Sunday, April 01, 2012

Best Let's Push Things Forward

UPDATE: Just learned Elite Traveler magazine(?) named Alinea the World's Best Restaurant.  Now I need to rewrite this whole post.

Where does the time go?  A month ago I was in Chicago, so was Andrew, and we had dinner at Alinea.  It was a very fine meal, quite the journey, and I'm going to try to share it all with you now.

But, when talking about this night, there is a serious the elephant in the room.  Alinea has been called by some, if not many, "the Best Restaurant in North America."  While eating, I tried to just eat and not run a constant analysis on whether or not it could be the Best Restaurant in North America.  Immediately after the meal we discussed with enthusiasm certain courses before there was a pause in our conversation and one of us had to ask "So . . . was that the Best Restaurant in North America?" And can I even weigh in on such a thing?  I've only eaten at three fine dining establishments in my life: Momofuku Ko, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Alinea.  Was it the best of those three?  I guess.  Definitely better food than Blue Hill.  And I think if I had eaten at Alinea and Stone Barns before Ko I would have been more struck by the spareness and intimacy of that setting.  I'm sure if I could have eaten in the Alinea kitchen I would have been flabbergasted by the effort that went into every dish.  I know I was only barely aware of half the things going on with each dish, I could definitely studied the artfulness of each dish more closely.

Before going to Chicago word circulated at work that I had a reservation at Alinea, the price of the meal became known, then it's status as the Best Restaurant in North America--hearing this, one colleague asked, "So, it's a steakhouse?" Which is the perfect question!  For me, to try to decide if one restaurant can be the Best in North America is as worthwhile a pursuit as trying to prove the validity of a World's Best Dad mug.

The problem with the deliciousness at Alinea is that the majority of the courses were barely more than a single mouthful.  Foods were experienced in firework-like bursts of intensity and amazement and then gone, leaving a distinct yet fading impression on the palette like the momentary burn on the inside of your eyelids after a firework has died.  Most meals I've considered the best I've ever had were, you know, entrees that took me a number of minutes to eat.  A steak, let's say, where the first piece made me go "Oh my gosh this is so delicious I can't believe it, num num num" I finish the piece and look down, oh!  I have more pieces!  And the next piece makes my eyes roll back, and the third, and the fourth, until it's all gone and I miss it so bad.  Instead, at Alinea, we enjoyed (greatly) a procession of wonders, the experience was amazing, it would make a child out of anyone, I absolutely recommend it so much to everyone--but the next day I didn't wake up craving anything, I was just wistful about the experience.

Okay, let's just talk about dinner, okay?

Alinea is located at 1723 Halstead.  There is no signage, the windows are curtained but glow slightly purple from within.  The entrance is recessed.

You enter down a long red and sloping hallway.  It has the feel of the excitement of running to the head of the line at Space Mountain.  Halfway down the hall, and you may walk just right past it, are automatic sliding doors that open to the "lobby" of the restaurant.  To your right: the kitchen, shiny and in plain sight, to the left, one of the dining rooms.  Right in front of you, a maitre' d in a suit, imposing in size and coiffure and professional but friendly.  "Uh . . . we have a reservation for 8:30? Barnes?" He lets me say it as a perfunctory part of a dining experience, before he says "Right this way, Omar will take you to your seats" and we head up the restaurant's central staircase.  They were expecting us.

We're seated in a fairly large sized dining room with seats for 14.  I read somewhere that Alinea has got 64 seats.  Which seems kind of like a lot.  But while the restaurant is large, every space is nearly an island.  I believe our dining room had a staff of 8 looking after it.  Those are cruise ship numbers as far as service goes.

At our table, a large block of ice sitting on rocks.  There is something purple inside.  For now, it is a centerpiece.  

A waiter sees Andrew (or was it me?) give the block a tentative touch.  "No touching the ice!" he obviously jokes, "We double the cost of your meal for doing that." Chuckles.  Always the service is professional but winky.  In a couple of hours I hear him make the same joke to the next table over.

Little white pillows are brought out and silverware laid upon them.  We're told that the pillow will serve as our tablecloth for the night, that each course will get a new utensil, to please leave our dirtied utensils on the plate or dish or rock or tree trunk of each course.

The first course arrives, a winky waiter says "Dinner here gets a little weird, but we start with something more traditional."  Char roe, coconut, carrot, and curry.  It is good.

By the second course, the food is totally Alinea-y.  They bring us each a piece of driftwood, topped with seaweed, and upon the seaweed?

A piece of Oyster Leaf, a salty type of, uh, lettuce? that tastes like an oyster, served in an oyster shell.

A piece of King Crab with passionfruit, heart of palm, and all spice served in a bit of crab shell.   

Razor clam with shiso, soy, and daikon served in a razor clam shell.  

And a Mussel served with safron, chorizo, and oregano in a mussel shell.

Enjoying it.

The sea creatures that I ate off that driftwood (like a super-sophisticated otter) were was the first things I tasted at Alinea that delighted me down to my toes.  Many more things would. 

Before our next course they brought out this new centerpiece.  Water in the base, a collection of herbs and fruits and leaves and more in the top chamber.

