Thanksgiving Dinner at Borago in Santiago, Chile

For Thanksgiving this year, we ate stone soup. Oh, and leaves. I guess I should mention the leaves, since there was a plethora of leaves.

Nope, I’m not even joking.

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I guess we did it because we’re totally authentic, old-school Pilgrims. And that’s what the Pilgrims probably ate that first Thanksgiving.

(Actually, that first Thanksgiving menu was a lot better than our meal at Borago in Santiago, Chile. And, at least we had wine. Sorry, original settlers. Sucked to be you—on so many levels.)

Not really. We did it because we jumped on a low-cost fare and went to Chile for Thanksgiving week. And, well, you gotta eat somewhere on Thanksgiving, right?

 

Borago is the no. 36 restaurant in the world. As the World’s 50 Best explains: “owner-chef Rodolfo Guzman’s interest lies as much in the pastures and woods as much as it does the markets and kitchen.”

Let me tell you, this Guzman dude has been spending a LOT of time in the pastures and woods. So get ready to masticate some dusty flowers and lick sticks—literal sticks, aka: “pre-spring flowers skewers”—because eating at Borago means you will be eating items picked from the nearest tree and foraged from the wild woods of Chile.

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This girl before she realized she’d be paying a whole lot of money to eat foilage.

Especially leaves. So, so, so many leaves. A cornucopia, if you will.

borago-lamb-and-wild-aromatic-leaves

We had dry leaves next to a cube of grilled lamb.

borago-pickled-leaves

Pickled leaves sheltering some grilled octopus, aka: murder-y plate.

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Slimy seaweed type leaves over a tiny piece of fish.

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Leaf sandwiches with a couple of water crackers and a schmear of cream stuff in between.

Then, of course, there was the rock soup. Literal rocks—one of which is covered with a black bean paste and two are covered with some sort of gelatin—over which a rock broth is poured. You are then instructed to “scrape the rocks” and make your own bean soup.

borago-rok-soup

It was all….a bit much. We’re pretty adventurous eaters. Sidenote: My sister was asking me about this just recently, and said: “When did y’all start…..or why do you…. eat stuff that’s like…ummmm….not American?” Which legitimately made me chortle and snort. And then I said, “I don’t think you mean un-American, I think you mean, like, unconventional stuff.” Which—thankfully—she confirmed was what she meant, pointing out that I have willingly eaten rabbit, which she considers a no-go.

Oh, dear younger Poe. I’ve eaten so much weirder stuff than rabbit. Like, (below) raw kambucha fashioned as meat and a side of Pewan (aka, tree bark, I think!)

borago-kombucha-and-leaf

And we love a big tasting menu event. We trust chefs and want to go on a journey with them into what inspires them. We consider it all very much theater or art you can eat.

borago-dessert-with-twigs
It’s ummm, pretty, I guess.

But Borago definitely had us scratching our heads. We’re cool with being inspired by your country’s flora. But honestly? Almost nothing was very tasty. We just weren’t into the flavors. Or the flowers. I feel bad about it, but that was just the way it worked out this time.

borago-dried-flowers-and-artichoke-soup

That’s fine. When we got back home on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, my own personal-forager/chef-for-life XFE struck out into the wilds of our local Trader Joe’s and Harris Teeter stores and made me a fantastic, totally American Thanksgiving feast with nary a leaf or rabbit in sight. My Thanksgiving meal at Borago made me appreciate and love it all the more.

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Ah yes. More like it.

(XFE was also inspired to rake up all the leaves in our backyard that weekend, while I toyed with the idea of reaching out to Borago to see if they’d like to buy some.)

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A Dayquil-Induced Rant Against Pretentious Food Porn Magazines (Mainly, Saveur)

I was deathly ill last week. I was fairly certain it was the summer plague or typhoid. I’m not sure. My guess was walking pneumonia, but I’ll admit I tend to be a bit dramatic on these issues sometimes.

