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Posts from — July 2008

Revisiting Alinea

My first visit to Alinea was a year ago, almost to the day. Initially conceived as a consolation prize for being in London and not wasting an entire day on the Fat Duck, I went in nearly blind, without as much as reading a proper review to see what I was getting into.

Getting in was surprisingly easy, considering Alinea wasn’t even the intended destination. I had decided to go to either Charlie Trotters, Avenues or Alinea on a whim and placed a call into all three to see if there were any tables around noon (being the optimist that I am). All were booked, but Alinea and Charlie Trotters called back a few hours later to tell me they had a few cancellations. Both required a jacket, which I didn’t pack, and Alinea was the only one willing to made an exception. So, that pretty much sealed the deal.

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My dinner at Alinea doesn’t fit neatly into the “best ever” category. It was unlike any dinner I have had before, so it seems pointless to compare it with anything else. It was, from start to finish, a fascinating experience; a sort of a frontal assault on the senses. Not all the dishes were great and a few made me wonder if I was really ingesting food, but at it’s best Alinea was simply brilliant.

I ordered the 12 course menu, which turned into 16 by the time the night was finished. By the 14th dish I had a mild panic attack. I was done eating, but the food kept coming. It’s hard to move things around on the plate to pretend like you are done with a course when each dish is plated on custom dinnerware, often designed specifically for the that very dish.  By the end of the night I found myself hiding in the bathroom, before I realized that was not going to save me. So I finished the meal and ran out of Alinea, promising to never do that to myself again. At least not any time soon.

It’s a year later and all I can think about are the dishes that blew my mind. So tonight I am going back to see how I do the second time. I have spent the year training in tasting menu kung fu, so tonight I go in ready to take on Grant Achatz again. Round two, bitch. Bring it on.

Here’s how my first dinner went, reconstructed from memory to the best of my abilities:

 

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Artichoke, parmesan, red pepper, basil

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Surf Clam, nasturtium, cucumber, shallot

Ayu, watermelon, kombu, coriander

One of the top three dishes of the night. Ayu is a rare fish sourced from Japan, which has a uniquely sweet flavor reminiscent of watermelon. Grant Achatz has an affinity for unusual ingredient combinations that share a similar flavor profile; pairing the Ayu with watermelon worked brilliantly. The filet was topped with the fried spine of the fish, which added a nice dimension of texture.

 Maitake, cherry, ham, toasted garlic

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Apple, horseradish, celery

Like many of the dishes at Alinea, this shooter came with operating instructions – take the horseradish filled cocoa butter capsule suspended in celery juice in one shot and hold it in your mouth for a few seconds. Make sure to take a deep breath because the glass contains more volume than appears to the naked eye. The result is quite dramatic. Just as you are trying to process the sensation of a mouth of concentrated celery flavor (that in itself doesn’t happen often), the capsule collapses from heat and releases the horseradish juice.  I wasn’t quite ready for the intensity of either of these flavors and sat there in mild shock for a few moments, which I suppose is exactly what Achatz was going for. If you have ever been to a Passover ceder, you’d recognize the effect this specific combination has immediately.

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Duck, mango, yogurt, pillow of lavender

Another brilliant dish, relying heavily on the plating and industrial design. The large pillow arrives at the table first. An oversized bowl of duck prepared three ways (sous vide breast, confit, grilled loin) is then placed on top. As you cut into the meat, the pillow releases a mild stream of lavender scented smoke. The duck was well prepared and worth noting in it’s own right, but the integration of aromatics here makes all the difference. This was one of several dishes that integrated the aroma as a distinct ingredient of the dish, a technique that opens a lot of possibilities for experimentation and one of the many reasons why Coi in San Francisco is on my short list of places to visit (Daniel Patterson is a big fan of this approach).

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Short rib, Guinness, peanut, fried broccoli

Not one of my favorite dishes. I disliked a surprising amount of the ingredients, from the sheet of Guinness, which I thought was overwhelming and kind of a pain to eat to the mushy short rib.

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Black Truffle, explosion, romaine, parmesan

One of Alinea signature dishes and for a good reason – it’s one of the best Grant Achatz has created. The raviolo is filled with a highly concentrated truffle liquid, topped with a slice of black truffle and a bit of crisp romaine (which is kind of unnecessary) and parmesan. Much like the Apple, the raviolo delivered an intense burst of flavor, but rather than play on the contrast between the components, this time a single ingredient is taken to a new level. The plating was typical tongue in cheek Alinea – the spoon is suspended over a bottomless plate, which contains the “table sauce”. Get it? Oh my…

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Lamb, peas, consomme, morels

Another strangely mushy and cafeteria bland meat course paired with ingredients that just don’t quite work together. I honestly have no idea what goes on in some of the ultra modern kitchens that rely exclusively on induction stoves and thermal circulators, but I do know what comes out seems to miss direct fire heat. The maillard reaction should be “molecular” enough of a technique to bring the right flavor and texture into the dish. It’s OK to break the rules and use a technique so well known it’s downright boring once in a while. I don’t think Ferran would mind. Really.

