Adventures in Dining

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Alinea, August 6, 2009 May 21, 2011

Filed under: Chicago — hpandaw @ 8:24 pm

When we entered this restaurant, we felt a bit as if we were in Alice in Wonderland.  We walked down this corridor until we got to the end of it, but there was no sign of a door.  As we stood, looking at each other blankly, a door magically opened on the side of the hallway – surprise!
We chose to go with the 22-course Tour since we were so excited about the food here.  We both began with a course of steelhead roe with traditional garnishes. 

While it tasted like roe with traditional garnishes (brioche toast, crème fraiche, etc.) it was anything but.  The chef had transmogrified the garnishes into foams and creams so that there was absolutely no texture except for that lovely, salty pop of the caviar.  The brioche toast foam was the oddest thing: a foam that tasted like a piece of toasted bread.  We were both overwhelmed by this dish, and our culinary tour was off to a great start.
Our next dishes were slightly different.  Mine was black cod in iceberg lettuce with cucumber and Thai distillation.  My husband’s was pork belly with iceberg lettuce, cucumber, and Thai distillation. 

This was a lovely dish!  The Thai distillation was served in a small glass, and it tasted like lemongrass and fish sauce and all those other flavors one associates with Thai food.  The iceberg lettuce wrap, though, was the best part.  The crispy lettuce contrasted beautifully with the soft, flavorful cod.  The wine served with this was Abbazia di Novacella Kerner, Valle Isarco, Alto Adige 2007.
You know you’re in for a unique dining experience when your server’s instructions are to “Pick up the guitar pick and eat everything on it in one bite.”  This next course was oxalis with juniper, gin, sugar, and citric acid.  The citric acid was so sour!  But the bite was so light and refreshing.  My husband couldn’t decide if his palate had just been cleansed or blown away by the citric acid.
The course that followed was one of my favorite: lilac with scallop, shellfish, and honeydew. 

This was beautifully done.  The white, creamy disks tasted like lilac perfume melting in my mouth.  The scallop and shellfish (razor clam) were wonderful with the sweetness of the honeydew and the perfume of the lilac, and there was a saltiness to the broth that was addictive.  It sounds like such an odd combination, but it worked marvelously.  The wine paired with this was Albert Mann “Vielles Vignes” Auxerrois, Alsace 2007.
After all of these light and innovative dishes, the next course was a shock to the system. 

Mine was a ragout of vegetables, pate brisee, while my husband’s was a pigeonneau a la Saint-Clair.  What I learned from this trip is that apparently I am a big fan of salsify.  This course was an incredibly flaky, buttery, rich pastry, filled with vegetables and the most delicious, creamy, rich sauce from L’Escoffier.  It was perfect, and it paired so well with the wine, “Alter Ego” de Chateau Palmer, Margaux 2004.  I enjoyed this so much that I ate almost all of it, which was probably a mistake considering that I had another 18 courses to go!
What followed was very strange to eat. 

It was a black truffle explosion with romaine and parmesan.  Our server told us to eat this in one bite and to close our lips around it, since there would literally be an explosion of black truffle in our mouths.  He was right!  As soon as we bit into it, the liquid gushed into our mouths.  Black truffles have never tasted so rich and wonderful.  This was another favorite of mine.  Since it was only one bite, it was a good size for a tasting menu this extensive.
The next course was the one that we both agreed was the weakest. 

It was a tomato course with fig, nicoise olive, and pine nuts.  Before bringing out our dishes, the servers brought a large bowl of tomato greens on top of super-heated rocks.  This sent lovely aromas of fresh tomatoes to us while we ate this dish.  The tomatoes were good, and very fresh, topped with pureed olives and olive oil sorbet, but we thought it was just okay, especially compared to the dishes that precluded and followed this course.
My next course was apple with butterscotch and thyme, while my husband’s was bacon with butterscotch, apple, and thyme. 

This was served hanging from a very funky piece of metal that had been custom-designed just for this dish.  It was good, light and refreshing, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by it.
The following dish was another interesting one: sweet potato with bourbon, brown sugar, and smoldering cinnamon. 

