Hello all, this post will start a short series called “Drifted” Appetite. We will be writing about food and travel away from the Driftless region. Come take a virtual vacation with us. First, let’s go to Chicago.
After waiting patiently for several months, we finally got to eat at Alinea, the premiere restaurant to experience molecular gastronomy in North America. Chef Grant Achatz is one of the experts in the field. The meal consisted of twenty artfully arranged courses, ten pairings of wine, and about four hours of pure pleasure. I decided not to take any pictures (except for the desserts using my cell phone) so I could be fully engaged with the entire presentation. If you know me, I’m very snap happy when holding a camera. It took a few days to get used to the idea but I thought it was a sound decision in the end. I have to admit, I did buy the 400 page Alinea cookbook online once we got back to our hotel room as a souvenir.
1723 North Halsted was a dimly lit two story brick building without indication that it was a public place. There was a small sign for valet parking nearby. We entered a dramatic purple lit hallway that felt as if we were walking through a lens. At the end, a sliding door opened up to a large room. It looked very sterile with the dominant color being white, accented with greys, browns, and green. There was a staircase to our left and the kitchen to our right. The hostess asked if we wanted to see the kitchen in action. The staff was busy, moving around precisely and quietly. It looked like a kitchen with invisible food. Like a mannequin, Chef Achatz stood at one end of an island, a hand at his chin, the other arm across his body supporting an elbow, while seriously staring at something. Keith whispered, “He kinda looks like one of those vampires from the Twilight movies.” I whispered back “I would probably let him suck my blood.” We laughed quietly then a man came by to take us to one of the upstairs dining rooms.
Entrance, Finale, City, Winter
A roughly cut block of ice about a foot high sat on our table. Through it we could see two blood red, test tube-shaped objects. We were told that the centerpiece was going to be part of the meal. A spoon and a fork sat on little white pillows. I was beyond excited of what was to come. About five servers plus the sommelier took turns bringing the dishes with a brief explanation on what was before us and how we were to consume it.
The first dish and the first taste to me was the most beautiful. Elegant yellow orange pearls of trout roe sat in a small bowl, next to it a small spoon of coconut paste, a cube of carrot in gel form, young coconut meat, and the lightest hint of a curry sauce. Everything worked in harmony. The intensely flavored coconut paste brought me back to my childhood in the Philippines. Our neighbor across the street had these miniature coconut trees. Everyone got excited once the fruits were ready. The meat was different from regular coconuts. It was thicker, slightly sticky, with a little bit of a bite, and flavorful. I couldn’t tell whether the taste I just had matched the flavor in my memory but for sure it had awakened it. I also pictured the many times Grandpa brought home a large burasi or mullet fish. My brother and I got excited because it meant we were going to eat some of the delicious roe. (Besides the roe, I loved getting to eat the belly and the eyeballs of course!)
The next four items on the menu were served at once on top of a seaweed covered log. Our favorite was the sea urchin. Served on a half shell were ribbons of black truffle on top of the sea urchin on top of some custard with the slightest hint of banana. The oyster leaf with mignonette served on half an oyster shell was intriguing because the leaf tasted exactly like an oyster. I joked to Keith that they probably ran out of real oysters. The yuba, beancurd skin, was spiral wrapped with shrimp then served on a very small vase, standing straight up with some sauce at the base. It was crunchy, a little moist from the shrimp, and a hint of fieriness from a dusting of togarashi (chili pepper). After that, a coffee siphon was brought over for brewing dashi. Later it was poured over the scallop acting like a square of agedashi (aged tofu) which was pleasant and lightly sweet with the addition of soy milk.
The woolly pig (a super cute and very tasty animal) along with fennel, orange, and baby squid was presented on a metal sculpture at the end of a skewer leaning at an angle. We were instructed to simply lean over and eat it off the structure. Finally, it was time to consume the red substance from our centerpiece. We were given two glass straws, six-eight inches long and half an inch in diameter. There were two holes on top of the ice to place the straws. We had to stand up and then lean over to drink it. I realized how funny we must have looked when the table of six behind Keith had to drink from their centerpieces. It was like watching well dressed cows drink from a trough. I was not too crazy about the flavor which was a mix of beet, hibiscus, and licorice juices with a hint of saltiness. Keith surprisingly enjoyed it considering that he hates beets and licorice. I’ve never consumed hibiscus. To me, the flower was something we muddled with water as a young girl. My playmates and I used the concoction to blow bubbles using the spine of a coconut leaf bent into a round shape at one end.
Menu Part I
The circles indicate the portion size and flavor. The sweeter course circles are toward the right and the more savory ones are to the left.