It started with a sore throat, some harmless coughing. Then, over the course of the next couple of days, it hit all the stages of grossness—stuffed up nose, phlegmatic cough, painful throat and ear canals and general miserableness.

I moved downstairs to the couch (in an effort to save XFE from both catching my disease and losing sleep from my coughing). And during those many long nights and days alone ensconced in my couch, drenched in Vick’s Vap-O-Rub, drinking cup after cup of Throat Coat (ok, and a hot toddy or two) and hopped up on various cold medicines, I had a lot of time to think about life’s mysteries and how precious good health is, and most importantly, the state of our household magazine subscriptions.

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Continue reading A Dayquil-Induced Rant Against Pretentious Food Porn Magazines (Mainly, Saveur)

Pinxto Paradise: 5 Pinxto Bars in San Sebastian

I love San Sebastian. I fell for it hard on our first trip there in 2012 and I’m still enamored. I legitimately want to buy an apartment there. I’m not exactly in a position to do so just yet but a girl sure can dream.

So what do I love about San Sebastian? Oh, just the culture, the architecture, the shopping, the people, the vibe, and the food. Especially the food. But first, a little background: This coastal city (known in Basque as Donostia) is a cross between Paris and Barcelona. With a gorgeous beach thrown in for good measure. It’s really just all too much of a good thing.

Which brings me to the food: San Sebastian is a serious foodie town with the most Michelin stars per capita in the world, second only to Kyoto, Japan. But when it comes to those mini works of culinary art known as pinxtos, I would argue that San Sebastian is home to the best.

Here are some of our favorites from this last visit:

Bar Txpetxa
Calle Pescaderia 5
If you want old school, this place is it. Txpetxa is a very traditional pinxto place featuring a fish-shaped menu hanging up behind the lacquered wooden bar. It’s primarily known for its antxoas or anchovies. The menu includes about 14 different types of pinxtos featuring its oceanic star, including one with blueberry jam which just sounds vile. I don’t know what would compel someone to put those things together. We skipped that one and ordered a couple of other anchovy-based pintxos. I, however, can’t stand anchovies, so to me, it tasted like cat food on bread. XFE has more refined tastes and he seemed to choke them down just fine. It’s tradition and I gave it a try.

Zeruko
Calle Pescaderia 10

Once we were done with our catfood and ready to give traditional pinxtos a swift kick in the scallops, we crossed the street over to Zeruko. This place is all about cool, modern molecular pinxtos. The mile-long bar display is a sensory overload as you try to make out just what ingredients are in each pinxto. Befuddled and overwhelmed, we settled on a few from the display (versus ordering off the kitchen board), including this gilded and grilled artichoke stuffed with a creamy filling topped with grilled scallops. We did not get Zeruka’s most famous dish, bacalao la hoguera, a piece of cod served up on a little grill that cooks in front of you.

A Fuego Negro
Calle 31 de Agosto, 31
Continuing on the experimental pinxto vein, we made sure to go nice and early to the much-hyped A Fuego Negro. We had tried to go the last time we were in the Parte Viejo, but the place was packed and we just couldn’t be bothered. On this visit, we had the Makobe with txips- a Kobe slider served in a tomato sauce bun with banana chips, and pajarito fritos, which was sort of their spin on chicken wings featuring some small—not chicken—bird. Pretty yummy and American-taste-bud friendly.

Sirimiri
Mayor Kalea, 18 (right next to—and affiliated with–our old favorite Atari Gastroleku)
The definition of Sirimiri is “a very light rain; stronger than mist but less than a shower.” What a great word! Sirimiri features a good mix of playful pinxtos with traditional. We had their version of “natxos” and some really wonderful roasted goat topped with pickled cabbage. They also, like their sister bar, make an unbelievably good gin and tonic, which Spain, and San Sebastian in particular, has elevated to an art form. Very small interior but wonderful, buzzy vibe.

