My first meal at Alinea was in 2009. At that time there were two menus: a smaller, more focused 12-course tasting and a 24-course "grand tour" of the restaurant's cuisine. I overall really enjoyed my first meal quite a bit, though I thought it lacked focus and the kitchen was heavy-handed with the sugar. Since that time the two menus have been combined into a single 18-course tasting which I think is intended to bring focus and tell more of a story. While the dining room still felt icy, the service warmed up, a little. Our waiter seemed genuinely friendly, cracking jokes and making us smile throughout the meal. Once in a while, however, someone else from the kitchen brought our food and seemed a bit more distant and, well, self-satisfied. I think we got really lucky, our waiter was great.
We ordered a glass of champagne and began the meal.
Golden trout roe, dijon, rutabaga, grapefruit - Amber beads of Michagan steelhead roe swimming in a squash broth with medallions of dijon mustard and black licorice. Here we had an unlikely combination of ingredients that worked very well together. The brine of the true roe countered any bitterness from the grapefruit, the result being something just slightly less sweet than an orange but with equal acidity. The dijon added a kick of short-lived spice. This seemed like Achatz's version of "Oysters and Pearls;" instead of two plump oysters we had two medallions of meaty dijon mustard custard. The dish also had temperature contrast -- warm medallions in a chilled broth. This was a great start to the meal.
Yuba, shrimp, miso, togarashi - A crispy stick of deep-fried tofu skin wrapped with a translucent shrimp speckled with black and white sesame seeds. At the base of the stick was a sweet and tangy miso cream. The best part of this dish was the sweet raw prawn and the toasty, nutty flavor the sesame gave it in combination with the yuba. Some bites tasted like buttered toast, one of the most delicious foods on the planet. The miso paste at the bottom was very concentrated, even overpowering. Anything more than a quarter drop prevented me from tasting anything except the miso paste.
Octopus, eggplant, coriander, red wine - A fork carrying a cube of octopus purée topped with coriander and red wine gelée. The fork hovered precariously in a specially-made bowl above an eggplant foam. I loved the sweet creamy texture of the octopus, but the flavor wasn't obvious. I also don't think the eggplant did much for this dish.
Our waiter returned with three orange flags and placed them on our table. He explained that they would be used for a later course. What could these be for?
Oyster leaf mignonette; scallop, hitachino, weizen, old bay; razor clam, carrot, soy, daikon - An oyster leaf served on the half shell of a real oyster topped with a traditional mignonette sauce. The green leaf tasted very similar to an oyster, with the same metallic and briny aftertaste. The scallop was buttery and sweet, and topped with a beer foam. The razor clam was very savory and was garnished with root vegetables.
English Pea, olive oil, chamomile, green apple - In the first part of this trio of dishes, we were shown a sprouting garden of pea leaves growing from a sweet pea soup. The flavor was fresh and vegetal, with natural sugars coming from the peas.
The upper dish was lifted away to reveal the second part of this dish, consisted of chilled freeze-dried peas with a spring pea meringue. This was a beautiful potpourri of different textures and spring garden colors. The flavor was savory with a hint of sweetness coming from the peas. The texture was quite starchy.
For the last part of the trio, a frozen pea purée with green apple sorbet and frozen greek yogurt. This was very sweet and perhaps would have been best served as a dessert.
By this point in the meal, I noticed that many of the courses so far had bowls and plates perfectly shaped for the function of the dish. I asked our waiter which came first, the concept or the plate? He told us it was a fifty-fifty split: sometimes the plates are designed by the artistic team and the kitchen uses those constraints to develop a dish.
Hamachi, west indies spices, banana, ginger - A chunk of yellowtail deep-fried in tempura batter, banana, and ginger skewered with a vanilla bean. This tropical bite was crispy and sweet, a nice contrast to the previous cold sorbet.
Wild mushrooms, pine, sumac, ramp - A collection of foraged mushrooms minimally cooked so as to maintain their textural integrity. The mushrooms were earthy and nutty. The pickled ramps offered an acidic contrast to keep each bite interesting. The pine was fragrant and light. The sumac held everything together. This was a brilliant dish.
Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter - This dish was just as good as I remembered it. So much so that I pleaded for another. In this Achatz signature dish, a piping hot carved potato is held above a cold buttery potato soup. When sliding out the skewer the hot potato mixes with the cold potato soup creating a mixture that is simultaneously hot and cold in the mouth. The truffle was remarkably fragrant and the heat from the potato helped to activate its aroma. There's a reason this dish is always on the menu, it's outstanding.
Short rib, olive, red wine, blackberry - This was a very complicated dish that required 100% attention to the instructions to enjoy. It's also a dish that can be easily ruined if not done properly.
The flags our waiter had placed on the table were removed from their flagpole and laid over a four-sided asterisk elevating the edges into a bowl. the orange flag, we were now told, was a tomato pasta and we were about to make our own ravioli. In front of us was a plate of multiple toppings: smoked salt, blackberry, black garlic, and pearl onions.
Since the ravioli had to be folded there wasn't a chance to easily re-season, it had to be done correctly the first time. Unfortunately, I put on a pinch of the tablespoon of salt, which was ten times more salt than necessary. I had over salted my dish making it inedible. The short rib, it appeared, was already salted. I destroyed my own dish, for which I accept responsibility, I just wish I had been warned about salt prior. This could have been a highlight dish of the night; instead frankly, it was awful. My dining companion who left out all salt, loved it.
Black truffle, explosion, romaine, parmesan - A single raviolo of black truffle stock topped with parmesan cheese, lettuce leaf, and a thin slice of black truffle. It's hard not to love the creamy, meaty flavor of the parmesan and black truffle. The raviolo "popped" in my mouth like an adult gusher. This was great.
