Alinea – Controlled Chaos

(Disclaimer: If you’re going to dine at Alinea before the end of Summer 09, you probably shouldn’t read this as it will ruin the fun of the experience since not knowing what you’ll be served is one of the delights)

Molecular gastronomy. The mere sound of it conjures up images of Jekyll and Frankenstein running about with mystery goo or astronauts squeezing meatloaf out of a toothpaste tube, complete with mist from a fog machine and disco lights.  But Grant Achatz’ reputation precedes him and having read some of his articles in the Atlantic, I was convinced that even if he was a mad scientist running about, he knew how to make good food.

Everything about Alinea is designed to keep you in suspense and surprise you, like a carnival fun house for gastronomes.  The anticipation builds as soon as you step through the door, not the least because of its reputation but also because of the mystery of entrance, as if you’re being inducted into some secret society. The building is nondescript. We would have missed it if not for the valet sign out front. Indeed, that was the only sign acknowledging our destination.  You walk inside into a dark hallway, save for a glow of purple emanating from a wall in the back. The automatic reaction is to walk towards that one source of light only to realize that it’s a dead end.  Just when confusion sets it, two dark doors to the side open automatically, leading us into the restaurant and into the light.

The first thing that caught my attention was the kitchen to the right of us. Quiet yet frenzied, everyone was performing their duties wordlessly, as if dancing a well rehearsed ballet. The only sound was the symphony of dishes and pots being placed about.

There was no menu, we were informed as we sat down.  At Alinea, they like everything to be unexpected and to pique your curiosity.  While we waited for our first course, other diners were being served with platings like pillows and apparatuses that looked they belonged in the science lab or the tower of London.  All this added to our mounting excitement and suspense. Just what were we in for?

The first dish looked innocent enough and was as easily identifiable in appearance as it was incredible in taste. Fresh, bright, round fish roes, with each kernel tasting distinctly of a saline ocean, coupled with creme fraiche, lemon for acidity, and buttered brioche foam to round out the oil of the roe.  I had a hard time resisting the urge to lick my plate and were I in the private confines of my own home, I would have abandoned my table manners.

Roes - traditional garnishes

Roes - traditional garnishes

Our appetites whetted, the next course was pork belly. We prepped our gullet by first downing a shot of thai distillation that had flavors of lime, fish sauce, and I think lemon grass. Normally, even I would cringe at drinking fish sauce but it was only a small component of this refresher. I mostly tasted the lime and the fish sauce just rounded out the flavors. Once that was downed, I proceeded to attack the pork belly. It was stacked onto rounds of crisp iceberg lettuce, and oozed with chunks of banana and cucumber. I dipped my fork often into the homemade sriracha sauce to bring up the heat.

Pork Belly

Pork Belly

Oxalis with juniper, gin, sugar, and rounded out with lime was a mere spoonful, kind of like an earthy mojito. The sour and grassy flavor of the oxalis provided food for thought as I chewed on my cud contemplating the familiar flavors of the first two dishes.

Oxalis

Oxalis

Then the funky stuff started. A warm dish featured soft shell crab sitting atop duck confit, with a thick carrot puree of some sort and dollops of spiced prune that, we were told, meant to imitate hoisin sauce (tasted more like plum sauce). This was probably my least favorite dish. I liked the texture of the deep fried crab(who doesn’t like crab?) but the spiced prune added to the already sweet carrot and ended up being too sticky sweet for my taste.  The plating was also not to my taste as it seemed chaotic, not in a good way but rather contrived. Plus, I suspect my ambivalence towards this dish also stems from my tendency to prefer hoisin sauce as an accompaniment to meat, and rarely seafood. I did absolutely love the sesame rock on the side, made with powdered sesame oil, black sesame seeds, and crisp peas. It crumbled in my mouth and melted into sesame goodness. It would go great with some beer.

Soft Shell Crab

Soft Shell Crab

To contrast the hot dish, they presented the same components in the next dish but with a cooler temperature. Chunks of blue crab were tucked into a cup containing ginger ice, cinnamon foam, lychee gelatin, carrot, and duck.  Random ingredients it seemed, but this worked great together.  The blue crab chunks and ginger ice provided the texture to an otherwise soft mouthful. Perhaps it was the hot weather outside but I enjoyed the cool nonchalance of this dish.

Blue Crab

Blue Crab

Black truffle explosion. Another spoonful presented infront of us, piquing curiousity. The filling of the ravioli was liquid and it was topped with a shaving of truffle, parmesan cheese, and braised romaine. The whole thing burst in our mouths in a delicious, flavorful bite and our tongues were coated with the oils.

