To view all my shots at Alinea you can see the entire set at Flickr.
One thing worth mentioning about Alinea. It’s a ton easier to get into than The French Laundry. Call, leave a message with preferred times and dates for dining. They actually call you back. I called about a week before I tried to make a reservation on a weeknight. They called me back and I got in. Then I had all these reservation rearrangements. They were incredibly sweet in fixing things. I have heard that you need to call at least a month ahead for weekend reservations, so that may be slightly more complicated.
Hot potato – cold potato, black truffle, butter
This was one of our gratis courses, and is one of the items that has been on the menu the longest. A hot potato topped with black truffle sprinkled with parmesan and cubes of Danish butter are speared on a pin above cold potato chowder. Withdraw the pin so that the items drop into the chowder and drink it all up. It’s a nice mix of hot and cold, so savory and tasty.
Wine: Cims de Porrera “Solanes”, Priorat, Spain 2002
Lamb – date, mastic, rosemary aroma
So we finally see the rosemary being put to use. Sizzling pedestals are placed in front of us with a hole in the end. The rosemary twig is placed in the hole. We were told that the pedestal is hot so that we can experience the aroma of the rosemary while eating. We were then handed chopsticks to eat the lamb. The first one is mastic with what looks like a cilantro leaf. The second was date with an oregano leaf, and the third is wine-braised cabbage. The lamb was perfect, seared to a nice salty, crustyness.
Bacon – butterscotch, apple, thyme
This came out on this cool highwire device. You simply pull the piece of bacon off and eat it. Applewood smoked bacon with butterscotch and dehydrated apple. This reminded me a lot of eating a bacon fruit rollup.
Wine: Oremus Tokaji Aszu “5 Puttonyos”, Hungary 1999 – nice sweet dessert wine, the puttonyos describes the number of baskets of grapes that go into making the wine. The higher the number, the better it is.
Orange – olive oil, green olive, almond
A great sweet and savory dessert. I was dining with two chemists so they were asking how to dehydrate olive oil, since it doesn’t actually contain water. We were told that it was not technically dehydrated. Rather they add tapioca starch to the olive oil to create a colloid. It also has vanilla beans in it. The orange bar is a bit like an orange creamsicle with an almond crust and tuile. There is also a gel of olive oil brine, green olives, orange gelee and some salty bits that I’m not sure of the origin. I ususally dislike the combination of orange and cream, as it has a tendency to taste very artificial and weird. But naturally that seems to refer to the realm of popsicles and sodas, so that’s probably also not very accurate. I loved the olive oil brine, which added a great mix of acid and saltyness.
Licorice cake – muscovado sugar, orange, anise hyssop
Our second gratis course. This comes out on a free swinging little metal skewer. They tell you not to use your hands to hold it. I cheated. It’s already a bit precarious enough without wispys of sugar all over my face. Ok, who am I kidding? I am already ridiculous, it wouldn’t have done much to change that. I’m not the biggest fan of licorice, as the aftertaste is always a bit too sweet and slippery. Licorice seems to be one of those polarizing foods, like Marmite. You either love it or hate it. It can sometimes be refreshing, but I mostly find it cloying. This was a lot of layers of sugary sweetness. I found this one to be a little bit more about fun than suited to my preferences.
Wine: Hans Tschida Chardonnary “Schilfwein”, Neusiedlersee, Austria 2000
Chocolate – passionfruit, kaffir lime leaf, soy
Venezuelan chocolate with a tube-like jelly of passionfruit, rice pudding, kaffir lime leaf ice, sweetened soy sauce gelee and marshmallow. Chocolate… mmm… passionfruit… mmm… rice pudding… yeah. Kaffir lime leaf ice fell on the table, and it was agreed by all three that this was a 5-second rule instance. Soy sauce gelee and soy sauce marshmallow… excuse me! but this is just wrong. I don’t really take issue with sweetened soy sauce, as it is often an element in Japanese and Korean cuisines with things like teriyaki and BBQ marinades. However, this was a very intensely flavor soy sauce, so it tasted a little like… blood with sugar, perhaps. My other two companions loved it, and took what I left behind. S. suggested sweetened soy sauce marshmallow Peeps. <shiver> Though I did add that it should have aniseed eyes and she suggested a roll in curry powder. Good God!
Caramel – meyer lemon, cinnamon perfume
First little weighted discs were set out, and then the dessert were placed on top of the discs. This was a caramel with candied meyer lemon, tempuraed with cinnamon sugar and skewered upon a cinnamon stick. I really loved the lemony caramel, and am an enormous fan of caramel. The tempura part also made this very pleasurable. However, I found the sprinkling on cinnamon sugar to be slightly heavy-handed, taking away from the star, which is the caramel. Still, very yummy, and a great way to end the meal.
I think that there are number of really strong elements about Alinea. The first is consistency. Everything was really good. Transcedent? Not all of them are quite at that level. The key was that they were all balanced so that for the most part, no one dish stands and separates itself from the others. That makes it a little easier on the chef as well, because often times one dish makes all the other pale in comparison. Two-star Michelin chef Gerard Pangaud had said that you’re fortunate if you can have two to three great recipes each year. For Achatz to continually create great new dishes is certainly an accomplishment. According to something I read, he retired about 250 recipes from his time at Tru, *Correction: Trio*. Pretty darned impressive.
The second is that each individual element of a dish works very well separately as well as part of the whole (with the exception in my opinion of concentrated soy sauce, but that’s just me). If any one piece of any dish were to be taken away from the rest, I would still be happy and satisfied, but blending the elements helps to create another level on which the food can be enjoyed. There are a lot of other restaurants that try and blend elements to be fashionable, but without much success. Case in point, the fusion movement, which seems to think that throwing soy sauce or wasabi on a dish is a magical catchall. So many of them fail to get the basics right to begin with, and then they worsen their plight even further. Alinea perfects their basics, and then plays with them to combine them well.
The third is presentation/service. The way the dishes are presented demand a certain level of service. Each course is throughly explained, from the method of consuming the dish to each element that is included. The place allows for all the senses to be teased. Though we did not experience this when we there, the color of the lighting can be changed, music and sounds can be targeted directly at guests to further intensify the experience. The sommelier also gave very lengthy explanations of each wine. For a noob like me this was fine, but I think the others thought that it was a bit much. When quizzed by chemists about the chemistry behind the food, the server handled their questions with aplomb. We were also allowed to view the kitchen, and given a full explanation of the different appliances and their uses.
So Alinea… a great place to blow a paycheck. The combined price for the three of us was more than my monthly rent and utilties in northwest DC. But was worth it? I’d answer that with a resounding yes.