May 28, 2007

Seeing some friends

It's been over three months now since I relocated to Seattle, and only one month until Lav finally makes the move to the Northwest!

This Memorial Day weekend, I had the chance to fly back home and enjoy some time in the old neighboorhood with our friends.

A couple of years ago, we had a Memorial Day barbecue at the park by my mom's old house in Harbor Bay, where we braved the brisk winds and discovered, unintentionally, that J and A's golden retriever Tasha is a bit of a wine connoisseur. So we threw a little barbecue together at the last minute this weekend.

Saturday morning found us on College Ave., picking up some meat for the grill at Ver Brugge (including an inspirational 40 oz. bone-in "Cowboy" ribeye) and stopping by La Farine for a little breakfast pastry, just like old times.

As tasty as the food and wine were, the memories I'm taking away from the 'cue all have to do with the great friends that joined us for those few hours on that little patch of sun-drenched, waterfront grass. Firing up the BBQ, watching a couple of buddies talk about the wine, seeing Steve's eyes widen at the enormity of cowboy steak, laying on the grass while little man R pummelled me with WWF-style body splashes off the top rope... meeting three-month-old Kade for the first time, playing fetch w/ Tasha... a pretty great way to connect w/ the old crew.

Time has a funny way of flying by, and before we knew it, we'd been out in the sun for about 5 hours. Lav and I got back home, plopped on the couch, and proceeded to pass out for at least 3 hours. We slowly regained consciousness just in time to hit Sushi Sho to say goodbye to two more friends, Aki-san and his wife. We arrived just as they were closing, and had the amazing fortune of having the whole restaurant to ourselves; a quiet and intimately personal setting for my last regular meal here.

Aki and his wife have served us consistently spectacular sushi (not to mention fantastic chawan mushi and hamachi-kama) since we first visited his restaurant 2 years ago. And I mean truly spectacular sushi... the epitome of uber-fresh, melt-in-your-mouth, so-good-you-feel-guilty type of hedonistic decadence, all served in the most low-key little restaurant in a sleepy part of Berkeley. This is the kind of sushi that, on your first bite, fills you with a massive rush of endorphin-induced euphoria, with just the slightest twinge of sadness. Why sadness? Because you pretty much know that no matter where you have your next sushi... that's right... I don't care if you're a high roller at Masa in New York or going hard-core in straight-up in Tokyo, it just won't be the same.

My man Aki trained with the sushi chef's to the Emperor of Japan, and I've never had ama-ebi, hotate, hamachi, hirame, saba, uni, or toro like Aki makes. His ponzu sauce is home-brewed, his smoked salmon made himself. He sources from Japan to the Mediterranian and Santa Barbara for the best of the best. No, this isn't eating locally, unfortunately; but it is eating of the handiwork of a local artist.

As we finished our meal, I was struck by how significant an impact Aki and his wife have made to our sense of "home" and community in the Bay Area (we once considered buying a home in the Solano district just to be closer to him). In a relatively short amount of time, we've collected some truly unforgettable memories of our time spent with this couple -- the infamous "lesson" Aki gave Lav about eating sushi on our first visit, their son's graduation, meeting the in-laws, seeing Aki's sketches, talking about his knives, learning of his incredible passion for classical guitar and witnessing it first hand when Connie played her guitar for him in the restaurant, hearing him rant about the price of toro and his skyrocketing rent, and watching him ridicule the california roll / spicy tuna / ponzu-sauce-on-nigiri crowd. Good times.
Sushi Sho in Albany

Lots of priceless moments spent with friends this weekend. Take care, everyone!

May 20, 2007

International Cheese-Fest

It's the second half of May, and out of nowhere came a crazy one-day winter rain storm. I think even the native Seattle folks were surprised. Tomorrow, of course, will be mostly clear skies and 75 degrees. Ah, Seattle weather...

No matter. It was the Third Annual Seattle International Cheese Festival, and blessed with good parking karma, I -- along with festival enthusiast GB -- would not be deterred. Rumored to be a showcase of over 200 different cheeses from a variety of US and international producers, the festival did not disappoint.

While we didn't make our way through anywhere close to 200 cheeses, we did get to sample almost two dozen, including some fantastic varieties of stilton, cheddar, triple creme, chevre, and gouda... and one crazy cheese that tasted like it had been washed in beer. I was proud to see the good folks from Point Reyes Cheese holding down the fort for California.

I think my calcium quota has been met for the week.

May 18, 2007

Alinea: courses 13 through 24

jump to: prologue : part 1 : part 2

Sorry for the delay in posting this half of the meal; lots of work-related travel. Anyhow, now the meal continues...