Black Truffle Explosion

Black Truffle Explosion

A classic dish is next. I’m not qualified to go into this tribute to Esscofier of Pigeonneau a la Saint Clair. Let me just say that the stock was rich, the squab cooked perfectly, and the crust was perfect. My favorite part, oddly enough, was the mushroom as it was plump and juicy.  This was one of my favorites in terms of presentation and outright deliciousness. Often during the course of the meal, I was so focused on being amazed, transfixed, or confused by the different techniques or the oddball combination of flavors and textures that it was wonderful to have something clearly identifiable.

Pigeonneau a la Saint-Clair

Pigeonneau a la Saint-Clair

The plating went from conventional to positively clinical. This course was a palate cleanser. A frozen disc of mustard, passionfruit, and allspice.

Mustard

Mustard

The next two courses were served together. Without the food, the serving apparatus might strike one as a computer part or torture device. For within its metal clutches was a sweet potato tempura impaled upon a cinnamon stick. Inside the sweet potato ball was a molten shot of bourbon. The end of the cinamon stick was lit on one end like incense and the scent filled the room. On another dubious device, hanging by being its proverbial fingernails was a crisp piece of bacon wrapped by apple leather. I didn’t really understand the point of the plating unless it’s meant to disconcert us. But I discarded any notion of trying to understand the madness and just enjoyed the taste, which was a much easier undertaking.

Sweet Potato

Sweet Potato


Bacon with Apple Leather

Bacon with Apple Leather

Following the metal devices was one of my (many) favorite dishes. Throughout the meal, there was minimal instruction except when it was needed, which was nice.  I don’t want to be told how to eat each and every single time when I have enough trouble trying to keep up with conventional table etiquette.  My previous experience with utensils should be enough for me to partake of any meal. This dish had a particular construction that required an instructive approach.  A hot potato was topped with a shaving of black truffle skewered through a paraffin wax bowl, and suspended over a cold soup that tasted like cream of mushroom. The objective was to tug the toothpick through the bowl and release the potato into the soup and quickly devour it in one mouthful. It was warm, creamy, rich, and buttery at the same time.

Hot Potato Cold Potato

Hot Potato Cold Potato

Yuba was name of the next dish.  Yuba is derived from the film that forms over a pot of boiling soy milk and is more familiar to me as dim sum fare. Here, it was rolled into a stick and deep fried until stiff and crispy.  Entwined around the crispy soy skin was a cooked gulf shrimp and the entire thing was rolled around in a sesame and pepper mixture for flavor and eaten with a dip made from miso. There must have kind of szechuan pepper in the spice mixture because I felt my mouth tingle with numbness for a short while afterwards.

Yuba

Yuba

By this time, I was convinced that the rest of the meal would be painful, only because I felt so full, I didn’t know how I would suffer another bite. Thankfully, they presented us with a cold white asparagus soup along the lines of “he must be crazy but he’s a frickin’ genius”. A puree of sweet white asparagus contrasted well with the bitterness of a green layer of pureed arugula. Added into this mix was pickled white asparagus chunks, some lightly sweet creamy cubes that tasted of creme anglaise, and a refreshing frozen white pepper foam.  The soup conjured up familiar flavors in unfamiliar combinations, so much so, that I was hard pressed to identify the taste even though the answer sat on the tip of my tongue, waiting to be extricated.  When the visual cues became overwhelming, it was best to close our eyes like Harley’s bf did with every bite (of every dish), to better concentrate on the flavor.  Miraculously this soup created a second compartment in my belly and I was ready for more.

White Asparagus soup

White Asparagus soup

Foie Gras came with explicit instructions.  It was resting precariously on a fork, which in turn was perched on a palm sized bowl filled with peach juice and shiso foam. The foie itself was seasoned with fennel and shiso as well. We were to eat the foie and then drink the juice. The foie was tender and yielding, made slightly edgier by the shiso but mellowed by the peach juice. I savored the taste of it swished against the inside of my cheek. Side note: I can’t wait for Dan Barber’s sustainable foie gras to grace his tables.

Foie Gras

Foie Gras

This was a crazy flavor combination if I could have ever imagined one. Scallop and shellfish in a marshmallowy concoction of kudzu perfumed with lilac.  Also floating in this little aquarium was tiny rounds of honeydew, slices of celery, and a gelée of horseradish. Lilac and shellfish? I never would have thought that the two would go together but it did and was a hot, crazy, delicious mess. The sweetness of the scallops were enhanced by the perfume of lilac (not overwhelming enough to scare away manly men) and it harmoniously melded the flavors of earth and sea better than any traditional surf and turf dish.