Kuroge Wagyu, yuzu, seaweed smoke, sea grapes

Best dish of the night and one of the best food experiences I’ve had anywhere. The dish was served covered with an inverted glass that contained smoke, removed table side. The escaping smoke immediately triggers sense memory, which for me were the smokehouses of Texas (despite the fact that seaweed was used as a smoke source). The waiter finished his explanation of the dish just as I was getting over the sensation that I was in the pit room at City Market in Luling. I have no idea what he said, but I am sure it was NPR sounding drivel about how lucky I am to eat wagyu.

The small beef cubes were intensely marbled and had the most concentrated beef flavor I have ever encountered. Of all the things I have eaten in my lifetime, there are few flavors  I remember in vivid detail. The ethereal brisket at City Market is one of them. The wagyu at Alinea is another. Both contain extreme ratios of beef fat to meat. Coincidence?

Junsai, bonito, soy, mirin

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Bacon, butterscotch, apple, thyme

The infamous bacon with a butterscotch caramel streak dessert was good, but more of a novelty act than anything else. Not sure why this makes such waves, since people routinely eat bacon with maple syrup and waffles. I’ve had better bacon before. The thyme did add a nice overtone. And I did have fun playing with the custom designed contraption it came with.

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Guava, avocado, brie, key lime juice

Maybe I just dislike guava, or find the combination of it with brie and avocado a poor choice, but this dish really didn’t work for me. The key lime soda poured into the plate didn’t help things by adding yet another clashing component and making things a bit slushy. People who enjoy fruity fizzy soup would have really liked this one.

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Strawberry, frozen and chewy, with wasabi

Nice palate cleanser with very simple, contrasting flavors and surprising texture that reveals itself when the frozen bar begins to melt. Somehow the wasabi actually heightened the flavor of the strawberry, rather than clash with it. (photo from fifth flavor)

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Chocolate, passionfruit, lemongrass, soy

I had real trouble getting past the weird, somewhat unpleasant consistency of the rubes of chocolate and passionfruit. I have no idea how these things are made, but there was a hint of a chemical of some sorts. I sincerely hope this doesn’t make a return appearance tonight.

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Caramel, meyer lemon, cinnamon perfume 

Another dish that played with the sense of smell, but this time relying on the “aromatic handle”, where the eating utensil also delivers the aroma. This one worked very well.

 

Seems like lots of things have changed in Alinea-land in a year. The restaurant debuted at the highest position ever on the Worlds Best Restaurants list. Grant Achatz beat tongue cancer and has become a sort of a modern-day Beethoven – the radiation therapy allowed him to keep his tongue, but robbed him of his sense of taste. Few weeks ago he was named the best chef in the country by the James Beard foundation.

It will be interesting to see how the food has evolved during that time. The reservations were much harder to get this time, that’s for sure.

July 27, 2008   11 Comments

Zicam tasting party (berry, berry disappointing)

You heard it here first: miracle fruit is an urban myth devised by the communist rebels of Congo to topple the US sugar industry .

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OK, so there might be mitigating circumstances. I am coming off a minor head cold and have been attacking my taste buds with Zicam all week, which is an enormously disgusting substance. Aside from being only marginally more effective than snake oil, the makers of Zicam have also been sued (and have since settled out of court) for affecting the sense of smell and taste. So, there is a good chance my experience was compromised.

Lemons tasted like lemons. Guinness tasted like Guinness. Grapes tasted like grapes. Ketchup tasted like ketchup. Cranberry juice was more sweet, than tart. Red wine vinegar was still quite acidic, but had a lingering sweet finish. My Tabasco soaked wedge of melon was just gross (I was going for the flavor of chocolate smores with that one).

I couldn’t tell if it worked for most people, because I believe the concept of wisdom of crowds is an urban myth, too. Crowds are no wiser than your average sheeple. A few people were really excited that beer that tasted like chocolate, but it was a chocolate ale they were drinking. I saw a group trying to polish off an entire bottle of cheap tequila, which was supposed to taste like Patron, though I am pretty sure they were more interested in a cheap buzz (nothing wrong with that, btw). I saw a few of them walking away saying “that stuff does not taste smooth”.

People who’s palates I do trust seemed nonplussed by the whole thing. Jay Francis was handing out his own personal supply of some supplement that kills your ability to taste sweet, like some drug dealer at a rave, which might have been the most amusing part of the night.

Oh and the anonymous eater guy told some couple to go to Dolce Vita as they were entering La Strada. Changing the world one dining experience at a time. Much respect.

One thing I did learn is that Jenny is an absolute force of nature. If I owned a restaurant, I’d put her in charge of PR, kick back and collect the benjamins. Some 100+ people showed up for the party, which seems like a staggering number for an event like this.  Berry, berry impressive.

July 26, 2008   14 Comments

Voting begins for My Table awards

The annual My Table award nominees have been announced and voting begins this week.

