roll-back-into-your-head butter) and, they did gluten-free bread for me so I never felt left out. I love them even more for doing that. The only two places that have ever done that for me before are Per Se and CityZen, and at both places, it made me well up a bit (because I am a nerd, and also because they know how much I love and miss really good bread).
After they cleared our plates, they brought out another fantastic course -- this one on the famous antenna -- Grape, lamb, ash, frisée. I've read about and heard stories about people who hate eating off the antenna at Alinea, and to them I just wanna say, "get over yourself, it's just food and you're just a human being like the rest of us. Just because you have to lean in and bite something off a wire shouldn't make you uncomfortable or obstinate, and complaining about it makes me wonder why you ever made a reservation to eat there in the first place. Shit, I eat salad with my fingers so it's not like I'm some frigid stick-in-the-mud about manners, so let it go, relax, and enjoy. Eat off a wire. It won't kill you. You might even like it. The earth will keep turning. The sun will still come up tomorrow." Ahem. So, they poached the grape in olive oil (which I am TOTALLY doing this weekend because they were awesome and I'm currently obsessed with pickling grapes right now, so why not poach them, too?), and skewered it with a small cube of lamb loin, vine ash, almond cheese, and the tenderest, most lovely piece of frisée. One bite and done. Imagine a red grape, olive oil, lamb, frisée and cheese all coming together in one bite.... you want some, don't you.... you dirty, dirty boy... oh, wait. Sorry. Lost myself for a moment. Okay.... I'm back. Yeah. This was quite a nice bite. Whew.
Out came another wine glass, into which our server poured a Qupe "Bien Nacido X Block" Syrah from the Santa Maria Valley (2005). Now that we were into red wine, I could only assume we were about to be served a red meat course, and I was really hoping for beef. I was right: Wagyu Beef, powdered A-1, potato, chips. Wagyu beef, how could that be bad? Powdered A-1? Since I'm not a fan of regular A-1, I only tried it on one bite and skipped it on the rest (it's comprised of anchovy, tamarind, raisin, and clove -- again, great ingredients on their own, just not my thing when they're all together). There was also a smattering of salt and pepper on the plate, which I was much happier to taste -- although, truth be told, the beef on its own was superb and really didn't need any other seasoning. Now, the potatoes? HOLY MOTHER OF MINDY KALING that was fantastic. Imagine the most creamy, silky, floaty, yet hearty mashed potatoes, molded into a cube and then coated with salt and vinegar potato chips. Good thing I have manners and am not a raging whore because yet another course that makes me wanna make out with the entire kitchen staff might have earned me quite the salty reputation! This was the course during which they poured a little water into the vase in the center of the table (remember that from the previous post?) that had dry ice and several aromatics in it, so as we ate, the table top had some floaty "smoke" to accompany our meal. Other tables had better results with theirs -- probably because they were nice, polite diners who didn't pick it up and pass it around and smell it to try and figure out what was in there before it was time to do something with it. But seriously, those potatoes? WOWZERS. Gimme.
Next was a little bite called Lemon Soda. It was a fizzy lemon powder in an edible "plastic" (potato starch) pouch. A nice touch just after the beef and potatoes, but truth be told, I would rather have had another fifteen potato cubes instead.
The next course came in a group of three: Yogurt (pomegranate, cassia); Bubble Gum (long pepper, hibiscus, crème-fraîche); and Transparency (of raspberry, yogurt). I don't love raspberries, so while I didn't hate the raspberry transparency, it wasn't something I was excited to crack apart and eat. But the Yogurt ball with pomegranate and cassia? Sign me the heck up. I loved that little explosion of flavor. I also loved the glass it came in and need to find out where they bought them because I want some for here at home. But can we talk about the Bubble Gum for a minute? Or nine million hours? Because WOW. When I ate at Alinea last summer, we had a similar course presentation in the acrylic tube -- only then, the ingredients were foie, fig, coffee, and tarragon -- and it was one of my favorite courses, and one I still talk about when I talk about what it's like to eat at Alinea. So, when the tube was presented again, only this time with the flavors of bubble gum, Thai long pepper, hibiscus, and crème-fraîche, I thought back to Alinea chef de cuisine Dave Beran'sTwitter feed from a few weeks prior when they were testing this dessert on Alice Waters. I thought about how obsessed I was with bubble gum as a kid -- and how I'd save my money and buy four or five or ten different packs so I could taste-test them all and have different flavors for different moods. I thought about the summer I learned to blow my first big, head-size bubble (Mount Wolf baseball field, July 1980, Mount Wolf vs. Manchester game, Hubba Bubba watermelon flavor). I thought about how Grant tweeted about a diner earlier in the month refusing this course because he said it was "childish." (exactly, assmunch) And then I lifted the tube to my mouth and sucked it all in and wanted to explode. It was even better than real bubble gum. I know there's been talk of bubble gum stock made from Bubble Yum and tapioca pearls cooked in it, but I honestly don't know how they do it -- and quite frankly, I'm happy to let it remain a mystery, because I know I could never create something this good... something this remarkable... something this inventive... and something this childish... and do it so damn well. It made me want to put my hair in two pigtails, don a terrycloth shorts set, lace up my roller skates, crank Peaches & Herb, and relive the summer of 1980 all over again. And NOTHING in my life has ever made me want to return to being ten years old ever before, so that's sayin' something. I loved this course so much... I really could go on for hours.