It was served in what looked like a mutilated whisk.  The cinnamon stick, which we used rather like a popsicle stick to hold while we ate the sweet potato, was smoldering on the end, so it emitted a spicy aroma.  This was good, but a bit too greasy and rich for me.  The sweet potato with bourbon and brown sugar had been battered and fried.  It reminded me of something one might eat at a fair, though the couples at the tables around us kept referring to it as a “churro.”
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a picture of the next dish, since we were told to eat it immediately.  This was a small disk of mustard, passionfruit, and allspice sorbet, served on a pin.  We have a photo of the empty dish and pin, but the disk was on a tight timeline.  It was another one that didn’t wow me; the mustard was very spicy and tart, but it was a good palate cleanser after the rich sweet potato.
The next dish, hot potato, cold potato, black truffle and butter, was another really interesting one. 

It was served in a tiny bowl made of wax, with a pin stuck through the side of the wax bowl.  The bowl itself was filled with a creamy, chilled potato soup, while the pin held two small cubes of cheese and a hot potato ball topped with black truffle.  When we pulled the pin out of the wax bowl, the potato and cheese dropped into the cold soup, providing a nice contrast both of texture and of temperature.  This wasn’t my very favorite dish, but it was quite good, and it was definitely interesting.  The wine with this was a Bruno Paillard “Premiere Cuvee” Brut Rose, Reims.
This was followed by yuba with shrimp, miso, and togarashi. 

It was an interesting twist of fried yuba bean paste, wrapped around by shrimp covered in sesame seeds, with a miso sauce at the bottom of the dish.  I enjoyed this, which again, had a very interesting presentation, though these flavors were more familiar to me.  The server told us that in order to make this dish, they would cook the yuba until the skin formed, then they’d peel off the skin.  They kept doing this over and over, until they had enough skins to make into the stick and fry the yuba.
My next dish was fluke with peach, fennel, and shiso, while my husband had foie gras with peach, fennel, and shiso. 

This was delicious.  I’m usually not a fan of fennel, but I enjoyed this very much.  It was a small bite but very refreshing.  My husband’s foie gras was creamy with a slight sweetness from the peach.  He didn’t think it was the best foie gras he’d ever had, but he enjoyed it very much.  Because it wasn’t seared, the way foie gras usually is, it was creamier and sweeter.
This was followed by a dish of crab with carrot, five spice, and lychee. 

It was surprisingly sweet, and so light that I enjoyed every bite.  The crab was such a mild flavor, but the five spice paired well with it and didn’t completely mask or overwhelm the crab.
My next dish was sturgeon with powdered A-1, potato, and chips, while my husband’s was wagyu beef with powdered A-1, potato, and chips. 

Both the sturgeon and the wagyu were seared, and the mashed potato cake was coated with potato chips for a crispy crust.  It was very good, and the potatoes had a cheesiness, as if they’d been coated in Cheez-Its instead of regular potato chips.  The powdered A-1 was interesting, and it added a nice flavor to the meaty sturgeon.  The wine paired with this was a K Vintners “Milbrandt” Syrah, Wahluke Slope, Washington 2006.  We both really liked this wine.
Our server then approached us, handed us each what looked like a small plastic bag of powder, and said, “Put this on your tongue and let it dissolve.”  It was a lemon soda, a fizzy lemon powder, and it tasted like fun, if that makes any sense.  The plastic bag was actually made of corn starch, so it melted away on my tongue, to be followed by the tart yet sweet fizziness of lemon soda.  The server was so funny; he joked, “Now that you’ve swallowed that mystery packet, from a guy whose name you don’t know, let me tell you about your next course.”
The next course that followed was the most challenging for me to eat, primarily because it contained another one of those exploding balls. 