GREEN ALMOND sweet, sour, salt, heat

A very deliberate assault on the primary taste bud zones. Sugar, citric acid, sea salt, cayenne pepper. Eaten in one bite, the sensation spreads uniformly through your palate, then each element gravitates to its own zone on your tongue. Really a strange, dynamic sensation.

SKATE caper, lemon, and brown butter powders
Ogier "Viognier de Rosine", VdP des Collines Rhodaniennes 2004

Billed as the closest to a "classical" dish, this version also employed slivers of banana underneath the micro-diced vegetables -- the most conceptually muddled expression of the night. I found the powder media for the caper, lemon and brown butter to be intriguing, if not necessarily soul-satisfying (in the way that traditional skate wing preparations are), but we were distracted somewhat by the chalky mouthfeel. The skate wing was cooked to perfection.

PINEAPPLE bacon powder, black pepper

Just a little bite of powerfully elemental, dessicated flavors: dehydrated pineapple wrapper, compressed bacon powder. Looked like a perfect, tiny Japanese gift box. Amazing palate-enveloping flavor, fantastic match of sweet and savory. Seriously good.

LAMB date, mastic, rosemary aroma
Jen Royer Chateauneuf-du-Pape "Hommage a mon Pere"
S. Rhone 2001

Three little coins of lamb with three different toppings, the last which utilized a caramelized braised-cabbage marmalade. Served on an oven-hot stone, searing one side and wilting the transferred rosemary centerpieces for a prevalent herbaceous aromatic note.

HOT POTATO cold potato, black truffle, butter

Stunning presentation, stunning combination of functional temperature contrasts. The cool potato/truffle cream had a muted flavor; upon chewing the hot potato sphere, the temperature increase dramatically increased the bouquet of the cool broth, creating a linearly escalating aura of black truffle richness.

BISON encased in savory granola
Schlavenza Barolo, Serralunga d'Alba 2001

I did not expect to like this dish, but it was fantastic. Meltingly tender bison, an impossibly rich wine-bison reduction, and oatmeal foam.

FOIE GRAS spicy cinnamon, apple pate de fruit

Amazing, amazing, amazing. "Dehydrated cinnamon water" shell... are you kidding me? Crazy, but so incredibly good. Like a high-tech meringue. But with fois gras and apple in the center. Crispy, then dissolving, then decadent unctuousness, with a high fruit note for clarity.

ORANGE olive oil, green olive, almond
Oremus Tokaji Aszu "5 Puttonyos", Hungary 1999

Essentially, a "creamsicle" of orange sorbet and olive oil ice cream, accompanied by olive oil powder. And savory olive. Seriously. Wrap your mind around that.

COCONUT saffron, kiwi, cornmeal
Cantine del Notaio "L'Autentica", Basilicata, Italy 2004

Coconut ribbon, mochi with coconut gel, cornmeal custard cake, candied micro-cilantro. Many high concept executions here. Although the flavor of coconut makes perfect sense to unify the elements, the physical manifestation of the ribbon made it stand apart in isolation to me... keeping the entire dish a collection of disparate flavors.

LICORICE CAKE muscovado sugar, orange, anise

Surprisingly subtle, with the anise note lingering just barely on the palate.

CHOCOLATE passionfruit, lemongrass, soy
Abbazia di Novacella Moscato Rosa "Praepositus", Alto Adige 2004

Getting really full, and my senses are at a breaking point with all of the new flavor experiences. Even still, the intense, sweetened soy reduction is a fantastically earthy complement to the chocolate. The passionfruit and lemongrass co-exist as muted secondary balancing tones.

CARAMEL meyer lemon, cinnamon perfume

A chewy, dense, wonderfully perfumed, lightly muted lemon analog to a churro.

And at the end of the meal, we were able to say a brief hello to Chef Achatz as he finished cleaning the gleaming kitchen after the service for the night. And he was the last person on his kitchen staff to leave that night, well after 2 a.m. That's a chef.

So... is it cooking? Chemistry? Architecture? Satire? Theater of the absurd? Transglutaminase, methyl-cellulose, soy lecithin, agar-agar... immersion circulation units, CookTek, PolyScience. These are not "food" words. Yet all of these things, in the right hands and with extraordinary vision, can be used to create as profound a dining experience as one can imagine. Some might use these techniques and gadgets as a cover for their culinary weaknesses. At Alinea, they more often are used to facilitate culinary breakthroughs -- sometimes masterpieces.

