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June 01, 2009

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.

Without further delay, here's the menu:

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

Read My Previous Post: Alinea at Home Extra -- So, That Happened; or, Junsai, bonito, soy, mirin.


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Is this the first time you mentioned having celiac? I've read your stuff since the early days of FLaH and don't recall that. I'm sorry to hear that! I hope it wasn't too bad for you to learn that you had it. I have a friend who was diagnosed a couple years back and it was tough going at first, but now that she's used to it, she has probably the best health of her life and doesn't feel that she's really had to make any dramatic sacrifices in her culinary quality-of-life. It's all about just making sure you do your research beforehand. Anyway, just surprised, but I'm glad you were able to enjoy such an amazing meal. I'm insanely jealous looking over that menu!

OH my goodness!!!

I love reading your descriptions! Just fabulous :)

Thank you so much for documenting this. I'm the most intrigued by this mustard ice cream!!!

Gavin: This is the first time I've mentioned my celiac. I was diagnosed in between FL@H and A@H, and it's not something I've really needed to write about or talk about in a public forum. I thought it was important to mention it here in this post because some of the courses I had were prepared differently than what my friends had, and I didn't want to be dishonest and show something I didn't eat. Grant and the whole staff were so great about not only adjusting the menu for my inability to eat wheat and gluten, but they also made gluten-free bread for me at every turn. They're awesome.

mmmmm.....wine.....good wine.....good food and good wine....I'm re-living it with you and I've never even been there. But I have a kickass imagination.

Carol, Kevin a local LA food blogger dined there just a few nights before you and took pictures of each dish: http://www.kevineats.com/2009/05/alinea-chicago-il-2.htm

I'm sure if you asked him, he'd be more than happy to let you link to his photos.

This is really making me miss my dinner at Alinea, I need to go back soon!!

When I first started reading "real" books I was always irritated to find a picture - it was never as nice as the words made it seem in my head. So I'm totally cool with no pictures which should make you sleep easier. Oh and BTE? Better than Ezra was my first thought.

Ok, the hubby hates peas and is all about being the suburban house-hermit that won't go into the city, but even his eyes lit up when I yelled out "Soft-shell crab and duck TOGETHER? You can DO that?"

Loving the write-up so far....

you're making me REALLY excited for our visit to Chicago in September.

And, girl, for someone who lives her life online, you sure know how to keep things under your hat when you want to.

I envy you in so many ways...

Great to hear that Alinea handled the gluten-free thing well (no surprise, really). The French Laundry does gluten-free handily as well -- they have a bread recipe that they refuse to divulge the recipe for. I'm only gluten intolerant, so I can (luckily) choose to risk having bread, which I admit I did at TFL over the weekend. But their description of the gluten-free bread made me think that if/when I go back, I should request a gluten-free meal.

incidentally, I found a great GF pasta -- email me if you'd like the details (don't want to advertise in your blog).

I'm sending this blog post to two friends who I was just telling about Alinea...

Jai, those photos that Carol linked from Biggestmenu are actually mine. ;)

I used to not drink any of the sparkling wines or champagne except when we had company because of the bubble/storage issue and I'd like to recommend the OGGI bottle stoppers. I've been using them for a year and indulging my prosecco habit shamefully ever since. (Three days with excellent results - things get a little flatter on day 4.)

I couldn't wait for your write up on this, Carol! I don't blame you for not taking photos - you needed to be IN the meal and focused on that. By the way - my husband and I are real collectors of champagne/sparkling wines. You can buy champagne stoppers that work unbelievably well. Open a bottle, have just a glass (or two) and stop it back up. It keeps its bubbles for days. . .

Oh, no, don't stop! I can't wait a few days for the rest of the meal! :::drool::::

I'm sitting here imagining GA conducting seeds into perfect circles like some sort of Sorcerer's Apprentice, and I can't stop giggling.

jordanbaker: I am convinced he just gives them an intense stare for two seconds and they snap into place.

