Well, not any old dinner.
We went to Alinea, one of only fourteen 3-star Michelin-rated restaurants in the US, one of 117 in the world. Just last month, it was ranked as #15 on Eater.Com's list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants. We knew this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us.
From the outside, Alinea is unassuming. I would have driven right past it without even knowing it was there, had I not been looking for it, specifically. The only thing giving it way was the occasional limousine that pulled up front.
We were greeted with a "Happy Anniversary!" by two young ladies at the front, then led upstairs to our table. The first floor was being decorated for the next-day's Gallery meal, which is another experience entirely (and one we thought was just a touch out of our price range), and we got to see the staff suspending paintings from the ceiling (read the linked article above to understand why) as we wound our way up the stairs to the Salon.
We had great seats, right where we could get sneaky peeks at the servers as they prepped to come in and serve the next course to whomever was in "their" room. Natalie's back was next to the waiting station, so we, well I, got to watch waitstaff as they came and went and got to hear some of their conversations.I'm a logistics guy, at heart (and in my day job), so I really enjoyed trying to figure out how they handled the timing of orders while remaining unobtrusive. They are efficient and their timing is impeccable. I chatted with one of the waitstaff about this, and he noted that it takes months, even years, to be trained to "go live" on the floor. These aren't your slapdash college students doing a stint between classes. The service was excellent, they knew their stuff (I had to ask what the heck an "Ebi" was, and the waiter was right there with the answer), and they were . . . just darned friendly and personable. I really felt like they took a personal interest in us, but not in an awkward way. They were genuine, but professional. Even the guy who set the utensils for each course was friendly, and, surprisingly-to-me, very down to earth, but with an air of dignity. Cool people.
Of course, you want to hear about the food, don't you? What did we get for our expensive dinner?
This is where I falter. I consider myself a bit of a foodie, but I am by no means a professional reviewer. My wife is a high school foods teacher, so she knows a bit about food. But she's not a fine-dining chef, either. So if my observations are a little rough and tumble, and if my knowledge of the exact nomenclature is a bit off: Sorry, not sorry.
Unlike most of your run-of-the-mill restaurants, Alinea is one of those that crafts the menu for you. You don't choose your burger and fries with a medium soda, you take what the chef has created. The staff was careful to check for food allergies (we have none, except I'm a little lactose intolerant), and they knew we don't drink (we added that note when we made reservations), so were careful not to serve anything with uncooked alcohol in it. The menu in the picture above (sans the "Happy Anniversary!" note, which they added later) was all we had to go off of. Part of the fun was the mystery. Just what the heck was "Elysian Fields" and "Carnival Rainbow"? This little bit of (welcome) trickery brought a sense of adventure to the meal and enhanced the experience. We had a good time speculating what was coming next on any given course. To read the order of the courses, start at the upper left corner with "ICE," then go down to "CRUNCH/PAPER", then "YELLOW," go back up to "CONTRAST/SPARROW GRASS," then "SWIRL," and so on. Follow the curve and you'll know your path.
Yes, that's a bowl made of ice. I probably should have snapped a photo of Natalie's, as well, as they are roughly similar, but unique. Now, I knew that we would be getting small portions with each course, but this looked tiny. And it's a good thing it was so small. This was incredibly rich, not what I was expecting for the first course. It was like starting with desert, sort of. The flavors were ebi, banana, and coconut, mainly. This was brisk and sweet, but salty. My only problem with this portion was that the ice was so cold that the food, especially the clear gelatin globules you see there, really liked to stick to the bowl. We were warned that this might happen, so I just put some elbow grease into it and got every last sweet, savory drop and ate part of the bowl in the process. Who says I don't get into my food?
Next, we were brought bowls of what appeared to be paper. These were actually a scallop-reduction dried to form large noodles. The server poured in a corn soup (insert fancy name that I can't remember here) that instantly hydrated the noodles. These were served with a pair of small shio kombu/nori seaweed rolls filled with a substance that I can't remember. The rolls were delicious alone and when dipped into the soup mixture. But the best part was the noodles and soup combination. The noodles were more firm than I expected, chewy, but in a good way. Enough resistance to give some satisfaction, but not rubbery. And the combination of the scallop flavor with the corn soup was warm and comforting. I could eat this just about every day of a Wisconsin winter. If I could find the recipe, I might just do that. Besides, the servers encouraged us to drink straight out of the bowl (you only got chopsticks to eat this course, no spoon), and I'm always looking for that excuse. At first, it felt naughty to drink straight from the bowl while wearing a suit. Then it felt . . . liberating.