I can’t bring myself to care about things like the bar service or best tablecloths, nor do I necessarily agree with all of the nominees, but there are a couple of categories worth a consideration.

Without a doubt, the Pastry Chef category belongs to Plinio Sandalio, currently with America’s in The Woodlands. You can get a good slice of cake almost anywhere in the city, but no one treats desserts as culinary creations quite like Plinio.

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lemon curd, sour cream cookie, blackberry confiture & lime pop rocks
from a recent tenacity dinner

It’s getting increasingly difficult to capture in words the interplay between flavors and textures in some of Plinio’s dishes (I have tried, here and here), but just try to imagine what happens when you combine a smooth, intensely flavored ball curd, a shard of a cookie and squirt of blackberry “sauce”, then finish with line flavored pop rocks. This is seriously cool stuff.

Chef of the Year is probably a toss up between Bryan Caswell and Chris Shepherd (more about him here).

I wish the menu changed more often at Reef and some of the food could use a touch of technical complexity just to make things interesting, but if this category is going to be decided on one dish and one dish only, the beet ravioli at Reef should put Bryan Caswell in the running. It’s one of the most interesting dishes I have come across all year with an absolutely brilliant contrast in flavors.

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beet ravioli at reef

I have been seeing beets on menus everywhere this year and order them almost every time I can, but this preparation at Reef and a completely different take on beets at Voice have been two of the best. What really stands out with this dish is how well the intensely acidic streaks of sauce and slightly bitter greens  work with the natural sweetness of roasted beets. The ravioli themselves are stuffed with beet tops, which might be the first time I have come across someone actually using those in cooking. 

The online menu (from February?!) on the Reef site does not list the beet ravioli, but according to Bryan you can still try it for another month or two, as long as he can get his hands on good product.

Cast your vote here.

July 22, 2008   12 Comments

Reviews worth eating

McCrady’s has been on my short list for a while, but Chuck’s review makes it official – I have to find a reason to go to Charleston. I have no idea why people visit Charleston or how a city that small can even sustain a restaurant as ambitious as McCrady’s, but it’s almost irrelevant at this point.

What sealed the deal for me is the concept of modern dishes that integrate regional flavors, which is the very aspect that makes Restaurant August such an exciting place to eat. The Woodlands location of America’s is heading in the same direction, but its still far from a food-first restaurant built around a chef’s vision.

Oyster, Ham Consommé, Cornbread
It would be hard to find a more haute southern dish than this – the mix of the oyster’s brininess and the consomme’s saltiness provided the backbone of the dish. Brock takes his ham seriously (can you say Alan Benton?) and I suspect it finds its way into more dishes than I realized.

I’d go just for that one dish alone. Maybe there is a chance Sean Brock will follow Michael Kramer and end up in Houston?

I booked a table at L2O in Chicago not long after it opened, when it was still flying under the radar. Some of the early reviews are surprisingly strong and photos of Laurent Gras creations look absolutely stunning.

20080514_L2O-01_061  Extra 1: Ossetra Caviar (toro, avocado)  

I am re-visiting Alinea the night before my dinner at L2O, but I am starting to wonder which meal I will be more excited about by the time I arrive in Chicago.

Monkey Tail Fern  L20.1901.web

July 18, 2008   4 Comments

Disney World survival guide

I travel at least once a month and find that most of my destinations there is no shortage of interesting places to eat.

The one city that really put me at a loss was Orlando, which seems singularly focused on the Disney World crowd. There are plenty of “high end” restaurants in Orlando, but going to Emerils or Tim Keating’s (of Quattro in Houston) Flying Fish Cafe seemed like a really bad idea. Keating may be a great chef, but what if all of his dishes are served with Mickey Mouse ears because his restaurant is located in the Disney’s Boardwalk Resort? No thanks.

I tried reading the local press for guidance, but they were most impressed with Seasons 52, owned by the people who brought you the Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Bahama Breeze. I can suspend disbelief, but there are limits to everything.

The first night I ended up at Hue Restaurant, which was packed with boisterous young professionals drinking, watching sports on large television sets and consuming large amounts of dull pan Asian food that’s all the rage these days. Rattan Bistro, in Houston, comes to mind as a comparison. I was beginning to think the trip was a complete loss.

Then things suddenly improved. I found Hanamizuki almost by chance on some random mailing list, which gave me little comfort. But the web site had virtually no English on it, so at the very least it seemed like they didn’t give a damn about Disney.

Hanamizuki is not a high end restaurant, nor does it build it’s business around a bar, but it does have very solid sushi chefs and great fish. I ordered an omakase, so I didn’t get a good look at the menu, but the place seems to cater primarily to Japanese crowd and a few locals in the know.

The fish at Hanamizuki is of very high quality. Not the transcendent stuff you find in the best Japanese restaurants, but better than vast majority of sushi places. Best things I sampled was supremely fresh aji, which was at the peak of the season at the time, and ankimo (monkfish liver).

So, if you are at Disney World and find yourself looking for something to eat, Hanamizuki is a good option. You could certainly do worse.

July 17, 2008   6 Comments