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Saturday, 20 November 2010

Alinea - part two

Okay, I guess I've kept you all waiting long enough! It’s been staggering the amount of you who read, acknowledged and praised part one, to those people- a massive thank you!

I believe we left off wondering about the items deposited on my table at the start of the experience (calling it a meal seems an injustice, bearing in mind the technical wizardry, visual presentation and finesse on display).
The first of the two items (rosemary and red 'sheet' were placed on my table with the instruction to 'forget about them'), was what I discovered was a sheet of tomato and black garlic pasta, for the dish 'short rib, olive, red wine, blackberry'. In my haste to create (!) this dish and eat it, I neglected to take a photo, but all I can say is it was phenomenal. The dish is brought to you on a physical puzzle of a plate with a glass square on it, on top of which are the flavour components of this dish, in little piles. After lifting the glass plate, I had a wooden frame which housed two metal pieces, which fitted together and created a stand on which my waiter carefully draped the red pasta sheet. While he did this, another waiter - another charming young lady with red hair who has worked at Alinea for over four years - brought me a small pan with the hot, braised pieces of short rib. Together they explained that the dish was 'similar to a fajita, in as much as you add all the ingredients to your own taste, then roll it up and eat it from your hands.'
So, I travelled four thousand miles, to (what I admit we didn't know was) a three Michelin-starred restaurant, and had to roll a 'fajita' myself, at the table, and eat with my fingers!
Seriously, this was another sensational dish, made just about as close to perfection as you will find, by myself. The flavourings provided for assembling the dish were-smoked sea salt, fresh blackberries, charred onion, black garlic, sweet potato, Nicoise olives, sour cherry, diced tomato in vinaigrette, diced salsify and a tobacco jelly. Once encased, in the by-now perfectly room temperature paste, the hot rib and other flavours balanced temperature, taste and texture amazingly. The interaction of having to make it yourself is part of the humorous element which takes chef Achatz's food to a new dimension.
Next up: a classic Achatz signature dish-'hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter'. Let’s say now, it’s a classic for a reason- it’s another assault on multiple senses at once. Each service, the chef responsible for the dish makes hundreds of little wax bowls approximately three inches in diameter. For serving, he has to pierce the side of the bowls with a steel pin, on which is placed a tiny chunk of Parmesan, a tiny cube of butter, a chive baton, and finally a hot ball of potato topped with a slice of black truffle. The wax bowl is filled with chilled potato soup and brought to the table. 'This is the only time sensitive dish, so be quick' says a waiter as I hurriedly try and take my photo. I ignore him briefly, but the scent of truffle soon made me agree with him and I took the pin out, dropping the chunks, ball and baton into the chilled soup and then threw it back 'like an oyster', as I was told to do.
Truffle aroma, buttery potato richness and the alliums flavouring of the chive, as well as the temperature differences combine to please several taste buds and senses at once, and the slightly unusual act of eating without cutlery making me feel childlike, as though I was doing something wrong, but how can it be wrong when it tastes this good?
In the Alinea book, Achatz asks the question whether keeping some dishes on the menu is stifling creativity or honouring it. I for one, am extremely glad he feels confident in the creativity of himself and his team that he can keep a few signatures around to put on the menu as he feels the need - if you buy a ticket to go and see a gig, you expect to hear the hits, as well as the new stuff.
To follow on from a modern day Alinea-Achatz classic, we travelled back to the nineteenth century to sample an Escoffier classic. For anyone who doesn't know, Escoffier was a French chef accredited with
formalising the recipe book, and assembling one of the most comprehensive repertoires of any chef then or since. As an hommage to Escoffier, I was served one of Escoffier's creations- 'pigeonneau a la saint-Clair'. This was visually different from the rest of my experience that night, as it resembled the kind of dish we used to put out when I was receiving my formal training as a young chef in the old school, classical restaurants I started in. That's not to say it was old hat or done with any less precision or technique than everything else I ate- far from it, it was just an unusual brief departure. An early glimpse perhaps of what chef Achatz is hoping to recreate with Next- his soon to open time period themed restaurant in Chicago.
Either way, it was great, a very short in texture butter pastry case, containing squab pigeon breast, foie gras parfait, mashed potato, truffle, and a little squab jus: Very rich flavours which all held their own, and a multitude of textures again. How does he do it? From every angle, this meal has been perfect so far, in taste; presentation; experience and knowledge - the waiting staff is phenomenal - and wine pairings. I wrote in my notebook at this time - 'how can food get any better?’
Then it did.

