Saturday, May 3, 2008

Alinea: Cuisine as an Overwhelming Psychedelic Experience

I recently posted a blog about Chicago-style hot dogs, and in that post, I discussed my borderline obsession with food. For the last two months, I have been looking forward to embarking upon a culinary adventure unlike any other I had ever experienced before. My friend Autumn made reservations at Alinea in Chicago to celebrate my 31st birthday. Although I perused the web-site and knew that I was going to be experiencing haute cuisine, I had no clue what was about to happen to me.

The madness began as soon as the enormous front doors swung into a cavernous, post-modern foyer. One wall was lined with a curved white structure backlit with red, and it narrowed into a point that led to what looked like an elevator door. I immediately felt a sense of vertigo and leaned away from the wall, as it seemed to pull me into it. Autumn and I looked at each other, I clutched her arm and we almost burst into laughter. Then the metal door slid open, and before we could laugh, we were staring in the faces of two women and a man, all dressed as though they were in a Wall Street conference.

They greeted us in hushed tones with an almost robotic air. The design scheme was minimalist, with subdued lighting and the staff all wore ridiculously expensive looking suits--even the women. I immediately felt like I stepped into the future, and kind of wanted to go back to the past and get another hot dog.

We followed a pretty woman in a gray suit up a staircase. The runner was a curious material--I couldn't help but to bend down and touch it. It was slick, like so many beige, brown and black wire casings woven tightly. We stepped onto a plush charcoal carpet that, when we sat at our black wooden table in our curved and super ergonomic chairs, I had to take my shoes off to feel with my bare feet.

We looked at each other agape. The atmosphere was clean, quiet and slick. Even the air had a pure quality that I can't describe. It was as surreal a place as I have ever been, with the graceful angles, sharp molding and rectangular vases holding quince branches. Autumn and I are normally about as quiet as a construction site, and I felt my Noraness conspicuously bubbling to the surface.

I can't possibly expect you to go on a culinary flashback through every single course. In fact, after about the sixteenth, my memory began to stew in the wine and total, complete hedonism of the experience. But I will share the highlights, and I hope I don't bore you!

We started with a half-bottle of Bollinger as we read the encyclopedic wine list. Our sommelier, Justin, was a young dude who probably hadn't heard of half the vintages and regions until he started working in this warp in the spacetime continuum. I asked him where the Bolla was, and to his credit, he laughed.

He convinced us to do it his way, to go with a bottle of Loire Valley Pinot Gris. Since we were having a twenty-seven course tasting, white wine wouldn't overwhelm the delicate flavors and textures of the foods we'd be trying, and he would occasionally bring out a splash of different reds to accompany some of the dishes that could stand up to a red wine.

Our first two courses were aromatic amuse bouches, or little fancified tasty treats. One was a coconut custard topped with steelhead roe and a thin layer of cilantro-lime sugar, which give the creamy, sweet and salty insides an amazing crunch. The cilantro was subtly infused into the lime sugar and the roe was sparsely spread on the custard, which was so light, it felt like foam. The bite was positioned on the tip of a Tahitian vanilla bean, which served as the utensil. One bite of this insane combination of flavor and texture immediately sent me careening into an acid flashback.

The second aromatic amuse bouche came out on a blade of lemon grass. With a raw oyster coated with yuzu, a tangy Asian fruit, sesame and some kind of green fish roe, we slipped the end of the lemon grass into our mouths, eyes locked together. When the perfect blend of sea, salt, sweet and tanginess blew up in our faces, I felt my eyes widen as hers did. We covered our mouths with our hands at the same time, laughing in shock. I smeared the smooth bite around my mouth with my tongue, smashing the flavors into my taste buds. This was only the second course. As Justin poured our second glass of champagne, I knew I wasn't going to be able to keep it together for long.

Finally, when I made mention of wanting to find the ladies room, he sidled up silently behind me and said, "I will escort you." That, my readers, is when I finally lost it. I laughed so hard, and fought the urge to say, "Beat it, dude. Just point me in the right direction." I said something to that effect, and his answer was, "This is the five star dining experience. Don't fight it."

