in Food Essays ~ read.

Alinea and Me

¶.

Wikipedia tells me that this is the alinea, Latin for "off the line" (a lineā), most commonly known as the symbol indicating the beginning of a new paragraph. The last time I encountered this alinea was in grade school - English teachers would pen it in red ink whenever they wanted me to break up a huge wall of text. I never gave it much thought.

The only reason I know this information is that a certain restaurant is also named Alinea. Any entity able, by force of its own existence, to resurrect and in the process completely redefine a long-forgotten word... deserves some thought.

But before we get to that

I wonder if there's an emotion in some language that conveys "longing for an experience in the past which you were unable to have." An example lives in the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris (which I did not particularly enjoy). The main character - an idiot, portrayed by Owen Wilson (go figure) - travels back in time and encounters intellectuals like Gertrude Stein, who opine that the best age was before their time, so Owen travels even further back to meet people like Edgar Degas, who then remark that the best age was before their time, all the way back to the Renaissance.

Woody Allen gets it. I think he'd probably give a lot to see the Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles era firsthand, but of course it's impossible now.

For me?

elBulli. The restaurant on the coast of Catalonia that forever changed fine dining by introducing techniques found in science labs into the kitchen. Spherification, gelification, foaming, sous-vide... the list goes on. elBulli, closed forever, and me, infinitely saddened that I will never have the chance to eat there, the cuisine that sparked a revolution.

Luckily, its former chef Ferran Adrià is still alive, continuing to experiment and philosophize about food in a research institute he founded soon after closing the restaurant. Maybe one day he'll emerge from that hyperbolic time chamber and open a new restaurant, once again wowing the world and redefining what food can be. One can dream.

A revolution's success is measured by how much its ideas ripple out and affect the future. I remember my first taste of Ferran's. In February of 2014 I was having lunch in the Ledoyen, an ancient Parisian dining house, and received an amuse-bouche of a transparent sphere served on a small wooden spoon. The waiter told me to eat it in a bite - to date, probably the best bite I've ever had. Imagine a bubble, bursting as soon as you press it to the roof of your mouth, filling it with a cool, sharp ginger liquid, mellowing into a sweet tangerine flavor as you let it sit.

It was magic!

I wanted more. I did some research. Alinea had more. I wanted Alinea. Alinea, the new torchbearer of food science, conveniently located in Chicago, inconveniently priced, inconveniently booked. It must have been five or six years ago when I learned of its existence, way before I knew anything about food, but in my mind it was the new elBulli and I had to go there. Not only was Alinea on my restaurant bucket list, it was on my de facto bucket list.

And just last week, I crossed it off.

Let's talk about it.

From a food perspective. When the chase is cut to, food is about eating, not waxing poetic or attempting to be philosophical.

So. What is it like to eat @ ¶ ?

Satsuma - the first course.

Satsuma

Satsuma, a sweet citrus fruit of Asian origin, distilled into liquid form much like a parfumier transmogrifies the essence of aroma into scent, encased in a paper-thin shell of white chocolate colored deep yellow by saffron, lightly spiced by cinnamon, with a flake of salt from Australia's Murray river, plugged with the tiniest sprig of microbasil. Served in a small glass goblet, what looks like a miniature satsuma is really a thoughtful deconstruction. One bite - pop it in your mouth, give it the hint of a bite and the shell shatters, the liquid enveloping your tongue with a delightful sweet acidity moments before the shards of white chocolate melt, complementing it with a different sweetness: milk and vanilla. Afterwards, the goblet isn't taken away, leaving you wondering why; surely the ice at the bottom might give a clue.

Trio of Bocadillo, Gilda, and Patatas Bravas

Tapas

Given a set of three cards with pictures of these dishes, you wonder if the future is one in which you subsist merely by looking at food and imagining how it tastes. I guess it wouldn't be terrible if Grant Achatz were the one doing the plating... But food did finally arrive in the form of three very interesting Spanish tapas.

Bocadillo
I see: Sandwich on baguette, cured ham
I eat: The same exact texture of a RITZ Bits filling but larger, except it tastes like a bocadillo. Rich, cheeseish, prosciutto notes with a light crunchy breadlike dust on top.

