Last October, Bestfriend and I had a dinner at Alinea which was easily one of, if not the, best meal I had to that point. After that, I came home and talked about it a lot. I made many declarations as to the merits of Grant Achatz and his cuisine, going so far as telling Bear that if Grant stayed on the course I saw in reading about him and from the dinner I had, there was little doubt in my mind that in the future there would be no question that Alinea is the best restaurant in the world, and that it is possibly already America’s. With that gauntlet thrown, it should be of little surprise that less than a year later we (Bear, Bestfriend, Beewife, Wife, Soho, and I) sat down together for the menu they call Tour, here is what we had:
CORN coconut, cayenne, lime: a small frozen cube about one third of an inch on all sides, two-thirds sweet corn and one-third coconut, served on a small silver palette with three small drops on its top corners – one lime, one lime zest, and one cayenne. In one tiny establishing dish, Grant illustrates Alinea’s strongest qualities. A commitment to a subtle, engaging, balance of flavors, served in a manner that involves your brain long before your palate, in a portion sized to stimulate and excite without numbing.
YUBA prawn, miso, orange: The utensil for this course is a fried Yuba (tofu skin) twist. Around the crisp is a steamed prawn, a bit of lemon zest, and a young chive, all lashed in place with thread of orange pith. In the bottom of the bowl it is presented in is a dollop of miso emulsion, adding its sweetness to the dish.
TOMATO several complementary flavors : seasoned breadcrumbs, mozzarella, paprika jelly, dried pepperoni, red pepper puree, pickled cucumber, lemon zest, and a saffron noodle are laid on a filet of an heirloom tomato. The suggestion is to eat each complimenting component individually with its tomato section.
MACKEREL radish pod, lemon, poppy seed: The dish for this service is a round-bottomed bowl with a fork fit into it. On the fork is a piece of Mackerel topped with some lemon leather, a radish pod, a cilantro leaf, a slice of chili, and a section of orange. After you remove the fork and eat the bite, you can drink from the remaining cup the white poppy seed soup in the bottom. With the fork removed and all consumed, the vessel will balance on its rounded bottom à la a weeble.
HAMACHI buttermilk, blackberry, green peanuts: poached green peanuts scattered about a plate interspersed with small dollops of thickened buttermilk. On top of each dollop, a couple of drupelets from a blackberry are placed, with drops of a blackberry sauce. All this surrounds a piece of hamachi with a peanut crust seared to it.
KOBE BEEF watermelon, cocoa, red wine: Small cubes of seared steak, small cubes of watermelon macerated in red wine and rolled in crushed cocoa nibs, pickled sections of watermelon rind, a few drops of a clear smoke-flavored gel, fennel fronds, sliced fennel stalk, and fennel gel, bitters and sweets roasted and raw and of varying intensities; a dish of unexpected extremes.
SQUAB strawberry, sorrel, long peppercorn: captured on the end of a metal stick in a thin sugar film are oxalis (sorrel seed pods) which you are encouraged to taste first as a palate cleanser. If you like sorrel or even general lemonyness, this alone would be a pleasing thing. Once this tart bit with its touch of sweetness has been consumed, your mouth can leave behind the smoke and chocolate of the last dish and move on, ready for: seared squab breast, grilled squab loin and squab rillettes, topped with a strawberry and some micro-greens.
MUSKMELON eggplant, orange blossom: a curl of frozen muskmelon , dotted with drops of a mucilaginous reduction of eggplant and an orange blossom cream, together on a spoon. The consistency of the melon is that of ice rather than frozen melon flesh, while the flavor is that of undressed melon.
VERJUS lemon, thyme, beet: an espherication of beet juice in a pool of verjus with lemon sections and lemon thyme foam, dotted with olive oil. When the beet bubble was pierced, its red liquid spread through the dish combining a lightly astringent, earthy sweetness with the ascorbic components of the rest of ingredients. This dish best illustrates Grant’s layering of flavor. Thyme was a pervasive flavor, yet scattered in the foam were three thyme leaves, just enough so that about every third taste had a spike in the level of that element, which helped make you aware of it being there. Any more would have turned overpowering; without it the thyme may have blended into the background.
