I think it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés—Nicholas Kurti
The word alinea is a synonym for pilcrow. In more common usage the pilcrow is the ‘paragraph’ mark. [Though as fewer and fewer people actually write with complete words, let alone sentences or paragraphs this may not be quite as common knowledge as it may have once been.] We rarely use the word anyhow, relying predominantly on the symbol: ¶. The Latin translation (a linea) is ‘off the line’. It is this definition that best suits the subsequent use of alinea in this post.
Off the line.
So far from the norm an entire new vocabulary is required for deriving meaning.
This is what the restaurant Alinea in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood was for me.
When A told me she wanted to have dinner at Alinea while we were in Chicago I was amenable to this. I am amenable to dining in general. When she told me that it would be expensive, I was curious what kind of expense might merit forewarning, but I carried on. When she told me that we had to get reservations months ahead, I was definitely curious (it turns out you can only book one month out and when A called within an hour of the allowable time we got a table for 9:00 p.m. on a Wednesday.)
“Molecular gastronomy seeks to investigate and explain the chemical reasons behind the transformation of ingredients, as well as the social, artistic and technical components of culinary and gastronomic phenomena in general.”
I think I am a somewhat sophisticated human being. I think I have seen lots of crazy shit and done an equal amount of it. I tend to be characterized by curiosity rather than shock. But I was totally unprepared for what would serve as my introduction to ‘molecular gastronomy.’ Not in a bad way, but this was an experience so completely beyond my ken that it simply defied explanation – as I imagine the chefs behind molecular gastronomy would hope for, it is an experience that you are never really going to comprehend without full participation.
Molecular gastronomy is the joining of (I will not say marriage, as I think there may occasionally be grounds for divorce) molecular science, both chemical and physical, with cooking, but actually the founders would not say cooking, they would say gastronomy. Hervé This (excellent article by This here), who along with Nicholas Kurti, is considered the originator of molecular gastronomy distinguishes cooking and gastronomy this way: “the first is the preparation of food, whereas the latter is the knowledge of whatever concerns man’s nourishment. In essence, this does not concern food fashions or how to prepare luxury food—such as tournedos Rossini, canard à l’orange or lobster orientale—but rather an understanding of food.” This was the first recipient of a PhD in molecular gastronomy, awarded at the University of Paris in 1996 (Now many universities are offering courses in ‘culinology’ – does that even seem like it should be a word? Here is a publication from Southwest Minnesota State University as an example and a nice layman’s overview of this entire movement.) As part of his dissertation, This identified what he believed the five goals of his discipline to be:
- to collect and investigate old wives’ tales about cooking
- to model and scrutinize existing recipes
- to introduce new tools, products and methods to cooking
- to invent new dishes using knowledge from the previous three aims
- to use the appeal of food to promote science
There are a handful of restaurants in the world that have made this new methodology of considering and conceptualizing food and taken it to the highest level – at least according to Michelin. There is a very small group of chefs who come up again and again in this field, Ferran Adrià of El Bulli outside of Barcelona (now closed), Adrià’s protegé, José Andrés (credited, according to some, for bringing the small plates concept to the United States), Thomas Keller from our local French Laundry, and Grant Achatz, the man of Alinea (and a Keller protegé).
Alinea has received a slew of awards, including the highest Michelin rating (three stars, described as “exceptional cuisine and worth the journey”.) It is currently ranked the #6 restaurant in the world.
Pretty good for a restaurant where all the food is basically based on a dare, scientifically speaking.
So, A and I got dressed up and headed out for our Alinea experience. The restaurant is a discreet, unmarked building, save for a small sign (shown in the first photo) offering valet parking. The entrance is quite dramatic, (I believe one of the comments on the photo I posted was, “Looking at this picture is like remembering your own birth.“)
The actual size of the restaurant is hard to gauge, it is not a place you could just stroll around and it is designed to be both intimate and austere. According to most sources it seats 64. We were in the upstairs dining area, all very clean in design with a palette of blacks, greys, white.
