November 27, 2006

in which our heroine loses her grip temporarily

hi everybody -- sorry to be so absent. I'd been whining about being too busy and too stressed in my sporadic posts on this site, and what happened was that it all caught up with me. I had what I suppose is a minor nervous breakdown, inasmuch as I lost my cool and quit my job, and just generally stopped functioning properly for a while.

While in the midst of an insane 4 month run of unceasing work stress, I got engaged, planned to move back to Boston, and bought a house -- and those are just the good things, I'm leaving out the bad things like sick kittykats -- all of which generally turns my life upside down and which I really didn't have time or energy to actually participate in. Which is pretty uncool.

So I quit my job and threw all the cards up into the air. As it turns out, I'm not really quit, since I've agreed to work less than half-time for the next 3 months, in order to keep my big stressful insane project on track for success, since a) there's no one else available, and b) despite copious amounts of specification documentation, apparently I have invaluable project knowledge in my li'l ol' brain. We will decide after the 3 months are up whether or not I still want to quit, but at least I will have some time in which to live my actual life as it's transpiring.

So perhaps in between moving, and fixing up two houses, one to live in and one to sell, and finally living with my fiance for a wacky change of pace, I may be able to find a little time to tell y'all about my lunch at Frontera Grill with spleen, and my dinner at Marigold with C, and this year's thanksgiving extravaganza, and hell, all that great chinese food i was eating in california way back when. Stay tuned.

Posted by foodnerd at 08:28 PM | Comments (4)

November 14, 2006

breakfast on the go

Entertainingly, those oddly sandy gram-flour balls sold at Ambala as desserts, studded with pistachios, make a very nice breakfast indeed with a cup of coffee. Oh the life of the food-obsessed career girl on the go. I would like to be rather less on the go, if I may say so. Yeesh.

Posted by foodnerd at 10:47 AM | Comments (0)

November 11, 2006

bari foods italian sub

I keep hearing how superlative the Italian subs are at Bari Foods on Grand, and it's so close to my house, but I'd never managed to be over there at the right time. This morning I needed to tack a few minutes drive on to the trip up to the Emissions Testing Facility, so i headed over there to see if they were open at 8:45 on a Saturday morning.

They were more than happy to make me a sub in the gray of the morning. And it really is quite good, an extra-crusty, crispy, lightly yeasty sub roll filled with a well-balanced mix of salami, capicolla, mortadella, mild provolone, lettuce, tomato, oil & vinegar dressing & hot giardiniera. It's not too heavy or oily, and it's permeated with the dusty earthiness of strong oregano, and the spicy pickles make it nice & bright. The sub crust stays crispy to the end, even if it takes you an hour to eat because you have to get your car emissions tested in the middle of snarfing it up.

For $4.50, it's a pretty good deal, and a very tasty Italo-American treat.

Posted by foodnerd at 11:02 AM | Comments (0)

November 06, 2006

alinea: our dinner at the best restaurant in america

My goodness. I hadn't even heard the hype about Alinea being Gourmet's #1 restaurant in America, I'd just been flipping through the front of that issue reading the article about the food-scientist restaurant trend, and had Moto and Alinea on the brain. So when spleen arrived in town for a spur-of-the-moment visit, I asked her if she'd be interested in either of those. I know they're not everyone's cup of tea, but she's a first-rate foodwhore like me, so if she was up for it, she was an ideal companion.

I got back an email that went roughly like this: OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD, YESYESYESYES!!!!

So we looked for reservations. None to be had, of course. But then Alinea returned my call, to say that a last minute cancellation had opened up a single table for two at 8:45pm Sunday night. Of course we took it. (What's a 9am client meeting 90 minutes drive away the next morning? Feh -- an insignificance. I just needed to keep away from the wine, I'd be fine. And I was... but more on that later.)

We were instructed that ladies should wear "business elegant" attire. Since it is a stretch to consider us "ladies" we both found that highly amusing. And WTF is business elegant anyway? If I wanted to wear a cocktail dress, would that be inappropriate? It turns out that this is characteristic of the restaurant's aesthetic overall -- it is strangely uptight in its design, very restrained, very controlled, and with the steel-glass-and-neutrals blandness of a sophisticated modern hotel lobby. The hostess has the most upright and correct posture I've ever seen. At first the rigidity of everything put us off, though we did love the Chilewich stair runner and thought that the interior *was* quite elegant, and the armchairs comfortable.