I've been reading since shortly before the end of TFLAH, and just wanted to say how I love your write ups. You've also got me back into my tougher cookbooks as of late. (TFL, Charlie Trotter's, Alinea, etc.) I do have a question though, and sorry if the answer is somewhere but I can't find much anywhere on the web: how far in advance did you make reservations? My wife and I are going to Chicago in Sept. for a u2 show and we're thinking of saving a chunk of change and going to Alinea. Is it as tough as TFL? Thanks! Once again, love your blogging!

Kramer: Thanks! The restaurant begins taking reservations on the first date of the month two months prior to when you want to eat there. So, for any time in September, you should start calling on July 1.

I'm glad to hear some high-end restaurants are prepared to handle celiacs; some chains like PF Changs and Outback do too, but they're, well, just mediocre. We can fuel up and even have a good time doing it but it's not fine dining.

As for the basil seeds my initial thought would be to build a tool: take a block of food-grade plastic, put feet on it, drill basil-seed sized holes in it in circles. To use, plate the gel, then put the tool over it, sprinkle seeds on top and push them around with a small brush until they fall through all the holes into the gel.

Hm. Must now go out to garage and find that block of plexiglas...

Kevin: I noticed that right after I posted... :)

I have been lurking here for a while enjoying your work. I am a big fan of Grant and I have eaten at Alinea many times as I luckily live in Chicago.

Love your blog and your hard work cooking the Alinea book. I also have the book and it is great to follow along. You are brave, adventurous and seriously hilarious.
I love the honesty of your failures as well as your great successes.

I was also recently diagnosed with Celiac disease and it was great to read the post of your recent Alinea experience as a person who also cannot eat gluten.
I am pleased, but certainly not surprised, that I could enjoy another meal at Alinea without getting ill.

Merci beaucoup for this post, and I am looking forward to your meal at Alinea part deux.


Great post. I've been reading you for a while, but this is my first comment. (Do I sound like I'm calling an a.m. radio show?)

I'm glad you brought the celiac thing out. I was diagnosed 3 years ago and my 9 year old daughter last fall. I'm always amazed when I meet longtime celiacs that are afraid to eat out anywhere and that cook only from celiac cookbooks. I own exactly none. I wish folks would realze how easy it is to adapt to other "normal" recipies and prepartions.

Though I woundn't expect you to get on a soapbox, I hope other, less enabled celiacs will find you to see how easily things can be adapted, even for difficult preparations. I've had dinner parties at my house with several courses where people didn't have a clue I had celiac disease.

And By the way, I've never had a problem in a nice restaurant (I always call ahead) and don't feel badly giving specific instruction if I feel it's needed.

I hope in some small way that your "coming out" will help others in "getting out."

Thanks Carol

no pictures? not even one? from a cellphone or something? no flash , just click
sooo sad

Did the sweet potato looked like the one in the book?

You had me with "fartknocker."

I would recommend using mustard oil for the mustard oil ice cream. The egg yolks in the anglais will emulsify it. Our notes appear to be:
3 egg yolks, 1/2 C sugar, 1 C cream, 1 C milk, 3/8 C mustard oil

(that's weirdly low on egg yolks relatie to what we normally do, but that's what my notes say).

Whisk in the oil after the custard is cool.

Basil seeds gel in liquid naturally, just like flax seeds do. Because Nature is so awesome, I'll bet they form concentric circles on their own. GOT to pour some in a bowl and find out!

I was going to comment on all the food stuff, but then you mentioned Celiac, and well, I have to comment on that instead. My best friend, her mom and our other best friend's sister all have Celiac disease, which always makes our meals together a bit of an adventure. When people find out, they'll always say "Wow, that has too be so tough, they must not eat anything", which couldn't be farther from the truth. My bff, in particular, is one of the biggest foodies I know and will eat anything so long as it doesn't have gluten. In fact, she actually finds nicer restaurants to be far more accomodating and excited about preparing foods for her than your run of the mill chains and what not.

They will be excited to hear about a fellow Celiac gal that is as passionate and excited about food as they are. :)

Hello! My partner and I were at Alinea the same night as you were... 6:30 reservation, but did not get to meet Grant though. I just happened upon the blog and excited to see that you have taken on the mission. I have the cookbook here and applaud you! keep up the good work.

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