If I've done my math correctly, I have eaten approximately 10,392 peanut butter sandwiches in my lifetime. Maybe even more than that. In contrast, I have eaten, maybe, 50 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Try as I might, I never really loved PB&J. I simply loved the taste of plain old peanut butter on bread with nothing sweet to muck it up. Still do.
Growing up, there was nothing better than Jif creamy peanut butter in between two slices of white, Holsum or Sunbeam bread, crusts on, cut diagonally, the knife pinching the bread on the hypotenuse of each half. I ate one nearly every day for lunch for years as a kid; and, when I was fresh out of college and making my paltry salary of $17,000/year, I lived on peanut butter sandwiches and Safeway brand macaroni and cheese for quite a long time. If I did ever add jelly to my peanut butter sandwich, it was always Welch's grape jelly because it was the least sweet of all the options, and there was just something uplifting about eating something so purple when you're poor. I can't explain it. It was a little color to brighten up the day.
But I never really liked peanut butter and jelly together (except in this iteration, which I love), and now that I don't really eat bread anymore (gluten-free bread just isn't the same, I don't care what anybody says), I've relegated myself to just eating peanut butter off the spoon -- which isn't a bad thing at all. However, I can't stand the taste of Jif anymore (it tastes plastic to me), and I've become addicted to the grind-it-yourself peanut butter at Whole Foods, as well as the salty, creamy peanut butter available in big vats at the local co-op. Why I didn't just buy those silky, delicious peanut butters for this dish instead of trying to make my own I'll never know, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
I knew this dish might be a challenge on a couple of fronts, and while I knew I could make it taste good, I was also pretty sure there was a strong chance my version of it could end up being one of the uglier dishes of my lifetime because of some executive decisions I'd probably have to make in the bread department.
And, away we go....
The first thing I did was separate the 3 pounds of grapes I bought, and cut small sections, remove all but one grape (which is left attached to the stem), and then peel that one grape. Yes, it's laborious. Yes, you're left with a buttload of grapes you either need to eat right away, throw into sangria, or put in a ziploc in the freezer (what I did) and use them as ice cubes all summer long:
They look kind of gross, don't they. It reminds me of when I was a kid and my older cousins set up a haunted house one Halloween in my grandmother's basement. They peeled grapes (eyeballs) and made a bowl of cold spaghetti (intestines), and I very clearly remember them blindfolding us and making me be the first one to get "grossed out." I could hear them snickering as they said, in what they thought were really scary voices, "aaaannnndd, noooowwwwww.... I will place some eyebaaalllllls in your haaaaaaannd...." To which I replied as I held them, "yeah right, those are grapes, you dummies." So, I totally ruined it for all the younger cousins since they were standing right there. And from that point forward, I associated grapes with eyeballs.
So, with the peeled grapes done, it was time to make the peanut butter. I toasted the peanuts on a sheet tray in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes.
I measured out 240g of peanuts and put them in a blender with the roasted peanut oil (which smells amazing), water, and salt, then blended until smooth. WHICH NEVER HAPPENED. I know I have a crap blender, but COME ON. No matter how many times I stopped the blender to push down the peanut butter, it wouldn't get smooth. I added a little more oil -- which merely gave me oily clumps. Not the end result I was going for.
It was supposed to be smooth enough that you could "dip grapes into peanut butter and place onto prepared sheet tray." Ain't no dippin' goin' on up in here. I debated whether or not to just hop in the car and go buy some of the unctuous, roasty, delicious peanut butter at the local co-op, but I didn't. I should have. Because what I ended up having to do was clump it on with my hands, resulting in what could honestly be referred to as the national dish of Turdistan:
That ain't right, yo.
I wrapped the stem ends in foil because they need to be protected for the final step in the process, and put the peanut butter-clumped grapes on the tray in the fridge for an hour.
It's at this point in the book's intstructions where I started to lose it. And I quote, "Using a rotary cheese grater or Microplane, grind remaining peanuts to fine powder."
