Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vie, Western Springs IL

For the last meal of my vacation I volunteered to take my aunt someplace nice – we’d originally planned on Graham Elliot but their seasonal menu change left little to my Aunt’s liking and as such a change was needed. Having been to many of Chicago’s top tables over the past year and hearing glowing reviews of a place called Vie “out in the ‘burbs” I looked into the restaurant only to realize it had very recently been named to Gayot’s Top 40 restaurants in America – a quick look at the weekly rotating menu showed some great items and beautiful desserts, plus if things changed up leaving my Aunt’s limited palate unhappy there was always their much celebrated burger. Reservations made for 7:30pm we figured it would be safe to leave around 6:00 or 6:15 given the rush hour traffic – thankfully we decided on 6:00 and arrived only moments before our scheduled seating.

Driving up to the small building I have to admit I was surprised when we entered to find the restaurant less than 1/4 full – I was also surprised by the extensively modern décor – dark woods and steel aplenty, stark and minimalistic to say the least. Given chef Virant’s pedigree (Blackbird, for one) I guess the design made sense, but given his locavore focus on farm-to-table foods and home-style techniques like pickling and canning I guess I expected something more rustic. Greeted at the door by a young lady we were promptly led back to our table, a small booth/chair two-top in the main dining room, and waited a short while before being greeted by our server – Maureen. Offering cocktails or wine (we declined) and presenting us with the 8x11inch loose leaf-on-clipboard menu we ordered drinks - iced tea for aunt and coffee for myself and perused the menu.

Returning quite rapidly with water we were asked if we were ready to order – literally only three minutes after we received the menu. Thinking this odd I said we were still looking and subsequently watched her (and later Chef Virant) attend to another table that was enjoying a tasting menu…a tasting menu we were never offered and saw no indication of either in-house or on the website. Returning again we attempted to place our orders only to be told the Burger was not available because “the chef doesn’t want to be known as a burger joint so we only make a few every night and they’re already sold out.” Apparently there were lots of things to know about Vie that are not announced, detailed on the menu, or on the website. My aunt somewhat off-put by this fact went back to consulting the menu and to be fair I’d have considered leaving had it not taken so long to get there (not to mention the tolls.) With decisions finally made we placed our orders, though certainly not the things we’d planned on when we consulted the online menu earlier that morning.

After a short period of time our drinks arrived (note, given the ordering difficulties it was already 25 minutes into the meal) and shortly thereafter the nightly amuse arrived featuring cured Trout, Creme Fraiche, and Pickled Cabbage. A tasty albeit safe bite I enjoyed the interplay of the smooth trout and sour crème fraiche with the added vegetal component of the cabbage – it tasted not entirely dissimilar from good coleslaw. In addressing the drinks – the coffee was bold and the nutty accents complimentary to the food while aunt stated her tea was very good.

With our server off helping with the tasting our bread arrived next via a young man who never spoke a word during our stay at Vie. A well prepared whole wheat with sweetness that I believe was derived from honey, a good crumb, and excellent crust I have to say the bread was excellent and the house butter was served in very small pats with a grassy taste and smooth texture that worked well with the bread. While I will note that another serving of bread required prompting (as did my first refill of water) the ancillary servers did an excellent job thereafter in keeping up with our table.

Beginning our appetizers, first for my aunt was perhaps the most “signature” item at Vie outside of the Burger. Titled crispy parisienne gnocchi, black trumpet mushrooms, black truffle butter, pickled and roasted carrots, prairie fruits farm fresh chevre the dish smelled wonderful with the heavy essence of truffle rising from the plate and mingling well with the buttery tones. Thick and plump my aunt had never had pate a choux gnocchi before and was appropriately surprised by the difference from potato gnocchi. Tasting a sampling of the dish I have to say the balance of the dish – sweet carrots versus creamy goat cheese, crispy gnocchi against smooth and earthy mushrooms – worked well but the overall texture of the dumplings was just a tad too gummy for my liking. The truffle butter, however, was marvelous.