MENTHOL angelica, lemon: A menthol puff on the end of an antenna (the eighteen inch needle grant uses for small bites) wound in a strand of lemon leather with an angelica leaf. I am suspicious the taming affects of the angelica on the lemon leather may have also worked on the menthol aspects of the puff; the menthol flavor was subtle, almost imperceptible.
PEAR celery leaf & branch, curry: a hard, waxy, curry orb containing a thin pear flavored liquid floating in celery juice with celery leaves sits in a crystal clear, thick bottomed shot glass with tapering ends. When it was presented, we were warned that because of an optical illusion the orb was actually bigger than it appeared, and that the liquid contained inside was very thin so when we cracked the shell our lips should be closed. Immediately after six grownup English-speaking people took this advice, one by one we failed to open our mouths wide enough to accommodate the pill, then struggled to close our lips quickly as we bit. Laughing ensued. A fun course, well played flavor and presentation-wise, that served as a reset for the dishes that followed, both palate and energy-wise.
LAMB summer vegetable jam, mastic, mustard peach: the first thing placed on the table at the top of service was a sprig of rosemary set standing upright in a cylindrical setting (something like a place-card holder). For this course, three small bites of lamb come to the table on a hot stone in a metal frame. In order to deliver this, a sort of potholder is used comprised of a stick placed through a hole at its end with a heat resistant fabric attached. Once the sizzling bits of lamb are on the table, the potholder is removed and the sprig of rosemary is inserted in its place. As the rosemary needles meet the hot stone their aroma spreads over the table and fills your nose as you taste the pieces of lamb, each topped with one of the three listed accoutrements.
HOT POTATO cold potato, black truffle, parmesan: on a pin inserted through a hole in the side of shallow wax bowl with cold potato soup in its bottom sits a ball of hot potato with the circumference of a nickel. Also speared on the pin are a tiny cube of butter and a slightly larger cube of parmesan cheese. Balanced on the potato is a slice of black truffle, and a couple of sea salt crystals. By removing the pin from the bowl, the butter, cheese, hot potato and truffle slip into the cold soup, which you then shoot from the side of the bowl as you would an oyster. Generally the favorite flavor of the night.
CREAM CHEESE guava, black sesame, tamarind: a small cheesecake disk filled with guava syrup on black sesame sauce, with sugared minty cachaca jelly cubes and dried tamarind chips. Here, the Alinea approach to adding variations on a flavor shows in desserts; the addition of seven black sesame seeds adds dimension to the black sesame sauce.
CHOCOLATE elderflower, umeboshi, green tea: a long strand of chocolate somewhere in consistency between pulled taffy and pudding, with umeboshi (dried Japanese apricots often called plums) ice cream, dots of elderflower and green tea gels, and bits of crunchy dried chocolate and tea.
COFFEE mint, buckwheat, passionfruit: the mint is a clear gel cut to look like diamonds, around the mint diamonds is a frozen coffee tube filled with a clear liquid, set on piles of toasted buckwheat and dots of passion fruit gel.
PEANUT five other flavors: at the end of foot-long needles radiating in a stepped pattern from a metal disk are five coated peanut halves with the following accoutrements: celery, grape, honey, chocolate, and sugar/salt.
In my first Alinea meal there was a course based around tobacco that was great in theory and horrible in actuality. Both in spite of and partly because of this daring course, I fell in love with Alinea. This time around there were no such clearly daring steps taken. In fact, in twenty–three courses no one had anything but praise for any dish, the worst that was said was, “well I liked the hot potato-cold potato best.” It is hard to complain about a meal this inspired and exhilarating that pleases so broadly, so I won’t. I will simply say I still consider Grant’s cuisine the most exciting available, and hope that every course pleased because it is well tried and tested before appearing on the table at this point, and not just some amazing version of playing it safe.
This meal came less than a year after my first and there were zero repeated courses, so obviously the menu is evolving with the place. Joe Catterson’s wine parings were again off the standard chart and well suited to each course. I think at this level of flavor there will never be a dud course, the reaction will always be great or horrible; the commitment to flavor is that serious. I would happily swallow a couple more tobacco courses to insure a future of meals like this. I just hope passionate reactions to the bad don’t tame the Alinea team’s commitment to experimentation, and I hope the fear of losing praise doesn’t scare them into a rut.
(the size of bubble represents size of dish and the further to the right it is the sweeter the course)