July 20, 2010

“I want to have dinner at Alinea. Would you like to come?” my mother asked (presumably rhetorically) out of the blue a few months ago.

I know I’m no restaurant critic (and I have no desire to be one, at this point), but some friends insisted I talk about this one.

What an experience! The building is unmarked, grey, with the shades drawn. The only thing that says “Alinea” is the valet parking sign. Once the doors open, though, you’re quite sure you’re in the right place.

We walked down a red hallway with a sloping ceiling, giving it kind of an Alice in Wonderland effect. A door whooshed open just at the right moment, and the hostess knew exactly who we were and where we were going. Absolutely seamless.

Alinea does not take parties larger than 6, and they will not break a party of 8 into two tables. So my cousins went on a date night a few days before the rest of the gang: my mom, brothers, aunt and uncle. We were seated at a large round table by the window, and the service was absolutely impeccable. About halfway through the meal, we noticed that the servers had noticed that my brother is left-handed. They were placing his silverware at a different angle on the little pillow they used as a “tablecloth” for each of us, so that it was easier to pick up with his left hand!

The sommelier was both a character and really knowledgeable. They had a Lucien Crochet rosé—the same vineyard that bottled the white Sancerre we drank at Le Clos de la Violette in Aix five years ago—but, alas, they had just sold the last glass. The sommelier (who also acted as a waiter? Not sure what his title is) gave me a taste of something else and I ended up ordering an Austrian sparkling wine that was delightful.

Ok, you’re saying, enough about the set-up—tell us about the food! Everything was amazing. Although a lot of it was transformed through culinary wizardry, other ingredients were just incredibly pure versions of themselves: wonderfully tomato-ey tomatoes, tremendously lamb-y lamb, etc.

The first course was a pretty good indication that we were in for a treat. The menu says “English peas, iberico, sherry, honeydew.” What it means is: some kind of concoction that, on first bite, tasted like the best frozen pea I’ve ever had—I used to eat them straight from the freezer when I was little—with little capsules of sherry that burst on your tongue, burrata, a little ball of honeydew (that we mistook for a grape) and several other unidentifiable delicious things. The whole dish was startlingly cold (liquid nitrogen?) but melted pretty much immediately into creamy deliciousness.

“Lobster, lychee, gruyère, vanilla fragrance” turned out to be a definite highlight of the evening: a single incredible bite of something fried, skewered on a vanilla bean and served into a fantastical wire holder. The incredibly light tempura contained a succulent piece of lobster, melty gruyère, lychee (somewhere) and a hint of ginger, and the vanilla bean gave the whole thing a delicate scent. It definitely left us all wanting more. Imagine how great/insane it would be to buy the cookbook and curl up in front of the TV with a whole basket of these on a movie night! (OK, never happening…I don’t even know if that recipe is in the cookbook, for starters.)

“Tomatoes, pillow of fresh cut grass aroma” was also amazing. There were a variety of powders (red pepper, bread crumbs, Parmesan, tiny bits of balsamic onions) to accompany the heirloom tomatoes, with little fried things on top. Absolutely the best tomatoes I’ve had this summer, never mind the stuff that came with it! My brother, who disliked tomatoes violently for most of his life, said this was one of his favorite dishes of the evening.

After that, we were all presented with a lovely glass of a clear liquid that turned out to be a “distillation of Thai flavors”—salty cucumber and a whole bunch of other things that lingered on the palate to “prime” it for “pork belly, curry, cucumber, lime.” We made spring rolls, fashioned from the pretty rice paper centerpieces (there were flowers and herbs in the paper, and they were hanging from chopsticks for the early part of our meal). I’m not a fan of either coconut or curry, but once I tasted the pork belly that was cooked in those flavors, I stopped caring exactly what I was being served and just ate.

“King crab, rhubarb, lilac, fennel” was a three-part course in a lovely bespoke ceramic piece. On top, there was a chervil gelée with some buttermilk and lilac sorbet surrounded by a crab mousse. When the lid came off, there were three perfect little bites of crab, avocado and rhubarb with a mung bean salad and other delicious bits. Under that was a warm crab and rhubarb concoction in a cream sauce—amazing.

“Lamb, a reflection of Elysian Fields Farm” honors a supplier dating back to Chef Achatz’s days with Thomas Keller. The plate consisted of the best lamb I’ve ever had: a small bite folded onto a sprig of rosemary, with a creamy popcorn sauce and a tiny bite of breaded polenta that burst with butter and corn flavors. Oh, and panko-crusted, deep-fried saddle fat from the lamb, which is both brilliant and evil.

“Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter” was another big favorite of mine. The dish arrived in a tiny wax bowl, with a number of items including a cube of butter and a potato ball topped with a generous slice of truffle skewered on a pin. We were instructed to pull the pin out of the bowl to drop the skewered items into the sauce below it, which turned out to be a chilled, rich truffled potato soup. We were instructed to eat it quickly—no hardship, as the dish was creamy and indulgent and delicious.

Following that, the table was reset with antique flatware and an ornate goblet. “Tournedo à la persane” is an Escoffier recipe, as it turns out: a piece of extraordinarily good meat on top of a grilled tomato (with a tiny basil leaf), a fried banana slice and a pepper stuffed with rice, all in a perfect Châteaubriand sauce. I can’t say I’ve ever eaten beef with banana before, and it’s a great combination. The dish was served with a bit of Callet wine (or housemade soda), which was a great pairing.

From here, we entered the realm of dessert. “Earl Grey, lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate” didn’t look like a dessert at all: hunks of grey tea cookies, yellow frozen chocolate noodles, scoops of lemon curd that looked like egg yolks, and crisp candied pine nuts. Fantastic all around!

“Chocolate, coconut, menthol, hyssop” contained one of our favorite elements and one of our least favorite elements. The former would be a frozen chocolate mousse that had us all giggling on our first bite. It melted into a traditional mousse texture—really fun to eat, and tasty to boot! The latter would be the menthol, which was just too strong for us. I made the mistake of drinking the last of my sparking wine with the menthol, and it was an awful lot like swilling Robitussin.

Rounding out the evening was another dish that had us all giggling as we ate it: “Bubble gum, long pepper, hibiscus, crème fraîche” arrived horizontally in a hollow glass tube. We sucked it out of the tube (making unavoidable gross noises in the process) and the darned thing tasted just like bubble gum! Whatever the pink stuff was had tapioca balls, so you even ended up chewing it for a little while.

And there you have it—a complete roundup of our evening at Alinea. Truly memorable. I’m so glad we went!

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