This one was a watermelon ball with lime and nasturtium, and we had to eat it in one bite, closing our mouths around it immediately, or else the watermelon would squirt everywhere.  I felt really weird trying to open my mouth wide enough to fit this inside, and my husband was videotaping me and kept making me laugh, so I had to have several attempts before I succeeded in getting the watermelon ball into my mouth.  It was delicious, though, very light, sweet, and flavorful.
The watermelon ball was served with two other dishes: bubble gum with long pepper and hibiscus and a transparency of raspberry and yogurt.  The bubble gum was another one that gave me trouble, since it was tapioca balls that had to be sucked out of a tube.  I guess I didn’t suck hard enough because I wasn’t able to get all of it in one bite, as the chef had intended.  The first suck was delicious, though, very sweet and fruity and slightly tart, all with the chewiness of bubble gum provided by the small balls.  I suspect these might be tapioca, but I have no information to either confirm or deny this.  It took me a while to get all of the balls out of the tube, and they weren’t wonderful without the hibiscus sauce.  The transparency of raspberry and yogurt looked like a tiny, red plastic fan.  It was good, though, like a crispy fruit roll-up.
Next came another dessert course: rhubarb with goat milk, onion, and lavender air. 

This was served on top of a pillow filled with lavender air, so that we continued to smell the lavender air while we were eating, as our dish pressed down on the pillow.  The onion had been made into an onion cotton candy, which was so much fun!  The desserts were playful and exciting: as much fun to eat as they were beautiful to look at.  The wine with this course was our favorite, Elio Perrone “Bigaro,” Piedmont, Italy 2008.
The final dish was performance art: chocolate, blueberry, tobacco, and maple.

The servers rolled out a Silpat tablecloth, and added something to the black vase on our table that made smoke from the dry ice start pouring out of it.  The sous chef came out from the kitchen and began spreading ingredients around our table: pickled blueberries, dashes of tobacco cream, candied walnuts, and applewood consommé in gel balls.  He gave us each a chunk of the frozen chocolate mousse, which was so cold that smoke issued from our nostrils and mouths.  This was really good, and it was also great fun.  We got to play with our food like two kids!  The consommé gel balls popped and oozed consommé all over the tablecloth, and we had so much fun composing each bite.  The wine served with this was a Smith-Woodhouse 1994 Vintage Port.
After this, we had a very dark, rich coffee, and then dinner was over.  We arrived at 7:30, and left at 11:30.  It was such an amazing, memorable experience.


Kitchen Table, Charlie Trotter’s, August 5, 2009

Filed under: Chicago — hpandaw @ 8:20 pm

This kitchen table was very different from the one at Victoria & Albert’s restaurant.  To begin with, the table here is literally in the kitchen, not set in an area to the back, so servers just stand around the table, and sometimes move behind you to get items stored on the counter right behind the table.  The view is the same; the big difference is that at Victoria & Albert’s, you’re in an island apart where you can see everything and interact with the chefs, but still have your own space.  Here, you’re right in the middle of the action.
Our chef for the evening was Michael Rotondo, who we remembered from the Bocuse d’Or.  Charlie Trotter did make an appearance early on in the course of our dinner, so we talked with him a bit, and he suggested that we visit his wine cellars and studio kitchen before leaving.  The only thing that marred the experience for us was the entry midway through the dinner of Chef Mathias Whatsisname, from Restaurant Charlie in Las Vegas.  He was extremely, blatantly rude to the staff right in front of us, which we found a bit disconcerting.  For example, at one point, he asked a server sarcastically, “Why are you making so much noise, Michael?  Do you want everyone in the restaurant to know that Michael’s here tonight?”  This was typical of his interaction with the staff, and we felt awkward, being put in the position of witnesses to others being insulted or treated rudely.
We began with three amuses bouches: Kumamoto oyster with sake, hamachi with ginger and guava, and uni with English cucumber. 

The oyster was my least favorite; I didn’t like the texture of the sake gel around the oyster; it was pairing slimy with slimy.  I really enjoyed both the hamachi and the uni, though.  They were both very light, refreshing, and flavorful.
Our first course was cold-poached cod cheek with heirloom tomato relish. 

My husband enjoyed this very much, but, again, though the flavor was good, I didn’t care for the fatty, chewy texture of the cod cheek.  Texture is very important to me, just as much so as flavor, and this texture bothered me.
The next dish was a lemon verbena spoon bread with honey and chervil.  The herbed spoon bread was excellent, so refreshing, and it was such a unique flavor combination for us.  The honey had been dehydrated, and it paired nicely with the lemon verbena.
A confit of Alaskan Sockeye salmon with rose & black tea was next, and this was lovely. 

