Midwest Trip: Alinea

Wednesday, June 15th, 2005 | Food, Travel

Well, I just had one of the one most interesting meals of my life. Last Wednesday. Not only meals, but experiences. En route to Moline for the graduation party of BC’s niece Maggie, we stayed the night with BC’s dad, Stephanie, in Chicago, and I treated them to a dinner at Alinea.

One enters the restaurant though a narrow hallway that, due to the height of the ceiling lowering quickly as one proceeds down it, disorients, like stumbling down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland. The entry is an appropriate introduction to a cuisine that takes the notion of food as sustenance and extends it into the realms of sensation and invention.

Our first course was a tiny amuse bouche consisting of a wafer-like cylinder dangling from a grape branch. Within the cylinder was an intensely sweet grape surrounded by a peanut butter, that we were instructed to nibble straight from the branch. Course after course followed, each more challenging than the previous. The snapper course was so complicated that I don’t think I can articulate what happened. The snapper was embedded, like the yolk of a fried egg, within a thin tofu crust, topped with a lemon curd, and surrounded by pickled cucumber, tiny soy beans and a soy milk broth, the air scented with a ginger essence that the waiter created by grating ginger over each of our plates. He also poured the ginger juice from the essence production into the soy broth. Another course was a single broccoli stem enveloped in a thin brioche, sauteed in clarified butter, topped with a single slice of candied grapefruit skin, steelhead roe sprinkled about, a grapefruit skin shmear on the side of the bowl, all the flavors assaulting the tastebuds from every conceivable direction. The bison was one of my favorite dishes, served on the plate as a flirtation with beet and blueberries. On the left of the plate was a slice of bison filet next to a pile of dried blueberry dust, to dip the bison in. Moving diagonally across the plate, there first was a sort of salad of bison meat and fennel, covered in a thin gelatinous layer of beet, and next a puree of beet swirled into a puree of fennel, and then a few fresh blueberries, and finally a perfect miniature golden beet at the far end of the plate. There was also a tiny smoking dish on the plate that we were instructed not to eat, that provided an accompanying scent; cinnamon bark slowly roasting on a heated stone. Oh wait, back up a few courses to the heart of palm dish. 5 tiny stands were placed before each of us, in a single row. We were instructed to roll the contents directly into our mouths. On each stand was a slice of heart-of-palm hollowed out and filled with first a lemon pudding, then a bulghar wheat and garlic filling, then a prune-plum filling topped with sliced olives, and the final one stuffed with a persimmon truffle mixture. There was also a course consisting of a cube of avocado, a tiny wedge of burned orange, a sliver of olive, and a tiny shaving of orange zest, presented bobbing at the end of a skewer arced toward each of our mouths. We were again told to pluck it directly from the skewer using only our lips. We had twelve courses in all, plus a few extras like a glass tube filled with sour cream, dehydrated strawberry, and argon jelly, which were sucked out of the tube to come together like a science experiment in the mouth. Perhaps the greatest was the simplest, a bowl with a small dollop of pineapple foam in one corner, and near it tiny spoonfuls of pistachios, a reduced Chartreuse sauce, shredded coconut, angelica leaf and something else that I can’t remember. Whatever intense flavor was swirled into the foam combined dynamically with the pineapple flavor in the mouth and then dissipated quickly. One course was just a strip of bacon. But it was impossibly thin, fried to perfection, presented dangling on a horizontal skewer, and infused with the flavors of apple, butterscotch and thyme. The rabbit course paired little coins of bunny with morels in a reduction of delicious deepness, topped with a single perfect piece of wild lettuce and a nasturtium flower. There was also a liquid chocolate cake, a sponge cake attached to a vanilla bean that was used to sop up something fabulous and vanilla that has already receded from memory… Our wines included an Austrian Grüner and an Oregon Pinot.

I don’t get many chances to experience art that I can enjoy for such intense visual thrills and physical sensations, and get to eat it, too. If only all ephemeral art were this satisfying, and edible.

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