Again, the night could've ended there -- either by death, or just the end of the meal -- and I would've been completely happy. But wait.... there's more!
New wine glasses meant a lovely little pour of Elio Perrone "Bigaro" from the Piedmont region in Italy (2008). This was followed by my stifling a laugh as they brought out our next course: Rhubarb, goat milk, onion, lavender air. See, in the process of setting up a lunch with Judy Shertzer, CEO of Terra Spice for later in the weekend, she mentioned she was in her car, driving to Chicago with pounds and pounds of dried lavender in the back seat. I replied with something dickish like, "Oh, GREAT. I'm gonna have to eat something Friday night that smells like an old English lady. AWESOME. Great, JUST GREAT." We guffawed and I promptly forgot all about it until beautiful white linen pillows were placed in front of each of us, and I think I snorted. Because, I am a dick, sometimes. Atop each pillow our servers placed the most beautiful white dish with rhubarb, sweet onion, and goat milk -- all in various iterations: foam, meringue, encapsulation, cotton candy, cheesecake, ice cream, marmalade... you name it, it was there. And it was FANTASTIC. Forget rhubarb and strawberry, rhubarb and sweet onion is the way to go. I really think I'm going to try to do an ice cream with goat milk, candied rhubarb, and caramelized sweet onion, because I want these flavors together again. I barely even noticed the lavender air -- which was released over a few minutes as the weight of the plate pushed down on the pillow. Or maybe that's what made everything taste as gorgeous as it did. Hmmmm......
Time for some port, and a chocolate course -- Chocolate, blueberry, tobacco, maple. I feel like I'm running out of words -- superlatives, especially -- so, just close your eyes and imagine these flavors together as you know them already. Now, intensify the blueberry by about 900%. Then, magnify the others to complement the blueberry but not overwhelm it, get the maple into your nose with a slight bite of tobacco (but barely any really, it just tamed the sweet of everything else for me), and there you have it. Such a delicate balance, but the encapsulated blueberry spheres blew me away. My cousins and I used to pick blueberries at my aunt's cabin in the Catoctin Mountains every September. We'd walk along the trail down to the stream, pull blueberries off the bush as we walked, store them in a styrofoam cup, and then eat them all as we spent a few hours skipping rocks across the water, looking for minnows, and daring each other to jump across the stream to the other side. Then, on our walk back, wet sneakers gushing with every step, we'd take a detour on a different path to find new blueberry bushes and fill our cups again. Sometimes we'd eat them, and other times we'd save them for pancakes the next morning. I love blueberries for that very reason: they remind me of weekends at the cabin, hiking with my cousins, hearing our teasing and laughter echoing in the trees, and coming home with blue fingertips and a purple tongue. And this dish did that... times infinity.
Last, but certainly not least, while Jane, Megan, and Maddy had Pound Cake, strawberry, lemon, vanilla bean, I had Dry Caramel, salt, which I love for a million different reasons, and was a most perfect way to end the night. Sweet, salt, simple, perfect.
*That's mine, not theirs. Theirs was served on a pretty little Asian soup spoon.
I always like to try and play the game of "if you had to give up one course, which would it be?" and "if you could only pick three courses from the menu to eat for the rest of your life, which ones would they be?"
As for what I'd eliminate? Nothing was offensive, bad, superfluous, awful, annoying, or unnecessary, so I can't rule out anything based on that. I guess if it had to be anything, it would have been the Raspberry Transparency, but only because I don't love raspberry and because I couldn't bear to eliminate any of the others.