Feeling gluttonous I opted for two appetizers – both items I feel compelled to order each time they are offered. While I was a tad put off by them being delivered simultaneously for the simple fact that one would get cool as I consumed the other, I guess I didn’t specify I wanted them coursed out…then again, it is not as though Vie was hurting for tables or in a time crunch, either. Tasting first the coddled yuppie hill farm fresh egg, périgord black truffles, organic crème fraiche, wood-grilled bread dish I have to say I was disappointed. Having had all three of the components multiple times in the past I could taste each ingredient in abundance but the overall effect was somewhat dull – for the first time in a fine dining establishment I actually considered asking for some salt.

Faring much better than the egg was the seared au bon canard foie gras, pistachio blini, cherry and balsamic gastrique, wood-grilled Wisconsin shallots, roasted pistachios – as a matter of fact, it was exemplary. Flawlessly cleaned foie gras – sweet and unctuous to bite – was balanced brilliantly by the nutty blini and tender whole roasted pistachios. Further enhancing the dish and highlighting the smoothness of the foie and blini were crisp and smoky shallots while the whole dish was brought to the front of the tongue by the sweet and acidic cherry vinegar.

Plates collected the Chef made his way from the kitchen again and carried on a lengthy conversation about sourcing local chickens and livestock with the table receiving the tasting – he then stopped by our table and stated “I hope you are enjoying everything – thanks for coming out” before heading back to the kitchen. Shortly thereafter our main courses arrived and much like the foie gras they were both beautiful examples of what a talented chef can do with high quality ingredients.

Beginning first with my aunt’s dish I was excited because I knew there was no way she’d eat a part of it – and it was something I’d earmarked on the menu that morning as a must taste. Not normally one to order “pork” my aunt opted for this dish first because of the lack of the burger and secondly because she loves ham. Arriving as a rustic presentation, Crawford Farm pork combination of porchetta, hearth sausage and tasso ham, braised cranberry beans, golden turnips and pickled ramps, pork jus was a lovely dish full of flavor, spice, and three entirely different tastes of pork. Favoring the lean ham and spicy sausage my aunt passed off the fatty porchetta to myself and – well, let’s just say there aren’t too many things quite as bad for your heart and great for your palate as porchetta following foie gras. Balancing the savory aspects of the pork were flawless beans, crunchy sweet turnips, and acidic first of season ramps.

With aunt ordering the pork I’d originally planned on I decided to try something new and went with the chef’s highly touted seared Hawks Hill Ranch elk tenderloin and crispy elk summer sausage, Ted’s organic cornmeal spaetzle, black trumpet mushrooms, roasted Michigan parsnips, and preserved huckleberries. With an appropriate gamey flavor not unlike that of venison the lean elk was prepared medium and had the texture of pork loin without any sinew or fattiness at all. Balancing the lean loin was a fatty and spicy round of crispy fried sausage that (like the porchetta and pork sauage) left me wondering how my egg dish was so bland when the chef was clearly so talented with salt and spices. Resting beneath the loin and adding an earthiness to the dish were several pan-seared mushrooms and a chewy (and unfortunately somewhat bland) spaetzle while the topping of the dish was a sublime reduction of sweet yet acidic berries and smoky slices of parsnip.

Finishing our mains Maureen returned and after refilling our drinks asked if she could interest us in desserts. Debating making an early exit and heading to Hot Chocolate for dessert we decided to look at the menu and a single option made staying obligatory for my aunt. I too had no trouble finding something that sounded delightful. Beginning first with aunts selection - Baked Butterscotch Pudding, Toasted Walnuts, Whipped Cream, Vanilla Ice Cream I can’t say I was wowed – it was a warm pudding cup – but Aunt was very pleased and that is all that matters.

