Food Porn: Alinea

So on Friday night a big crew of us went to dinner at Alinea in Chicago. It’s a pretty swanky place. Definitely not your local Shake Shack. And it was good. In fact, the food was pretty great. Visually arresting presentations all the way, backed up by awesome flavors and textures, in a very hip, cool, and moodily lit space.

But still, the whole experience left me wanting more. Let me back up a bit.

We started with about eight or so of us wanting to go. We called at the appointed time (you have to call a month ahead) and they informed us that they only seat groups of up to six. After some quick googling, I read that the two six-top tables (rounds) were in the same room and so it’s not uncommon for groups to be put in the same room. So we went ahead and made reservations for the two six tops at 6:30 and 7 pm seatings, thinking it was more likely two large parties would be put together than one six top and a two top. We found a few more folks to join us for a final total of 11 diners.

As the date got closer and the confirmation and dress code calls came out and went in, we again tried to confirm if we would be seated in the same room, patiently explaining each time that we were a party of 11 and giving the names of both parties each time one of us placed or received a call. They, equally patiently, explained they could not state definitively where each party would be seated. We also tried to confirm that the two largest tables, the six tops, were in the same room.

Of course, you see where this is going. Already alerted to the fact that we were a large party that wanted to be seated near each other, we were, of course, placed far apart. Like, different rooms. Pretty much as far apart as they could seat us. So, I kinda already had a bit of a chip on my shoulder because they were just so unaccommodating.

Let me just say, I think the food was amazing. Definitely five-star dining all the way. The 18 courses (all pretty much a single bite) were totally innovative, inventive and playful. Chef Grant Achatz is a genius, no doubt. At 36, he’s got three Michelin stars and he knows his shit. He doesn’t have to answer to anyone, least of all me.

There were some pretty amazing and unlikely flavors (I’m looking at you hamachi with west indies spices, banana and ginger in a tempura shell skewered with a vanilla bean). I seriously, seriously loved this and would have eaten piles of it.

hamachi banana at Alinea, Chicago

You too, my little black truffle explosion—a piece of ravioli that literally bursts in your closed mouth when you press down on it. Even though we had been warned it would do that, it was still a surprise.

truffle ravioli at Alinea, Chicago

Another favorite of just about everyone was a bite made of Yuba or tofu skin, wrapped and fried into a stick with shrimp, miso and togarashi with a sauce. So cool and no utensils required.

yuba at Alinea, Chicago

There were also some familiar flavors elevated to new and unexpected heights (cold-potato-hot potato soup with black truffle and butter). This was another one of my favorites and was so, so good. One gulp was just not enough.

potato soup at Alinea, Chicago

That course was especially fun because it came out in a tiny bowl with some soup and a skewer/pin like thing with a few tiny components on it. You pulled the pin out of the bowl and the components dropped in and you drank it. See? Innovative. Fun.

Also fun and interactive was the short rib ravioli which was totally deconstructed and you put the tiny bite together thanks to a special plate that turns into a metal stand to hold your pasta while you construct it. Flavor wise, the rib meat was great. The other components weren’t really necessary and didn’t add much. (sorry, no pic. I was too busy eating)

Another fun presentation was a glass tube of lemongrass, dragonfruit, finger lime and cucumber liquid. You sucked the end which was stoppered with the dragonfruit and the refreshing liquid spilled out. Really, really cool. Very herbaceous.

lemongrass at Alinea, Chicago

The final course was the craziest – a chocolate, blueberry, honey and peanut mess featuring all kinds of techniques and textures that you ate literally off the table. A special table cloth is rolled out, they set out all the different ingredients, a couple of chefs come out and pour everything all over the table cloth in really cool artistic shapes and designs – there’s even dry ice! – and everybody grabs a spoon and eats it. Unfortunately, it took 45 minutes for the chefs to come out and assemble it. So we sat there with all the ingredients (mise en plaice) for 45 minutes wondering what the hell was going on. It kinda ruined the whole night. One waiter came by and acknowledged that the kitchen was backed up and said he was sorry for the wait, but that was it.

