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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