For myself the choice was “Chocolate Sour Cream Cheesecake, Cocoa Graham Cracker, Candied Klug Farm Sour Cherries, White Chocolate and Cherry Bark, Caramel Sauce” and it proved to be not only a study in chocolate colors, but also a study in the nuances of good chocolate. Creamy and luxurious but mildly sour the cheesecake itself was served as a mound overtop a dark chocolate graham cracker- the combination focusing heavily on the cocoa notes of the dish. Alongside the cake were sweetened sour cherries that tasted divine on their own but moreso served to awaken the fruity tones of the chocolate. Finally, a drizzle of caramel highlighted the cheesecake’s more floral tones and finishing off the dish I ate the bark on its own – the tart cherries highlighted by the smooth white chocolate.

Finishing our desserts we were brought the bill – pricey but not out of line for the quality of the preparation and passion of the ingredient sourcing. Delivered with the bill were two cream puffs that our server described as ethereal – the best she’d ever had…they were good, but I’d not go that far.

In looking back on our meal at Vie I most assuredly say that aside from the egg everything we had was good or great – Chef Virant is clearly a talented man worthy of all his awards and praise. That noted, there is just something about the front of the house at Vie that did not work for me – the room did not fit the food, the service was unpolished (our server really no better than one at Denny’s or Fridays,) and policy such as not offering the tasting and not informing us regarding the burger just seemed out of place for fine dining. Certainly not as impressive as the top tables of downtown Chicago I personally found Vie to be more comparable to Blackbird, though I preferred the later. A good meal, sure, but with all the great chefs, restaurants, and experiences in the greater Chicago area I just can’t see making that trek again.

Topolobampo, Chicago IL

Shortly after his big win on Top Chef Masters my sister and I found ourselves at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill for brunch – while some of the food was excellent some of it was merely average and the restaurant seemed entirely overwhelmed by the number of patrons – service was slow, food came out luke warm...and looking back on it I was luke warm on the experience. Having reassessed my thoughts on food and dining on recent trips and ever impressed by Bayless’ strong ethics and dedication to the slow-foods/organic approach I decided to give him a second chance on this visit to Chicago – a lunch at Topolobampo…surely a plethora of Beard Awards and millions of raves couldn’t be wrong twice.

With the amount of praise heaped on Bayless I think may have gone into our previous meal at Frontera with unrealistic expectations, especially since I generally don’t favor Latin/Mexican cuisine – as such I left my expectations at the door this time. Arriving slightly late for our reservation after getting lost on Lower Wacker and subsequently searching for parking we were greeted by the same pleasant hostess I met last time and immediately led through the lively (and jam packed) Frontera to a small table in the much more quiet and refined (but equally packed) Topo. From the moment we sat down the feel was distinctly different from Frontera – music was low, conversation were quiet, servers were present without being overbearing.

Greeted by a pleasant young woman moments after seating we were provided with the ever-rotating monthly menu and offered a wine/cocktail list which we declined. Selecting tap water our heavy (and clearly hand blown) glasses were filled and my aunt additionally ordered a carbonated lime-aid that was quite tasty. As we browsed the menu another server stopped in and presented us with complimentary chips (still hot, thick, salty, and delicious) and a savory onion laden guacamole. While I’m rather certain this was the same guacamole as served at Frontera last year I found it much more delicious this time and even my aunt who doesn’t prefer avocados liked the smooth and balanced flavor.

Orders placed we sat back and chatted until our first courses arrived – a mere 10-15 minutes. For my Aunt’s first course she selected the Ensalada Topolobampo described as a salad of young organic greens with cilantro, garlic croutons and dry Jack cheese, in creamy lime-serrano dressing. Cold, crisp, perfect I was quite impressed by this dish mostly because I generally do not favor the overpowering effect of uncooked cilantro. Graciously accepting a couple of bites from my aunt I was additionally impressed by the smooth manner in which the creamy and acidic lime dressing worked with the sharp jack.

For my first course I was excited to see one of my favorite items – sweetbreads. Described in longwinded fashion as Mollejas a la Yucateca - crispy sweetbreads glazed with orange, achiote and habanero, Mexican chimichurri (infused with cilantro and epazote), roasted Spence Farm turnips, pickled red onion this dish was wonderful in every way. Featuring four large sweetbreads perfectly breaded and pan seared the dish was substantially spicy yet balanced with the sweetness of the orange to allow the characteristic taste of the glands to peak through. The addition of sweetened onions and crispy turnips added additional contrast and a clean vegetal component that balanced the heat and sweet – a very well thought out presentation.

