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June 28, 2010

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.

*   *   *   *   *

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.

José Andrés had dinner at Alinea a week or two before I did and Tweeted photos of the pork belly dish, so as soon as these were placed on our table, I knew what we were in for: 

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:

Lamb (served with the most amazing wine from the vineyard where Chef Achatz once worked)

English Pea

Tournedos a la Persane



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.

*   *   *   *   *

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?


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Really fantastic write-up! I hope I can make it there someday.

The pork belly thing looks out of this world.

I enjoyed reading your reflections very much. Thank you.

Sadly, I've never had a meal that left me speechless. So, yeah, that's part of my unfinished business. I know where it will be, have no clue when.

More unfinished business: to beome facile at cooking. I started my "learn to cook" path when you start FLAH, but I'm still awkward in the kitchen, and for the most part, dependent on recipes. I want to understand techniques and flavors well enough to go beyond recipes. I've sometimes heard cooking equated wth dancing. I'm still counting my steps, my goal being to float efforlessly. I'll get there.

I've eaten at Incanto in San Francisco twice and have been absolutely blown away both times. Chris Cosentino has a reputation for daring offal dishes, and I was not dissapointed with that, but absolutely everything that came out of his kitchen - including the simple things like the pasta and the pork shoulder - was done perfectly. Purely in terms of the food, Incanto stands out as probably my favorite restaurant. I only wish I lived closer.
I also recently had the opportunity to eat a meal by guest chef Marcus Samuelsson at Frasca in Boulder, Colorado. While Chef Samuelsson's food was really tasty and interesting, what stood out at Frasca was their absolute attention to detail with service and beverages. The wine pairings from Bobby Stuckey were probably the first time I've ever had food and wine pairing where they absolutely nailed it so that the interplay of flavors enhanced both the food and the wine.
In terms of unfinished business, I recently expanded my vegetable garden to the point where we (my wife and I) may have more produce than we can eat ourselves this year, so we're looking into some organizations in Denver that work with home gardeners to provide food to people in need. Growing Colorado Kids (http://www.growingcolorado.org/) helps refugee children and also benefits the SAME Cafe (a pay-what-you-can restaurant).

I confess I don't remember which restaurant meal this was, exactly; it was early in my "adult" life after college, which is still a blur to me. What I do remember is the clear distinction between what it was like to enjoy food before that meal, and after it. It's interesting that this awakening implies a sharp discontinuity in how I appreciated food, but I don't recall the experience that created that discontinuity.

What I do know is that I'm much richer for how I experience dining now. Service, pacing, whimsy, and especially that alchemy of how things combine on a plate into a more amazing whole. Tasting things on the plate one at a time, then combined, and trying to understand the difference. Seriously stewarding my own knowledge of ingredients and cooking (albenghini beans vs. tondini beans? pull out the smartphone and look them up!). Slowing down, and treating food as a great experience in life, not just a way to become not hungry.

Lots and lots of people don't get how we can spend SO much money for a meal; I think they must not think about dining in the same way, and it makes me a little sad for them. On the other hand, we all have our pleasures and they don't all have to be the same.

Unfinished business? Flying. I've had my pilot's license for over twenty years, and yet too often go for years without getting in a plane. This pisses me off, because I daydream about flying constantly, desperately yearn to improve my skills, further my ratings, turn it into the great transportation privilege that it is. I've gotten 3/4ths of the way to the Instrument Rating twice now, only to give up. "Life happened," as my flight instructor put it. Unfinished business. I just got back into the pilot's seat last weekend, determined to re-acquire skills and then continue on. Your words in this post about luck, and privilege, and pleasure being about desire and inclination, will help inspire me to keep at it.

I'm not sure that anything renders me at a loss for words (just ask my family)! But there have been individual dishes over the years that moved me to close my eyes and savor what I was tasting - and probably making a mmmm sound. There's a lot of unfinished business. I want another big vegetable garden some day (which involves moving to a different house) and fruit trees and bushes and maybe even some chickens. I want to learn more about what my digital camera and I can do. I want to write more because it gives me pleasure. Same with cooking. I'm not going for sublime or crazy. I just want to keep learning.

Just got back from NOLA. Had great dinners. Two items were just fantastic. Dinner at Cuvee, the amuse was a teaspoon with some duck mousse topped with a pickled mushroom. Hub's had his first and I asked him what it was like. He said try it I'm not going to tell you. OMG! It was fantastic, WOW! We just looked at each other. The other was fried soft shell crab at Gallatoires. My first bite awesome - perfect, buttery, salty, crunchy, yum.
We were very disappointed at Cochon. The service was not good and our oyster appetizer was cold, how can chargrilled oyster be cold? We left and decided to stop at Emerils. It was not on our list, you know to much of a "chain" restaurant. Well surprise, surprise. The service was great and the food was wonderful.

My unfinished business in the kitchen - 40 cookbooks and counting but not really focusing on any one. I hate that I do that.

