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I've been having a great time checking out Nashville's high end dining on the cheap thanks to Groupon. Have you tried it yet? Its awesome. I don't know why I ever hesitated.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Foodie Mecca: Expectations and Experience of Achatz's Alinea

When you live in the same city as what is arguably among the world's ten best restaurants, it is hard to ignore the pull. It is impossible to be a foodie in Chicago and not hear the tales, almost too fantastical to believe, of Grant Achatz and his mystical Alinea. It has all the stuff of legend. A chef who lost his sense of taste to tongue cancer, and then gained it back and so experiences taste in a new way. A chef who uses science to deconstruct food, play with textures, and tease the senses. Other foodies share in hushed whispers the tales of foams and gels and courses upon courses like something out of an Arabian tale.

Unfortunately, in a household living on two graduate student incomes, it was more a distant dream than plausible reality. That all changed suddenly when my husband's good friend (and well-off consultant) offered to take him out to Alinea as a present for completing his PhD. Combined with the knowledge that my husband's new job at Vanderbilt would substantially change our financial outlook, we decided to take the plunge. We booked a reservation.

The period between making the reservation and going (about two weeks) was an odd study in foodie anticipation. I am someone who has a very hard time with expectations. Whether food or movies or a book, if I have very high expectations for something I am almost inevitably disappointed. And so I worried: I had never had higher expectations for any restaurant in my life. Could Alinea really live up to all the hype? Moreso, I am not someone innately drawn in my food oddities. It was perfectly fine for him to experiment with foams and the like, but I wanted it all to be in the service of the food, not some gimmicky horse and pony show. Finally, I have a deep seated Midwestern sensibility about frugality. Expectations aside, it was hard for me to believe that any meal, however good, might actually be worth several hundred dollars, or a calculable and non-negligible percentage of my monthly income.

When the night came I found myself swept up in the eagerness of it all like a girl going on a first date. I was wearing my little red dress and heels (which I rarely wear). My husband had a shirt and jacket on (required for entrance). Our friend was babysitting our son, and then out we went, walking arm in arm towards a much anticipated foodie experience.

I worried in the car on the way down. I worried a bit more when I saw the unmarked exterior ("ugh" I think, "How annoyingly New York to have a building that is so hip you don't bother to put a sign up so people can find it."). And then the doors opened.

And from then on it was...bliss.

I almost don't want to recount it, because I don't want to elevate your experiences. Let me just say that if you count yourself a "foodie," if you are even somewhat tempted by the idea of eating at a world class restaurant, if spending more than $100 per person doesn't make you physically is totally and completely worth it. I would even say that it is probably worth the cost of dinner plus the airfare on Southwest to get you here. And if you want to read on, I'll go through the experience course by succulent course. So for those who don't want to know any more, don't click on the "read more" link.

As you walk up to the place, you are confronted by an austere grey brick exterior with no signage whatsoever. This gives off the subtly snobby impression that one must be "in the know" to even find the place. This is offset by a small placard marking off the valet parking for Alinea, and a doorman whose sole job seems to be to catch mystified patrons who come to the area of the address and can't find the place.

You enter down a hallways with scalloped wall to the right lit with fuscia lavender lighting and with each passing scallop the hallway narrows to near claustrophobic proportions that ends in a wavering mass of small glass bubbles just beyond the area where you spill out into the dining area through elevator style steel doors.

The dining area is mostly done in stylishly minimalist black and white, dominated by two large complimentary canvases, with touches of orchids in the same fuscia lavender tone as the hallway light. The room is exceedingly small, with perhaps five tables in the downstairs dining area. One wall has a long corridor cut out five feet by five feet filled with black stones and large flickering candles and ending in a mirror that gives one the oddest sense of watching oneself but seeing someone else.

The entire physical environment seems calculated to disrupt your expectations, to perhaps psychologically prepare you as a "tabla rasa" ready to receive utterly transformed food untarnished by your preconceptions.

We began with a course of roe. We were informed that the chef is obsessed with freshness and 'regular' caviar is often too old, so a very good chef friend of his prepares his own roe daily in Michigan. It was indeed a spectacular texture, crisp and fresh and exploding in delicate marine taste when it hit your mouth. Not wanting to detract from the joy of that fresh roe texture, the traditional accouterments were texturally transformed. Egg yolk was finely pureed into a thin yellow paste. The traditional cracker was transformed into a fine airy foam with an implausibly present buttery taste. Red onions and capers were magically transformed into a fine, clear jelly that was unmistakably full of those flavors without overwhelming the rest of the dish.