As though my night up to then had been wasted, the next course was one of two highlights (the other is being reserved for a final Alinea post). And it’s another signature dish from chef Achatz - 'black truffle explosion': a dish of dazzling simplicity- or so it looks, but with its simplistic look comes what must be a harrowingly difficult task for the chef on this dish each night. A black truffle stock is jellied, then enrobed in a smooth silky pasta sheet, which literally explodes in your mouth releasing the most pungent, sweet and earthy aroma and taste of truffle. In his book, Achatz reveals the torture of the young chefs starting to make it for the first time-the pasta has to be knead for fifteen minutes or it will tear, and the kitchen mustn't be too humid or the jellied stock melts and makes the pasta break- so getting this dish right time and time again is impressive to say the least. What is more impressive is the way that after the 'explosion' in your mouth, you feel as though you will have that taste with you for the next week, but it slowly dissipates and you are left clean-mouthed and truffle free.

I could write superlatives all day about this dish, it comes presented on what the waiter said is known as the anti-spoon, a spoon rested on a circular piece of china, in such a way that it just floats above the table. there is a tiny piece of very mature Parmesan and some crisp romaine lettuce on top, there is no smell of truffle until you have the entire thing in your mouth - 'eat it in one, and don't open your mouth while you eat it, it really does explode!' were my words of advice on this occasion, and I'm glad I heeded the advice. As you pop the spoon in your mouth, close and bite, there is a real sensation that there was more liquid inside the pasta than seems possible- the 'Tardis' effect again!

Once again, I was too entranced in the next dish to take a photo, but 'lamb, red cabbage, mastic' involved the other table-guest of the night: the rosemary stalk. Three perfectly cooked pieces of lamb fillet (cooked in a water-bath, then transferred), were sat on a 'sizzle platter' of bespoke design, each individually garnished with a little mastic cream- think of the aroma of a pine forest- pickled sun choke/Jerusalem artichoke, and the eponymous red cabbage. As the very hot dish was placed on my table, the lovely redheaded waitress rolled the rosemary in her hand a second, and then placed it in a small hole at the one end of the dish. Instantly the smell of rosemary was all around me. As I ate (with chopsticks for this course only), each lamb garnish activated different taste sensations for me - the mastic was distinctly umami; the artichoke had elements of salt and sour; and the cabbage was both sweet and salty. All this with the perfume from my warm herbal dining companion was great stuff, and the course I would most liked to have been bigger. (I would gladly have had seconds of everything, if not thirds too, but this deserved more of a large part in this production.)
As I waved farewell to the friend I had experienced fifteen courses with up to then, I received three courses at once again. To keep from confusing myself and you, I will call them by single ingredient names- pineapple was one, bacon was two and three was popcorn. Of course they all go together and of course they all taste amazing, but who knew how good they could be?
The pineapple transparency was a crisp sheet of incredibly tasty pineapple which was sprinkled with powdered Virginian ham. The bacon was apple-wood smoked bacon, dipped in syrup and hung to dry on another bespoke piece of table wear which resembled a bow/washing line: The bacon hanging on the thinnest of wires like a crisp bed sheet. The popcorn, my word the popcorn, came in liquefied form, in a glass tumbler, with a light foam texture and the most brilliant impression of a bag of buttered toffee popcorn I have ever drunk! I had them in the order I just described, and they were perfect, logical steps to bridge the gap between savoury courses and sweet. Sat Bains calls it the 'crossover' on his menu, like an introduction of the two, where you take a few strides with a foot in each camp before launching into the homeward steps of the desserts.
My first 'proper' dessert was (yet) another multi sense dish, entitled 'earl grey'. The dish itself arrives on a large bowl/plate with the flavour components of Earl Grey tea broken down into a group of distinct individual flavours: citrus, bergamot, pine nut, apple vanilla and milk. Probably more, but I was getting tired!
As well as small pearls of lemon curd, dried milk noodles (!) and the orange scented cream were several herbal flavourings presented as powders and soils. To those of you who know me, it’s no surprise this dish grabbed me. I'm sure- I enjoy Earl Grey, and this was like a bite of tea, which just like Earl Grey was slightly different with each taste: Impressive and made more so by the additional presentation tool. Go on guess.....
This course took two waiters to bring to me, one for the plate, and one for the warm pillow filled with earl grey scented air, which was slowly forced from the tiny holes in it, again creating a multi-sensual experience, as the weight of the plate pushed down: An incredible extra dimension to the whole dish, which would have been great without it. With the pillow, well, I'm all out of adjectives. I have to repeat- fun, tasty, sublime, brilliant, and incredible.
At this stage I was told I had two courses to go, and immediately was filled with the sad realization that I wasn't going to be at my table forever, constantly being fed morsels of increasing brilliance, and that in fact, this perfect opera was nearing its closing bars. As if sensing my sadness, the waiter brought me the most fun dish of the night- 'bubblegum, hibiscus, long pepper, crème
fraiche. If I told you that this dish was jellied hibiscus and long-pepper jelly would you think it was fun? Maybe. What about if I mentioned that the crème fraiche was flavoured with vanilla and lemon? Fun? Probably not. Okay, how about the news that the bubblegum was a flavoured stock which tapioca was cooked in? Is that your idea of fun? Probably more fun than the rest, but let’s add all the fun and tell you that these ingredients came in the order I just described, but I had to slurp them out of a long glass pipe, like a test tube with no bottom, making a loud slurping noise as I did so? There's your fun element right there. The bizarre thing is, I hadn't seen anyone else have it that night, but I know they did because they were all given the same menu as me at the end of our respective meals. I guess I was so engrossed in other courses, I missed it all. It seemed so loud to me as I sucked on the pipe- 'like a cigar is best' said the cheerful redhead- that I was sure I would have recalled! It was great tasting, as well as fun, with the flavours of bubblegum being hibiscus, pepper and vanilla, they all revealed themselves in turn, with the tapioca giving a chewy, gum texture which made me think of the 'hubba bubba' years of my childhood. Amazing.

