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Emanuel on Alinea

Watermelon -- Alinea

Watermelon -- Alinea

I wrote a post on Olive Garden in January, inspired by an article by Wall Street Journal restaurant writer Raymond Sokolov comparing Olive Garden to the great Chicago Italian restaurant Spiaggia. In passing, I noted that we had thought of eating at Spiaggia when we went to Chicago last November, or at Alinea, but the possibility vanished when we decided instead to see the Lang Lang concert at the Symphony Center on our one free night. However, I didn’t elaborate on Alinea. I return to Alinea now because I read the most fascinating review of it today.

The review is by Zeke Emanuel, brother of President Obama’s chief of staff Rahm and health policy advisor to Peter Orszag, Obama’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget. The Atlantic has just launched a new food site that features an article by Emanuel on dining in DC with the comedian Larry David. This prompted Ezra Klein, at his blog, to write about the Emanuel article and to include Emanuel’s review of Alinea. Klein gives no reference, so I don’t know where the review might first have appeared. I can only refer you back to Klein’s own post.

Or quote the review in its entirety. Let’s do that. Here are two sentences from it to whet your appetite. “Four themes emerge from the dishes. The first is that no matter how experienced a diner you are, no matter how many of the nation’s premier restaurants you have eaten at, you will taste things you never knew existed.” The review follows, below the fold.

I never thought I would say it. I did not think it was possible. Could there be a chef better than Charlie Trotter? Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago is not simply better, he is phenomenal, in a completely different quantum state than any other chef whose food I have ever had to pleasure to eat.

The difference begins before you step foot in the restaurant. There is no sign identifying the restaurant. The outside of the building is dark and relatively non-descript. Unless you know where you are going, unless you plan to be there, you cannot find Alinea. Dinner at Alinea is not a chance encounter. This is like going to platform 9¾–you have to know it exits to enter. You enter and follow a narrow long hall, wondering whether you should leave bread crumbs to find the way out. The next difference you notice is that the tables are not covered in white linen. There are no forks, knives, spoons or glasses set out, only folded white napkins on the table’s dark wooden surface. No menu, no listing of the courses. Indeed the wait staff were almost offended when I asked for one to determine which glass of wine to order. The ignorance is to preserve the mystery and surprise of the evening. As the meal begins a small plate with an attached starched white Irish linen pillow is placed in the table center in front of each diner to cradle the utensils.

And then you are sure this will be a singular experience when the first dish arrives. It comes in a “dish” you have never seen before, clearly created for this chef. A 1.5 inch black ceramic disc with a hole in the top holding a whole vanilla bean to which is attached a small cylinder of coconut mousse with a clear film impregnated with lime and then decorated with red globules of roe from steelhead trout. To ensure you are really astonished and appreciate how completely distinctive the experience will be, the waiters explain how to actually eat the coconut mousse with roe—“Put the whole coconut mousse end in your mouth, and pull it off in one smooth movement. Don’t bite the vanilla bean.” This is just the first of numerous instructions.

Over 12 courses you are taken through vegetables, fish, fowl, beef, lamb, salad, fruit, and dessert. Each course is so original, so unimaginable for even the experienced gourmand. You are in the presence of an artist who can imagine what food can do in a completely new frame. He then awes and entertains you with the presentation. This is not mere dining—if there is such a thing—but artistry and science rolled into a theatrical performance.

Four themes emerge from the dishes. The first is that no matter how experienced a diner you are, no matter how many of the nation’s premier restaurants you have eaten at, you will taste things you never knew existed. Sea grapes—not the poem by Derek Walcott nor the small shrub found in Florida, but little bits of sea weed used in the Far East and known as green caviar. They taste a bit peppery. Ice fish—small fish from Antarctica that do not have hemoglobin. Smoke gel—ice cubes that are melted over wood smoke and turned into a gel. Salsify—a root vegetable with the firm but not rubbery consistency like that of artichoke hearts but a touch sweeter.

The second theme is exploding balls of liquid. Chef—and that is what all the wait staff call Grant Achatz—encases liquids in various things only to have them disintegrate on your palate. Apple cider covered by a thin film which is then coated in cinnamon and vegetable ash (yes, no typing mistake there) resting on milk that has been prepared to extract the flavor from walnuts. You are told to put the whole ball in your mouth and keep your mouth closed—otherwise your fellow diners will be sending a laundry bill. And the ball of cider explodes showering your mouth in sweet apple flavor. The most amazing “ball” was a chocolate ball encasing liquid egg yolk. How does he do it? Who knows, but it is amazing and refreshing.