Lilac infused Kudzu with shellfish

Lilac infused Kudzu with shellfish

The final savory dish was a memorable one. A cube of potato flavored (I say this because it was made from a modified food starch, the potato quotient is highly questionable) thing covered in potato chips sat along side a perfectly cooked piece of wagyu beef.  The beef was so tender it melted in my mouth. Oh man, I would love a massage just about now.  And the pretend potato had a lovely consistency somewhere between a custard and mashed potatoes. On top of that, they gave us a packet of powdered A-1 sauce made from scratch. Perfect.  As we dove into the dish, they placed liquid into a vase that had been filled with either liquid nitrogen or dry ice along with herbs like rosemary, enveloping our table with scented fog to accompany our meal.

Wagyu Beef

Wagyu Beef

As a refresher before dessert, we were presented with some white powder encased in small clear pouches made of rice paper.  The connotation was clear, only because I’ve watched enough tv shows to know. I half expected them to instruct us to open it up and snort the thing and such a request wouldn’t have surprised me. However, we were adviced to ingest it orally. Lemon Soda it was called and tasted like Sprite with the textural effect of pop rocks.

Lemon Soda

Lemon Soda

My favorite dessert course came next.  A shot of watermelon juice encased in a cocoa butter shell and nestled in a puree of nasturtium, giving it a grassy flavor. The waiter said that the watermelon is first frozen before being encased in cocoa butter so when it fell into you mouth, your teeth would break the shell and the juice would explode in your mouth.  Someone at Alinea is very much into having things explode in your mouth. I’m tempted to rename the post title to Alinea – Oral fixation.

Watermelon in Nasturtium

Watermelon in Nasturtium

A clinical looking dessert was presented in a clear tube filled with hibiscus jelly, vanilla creme fraiche, and bubble gum flavored tapioca balls, to be sucked down like a straw. Normally, I’m not a fan of bubble gum flavored anything but when dragged through the vanilla creme fraiche, it took on a pleasantly mild taste. We asked how they made the bubble gum flavor and it turns out that they sous-vide real bubble gum and then strain the results to achieve only the bubble gum flavor, discarding the sticky gum. Thank goodness, otherwise that stuff would have stayed in my stomach for seven years.

Bubblegum

Bubblegum

We were also given a sugary transparency of raspberry and yogurt, in an electric red color. It tasted like a robust jolly rancher.

Transparency of Rasberry

Transparency of Rasberry

The next course was served with impeccable bedside manners. Linen pillows filled with lavender air was the charger on top of which was placed a dish of rhubarb sorbet, cheesecake from goats milk, and onion (yes!). As we ate the dish, the lavender air dispersed from the pillows and all of our senses were engulfed in the sweet perfume. There was also a tuft of cotton candy which made me happy because it was like being a kid at the fair again. The goat’s milk cheesecake was delicious and the rhubarb sorbet was actually enhanced by the taste of onion. Oddly enough.

Rhubarb and Lavender Air

Rhubarb and Lavender Air

Another great dessert was a chocolate concoction with malt ice cream, blueberries (real and fake) and a not too sweet maple gel (that again, explodes in your mouth).  The dish supposedly has overtones of tobacco but I did not notice.  I guess one would really need a cigarette after all that action.

Chocolate and Blueberry

Chocolate and Blueberry

I would have been happy if the prior dish was the finale. As it turns out, the last bite was a lollipop of puréed poundcake with strawberry impaled by a stick of vanilla, to be dipped in almond powder. This was one of thoses things I just didn’t get. I didn’t feel that the vanilla or almond powder added any flavor to it.  Plus the whole thing was too thick and gooey, not that last thing I wanted resting in my mouth.

Poundcake

Poundcake

Before we left, they let us observe the kitchen for a few minutes while we shrank inconspicuously into a corner to avoid disrupting the culinary ballet. I remarked to the server that the kitchen was rather quiet and he mentioned that they don’t have a electronic ticker and that every order is verbally annouced so quietude is necessary.  Perhaps Thomas Keller’s influence is at play here as the TFL kitchen is equally serene in sound. As we were standing there, Chef Achatz silently walked through the kitchen and you could feel the force of his Yoda-like presence as everyone instinctively parted to make way.  I was told that the man never yells unless someone is not doing their job properly. Even though he has a slight build and a outwardly quiet manner, I would much rather face down a rabid dog Gordon Ramsay than a ninja assasin Grant Achatz.

the kitchen

the kitchen

Overall, dinner at Alinea was a great experience, touching on all five senses as well as hitting the intellectual aspects of dining.  Many of the flavor and texture combinations seemed like they were tossed haphazardly together but upon tasting a bite, it was clear that the act was deliberate and controlled.  The meal was part theater, part science lab, wholly unapologetic, and altogether astounding.

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