Agneau, sauce choron, pomme de terre - A recipe straight from Auguste Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire. As a 300-year old dish from a 100-year old cook book, this course was served on antique dishware. The wine glass was beautifully etched with birds and leaves. Here, two lamb medallions sat atop an equally shaped buttery puff pastry with potato. The flavor was buttery and rich. Wow.
Between this course and the Escoffier dish I had last year, Chef Achatz has clearly demonstrated a masterful precision with his cooking that equals some of the founders of modern French cuisine (Paul Bocuse). In a way, I wish more courses were like this. This was my favorite course of the night.
The Escoffier dish was paired with a glass of Cedar Knoll Vineyard's 2006 cabernet, a dark fruit-forward wine with hints of black currant and vanilla.
Venison, cherry, cocoa nib, eucalyptus - Our waiter placed a bowl of ruffled eucalyptus leaves in front of us for a minute or two to appreciate the pine-like aroma of the plant. The bowl revealed a metal skewer just poking through the pile of leaves. When our waiter returned, he explained the dish: a tender medallion of deer topped with sweet cherry and bitter cocoa nib. I'm not sure if the cherry and cocoa nib enhanced the flavor of the dish but it sure made it unique.
This course stimulated my sense of smell as much as it did my taste buds. Chef Achatz pays as much attention to the visceral components of a dish, how it affects a diner's sense of smell and touch, as the flavor itself.
Snow, yuzu - A conical palate cleanser made from liquid nitrogen-frozen yuzu. The shape resembled a snow cone, a tribute to American childhood nostalgia. Like being handed an ice cream cone, there was no way to rest this dish on the table until it was finished. The frozen conical dish also chilled the air around it heightening the fresh sensation as my face felt cool from its presence. The flavor was bright and clean.
Sweet potato, cedar, bourbon, pecan - Sweet potato, pecans, a cayenne cotton candy, and bourbon glee were placed in front of us on a block of very aromatic cedar. The aroma was evocative of a winter's night in the mountains. The warm and cozy sensation this dish gave was particularly interesting as it followed the frozen snow cone, a pair of dishes that chilled and then warmed. The flavor was woodsy and sweet, the sweet potato tasted like a well-cooked carrot with a dash of brown sugar. The bourbon added a boozy component that helped counter the dish's sweetness. This was wonderful.
Lemongrass, dragon fruit, finger lime, cucumber - A glass tube was rested in front of us with its contents suspended in liquid. It was fun swaying the cylinder back and forth before finally eating it, much like a kaleidoscope. I ate the dish with a single suck through the translucent glass tube, the flavor was light and crisp, dominated by the acidity of the lime. The dragon fruit didn't have much flavor, but it sure looked pretty with its black-on-white seeds.
Chocolate, blueberry, honey, peanut - A dessert even more grand and spectacular than the last time. Our waiter removed all dishes from the table and unrolled a rubber table cloth. Another waiter placed down small bowls of blueberries, honey, peanut nugat, liquid nitrogen frozen mousse, and berry sauce. Chef Achatz himself stepped out of the kitchen and began to plate our table.
Much of the process was like watching Jackson Pollock at work, a splash of chocolate sauce here, a drizzle of peanut nougat there. Chef Achatz did all this without making eye contact or saying anything for that matter. When he poured the caramel onto the cloth I noticed the drops were self-forming into perfect squares. I broke the silence and asked him about this to which he replied, "have you seen Harry Potter … we call it magic." My best guess is the tablecloth has some kind of capillarity that interacts with polar sauces, but I guess some things are better left a mystery.
The dish never got boring. Since this was a shared dessert for three people, each person picked and played with different combinations of ingredients making every bite taste different. This is the most memorable dessert I have ever had.
The funny thing about plating the entire table is that I didn't realize how beautiful the design was until I got home and started editing the photos. When you're sitting at the table and inside the work of art it's a bit like looking at an impressionist painting a few inches from the work: it's hard to see the big picture. Only when I got home and saw the photo with my wide-angle lens did I notice the bigger work of art. This was a pretty good example of how a camera can actually enhance the experience at a restaurant.
Surprise is a tremendous part of the enjoyment of molecular gastronomy. At dinner the dining room was still very quiet which meant that the scripted dish descriptions were delivered two or three times before our plate arrived. We didn't have much surprise. At El Bulli, for example, the dining room was gregarious and relaxed which muted out the wait staff explaining the dishes; to us, every dish came as a surprise. It's not an easy problem to fix, but I think focusing on lightening the severity in the dining room would make a better experience for everyone.
I enjoyed my meal. But while most of the dishes tasted very good they still lacked a story linking them together. Overall the meal felt disconnected to time and place and lacked the higher level harmony found at Quique Dacosta, El Bulli, and Sant Pau. Yellowtail with banana and vanilla? That's delicious, but why? What's the background story? Seems more like a tropical Carribbean treat. El Bulli seemed disconnected during my first visit, but upon returning it emphasized the concept of sequences -- four or five dishes chained together to share a cumulative experience. That really helped.
While the meal was more balanced than in 2009, there was still too much sugar. Some courses, like the sweet pea trio, might have been better served as a dessert. The hamachi skewer was exceptionally sweet as well. Is Chef Achatz pandering to a palate that truly demands this quantity of sugar?
I think Achatz's concept at Next, choosing a quarterly theme for the meal, will link the dishes together in a way that will force chef Achatz and chef Beran to tell a story. The time and place will be central to the meal. Alinea still feels like a hit list of the chef's best dishes. That being said, I still hope to go back ... in a year or two.