Archive for March, 2012

Dining with Grown-Ups

Ten years ago, my aunt and uncle took me, my parents and my cousin to Trio for dinner. Everything about the meal was new and memorable, from the level of service to the overall fanciness of it all. I tried truffles and foie gras for the first time. I learned what brioche was. And at the end of the meal, the servers let us peek into the kitchen so we could watch Grant Achatz work for a little bit.

It’s crazy to think Achatz was just 29 then, already famous but not the demigod of molecular gastronomy that he is now. I used to lurk on eGullet in the early days and remember when Achatz, using the handle “chefg,” would visit the forums and share tidbits about a new restaurant he was planning called Alinea.

Alec and I made our pilgrimage to Alinea on Saturday to celebrate the launch of his novel. We dressed up and everything – look how good Alec looks in his skinny suit from Hong Kong!

Now, the Internet is overflowing with intricately detailed Alinea reviews that have amazing photography and exhaustive recaps of each course. You’ve probably figured out that I’m not that kind of blogger. I tend to take photos like this:

Yeah, that’s me looking like I’m going to stick the eighth course (orange, fennel, ham, squid on a metal antenna) up my nose instead of eat it like a properly socialized human. This is just one of many reasons why, instead of giving you a sophisticated bite-by-bite recap of Alinea, I will give you a list of Memorable Moments.

  1. We got our choice of three types of sparkling water, and each was described in detail. I went for the Badoit, which has the smallest, most demure bubbles. Alec chose the Vichy Catalan, which our server described as having medium bubbles with a slightly briny aftertaste. It’s funny how just the explanations of the sparkling water choices can sound like an elaborate parody of a fine dining experience. But as someone who loves sparkling water, I will say that there was indeed a difference in carbonation levels and taste between the Badoit and Vichy Catalan.
  2. The first course was arctic char roe with coconut, carrot, yuzu, tarragon, emulsified curry and maybe some other elements I missed. Alec said, “This is maybe the best thing I’ve ever eaten.” And this was just the first course! That’s how we knew things were off to a good start. Also, as the course was finishing, I confessed to Alec that I had to push a bit of food onto my spoon “like an ogre.” He said: “I did that when you weren’t looking.”
  3. I had been taking notes on the meal in my sky blue Moleskine. As we were finishing one of our favorite courses of the night (scallop cooked in soy milk and grapeseed oil to resemble tofu and served with eyes-rolling-back-into-my-head-good dashi broth), the server came out with a piece of Alinea stationery for me! Yay for a bonus souvenir.
  4. The ninth course was a whole porgy (that’s a fish! I’d never heard of it either), served with caponata, chickpea crackers and mint sauce. The server said we weren’t expected to finish the entire fish because the meal is so long. Hahaha! As if 1.5 Chinese kids were going to leave delicious uneaten fish on the table. I even made Alec take apart the head so we could get the good stuff out of the cheeks.
  5. One course was served on a linen pillow filled with the scent of Hollywood Juniper. As the pillow slowly deflated from the weight of the plate resting on it, it released a woodsy aroma. The set-up was so inviting that after I was done eating, I put my whole face on the pillow. One second after I did that, the server emerged silently from the corner like a ninja. I was mortified, but Alec said he’s probably seen other diners do that.
  6. The server overheard me talking about the serving pieces and said they’re custom made by a guy named Martin Kastner, whose company is called Crucial Detail. You can buy their stuff online, so maybe I’ll start serving everything on metal antennas.
  7. The first sweet course, designed to evoke “winter wonderland in New Hampshire,” was served on rocks frozen in liquid nitrogen. That’s 200 degrees below zero! The server warned us not to touch or lick the rocks. (I immediately poked the rock with my spoon because I am four years old.) He said one diner disobeyed and had to go to the ER, although the person did finish the meal first. Here are my notes from this course, transcribed verbatim: “w wanted to touch a rock. A was like woman did you not listen to the warnings.”
  8. One of the final dessert courses was a balloon, made out of green apple taffy and filled with helium. Alec expertly sucked the helium out of his balloon and started singing the Lollipop Guild song from The Wizard of Oz. I started laughing so hard that I began crying, and then my balloon popped on my hand and I had to lick my hand to eat the course. Peasants, pay attention! This is how CLASSY PEOPLE dine at Alinea.
  9. Our friend had recommended that we split the wine pairing. This was a very good idea because we are a couple of lightweights. Case in point: my notes for the final course read: “–Banguls silicon tablecloth.” If anyone wants to tell me what “Banguls” is, I’m all ears!
  10. You should read Alec’s blog post on Alinea. It’s way better than this one.

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