This is part two of a two-part series about a recent culinary adventure. Part one can be found here.
If you’re planning on dining at Alinea yourself any time within the next few months, I would actually warn you not to read this. The discovery and surprise is a huge part of the experience I wouldn’t want to sully. A spoiler-free version of this post can be found here.
All photography is by myself and dining companion Hillary – I’m not going to individually credit each photo unless there’s demand (everything was taken with iPhones, and the only criteria between whose photo got used was which offered a better look at what was on the table).
Our reservation at Grant Achatz’s Alinea was for 7:30 p.m. sharp. We were dining on the evening of August 4, but the reservation had been made a couple of months in advance – from what I understand, some manner of insider knowledge is required to know precisely when to call and make bookings. Fortunately, our dining crew is something of an erstwhile A-Team, so I believe Hillary would be Faceman in this analogy (courtesy of some speedy Wikipedia research).
Speaking of which, meet the team! I’m not going to assign the rest of us A-Team characters at this juncture…not just yet.
Alinea hardly broadcasts its presence streetside – a small sign for valet parking and a uniformed attendant are the only real giveaways. Inside, you briefly follow a futuristic-feeling hallway until an automatic door suddenly glides open on your right, and a maître d’ is upon you immediately.
Our table was on the restaurant’s second level, and quite a table it was. It was big, for starters – probably the largest “four-top” (a term I recently owe Anthony Bourdain, more on that later) I’ve ever sat at in a restaurant. I imagine there are multiple reasons for that: one, it simply kept things from feeling too cramped when the surface got busy with centerpieces, multiple glasses, and unique serving utensils; and two, it offered an extra buffer between us and other diners (I think there were only two other smaller tables in our section of the restaurant, but didn’t crane my neck around very much to confirm). I’m still not exactly sure how many diners can be accommodated at any one time in Alinea, but they clearly put a premium on giving everyone their own space. Fortunately, this comes across as quite civilized and considerate, rather than misanthropic.
A brief bit of orientation follows being seated, including the answer to what must be a common FAQ (you get the menu at the end of the meal). As I understand, Alinea used to offer diners the choice between a shorter and longer fixed menu (around 14 courses and 21 courses, respectively), but at some point they threw that out the window – currently, every diner is treated to the same litany of dishes (which is around 19 courses – more on the uncertainty surrounding the count further on). This makes the question of “what would you like to order” blessedly redundant – the only real decision-making on your end pertains to booze.
The wine list was thick and dense with information, so it was promptly turned over to our resident sommelier, Kevin (who would be…um…not sure who he would be in our A-Team. That analogy sure lost steam quickly). At any rate, he knew what he was doing better than the rest of us.
You can opt to have a wine pairing program with your meal, but we opted out of that because it adds a second arm and leg to the existing price (making a full compliment of limbs), and from some reports you also get wasted by the end of the meal. We all agreed it was best to remain relatively cogent throughout the entire process – the food to come deserved the attention of our full mental faculties.
That said, we did begin with a champagne cocktail (the first part of the pairing program, which was also available a la carte). I know only the generals of what went into it: an already excellent champagne (our attendant and astonishingly-haired sommelier admitted that they probably shouldn’t have messed with it), as well as some sake and aquavit, which gave me no small delight due to Swedish heritage. That, as well as an additional bottle of champagne (actual champagne) selected by Kevin and split four ways was the perfect amount for our evening.
But all this wasn’t the real reason we were there – that would be…
III. The Food
At the risk of writing the longest blog post ever (probably not, I’m sure someone else has already claimed that record handily), I’m going to at least mention every plate of food that came out. Picking favorites would be unduly stressful, and there’s just too much cool stuff to deny any readers who are experiencing the meal vicariously through this.
Again, if you’re planning on going to Alinea any time soon, I’d recommend you avert your eyes from what follows. It’s in your own best interest.
1) Steelhead roe – watermelon, kaffir lime, cucumber blossom
This is actually the one course that nobody got a picture of. Oops. Suffice to say it was lovely: an extremely bright and fresh way to begin the meal. My first time eating roe, as well.The presentation was comfortable, with the added twist of an aromatic sort of syrup poured atop the dish by servers.
2) Hamachi – west indies spices, pineapple, ginger
The first course was a pleasant warm-up…and here was the Alinea we had heard about. Let’s go down the checklist: it comes resting within a uniquely made wire contraption, it mixes flavors I hadn’t ever thought of (in addition to the menu description above, I remember the servers mentioning banana…and it’s also deep-fried), and it also came skewered on a whole vanilla bean (which acts as both a crazy good aromatic and an indicator of what your money is going toward).
