Alinea at Home Extra: My dinner at Alinea, part one
So, where were we? Ah, yes.... I landed in Chicago just before 5 o'clock, hopped in a cab (yes, I know I should've taken the train; my brain was elsewhere, as I'm sure you can imagine), and got to the hotel at 6:30. Showered, changed, and ready to go by 6:50 (yes, I can be that fast when I need to), I met my friends, Jane, Maddy, and Megan downstairs in the lobby, and piled into the car to go to the restaurant. Upon being dropped off, we walked through the door down the hallway and inside where we were greeted and taken into the kitchen to say hello to Grant (I could've stayed in that kitchen all night watching service and been a happy camper), then went upstairs to our table where the fun began.
Don't kill me, but I didn't take photographs of the food because I just can't bring myself to do that in restaurants. I find it distracting, not just to me, but to the people I'm with. I would rather pay attention to what's being served, and eat it while it's still hot, cold, or whatever, and stay present in the whole dining experience. For me, no photo can capture those defining smells, tastes, and surprises that come with the pleasures of being fed. That said, you'll notice most of the courses below have photo links embedded; I've found other diners' photos to link to so you can satisfy your visual curiosity, if you'd like. A big part of eating at Alinea is the visual aspect of it, I know. I'm just old-fashioned about not wanting to take photos of my food in public.
In looking at the menu above, you'll see we did a nice round of wine pairings. They did a very small pour, maybe 1.5 oz. of each, with more if we wanted it. It was just the right amount and everything was so perfectly paired, I was glad we decided to do it.
Here we go:
We started with a champagne cocktail, which was a glass of Henriot Brut with Chartreuse, Akavit, and Orange Curaçao. I never would've thought to add aquavit to champagne, but this combination was really lovely. My neighbors and I get together on Friday afternoons to have drinks and watch the dogs and kids run around, and I think I'll have to make this for them very soon. And, I generally don't buy or keep champagne at home because you can't recork the bottle and none of my friends are big champage drinkers, but I have a feeling we'd have no problem getting through a whole bottle in one go in a cocktail like this. It was summer in a glass.
Jane, Maddy, Megan, and I cheersed each other over the center of the table, and as we pulled our glasses back to take that first sip, I noticed the black, tilted vase in the center of the table. Having eaten at Alinea before and having strips of frozen wagyu as table decor, I was curious about what was in the vase. We took turns sniffing it, and I could smell dry ice among other things, so I knew we were in for some sort of aromatic treat later on in the meal.
Our first course was a small dish with a little cluster of roe from Blis. It was served with the traditional garnishes one is often served with roe, but these were presented in a non-traditional format -- a delightful foam, egg-dill crème fraîche, and a hint of lemon all played beautifully on the tongue with the silky, not-too-salty bursts of roe.
The plates were cleared and another wine pairing prepared -- this time, a Max Ferdinand Richter Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese, Mosel 1993. I'm not usually a fan of Riesling because I find it to be too cloying and sharp, lingering longer than I would like. But this was cleaner and softer (if that makes sense) than I expected it to be. It went perfectly with our next course, the foie gras with daikon, shiso and yuzu. The servers handed us each a small white bowl, designed to fit in the palm of your hand, instructed us not to set it on the table, but instead hold it in one hand while eating the foie off the fork. Then, we drank the shiso soup out of the bowl. I don't think it's a secret that I love foie gras. I love its silky richness, and I love it in every preparation I've ever had, whether hot, cold, or room temperature. This course presented it as two small cubs on a fork, served at just below room temperature with daikon and shiso flavors and the scent of the yuzu foam below. It was the first time in my life I ever had a foie course that was light and airy and fragrant in this way. I could've eaten three of these. Or four. Or eleventy hundred kabillion frillion.
Out came yet another wine glass, into which went another white -- Abbazia di Novacella Kerner, Valle Isarco, Alto Adige 2007. It's a beautiful wine, full without being heavy, citrusy without being tart or acidic, hints of apple and (maybe) pear, and one I'll certainly have my wine guy track down for me for summer dinner parties. You know, that's one thing I really love about being able to eat at a place like Alinea (Per Se is also a great resource this way, too) -- the staff is so good at what they do, you can take away so many great ideas and recommendations for things you might otherwise never have learned about. Some of my most favorite wines are wines I had first at a restaurant, and I'm so glad to have this one to add to the list.