Gilda
I looked this up after the meal. Food.com describes how to make this dish traditionally:

-take a toothpick.
-insert one olive.
-bend the anchovie until both ends touch and insert the pick in the middle
-do the same with the chili.
-put all of them on a plate and pour a little olive oil over.
-Buen provecho.

Achatz makes it like this:

-take a gilda.
-insert it into MAGIC MACHINE until it turns into jelly
-serve the jelly square.

Transparent, with what seems to be a drop of olive oil brilliantly locked in the center. Tasted like exactly what I saw on the card, except with the texture of a well-made JELL-O.

Patatas Bravas
This one was the most familiar. A square chunk of fried potato, with a small pool of moderately spicy garlic chili aioli for the starch to soak up. This one had a nice crunchy surface.

All that being said, I would've preferred if the third dish were something different, perhaps even tangy or sweet. The contrast between the bocadillo and patatas was not distinct as with the gilda, and a clever three-course meal could've been concocted with gilda/patatas/dessert. If it were up to me... a chilled kiwi marshmallow puff with balsamic dust!

In the present, this dish is curious and even humorous, the level of deconstruction impressive while the taste still acceptable. But if all food is constructed like this in the future, I and I think most others would vastly prefer sinking our fangs into an actual bocadillo.

Cider

Tapas

It happens that the white ice at the bottom of the Satsuma dish was frozen with powdered Marcona almonds, which when eaten alone are sweeter and softer than regular almonds. On top was poured a dry sparkling cider from Normandy, Duche de Longueville, which completely dissolved the ice fragments. This released a wonderful fragrance reminiscent of almond biscotti. Tastewise, it was a very sweet apple, the carbonation quickly dissipating with every passing second.

Brook Trout

Brook Trout

This dish was tasty and also visually stunning. Trout charred with vegetable ash(?), trout roe, sauces of banana (white) trout with prawn (brown) and uchiki kuri (red). The honeycomb is made of dehydrated butternut squash, and the white crumble was pumpkin seeds. Sprigs of parsley. I have a feeling this was inspired by the Midwest, as brook trout are abundant in the rivers of northern Michigan and fall is prime harvest time for butternut squash. Overall, 'twas highly experimental not in molecular techniques, but rather in its eclectic assemblage of flavors and textures with nothing overwhelming the rest. Playful.

Graffiti

Graffiti

The appearance gives no clues to the taste. It's really interesting to see what Achatz is able to draw inspiration from, knowing that he's free from the confines of conventional dining. Obviously, it's impossible to eat concrete, but it is apparently possible to disguise an edible to look like concrete. One of the main reasons I like molecular gastronomy is that it jumbles what I like to call my brain's "food sense," or its ability to taste things just by looking at them. Well, not full-on taste per se, but it's able to capture maybe 10% of what the taste experience would be based on a lifetime of sensory stimulus. Because I could not imagine what this would taste like, the potential for magic existed.

However, to some degree I was still familiar with this concept, having eaten a deep red strawberry version at Aziza in San Francisco - the best way to describe it is thinly-sliced "astronaut ice cream." So I had a pretty good idea of what the mouthfeel would be - just not the flavor. Turned out to be matsutake mushroom. With real porcini and maitake underneath.

Graffiti, of course, is spray painted onto a surface, so this dish, of course, was spray painted with a dark green liquid parsley (not shown).

Kaiseki of Percebes, Tororo Kombu, Unagi, and Corn

Where do I begin with this? It's hard!

Tapas

Percebes
is a type of barnacle, the kind of mollusks you see attaching themselves to piers and docks. Percebes also happens to be rare and costly to harvest, which comes as no surprise. This one was slightly chilled, and had the texture of short rib. You take your front teeth and rip it out of its shell, the juice filling your mouth with an intense brininess - think of an oyster, but sharper - it really hits you and you contemplate for a moment how something manages to naturally taste like a fermented soy sauce. I would've enjoyed another, but probably not a third. This was served on a massive log containing raw bright red and opaque white seaweeds. The red one was slippery and the white one had an interesting gentle, almost crumbly texture.