I laughed all the way into the ladies room, which was so unbelievably cool, I could have easily enjoyed the rest of my dinner in there. How they made a toilet seat so comfortable, I will never know. It must be Scandinavian engineering or something. And the walls were covered in what looked to me like strips of supersized vinyl record. Apparently other women had been compelled to touch the surface of the walls, too, because I saw two delicate scratch marks. Glad to know I'm not the only one who couldn't resist touching the walls.

Every time we left the table, a new linen napkin materialized, folded primly. Each course that required silverware had the utensils carefully placed upon Irish linen pillows. A crumb would only sit on the black mahogany tables for a second before it was almost magically swept away. The design of the utensils, glassware and serving dishes were amazing, too. Down to the last detail, the design elements were sort of like a timeless yet futuristic trip. Smooth and quiet with subtle explosions of the sublime; if you know me, you might understand why a place like that could mess with my head, for I am pretty much the antithesis of smooth and quiet.

As I returned, we were served probably the most disgusting sounding but truly delicious taste and texture combination. Know when you're making hot chocolate and the milk gets that funky skin on it? Well, apparently that happens with soy milk, too. So, they boil the soy milk, take the skin, wrap it around something to make it straw shaped and deep fry it. Then they wound a prawn around it and dusted it lightly with black sesame seeds and stuck it in what looked like a smooth black stone with a well holding a togarashi, or Japanese chili, and mayonnaise sauce.

I love me some hot food, but in the dishes I had tried that had any kind of chili at all, the heat was so subtle that it created a creeper effect. I would feel my mouth warm long after the bite was gone. It was amazing, the subtlety of the flavors and textures. The deep fried soy milk scum, as nasty as it sounds, was nutty, and crispy. The shrimp was perfectly cooked, julienned and threaded around the straw so I tasted a thread of it with every crunchy bite. The texture was reminiscent of deep-fried soft-shell crab, but more delicate. Each bite crumbled, dissolved and then melted away.

I'm having a really hard time deciding which courses to talk about; there were so many. Let me see if I can consolidate some of the experience. Although many common ingredients were used, like herbs, vegetables, fruit, meats and seafood, it was the combination of flavors, the presentation and the labor-intensive preparation of these foods that raised them to an almost holy level. They used a lot of gelées, or clear, gelatinous reductions of ingredients as accents, which compounded the flavors to such an extreme that it created a totally hallucinogenic experience. Autumn called it flavor squared, but I call it flavor cubed or flavor launched into the next dimension. Unfucking real.

For example, one course featured a green almond, which I can only describe as, like, a big seed. This was not like any almond I've had before. It was embedded in a lime gelée, not unlike green jello. But the consistency, I mean, down to the molecular level, was so ... consistent! The delicacy of it was light, cool and melty. The almond broke into soft fragments in my mouth and on the four corners of the square inch of lime gelée were incremental dustings of sugar, chili powder, fleur de sel and I don't know what the sour element was, but ... Jesus. The explosion of flavor was almost more than I could take.

I'm going to skip past the Kobe beef short rib and fried broccoli florets. I can summarize the course in two words: pot roast. The condiments were fabulous, including broccoli puree which tasted like the color green really should, but let's be reasonable here: I know fucking pot roast when I taste it.

I was far more impressed with the Hot Potato Cold Potato course, which was presented on a cup with a rounded bottom. A fork, holding a cube of hot potato, topped with a quarter-sized shaved slice of black truffle, was laid atop it, with the tines nestled into a niche in the delicate ceramic rim. Inside was a cool garlic, potato and butter soup.

I had to taste the truffle by itself. Although the whole point of this culinary adventure is to experience the flavors in concert, I have never seen a black truffle shaving in person, and I probably never will again. I really had to take an isolated taste. It's so strange that the flavor of something I have only heard about was so recognizable. I touched the tip of my tongue to the truffle and the I visualized the darkest depths of a French oak forest.