Plates collected we once again waited only a short while before our next courses arrived – not too fast, not too slow – and perfectly warmed, presented, detailed, and explained. For my Aunt she opted for soup to follow her salad and we were both amazed by the aroma as Sopa Azteca featuring dark broth flavored with pasilla, with grilled chicken, avocado, Meadow Valley Farm hand-made Jack cheese, thick cream and crisp tortilla strips was finished table side. Not absurdly overflavored of tomatoes like most tortilla soups this delectable potage was nearly a stew texture with the excellent tortillas holding up to the moisture and heat and prominent notes of spice mellowed by the cheese, cream, and avocado. In addition to the fantastic soup my aunt was brought four excellent whole grain flatbreads for dipping – I fully admit to eating most of them.

For my main course the selection was easy – pork and bread pudding on the same plate couldn’t possibly fail. Entitled Puerco en Clemole and featuring “Roasted pork in old-fashioned clemole castellano (dark dried chiles, pecans, pinenuts, hazelnuts, avocado leaf). Calabaza en tacha (sugar pumpkin) bread pudding and Caramelized Brussels sprouts” my only complaint about this dish was that I couldn’t get the bread pudding as a dessert. Flawless pork loin that was as close to “melt in the mouth” as pork can be paired beautifully with the spicy yet nutty sauce while the sweet and intense bread pudding melded beautifully with the savory sprouts.

Thoroughly impressed by the experience thus far dessert was an easy yes – and so was coffee – and then some. While fully admitting to a borderline unhealthy caffeine addiction I will note I’ve had some great restaurant coffee – Daniel, The Modern, and Gramercy Tavern most notably – and I’d rank the press pot at Topolobampo on par with any of them. Intelligentsia roasted 100% organic beans from Yeni Navan-Michiza, Oaxaca the coffee was flower and honey, cocoa and nutty, smooth yet bold - unreal complexity. Expensive for sure I asked if this blend (bear in mind this is not the same as the house blend) could be purchased and I was told that unfortunately it could not – but I was given the address of the Intelligentsia flagship store so that I could look for something similar.

For dessert I allowed my aunt to select first and she opted for the Chocolate y Datiles – a Gooey steamed Mexican chocolate pudding cake with malted chocolate date ice cream, warm date cake with orange crema, shaved fennel and dates. As complex as it sounds this dish featured two types of cake - both of which were served warm, moist, and sumptuous – topped with a smooth and fruity chocolate ice cream, mildly acidic orange cream, and most wonderfully the fennel that served to enhance the other flavors but also left a glossy vegetal taste on the palate – not since the addition of black olive to a creamsicle at Providence has a vegetable been used so nicely in dessert.

With my aunt selecting my first choice I opted to go the other way and skip chocolate entirely. Presented elegantly the Membrillo con Biscochitos featuring warm brown-butter cake with crumbled shortbread biscochitos, Jamaica-poached quince and brown-butter ice cream was excellent, albeit not quite on par with the Chocolate y Datiles. Somewhere between a soufflé and a pound cake in texture the brown-butter cake was more savory than I expected with elegant notes of salt and caramel folded into its buttery and airy texture. Proving a perfect foil to the savory aspects was intensely sweet poached quince and somewhat bitter but sweetened and smooth ice cream.

Sitting back and enjoying the rest of my coffee I was not only happy but amazed – while I attempted to check my expectations at the door there was clearly some apprehension going into Topo after our experience at Frontera – apprehension that was clearly unwarranted and dissipated after my first taste of the guacamole giving way to excitement and delight with each subsequent dish. While the prices were certainly somewhat more expensive than the casual Frontera I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I now “get” the obsession people have with Bayless and while I may not be a “casual Mexican” kind of guy I truly appreciate his skills with their subset of spices, dishes, and techniques.