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La Cuchara de San Telmo
Calle 31 de Agosto, 28
Saving the best for last: our favorite pinxto place in the whole wide world (so far). We love La Cuchara and every time we go (which can sometimes mean twice a day), we are constantly blown away by this place. How, oh how, does it not have a Michelin star? But don’t take my word for it: On our second night there, we struck up a conversation with a girl standing next to us at the bar. She told us she had been an apprentice chef at two-Michelin star Mugaritz and this was her last night in San Sebastian and she just had to eat at La Cuchara one last time.

We ate pretty much everything on the menu, revisiting some of our favorites from our last visit:  veal cheeks slow cooked in wine till they fall apart, bacon-wrapped scallop, cochinillo or suckling pig with an apple puree and topped with crispy skin. We discovered a couple of new favorites: grilled goat cheese with peppers, and roasted salt cod (bacalao) with tzatziki. And one dish that I did not care for: pig trotters. I am just not a fan of gelatinous proteins.

On our final night in San Sebastian, we reluctantly said goodbye to our bartender friend at La Cuchara and stumbled out onto the cobblestone streets with full bellies, trying to wrap our minds around all the new flavor combinations and textures we had had this trip. It’s impossible to pick a favorite pinxto, but I do know this: we will be back, San Sebastian. As soon as I win the lottery and can plunk down a down payment that apartment overlooking La Concha beach.

How to Know if You’re a Pretentious Foodie

I’m at a three day work event where I’m sitting right next to my boss, elbow to elbow, in a basically subterranean bunker with practically no cell phone service. So no personal Twitter, no Web surfing for weird blog fodder, not even texting with XFE. This must be what solitary confinement is like. Oh, plus inspirational speaker after motivational speaker.

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And, I did not write anything for the blog this past weekend because I was busy not preparing for XFE coming home on Saturday evening. He specifically told me to pick something up for dinner. But I was so paralyzed by my potential to pick the wrong thing that I fell back into my default position: wait until XFE tells me what we should eat. This ineffective dining strategy earned me a well-deserved scolding. However, I did not really detect any element of surprise.

But, I did buy the ingredients for a feast on Sunday night. XFE made homemade pasta with tomatoes, basil, garlic and lobster shrimp, which are, SHOCKINGLY, shrimp that taste just like lobster. I know, right? Crazy! Let’s hear it for science and genetically engineered seafood. There are no pictures because, well, I slurped it down way too fast.

Pasta
We’ve made this pasta dish before, but it had been a while.

We had actually built up quite the appetite on Sunday….we went and looked at our first house. XFE has decided to dip a toe – potentially – into the housing market. This is, of course, fraught with anxiety and trepidation on my part. I’m pretty lazy and hesitant to change. But, we’re a team and I trust XFE. If he says it’s time to look into buying a house, then it’s time.

We were influenced by this handsome devil. He has a website all about the DC housing industry called the Cribline. He’s become our real estate guru. In return, we buy him dinner once in a while.

Wolf Hammer

We had a dinner guest on Sunday (not our real estate guru, unfortunately). The topic turned to whether XFE and I consider ourselves “foodies.” Now, foodie is one of those terms I don’t think you can really self-proclaim. It seems a bit pretentious to say, “Why yes, Sir Grey Poupon, I am interested in the fine masterpieces of the culinary arts.” So we went through a checklist of endeavors that might indicate that one is a foodie.

