Intelligence, artistry, performance, and pleasure.
Just the thought of writing a post on Alinea intimidates me. It was such an extraordinary evening that I feel pressure to get the words just right. I guess I could post the pictures, tell you it was amazing, awesome, unbelievable, et cetera, and leave it at that. But I was born with this need to tell a story and tell a story I shall (or I shall try). That said, feel free to skip the ample prose and jump straight to the pictures. They’re quite impressive — and I can’t take an ounce of credit. It was as though they lit the restaurant with photos in mind.
I usually don’t have a lot of notice before dream meals. M. gave me just a couple days’ warning both times we went to Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Eleven Madison Park and Corton were surprises — my only directive being to dress nicely — and the French Laundry was a total Friday evening whim, rock star style.
Dinner at Alinea, in contrast, is something I have been dreaming about for years, spurred on by the stunning cookbook and this fascinating article and M.’s undying love for the place. I literally counted down the days ‘til the Chicago trip since I booked it months ago in a manic flush of insomnia, and it was the first thing I added to our new 2012 wall calendar, multiple exclamation points and all.
So it was with absolute sincerity and butterfly-excitement that I announced as we boarded the flight, “Tonight I’m going to have the greatest meal of my life.” M. looked horrified. “Don’t jinx it!” Emily later confessed that she was nervous while we were at dinner, hoping we loved it as much as she did. I guess it’s true I might have set myself up for disappointment — it was Friday the Thirteenth, after all — and perhaps I would have at a lesser restaurant. But I was absolutely blown away. Not only was it the greatest meal of my life, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, period.
Reflecting on the meal over the past ten days, the words that keep coming to the surface are intelligence, artistry, performance, and pleasure. There is a certain economy of gesture that sets Alinea apart from its imitators. There are no superfluous flavors, no superfluous courses (a hunk of foie gras, just because) — there are not even any superfluous decorations, for the centerpieces are the food, or vessels for the food. That is, in part, what I mean by intelligence, although as you’ll see, intelligence weaves through every aspect.
The meal is quite literally artistic, beginning with a rough-hewn ice sculpture in the shape of a glacier with two holes, like reverse icicles, filled with blood-red beet essence that you are, many courses later, invited to suck dry. The infamous Alinea serving ware — often indivisible from the food itself — are works of art in themselves, although highly functional ones (again, that economy of gesture). For one course, a waiter randomly arranged nine simple utensils on the table before us both. Each bears a bite of food, each a different texture and color. “Squab,” he announced, indicating one of the forks, “inspired by Miró.” It was all I could do not to clap.
As for performance, Alinea sets a stage like no restaurant I’ve ever known, creating entire worlds into themselves: first, the kelp-covered driftwood that I wrote about here, damp and cold as if straight from the sea; later, a dessert course transported you to “winter in New Hampshire,” complete with peppermint snow (it lightly burned the tongue like the real thing), the aroma of fresh pine needles, and real rocks — along with a warning not to eat them. Apparently it’s happened — a testament to the spell Alinea casts.
Just as a playwright places a gun on stage in the first act to signal murder or accident in the last, throughout the meal you are given hints of what is to come. What in the world is this? we thought as two veined crimson flags that might be cabbage or might be pig’s ears appeared on our table — and then just sat there through two courses. You are given an opportunity both to puzzle things out and to participate in the process: keeping watch over a bubbling siphon as it turns ingredients into broth or, under the watchful eye of a waiter, tugging a pin through a wax cup, the final, critical step in creating one of Chef Achatz’s most famous dishes, Hot Potato, Cold Potato. This is not unlike being asked by Ian McKellan to shout a line of Richard III from the audience.
And finally, pleasure. Because that’s what this is all about, right? (And where this restaurant seemed to go all wrong.) It is no exaggeration to say that Alinea addresses every food pleasure there is. Some courses are cold, restrained, and perfectly composed, while others are hot, messy, and even, perhaps, a bit gross (if you find fish heads gross). I’m pretty sure I giggled when we were presented with the enormous seaweed-covered driftwood — it was just so over-the-top, so no-holds-barred — and M. likewise laughed out loud when they presented us with a small fish called a scrup and bowls of tangy mint pesto, caponata, a traditional seafood salad, and crisp puffs of panella on the side, all served family style on old-fashioned serving ware that were wildly different from the modern pieces that came before. ”Chef Achatz was inspired by a cooking school he attended in Sicily,” a waiter explained. We smiled. (How could that not make you smile?)