Then there are the theatrics. Besides telling you how to eat the dish you have just been served—which is arresting enough—there are various events meant to startle and induce perplexity, wonder, and excited anticipation. A steaming red flag appears. Upon closer inspection the pole turns out to be a pair of chopsticks positioned in a metal frame to hold them at a 45o angle. And you are warned not to touch. The smoke continues to waft into the air for a few minutes as the flag turns from red to a pink and it becomes clear this flag is really a thin slice of extensively “marbaled” meat—a bit thicker than prosciutto— that has been frozen in liquid nitrogen. What for? A few courses later you learn it is Wagyu beef, a Kobe-style beef imported from Japan, as it laid like a blanket over a cube of potato encased by black truffle leather. Pillows—yes, white linen pillows—are placed before you and a dish is placed on the pillows (linen over a plastic bag) which slowly deflate to give off an aroma of spices, nutmeg with a hint of mace, to intensify the aroma and taste of the dish.

Each dish has separate items carefully prepared and arranged in distinct groups. The ice fish dish, for instance, is presented on a plate with two humps. Across the humps is a whitish paste—that appears almost like a child squeezed toothpaste across the plate—that tastes of horseradish. Sticking out of the undulating paste, like the plates on the back of a stegosaurus or the spikes of a dragon, are asparagus, the small fried ice fish and other tidbits. Each tastes divine, but the waiters urge you to “mush them all together to combine the flavors.”

Let me mention the four most outstanding dishes. The second course was the salsify. A few small cylinders the size of 10 stacked dimes of salsify were rolled in dehydrated salmon, ginger and lemon making it looked as if it was covered in all manner of confetti. Spread across the plate were poached and smoked salmon, globules of lemon gel, as well as assorted dehydrated vegetables, such as peppers. The dehydrated ginger created an intense, slightly spicy zing. The dehydrated vegetables had a crunchy texture and each flavor was amplified by the dehydration. The lemon gel was the essence of a lemony tang. The entire combination was each flavor intensified—spicy, tangy, peppery on the background of a slightly sweet root vegetable.

The duck dish was a combination duck and soup. We were handed a round bowl to hold—no flat base—with a fork sticking across the top. On the fork tines was a small piece of duck tenderloin with Thai spices. It was so tender the duck melted in your mouth with slight spice. In the bowl was about 2 ounces of butternut squash soup of shiny golden yellow topped by white banana foam. The result was a light, almost evanescent banana flavor with no texture that combines with creamy, intense squash flavor.

The lamb dish was a combination lamb with salad. A small piece of lamb was covered in cherry and wine paste—light, but still lamby. But the real highlight was the confetti bits of diverse salads sprinkled over the plate. From a small collection of fresh enoki mushrooms to nice, not saw dusty green French lentils tossed in vinegar the plate was filled what Chef calls diverse embellishments.

The last course is sweet potato as you have never had it: A globule of brown almost hair-like stuff attached to a cinnamon stick sitting between metal prongs of what appear like a metal memo holder. The sweet potato is shredded and deep fried like a tempura with bourbon inner core—those exploding balls of liquid again. The shredded sweet potato melts in your mouth, sweet but not sugary with a bit of the fried fat overtones, but has no residual alcoholic taste. A wonderful way to finish a wonderfully intensely flavored meal.

I did not do the wine pairings, but two at the table did. The pairings were remarkable for not a single California or American wine—too overpowering for the subtle flavors we were told. (At least that is what I understood. The alternative explanation was that staying away from American wines was an effort to surprise the diner with the most unusual pairings.) They were also remarkable for the unexpected tricks. A Gewurztraminer from Italy. A Verdelho from Australia. A Madeira called “New York Malmsey” which was really from Madeira, not New York.

At the end of the meal each diner is handed a black envelope with single sheet menu. But, like everything else about this evening, this is no ordinary menu. The courses are titled—steelhead roe, salsify, beans, etc.— and then, in an homage Edward Tufte, there is a dark circle after each name varying in size, color intensity, and position. Size relates to the size of the dish—a small circle for the steelhead roe and sweet potato courses and the largest one for the lamb. The intensity of color reflecting the intensity of the tastes. The location—well I just cannot recall the significance of the location because the meat entrees are the furthest to the left and the deserts furthest to the right. (Maybe not as transparent as Tufte would have wanted.)

If there was one disappointment, and this should be kept in context because at any other place it would have been fantastic, it might have been the desserts to this dessert maniac. The persimmon course was a small persimmon spice cake with some carrot and red curry. The cake was a bit bland and there was no permission pucker. The chocolate course was remarkable for the chocolate covered egg yolk and smoke gel—more novelty than pleasing flavor—but the dollop of date reduction was a bit too thick and gooey lacking in the delicacy of the date flavor. Obviously these are quibbles in what has to be the most innovative and singular dining experience available in the United States.

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