This was the first many single-bite courses – I’m not sure whether chef Achatz would embrace or balk at describing them as amuse-bouches, so I’ll refrain. Whatever you call them, they often ended up being my favorites of the meal – the care and thoughtfulness that must go, by necessity, into one-bite courses always seems to create an inclination toward inventiveness.
Incidentally, it was at this point during the meal that we collectively knew, with certainty, that this meal was going to be worth every penny. Not to say that we were particularly anxious about it before, but it was nice to have any lingering fears blasted away almost immediately.
3, 4, 5) Oyster leaf – mignonette; Taylor Bay scallop – hitachino white ale, old bay; Razor clam – carrot, soy, daikon
The serving surface was Malaysian driftwood, as I recall (I joked that we were expected to eat the whole thing). I don’t remember too much of the specifics of each one, sadly: the oyster leaf was a leaf that tasted just like an oyster (I trusted my more oyster-savvy companions on this one); the scallop had some sort of foam with it, and was served on a seashell, if I remember correctly; and the razor clam was a long shelled fellow that you tilted and shot down in one gulp after lifting away the top. I seem to recall ginger in there somewhere.
These were more firsts for me: I don’t remember these courses as vividly, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them a lot. And no shellfish allergies to be seen or felt, to my delight (and everyone else’s around me, no doubt).
6) Yuba – shrimp, miso, togarashi
If my research is correct, yuba is tofu skin, and togarashi is a Japanese spice blend. No promises, though (remember, we didn’t see the menu descriptions until after the meal was over, so all our main impressions came from the mouths of servers).
This course was pleasantly informal, like some sort of bizarrely upscale Tokyo junk food: a sort of salty snack stick you could imagine chowing down on while watching TV (provided, of course, you are obscenely rich and hire a personal chef to make this sort of thing for you on a regular basis). The shrimp was actually coiled around the thing, and it came with an orange dipping sauce tucked away in the unique bowl/receptacle).
Another first: I think this was the first time I’d ever eaten shrimp. To all of you who were already aware of this: it’s yummy.
7) English pea – olive oil, chamomile, green apple
The menu description for this is deceptive, since this course actually had three individual segments to it, at three separate temperatures. The serving bowl sort of tells the story through this one.
Part one: hot. This was simple, just warm pea puree and greens, but it was wonderful. As we discussed, it’s easy to forget how great peas, just peas, can be, since they often are canned or frozen or treated to any number of humiliations. Often as a standard side, peas are a chore that you finish first to get out of the way; green gatekeepers preventing you from enjoying those fish and chips or what-have-you in peace; a grudging obligation to the food pyramid and daily servings of vegetables. But yeah, these were good.
Things were getting more adventurous here – the peas were dehydrated in some manner, and it came with gelatins of chamomile and grape , among a couple of other things I think I’ve forgotten.
At this point, with the temperature theme becoming clear, anticipation was high for what came next…
The pea puree was frozen, coating the sides of the bowl, and in the center you see a green apple sorbet and a sort of semi-creamy parmesan concoction.
The experience of scraping frozen pea off the sides was novel enough (and the texture!), but the aggressive combination of savory and sweet between parmesan and apple added another element. This was not my favorite segment of the English pea course, but it certainly was the most fascinating.
8) Farm salad – tomato, goat cheese, red onion
I forgot to mention it earlier, but you can see the centerpieces in a few pictures above (primarily the hamachi one) – it was a variety of greens, actually resting in soil and sitting on sheets of stone. As soon as they laid out tiny shears along with our regular silverware in preparation for this course, we knew something was up.
This was a red pepper gazpacho (I approved), with various heirloom tomatoes, a lump of goat cheese in the middle, and croutons (that thin crispy lattice – I have no idea how they did that). We were instructed to “do a bit of gardening,” cutting greens from the centerpieces to make our own salad atop this base.
I remember most vividly the basil – one of the greens provided was some sort of strain of the herb, and it carried with it one heck of a punch. I loved it.
9) Mackerel – mango, bergamot flower, juniper
This was another single-bite course, resting atop what the servers refer to as “the antenna.” It was eaten hands-free (this was a requirement, not a request – each course throughout the evening has specific silverware laid out for it, and in this case, there was none).
Sad to say, I can’t recall many specific impressions of this course beyond what’s provided on the menu, save that it was really delicious. Forgive me.