Our next course was pork belly served in a cucumber juice-infused lettuce cup with a variety of Thai spices and flavors, and a shot glass off to the side with a really clean and lovely (and not overpoweringly spicy-hot) distillation of Thai green chili and lemongrass. Now, I'm of the school of thought that it's really hard to screw up pork belly, but it also takes someone special to make it sing and make you go from, "oh cool, pork belly" to "HOLY MOTHER OF CHARLES NELSON REILLY THIS IS AMAZING!!!!" This course was a perfect balance of cool, heat, salt, kick, and crisp. Again, I could've eaten three or eleventy kabillion of these, too.
The one thing Jane noticed as the plates were put before each of us was that the lettuce cup was resting in a small pool of gel with basil seeds... and the basil seeds were arranged in absolutely perfect concentric circles. We HAD to ask whose job it was to do that -- was there really someone in the kitchen whose sole job it was to perfectly align the seeds in every plate? Was there a tool? A method? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN, because it was just so damn precise and gorgeous. Our server maintained that there was no one was hovering over each plate with a pair of tweezers or toothpick (or duct tape or a probe) arranging all the seeds -- there must've been over a hundred in there -- in concentric circles. I didn't buy it. I'm pretty sure there's someone whose job it is (which is awesome, and I job I would totally want), or else Grant can make those basil seeds snap into place with just his thoughts... OOOOO, or I know, maybe he's secretly patented some sort of Basil Seed Force-Field Gun™ and if that's the case, I MUST HAVE ONE. My birthday's in August. It would be a perfect gift. I'm just sayin'...
Our next course was of special interest to me because I knew I was going to be making it upon my return home -- Green Almond. I've been learning about green almonds over the past few months, and speaking weekly with Suzanne at Stewart & Jasper to find out when they were going to be at exactly the right point to be picked and sent. I love the preparation in the Alinea cookbook -- a rectangle of cucumber gel with the almond nestled in it, and tastes of salt, heat, sour, and sweet in each of the four corners. I was curious to see how the version we were being served -- with juniper, gin, and lime -- would taste. Oh my... It was smooth and light, but so flavorful. It opened up into my nose and practically cracked open my tear ducts with freshness and citrus. It was lovely.
I was a wee bit scared of our next course: soft shell crab, peas, five spice, duck. For those of you who followed French Laundry at Home, you may remember my aversion to this beast. While I enjoyed the taste of soft-shell crab meat, I haven't touched them since. When I see them at the fish market, I look the other way and try not to vomit. When Jane told me earlier she'd been working on an article about soft-shell crabs, I tried not to cry and pass out. They freak me out, and just thinking about what it was like to eat textures of shell with meat together makes my shoulder blades twitch. Again, the meat on its own is great, but eating external body parts I can identify is not my idea of an awesome Friday night. So imagine my delight when a plate with three little soft-shell crab legs sticking up is put down in front of me. Granted, the plate was beautiful -- so colorful and fresh -- but knowing a sea cockroach was lurking therein was most unsettling. The girls dug into theirs with great gusto, while I downed all the wine left in front of me before taking the most ginger, dainty bite. I thought, if there's one dish I won't finish, it'll be this one -- I'll claim I'm "saving room" or I'll excuse myself to the ladies room for ten minutes while everyone else finishes theirs. Something. Anything. Just don't make me eat this, because I know it's gonna suck, and I've already had a stressful day and was just beginning to unwind and really begin to enjoy myself when THIS abomination shows up on my plate, and just know it's gonna make me vom... :::: takes bite :::: hey.... that's right, I like the taste of soft-shell crab, it's just the prepping and cooking of it that makes me wanna stab someone. I'm such a pain in my own ass sometimes. I don't think I ever would have thought to put soft-shell crab and duck on the same plate with hoisin sauce and peas, but man, this was GOOD. Texture-wise, I didn't necessarily love the bit of crunch in the crab's legs, but it didn't make me gag or cry, so that's a homerun in my book, for sure. This course was paired with a fantastic Alsatian wine, a 2006 Domaine Weinbach Pinot Gris "Altenbourg." Another one I want to buy for here at home.