Notice that I had to photograph this one while holding it in my hand. This was by design, another clever trap by the chefs, who want you to have a kinesthetic experience as part of the beautiful assault on your tastebuds. And we ate this with bright yellow chopsticks, which was tricky, a little messy, and a lot of fun. You'll note throughout that there is nary a "plain" plate here. Everything, even the utensils, were chosen to enhance the experience. Included on this were egg yolks, thinly-sliced onion, mustard, sweet potato, curry, and yellow and white blossoms. This entirely blew me away - each little bite was substantially different from another, even if you mixed the constituent elements thoroughly (which I did about halfway through, just to try it). Every taste was distinctive and unique, which I did not expect. We were told that there were sixteen ingredients in this little dish, That's 2.092279e+13 possible flavor combinations. I think I hit them all. It was diversity in action, in my mouth.
Important safety note: If you go to Alinea, or any fine-dining restaurant, for that matter, it's a good idea to drink something between courses to cleanse your palate for the next course. We had sparkling water, since we don't drink, and that worked quite well to wash away the old and prepare for the new. We now return you to your regular blogpost.
I began to question things when I was presented with what appeared to be a bowl of foam like you would find atop a clutch of frog eggs. I've eaten frog legs, and they are quite delicious, but I have to admit that I was a little hesitant when I saw this. The stuff underneath looked palatable, so I though that if I didn't like the foam, I could just scrape it off. Well, it turned out just fine. For the life of me, I can't remember what the flavor was, but underneath was lychee (which I've eaten before, thanks to my many Hmong friends), white asparagus (yes, white), and lily bulb bathed in a citrus mouse. This was the "Sparrow Grass" portion of this course. The "Swirl" was a coil of apple drenched in yuzu juice with a sprig of lemon verbena on top. Best . . . apple . . . ever. The piece-de-resistance of this course, however, came in the "Contrast" dish - a sort of gazpacho, so cold it was nearly frozen, served with watermelon and hot parmesan cheese. This was one of the highlights of the meal for both me and Natalie. We're big gazpacho fans, and this was by far the best I've ever tasted. It was exquisite. After all this, the server poured a vial of water into the plate on which the "Swirl" had been served, releasing a dry-ice-induced fog from the vessel - a plate with a hole that opened up into a bowl beneath. A nice effect, which my camera fails to do justice.
Fried food, fine dining? Yes, if it's done right. And this was done right. Breaded, fried icefish in delicate strips were light and airy, not heavy as you've come to expect with most fried food. Thinly sliced radish and blossoms complement the dish, which was set in a vibrant, both in flavor and color, kumquat syrup that I won't soon forget. Oh, and again, a third time, with chopsticks. Good thing I learned how to eat with chopsticks when living in the Philippines at a very young age.
The cracker-looking thing you see embedded in the flowers is a glass made of dehydrated soubisse. I don't recall the exact sauce in the middle, but it was also oniony. Very oniony. Imagine the essence, the very soul of oniondom, and you get the idea. On the plate was another high-point of the evening: Morel mushrooms smothered in a foie-gras sauce, served with a crystallized blueberry/lapsang souchong tea reduction. Now, I love mushrooms of all kinds, and particularly morel. The contrast of the strong, sweet blueberry flavor with the earthy goodness of morel was something that nearly lulled me into a slobbering coma of culinary satisfaction. But I'm glad I didn't need life support at this point - more greatness was on the way!
When we entered the restaurant, I caught a whiff of what I thought was stale cigarette smoke. I seriously thought that someone had walked through there smoking or something. Knowing how much many chefs strive for lung cancer, I thought that maybe they had traipsed through on their way in from break. Only when I saw a flaming bowl at another table did I realize that this was part of the "smoke" course. I can't tell what all was in that burning bowl, but there was star anise (you can see it clearly in the photo), palo santo, and cinnamon, among other things. There could have been anything else in there, and I wouldn't have known the difference. All I know is that it smelled wonderful and I didn't go on a vision quest, as a result . . . that I can remember.
After the flame was snuffed and we were enveloped in pleasant smokiness, we were warned that the plates that were coming might be hotter than the flames themselves. On the plate was a piece of chicken striped with three sauces to try to imitate the Mexican flag: Salsa verde, a spicy red salsa, and a white cream sauce. Though there was only a tiny stripe of each sauce, they were each packed with flavor. This seemed to be a common theme: tiny packages with HUGE flavor! This was no exception. The rough ball you see had a chicken-liver center, which was delicious (and I am not a liver person at all) surrounded by some hard, crunchy substance, the provenience of which I forget. It was great, even if my memory isn't. On the candy skull skewer (so poorly photographed in the bottom frame), was a pineapple gelatin wrapped in what I swear the server said was something related to root beer, though Natalie disagrees with me on this. And she's usually right. Oh, and the bon-bons can be seen in the second photo above, up on the left there. I'm a dark chocolate snob, as some of you know, and this passed the snobbery test with flying colors. Snob satisfied!