Dessert collage at Alinea, Chicago
I’ve blurred out the innocent. Sorry. Gotta be respectful of unknowing participants!
dessert at Alinea, Chicago
The carnage

There were only a couple of misses for me food-wise, including the above mentioned rib dish, which is technically only a half miss. One that I could not get into was this pea dish featuring English peas served about eight or nine different ways in a multi-tiered dish. The first portion had a really good pea puree, and for my taste, it should have stopped there. The second layer had dehydrated peas and freeze dried peas with chamomile and a few other pea-treatments that tasted to most of us like Captain Crunch. Not a bad thing, but weird. Finally, a third layer held pea ice cream with a dollop of parmesan crème fraiche. No thanks. The presentation was total rock star, but it just wasn’t for me.

peas collage at Alinea

The same with the tipsy cup of yuzu, or “snow.” It was a palate cleanser, but I wasn’t feeling it.

yuzu snow at Alinea

The food was great and certainly on par with other tastings we’ve done in the past, including Le Calandre in Italy (like Alinea, a three Michelin star restaurant), Mix in Las Vegas (mmm, curried lobster), and my personal favorite, Town House in Chilhowie, which makes sense since one of the Town House chefs came from Alinea. In fact, I might give Town House the edge. That beef cheek pastoral with milk skin, grasses, hay and toasted garlic is without a doubt one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, still to this day.

HOWEVER, I felt the service at Alinea was just way too fussy compared to how fun and innovative the food was. These guys take themselves very, very seriously. Don’t even try to joke or tease them. Which on a certain level, I get. Folks (us included) are spending gobs of money for a full-on dining experience. It’s definitely not the place to go if you want to have a “fun” time. Maybe it’s not even a place you go with a group of people. Maybe it’s just a two-person kinda place.

The only problem I have with that line of thinking is that I keep coming back to the fact that I thought the food was exceptionally fun, and there was a real disconnect between that playfulness on the plate and the fussiness of the service. I don’t necessarily know why. Like I said, we’ve been to equally fine dining establishments and I felt like the service in the places I mentioned above was very good but not overbearing or fussy. You didn’t notice the service at those places, you just knew that you had whatever you needed when you needed it. It was….unobtrusive.

The final other service note of irritation: on at least a couple of courses, the women at the table were not served first. It’s old fashioned and it’s not a deal breaker, but we did notice it. No biggie, but it was a surprise. Also; they got really irritated when some of us (ok, me) kept going over and checking in on the other table to get their thoughts on some of the food–a situation that could have been avoided entirely by placing us near each other.

And, as I said, a 45 minute wait betweent two courses at a three-Michelin star restaurant is just unacceptable.

Overall, it was a great experience when you weigh the pros and cons. But between the lack of accommodation for our situation and the fussiness of the service, I don’t think I’ll be going back again. There are plenty of other places to try, including a newish and intriguing project by Chef Achatz near Alinea called Next, which offers a tasting menu based on a specific time and place. Think 1906 Paris or futuristic Thailand. The menu changes four times a year and instead of calling for reservations, you buy tickets online. It all sounds a bit fussy, but maybe that’s just me.

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Chicago: 1, Poe: 0

 

Group_smiles

As I mentioned yesterday, we’re heading to Chicago Friday morning for a wedding this weekend. I’ve only been to Chicago once, but me and Chi-town (despite your deeeelishous pizza), we had a very rough start.

I went to Chicago for the first time in May for the Magellan Spring Half Marathon (May 15th). I want you to keep in mind what I just said there, particularly two key words: May. Spring. Got it?

Why Chicago? Well, my friends Matt, Melissa and Michelle are from there. And when Matt and Melissa took up running at the beginning of the year with the goal of doing a half-marathon, I got very excited. I thought, “Yeah! New running buddies to run with! And we’ll enter lots and lots of races, and collect tons and tons of tech shirts, and it will be totally awesome, we’ll be a Running Wolf Pack for EVA!!”

A few months later, Matt and Melissa informed me that they hated running. A lot. And that after the Chicago half-marathon that they had signed up for, they would probably never run again. Suddenly, all my dreams of a Running Wolf Pack began to evaporate. In a panic, and realizing this would be my only chance to run with them, I quickly signed up for my first half-marathon.

I’ve done my fair share of races. I’ve even done a couple of ten milers, including the George Washington Parkway Classic in mid-April. But I had never done a half-marathon. So I threw myself into training and we all did really well in our individual trainings. We felt physically and mentally prepared for the race.

Matt, Melissa and crew (including super-cheerleader Kelly) got to Chicago a couple of days before I did. They said it was cold, and the weather reports seemed to agree. Highs in the low 40s?? Since it was already pretty warm here in DC, I guess we all had forgotten what 40s felt like. Regardless, I made sure I packed a running jacket, some ear muffs and some gloves. Yep, that should do it.