Fritz Pastry and Toast II, Chicago IL

Waking up early as ever on Thursday morning with multiple plans for the day (free day at the Shedd, discount at the Field museum) I made my way to the gym for a great run and by the time I returned to the room my aunt was ready to roll. Showered and setting the GPS it was too early for breakfast and my mother had made a specific request for macarons so we made our way to Fritz's pastry for some baked goods and browsing. Traffic moving surprisngly well we arrived at the small shop (at least it looks that way from the outside) by 7:30am.

Walking in the door to the sounds of The Flaming Lips (followed by Radiohead) I already liked the place - and walking up to the counter we were greeted by a friendly young lady who was all smiles and extremely helpful as we browsed the selections, took some pictures (to taunt my mother back home,) and make our choices. With 4 Brioche options, multiple croissants and pastries, bread, macarons, cookies and cakes it was an arduous choice indeed but with selections made we made our way to the street to get the car and head to breakfast proper.

En route to breakfast my aunt tasted her cream cheese brioche and dubbed it delicious – I personally don’t like cream cheese and found it to be a relatively boring Danish despite the excellent brioche. For my pastry dollar the money is always in the almond croissant and at Fritz the almond croissant wasn’t just good, it was the best I’ve had outside of Payard and Petrossian. Buttery and crisp exterior with a nutty and nuanced glaze gave way to an airy and textural center loaded with chopped buttered almonds and the whole pastry was light, flavorful, and complex.

Other items selected and tasted later in the day included 3 macarons for myself and another nine to go home to my mother. Featuring a delicate shell with an excellent crack on mastication I personally found the cookie to be somewhat doughy and wet for my tastes, though certainly not bad. Tasting the pistachio first I was impressed by the level of sweetness but largely underwhelmed by the flavor as it could’ve just as easily been vanilla. The more novel options tasted included Peanut Butter Pretzel and Banana Cinnamon, both of which were good though not mindblowing like some I’ve tried in the past. Interestingly Fritz has a small box labeled “Macaron Suggestions” where visitors can suggest anything they like – PB Pretzel was one of these from the past. Cheaper than any macarons I’ve encountered to date I will give Fritz credit in the “bang for the buck” category.

The final selection was the Cinnamon Brioche bread pudding – a slice for a mere $3 our server suggested this should be warmed before consumption and she was definitely right – rather bland when tasted cold (hey, we were in the car!) 30 seconds in the microwave at the hotel allowed the pudding to flourish – releasing heavy notes of cinnamon and butter, plus what I do believe was almond essence. All told I must say I was quite pleased with Fritz and would certainly recommend stopping in for a croissant – the best I’ve tasted in the Midwest – if I lived locally I’d be there making macaron suggestions, as well.

Getting back to breakfast proper I gave my aunt the choice between Toast and Jam – though I hear the two go well together these are two separate restaurants in Chicago’s breakfast/brunch scene – a scene I personally believe is the best in the country. Arriving at the small shop – the second of Jeanne Roser’s (who was indeed present that day working the counter and pouring coffee) locations just after 9:30 we entered and were seated immediately. Menus were presented, specials described, water poured – top notch service.

With aunt ordering orange juice (fresh squeezed and only $3 for a good sized glass) and myself going for coffee – a strong breakfast blend with mostly floral notes and a decent acidity – we perused the unique menu full of the standard breakfast, lunch, and brunch foods plus some really unique options. Decisions made we placed our orders and waited approximately 15 minutes while chatting and browsing the kitschy interior (toasters EVERYWHERE) before our food was delivered.

For my aunt her selection was the “pancake orgy” featuring a stack of three thick and buttery yet perfectly golden and chewy pancakes topped with raspberry granola, creamy yougurt, and a drizzle of honey. With each pancake featuring a different flavor we both rather suspected they would be served linearly instead of as a stack, but on tasting we were both impressed by how each pancake tasted entirely different but also worked as a whole. Featuring a mild apple cinnamon pancake on top, a zippy and sour lemon poppy seed in the middle, and a banana pecan on the bottom I personally liked the banana pecan best (perhaps the post-New Orleans bias?) while aunt fancied the apple cinnamon. Offered a bite early in the meal my aunt is thankfully weak and couldn’t finish much so I was able to later add some maple syrup and finish off the banana pecan cake.