I was listening to an interview with Thom Mayne, the architect behind Tour Phare (to be completed in Paris in 2010). Mr. Mayne is well-known for using unexpected, non-traditional forms in his work -- eliciting equally loud responses of praise and criticism. One thing he said sticks in my mind, and I think is applicable here (though this is only my paraphrasing): It is a much more significant appreciation that we can have of the magnificence of the traditional and classical when we are able to contrast it against the new and avante garde. They don't compete against each other; rather, they exist for each other. Yeah... a little Matrix-y, but I think he's spot-on nonetheless.

May 6, 2007

Alinea: The first 12 courses

jump to: prologue : part 1 : part 2

To keep the blog on this from extending to ridiculous lengths, I'm simply going to post the photos, the restaurant's name of the dish, the wine pairing when applicable, and brief, minimal thoughts and reactions.

CROQUETTE smoked steelhead roe, several garnishes
L. Aubry Brut Champagne with Pineau des Charentes

The candied endive ribbon added a phenomenal, perfect sweet accent to the light salinity of the roe, creating a fantastic dimensionality of flavor. Absolute synergy.

OCTOPUS shiso, papaya, toasted soy

The octopus sliver was lightly cooked, with a heavenly earthy tone from the baby shiitake and a light touch of creamy avocado to tie the elemental flavors together. A masterful secondary layer came from the warm, light soy milk broth infused with sesame and mint at the bottom of the bowl.

CHANTERELLE carrot, curry, ham
Frecciarossa Pinot Nero Bianco "Sillery", Oltrepo Pavese, Italy 2005

Golden chanterelle lobes in pureed and seared forms, accompanied by dehydrated prosciutto, dried apricot encased in curry powder, spinach, minute carrot segments, and carrot foam. Rich and earthy, and arriving in a well-conceived bottomless glass cylinder preparation (which was lifted a the last moment to allow the ingredients to place themselves on the plate). A strange pairing with the light-bodied, delicate Pinot Nero.

APPLE horseradish, celery

A "shot" of granny smith apple jus, encased in a horseradish cocoa butter shell, submerged in celery jus and topped with celery leaf. Totally amazing. A great palate cleanser well-placed after the rich chanterelle dish.

MONKFISH banana, onion, lime
Follin-Arbelet Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 1999

Monkfish in three preparations: battered and fried tail, gently poached loin, and mousse of ankimo, served with a pudding of lime and banana. Reminiscent of Southeast Asian and Polynesian flavors, the subtle banana component and its marriage to the lime was totally inspired. This might have been THE dish of the night. Transcendent wine pairing.

DUCK mango, yogurt, pillow of lavender air
Rudi Pichler Gruner Veltliner Smaragd "Kollmutz", Wachau, Austria 2001

Duck in three preparations: slow poached breast, shaved and rolled; duck confit; and lightly grilled loin. Served also with red wine-braised turnips, yogurt water, and a dense mango puree. The plate was served atop a literal pillow of air scented with lavender, with the aroma of the lavender gently escaping and lightly permeating our air as we ate, adding just the faintest hint of lavender flavor to the duck. Not gimmicky (really... I had my doubts), but magical. Amazing wine paring.

BLACK TRUFFLE explosion, romaine, parmesan

A single raviolo of black truffle jus, black truffle slice, caramelized romaine, parmesan shard, served in a "negative dish", a little bit of coy visual trickery, the porcelain was bottomless. Explosion is absolutely the right term, with the juice having palpable velocity. Lav even had some shoot out from her mouth onto the table...

SHORT RIB Guinness, peanut, fried broccoli
Paolo Bea Montefalco Rosso Riserva "Pipparello", Umbria 2001

Beef shortrib confit, dehydrated Guinness "sheet" (seriously crazy, and it seriously tasted like Guiness), broccoli puree, spiced peanut pudding, pink peppercorn, micro-cilantro. Never thought of the way Guiness matches with tender braised beef, but it makes perfect sense. Lots of Asian flavors here. Conflicted wine pairing, clashing flavors.

HONEYDEW Blis sherry vinegar, mint

A wonderful combination of sweet, acidic, and soothing, drifting off to a clean finish.

RHUBARB goat milk, beet, long pepper
Muller-Catoir Haardter Mandelring Scheurebe Spatlese, Pfalz 2005

Rhubarb in seven preparations: (1) suspended liquid beet ball in rhubarb jus, (2) candied sheet, (3) pickled, (4) mousse-air, (5)braised and encased in goat milk gelatin with tapioca, (6) dense fredo on crust, and (7) "oyster" composition... each articulation more deliciously engaging than its predecessor. Outstanding wine pairing.