It did not. We made a desperate last minute run to the now-boycotted-forever Nike to try to get some more appropriate running gear the day before the race. The place was mobbed, and fully stocked….with summer running gear. Hardly a parka to be found. And definitely no gloves. Poor Melissa and Michelle ended up wearing gardening gloves purchased at a drugstore.

When we woke up the morning of the race, we tried to pump ourselves up, convincing ourselves that the tiny peaks of sunlight indicated a nice, warm day. Then we got outside and we knew we were in trouble. It must have been in the 30s and the winds were 20-30 mph. With the wind chill, the temperature was (no shit) 27 degrees. Oh, and we were running entirely along the lakeshore, where the winds would kick waves onto us. Oh, and did I mention it was sprinkling the whole time?

We soldiered on and ran the entire race. It was pure endurance and stubbornness. And it was hands down the most miserable running experience of my life. I could not stop shivering after the race and when I took a hot shower, it hurt so bad. I just stood there in the shower for about 10 minutes before I could actually use my hands.

Hitting_the_finish
It’s all a blur. Literally, a blur. Also: I’m wearing my favorite race shirt, a UT running shirt. Which Melissa has reminded me is a Nike shirt and I can no longer wear. Awesome.

So yeah, Chicago has a lot to make up for.

Not_happy
This is not a grimace of triumph. It’s a visage of extreme pain.

I’m warning you Chicago: Running Buddy Amy and I are bringing our running shoes this weekend and I’m spoiling for a rematch.

Beers
I was too cold to drink beer. UNFATHOMABLE. Too cold? To drink beer?

Thuggery and Reality TV: Million Dollar Decorators

I’ll get to my latest reality TV obsession in just a minute, but first I want you to see this alarming headline from my friends at HuffPo (Short for Huffington Post. Cuz that’s what friends do. They shorten each other’s names. Admittedly, it’s a one-sided friendship.)

Six dead, at least 28 injured in shootings and stabbings in Chicago this weekend

WHAT?? If you look over at the box on the right hand side, you will see that I’m fixing to go to Chicago for a wedding. Now, luckily we’re only there for a little over 50 or so hours, so there’s not a whole lot of time for shooting or stabbing. And we’re eating at this restaurant, (which according to….Pelligrino [out of the side of my mouth: ?srsly? the water people?] is the sixth best restaurant in the world). So as you can see, we’ve already got the robbing-us-blind all lined up, thankyouverymuch.

Nevertheless, I’m very concerned about this outbreak in violence. Especially since there are so many more injured than killed. At least be good at your thuggery. I don’t want to walk around all maimed. I have a very cute dress for the wedding and blood does not go with it. Get it together, Chicago.

Gentle Reader(s),

Allow me to introduce you to one of the greatest shows ever created by those geniuses as Bravo (Andy Cohen, you are my little cross-eyed guru). Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be doing as well as the Housewives franchise and I’m fairly concerned that this little gem is going to fall off of Andy Cohen’s tiara come re-up time.

Behold! Million Dollar Decorators. It’s amazing. It comes on Tuesdays, but like everything else, we DVR it and watch it later in the week. Here’s Bravo’s description:

The network’s latest docu-series follows five of the most sought-after interior decorators as they navigate the high-pressured design industry for their wealthy, famous, and extremely demanding clients.

image
Yes, we are beautiful. And we like beautiful things.

The clients are fabulous (Sharon Osbourne, Daisy Fuentes), the rooms are over-the-top, and the sense of a good value ($8,000 to paint a floor — although, that floor really did make the room) has left the building. No flea market shopping for these fabulous designers, oh no. No shabby chic, daaaahling. It’s all wonderfully glamorous.

Five (ok six) things I’ve learned from watching MDD

  • Being an interior decorator is sometimes, “more important than being President of the United States.” Well, obviously, Jeffrey Alan Marks.

 

  • Decorating is Deelishous. Thank you Martyn Lawrence Bullard.curator-martyn
  • You can throw an Indian themed party just to celebrate a recent major shopping trip to India. You don’t even have to wait until said items are in your store to purchase. Right, Nathan Turner?

Mary in sari

  • Rich people are real jerks. I’m looking at you Joe Francis and Shannon Factor.

    Joe Francis
    “I said no wire hangers in my house in Mexico!”
  • Everyone should have an eccentric, possibly drunk, French housekeeper. Jacqueline is awesome.Jacqueline

What about you? Watching any awesome reality TV these days? Do you think decorating is deeelishous? If you had the money, would you hire one of these guys and then browbeat them over every decision, since you don’t have a job to go to or other people to hassle?