Also, in the left of that photo, you’ll see two orange-ish sheets hanging – these were the new center-ish-pieces brought out after our butchery of the originals was finished. No explanation was provided for what they were, so we briefly examined and prodded them before contenting ourselves with waiting until the appropriate time of revelation.
10) Wild mushrooms – pine, sumac, ramp
I’m struggling to remember the details of this – I believe the white cream at the base was flavored with pine, or sumac, or something similarly woodsy. There’s a couple of dollops of foam that are also escaping my immediate memory. Really, this was just a ton of great mushrooms, all different sorts, and that was all we needed to tuck in.
Perhaps this can get fleshed out more in the comments, or a post-posting rewrite or something – we shall see.
11) Hot potato – cold potato, black truffle, butter
It was a “time-sensitive” course, as the servers explained: what you’re seeing is a wax bowl filled with a warm broth – one that could melt if you dawdle too long. Speared through the side of the bowl is a piece of hot potato, a piece of cold potato, and black truffle. You pull the spear out through the bottom of the bowl, let everything collapse into the broth, and shoot the whole thing in one go.
It tasted like the best potato soup I’ve ever had, but that’s kind of a disservice. The contrast of cold and hot within your mouth was almost enough to give you a shiver, and the whole thing didn’t just homogenize as one might fear.
Whimsical, savory, delicious, alarming – yeah, might be the best.
12) Agneau – sauce choron, pomme de terre noisette
It may be safe to say that this was the most traditional dish of the evening. I don’t remember the specifics, unfortunately, but we were told that it’s based on a recipe from a turn-of-the-century French cookbook – with a slightly more modern presentation, as you can see.
The two stacks have lamb, asparagus, potato, and some other things I’m surely forgetting (kindly commenters, feel free to set me straight!). Most novel were the little bunches of what look like berries at upper-left and lower-right – they were actually potatoes. Tiny, tiny potatoes.
Whether there is some sort of mutagen being put to use in the kitchen, or if this is just one of nature’s best-kept whimsies, I’m not sure. but as a devotee of the humble spud (as evidenced by writings above), I was sort of in love.
13) Black truffle – explosion, romaine, parmesan
The menu description above is actually pretty apt – it was savory, with juices or broth or whatever bursting forth upon one’s first chew. Yum.
Incidentally, the white serving dish has no bottom – it uses the dark wood surface of our table to masquerade as non-existant sauce. Tricky devils.
14) Short rib – olive, fermented garlic, blackberry
At this point, the mystery of the second set of “centerpieces” was resolved. They brought something dubbed the “2D/3D plate” (you built yourself a little four-legged standee), and laid the mysterious orange “cloths” out in front of us. It was pasta all along (and it could have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for we meddling kids).
At this point they spooned short rib into each, and brought out an array of additions (visible at top). Sadly I can’t remember what each one was, but most memorable were blackberry (second from left) and a sort of heavily smoked Nordic salt (another pleasant, if unwary nudge toward my heredity). We were left to assemble and consume at will. It felt a bit odd to make such a mess within “fine dining” environs, but at least the servers started it (the shortrib was not exactly cooperative at all times).
15) Octopus – eggplant, coriander, red wine
At left, a bite of octopus and other various bits, resting over a bowl of…um, I think it was onion broth? Sadly, my memory seems to be going the further along I go (we didn’t have that much to drink, really).
The chief observation among us was that this bite of octopus somehow evaded the expected texture. I’ve had octopus a couple of other times at sushi restaurants (and enjoyed it), but it’s hard to deny it can be a bit…rubbery, chewy, toothsome, whatever adjective you like. Not here, though.
I don’t know if this can be fairly characterized as another single-bite course – more of a single bite followed by a slurp or two, arguably. Ah well – semantics, semantics, no time for them.
16) Snow – yuzu
Yuzu, for the uninitiated (myself), is an east Asian citrus fruit. In its natural state, I don’t believe it bears a particularly close resemblance with what you see at right. No matter.
The yuzu “snow” was barely covering the surface of this conical contraption, and we scraped it off with spoons, bit by bit at a time. The spoon part was important, as we were explicitly warned not to touch the cone with our tongues (or else they would freeze to it). I suppose the stakes were equal yet fundamentally opposite from the hot-potato wax bowl from earlier.
17) Peach – jasmine, basil, balsamic
I’m struggling to remember the color-coding of ingredients here, but it was very deliberate – the peach is peach, of course, green is basil, and I believe the dark purple-black cubes are balsamic. The large square at center was jasmine, and to the right of it was a cube of crème fraiche to offset the sweet.