That was followed by a pork belly that might be described as the most elevated Asian lettuce wraps you'll ever see. It was served on truly flavorful iceberg lettuce. I loathe iceberg lettuce, and for the first time in the night (though not the last) I had the sensation of thinking "I have never truly tasted iceberg lettuce before this moment." The course began with a shot of Thai flavor distillation sets the palate. The elegantly constructed lettuce and pork belly is set off by pureed red pepper essence on the side. What must have been reduced coconut milk added a creamy and rich feel. This was also a dish with four or five accent flavors.

The white asparagus chilled soup was a strong contender for my favorite. It was served in a tall glass sleeve that showcased the contrasting colors. The waiter removed the sleeve and the soup contents spilled out into the bowl for closer inspection of all the elements. Stalks of white asparagus macerated in lemon. Squares of rich egg custard. Honey transformed into a firm and crumbly solid that gave a hit of the sweetness that made me want to croon it was so perfectly conceived. At the bottom, peppery arugula was transformed into something like a mousse, and medium sized pearls of tapioca rounded out the dish to make textural reference to the roe that came before it. I was so focused on scooping different taste combinations out of the bowl and savoring them all, that I fell silent through nearly the entire course. When I came to the end I felt an actual sense of loss that I would never taste that taste combination again.

My least favorite dish was a reconceived seafood chowder. The bits of seafood were small and I didn't love the texture, which was sometimes rubbery. It was supposed to be innovating with inclusion of sweet notes like lilac foam and pillows and honeydew. this was a big miss in my book, and my fellow diners agreed it was the weakest dish of the night. The highlight of this dish for me was, interestingly enough, the celery. It was like I had never tasted real celery before. It was divine. I saved some for my last bite of the dish.

The next two dishes were paired companion dishes. It was as though someone tasked two gifted chefs to conceive of dishes featuring crab and Asian-inspired flavors, and then they took it in two diverse directions.

The soft shell crab was prepared to perfection, lightly battered with cinnamon. the hoison was a bit heavy but one could minimalize it because it was swirled to the side. The backdrop for the whole dish was a thick carrot puree. Again, odds and ends of complementary flavors made the dish a true experience. I never knew sweet spring onion lightly grilled could be so divine. The freshest most flavorful heart of palm. Under the tower of soft shell crab was a small coin of duck confit that was seduction itself.

Followed by cold dish, dig to the bottom to get it all. Icy cold ginger granata that added a temperature element to an already cold dish, as well as a hit of heat from the pungent ginger. Tiny gummy cubes, more substantial than jelly, and implausibly sweet. My first impression was that they might be solidified eiswein, but turned out to be a fancy version of candied orange essence. succulent flavorful blue crab. More carrot puree. Lechee cream.

Hot potato cold potato is a signature dish the waiter assures us "will never go off the menu." It is served in a little wax bowl. A cold soup of potato and truffle floats serenely below a warm potato topped with a slice of dark truffle, suspended on a small skewer. You firmly withdraw the skewer, dropping the hot potato into the cold, and immediately take the soup down in one mouthful to appreciate the contrast in temperatures. Strangely savory.

Wagyu beef was weepingly tender. I may have actually moaned in delight (table etiquette be damned). The potato was smooth and subtly flavored on its own right, encased in breading that made it stand like a cube, and topped with chives. sea salt and pepper on the plate as well as powdered A-1. Interesting concept, but I thought the meat with the salt and pepper was the best. There was smoky grill scent that was poured into our sculptural centerpiece vase and streamed over the table like eager but ghostly dry ice might.

The move into dessert courses began with a trio. Bacon with butterscotch apple and thyme arrived suspended on wire swing. The thyme was a great note in this dish and was another theme that echoed through the evening. Very thinly dried. It was a nice taste experience, but won't be the most memorable dessert by far.

The second element was described to us as "Bubble gum." It comes in three gelatinous layers in a glass cigar tube that you suck out making the sound of a digereedo, which felt fun and somewhat mischievous in such a fine restaurant. We all laughed a bit doing it. It tasted unmistakably like bubble gum while simultaneously being the best tasting bubble gum you could imagine. The finish has fascinating notes of pepper that compliment the hibiscus and creme fraiche.

