My Dinner at Alinea
Remember the last time I traveled to Chicago for dinner at Alinea?
It happened again, only this time on the ground, thankfully. Nothing like being ready for takeoff when the engines shut down and you hear the captain say, "Uh, folks, some of you might have seen me outside just now; there's something leaking out of our left engine, so just hang tight until we figure it out."
I swear. Can't a girl just get to Chicago?
We boarded another plane shortly thereafter and got to Chicago safely, just a few hours behind schedule. And by "we" I mean me, and my friend and neighbor, Linda. She and her family have eaten nearly everything I've cooked for this blog, and her husband, Sean, went to Alinea last year with some work colleagues. So, it was her turn to go.
We checked in to our hotel room, and she started paging through Destination Hyatt while I looked for my iPhone charger. She saw the "Science on the Menu" cutline on the cover and started skimming that article...
I found my charger, plugged in my iPhone, and started checking email while Linda read the piece. "Yadda, yadda, yadda, Wylie.... then they talk about some guy named McGee..... there's Michael Ruhlman, oh look, there's Grant.... and OHMYGOD YOU ARE IN THIS ARTICLE, TOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!"
Thank you, Carrie, for including me in the piece. What an honor. And, couldn't have been more perfect timing, too. Wow.
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So, my dinner at Alinea. Let's get to it.
We started with five cocktails Grant and the team are developing and testing for his new bar, Aviary (opening Fall 2010).
They were really fun and truly outstanding -- with the passion fruit "Hurricane" and Bloody Mary being my favorites -- and a great way to kick off the evening. The descriptions of the ingredients in each one is listed on the Tour menu. Have a read, then meet me below for some thoughts about the whole night:
Last week, when I finally felt ready to write about this dinner, I did a Flickr search for photos I could link to. Turns out, Alinea at Home reader Kathryn Yu had the Alinea experience not long after I did and took the most beautiful photos, and she's graciously agreed to let me share them with you.
So, take a deep breath, click on this link, and take it all in.
Because of my gluten issues, a few of my dishes were different than Kathryn's. Where she had "Malt," I had "Vanilla." Instead of Nutella powder, I had Dry Caramel. Where she had Corn, we had Green Almond (that was a seasonal difference, not a gluten switch). Where Kathryn (and Linda) had Black Truffle Explosion, I had foie (poor me, right?). And, where she had coconut in the chocolate table-top dessert, I had vanilla (that's not a gluten thing; that's an I'm-allergic-to-coconut thing).
When I sat down to write this post, I started describing every course but found I was repeating myself because every single bite of food I ate was phenomenal. Whenever I do a tasting menu somewhere, I like to play the game of "what course could I have done without" and "what course was my absolute favorite" and this was one of very few times in my life that I couldn't answer either of those questions. I was thrilled to find Kathryn's photo set because just clicking through those really tells the story of what the dinner was like.
I do want to spend a little time on four of the dishes I still think about at least once a day: Pork Belly, Salad, Squab, and Chocolate.
Photo credit: Kathryn Yu
They ended up being filled with creamy pork belly, and served with a tray of garnishes meant to be added to them, so that you could wrap it up and eat it like a summer roll:
Photo credit: Kathryn Yu
Just amazing. Absolutely amazing.
Let's move on to Salad. I loved this dish because a) I love to eat salad with my fingers and this provided ample opportunity for that; and 2) I'd read about it on Alinea-Mosaic. Here's how they developed this idea: Salad with Ranch Dressing. The layered service piece is beautiful, and quite a nice surprise to find vichyssoise underneath.
The squab? Divine. Or, as I sang when they brought it to our table, "Squab on a Log, ooooooo, Squab on a Log, yeah-eah..." Here's Kathryn's photo of it:
And here's the thread on Alinea-Mosaic where Christian explains how this course came to be: Squab, charred strawberries, lettuce, birch log. Squab has never been a favorite of mine, until I had it this way. Now I get how good it can really be.
The last course, Chocolate, I find myself going back to time and again because it was plated on a silicone mat rolled out on the table. The last time I went to Alinea, a little over a year ago, they hadn't started doing this particular type of dish (in fact, they started doing it not long after I was there, and I was a little jealous of the people who got to see and eat it). I remember reading about it and watching the videos people sent me, and thinking, wow, that's kinda cool but also a little, um... weird, maybe? But also kind of awesome? But I'm also biased? And jealous? And maybe I need to stop obsessing over it?