The fire made the bottom bubble, then travel up to the top to soak up the things that lived up there, then cool, it headed downstairs again, only to get heated once more and sent on a second trip upstairs.  I assumed it was making tea.  I'd see I was wrong.

The next thing we ate was a hands-free course, a bit of Squid with fennel and orange served at the end of a long wire.

The idea was to lean in and snatch it up in one bite, like a Tyrannosaurus might.  My menu says there was also Wooly Pig in this.  I do not know what that's supposed to even mean.  I don't remember the taste of wool or pig.

Then this dish was brought out.  There was no liquid in it when it came out.  Turns out the fiery beaker thing was making a dashi, which the waiter poured a bit of into the bowl and then gave us the rest of to drink.  And in that bowl?  The cube looks like tofu, and that's the idea, but it is not tofu.  It is a scallop that had been diced or minced and restructured into a cube.  Clever.  But I probably would have liked a scallop better.  

The dashi, though, was right on.

For the next course, a glass tube is placed on each pillow.

It was time to drink out of the ice block.  The purple, it turns out, was beet and hibiscus and licorice juice.  I do not remember the flavor too strongly, but I do remember the effort it took to angle myself to drink from the block and the slurping noise the waiter promised we'd make.

After several courses of food unlike the food usually eaten on this planet, something absolutely unexpected.  An elegant glass, "filled" with banana soda.

A old-fashiony kind of fancy knife and fork,

And a fish!  Some vegetables!  And chickpea panellas!  Almost the biggest surprise of the night: A course of "normal" dining.

The fish was a porgy, served with a mint sauce.

But the star of this part of the meal, and maybe the whole night, was this "simple" vegetable caponata.   A vegetable stew of infinite depth, each pea or olive or bean told a tale of one thousand years.  I can imagine a silver bowl of this being served to an emperor or an ancient great, great grandmother ladling it out from a cast iron cauldron to one hundred starving orphans.  I look at this picture and my mouth bites at my computer monitor.

The banana soda was nice, too.

As our table was cleared, the waiter brought these two things out like a couple of flags.  Set them down.  "Another centerpiece" he winked, letting them sit there for a couple more courses.

Our next course!  Do not let this picture deceive, what you are looking at is a very small bowl.  Make an "Okay" sign with your hand.  The bowl is just a tiny bit bigger than your "O."  The dish is called Hot Potato, Cold Potato.  It's a potato soup served with a potato ball topped with black truffle, a little cube of cheese, and a little cube of butter, all lanced along a pin.  You lift the tiny bowl, pull out the pin so that the everything falls into the tiny bowl, and take it down swiftly, like an oyster.  

I know I just wore myself out waxing poetic about the caponata, but this Hot Potato Cold Potato was worth the price of the meal.  Outside the Alinea bathroom they've got a copy of the Alinea cookbook.  It was left open to the Hot Potato Cold Potato when I saw it.  I do not know if this is by the design of the restaurant or just what the last reader had been looking for.  Either way, it is a testament to this devious little dish.  It leaves an impression, one for the restaurant to boast of or for the diner to seek the secrets of.

And then, a mushroom dish, it was very nice, but I do not remember the flavor of it too well.

Probably because it was served on top of pillows inflated with air scented with juniper and sumac.  The pillows slowly deflated as we ate, filling our little airspace with scents of the woods.  Coddled in a restaurant of infinite stars and accolades, our dishes were constantly transporting us outdoors, to forests and tide pools.

Next course involved too many plates and too much audience participation for me to document correctly, but let's leave it at this: a plate of elegant toppings.

For a venison stew served on the red cabbage flags ("Pickled Pig Ears", the waiter winked) that had been our centerpiece.

So, yes, you could say we were having PF Chang Lettuce wraps.  Or Deer Ssam, if you will.  This was a bacon mustard sauce, or something like that.  Very nice, everything in that wrap.

Then, a ravioli served with a warning.  "Put this in your mouth and seal your lips" we were told, "The ravioli (filled with black truffles and their oil) explodes."  I put the ravioli in my mouth.  I closed my lips, but I did not seal.  I bit.  The ravioli exploded.  A spurt of truffle oil shot from my mouth.  A lesson was learned.

How do you make a ravioli explosive?  I don't know.  Tiny bombs, I suppose.

Oh, the dish was served with a second warning: "That isn't sauce underneath your spoon, it's the table.  Don't try to eat it."  The dish had no bottom, you see.

Next, a waiter artfully arranged spoons (and two forks) before us on the table.  (It had first been sprayed down with a scented something, I wondered then if we were going to be asked to lick the table.  No, that would happen later.)

Each spoon or fork held something special.  There was this cube of foie gras that I just let sit in my mouth and melt.  I tried to make it last as long as possible, I let the whole thing just disappear on my tongue.  It was another true Alinea wonder. 

Roast squab, best pigeon I've eaten in ages.

This I know is an olive.

But the rest of these, can't always remember what they were.

Beet, right?

And this was a firm jelly that was difficult to get out of the spoon.

Yeah . . . uh . . .

. . . not so sure . . .

 . . . no idea . . .