But what we came to understand is that the bland serenity exists for the same reason that museum walls are a stark plain white: to set off the art displayed thereon. The food is so gorgeous, so creative, whimsical, and entrancingly delicious that a decor to match would compete with it, and detract from it. Instead, the plain dark wood table sets off everything that sits on it. The beige upholstery and simple steel staircase and inoffensive art are just there because anything even more stripped-down would be inhospitable. The lighting is perfectly orchestrated to focus on the food: all my photographs came out just fine, yet the two of us had our faces flatteringly lit as if in candlelight.

We didn't know what to expect, given the descriptions of Grant Achatz as this crazy wacky food-science chef. Mostly we giggled quietly to ourselves as we observed the rigidity and formality of the setting and the staff. We took arty pictures of the flatware on its cushy pillows. We chose the 24 course tour rather than the 12 course tasting. DUH.

And then food started to arrive.

A tiny white wax lens-shaped bowl, pierced with a pin holding tiny bits of parmesan, potato & chive, with a sphere of potato at the end, capped with a generous slice of black truffle and some shards of salt. We were instructed to gently pull the pin out so that all the morsels dropped into the bowl, which contained a creamy bit of soup, and then knock the whole works back like a shooter.

That mouthful ranks as one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten in my life. It is a perfect harmony of creamy, starchy and savory, with an intense truffle flavor that lingers on and on in the mouth thanks to the unctuousness of the cream. Wow.

Then came a little jewel of a thing, a bit of crabmeat encased in soft mirin gelee, dabbed with tiny piles of different spices, and backed by a bit of sushi rice topped with tentacled seaweed. Each bite was different, because each one was flavored by a different spice. My favorite was the tellicherry peppercorn, which was so complex that I didn't even register it as black pepper and had to ask the server to identify it -- a scandal, since black pepper is my absolute most favorite spice. Spleen favored the sliver of fresh ginger. And the shredded lemongrass, black salt, saffron, parsley & shichimi togarashi bites weren't too shabby either.

Then came a dish of golden trout roe, cuddled up to a cloud of cucumber foam. The rest of the dish was composed of little dollops of coconut cream & avocado cream, a bit of cilantro juice, and two shards of limerock. What is limerock, you ask? So did we. Turns out to be lime meringue that the chef dehydrated down into crispy little slabs. I thought this dish was perfect. And interestingly, when eaten without the limerock, it was a perfect harmony of separate flavors playing on the tongue, and when eaten with the limerock, it was entirely unified. I preferred the separate flavors, spleen the unified.

The next dish was an Indian-flavored dish made from Japanese butterfish topped with candied turmeric (Chicago chefs seem obsessed with sweetened turmeric at the moment), lemon tea gelee, radish sprout and another thing we failed to recall, all of which was balanced on a fork resting across a bowl holding white poppy seed soup. The bowl was weeble-style, with a spherical base that you had to hold in your hand until it was empty, lest it tip over and spill from the weight of the fork. Instructions were to eat the fish then drink the soup from the bowl, and not to put the bowl down until we'd eaten the dish.

Normally receiving instructions from servers on how to ingest my food is unbelievably annoying, but somehow in this setting with these dishes it became part of the pleasure, part of the fun game of wandering through the maze of the meal, never knowing what flavor, or deconstruction technique, or flamboyant serving piece, might show up next.

The matsutake custard arrived in a glass cylinder, which I assumed to be a shotglass until the servers whisked it off, revealing it to be bottomless. The mushroom flan slumped softly into the pile you see in the photo, studded with a fine dice of matsutake and onion and some edamame, topped with a soy foam and a bit of yuzu rind. Buried inside was a mango packet filled with peanut oil powder -- this was itself insanely delicious, but a little incongruous with the meaty saltiness of the mushrooms & soy. Actually this dish was the closest the meal came to a flaw, being somewhat oversalty... but still delicious, with the sweet-tangy onion being a lovely counterpoint to the soft mushroom flavors.