STRAWBERRY frozen and chewy, with wasabi

The most singularly intriguing textural element of the meal simply because of the amazing plyability. Delicious match with yuzu and wasabi.

STURGEON candied and dried

Dessicated sturgeon "jerky." Amazing clarity in its transleucense. Playful, but sophisticated. Impressive depth of flavor, which included sesame, fresh ginger (which lended a nice spiciness), and candied citrus rind. Background of fish sauce and soy sauce. Would have been interesting with a secondary source of spiciness.

That takes us through 150 minutes of eating. Stay tuned for Act 2.

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May 1, 2007

Alinea: prologue

jump to: prologue : part 1 : part 2

I just had the most devastating, incredible meal of my life. Through a series of conversations and circumstances, Lav and I found ourselves in Chicago on Saturday night at 9:15 pm to commence an overwhelming and unforgettable experience at Alinea.

Molecular gastronomy and the avant-garde... lots of divergent opinions in this realm. Form or function? Style as a gimmick or with a purpose? I'm not going to engage in the debate of whether this is the best restaurant in the U.S. or its "ranking" against the best and most revered, legendary restaurants around the world. That's entirely irrelevant (and ultimately purposeless because of the underlying subjectivity, I think). If you ask me, the point of going to a restaurant like Alinea is to open your mind, cast aside your prejudices, and immerse yourself in the culinary theater of an incredibly talented and creative chef (and team). It's the opportunity to allow the paradigms and contexts that have defined your concepts of "food" to be wholly deconstructed -- or really, obliterated -- and to enjoy the results of hypermodern, radical reconstructions, prepared and presented thoughtfully, intentionally, and with just the right combination of earnestness and humor.

Alinea is gorgeous on a number of different levels. The design of the restaurant is a mirror of the care and precision used to prepare each of the stunning dishes. From the exterior, the restaurant seems like a simple townhome, emanating a subtle glow of modern accent lighting from within. Upon opening the front door, we were drawn into a hallway whose main feature was its function as an optical illusion of a shrinking ceiling height. This clever tease gave us a not-so-subtle hint of the mind-bending culinary illusions to come.

When we got to the end of the hall, the wall to our left slid open with a surprising velocity, but with almost no sound. The host greeted us and invited us to look into the large, immaculate open kitchen, where we observed teams of chefs working in near-seamless integration... a coordinated flurry of deliberate and precise activity but, as with the entry door, almost absent of any unnecessary sound. No chaos or clanging; only muted voices amidst the controlled execution... really an extraordinary operation to witness.

We were led up the glass and steel staircase to an upper room, demure and sophisticated in its modern design. Shortly after being seated at a generously spaced table, fresh branches of rosemary were placed as centerpieces, one for each of us. The rosemary was astonishingly aromatic; each time a server walked by, a gentle but pure and focused waft of fresh rosemary scent drifted across our table. The absolute precision of the restaurant's added touches and the substantive impact those touches had on the overall experience cannot be overstated; a spirit of perfection reigns here.

And now, before our meal is presented in its totality, I'll make a quick mention of one of my favorite accoutrements to any meal, the bread and butter. We enjoyed two types of bread. First, a scone-shaped biscuit, lightly crispy on the outside, dense and rich on the inside. Later in the meal, we were presented with a simple roll flavored with smoked paprika, the essence of which rested in amazing focus and balance to the texture and density of the roll.

We were served two types of butter: Wisconsin sweet cream butter topped with Hawaiian pepper and house-churned goat's milk butter, which was an absolute revelation. Imagine the flavor of your favorite, richest chevre with the texture of sweet cream butter. So very absurdly good.

So we've made this trip all the way to Chicago for this meal... it would only be appropriate to experience everything we could. Accordingly, against our original decision several weeks ago, and with a bit of trepidation, we opted to go forward with the 24-course tour. As you'll see in the posts to come, this was easily the most intellectually challenging food and wine experience I've ever had. The sheer number of distinct flavors, the constant onslaught of presentations never-before encountered, and frankly, the way all of our preconceived notions of food were completely annihilated, truly made this the most unique dining experience I could ever imagine... near uniformly successful, totally astonishing, and wholly unforgettable.

And as I write this days later, I find that I'm still processing the meal and its impact on my understanding of food as a nutritional necessity and as an expressive medium. I hope that you find the photos and commentary for the concepts of Alinea (which will be posted over the next week or so) to be interesting, inspiring, and thought-provoking.

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