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-http://bit.ly/9Fohvm-giving 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.
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.
The 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.
Posted by stephen bennett at 23:28