That, my friends, is where I must leave you hanging again. There was one more course, and what a course and what a presentation, but that needs a bit of technical jiggery-pokery on my part, to edit and upload a video.
Yeah I know who reviews a restaurant by video. Well, I did, and trust me, it’s worth the wait!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Alinea - part one.

Firstly, I would like to say well done to Grant Achatz and the entire team at Alinea on the three michelin stars awarded to them in the new first edition of the guide in chicago.

I consider myself reasonably lucky in life. I enjoy my job, get on with my wonderful family and have a great network of friends. my luck often extends to having unexpected bonuses when on an evening out, such as meeting one of the welsh rugby team when I was on a train from London to Cardiff a few nights ago, or the times I met several of my favourite singers including Lily Allen in a record shop; Kate Nash outside a pub in Bristol and the Arctic Monkeys-all of them outside their after-show party straight after watching their gig at the London Astoria. (We later gate-crashed that party-but that's another story for another day)
My luck also has been a factor several of my wonderful dining experiences around the world, such as Brett from the ledbury-see my post here- us an amazing tasting menu for my second visit to his fantastic restaurant, or Wylie Dufresne from wd-50 in New York spending time explaining the set up in his kitchen, and getting his best waiter to look after us all night, or even the time my sister, completely by accident, came across Jose Andres's miniBar concept restaurant in DC, where we had a 26 course extravaganza in February this year.
all that luck was waiting to turn on me, or so I thought, as in the weeks prior to my October trip to the U.S. a few things were starting to indicate I wasn’t meant to reach my target, my Mecca of culinary experimentation- Alinea in Chicago.

Firstly, I had a couple of meals booked for the week before I flew had to be cancelled due to work commitments, depriving me of three Michelin stars worth of talent, then another trip to what should have been a gastronomic treat was affected by my allergy to tuna being severely more potent than I
realised, resulting in only getting half a meal and a night-long date with my bathroom. (Things were remedied the next night when I felt better and tried again, but I won’t mention any names here). Coupled in with all of this, my trying to arrange flights from Washington, my base for my stay, and Chicago proved to be fruitless as every airline I found refused to accept a credit card issued out of North America, meaning I couldn’t book anything. Sleepless nights and depressing thoughts followed as I kept thinking someone up there had it in for me.

Once I was in the States, we found a way of booking the flight-use my sisters card (I know, why didn’t I think of that first?) and a hotel. On the day itself- October 20th, I flew to Chicago and got to my hotel, which had several stars, all viewable through the hole in the roof, several floors still a building in progress and staff who displayed the only example of poor customer service I have ever encountered in America. Once again, my ‘Spidery’ sense started tingling, but I thought to myself, I have got this far, nothing is stopping me having this meal.
Perhaps I should have met my cab driver before saying that, even to myself. He was very friendly, but I think he had been in town less time than me.
Anyway, all that about my trip is not what you are here for, I hope. I would like to think you are awaiting the details of my meal at Grant Achatz's newly crowned three Michelin star-rated Alinea.
Are you?