Hidden beneath that piece of lettuce is a piece of chicken curry. Not too spicy, but very well done. It was probably one of the most "ordinary" things we ate that night. The melon on the right was meant to counteract the spiciness, but it was honestly not that hot. That chunk of lettuce, however: pure genius. Last year, when we went to Indianapolis, Natalie and I ate at bluebeard restaurant where I ate what I considered to be the best salad I had ever eaten, to date. Well, sorry, cap'n, but you've just been outdone. That leaf of lettuce, laced with myoga and anise blossoms, was far and away the best leafy green I've ever eaten. It was extremely sweet - like it had been frosted - and I suspect the sauce that was brushed on had a good deal of sugar in it. I was surprised at how satisfying it was. Who would have expected that a leaf of lettuce would have been one of the tastiest offerings that night? Not me. But now I'm a believer. Lettuce can be the best thing on the menu (to be fair, it wasn't, but it can be). The other part of this course was, as you can see, served on a bone. Those are pieces of wagyu bone marrow served on, of all things, rice crispy squares. I kid you not. I have never had marrow before, but I'm game for just about anything and I like rice crispy treats, so I gave it a shot and popped them in. Not bad. They were, well, exactly what you'd expect bone marrow to taste like. I wouldn't eat more than I did, but these were fine. To each his own. Not terrible, but I probably won't have it again. I've eaten my share of raw meat before, so that's not the issue. I just wasn't in the mood for it, is all, and after that awesome lettuce it was a little bit of a let down.
I'm a big fan of lamb. It is one of my favorite things to eat (pork is tops, in case you wonder). So I was delighted to learn that the next dish would have lamb in it. Three kinds of lamb, in fact. One was a standard cut, cooked to perfection. Then there was shredded lamb neck, cooked in the skin, then pulled from the bone, then a cube of congealed drippings. This was served with blackberries, thyme blossoms, and black garlic scapes. This was the best lamb I had ever eaten. In fact, this was the best dish I had ever eaten. This is the dish that I will look back on, wistfully, when I am on my deathbed and declare in gastro-existential angst, "I will never eat that again in this life. But I had it once, and can die a happy man. *burp*" - I'm so glad that this was the culmination of the meal, before the sweet denouement (more on that in a moment). It was the celestial pinnacle of culinary greatness. And the bread was pretty good, too.
After this, desert. A spot of anise, half a strawberry, raspberry creme, crystallized (yet soft) ginger, glazed fennel, and a gelatin whose flavor I can't recall. Oh, and rhubarb. Yes, rhubarb, which I usually loathe, but this was candied to perfection. It was just enough sweet to swing ones tastebuds around from the incredible savory of the last course. And then . . . then, things got crazy.
Those are, you guessed it, edible balloons, strawberry flavored, with a strawberry-flavored edible string. We were instructed to remove our glasses, "gently kiss" the top of the balloon, inhale, sing, or say whatever came to mind. Natalie did her best Minnie Mouse imitation and I couldn't stop laughing long enough to breathe in. I don't know what they used for the actual balloon, but it was really sticky at first, then it sort of . . . unstickified? At first we thought they should supply us with hot rags to get the sticky off of our fingers, then it just sort of got better on its own. Weird. I don't know if I want to know what material does this. But I do know that I would eat it again if it was offered.
Those who look closely will observe that some of this was already eaten when I took the picture. I forgot and just dug in, realizing about halfway through that I should have gotten a shot of this. Forgive me for enjoying my food. The painting, under the glass, was done by the same artist who curates the art at Alinea. I liked his sensibilities, but can't remember his name. I'm sure he'll be famous when he dies. Isn't that the way of all artists? From the post-apocalyptic photo, you can probably see pistachio nougat, a panoply of cherry, marshmallow, orange (a very "rindy" orange, I might add), and coffee-flavored sauces, along with a hearty slab of chocolate ganache, all served on glass so that you can paint your own picture. Except you can't. Because you're too busy eating the medium. Which is fine. This was the most delicious art I've ever tasted.
And I mean that about the whole meal, not just this last course. My words and photos don't do it justice, and for that I apologize. If you want to really know what it tastes like, you're going to have to go there yourself. I heartily recommend it. From start to finish, top to bottom, first to last course, the service, food, ambiance, and just plain fun was something I shall never forget. Well done, Chef Achatz! You've made my culinary dreams come true. And, incidentally, you should seriously think about opening a restaurant in Madison. Guaranteed, more foodies per square mile in Madtown than in Chitown. Don't wait too long, though: we're getting hungry again.