Tapas

Tororo Kombu
This was described to us as a "Triscuit" because it faintly looks like one and definitely felt like one when eaten. But instead of wheat and brown rice, this cracker was made using the scales of an icefish. Sandwiched within was a yummy piece of hamachi and some shredded kombu seaweed. For some reason this dish made me think of Europe's Nordic region, representing a certain hardiness, but also making the case that great things can come from adverse environments where foraging ingredients is hard. A simple, but poetic dish.

Tapas

Unagi
Eel teriyaki on a stick with a thick pickled plum puree and sesame seeds; umami with a touch of sweetness from the plum.

Tapas

Corn
Accompanied by UNI, NORI, and TOGARASHI. Given that sea urchins have such a creamy texture and buttery flavor already, it's not too much of a stretch to take some and blend it with actual butter; an ingenious flavor combination. The corn, skewered by a metal rod on both sides, is sprinkled with the mix of spices that is togarashi and then with nori flakes to give it that seaweed kick. Corn, with its natural sweetness, is the perfect counterbalance to the richness of the other components. Loved this dish. Still not a fan of the actual eating of corn, which always gets stuck in my teeth...

Definitely a Japanese-influenced course. My inner food hipster points out that most tasting menus are in fact omakase. Let's call this a mini-kaiseki. Percebes in Japanese is kami no te, or "turtle feet."

Chicken

Chicken

Probably the single most underappreciated ingredient. It can be really brilliant when done well, and there's just so many different ways to do it. This dish used both chicken meat, cooked in a tableside fire, and chicken liver, seared in a pan. Not sure which part the meat came from, but tender is not an adequate word to describe it. It was almost as if the cells were supersaturated with water and broken down into something similar to a pâté, but less congealed and more viscous. Examining the photo again, I think this was achieved by integrating an egg yolk and additional chicken stock, so I was essentially eating... homunculus of chicken. Very, very creepy to think about. The liver was rich and smooth, but provided an excellent example why duck liver is the gold standard; chicken liver edges off into a bloody, hint-of-metal flavor at the end of its melt. But it did go nicely with the dashi vinegar, soy, and dark brown sugar (muscovado?) sauce.

Also featured here is the charred daikon radish. What's interesting is that the chicken meat and daikon were wrapped in nori before being placed in the fire. This technique protects the wrapped material interior from the direct flames, from losing moisture. The daikon had a really nice mellow flavor, but what I liked most was the texture which, if you just sink your teeth in a little bit they'd get stuck, but if you fully commit to biting through then it snaps cleanly and becomes easily chewable afterwards.

My favorite part of this dish was what you see on the left. Kombu. Yes, more seaweed, but julienned into tiny strips. This was just amazing. As soon as you put it all in your mouth and bite down, you get the most wonderful, deeply visceral, noisy crunch and it just kept crunching and crunching with every successive bite, slowly being broken down by the double threat of mastication and saliva but maintaining a significant amount of resilience all the way through. What an absolute joy to eat.

Hot Potato

Hot Potato

Hot Potato is a dish that's been around at Alinea since pretty much the beginning. It's an iconic call to history, inviting diners to partake in what is undoubtedly one of Grant Achatz's greatest creations, that one song you keep including in your mixtapes no matter what the other tracks are. Hot Potato - it's what makes Alinea Alinea.

Humans began eating food by shoving it into their mouths with their fingers. Over time, as we discovered how to cook and the wide variety of ingredients, we developed utensils that made it easier to eat certain things. Chopsticks, spoons, forks, skewers, knives... In this dish, a special type of bowl is used. It contains an incredibly rich, creamy, cold truffle broth. Through the side of the bowl, there is a pinhole through which a long needle skewer is inserted. A square of aged parmigiano is inserted, followed by a square of butter, a tiny cut of leek, and a warm round sphere of potato flesh, topped by a slice of black truffle.

To eat, you hold the bowl with one hand, and with the other you pull the pin such that the skewered ingredients fall into the broth, and then immediately bring the bowl to your mouth and consume everything at once.