The rabbit arrived with a pile of shredded brussels sprouts, a bit of cider pudding enclosing some roast garlic, and a few leaves of thyme. The entire works was enclosed in a heavy-bottomed tumbler, in which was trapped the smoke from burning oak leaves. The tumbler was whipped off by the server with the words "chef brings you the essence of autumn," as the smoke wafted up. Which is a bit overblown, but damn, it *did* work. They took the emptied tumblers and poured in a bit of rabbit-thyme consomme, which was then infused with the scent of the smoke. The rabbit & its accompaniments were very good, but that consomme, good grief, that was spectacular. It was complex, rich, smooth... and light and ephemeral. I dawdled over every drop and wished for more.

And that was another theme of the meal: single bites, or tiny servings, of exquisite deliciousness that exploded in your senses, and then were gone. And somehow that was okay. What would normally drive me wild with thwarted desire was somehow just fine in the context of a meal entirely composed of such minutely crafted marvels.

Such as this bit of brilliant madness: a sphere made of cocoa butter & smoked paprika, enclosing peach juice, topped with lemon balm and floating in a splash of carrot juice, again intended as a shooter.

I had to bite into mine to release the peach, but spleen's exploded on contact with her tongue, which blew her mind. Either way, totally fun and wonderfully refreshing. At my next party, I am making a new cocktail: pepper vodka, peach juice, and a smoked paprika-salt rim. Damn.

The Kobe short rib came sealed to the plate under a beet gelee blanket, "to keep it warm." The Kandinsky-esque mayhem on top is red cranberry gel, khaki roast-fennel gel, and dark green fennel-top gel, plus a crispy ribbon of campari, a baby golden beet, a pile of sweetened cooked beet greens, a few rings of shaved fennel, and a strewing of microgreens. The beef was super meaty and soft, with a great flavor, one of the nicest braised short ribs I've had. The gels appear in many dishes at Alinea, and they are pleasant, but a little weird, frankly -- quite firm in texture, not a soft and yielding puree, almost like eating gummi candy in outlandishly savory flavors.

It was presented in one corner of a vast square plate. Chef Achatz very clearly enjoys playing with the plating of dishes, even when he stoops to the pedestrian use of an actual plate. We liked it too.

Just like we liked that beef short rib. Heh. We were scooping up every bit of every sauce and gel and blanket, discreetly applying fingers to the plates when necessary and stopping just short of actually licking those plates. We didn't think that ramrod of a hostess would be amused -- but we were sorely tempted.

Sometimes, though, there was nothing to lick. How completely insane is this? A "ravioli" filled with black truffle juice and braised romaine and parmesan, essentially a tiny little soup dumpling, topped with a shave of black truffle. Presented in a spoon, of course, but with that spoon tucked into the rim of an "unplate" without a bottom, so that the spoon balanced perfectly. Completely fucking insane. In the *best* possible way.

Crazy big truffle flavor, with just a bit of romaine to set it off. The pasta texture wasn't the best, a little thin & chewy for my tastes, but certainly not shameful, and when you've got a mouthful of intense truffle action, you're willing to forgive.

By this time, 9 courses in, we'd totally lost track of the time, and of the number of courses. We were just riding the wave of endorphins, giddily following along as the army of serving staff led us through the maze.

A plate of squab three ways arrived, with grilled tenderloin, a roast bit of breast, and rillettes with crispy bits of skin. 5 huckleberries were stacked on top like tiny cannonballs. The breast was quite livery but very tasty, the grilled bit was lovely, but the rillettes stole the show. SO YUMMY. There was a bit of huckleberry wine sauce underneath, and behind the squab where you can't see it in the photo is a soft rectangle of thai long peppercorn mousse. I an not entirely sure what thai long peppercorns ARE, but I am exceedingly sure that I like them. Wow. That mousse had a complex and almost floral flavor, a bit spicy, almost sweet, I don't know exactly how to describe it.

We were eating in the tiniest bites imaginable, savoring every combination of flavors, focusing entirely on the sensations, and dropping all pretense of conversation until the courses were gone. The food we were eating was art, there is no other way to think of it; it was like listening to a symphony or looking at a really cool painting, only it was food, and we love nothing so much as food. It made us so happy.