As he served me a few choice morsels of scrup cheek, M. said, with an admiring smile, “I’ve never seen this in fine dining before.” It was a brilliant nod to the pleasures of the rustic table.
We were again invited to dig in and use our hands during the final dessert course, which managed to bring it all together: intelligence, artistry, performance, and pleasure. A silicone mat was smoothed across our table. The pastry chef came out, poured liquid nitrogen into a chocolate globe and, while it bubbled and steamed, spooned sauces onto the mat, narrating as he went. “Passionfruit and butternut squash, lingonberry, stout…” And finally, with one shocking gesture — "Chocolate!"
But I don’t want to spoil the surprise. I think it’s time I let the photos do the talking….
The ice sculpture waiting us when we took our seats, and the decor behind our table.
The first course: char roe with carrot, young Thai coconut, and curry. We thought this, paired with the decor, surely signaled a tropically-influenced meal. So fitting for winter, we said, confident we knew where they were going. Little did we know there would be at least eight distinct palates introduced and toyed with throughout the meal.
The second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth course: oyster leaf with mignonette (that would be a Scottish leaf that tastes exactly like an oyster); king crab with passionfruit, heart of palm, and allspice; sea urchin custard with banana and black truffle; mussel with saffron, chorizo, and oregano; and razor clam with shiso, soy, and daikon. Served atop kelp-covered driftwood, it hinted at the pleasures of foraging — without the wet feet.
(What I want to know is who sources all these amazing props. I need 40 romantically knobby pieces of driftwood and 100 pounds of kelp, and I need it by dinner! Love it.)
After the driftwood was cleared away, a siphon was placed on our table and turned on. It sat there, boiling away, for the next few courses, slowly sucking the essence out of the ingredients in the glass receptacle above. It reminded me of eighth grade chemistry glass — if eighth grade chemistry glass came with wine pairings. (Now there’s an idea.)
The seventh course: shrimp wrapped around yuba, sprinkled with togarashi, a Japanese chili pepper, and propped up in miso sauce. M. told me that this was one of the courses that Mike Cirino and friends created for the trio of Achatz-Keller tribute dinners they did in early 2009. M. focused on pastry though he was privy to all the preparations. It was a special joy to have a dining partner who’s actually made some of this holy-smokes food and could give me a little insight under the hood.
Smoked salmon with creme fraiche, pink pepper, and onion, the eighth course. Imagine Russ and Daughters in one delicious, cold, and concentrated bite.
A cube of scallop “acting like agedashi tofu,” as the waiter explained, and indeed it did have the exact appearance and texture of tofu, surrounded by vegetables that showed off some young chef’s crazy knife skills.
The siphoned broth — correction: dashi — is poured.
For the tenth course, a cube of (the adorably named) wooly pig wobbled on a wire with a sprig of fennel, a slice of orange, and a single purple squid tentacle. BOING!
Look ma, no hands!
And then we were invited to suck the blood — er, sip the beet, hibiscus, and licorice juice — out of the ice sculptures.
After the “Ice” course, a change of table and glassware, signaling … what, exactly? My curiosity was piqued.
Ah! Big change indeed. Now we are in Sicily, eating rustic fish and sides (scrup, caponata, panello, and mint pesto), family style. Amazing.
Fish bones in fine dining. They’ve got a sense of humor, I’ll give ‘em that.
Then came those crimson flags on custom-made flag poles. They hung out with us for a few courses.
Forgive the poor photograph, but the famous Hot Potato, Cold Potato is difficult to shoot, as it must be consumed quickly. Pull the pin through the wax bowl and with one smooth gesture, hot black truffle, butter, and potato cube fall into the cold potato soup. Bottoms up!