Arriving at Alinea, you notice one thing- a complete lack of any signage, lights or any telltale signs of there being a business of any kind, never mind a restaurant. There are blacked out windows, dark brickwork and a cast iron street number. That’s it, apart from a guy in a dark uniform who steps out of the shadows as you stand there scratching your head looking for the place and opens a door you don’t know is there.
Once inside, the deceptive entrance hall looks incredibly long, but is only a few steps, and although it looks like the door is ahead of you, a Star Trek style sliding door whooshes open to your left, and there it is- Alinea. No lobby, bar or concierge type reception, just a professional greeting from Joe Catterson, who knew my name, where I had travelled from and also that I was a chef. These details and his welcome immediately put me at ease and set the tone for the evening. In my desperation to get there, I had arrived half an hour early, so Mr. Catterson escorted me outside, and two doors down the street to boka, which he described as 'a friend of Alinea' and which also incidentally was awarded a Michelin star today.
They looked after me, kept me entertained, and even gave me a complimentary amuse bouche 'to kick start the Alinea experience'. I can see big things for Chef Giuseppe Tentori in the future too, his menu read very well, and the food I saw going past me looked stunning.

After a few minutes, the barman told me the Alinea were ready for me now, so I walked the few yards back and re-entered, this time to be greeted-again by name- by another member of staff, a very charming young lady whose name I did not catch. She led me upstairs to one of three rooms which make up the restaurant of Alinea. I should just mention at this point, that when you first enter the restaurant, the kitchen is on your right, and totally open behind a glass screen, where you can catch a glimpse of the whole team in action, in a very peaceful, almost silent, clockwork precision.

Once settled in my seat at a small table in the corner of the room, I am brought two things. No, not bread, butter, water, a menu or wine list. Not even my first nibble on a canapé or amuse
bouche. I am brought... a rosemary sprig and what can only be described as a red/brown looking sheet of.. something. No explanation is offered, just the words 'forget about them, they come into play later'. okkkaaayyyy.
Next up, yet another team member comes up and tells me I will be having some cocktails to kick off the evening. he walked over to the waiter station in the middle of the room, and promptly returned with three canapé sized 'bites', one on a tiny white plinth, one on what looks like a broken spoon (just the bowl part, no handle) and a third on what looks like a Petri dish. these are the edible cocktails, lemon with two types of Luxardo- cherry and lemon- and frozen grapefruit followed by an apple brandy soaked piece of apple which had then been jellified and
flavoured with thyme, then finally a puree of butternut squash which had also been set to form a cube with a foam of cynar-a plant based liqueur- and a centre of 7 year old Flor de Cana grand reserve.
I have to say, each of these bites was extremely potent, as well as incredibly flavourful and creatively presented. A fantastic start to the evening’s food, swiftly followed by my first course which came on a plate- not many of them did- and was equally as sublime. This was golden trout roe, with coconut in the form of a perfectly spherical frozen cream, licorice powder and pineapple foam and powder- possibly freeze-dried. A garnish of tiny purple basil leaves also completed both the presentation and the taste. Please don’t think badly of me, but for this dish, in my notes which I hurriedly scribbled through each course, all I could write was 'so beautiful' three times. Three. I know.

Paired with this course was a Champagne cocktail of Louis Roederer with a hint of
muscatel to sweeten it slightly. This, as with all the wines I received that night was a great match too, and foil for the dish.
Next I got two 'courses' at the same time, both shrimp dishes-labeled on the menu, which you only receive at the end of the meal, as-'yuba, shrimp, miso, togorashi' and 'chao tom, sugar cane, shrimp, mint' what I was given, was a twig like piece of dried soya milk skin (yuba), which had a long thin strip of shrimp wrapped around it, an orange toffee drizzled around, black and white sesame, togarashi (Japanese spice) and a miso mayonnaise dipping sauce, paired up with a small piece of sugar cane, which had been soaked in shrimp stock, topped with the worlds tiniest mint leaves.
Both shrimp dishes were sublime, oozing shrimp flavour, and great combinations of traditional Japanese flavour pairings and modern technique and presentation. the sugar cane- only just longer than an inch-was ultra shrimp-y (my prevalence of creating words is still with me...), then sour, then spicy, then sweet, as each flavour revealed itself, like I was removing a coat, then a jumper, shirt and vest. Incredible.