We’d never had salmon paired with rose and black tea before, but these aromatics went so well with the salmon. My husband said it was the best salmon he’d ever eaten.
We parted ways on the next dish.  My husband, the meat-eater, went for the Swan Creek Farm rabbit loin with ricotta and Vidalia onion marmalade, while I had the Swan Creek Farm Ricotta and Vidalia onion marmalade. 

Rabbit with fried cheese sounds like an odd combination, but it was probably the best rabbit he’d ever eaten- cooked just right to have both tenderness and robust, albeit mild, flavor.  The onion marmalade was outstanding and had such a deep, rich flavor.  The ricotta was light, but it wasn’t my favorite thing.  It reminded me a bit too much of fried mozzarella sticks.
We next had a Portuguese sardine with white peach consommé.

My husband’s was paired with Spanish chorizo, while mine was paired with celery root.  I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did.  The fishiness of the sardine was nicely balanced by the peach consommé, and, though the sardine was fried, it wasn’t too oily or heavy.  The chorizo added a great spiciness to the dish that nicely contrasted with the sweetness of the peaches.
Our next dish was an ash baked eggplant with green curry and chanterelle mushrooms. 

Unfortunately, I wrote these recaps about a week after the dining experience, and I cannot remember this dish at all, so I will assume that it was unmemorable!
We parted ways again, and my husband had a whole roasted squab breast with wild licorice and kumquat. 

I had salt-crusted beets with anise hyssop and wild licorice.  This was kind of a bizarre dish, since the foam was so thick and mounded that it looked like mashed potatoes.  There were only 6 small beets here, so I found myself digging under the foam looking for actual food!  While the foam had a good flavor, I didn’t enjoy eating it by itself.  I would have preferred a smaller foam to food ratio here.
Again, I’d forgotten to say that my pescatarianism didn’t extend to eating octopus, so our next dish was grilled octopus with squid ink and rashiri kombu. 

I ate a bit of this, so as not to appear rude, since it was my omission, but I didn’t enjoy it very much.  The tips of the tentacles were over charred and couldn’t really be eaten.
My husband’s next dish was Crawford Farm lamb tongue with black mission figs and charred cinnamon. 

He enjoyed this very much; both the consistency and the texture reminded him of roast beef.  The tongue was thinly sliced and mild in flavor.  I had grilled tai with carrot and horseradish, which, again, I cannot remember.
Next, my husband had triple-seared tochigi wagyu with umeboshi and bonito.

I had halibut with fermented black garlic and miatake mushroom. 

It was interesting to see how the different chefs at each of these three restaurants used the same ingredients, to such different effects, and black garlic was one of those common ingredients.  The wagyu came off more like a butter than a beef, which might appeal to some, but seemed like a waste to him.  This halibut was quite good, but I preferred the flaky texture of the grouper that I’d had the previous night.
Our next dish was one that the server called our cheese course, though cheese was noticeably in the minority here, overwhelmed by a gel. 

It was the pecorino di pienza morchiato with cocoa seed and pequin peppers.  My husband did not care for the cocoa seed and pepper gel, and I found the flavor to be a bit too bizarre, very dark, but with that odd gel texture.  This was probably my least favorite of the dishes that we were served here.  Almost two years later, I still have flashbacks of the cocoa seed and pepper gel, and they are always extremely unpleasant, tongue-curling flashbacks.
Our next course, a lychee sorbet with green tea and toasted rice, was outstanding. 

It was so light and refreshing, and the green tea paired so well with the flavor of lychee, while the toasted rice added a nice texture contrast.
For dessert, we had raspberries with honey and sage, Michigan cherries with sugared almonds, Arbequina olive oil-chocolate chip parfait with red wine, and chocolate sorbet with cacao fruit & smoked vanilla. 

I enjoyed this very much; it was sweet and delicious without being too heavy.