Townhouse menu
  • And, if you got genuinely upset when you discovered that said young chefs had left that restaurant before you’d had a chance to eat there again, you might be a foodie.
  • If you own a Big Green Egg and consider it one of your most prized possessions, you might be a foodie.
  • If you’ve roasted a 25-pound suckling pig on your brick patio, you might be a foodie.
Roasting a pig
  • If your boyfriend owns a beginner molecular gastronomy kit, you might be a foodie.
  • If you’ve spent an entire day (6.5 hours to be exact) making Rick Bayless’ mole (Project Mole 2009), which required about 26 ingredients gathered from eight different stores and four pages of instructions, you might be a foodie.
  • If you won’t buy pasta and only eat homemade pasta, you might be a foodie (and a real snob on top of it.)
  • Ditto on barbecue sauce. Actually, anything at all related to barbecue. Double points if you’re best friends with your butcher and ask him not only for fine meat products, but also vacation tips.
Texas style BBQ Ribs
Can you hear the angels singing?
  • If you, while in the throws of a 10-day bout of food poisoning during a vacation in Northern Italy, insist on honoring your lunch reservation at a three Michelin star restaurant for the 12-course tasting menu, even though the price of said lunch is about the same as a hand woven Turkish rug and you go to the bathroom and throw up after every other course, but still insist on tasting everything, you might be a foodie. And, it goes without saying, you might be insane.
Lunch at Le Calandre, Italy
“If I throw up the 3-Michelin star, 12 course luncheon, we don’t have to pay the bill, right?”
  • If the majority of your souvenirs from overseas trips are food-related (ie: ceviz walnuts and sahlep from Turkey; Thai curry and dried lime basil from Bangkok; mustard from Paris; smoked paprika from Spain; wine from Australia. And Italy), you might be a foodie.
  • If you sweat each time you go near Customs because you’re genuinely concerned not that you will get caught with the food items and have to pay the fine, but instead it will get confiscated and you’ll never get to enjoy the item, you might be a foodie.
  • If a chef’s kitchen and a place to store your Big Green Egg and gigantic grill and wine fridge are considered non-negotiable criteria in your house-hunting efforts, you might be a foodie. Or, at least a kitchen with the potential to be turned into XFE’s Stadium Kitchen Headquarters.

So, are we foodies? I don’t know. But we’re definitely crazy. And it tastes so, so good.

Food Porn Paris Part Deux: Where the Salt Meets the Caramel

French breakfast
Oh la la – French breakfast

Sick of hearing me blather and brag about my wonderful weekend in Paris yet? Too bad! You guuuuyyyys, I haven’t even gotten to the best parts yet. Oh wait. I did already write about the shoes, didn’t I? Yeah, those were the best part. But other interesting stuff happened as well, I swear. Just humor me a couple of more days.

When last we left off, this little Poe had eaten her way through a giant Grand Marnier soufflé.

For our second night in Paris, we went to New York uberchef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Market, a very chic and trendy spot in the very chic and trendy 8th Arr.

Market Restaurant, Paris

Vongerichten is probably best known for his New York restaurants, including Spice Market, and this place was very New York. Sleek, beautiful dining room full of sleek, beautiful staff. If only there were as efficient as they were pretty. The service was a bit lackluster. For example, we wanted to enjoy our champagne cocktail and wait to order. This threw everyone for a loop, and several people came over a number of times to see if we were ready to order.

You would have thought that over-attentiveness would seep over into the later dinner service, but non. We sat with empty plates a number of times.

The food was good, but not great, and I thought the pricing was fair—a bit expensive, but not overly so. We started with foie gras with plum and spicy fig. The foie gras was very rich, so accompanying it with a sweet, fruity component was a very good idea.

For mains, I had the steamed sea bass with carrots and XFE had the lamb chops with a mushroom ‘bolognese.’ Again, it was all fine, just not overwhelming. The plating was beautiful (we didn’t take pictures) and everything was cooked to perfection, but the flavors didn’t blow us away.

Then came dessert, which was my favorite dish of the whole entire trip. We ordered a salted peanut and buttered caramel sundae, and holy sweet and salty, it was amazing. Divine. Heavenly, if you will. I can’t remember all the details since I was mostly sitting back with my eyes rolling in my head in ecstasy, but there were a lot of different temperatures and textures (there was even caramel popcorn on the plate) and it was all very, very good. I love any combination of sweet and salty and this dessert hit all my tongue’s happy spots.

For our final night in Paris, we decided to go to the highly recommended and oh so hard to get into, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. It’s not really hard to get into, you just have to be very determined and patient to do so.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Paris

I mean, they do have two Michelin stars, and are listed as #14 on the World’s Best Restaurants list. And, more importantly, Running Buddy Amy ate there recently and declared it wonderful. So, that pretty much sealed the deal.