As a small teaser, we got to see a tiny bit of this dish being assembled later on – but read on, read on.
18) Lemongrass – dragonfruit, thai basil, finger lime
To consume it, you actually tilt the tube up, apply suction to the end, and the whole thing comes unstuck and drains itself right into your maw. Add a dash of high-quality liquor, and this would be….well, I suppose that’s probably a dangerous thought.
We honestly thought this was the final course, as it seemed the perfect note to end on – quirky, fun, and quite revitalizing (when it comes to dessert, I think I’ve always preferred fruit-based things over heavier sweets). As it turned out, our guess was off, but one can hardly complain given the circumstances.
19) My birthday present
A server made a reference to “unwrapping my present” and poured warm crème anglaise on top, melting the chocolate shell. Eating it was, of course, delicious (and don’t doubt that I shared – it would have been boorish not to, and I was honestly feeling pretty stuffed at this point).
It tasted like the chocolates I used to get in December advent calendars, back as a kid – and I’ll stand by that one until the day I die. All in all, it was delightful – I had been idly wondering what (if anything) is done for a birthday guess, and figured it couldn’t be too elaborate or costly since I’m sure they celebrate many a guest’s birthday. What it was was pleasant and understated – often the way I like my birthdays best, truth be told.
20) Chocolate – red pepper, bitter orange, banana
Alas, the last course – and a big decadent dessert it was. I won’t go into too much detail of what all is going on here (beginning to feel a little descriptioned out), but in general terms: lots of chocolate, various flavored stripes of fruit, etc. Upon reflection I’m suddenly thinking of Fruit Stripe gum – fortunately I’m having that reminiscence now rather than while I was at the table.
People sometimes seem surprised to hear that you actually get full from a meal like this – but yes, indeed you do. I purposefully ate fairly light throughout the day, to make sure I had room…but even then, my appetite was soundly beat by the time we finished our final plates.
So yeah. I think it’s safe to say most people don’t leave hungry.
IV. The kitchen
We’d known all along that some manner of kitchen tour had been promised, ever since Hillary made the reservation. It’s unclear whether it was a special indulgence, or just something they’ll let most customers do if they ask nicely (probably the latter more than the former). Once our meal was finished and coffee imbibed, they took us downstairs for a quick peep before heading out.
The kitchen is actually visible when you first enter the restaurant, and it’s a delight to get a slightly longer glance at it. Most subtleties of what we were watching were lost on my naive self, but the sight of industrious cooks, servers, busboys, and sundry humming about (and the partial assembly of that peach/basil/balsimic/jasmine dessert taking place quite close by) was a real treat.
I’m extremely unfamiliar with the layout, workings, operations, or culture of professional kitchens – save for a reading of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential this past weekend. If I had read up before our visit, Hillary’s observation of “It’s so quiet” might have rung truer – but at the same time, even a neophyte could be fascinated by that observation. It was quiet, was the thing – a couple dozen-odd people working in tandem, nearly soundlessly, with impressive clarity and focus.
In retrospect, working in a kitchen like Alinea’s must have a set of hardships entirely separate from other restaurants. There’s never a question of “what is table eighteen going to order?” or “how many servings of octopus will we need tonight?” – those questions are handily answered by the fixed menu and the reservations book, respectively. Replacing those, I can only speculate, must be such an intense pressure to perform, to be perfect, since some powerful people at the tables out there are expecting nothing less. Puts my job in perspective a bit, I guess.
V. Closing thoughts
I don’t think our little party of four was the toughest crowd the team at Alinea has ever had to please – and I’m perfectly content with that. Let’s have no illusions – we were a bunch of kids out to a super fancy dinner without mom and dad, and there’s no shame in that. Even the servers didn’t mind: a couple of them started cracking jokes with us that I somehow doubt they would make to other patrons of a more advanced sophistication or maturity.
So our merry band was almost comically easy to please, and I can’t think of a single fault with our meal – so what? To my mind, the food was incomparable, since I honestly have nothing to compare it to – and even if I did, years down the road in my life, after eating at El Bulli or WD40 or Le Bernadin or who knows where else, it would seem downright spiteful to come back to Alinea and spend the evening sniffing about for faults or imperfections. Maybe that means I live an ultimately uncultured life – but I’d always rather be overwhelmed by experiences like this rather than underwhelmed, thank you very much.
Here’s to the kids eating at the grown-up table.