Upon being seated we were introduced to the main man – who would be one of several servers, though that is really abasing what they actually do – and told that photos were totally allowable, sans flash, that we would receive the menu following the meal, and asked if we would like to do the wine pairing with the meal and if we had any dietary issues/concerns/preferences. We decided we would do the wine paring – I mean if all of this food is precisely created for a certain goal that made sense to us. We can talk later about how that goes when you are having a meal of twenty courses. [Yes, they are dainty, but there are still TWENTY of them.] I mentioned that I do not like to eat lamb (I hate the taste of it and think it makes everything else thereafter taste the same way.) A said no organ meat. I should have said that too, as foie gras disgusts me literally and philosophically… Our attention was directed to the rooted greenery that made up the centerpiece and we were told that it would be a part of the meal, and to that end we would have each course explained to us as it arrived as well as the wine accompaniment.
We began with a champagne cocktail [Gimonnet Brut with Nittnaus Beerenauslese and Linie Aquavit] for me and a white wine for A. This was the pairing for the first two courses.
Courses Three, Four and Five (counterclockwise from left): Oyster leaf (seriously a plant that tastes EXACTLY like oyster), Taylor Bay scallop (it had the foam – I do not care for the foam!), Razor clam with carrot, soy, daikon (awesome). Paired with Georg Breuer ‘Terra Montosa’ Riesling, Rheingau 2008.
Course Seven: English Pea in three phases. Various textures, a paste (olive oil), a freeze-dried component (chamomile) and a cold creme (green apple) situation. The three parts of the dish were all totally different temperatures from hot to very, very cold. But not as cold as Course Seventeen, details to follow. The pairing here was Domaine des Baumard ‘Trie Speciale’, Savennières 2007.
The was Farm Salad. Like a gazpacho, tomato, goat cheese, red onion… and the greens from the centerpiece, served cold. I loved this course. A not as much as she is not wild for tomatoes, but I thought it was divine. And foam free. The wine pairing was Quinta de Foz de Arouce ‘Branco’ Bieiras, Portugal 2006. I wish I could remember for sure but I think this is one of the wines we liked best. Or not, there were a lot of them.
Course Ten: Wild mushrooms with pine, sumac and ramp. Dark and earthy, it came with the fifth wine of the evening: Gros Frère et Soeur ‘Musigni’, Clos Vougeot 2006. Part of it was more chewy than I expected and I am not talking about the wine.
Course Eleven: Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle and butter. This was consumed in what I called the grenade style. You pull out the pin, and shoot it down. The differential in temperature being key to the event – er, I mean the course.
Course 12: Here we diverged, A had lamb and though they looked similar I had carrot with sauce choron and pomme do terre noisette. I loved this course and was not sad to be missing the lamb at all. Our wine moved on as well, here it was a Cedar Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley, 2007. Delish for a heavier wine than I would normally choose.
Course Thirteen: Black truffle explosion with romaine and parmesan. Here is where I know I would never be able to make in this world of haute cuisine: this is a freaking ravioli. What the hell is ‘explosion’? To be fair the absolutely amazing staff we had at our service for this four-hour gastronomic adventure described it as such. Was it because we looked provincial or because they know the damn thing is a ravioli? I have no idea.
Course Fourteen: Squab. The focal point of this course was meant to be squab. I do not eat squab as a general rule, I mean really? Pigeon? But I ate it. Though this was the course where I wished I had prevented myself from being the lucky recipient of foie gras. I passed on that, but I did love the presentation, a new design they were incorporating in homage to Miró. This course was paired with a Valpolicella Classico Superiore ‘TB’ Bussola, Veneto 2005.
Course Fifteen; Short Rib. Several things to say about this course. First, it may have been the favorite of both of us, but we were reluctant to admit this, I guess because in light of everything else it just seemed rather common. But, really, it was not. Secondly, I realize there is no short rib evident in this photo. That is because once the meat came we were fully engaged in the preparation and consumption thereof. What you see in the foreground is a tomato based sort of pasta, or wrapper into which a serving of amazing short rib will be placed. Behind this you see a plate with an assortment of flavors to add to your custom short rib wrap. These included smoked salt, olive, fermented garlic, blackberry, fig, cheese, a sauce of – mango?- among other things. This was simply magnificent. There are no other words and I was enjoying every moment of it rather than photographing it. And enjoying our next wine pairing, a Costers del Siurana ‘Clos de l’Obac’ Priorat 2005. Oh. Yes.