The only reservations they give out are at 6:30 and while we are Old-Country-Time-Buffeters and everything, we knew we didn’t want to eat that early. The other option is to just go and get on the list for one of the 44 seats.

We knew we were in for a wait, so we didn’t rush down there. I think we strolled up to the restaurant at around 8 pm. We were told we would be seated for dinner at 10 pm. We did what people do when they’re facing a long wait and went to a movie. I kid. We went to the lovely, dark-paneled hotel bar next door. Where I proceeded to eavesdrop on the conversations of everyone else in the hushed little room, and where there might have been a few too many drinks and not enough eating for this little Poe. I was a teensy bit tipsy by the time our 10 pm slot came and went. Another 40 minutes and multiple staff apologies later, we were finally seated at the cool, sushi-style bar.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Paris

The staff were very, very nice and friendly, and spoke excellent English, which it turns out is very necessary since the entire menu was completely in French without even the slightest hints in English to suggest what anything was. We were completely overwhelmed. We could make out that there was a 7 course tasting menu, but decided we wanted to pick just a few things ala carte and share. But where to start?

 L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Paris

Luckily, a California couple next to us had just been seated as well and had visited the restaurant numerous times. They helped guide us to a few of their favorites and we picked a few other dishes. But I can’t help but feel that without a complete understanding of all the choices, we might have missed out on some things we would have liked. For example, I’ve read in subsequent reviews about bone marrow, something that I know XFE would have really enjoyed. (Not me. It just seems so completely invasive. You can’t get much further into an animal than to suck on its marrow. Skeeves me out.) I don’t know that marrow was on the menu that night, but I would have liked to know.

We started with a special of sea bream carpaccio that was delicious – light, sparkling, perfectly seasoned. It was wonderful and went beautifully with our champagne.

Sea bream carpaccio at  L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Paris

I can’t quite remember the order of everything, but we also had L’Atelier’s version of macaroni, which came with foie gras and mushrooms on top of a single layer of penne – very rich and satisfying. Another pasta dish, a spaghetti carbonara with smoked Alsatian bacon and crème fraiche was out of this world. So good. And, unlike the other portions of everything, the carbonara was actually a pretty decent size.

Spaghetti carbonara at  L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Paris

And an eggplant dish that was good as well.

Eggplant at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Paris

We also had baby lamb chops, that were teeny tiny, but cooked to pink perfection and served with the most amazing buttery mash potatoes I’ve ever tasted. They were like a puree of perfection. I could have eaten those all night. They were to die for. Deservedly famous.

Lamb and potatoes at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Paris

For dessert, we had their chocolate heaven, which was delicious and had about five different tastes and textures, including cold, creamy, crunchy and gooey. It was satisfying, but not as showstopping as other deserts we’d had on the trip. L’Atelier also sent us on our way with some salted caramels, which was a very nice touch.

Dessert at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Paris

XFE thought the service at L’Atelier was a bit rushed, which it might have been, since we were literally among the last people seated and the place was closing as soon as we were out. The kitchen staff was cleaning the open, theater-like kitchen like a bunch of whirling dervishes while we were having dessert. But overall it was a very nice last meal in Paris.

Food Porn: No Such Thing as Bad Wine in Paris

One of the things I was most looking forward to on our Paris trip was eating. Let me rephrase that slightly, one of the things I most look forward to anytime I take a trip is eating.

But in Paris, this was especially the case. It’s just such a foodie town. And this trip was my do-over.

The last time I was in Paris was when I was a poor college student, so my diet consisted mainly of baguettes with butter, cheese bought at the grocery store, and pastries. I’m even ashamed to admit there might have been a Le Big Mac in the lineup at some point. Not the most varied or sophisticated fare.

Plus, I was fresh out of the trailer parks of West Texas and totally ignorant. Basically, I didn’t know where to go or what to eat. And remember, (since I’m old as dirt) this was pre-Chowhound-TripAdvisor-Yelp days. No guidance what’s-so-ever.