A palate cleanser arrived, in the form of a chewy semifrozen block of concord grape, balanced on a bit of sculpture. This one was unfortunately ruined for us by the server, who described it to us and then said it would be the grapiest thing we'd ever eaten. Perhaps so for most of the patrons, but both spleen and I grew up with concord grapevines, and this didn't come close. After the outrageous flavor rushes of some of the dishes that had come before, we had every reason to believe the guy -- but sadly it was only moderately grapey. Still delicious, and of an interestingly cool and gelatinous texture.

The next course was served with science-nerd flourish by servers sliding pill spatulas into the slots in the bottom of the glass disks and lifting them down to the table. On top of the disk was a little pillow of chewy-frozen chestnut, topped with Blis bourbon-barrel-aged maple syrup and fresh ground star anise. The star anise hit the tongue first, sparkling and intense, and then it mellowed into the chestnut and maple. (I have a bottle of that syrup at home, and it is lovely stuff, worthy of sipping from a spoon.)

The crabapple semifreddo was another crazy-mixed-up jumble of flavors that somehow worked. With the possible exception of the eucalyptus gel, which didn't really seem to go with the others, everything else on the plate worked ridiculously well with all of its brethren. The crabapple was studded with a sugar tuile with tellicherry pepper & sage, and surrounded by the eucalyptus gel, an oilve oil gel, an unbelievable onion marmalade, and sharp cheddar custard.

You have not lived until you have bobbed for snacks at an absurdly expensive restaurant. The "hands-free" course was impaled on the end of a flexible wire attached to a heavy metal base; you had to just line your mouth up and grab it as it bobbled along. We were both in hysterical laughter the moment we got the thing in our mouths -- it was just so silly and fun to do. And it was damn yummy: a spiral of quince & proscuitto, topped with lemon, juniper, cilantro shoot and a crispy sprig of proscuitto. This collection of flavors would make a fantastic salad done at home, it seems to me.

Then came a dense shellfish foam topped with finely carved bits of clams & mussels, and a barrage of celery flavors -- a tiny dice of raw celery, the delicate leaves, and a celery ice. Underneath was a wonderfully strong horseradish cream, and a gooseberry puree.

Spleen liked the combination a lot but I unfortunately thought the gooseberry tasted absolutely nasty with the horseradish. The rest of it was fantastic, and I was totally digging the celery flavors and textures with the briny shellfish.

Skatewing arrived in a traditional collection of flavors -- brown butter, capers, lemon & pepper -- except that all of them were powdered. And there was a banana. I am cracking up just writing that. The dish was great, delicately cooked, absolutely delicious, and the banana did work, though it wasn't *entirely* convincing. But hot damn, I want some caper powder for my home kitchen. It is the ultimate flavor crystals -- salty, tangy, capery. Yeehaw! I would put that shit on EVERYTHING.

And because dehydrated powdered brown butter isn't good enough, the next course was a crispy little packet of translucent yellow pineapple enclosing dried pineapple and powdered bacon. Let me repeat that: powdered bacon. Damn. That pineapple-glass stuck to your teeth something awful, but it sure did taste great with that bacon.

We learned later that they don't actually powder bacon, but rather they take bacon fat and mix it with maltodextrin and then somehow dehydrate that mixture into a powder. It's completely demented, and I love it.

Lamb three ways -- course #18 for those keeping score -- arrived on a sizzling bar of metal suspended in a rack. The servers leaned over and plucked the sprigs of rosemary that had been on the table as floral decoration, and stuck the sprigs into the holes in each sizzling bar, heating the rosemary and dispersing their fragrance over the dish and the table. The first bite of lamb was topped with mastic cream (a piney, resinous flavor), the next with marinated & pureed dates, and the third with braised red cabbage. The lamb was extremely tender and had excellent flavor; we loved all three versions.

The bathtub of flakes was one of my absolute favorite dishes of the whole meal. An irregularly oval bowl, looking like nothing so much as an old-timey bathtub, arrived filled with a snow of brown and white, topped with pickled leeks and a teeny leek sprout. The brown was pumpernickel toast flakes, and the white was shavings of dried gruyere, and that savory fluffy pile hid a few morsels of smoked bison, cooked rare and nestled into a sauce of stewed raisins. Holy crap. This was so unbelievably good. One of the most amazing meat dishes I've ever eaten, with the tender rich meat full of smokiness, and the rich sweetness of the raisins, and the pickled leek cutting through, and the fluffy crispness of the toast and cheese -- it was intense in so many ways, and yet still light. Completely awesome.