In that moment, I felt a disturbing flash of jealousy for the truffle-seeking boars once used to find these delicacies. It's like the flavor of the most delicious wild mushroom cross bred with (stop reading, Mom) sex. Then, when I downed it with the soft potato cube, the mellowness of the potato blended with the earth-flavored bliss of the truffle. I figured if an asteroid hit the city of Chicago, I'd be cool with it.

That doesn't even get into the smooth creaminess of the cool garlic butter and potato soup. It was probably only like an ounce of liquid, but the fat molecules coated my entire tongue with the most intense and gorgeous flavor, I thought I was going to start embarrassing myself and my dining partner. In fact, I think I might have passed that point already, but Autumn knows how I roll and she still brought me there.

I'm trying to narrow down the gazillion courses we had left, because I know I can't go on like this forever. But reliving the single most hedonistic culinary experience of my life is what made going to a place of pure insanity like Alinea so worthwhile. I will be living off this experience for all time.

After we did a cooling shot of carrot elixir with smoked paprika and orange, we settled in for a tasty treat that Peter invited us to taste and try to identify. It looked like a cube of cheesecake with a fruity topping, but it tasted smoky with a vaguely meaty texture. "Bacon," I said dreamily. "No, wait ... pork belly." I was right. Bacon, fatty as it is, cannot hope to achieve the succulent bounce of pork belly.

A square of pork belly crisped to the perfect consistency atop a base of polenta laced with smoked paprika and sweet pickled vegetables could have finished me off. It was roughly then that my memory starts to fade out. But not before we sampled a ball of rendered chicken skin cracklins rolled in truffle, corn and thyme. The Milk Dud sized bite packed more intense flavor than I expected. The crunch and dissolving fatty salty sweet goodness made me wonder if I was feeling what people feel when they die during sex.

That brings me to the bacon donut. Three bread courses were served with an organic sweet cream butter, studded with grains of black Hawaiian volcanic salt, each of which had the most intense flavor, and a goat butter, which, if you like goat milk products like I do, was insanely good. Although subtle, there is no mistaking that goaty flavor. Yum. Anyway, there was some biscuit like thing, which was pretty good, a pretzely thing which was okay, and then there was the ... bacon beigne, or sweet, sugar dusted crispy on the outside, soft on the inside bacony-licious fritter of love. Sigh. I need a cigarette.

That reminds me. I mentioned to Autumn at some point that I would love a cigarette. I hadn't smoked in a week, and I was craving one like no one's business. Suddenly, a besuited arm slid a folded napkin onto the table before me with a Marlboro Light and a lighter in the linen pocket. I was escorted to the front door and invited to take my time. It was about that time of the dinner that I started to feel like the whole night was a cosmic joke, that I was going to wake up in my bed, turn to Ken and say, "I just had the most insane dream ..."

I'm only going to describe one more course, I promise. In Chicago, it is now illegal to sell foie gras, so clever restaurateurs get around that law by offering "complimentary" courses featuring the divine taste treat. Although fattened goose or duck liver doesn't appeal to me on an objective level, I've never had it and, like the black truffles, will probably never have it again. Yes, I know. It's a cruel practice, that forced-feeding of the birds, but you know what? I don't think the piggies in my morning bacon live the life, either, so there you have it.

Wrapped in what I can only describe as a delicate, toasted mango cylinder, the creamy, mousse-like foie gras paté was similar to the truffle in that even though I'd never had it before, I recognized the taste immediately. Absolutely unlike the taste of any liver or paté I've ever had before, the rich consistency and flavor could be described as a meat dessert. Joking, I told the woman who presented us with it that I could do the same thing with a fruit roll up and some liverwurst. Fortunately, she had a sense of humor. Don't try that at home; although it's roughly the same concept, I don't think it'll have the same effect. When I think of it like that, it highlights the insane genius that conceptualized such pairings. Mango and liver? Really?