All right, I hope you’re you still with me. I feel as if I’m eating everything all over again as I do this write up. For the tenth course, a scup fish fried whole, dressed with grilled lemon slices on a plate colored with dark green mint and a pale yellow garlic sauce was brought to the table with a bowl of eggplant caponata (the best one I’ve ever tasted) and some panella, Sicilian chickpea cake. We were told that Chef Achatz had recently been to Sicily and learned to make this meal from an older Italian lady. It was a meal with history, having been passed from mother to daughter for many generations. Though traditional compared with the rest of the meal, it didn’t seem out of place. Just in case you were wondering, I did eat the eyeballs. I was quite full after this course but we had to keep going. I wondered what might have happened if I had ordered the last ten courses “to go”.
The hot potato, cold potato was served in a small wax bowl with a slanted spear on the side holding some cubed butter, hot potato ball, and truffle. Before eating, we pulled out the spear to let the rest of the ingredients join the cold, creamy soup. The wild mushrooms were served on a plate on top of a silk pillow which deflated slowly as we ate, infusing the air with the scent of juniper, meant to transport us mushroom hunting in a forest. The second centerpiece on the table we were told were pieces of Lady Gaga’s infamous meat dress, hanging between chopsticks like flags. They were used for the deconstructed goulash using the venison. The plate was the most elaborate of the night. The ingredients were brought on a rectangular wooden plate with flat glass on top. We had to lift the glass then set it aside. Inlaid in the middle of the wooden plate were two metal objects that we had to link together then covered with a piece of “Lady Gaga’s dress” (which it turned out was a piece of cabbage cooked in red wine) so that it looked like a bowl. We placed the ingredients in the bowl, first the venison, then some pickled vegetables, half a clove, bacon dressing, and Chechvar beer paste. We folded the leaf and ate it like a wrap.
The black truffle explosion was one of the most perfect bites we had that night. Like a soup dumpling, it was filled with a buttery broth, parmesan, romaine, then topped with a generous slice of black truffle. Tied for the best was an exquisite piece of foie gras, seared to a crisp on the outside and creamy like bone marrow on the inside. It was part of the squab course where about ten spoons containing food were placed in front of each of us directly on the table. A smoking metal vessel infused the air with lavender scent. We discarded the used spoons into the vessel as we ate. Somehow I cannot remember how the chestnut with veal heart and quince looked except for the delicious foamy soup that came with it but it sounds good doesn’t it? The next course came sitting in the middle of what looked like a metallic scalp massager. It was a combination of apple, onion, and brie, battered and deep fried skewered with a burning cinnamon stick on top.
The wine pairings were perfect. Each one accentuated and complimented certain flavors in the dishes. My favorite was the Lignier-Michelot. It seemed to intensify the flavor of the wild mushrooms and the earthiness carried into the venison course superbly. The sommelier was very informative about the origins of each wine but more importantly, he looked quite dapper in his black suit and his rainbow colored bow tie.
The winter course wins for the most amusing plate of the night. I did not think I had to declare that I had a mild allergic reaction to pine but there it was, a plateful of Christmas tree branches. On top was a mound of mint flavored snow on top of smooth rocks cooled in liquid nitrogen. There was a slice of persimmon, honey gel, and a marshmallow. At one corner of the plate was a cup of completely clear hot cocoa. It tasted exactly like hot cocoa and with the same mouth feel.
Menu Part II
Before the finale we had a palate cleanser. A glass tube, about six inches, contained juice, some mango, lemongrass, flowers, basil and finger lime. Each end was plugged with a citrus and cucumber jelly then we sucked in all the flavors at once. It was very refreshing. At the table next to us was a nice couple who were one course ahead of us. The last course was prepared by a chef at the table. I wished very hard that we might get Chef Achatz to make it for us. Then it happened, he appeared at the doorway of the dining room. I squealed! He moved toward us. The girl at the next table was as star-struck as I was. Chef Achatz started painting our table with some bright yellow butternut squash syrup, deep red lingonberry, and dark brown stout. He then scattered some yellow flower petals. After that he held a large dark chocolate globe then poured some liquid nitrogen in it then he dropped it on the table. The giant truffle shattered into a beautiful mess of caramels, cotton candy, something like dry ice cream, meringue cookies, and marshmallows.
What a spectacular way to start the year. I felt as if I had just seen and tasted food for the very first time. For awhile after Alinea, most of my meals sadly consisted of dry toast, boiled eggs, oranges, and sometimes a little whiskey. How could I possibly cook again after that? Well, I got tired of dry toast, boiled eggs, and oranges. Thanks to Chef Achatz for the reboot.
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