Here I must insert a total sad face as I have no photo of Course Sixteen. I would like to blame the wine. Or A, who had been so diligent in reminding me over and over to take photos before I messed things up with my fork. Somehow, this course of octopus, eggplant, coriander and red wine, was a victim of inconspicuous consumption. This course was paired with the next wine from The Rare Wine Co. ‘Charleston Sercial Reserve’ Madeira. I am super irritated that I did not get a photo, even though it was not a course I loved.
However, I am about to make up for it.
Course Seventeen was (aptly) called Snow. It was served in an amazing contraption quite clearly chilled with dry ice or perhaps liquid nitrogen. You had to hold the bottom, also chilled though manageable and we were instructed to use the spoons to scoop out the very aromatic Yuzu infused snow. “Be careful,” we were warned, “the service is extremely cold.” So, at this point I am going to have to ask if anyone has seen A Christmas Story or Dumb and Dumber? Either one of these will provide appropriate context for the subsequent event in which A placed her tongue on the service. Not once, but twice.
And yes, she got stuck. Well stuck. When I asked why, she said, she wanted to see how cold it really was.
Her tongue was burned for the next two days.
Course Eighteen: Peach. This was a collection of jellies and creamy things. Peach, jasmine, balsamic and several cheeses. It was alright… I was certainly glad to have a plate full of jelly rather than foam. Not sure A would agree. I wondered why if Course Fourteen was inspired by Miró, Mondrian did not get credit for this one. It was the course that felt the most science-y to me. Sort of strange and unfamiliar, yet not. It was paired with a Hungarian desert wine, Disznókó 5 Puttonyos, Tokaji Aszú 2005… very sweet.
Course Nineteen: Lemon grass with dragonfruit, Thai basil and finger lime. And the shape was, of course, no accident. It was a shooter. You lifted it up from the stainless bracket and throw it back and suck out the insides. I definitely liked this one – amazing flavors, super brief, very dramatic. [Sounds like a whole lot of my relationships…]
Course Twenty: Chocolate with red pepper, bitter orange, banana and herbs. This was, effectively, the dessert. It was a crazy combination of crunchy and squishy and sweet and savory, though definitely dominated by sweet. The striped sauces were a representation of all the flavors in the dish. And though the photo does not do it justice, the plate was totally bitchin’ created specifically for this dish (of course) with an amazing topography. This final course was paired with our final (eleventh) wine, Santa Lucia ‘Gazza Rubina’ Aleatico, Puglia 2008. Another sweet dessert wine, which I preferred to the Tokaji.
And then, four (or more) hours later we were done. Literally and figuratively.
The entire dinner would be better described as an experience. The staff – and it was like having your own staff as we had three servers, a maitre’ d and a sommelier – were consummate professionals and could answer every question we had not matter how pedantic or pedestrian. We were escorted to the restroom and always had a clean napkin on our return. Each course was explained in terms of ingredients, aims and generally instruction on how to eat it. I asked one of the servers if the aim of the wait staff was to eventually be in the kitchen and she explained that there was a very clear divide between the front and back staff in terms of what they did, their knowledge, skill set and goals. These are not folks calling themselves actors or writers while they serve you, they are fully committed to making this culinary experience the strange and surprising and bizarre adventure that it is. The menu was provided at the end of the meal and A and I had different menus that reflected precisely what we ate or drank on the few occasions where we deviated from the norm or each other. The menu itself is an educational tool. To the left of the circles is the primary flavor focus of each plate, to the right the complementary ingredients and flavors. The circles themselves vary in size to reflect the size of the serving and move to the left to indicate savory and to the right to indicate sweet. Each wine was also listed under the course at which it appeared. The entire experience seems deinfed by precision – which I guess is logical in a scientific approach to food.
This was an experience I’ll not soon forget – or repeat. It was a truly spectacular evening and definitely piqued my curiosity in more ways than one. We were constantly amazed at how so much flavor came out of things so small and the curious collaboration of flavors as well. Will it change the way human kind eats? That would be hard to say, but it could certainly change the way people thingk about eating… My favorites of the night (in order) were the short rib, the farm salad, the Hamachi and the Yuba tie for third, the carrot and black truffle come in at a tie for fourth.
I would not call it comfort food, but I certainly learned a lot and can now say with at least some degree of confidence that I know molecular gastronomy.
And I have eaten at a restaurant that ranks number six in the Whole. Wide. World.
This is a food blog by a guy who went to several of the same restaurants that we did including Alinea, Xoco and Giordano’s pizza if you want a more sophisticated narrative of the food….