And then began the parade of dessert courses. First a pair of fresh raspberries tucked under a raspberry gel blanket, and splattered with goat milk tapioca, red pepper taffy, squares of candied red pepper, lavender pudding, pistachio gel, pistachio brittle, and pistachio tuile. The goat milk tapioca is wonderful, and I would like to try making some of my own at home. The red pepper totally worked, and the pistachio items were all great, most especially the pure-nut tuile and the graham-crackery brittle. The lavender pudding tasted like hand lotion, but it was fun anyway.

Licorice cake arrived wrapped in a twist of parchment. Under the parchment was a hoja santa leaf, which we were instructed not to eat, and under that was the moist little cake. Along the side of the plate were muscovado jelly, a pile of candied orange with peel, roasted banana, licorice leather, and a wee pitcher of sweet potato sauce. Gorgeous. The hoja santa gave an interesting herbal fragrance to the cake, and all the little toppings were delicious in their own ways. I forked out the last drop of that sweet potato sauce, which caught the eye of one of the servers.

We'd been bonding with them a little by this point, and they'd told us that Chef Achatz had seen one of them coming back with our empty plates and done a doubletake, thinking the waiter was coming in with clean new plates. He looked a little closer and saw the thoroughness of our devouring, and was apparently pleased. We of course were thrilled to hear that "chef liked your plates." This, along with the fundamental weirdness of things like lavender pudding and eucalyptus gel and powdered bacon, made us wonder how many people sent back unfinished plates. Apparently only a few... but not too many are as devoted to the consumption of every last molecule as we are. We mentioned that we were struggling mightily with the temptation to lick the plates. They laughed and said there was an "Alinea lick" -- you had to pick up the plate and lick straight down. And then that server double-dog-dared me to lick a plate.

You know me too well to think I could resist an open invitation like that.

The next course was a chocolate confection on an enormous flat bowl. Chocolate mousse had been dehydrated into a crisp cookie and topped with Venezuelan chocolate at exactly 94 degrees Fahrenheit, so that it was just barely melted. It was strewn with herb flowers, and tilted into the bowl which held stewed figs -- which went oddly well with the chocolate -- and a cassia bud ice cream. Around the ice cream, the servers poured tepid bergamot tea, so the whole thing was an herbal cinnamon-chocolate extravaganza. We were clinging to our last shard of decorum and planning to wait until the last course to actually pick up and lick, but our ever-helpful friend warned us that the final course had no plate at all, so that chocolate-and-tea goodness went bottoms up for a good solid series of licks.

That sealed the deal for me. The atmosphere may be business-stodgy, but the food and the service is pure play. Spleen and I were like two kids on an amusement park ride, giddy with the sheer rush of it all. We had such a blast consuming our 24 courses, and it seemed that everyone involved in creating and serving them was having a pretty good time too. Say what you will about the food-scientists, this meal was all about pleasure, play, and wit, and I am more than willing to endorse that.

We had no idea how much time had passed since we sat down to eat. Neither of us wore a watch, and we didn't want to burst the bubble of magic by checking a cell phone for the time. We knew it was late, and we were starting to get just ever so slightly full, when the final course arrived: an upside-down lollipop of caramel dipped in tempura batter and fried, with a bit of lemon peel and a cinnamon stick handle. It was super-airy and collapsed instantly in the mouth, a fleeting taste of warm caramel and crunch, spiced like a Mexican cafe de olla.

As we collected our coats downstairs, we looked into the open kitchen and commented on its mind-bending cleanliness, which snagged us a semi-tour of the kitchen. It's a squarish room of white tile and stainless steel, with one counter down the middle and two down the sides. Apparently they cook and prep around the edges, and plate and assemble on the middle lines. They told us how they make the bacon powder and the caper powder (dehydrate capers, stick into spice grinder), and were as enthusiastic as we were about the work they were doing.

And then we wandered out through the sleek metal door and futuristic entry corridor to our rock-star valet parking spot directly outside, turned on the engine, and checked the time. We'd been eating for 5 hours -- it was the middle of the night, and we'd never noticed. We laughed and laughed and laughed. And then we went home to look at the pictures and write everything down -- we didn't get to bed until after 3 in the morning. Now THAT'S good eatin'.