For myself the decision was easy – French Toast Orgy. Served essentially as a single 2 inch thick slice of stuffed brioche divided into three “fingers” the dish was again topped with an ample helping of raspberry granola, savory and smooth yogurt, and honey – I also added ample maple syrup, pure unless my taste buds deceive me. Featuring three different styles I first tasted the chocolate – mild hints of cocoa, great crispy and textural exterior with a melt in the mouth interior. Second I tasted the mascarpone and it turned out to be my favorite of the group with the sweetened cheese forming a pockets of creaminess inside the already buttery and smooth bread-pudding textured toast. My final taste was stuffed with pureed strawberry and while not quite as delectable as the other two (lacking the creaminess) I loved the tart contrast – eating it with the chocolate toast was superb.

Very pleased with the griddled goods my aunt and I were equally enamored with the copious amount of fresh berries delivered with the breakfasts – in Los Angeles or New York the fruits included would’ve likely more than doubled the price of the meal. Paying the bargain tab and leaving a large tip we made our way to the streets and our easily obtained free parking spot very pleased with the Toast experience – between Bongo Room, Toast, M.Henry, and the myriad spots serving weekend brunch Chicago still reigns as my favorite breakfast city by far.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Alinea [2] Chicago IL

When I first ate at Alinea on August the 1st 2009 I stated it was the best dining experience of my life (, trumping an extended tasting at The French Laundry that cost twice the price...I knew at some point I’d go back, but there were many other places to try on my ever growing list. After Alinea I visited Savoy and Robuchon, L2O, Daniel, Picholine, Ko, and did an extended tasting at Per Se before Benno left - all save Ko were excellent and worth their price - but none trumped Alinea. When the opportunity arose on an Ash Wednesday cancellation when I’d conveniently have a layover at O’Hare I called my friend Dave and asked if he’d be interested – he said “Oh Hell Yes,” an appropriate response.

Arriving moments before my 6:00pm reservation I checked in with the hostess and as my friend was stuck in traffic I was escorted to the table, upstairs this visit. A larger room than the downstairs but with tables equally spaced I chatted with one of my multiple servers about the artwork – provided in this case by a local artist and changing with the season, my previous visit, and dining in general. Watching a few neighbors receive their dishes from the shorter menu I saw some familiar items but also some new ones I’d soon be experiencing. When my friend arrived the Sommelier stopped by and discussed the wine pairings, however Dave opted for a bottle of California Red and I had a few small pours along with my water.

In order to not belabor the discussion I will note that the service during this visit to Alinea was every bit on par with my previous experience – ever present but never obvious, descriptive without talking down, water and wine filled as if by an invisible hand. While the waiter-to-diner interaction I loved on my first visit was obviously less important (and less focused upon) since I was not dining alone, I still felt as though our servers wanted to know us as diners and went out of their way to ask and answer questions. Finally, while Alinea has done away with bread service in order to focus on the food (unfortunate as their butter was sublime) the courses flowed seamlessly without the need of bread to refresh the palate and while I myself left comfortably full my friend noted even before the main dessert that he was getting stuffed.

Beginning the meal approximately 10 minutes after Dave’s arrival our first dish was excellent – it wowed me and gave Dave an idea of what was to come. Entitled Char Roe - Plantain, Ginger, Papaya the dish acted to pair the salty roe with tropical nuance – per our waiter Char comes from cold water and they wanted to give it an island vacation. Served inside a nutmeg “glass” we shattered the elegant presentation like a crème brulee to release the amalgam of roe and spices that I believe included cilantro and basil into a foam and gel with strong hints of papaya, plantain, ginger, and lime. A great degree of texture, a great balance of sweet and salty, creamy yet spicy and acidic – an intense and beautiful opening dish.