Here's how many peanuts were remaining... the very peanuts I was supposed to hold in my fingers as I rubbed each one against a Microplane to make a powder:
I don't THINK so.
So, I ignored that step completely and took maybe 20 of the peanuts and whacked them up nicely in my coffee bean/spice grinder. Not really a fine powder, but I also didn't shred my fingertipswith any dang Microplane injuries. I think the numbers must've been off in the recipe. I can't imagine why you'd need 485g of peanuts when you use 240g in the peanut butter, leaving you with 245g of peanuts for powder? That you only use for a light dusting? For 12 servings? Hmmmmmm..... Has to be a typo in there somewhere.
Next up? The bread. I bought a baguette at Whole Foods and put it in the freezer the day before so that it would be ready for thin slicing on the mandoline (the book suggests using a meat slicer, which I don't have).
I don't have any photos of the aftermath of trying to slice this on the mandoline, but trust me when I tell you, it did not go well. Things weren't slicing... they weren't even shaving. Pieces were breaking off, and it just wasn't happening. So, I made the executive decision to do with this bread what I'd already done with a few slices of gluten-free bread for my servings of this dish -- I made bread crumbs.
I was bummed that it came to this because the photo of this bite on page 119 of the Alinea cookbook looks really cool with the thin slice of baguette wrapped around it... but I already knew I wasn't going to be serving it in the squid serving piece, so I figured I'd make the best of it and at least focus on it tasting good.
I brought the tray of peanut butter-clumped grapes out of the fridge and glommed on bread crumbs -- gluten-free crumbs on four of them I did on a separate baking sheet -- and the regular bread crumbs on the ones for my friends. I let them rest at room temperature for about 5 minutes, then put them under the broiler for a few seconds -- maybe 15 or so -- until the bread crumbs were toasty and golden brown.
I removed the foil from the stems and lined them up on a platter, then lightly sprinkled on some of the salted peanut powder I'd made in the spice grinder:
The ones with gluten-free bread looked exactly the same as the ones with regular bread. But how did they taste? Well... they were okay. Again, the peanut butter wasn't creamy enough for me, and it made it a little hard to fully enjoy because there were some chunks of nuts (despite my best efforts to remove them). That said, they didn't suck. The kids liked them, and I liked them, but none of us were blown away by the bite. Too much bread, too much peanut butter, not enough of a grape-y burst. The grape part was juicy and nice, but the peanut butter clinging to the roof of my mouth sort of took away from the enjoyment of that part.
I love the idea of this dish, but for me, I'd rather harness the Achatz technological prowess to build a time machine and go back and eat the peanut butter sandwiches of my childhood with a cold glass of milk, in my elementary school cafeteria, with a game of kickball or jumprope right after, and a walk home in the warm sun. That's PB(&J) to me.
Here's a li'l sum-um-sum-um for ya: If you feel like procrastinating on the things you're supposed to be doing, feel free to compare this dish to when I made PB&J from The French Laundry Cookbook.
Up Next: Surf Clam (featuring an appearance by Scott Weinstein, my fishmonger)
Resources: Baguette, grapes, and peanuts from Whole Foods; David's kosher salt; roasted peanut oil from HMart.
Music to Cook By: Old 97's; Satellite Rides. From time to time, All the time, I go on movie-watching binges, where I'll watch the same movie day after day because it's on HBO or some other cable channel I feel like I should watch more often to get my money's worth. Sometimes, that movie is "The Break-Up." I know, I know. The acting is pretty bad, and the story is trite and annoying, but I just can't help myself. Sometimes you get sucked into the vortex and you can't tear yourself away four times in as many days. Ahem. The one redeeming quality about the movie is its soundtrack, and the inclusion of Dwight Yoakam, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Old 97's. After getting past the fact that this band uses an apostrophe "s" (indicating possessive) instead of just a regular "s" after the 7 (indicating plural) [a HUGE pet peeve of mine], I actually really liked their music. It's part jazz, part alt-country, a little bit of surf pop, a little Austin, a little Johnny Cash, a little Toronto (not sure why, but that's what it feels like to me)... Anyway, I like 'em. You might, too.