Swiftly moving on, I was presented with a bowl within a bowl, the small one containing my 'maitake mushrooms, root vegetables, chestnut' and the larger bowl had some apple slices, squash/pumpkin, oak leaves(!), cinnamon and some other spices I believe, onto which was poured some hot water, creating an aroma and almost completely enveloping sense of autumn. This really was getting to be multi-sensual to the extreme.
blanc de morgex et de la salle worked, due to the 70 year old vines on Mont Blanc ( so the sommelier told me...) at first I found it slightly vegetal then it developed into a more full, almost spiced white wine. Another great choice.
Next up, another 'shot', this time, non alcoholic, but what a shot. now, my notes fail me slightly at this stage, but it was a smallish glass tumbler with celery juice-punchy, slightly sweet, and far more tasty than you imagine possible, then a large ball floated in the juice-'careful, its larger than it looks' said the waiter- and this tardis of a ball comprised a horseradish sphere containing apple juice topped with a celery leaf. As I took it down in the prescribed manner-all in one go, I swear it grew in my mouth, making me feel like I was eating a horseradish flavoured apple which was coated in celery. As I say, my notes are minimal for this one. A simple 'wow' is scrawled, then underlined vigorously.
The next course had me scratching my head again as I tried to think of another word for 'wow'.
This was the 'monochrome' dish I had heard about, a dish created to be entirely white in its appearance. How boring I hear you sigh, which could have been true, were it not for the fact that the main flavourings of the dish are things which are far from white- coffee, vanilla, black pepper, lemon and licorice, which were married together beautifully, combining with halibut and fresh pasta. Great whichever way you see it, the flavourings all went together seamlessly and the technique and style in getting them all bleached white is equally impressive.

Next was a very famous dish from the Alinea book of the same name, where chef Achatz has blessed those dreamers of us with some of his most loved signature dishes. This was the pheasant, green grape, walnut creation which is a cube of low temperature cooked pheasant, with grape jelly and a peeled walnut, enrobed in a light tempura and presented on a small, pared-down branch of oak, with leaves smouldering to again remind you of the season. A phenomenal bite sized dish which is deceptively simple looking, but I can guarantee is a lot trickier to perfect, served up on another of Alinea's unique serving items, similar to a metal 'cork' with several long spikes sticking upward to hold the fried piece in place.

The observant of you will have noticed by now, that we are ten courses in, and I still haven’t used either of the items placed on my table at the start of my meal.
Well, I’m afraid to read about how they come into play, you will have to wait until tomorrow for the second part of this article. Sorry, I would love to finish it now, but it is getting late and with work tomorrow I have to limit blog-time. I hope you enjoyed the journey so far; there is more to come I promise.

Monday, 15 November 2010

america-land of the feast

Before anyone starts, I must apologise for my tardiness, as I have been back from America for over two weeks now, and haven’t found time to share my experiences from the other side of the pond till now.
there are dedicated posts coming up for several of the restaurants I ate at whilst over there, including several of chef Jose Andres eateries-zyatinya, jaleo and minibar (I know-again?!?) as well as the big one, and if it came down to it, I would be torn to decide whether the main reason for my trip was to visit my sister and her hubby or the meal at Grant Achatz's best restaurant in the world-in waiting, Alinea . For family harmony, let’s just say both are fabulous reasons to travel to the states.
while you all wait for the individual rundowns, I just wanted to share a few photos on here from a few of the meals I had, we worked out that in the space of 5 meals at various places I ate over 110 courses of varying style, standard and size. That’s a lot. Even for me.
Before I went to America for the first time, my preconceptions of their food was pretty much the same as yours I imagine, burgers, hot dogs and massive piles of fries. Whilst i'm sure all of those get served in abundance, the truth is that the standard over there is, in my opinion, vastly superior to our own. whether its the small mom and pop operations working out of a side street cafe in old Leesburg (my sister's new home town!) , mid range chain restaurants and burger bars or the very top end Michelin star chasing foodie Mecca in Chicago (go on-guess) what you receive for your dollar far outweighs anything on offer around the uk.
The Americans have a great attitude toward eating out-they love it, and it is as easy and cost effective as eating at home. Shopping for fresh meat, fish and vegetables was a real eye-opener. It’s so expensive! Cheese was another thing that was hard to get hold of and really expensive when you could find it. Compared to eating out at any one of a massive choice of food offerings it is no wonder people eat out so much.
Constantly I was surprised by the food, and look forward to sampling more, on my next trip west.