Rather than telling you, I think it's more worthwhile imagining what this is like. Take some time, give it a shot. Isn't it marvelous?

Olive Cake

Olive Cake

Two exceptionally soft sponge cakes fully dyed with a peppery extra virgin olive oil. When you eat out at an Italian restaurant, it's common to receive a plate of bread (preferably focaccia, which has great absorbency) and olive oil. You tear off a slice of the bread, dip it into the oil, and it's yummy. Achatz pops it into his mouth and thinks, "It's a great food experience. But imagine if we took this concept and propelled it to the absolute pinnacle of its excellence - its ne plus ultra. How tasty would that be?"

And so it is realized. This is the better-than-focaccia which achieves a perfect 100% olive oil absorptivity, evenly distributed through virtually every cell of the bread. Of its conception, two words come to mind: absolute genius. But as a course, by itself?

Lamb

Lamb

With this we slide distinctly into the Mediterranean realm. The lamb itself is tender and juicy, but otherwise unremarkable. It's hidden underneath a beautifully plated mélange of caper leaves, olives, grapes, sorrel, and thyme. The only distinctly Alinea thing about this dish seems to be the olives, which come in the form of small, thinly sliced circles with no hole in the center. The middle, translucent, is juicy and flavorful - the rich olive essence seems to drain out onto your tongue as in osmosis.

But the sauces really made this dish probably my favorite of the night. The black dollops are concord grape, the white is yogurt (labneh). You're instructed to take the olive cake and drag it across the sauces, and the resulting flavor is the very best kind of interesting. First, you're hit with deep notes of grape, which mellow into the dairy of the yogurt. As you chew, the olive oil slowly enters the mix, adding layers of complexity which work exceptionally well with everything else. A bit of salt in the sponge cake enhances the whole experience.

Black Truffle

Black Truflfe

This was presented by the waiter as something Achatz used to cook while he worked for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. Most diners probably love hearing this because they now get to try something from the legendary kitchen, but others might be off-put by the fact that this isn't exactly Alinea. I fell into the former camp.

It's a pasta - a large raviolo on a spoon - containing a sharp black truffle stock that explodes into your mouth as soon as you bite in... keep your lips closed! A thin cut of parmesan is laid on top with a piece of romaine lettuce. I wonder if the earlier Hot Potato was the Alinea evolution of this dish, as it had fundamentally the same ingredients presented in a decidedly alternate fashion. Hmm.

This dish reminded me of the Chinese xiaolongbao, a thin dough bun in which traditionally pork meat and aspic are placed, then wrapped and steamed, melting the aspic into a jus which is contained by the bun. Upon biting in, you get to savor the jus and munch on the pork at the same time.

Parsnip

Black Truffle

The first of the dessert courses, this one had us both stumped. Based on the color, shape, and shiny glaze, I thought it was a candied carrot; my dining partner thought it was a potato because the interior was white and fluffy like that of a potato (and also similar in flavor); it turned out to a parsnip. I blame this transgression on the fact that neither of us eat enough parsnips, or eat parsnips in general. Aren't parsnips old people food?

But it was good. The skin was chewy and sweet, the interior warm and starchy - a winning combo to be sure. The snowy white stuff you see is powdered dehydrated vanilla bean, great fun to lick off your fingers. The crunchy crumble consisted of more vanilla, cocoa, and a light orange syrup, underneath which lay a powerful gelato of burgundy truffle, by far the most fascinating aspect of this plate.

Every spoon of that gelato was just filled with that unique earthy truffle flavor, but in the unexpected form of a cold and creamy dairy product. The taste was somewhat overpowering and I'm not sure how it fit in with the rest of the dish, but was still very interesting to consume to say the least. It would've been better balanced had it been slightly toned down.

Balloon

Balloon

Very confusing. How does one eat a balloon? Probably the most innovative dish of the night, and something you won't find anywhere else in the world.

Spoiler alert: reading ahead will show you how to eat a balloon.