Our utensil vase, for when we were done.  It's like when you get out a bone bowl for your ribs and chicken wings.

(At this point in my blogwriting I can't believe how much of the meal is still left)

Next, Brie and Pear deepfried together in something and served on the end of a burning cinnamon stick.  "The fire is not edible, they're still working on a way to do that," the waiter winked at us.  

That was the end of our savory courses.  To cleanse the palate?  Five tiny pieces of five types of ginger, some served with tiny toppings.

We had begun to play back at the restaurant.  It was all becoming very participative.

And now, desserts!

First up, "Winter in New Hampshire" Fruits and jellies and a fancy Hershey Kiss marshmallow served on peppermint snow served on freezing river rocks.  "Do not touch the rocks, and whatever you do don't lick them" the waiter warned, no winks.  It was true, they were cold.  Very, very cold.  I think I heard or did I imagine that they had been sitting in liquid nitrogen before we got them?  They were so cold my spoon froze to them at one point.  Oh, and also not to be eaten: The fir branches and piece of birch the dessert was served on.  But I accidentally ate one needle.  It was awful.

Along with our Winter in New Hampshire?  "Hot chocolate," the waiter winked as he poured us a little mug of a perfectly clear, steaming liquid.  We chuckled.  But the joke was on us, for when I went to drink my clear-as-water beverage, I was surprised to find it tasted of one of deepest hot chocolate I'd ever had in my life.  I was stunned to speechlessness, "Well done" is all I could muster.  You got me bad with this one, Alinea.

I also really liked the peppermint snow.  If I hadn't had two more courses to eat I probably could have worked on it until every last "flake" was gone.

And then . . . the Balloon Course!  A helium filled balloon, both it and its string entirely made of green apple taffy.  What a thing to be served!  What a thing to eat!   

I've posted it before, but I'll post it again, here's the video of when they brought our balloons out and of Andrew eating his.

The balloon was an absolute delight, the only bummer was we knew it was coming.  We'd seen it served several times during our meal to people ahead of us in their eating, there's nothing you can do about that, I can only imagine the reaction I might have had to being served a balloon if I hadn't any idea it was coming.

The final course had a surprise ending.  A surprise we already knew all about.

For the final dessert, they laid out a silicone tablecloth and a chef came out and fixed us dessert.  First there was this dark chocolate vase that he poured liquid nitrogen into and placed at the center of the table.  Then he began drizzling various syrups (butternut squash, lingonberry, and stout in flavor) on the tablecloth.  Then he tossed blossoms all over everything.  And then he picked up the vase and dropped it on the table, it shattered with a pop and sent dark chocolate and the various treats that had been living inside all over the table.  We had spoons.  It was our job to eat everything off the table.  

Here's a video of the whole process:

And the dessert wreckage.

Look how the frozen contents are fogging.  Or steaming.  What is it that cold things give off?  I can't remember.  Making clouds.  You know.

We just worked and worked at the dessert until we realized how far along we were getting.  Seeing a victory in sight, we committed to lick that tablecloth clean.  But with our spoons.

And there we are, basically as bare as you can get.  We left one square and flower as sort of our own artistic interpretation of eating it.  As we neared completion a waiter came over and winked, "I'm sorry, are you not happy with this dish?"

To wrap up the meal, we were brought copies of the day's menu (along with a black envelope for storing) and the bill.  And the tab, while hefty, was reasonable . . . I don't know what else we should have paid for this meal, and you certainly can get a lot less for a lot more.  Also, the tab was written up by hand, and there's something more loving and gentle about that. 

We finished around 11, meaning we had eaten for two and a half hours.  When we got outside our car was waiting for us, one last nice touch, rivaling how the folks at Blue Hill Stone Barns were waiting with my jacket ready when I left the dining room.  

In conclusion: Reread the first four paragraphs of this post.

But I could say a lot more about this dinner, easily.  It left me feeling that I needed to eat at more fancy restaurants to round out my education and put a little more knowledge and experience behind my commentary.  For now, I'm just a guy that went to this place and I wanted you to know about it.


marshall p said...

how exciting for you guys!

Andrea J said...

Hey Brigham,

This reminds me of when you asked Andrew what he would do with $1000, he answered, he'd eat a really good meal. Glad y'all got to experience it together.

Lucas P said...

this looks pretty amazing. one question though: how many juicy combos from johnnie's could I get for the same money?

Lucas P said...

or tongue burritos from gallo.

Brigham said...

I don't know the going rate for a combo or tongue burrito, but divide either into $215, I think. Plus tax, tip, and water. (but hey, $8 for unlimited evian isn't so bad)

Side of Jeffrey said...

My friend went there for his birthday and didn't shut up about it for like a month. Looks like he had a good reason to brag.

Ben said...

Epic. nice to see video of the dessert. Christy owns the Alinea cookbook, and experience the 29-course meal at the Chef's table at NEXT last night. I'm still waiting for a report. The opportunity arose out of the blue, and since the cost was basically 1/3 month's rent, she raised funds for it.

Chris said...

After reading both reviews I think Per Se wins because you ate a birch needle at Alinea. Great stuff.