(postscript: I am counting only 23 courses, both in my photos and on the souvenir menu they gave us with the bill -- in a sober black envelope, of course. What a bummer.)

Posted by foodnerd at 01:09 AM | Comments (3)

November 05, 2006

easy and good

This is an old post that has only just now gotten a photo or two to go with it:

Three things that have sprung from the sporadic bits of time I've had for cookery:

red cabbage braised in the pork-chop frying pan with onion, apple, caraway seeds, a teaspoon of butter, and a bit of water... freaking fantastic, really, with the pork chop and some pureed rutabaga with salt, pepper & nutmeg.

chiles relleños: smallish poblano peppers, slit & seeded, sprayed with olive oil and stuffed with a mix of sauteed onion & red pepper, cottage cheese, a bit of hot sauce, and raw egg, then baked at 500F for half an hour. The filling did run out a bit and burn on the pan, but once out of the pan and onto the plate they were just lovely little things, and tasted great.

a frittata of caramelized onions, sauteed red chard, and slices of cooked yukon gold potatoes, topped with a good bit of grated parmesan. Good for breakfasts, dinners, or drunken latenight ramblings through the fridge.

I have been trying to cut the starch & sugar from my diet, particularly the wheat flour, and it does seem to make a pretty big difference. I *feel* smaller, even if I can't possibly have lost any weight, and I suspect that's just bloat disappearing due to the wheat being gone. I will still eat the stuff -- I've been out with friends several times this week and have had some lovely hamburgers and pizza -- but I am trying to keep it out of my home cooking in a last ditch attempt to grow smaller without having to eat utter crap. And I think it's rather good really, since I adore vegetables and fruits, and can supplement with small bits of potato and corn tortilla and brown rice, and not be hungry OR sad.

Posted by foodnerd at 12:28 PM | Comments (0)

November 04, 2006

just so pretty

As a preview of the amazingness of the alinea dinner, dig this photo. It should look rather familiar to the Gourmet readers among you. *drool*

Posted by foodnerd at 07:17 PM | Comments (0)

November 03, 2006

a bender, chicago style

when you work too damn much, and haven't had time to cook, and find yourself alone on a Friday night without enough energy to actually go out and do something fun, this is what happens: a quick drive to Goose Island Shrimp House, and an evening in front of the TV with fried seafood, hot sauce and spicy chips.

The breading is thick and crunchy -- they clearly bread and fry to order, given the wait time and the quality of the crunch -- but the shrimps aren't really all that. Not really fresh enough in my opinion. The oysters, though, are winners, huge & briny & hot, very yum.

Posted by foodnerd at 07:09 PM | Comments (0)

November 02, 2006

quit yer damn whining and cook

OK, i have been yelled at before for spoiling Top Chef in posts here, but i think this one is safe enough.

I am so tired of the fine-dining chefs on that show whining every time they get a challenge that is centered on "low food," for lack of a better term: comfort food, TGIFridays, bar snacks for poker players, whatever. Last night, almost all of them would not shut up about how adrift they were, how completely clueless about what to do -- and though a couple of them came up with things that were at least tasty and interesting, far too many of them bungled their dishes completely.

I mean, come on -- if you can cook at that level, you had better be able to turn out a decent plate of something at home, for your friends, with one hand tied behind your back. If you don't have that basic ability to cook food that tastes good, what in the blinding hell business do you have in a 4-star kitchen? (And conversely, in what universe do they live, where nothing is worth eating that doesn't come from Joel Robuchon or Alain Ducasse?)

This was the thing that struck me most about my stupendously inventive dinner at Alinea, about which I *swear* I will write soon: all those absurd, whimsical, virtuosic tour-de-force things that came to the table suspended from a pin, every last one of them was perfectly cooked and utterly, magnificently delicious. Just because you are a brilliant fine-dining genius artiste does not let you off the hook of giving me something tasty to eat. It may be art, but it is still food.

I have my two picks for who it's gonna be this time around on Top Chef. Anyone wanna guess?

Posted by foodnerd at 11:15 AM | Comments (2)