When I was at BlogHer Chicago in 2009, I had the privilege of eating dinner at Grant Achatz’s restaurant, Alinea (voted consistently one of the best restaurants in the US). Two years later, it’s still a meal I think about, a lot.
Of course, I think about the absolutely fun time I had with Elise of Simply Recipes, Kathy of Panini Happy, Jaden of Steamy Kitchen and Deb of Lunch in a Box – their company made every course fun and we spent a lot of the time laughing.
But I remember the food, too. As Jaden said, it was a “Splurge of a Lifetime.” Definitely check out her pictures which are much better than mine – I left the DSLR at home for once, so I included some pics from my point-and-shoot below and an epic video of Grant making us dessert. Click through to see each photo bigger on Flickr.
I also reflected that I don’t want to eat like that often. Grant Achatz, the creator and chef, calls his type of dining “an emotional experience” and compares it to going to the theater or listening to a symphony.
I have to agree.
But it’s also a strong reminder that I rarely want to eat like that, so I can savor the times that I do, and continue to focus on how I want to approach food: real, simple, healthy.
Molecular gastronomy is at the opposite end of the spectrum of how I like to cook (with the exception of Parisien macarons and a few other sweets that definitely take some intricate steps), and it’s definitely the opposite of Italian food: simple, natural, and unpretentious. For fun, ask both an Italian and a French what they think of each others’ cuisine and sit back and be entertained (bonus points for doing it with them in the same room).
Much like being the guest at a very elaborate wedding, I was very pleased to be there but very glad that I wasn’t responsible for creating those dishes. And further confirmation I don’t want to go into the restaurant business. At least not doing that. (Hats off to those who actually attempted the Alinea at home cookbook)
And I admire people that put such passion and creativity into cooking. Grant Achatz’s memoir “Life on the Line” came out in March and I really enjoyed listening to his recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air – if you didn’t know, he was diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2007 and lost his sense of taste for quite some time.
One of the things he said about the small portions they serve really resonated with me, especially since you know I’m eating better all around. His courses are often just one bite, sometimes a handful of bites. His reasoning?
“..by your fifth bite, you’re done with [the thing you're eating]. You know what it’s going to taste like, the actual flavor starts to deaden on the palate. If we were to make you take 10 more bites, by the time you got to bite 15, [it's] just not that compelling anymore.”
I think this is absolutely true and something to remember especially with our indulgences, which we should still have – complete deprivation is not the answer (as long as it’s not making you ill in some way). We probably only need a few bites to really enjoy it, and it’s a great feeling to stop before you get palate fatigue. Moderation, and keep your palate fresh.
I won’t walk you through the entire menu (and I sheepishly can’t remember all the ingredients, there were so many) but here are a few highlights. Where I could remember I included the course name in quotes and bolded.
The first course “Roe” was obviously several types of roe – fish eggs. I admit my stomach dropped into my shoes as I’m not a big fan (though I’ve eaten roe) and I didn’t want to admit having problems already at the first course. But down it went, and it was helped by the wine pairing served with the course.
Luckily for me, everything only got better from there.
I loved the presentation of “Pork Belly” but couldn’t describe the taste after so long.
“Lilac,” “Crab,” and “Hot Potato” were also nice but didn’t leave a lasting flavor or emotional impression.
“Wagyu Beef” was one of my favorites, a sort of deconstructed barbecue: pieces of wagyu beef, a fried potato concoction, and powdered “A-1 steak sauce.”
The piece de resistance, a stone vase that had been sitting in the middle of our table until this course, and when water was added, barbecue/smoke-scented smoke came out from the dry ice within.
I loved the concept of this course, “Tomato“, a summer garden filled with many vegetarian delights – the Parmesan snow in the lower right was cold and melted in your mouth…
…but what affected me the most was the bowls of basil and tomato branches and the dirt they were sticking out of. That really made me feel like I was in a garden (and I love smelling tomato branches when I buy them from the market).
“Black Truffle” with one of the ingredients listed as “explosion” is one of the most known dishes (or perhaps at the time). Notice that the spoon is resting on a bottomless plate – you had to put the entire thing in your mouth, close your lips, and bite down to get the hot broth explosion which was as good as we’d hoped.
One of my favorites which I didn’t expect it to be – “Pigeonneau” which was, you guessed it, squab (young pigeons raised to be eaten). I’ve had pigeon before – in Tuscany it was cooked in a cast iron pan and I kept reaching for the brown sticky leftovers – but it reminded me how much I liked it. The meat was very tender and the rest of the pastry had little surprises like the onion you see there (love onions).
Two of my favorite courses served together: “Bacon” which wasn’t, on a swing, and “Sweet Potato” stuck on smoldering cinnamon sticks that smelled delicious!
We had a lot of fun with these dessert “cigars” called “Bubble Gum” and rocking our raspberry “Transparency” shards in their appointed rockers, as well as the cool “Watermelon” ball looking thing in a glass.
“Mustard” has been forgotten…
…but “Rhubarb” is notable because the plates were set on pillows filled with lavender-scented air that slowly deflated as you ate (Grant talks about this in his NPR interview).
The “Chocolate” dessert course was my favorite, of course. Where else can you get a chef like Grant Achatz to cover your table in silicone and spend several minutes creating the dessert directly in front of you? Thyme, tobacco, blueberry, maple, and freeze-dried chocolate mousse were the flavors in this dessert and we had a lot of fun eating it, but perhaps more fun watching it get made – art in progress!
All the ingredients ready to be used in our “Chocolate” dessert.
And we got to talk to him the entire time. If you pay close attention, he explains it all as he’s doing it and answers some of our questions very patiently. (Click through to see the video below on my site or YouTube]
I told him thanks in my own way.
We got Grant to sign our menus which have become a fun keepsake for that night.
Grant explaining to us how a masterpiece works
The lovely ladies: Elise from Simply Recipes, Kathy from Panini Kathy
Biggie from Lunch in a Box, and Jaden from Steamy Kitchen
I’ll be speaking at BlogHer 2011 in August in San Diego, so hopefully I’ll get to see these ladies again, and we can have some more emotional experiences together in the form of food :)
What about you? Have you eaten at Alinea, or somewhere similar, and do you dream of this type of dining experience?