The wax cup, having done its duty, rests upon its pillow. (Obviously it had its own pillow.)
Speaking of pillows, the next course was placed atop two big air-filled pillows that gradually deflated, releasing the unmistakable scent of pine needles as we ate wild mushrooms with juniper-venison reduction and fried shallot topped with sumac and juniper foam. While scented pillows run a major risk of coming off as silly, this was pleasing and unobtrusive, and quite funny. (Have you ever watched someone eat off of an air-filled pillow? Highly recommended.)
Then a particularly exquisite set of service ware was placed before us. We were instructed to pull out the metal piece to create a rack for the crimson flags cabbage wraps — oh! so that’s what they are — that were filled with tender cubes of venison. A selection of garnishes — smoked paprika aged goat cheese, rye and juniper gel, dehydrated tomato, bacon-truffle butter — was placed before us and we were invited to make our own wraps. Another experience rarely had in fine dining, another chance to eat with my hands (I LOVE eating with my hands).
Another famous course: the Black Truffle Explosion, liquid black truffle sphere tucked in a raviolo and garnished with Parmesan and romaine. Be sure to keep your mouth closed! Explosion is no exaggeration, and I’m sure you won’t be the first person to spray your date with truffle juice.
And then the table was misted with gunpowder green tea (sure, why not) and wiped down. For what? I wondered.
A few moments later, I got my answer: we are to eat straight off it. The waiter placed a fork bearing a single bite of squab, randomly surrounded by bites of complimentary ingredients with contrasting textures: a cube of pudding-like foie gras, scallop mousse and bacon, lavender noodle, a “Yorkshire pudding” of squab and foie gras fat, and quince paste gelée.
With a proud smile, he confided that the arrangement he made for me was one of his best yet. He probably says that to all the girls, but I was chuffed.
The silver bucket for our used forks and spoons was filled with lavender salt. As you do.
For the eighteenth course, a “milkshake” of white truffle, cranberry, and hazelnut. A decadent little palate cleanser.
And then a course of chestnut velouté, veal heart, quince, and root vegetables that came in a perfectly cylindrical bowl that couldn’t be set down. The veal heart and bits had to eaten in just a bite or two, with the tiny fork provided, before drinking the creamy velouté straight from the bowl — another food pleasure that stuffier establishments deny you.
So yes — if that looks like an empty bowl, it’s because it is.
The waiter called it “the cheese course,” with a wry smile: apple, onion, and brie puff on a smoking cinnamon stick.
The first dessert course: Winter in New Hampshire. Peppermint snow with gels and jellies of ginger, clementine, and cranberry, a dollop of strawberry meringue, and a tea cup of hot chocolate essence, clear in color and subtle in flavor, so as not to overwhelm the palate. All arranged on a real woodsy tableau (remember: don’t eat the rocks!).
A test tube of lemongrass, mango, thai basil, and finger lime. Down in one swift, palate-cleansing shot. (Apparently some guests have trouble with the test tube — not me. I didn’t work on Bourbon Street for nothin’.)
And now, the dark chocolate course, prepared by the pastry chef not by the table but on the table. First, the mise en place….
Then, liquid nitrogen poured into the tempered chocolate globe….
The chef spooned four sauces, explaining what they were as they went. They formed perfect squares on the silicon mat.
And then, with one swift movement, he picked up the chocolate globe and smashed it on the table. “Chocolate!”
Inside the globe, cotton candy, cubes of stout cake, piles of hazelnut crumble, sweet potato curls, flower petals, nostalgic raspberry swirls, and god knows what else, all delightfully cold. There were spoons but we didn’t so much as glance at them, using shards of chocolate to scoop up the goodies, grinning like schoolkids.
And finally, five tiny mignardise of five different types of ginger from Hawaii, quivering at the ends of wire like little bees.
And that’s it: fin. We were presented with our menus (I love that they give them to you afterward, as a memento that can’t spoil the many surprises of the meal), bundled into our coats, and whisked into a taxi bound for Aviary. Our evening — already more than four dreamy hours long — was far from over. My toes didn’t touch ground for days.
To be continued….