Read My Previous Post: Green Almond, sweet, hot, sour, salt
The photograph of this dish on page 77 of the Alinea cookbook is one of my favorite photos in the entire book. It's elegant in its simplicity and beautifully lit, the texture of the almond against the smooth, cool green of the cucumber gel is lovely, and I love the reflection of the "flavored corners" on the black surface the gelée cube is sitting on.
I also love the flavor profile of this dish, even in just reading the recipe. I could imagine the fresh cucumber taste, and the heat, sour, salt and sweet. The only thing I couldn't factor into my imagination about this dish was what the almond would taste like, since I'd never eaten or worked with green (unripened) almonds before.
Before I started this blog, I created a spreadsheet of all the specialty ingredients I'd need for each dish, and began researching when the seasonal ingredients would most likely be available. Knowing that green almonds aren't exactly native to Maryland soil, I figured I'd have to have them shipped to me, so I found Stewart & Jasper. I spent some time on the phone with Jason Jasper back in December learning about the different developmental phases of almonds, and figuring out how young I needed my almonds to be. I knew I didn't want them to be completely gelatinous, but they also couldn't be too hard or crunchy. He suggested I plan for late April/early May and to stay in touch so we could figure out when they'd be ripe enough.
So, in April, I began speaking with Suzanne at Stewart & Jasper, and each Monday, she'd call with the report after some of their employees had been out picking almonds off the trees and slicing them open: "They're still pretty gel-y" or "not quite there yet" and "maybe next week, but more likely the week after."
Then, one Monday when she said, "we just picked ten pounds for a restaurant in Chicago, and they look perfect" I placed my order. They sent them overnight, and when the UPS guy delivered the box he asked, "So, whaddya getting today?" When I told him they were green almonds, he did that squint-smile-cocked-head-what!? thing and just laughed. The FedEx guy for our neighborhood can barely open his mouth to say "hello" or "good morning," but our UPS guy is always up for a chat, so I told him what I was making and he thought it sounded "pretty cool." One of these days, I need to time the serving of some of these dishes for when both he and the mailman are in the 'hood because they're part of this whole process, too, and are always interested in what's in all those boxes of goodies that seem to appear every few weeks or so.
This dish was one of the easier ones I've made so far, and took almost no time at all to do. So, let's walk through it, and maybe you'll want to try it, too... or some variation thereof.
The first thing I did was quarter and remove the seeds from two English cucumbers:
Then, I doused myself in patchouli and got out my JuiceDude2000 and put those cucumbers through the juicer:
[obviously, I am lying about the patchouli part of that earlier sentence.]
So easy... and again, so grateful to Anita's sister, Patti, for the Juicinator, because going back to the old way with the food processor and the cheesecloth would've landed me in the loony bin.
I measured out 50 grams of cucumber juice (and put the rest in the freezer for variations on a Pimm's Cup later this summer):
I put five gelatin sheets in a bowl of cold water so they could soak while I slowly heated the cucumber juice over a low flame:
When the cucumber juice was warmed (not even simmering, just warm to the touch), I took the gelatin sheets out of the bowl, squeezed all the water from them, and put them in the saucepan of warm cucumber juice, whisking until they dissolved.
I turned off the flame and whisked in the sugar and salt the book called for, and poured a small amount of the liquid into a plastic wrap-lined 6x9" baking dish and put it in the refrigerator to set:
While it was in the fridge, I got to work on the green almonds:
Using a paring knife, I cut around them lengthwise to crack them open. You can feel how far you can cut into them -- the shell has a natural "give" point that prevents you from cutting all the way through the almond.