So when the service team rolled out a translucent white mat on our table and started placing little dishes and pans of sweet-looking things on top of it, I started to jiggle my knee a bit. A few seconds later, Chef de Cuisine Dave Beran came out at the end of a very long night to paint our table with dessert. It was absolutely stunning, and just so much fun to watch. Photos and video really don't do it justice. It makes a difference when you see it in person. Dave has these really strong, masculine hands -- hands that had spent the past 12 or so hours working in the kitchen. But these really strong hands served this dessert in such a deft, beautiful, and captivating manner, I couldn't take my eyes off what he was doing. Eating it was just a bonus. If I could have licked the table clean, I would have.
Makes me wanna invest in a silicone mat and do one of the desserts from the cookbook that way. Hhhmmmmmm.....
A few of the courses we ate are featured on Alinea-Mosaic:
King Crab (this is 3 courses in one, served in one serving piece that is both hot and cold (remember the McDLT? - ha!) and offers a progression of flavors that opened up beautifully.
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Every year, I set goals for myself, or, I think of a word or two that I want to guide my decision making and opportunity creating. Back in 2007, that word was yes. I let it guide me in 2008 and 2009, too, and am now able to look back on some pretty remarkable experiences I know I otherwise wouldn't have had, had I not set my mind to it.
At the beginning of this year, I did a little re-evaluation. A little fine-tuning. I thought about the kinds of things that really and truly make me happy and decided to do them even better. For example, I love going to concerts and seeing live music, but instead of cramming my calendar full of shows, I'm being more selective about the artists I see and am buying tickets for seats closer to the stage. Another example of this is that I love working in the yard and gardening, so instead of just doing maintenance and pulling weeds, I'm setting aside time to read and learn more about cultivation and taking better care of the tiny patch of land my house is on so I can focus on making my favorite beautiful things grow.
When it comes to food, I've made some changes and have focused my life a little differently, too. A few months ago, I found myself getting stressed out that I wasn't cooking through this book fast enough, or at least at the same pace I did with French Laundry at Home, and I had to stop and think about why that was, and more importantly, why it was bothering me. I think it was bothering me because I love this little community we've built here. I love reading your comments and getting email (some with photos of the dishes you've done from the book). I love cooking the dishes from this book. I love what I'm learning. But I had to wrap my head around the idea that this isn't a competition and it's not a race. There is no point and no purpose in just making something to cross it off a list and post it online. That's not why I chose the Alinea cookbook as my second blog. I chose it because I needed to learn differently about food, and I needed to do something that made me feel a little uncomfortable and out of my comfort zone. If I'm not challenged in certain areas of my life, I am bored. And a bored Carol is a miserable Carol. Trust me.
Lately, I've gotten a few comments and emails that said, "I wish you posted more often" (sometimes they're worded nicely like that, and other times, not so much). And you know what? So do I. The reality of it is, cooking through this book is a different beast, and I'm at a different place in my life. I want different things from this experience than I wanted from FL@H. I know what some of those things are, but I know even more of them will reveal themselves long after I've finished.
A few weeks ago, as my dinner at Alinea was fresh in my mind, Michael Ruhlman wrote a piece that struck a chord with me. It's called Literary Interlude: Unfinished Business, and I encourage you to read it when you have the time. He writes about a book called Unfinished Business, which made him wonder what his own unfinished business is. He then asked his readers to think about their unfinished business in the kitchen: what kind of things have they always wanted to make or master. I took my time reading through the comments, and I hope you'll do the same because I think there are some great untold stories about people's larger unfinished business, revealed merely in their words about food.
I feel lucky to have eaten at Alinea, now, three times. Incredibly lucky. I also feel incredibly lucky that every time is better than the last. And when I think about the notion of unfinished business when it comes to how I eat and cook and live my life, I've realized it all comes down to one thing for me: did my day have pleasure? Could it have had more?
That, for me, is my unfinished business.Pleasure is about desire and inclination. It's about wanting something, doing something to make it happen, then being gratified when it does. Pleasure, for me, is active. It's not greed, because I'm not talking about possessions or material wealth. It's also not the same as happiness or joy, which can come into your life with no work or effort at all. What I'm talking about here is being intentional.
My dinner at Alinea this month left me at a loss for words because it was truly one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life. Not only was it more than four hours of no cellphones and no email, it was eating great food, drinking great wine, being with great company, giggling with our servers over the April Fool's Day prank, seeing Grant, Dave and the team hard at work in the kitchen, being humbled by the skill and craft that went into every single moment I was there, and allowing myself to just take in the incredible experience being given to me in that restaurant. It was perfect in every sense of the word. To me, there's nothing more appealing and attractive than confidence, and every single dish placed before us was confidence on a plate. There was nothing tentative. Nothing halfway done. Nothing arrogant or eye-roll-inducing. Pure confidence, through and through.
And, it really solidified, for me, this notion of more pleasure being my unfinished business, whether it's in life, in food, or as a part of this blog.
So tell me: any meal ever render you at a loss for words, and why? And, what's your unfinished business?