The third element reinforced the textural theme begun with the roe, and carried through with the tapioca pearls. A tall oval shot glass contained watermelon liquid and a ball that we were told was made somehow of lime, with floral essence inside. A thin flower petal topped it off. As with the glass cigar, we were instructed to open our mouth wide and take it all in one mouthful. While I can appreciate how this approach controls the mixture of tastes in the experience, I found myself vaguely resentful of this "one mouthful" mandate. The tastes were so delightful and so ephemeral, that I really wanted to be able to slowly savor them all. Though it was fun to suck the "gum" combination out of the beautiful glass cigar, I felt robbed of the experience of slowly enjoying the elements, both separately and together.

The second dessert was by far my favorite. First the wait staff brought out lavender pillows. Not the color lavender, but white linen pillows, the kind you might put on your couch, that were filled with lavender scented air. When the dessert dish was placed on them, the pressure from its weight forced out the lavender air. Contrary to my previous expectations, this was not gimmicky, rather it was genuinely the perfect note to harmonize the other taste elements of the dish. I was disappointed that I ate too slowly and ran out of lavender air before I finished. The dish featured lavendar cotton candy. A freeze dried rhubarb square and rhubarb and onion ice cream, goat cheese cheesecake. Bits of sweet savory candied onion. Other bits of flavor notes strewn about like pink and white girly decor. A thin crisp fruity pane veined throughout, likely also rhubarb. paired with a divine dessert wine that was the perfect element.

The chocolate dessert, was interesting but not the heavenly symphony of unexpected perfection that some of the other dishes were. Chocolate ice cream paired with tobacco custard, a maple consume in a little gelatin bubble like a gorgeous amber stone shimmering. Blueberry heated down to its essence and concentrated and then reformed into tapioca like pearls that at first appeared like fresh blueberries, some crisp deconstructed crust elements as well as a smattering of malt. Set off by the fantastic note of thyme that was just right with the blueberries. The tobacco makes your tongue tingle.

The final course (sniff), was sweet potato and bourbon cube encased in cinnamon brown sugar and served on a long stick of smoldering cinnamon that fills the air with its outdoorsy scent.

I lived in the moment throughout the meal but somewhere in the middle realized that I would be sad when it was over. As soon as it was done, I plotted to return. It was inconceivable that I could experience that once and never again. The idea of it was vaguely cruel.

You can have wine poured by the ounce, so you don't have to do the full wine pairing. The wine pairing adds quite a bit to the bill. I believe the base food price for the 12 courses is $140, and adding the full wine pairing to it nearly doubles the cost. I did the equivalent of one glass of wine spread through four different tastes. The bill for me with my four tastes of wine came to $212, with tip got out for less than $250. That means if you can manage to put aside $20 per month, you could go once a year.

And it was totally completely worth every penny.


Gini+Eric said...

Wow! I'm at a loss for words. Thanks for sharing this incredible experience!

Anonymous said...

How was the service?

Anonymous said...

How was the wine?

Erin said...

Gini&Eric: Glad to share! Now start saving those pennies in the piggy bank!

Anonymous: The service was, for the most part, excellent.

I only sampled four of the wines. For three of them I thought they were ideally suited to the dish and did indeed elevate the experience of it. I thought the wine that was paired with the chilled crab dish was a bit too heavy handed for that dish.

My only slight negative was that I thought the sommelier was a little too flip. He was a young white guy with a hipster afro about five inches tall, which in itself is perfectly fine. But it also reflected his vernacular. While it was clear he was deeply engaged in the wine world, I found it dissatisfying that ultimately the adjective he used to describe each and every wine was "cool" or "really cool," which is an exceedingly vapid term. Mostly the descriptions of the wines focused on how the winery was doing something unusual in the production, either by grape choice, or by focusing quality production on that particular grape. This background was interesting. I could understand the absence of any reference to tasting notes and why it was paired with the dish if it was a statement about the autonomy of the wine taster, being empowered to decide for oneself etc. But finishing each and every wine intro with "he's just doing really cool things" or "its just a really cool wine" was a turnoff.

foodcreate said...

How did you feel about the Service?

Thanks for the info:)

Have a wonderful Day ~

Jackie at said...

It seemed like a lot of fun. Worth every penny. Gotta start saving. I dream of going to Thomas Keller's restaurant, "French laundry". Our close friends went an said the service and food were divine, a little bit like what you experienced. I'm very intrigued by the tobacco custard in the chocolate ice cream. How did it taste like? seriously tobacco?

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