After I'd opened eight almonds, I opened a ninth one just to taste it. Eaten plain, they're sort of a combination -- both texture- and taste-wise -- of fava bean and water chestnut. Not bland at all, but also not packed full of flavor. Really subtle, very light, but not empty or dull.
I checked the cucumber gel to see if it was even close to being ready, and after only 12 minutes, it was. So, I gently laid the almonds on the surface, pressing down on each one just ever-so-lightly, and then poured the rest of the cucmber liquid in. I put the dish back into the refrigerator to firm up, and it set in 20 minutes.
I was irked by the air bubbles on top, but when I looked even closer at the photo of this in the Alinea cookbook, I saw there were bubbles on the surface of theirs, too, so I then tried to do some revisionist history in my head and pretend that I meant it to look like that. Sometimes, I exhaust myself.
I removed the block of almonds and gel from the dish, lifting it out using the Saran Wrap, and put it on a cutting board to begin cutting it into serving-size rectangles:
I cut it lengthwise, first, then cut in between each almond, allowing enough space in between each one for further trimming:
While I had them on the cutting board, I added the seasoning -- sweet (raw sugar), hot (cayenne pepper), sour (citric acid), and salt (um, salt) -- one in each of the four corners:
Using a small offset spatula, I lifted each one and put them on individual spoons for serving:
I carried them across the street to my friend, Linda's, house for our Friday afternoon cocktails. Linda, Holly, and I each picked up a spoon and took a bite. Either Linda's had too much cayenne pepper or she's a GIANT WUSS because she couldn't handle the heat. I, on the other hand, really LOVED the heat -- which is strange for me, because typically, any amount of cayenne pepper will "burn" my entire palate and I won't be able to taste anything else for hours, sometimes even the rest of the day. But, as I'm noticing a shift in my food allergies/sensitivities over the past few months, this seems to be less of a problem as of late. I didn't even mind the texture of the cucumber gel (I know, I'm all growns up!).
It's wild, how when you put the spoon in your mouth and slide it back out leaving the bite on your tongue, how the flavors unfold. The cucumber and almond are a mild, cool backdrop with some nice texture, and then as you chew, the heat hit me first, then was rounded out by the sweet just at the time the sour went up into my sinuses, and then the salt kind of smoothed everything over -- all in, like, three seconds.
So, how good was it? There were eight servings overall: Holly ate one; Linda ate one; Linda's husband, Sean, ate one; their son, Grant, had one. I ate the other four. Oh yes, I did, all while enjoying a bottle of Turley Zinfandel and some gorgeous cheeses (a camembert, a brie, and a smoked gouda).
I love Friday afternoons...
So, what did I do with the rest of the box full of green almonds? Well, I used them as my nut base (*snerk* /12) for some garlic scape pesto and it ended up tasting better than using ripe almonds, pine nuts, walnuts or pecans. Tossed it with some pasta and some more parm-reg, and had a great lunch the next day.
Up Next: PB&J
Resources: Gelatin sheets from L'Epicerie; English cucumbers from Whole Foods, Domino sugar, David's kosher salt, green almonds from Stewart and Jasper; 365 raw sugar; cayenne pepper and sea salt from Adriana's Caravan; citric acid from L'Epicerie.
Music to Cook By: Green Day; 21st Century Breakdown. If this doesn't win a Grammy for Album of the Year, I am gonna punch someone in the nads. I was so so so lucky to get this via a friend in the business a few days before it came out, and I haven't been able to stop listening to it since then.... which means I'm totally gonna be the annoying old fart who sings along with every song when I take my neighbor's kids to see Green Day in concert later this summer. This album feels more like "Dookie," which I absolutely loved, and it's just full of great writing and instrumentation, and it's awesome for drumming in the car (especially "Do You Know Your Enemy," "The Static Age," and "East Jesus Nowhere") which is important criteria every album, should meet, right?
Read My Previous Post: 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
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