Saturday, April 16, 2011

Alinea (part 2)

I did a poor job of photographing this dish, but if you look carefully you can see a whole vanilla bean protruding from the fried banana and hamachi. The menu listed ginger and "West Indies spices" as well, but I think they were only used for flavor. I was afraid that the hamachi would be noticeably cooked, but it wasn't, and the banana was the stronger element anyway. There wasn't a noticeable vanilla flavor; in fact I kind of wished I could have taken the bean home with me as it appeared to be completely intact.

The next course was served with a glass of Pont Neuf red in a fancy glass:

As you can see, the tableware for this "Canard a la Cussy" was equally elaborate, and seemed pretty out of place compared to the rest of the very modern serving pieces. It only made sense when the waiter explained that this particular duck recipe was over 300 years old. The light and airy puff pastry was stuffed with fois gras, braised cockscomb, and duck innards, and then topped with several slices of tender duck breast and a tiny piece of fried skin. The dots of wine sauce were a little heavy; I only used about half of them, but everything else was delicious.

We were a bit confused when presented with this container of eucalpytus leaves. The waiter told us not to eat the leaves (as they are poisonous to humans) but to pull out the silver pin. On the end was a piece of venison cooked with cherry and cocoa nib. A few seconds after we finished our bites of venison, we all had a funny look on our faces. The venison was gamey (and I normally love venison), it overwhelmed any hint of cherry and/or cocoa, and the eucalptus aroma didn't really come through. In the end, this was the only dish that I thought was just plain bad. Interestingly I went online and read some reviews from other people who seemed to like it. I wonder if the venison was just off that day.

The waiter later told us that the next dish was his personal favorite (and he'd been with the restaurant since it opened in 2005). It was called "black truffle explosion"; the raviolo was filled with black truffle sauce, and topped with romaine and parmesan. We were warned to eat this in one bite with mouths closed, and sure enough, when I finally bit through the pasta, the black truffle juice exploded all over my mouth. It was very good, but I actually liked the "hot potato, cold potato" truffle preparation more.

They again used very unique servingware for the truffle explosion, so we asked the waiters where all the dishes came from, and they told us that Chef Achatz owned an interest in a servingware company, so he actually custom ordered a lot of the dishes for the restaurant, such as the three-tier sphere for the rabbit course.

A palate cleanser of yuzu snow marked the end of the savory courses. We were specifically told not to lick the metal as they had used liquid nitrogen to freeze the juice. I wonder if anyone has actually done that before, and gotten their tongue stuck to the bowl?

The first "dessert" course was actually still quite savory. There were bits of sweet potato, sweetened pecan, and brown sugar. There was a puff of jalapeno cotton candy on top, and dabs of cayenne goo on the plank, from which the "heat had been removed" but the flavor was still present. The plank itself was made of smoked cedar, and indeed the aroma contributed heavily to the autumn-y flavor of the dish. It was almost like a deconstructed sweet potato pie.

This was my second favorite dessert. Each side of the tube was stopped up with a different flavored jelly. The "near" side was lemongrass, the "far" side dragonfruit, and in the middle was a cocktail of those two fruits, plus finger lime, cucumber, and I believe some basil. I had to suck pretty hard to unstop the lemongrass end, and as soon as I did, the entire tube came rushing down. It was a refreshing and delicious combination.

The next three desserts were served together, and we were told we could eat them in any order, but I think this one should have come first. It was a piece of bacon infused with butterscotch, apple, and thyme. I would have been a lot more impressed with this a few years ago, but I've been having lots of yummy bacon flavored desserts recently, including at work. I also had a little trouble trying to get the bacon off of the wire.

This is the one I ate first; it was entitled "nutella, bread, banana, chocolate". It doesn't look like much, but when you put it into your mouth it transforms from dry and bread-like into a blob of tasty nutella-y goodness. I liked this best of the three.

This paper-thin preparation of lychee and jasmine tea was a little too sweet for my taste, and I couldn't taste much tea flavor. It was fun to eat, though.

By this time we'd figured out that Chef Achatz wasn't just visiting tables, he was doing some kind of very elaborate dessert preparation. When the waitstaff cleared off our table to lay down a gigantic silicone mat, we knew it was our turn.

After they put down tons of little white pots of ingredients, the chef (and one of his sous chefs) appeared and started painting the table with them. There was chocolate sauce, cream sauce, caramel sauce, dehydrated blueberry paper, fresh blueberry compote, honey, and peanut powder.

The caramel sauce in particular was always spooned in a circular shape, but would form little squares or rectangles as it spread. We've yet to figure out why. There were little glass cylinders in which the chefs poured creme anglaise, which was later bruleed after it had set. Towards the end, blocks of liquid nitrogen frozen chocolate mousse were brought in, engulfing the table in vapor, and then broken up with utensils into smaller pieces.

The experience of eating off of the table was super fun, making this easily my favorite dessert, especially since we could easily load our spoons up with whatever ingredients we liked best. For instance, my favorite parts were the creme anglaise with honey and the frozen chocolate mousse. The caramel sauce, despite its awesome squareness, was not that flavorful. I think in the end D ended up chasing down every last blueberry.

Before the dessert finale, we had asked our waiter if we could get Chef Achatz to autograph our menus, and also if we could possibly get a photo with him. He told us that it was possible to have a photo, but it would have to be after the meal, in the kitchen. That was very much not a problem for us, so after we were done, he went and chased down the chef for us, and we got our photo, as well as a glimpse of the kitchen.

We were also successful with the menus, and each of us ended up with a different inscription. I think mine says "Toward Creativity". Before we visited, I'd seen menus on the website, and wondered about the little bubbles on each row. When we were presented with our copies, the waiter explained that the sweeter the dish, the further right the bubble (and conversely the more savory the dish, the further left). The darkness of the bubbles indicated intensity, and the size indicated quantity. I thought the whole scheme was really quite clever (I love infographics).

From start to finish, the meal took almost five hours, but we were never bored. Several of the dishes were highly interactive, the presentations were unique and varied, and overall it felt more like dining theatre than just a dinner. To me, only two of the 22-courses were misses; the gamey bite of venison served with eucalptus, and the mint watercress foam part of the urchin dish. Every other dish was creative and delicious. After finishing the second half, my favorites remained the hot/cold potato truffle bowl and the yuba shrimp, but the fancy-plated duck and the truffle explosion were also highlights for me. As for dessert, it's hard to beat the on-table presentation of the chocolate mousse finale, but I also quite enjoyed the sweet potato pecan cedar plank and the lemongrass dragonfruit shot.

We were super excited to be able to not only meet Chef Achatz but also to have him prepare our dessert, sign our menus, and pose for photos with us. I had read some biographical articles about him prior to our visit, and in some of them he came off as arrogant, so I'd been prepared for the worst. Instead, he was friendly, funny (a little snarky, which is a plus in my book), and very accommodating.

On the way out, D said, "We should just stop eating. Nothing is ever going to top this." Of course he was kidding (and he ate plenty for breakfast), but the four of us did later agree that as food experiences go, our dinner at Alinea was arguably the best meal ever.

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