There is so much more I'd like to tell you about. Usually, when I eat, I just unhinge my jaw and swallow food whole, excited to get on to the next thing. For once, though, I was happy to pace myself, to taste every flavor in every bite. Some of the courses were just that--one bite, a complex layering of contrasting tastes and textures. A pink, free-formed "transparency" was presented to us to eat like colored glass. The raspberry flavor of the paper-thin, dissolving crunch of the sugary sheet, was studded with tiny, dried rose petals, which tasted like ... roses. It was like blending a floral arrangement with fruit and glass. I've never had anything like it.

Tiny morsels of honeydew, ham and pine gave me the meaty, fruity and turpentine-y illusion of eating a fresh Picasso painting. The most delicately butter-poached lobster almost made us cry and the a divine taste of the pure pecorino cheese opened new neurological pathways in my brain. Strawberry paired with nicoise olive might sound like a barf-maker, but oh, no; and I usually hate olives. Yet, I am here to tell you it was awesomeness on a spoon.

To bring us back down to earth, we each had a cappuccino. The desserts, really, don't even register in my memory. I had to delete some serious files to make room for the courses I can remember, and even though we were sent home with a souvenir menu of our tour, I still have very little recollection of the dessert courses. I thought that a four hour food adventure full of tiny portions couldn't hurt the likes of me, but I was wrong. Almost 24 hours later, and I am still sick to my stomach with the richness of that food. Too rich for my blood, indeed.

After coffee, Justin brought us down to the kitchen, where, if it were an episode of Cribs, he would have said, "This is where the magic happens." Militantly and simply organized, a troop of chefs and sous chefs lined the work stations, minutely slicing, saucing, sautéeing, arranging, and otherwise presenting the food in ways pleasing to all the senses. It looked like painstaking work, and leading the charge was Jeff Pikus. The man is dreamy in every conceivable way: gorgeous, young and cooks like the devil.

I was still hallucinating from the foods on the tour, and was mesmerized by the action in the kitchen as Justin pointed out each station. I was surprised to hear that the head chef and owner, Grant Achatz, was only thirty-four years old. Sigh. When I realized that my contemporaries were capable of such creative genius, I felt a flash of jealousy. What kind of talent and passion does it take to be a success, not only in the restaurant industry, but in the world of haute cuisine?

Autumn and I just shook our heads and linked arms, exiting through the sliding silver doors into the whacked out looking foyer. This time it was a little less frightening and gave me less of a feeling of vertigo. I knew I'd be exiting onto Halsted, ready to resume the life of the average suburban hausfrau that I am. I have to tell you, Alinea was a culinary trip I won't soon forget. Even after tasting some of the most exotic and amazing food I am ever likely to eat in my life, I'm glad to get back to food as I know it. After writing about my night of excess, I actually feel a little better, a little less over-indulged. Maybe I needed to psychologically purge that richness and insanity. Maybe I really am just a simple girl after all. But I'll be living off the flashbacks of this culinary trip forever.


Ratherto said...

Nora - I'm glad you had fun, but I get uncomfortable when a place has more than one fork. Although some might think Alinea is wonderful, what you described to me sound like a personal nightmare of mine.

Nora said...

See, that is perfectly in line with my acid metaphor. Just when the trip is getting good, all it takes is one hallucination to send you into the bathroom to rock on the cold tile floor and look at your hands saying, "it's just the drugs. It's not real."

I mean, from what I understand. I know nothing about that kind of thing.

Jude said...

And to think ths all started when we took you to your first buffet..and lucky for you it wasn't THE OLD COUNTRY BUFFET!!!!. But it does put a big bite in my Moses Loaf!!!! When I hit the Lotto we ARE going to go !!!!

Nora said...

You'd love it the most, Mommy.

Luke Baggins said...

Happy Birthday! I can't believe I've been away from here for so long. That's one of the best food porn pieces I've read in a long time. I hope your b-day festivities continue to rock!!

Nora said...

Thanks, Luke. That was some food porn. I forgot you're as much of a food whore as I am when it comes to gratuitous details. That rules. My birthday was awesome this year. Five consecutive days of seeing friends and family for visits that included food, booze and/or cake. 31 rules!

Graham Tully said...

Wow, Nora. I am a food whore but I bow in wretched supplicance to the Babylon of food whores. Kudos, in other words...(Graham)