What is a balloon? Thin layer of rubber and helium. Alinea's Balloon simply uses a green apple taffy instead of rubber. You're instructed to "kiss" the surface, puncturing the taffy and causing the helium to escape, making sure not to get it stuck in your hair. As it deflates, it becomes more manageable and you're then able to stuff it in your mouth as you would a taffy. I had a lot of fun eating this because I decided to start talking as soon as I kissed it, and as you might expect my voice rose an octave or two as the helium expanded through my gullet.

This dish might have not used fresh, local ingredients, but I'll be damned if they didn't spend a lot of time doing the research needed to make this possible. For example, there must be an optimal surface tension for the taffy. Too little and the helium would pop it, too much and the balloon would sink. The taffy also has to taste good. You can't just take a green apple and stretch it out. There are certain chemicals, used in certain proportions, cooked in certain ways that enable the taffy to taste exactly as it does while being helium inflatable.

Tropical fruit

Tropical fruit

People love to talk about how food is art and this final dessert set out to make that (as) literal (as possible). The chef comes to the table and unrolls a rubberized "tablecloth" over the existing tablecloth, and then begins painting with various sauces. I took an itinerary of what's here:

Sauces
Brown - dark rum
White - allspice
Orange - mango

Petits fours, from left to right
Dragonfruit cube
Passionfruit, halved
Guava "gum drop"
Bourbon infused pineapple toffee
Candied watermelon
Caramelized banana
Kaffir lime nougat, wrapped in sticky rice "paper"

And then to finish, a waiter brings a large white sphere to the table, sets it down in the center, places a thin sheet of milk chocolate on top, and with one swift motion just shatters the whole thing with the back of a spoon. A billowing cloud of steam emanates forth in all directions, and you just can hear it crackling. Coconut. A flash-frozen marshmallow resting on top of milk chocolate.

Needless to say, this finale was awesome. The only utensil you're given here is a spoon, which you can use to scoop up the sauces and the coconut. You can mix them up, play with the candies, swirl the candies around in the sauces... Near the end I childishly put both of my palms in the now thoroughly-mixed sauces to see if I could leave handprints, but this wasn't terribly successful. Luckily a waiter led me to the bathroom and opened the door so I could wash it off!

What made it particularly great is that, as much of a Jackson Pollock-esque demonstration as it was, the flavors actually worked well together. Every candy you ate was a completely new flavor and texture sensation, and the sauces were perfect to reset your palate in between bites. A supremely stylish dish that manages to back it up with substance is quite rare.

Debrief

It was a seriously great dinner - a mini world tour in a meal. Alinea genuinely does push the boundaries of what food can be, engaging all of your senses in some way or another. The terms dinner theater and Cirque du Soleil frequently used by other reviewers seem accurate. Not only did everything taste superb, I also had plenty of fun.

But magic?

Only traces. Alinea is no elBulli and can never be, nor should or does it attempt to be. It can only be Alinea. I've figured out that the magic I craved was only half brought alive by the cooking techniques, and that the other half was... me. It takes a special kind of innocence to be open to magic, and unfortunately most of mine is gone.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
-Arthur C. Clarke

Ironic, really, that the science of molecular gastronomy serves to create magic, but taking a scientific approach to dining dispels it. Knowing how the trick is done makes the trick less satisfying. I never fully understood that until now, and as weird as it sounds, I think I've matured a bit after eating here. Magic can still exist so long as I retune its definition. Instead of hunting for bombastic world-changing revelations, I should focus on well-thought out, great tasting, nicely paced, memorable experiences. I'll no longer spoil myself by doing extensive research on the food before dining at a restaurant - especially one of this caliber.

In closing

Let it be said: checking something off your bucket list should feel like a great accomplishment, the kind of thing that fulfills your soul or superego. Typically these are things you look forward to with great anticipation, things that take time to do or prepare for, or both. But what is a bucket list? Ultimately, a list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket. So in a sad and hilarious way, checking something off is also a reminder you're just that much closer to dying than you were before.

Hm.

This world of food
is a world of food
and yet, and yet...

-A poem by Kobayashi Issa
remixed by me

1/8/16 edit: must watch.