We were there in March (our 4th visit - sigh) and Chef Achatz himself plated the chocolate dessert on the table. I was awestruck, gobsmacked and close to tears. We have vowed to go every year (we live in Canada) and now that the bar and next restaurant are opening... oh my!

Carol- you are my lunch "treat"- if there is a post I will close my door and enjoy every word over my veggies and some kind of protein unit. If you have not posted- then I go over and see what Michael has to say. Take all the time you want to do this "right"!!
There is a little place up in the north woods of Wisconsin called "The Outdoorsmen". Steve and Amy Wheeler work magic there. My most memorable meal was a warm fall evening several years ago- it was nice enough to sit on the screen porch. We all had the phesant confit in a light cream sauce with mushrooms/carrots/peas over a bow tie pasta. There was just a hint of tarragon. Putz and I go there at least several times a season to try what new and innovative things they come up with!
My unfinished business is to get ahold of some pheseants and confit them!


I really enjoyed reading the meal from our perspective, especially since we shared so many of the same dishes. I'm so glad you enjoyed my photos! :)

I thought you and your readers might also like to know that the Juliet & Romeo is a riff on the cocktail of the same name from Chicago's Violet Hour, created by Toby Maloney. While we may not be able to recreate the "solid" version at home, the liquid one is in the link below:


First, I just want to say that it's your blog and your project, so you should do whatever you darn well please - of course we all love when you post more often, but I do prefer the occasional thoughtful/cooking posts you do to daily short/boring posts like some bloggers do when they don't have much time.

I will say that one thing I LOVE is reading about how you adapted Alinea recipes, and/or what you did with the leftovers. I feel like that's one of the things that I (and maybe even you) have learned through this and the French Laundry project - that when foods taste good together, there are tons of ways you can mix up the preparation itself to suit the occasion. Not that those posts take a whole lot less time than the Alinea recipe posts themselves, but my guess is they take a little less time, if for no other reason that the cooking project is often quicker.

For me it was having a vegan GF macaroni and cheese for the first time after over a year of not having pasta (in my "sick years" I ate pasta almost every day.) I felt as though a long lost friend had come back from the dead. Luckily for me, I can now get this whenever I need my fix at a great local Vegan GF restaurant. Anywhere that can make my dining life easy again takes away my breath.

Although I have not had a memorable meal, I have had a memorable dish. And it's one I made myself. It's the blueberry soup from FL Cookbook. When I tasted it, I laughed it was so good. That the first time food has made me laugh with pleasure. I was so proud that I made it, so excited to try more things.

Best dinner, pretty close to the menu you had. I've never eaten anywhere that comes close to Alinea.

Unfinished Business? Figuring out how to make that curried pork belly! Please tell me you have some insight!

Omakase dinner at Kihachi in Columbus, Ohio, of all places, is the most memorable of my life. Sublime freshness, intriguiung flavor combinations, unique textures, flawless execution. I am deeply indebted to Ruhlmand and Columbus' own Restaurant Widow for the tip. Truly exceptional. As for unfinished business, I'm still planning a four course French Laundry feast. Your recommendation of a strawberry dish will provide dessert in the champagne and strawberry terrine, Ruhlman says I have to do one of the butter poached lobster dishes, so lobster with beets and leeks will be the star. From there, I'm looking at starting with either Bacon and Eggs, Cauliflower Panna Cotta, or English Pea Soup with White Truffle Oil and Parm Crisps. Then on to the lobster, perhaps a cheese course ("Caesar Salad" or Roquefort Trifle with French Butter Pear Relish), and then the terrine for dessert. What do you think?

Best meal? The dinner we had the night my hubby and I were first married. We got married in the morning and drove several hours to the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island. The dinner from that night was simply amazing. Of course, it may have had something to do with how HAPPY we both were but really ... the meal was fabulous.

Unfinished business? hmm ... in the kitchen, conquering YEAST! I have a fear of all things yeast and pie crusts. Yes, I know pie crusts don't have yeast but still ... haven't quite gotten it down yet. In life - I'd love another baby (hubby doesn't) and would eventually like to get back into political consulting. We'll see ... :o)

my husband and i have reservations at alinea for tomorrow night. it's our first visit and i can't think about it too often because i start to feel a little misty. i'm so excited.

i have SO MUCH unfinished business. at the top of the list i need to figure out what really makes me happy at work... with work... do i work?

Great post carol, although I didn't read much of it because we will be in Chicago in two weeks eating at Alinea ourselves and I didn't want to spoil the surprises.

It's part of our honeymoon which is a three week US restaurant extravaganza tour. (We also got a lunch table at Per Se and are on a waiting list for an evening meal, fingers crossed!)

I can't wait for the Alinea experience.

... striking meal? When I was about eight, we went to Maui and I caught a sailfish while we were out on the water. Which the hotel turned into sashimi with piles of fresh pickled ginger, for dinner. My unfinished business is "custard". Uncurdled custard, specifically. But it's so much easier just to beat stuff into mascapone...

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