Up next was Black Truffle Explosion -- or, BTE as they call it "on the inside." See how cool you are now, knowing some Alinea insider jargon? (Meanwhile, they probably made that up just to see if I'll put it on the blog and make myself look like some kind of fartknocker calling it BTE but I DON'T CARE. I mean, we all know I'm not referring to Better Than Ezra. Duh.) Black Truffle Explosion is what would be considered one of Alinea's signature dishes. I don't think it's ever not on the menu, and I had it the last time I ate there with my friend, Claudia, and it nearly made me weep. This time, though, it was a different preparation for me, and here's why: I have celiac disease. I was diagnosed with celiac back in September/October of 2008, so I can't have BTE in its traditional preparation anymore (and yes, my whole dinner this night was gluten-free). So instead, they did my serving of it in a truffle sphere (sodium alginate, etc.) instead of the ravioli-looking traditional preparation, which made it feel like it packed 900 times the truffle power, and thus, 900 times the pleasure for me.
Our dishes were cleared, and the staff brought out the most beautiful wine goblets with etchings of birds and trees and vines (reminded me of my grandmother, even though I'm pretty sure she didn't have these glasses at her house), and poured a Château Lascombes, Margaux, 2004 (which I instantly fell in love with). On the table just above where our plates would go lay a folded napkin upon which they placed elegant, heavy silver -- a fork and knife. Soon after came traditional china (with a gilded, patterned maroon band around the outside) carrying Pigeonneau à la Saint-Clair. I knew Grant had been working on introducing a traditional course into the tasting menu, and when he asked me earlier that week about my inability to eat gluten and what substitutions they might have to make throughout the evening, he mentioned this course, and I was so so so glad and grateful they made my crust with rice flour because to not have been able to eat this squab would've been unfathomable. It was the most tender piece of bird I've ever had. This tarte, done in the Escoffier tradition, was comprised of the aforementioned squab breast (I just now closed my eyes and took a slow deep breath, and can totally remember what it tasted like, oh my) with mushroom and onion, and it was so flavorful and gorgeous. I just now went back and re-read Grant's post on The Atlantic's Food Channel about this notion of making something old/traditional new/modern, and wondered what other diners thought/think about this course. For me, good food is good food. Great flavors are great flavors. Exceptional cooking is exceptional cooking. I'll take it any way I can get it.
Our next three courses were presented at the same time -- Mustard, Bacon, and Sweet Potato.
Mustard was this beautiful little frozen disk of mustard ice cream with passionfruit and allspice, and this registered both a wow and a whoa, and it was definitely one of my most favorite things to eat during the entire evening. It was so powerful and flavorful, and just opened up into my nose, my eyes, and my brain. More than a week later, I'm still thinking about it and how fantastic it was, and how I can make something like it here at home. Mustard ice cream is just so counterintuitive (and certainly not something I could devour a whole bowl of), but with this one bite, I couldn't stop smiling and wanted more.
Instead, I moved on to the next course, Sweet Potato. We'd smelled the smoldering cinnamon a few courses earlier when another table had this, and it was all I could do to stifle the giggles because of how craptastic my attempt at this dish went. Remember?
Hoooo boy, that's sad.
I was super-excited to have this course to see what it REALLY was supposed to taste like, and was promptly humbled, shamed, inspired, and ass-kicked. It was soooo good. It actually makes me want to do this one over again in the fall because I have to do it right. I HAVE TO. It's too good not to. The sweet potato with the bourbon, and the brown sugar, and the melty goodness, and the cinnamon.... seriously. WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE????
The last element in this course was my old friend, Bacon (on a sex swing). It's fun to see people eat this who haven't had it before -- to see their reaction to a strip of bacon, drizzled in butterscotch, twirled in apple, dangling from a wire. It was just as good as I remembered it, and am thinking about making my version again this weekend as a little hors d'oeuvre before dinner.
Alright, we've nearly reached the halfway point. Just 13 more courses to go, so it's time for a break. Be back in a day or two with the rest of the menu... Stretch your legs, have a glass of water, hit the bathroom, and meet me back here. We've got more eating to do.
Up Next: My dinner at Alinea, part two