Now, as for my three favorites? That's easy. It's the three dishes that I still think about every day since eating them: Mustard, White Asparagus, and Bubble Gum. No question. Still to this day, I can't stop thinking about those three. I also can't stop thinking about certain elements and ingredients in the other dishes: sweet onion, blueberry, shiso, duck, squab, truffles.... see, it's a hard game to play, this listing only three courses. Every time I look at the menu, I remember different things about all the different dishes, and it makes me hungry and happy.
We had coffee, went down to the kitchen to say goodbye, and I did my best not to burst into tears in front of everyone because it wasn't until we were standing in the kitchen, watching the end of service, seeing them all still busting ass to get plates out and people fed that I thought about where I'd been just twelve hours earlier... and in how much of a different place I was now, both physically and mentally. I chewed hard on the inside of my lower lip so that it wouldn't quiver, and I held my shit together as best I could as I watched Grant shake the hands of and say goodbye to my friends. When he got to me, I just hugged him and said, "I can't believe how you've turned my day around, and I can't thank you enough. Thank you, thank you, thank you." I'm not really the most huggy person in the world, but there was something about this meal and this experience with these friends that made me want to shake the hand of or hug every single person in that kitchen and thank them for giving us all such an incredible evening. So, for those of you who work at Alinea who are reading this post, and who I did not get to thank directly, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU.
On Saturday morning, I woke up around 9, took a walk around the neighborhood to find some coffee, and then headed up to the farmers market in Lincoln Park. After snacking on some elk jerky and hanging with the girls for a little bit, I walked back down Clark until I got to Frontera Grill, where I met Judy Shertzer for lunch, and where the food (queso fundido and huevos rancheros) and the company were equally outstanding. After our nearly 3-hour lunch, I headed back to the hotel to change and meet Mike Nagrant for drinks and charcuterie at Sepia (warning, they have music on their homepage; I hate that). After cocktails and head cheese (and other delicacies we thoroughly enjoyed, so thank you, lovely people of Sepia), Mike and I went our separate ways, and I met up with the girls again for three dinners: Avec, The Publican, and The Bristol.
Avec was the hands-down winner for food, drinks, service, and atmosphere. Highlights included the Brussels sprouts salad, chorizo-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, and braised baby octopus. I could've stayed there all night and been a happy camper. In retrospect, think we all could have. After Avec, we walked to The Publican. I know a lot of people love this place, and maybe we were there on an off night, but at 8 o'clock, they were already out of many items on the menu, and those they did have available weren't really appealing to any of us. We ended up having burrata with beets (the burrata was served really cold and when we let it come to room temperature, it tasted "off"), pork belly (delicious), and a spring pea salad (meh). The lighting was odd and made everyone and everything look khaki, so it wasn't exactly exuding a comfortable, food-friendly ambiance. I know, I know, it's a beer hall, but still. We had originally planned to end our evening there, but were so disappointed with the food that we cut our losses and hopped a cab to The Bristol. We'd heard from so many people whose opinions we trust that this was a great place. We got on the waiting list to get a table, so we walked around the neighborhood for a bit before going back to eat. We ordered the fries fried in duck fat (they were room temperature and limp, but you could tell they were great at one time), the arugula and peach salad (yum) and noodles with sardines (also, yum, according to the other girls since I couldn't eat them). Service left a little to be desired and we got stuck next to a table of girls who screamed to each other instead of talking, which is a huge pet peeve of mine in a restaurant. That said, the lighting at The Bristol was flattering, the room was packed, and if I lived in that neighborhood, I'd probably eat there a few times a month. If I lived in Avec's neighborhood, I'd whisper sweet nothings into its ear and beg it to be mine.
Sunday morning consisted of coffee, a trip to the airport, and a flight home (which was nerve-wracking to board but otherwise uneventful). I picked up my dog from my parents, came home, and fell asleep at 5:30 p.m. and didn't get up until 9 o'clock the next morning.
I'd say that was a pretty darn perfect weekend, wouldn't you? We had a great time exploring the city, and were it not for the winters, I'd love to live there.
And thanks again to everyone at Alinea -- from everyone in the kitchen, to the front of house, to the office staff -- it was an incredible dinner and a heart-warming experience from the first phone call to the moment we walked out the door. Thank you.
Up Next: PB&J or Green Almond
Read My Previous Post: My Dinner at Alinea, Part One