XFE was last in Paris as a high school student, so who knows what he even ate. Actually, I do know, because on day three of our trip, we spent an inordinate amount of time tracking down steamed mussels, which he remembered fondly from his high school adventure abroad.

This time, we both put a lot of thought and research into what we would be eating. Our efforts were a bit thwarted by the fact that we only booked our trip a week before getting there, so reservations were a bit difficult to come by. But we got off the plane with stomachs rumbling and raring to go.

After dumping our stuff at Le Meridien Etoile, we headed over to grab lunch at Auberge de la Reine Blanche on the Ile de St. Louis, an absolutely charming neighborhood close to Notre Dame and the Latin Quarter.

Auberge de la Reine Blanche

It’s an adorable tiny French restaurant, with exposed wooden beams, tiny wooden tables with cane and thrush chairs, a large round wooden bar that reached to the ceiling, and walls covered with dollhouse furniture. Very odd, but somehow, also quaint.

The onion soup was AMAZING as was my main course of some kind of fish, very simply prepared with wonderful fresh herbs. XFE started with (and luckily shared) the most incredible oysters served with a light mignonette sauce. They were large and meaty and salty and just awesome. XFE’s steak with Roquefort sauce was also very, very good if a bit rare for my taste. The house Bordeaux was excellent. It was all very good and very affordable. The service was, well, very French, but no biggie.

lunch at Auberge de la Reine Blanche on the Ile de St. Louis

What goes with oysters?

Later that night, we ate at Josephine “Chez Dumonet” in the Luxembourg neighborhood. This was a place I had called on my own for a reservation. They’re not open on Saturday or Sunday (I was informed), and they were fully booked for that Friday. However, our concierge at Le Meridien Etoile was able to get us a reservation at 7:30. We showed up a few minutes early and were chased away. Apparently, 7:30 MEANS 7:30. No drinking at the bar while waiting for your reservation. We slunked away to a bar on the corner and had 2 euro Bordeaux standing at the bar.

At our appointed time, we dared to enter Chez Dumonet again. We were taken immediately to our seats at the back of the narrow restaurant, near the kitchen. I never mind sitting near a kitchen and this one was no exception. I was transfixed as the staff cooked and foil wrapped a huge haunch of meat for a customer who showed up later in the evening to pick it up and take it away.

Josephine “Chez Dumonet” Paris

The whole ambiance of the place was typical old Parisian bistro, nothing fancy, just pure efficiency and great food. I honestly don’t remember much about the décor, but the atmosphere was just perfect.

We started with champagne and an amuse bouche of some cream soup with a drizzle of truffle oil. The bread and butter were, of course, excellent. And then there was the smoked salmon appetizer. Yu. Um. Melted on the tongue.

Dinner at Josephine “Chez Dumonet” Paris

I had the duck confit which was probably the best I’ve ever had. The skin was so crispy and the potatoes were perfect and garlicky. XFE ordered the chateaubriand, which we both thought, for some reason, would be wrapped in pastry, but we were, of course, wrong. I’m afraid we had our Wellington mixed up with our chateaubriand. What can I say? It had been a long travel day. So, for a second time that day, XFE had steak, this time with béarnaise sauce. He didn’t seem to mind.

Duck confit at Josephine “Chez Dumonet” Paris

Steak at Josephine “Chez Dumonet” Paris

We finished with a shared Grand Marnier soufflé, which was a work of art. Eggy, boozy, and perfectly browned, it towered over the ramekin, but miraculously, it held its shape even when we sunk our spoons into it. Pretty amazing stuff. A woman at a nearby table even applauded when it came out (since we were among the first diners, our dessert was one of the first out of the kitchen.) They also brought us two tiny, thimble-sized glasses of Grand Marnier to accompany the souffle, a very nice touch, I thought. The service, the food, everything was just perfect.

Souffle at Josephine “Chez Dumonet” Paris

Not a bad way to end the first day in Paris.

Souffle at Josephine “Chez Dumonet” Paris

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.