Dish two was an Alinea signature and was seen by myself on the previous, Yuba - Shrimp, Miso, Togarashi. Like an old friend the pen-in-ink dish greeted my palate with a wonderful mélange of savory and sweet, spicy and aromatic, crisp yet texturally varied.

Dish three was a dish I’d heard about but didn’t understand until I experienced it. Entitled Chao Tom - Sugar Cane, Shrimp, Mint the dish was Alinea’s take on the traditional Vietnamese dish usually served as a skewer of shrimp. In this case the dish was indeed served on a skewer, but aside from that the presentation was entirely unique. Featuring a compressed piece of fresh sugar cane that had apparently been boiled in shrimp and ginger stock before being topped with garlic, mint, peanut, and shallot the diner was instructed to place the bite in his/her mouth and chew it up to extract all the flavor prior to spitting out the fibrous cane. Following the instructions I have to say I wasn’t entirely impressed by this dish in terms of texture but its taste was excellent and the concept certainly not something I’d seen prior.

Distillation - of Thai Flavors was the next dish and this time unlike prior it was served solo in a wine glass prior to the pork dish as a palate cleanser. Featuring prominent heat on smell the distillation had none on sipping – a total mind bender – and instead tasted like a salty fish sauce with hints of lime.

At this point in the meal our “centerpiece” of 2 flags came into play. Described on the menu as Pork Belly - Curry, Cucumber, Lime we were delivered a multi-tiered plate that we were instructed to subsequently disassemble and reconstruct into a hammock. Onto the hammock our flags, actually flowered rice paper, were then draped and topped with a heaping spoon of slow roasted pork belly. From here on out the dish is left to the decision of the diner as multiple accoutrements are provided with which to create a haute-spring roll. Including spicy, sweet, savory, and pungent ingredients I opted to simply use all and was greatly rewarded with a delectable admixture while my friend deferred on some of the spices and was equally impressed.

Following the international trend set by previous dishes our next experience was sever in the hand bowl and featured Octopus - Green Garbanzo, Mint, Dill. First taking the intensely flavorful and smoky octopus with hints of coriander and dill and subsequently chasing it with a soup of what I can only describe as hummus spiked with sour yogurt this dish provided a unique flavor profile that started briny and savory but finished creamy and tart.

With each dish previous impressive it was dish seven that provided the first showstopper of the evening…or should I perhaps say three showstoppers? Entitled Lobster - parfait, salad, soup this dish was surprise after surprise after surprise. Featuring the air of chai the first presentation was a parfait of chilled lobster consomme, grapefruit, mint flavored cream, candied ginger, and pistachio ice cream along with a crumbly mixture of what our server stated was pistachio and lobster cracker. Hot/cold, sharp/smooth, tart/refined – and it only got better.

With my friend assuming this course was done he stood up to use the restroom and our plates were oddly not cleared. Assuming this meant there was more to the dish I waited and sure enough on Dave’s return the top of the plate was removed to reveal the salad component – poached lobster and eggplant confit, parsnip, mint, cilantro most notably and topped with a savory vinaigrette.

Finishing our salad (and guessing where this dish was going) the plate was again taken apart yielding the hefty aroma of chai in a lower bowl. Taking this lower bowl and straining it into a cup our server finally presented us with the “soup” of the dish – an admixture of lobster broth, cream, clove, cinnamon, and undoubtedly other spices that tasted like a thick and creamy chai at first but left a gossamer finish resonating of lobster and cinnamon (uniquely similar to the lobster at Picholine, actually.)

Dish eight (or perhaps eleven if you counted all the lobster dishes as separate) was Duck - Chestnut, Mace, Brussels Sprouts and given the amount of duck I’d consumed in the previous week I was looking for something great…and per usual Alinea delivered. Featuring honey accented duck breast and foie gras served in a sweetened duck stock with hints of mace the duck alone was beautifully prepared and only improved by its accompaniments of fennel, crisp Brussels sprout leaves, and what our server described as “chestnut pillows” that tasted much precisely like chestnut but with the texture of whipped cream.

Dish nine was perhaps Chef Achatz’s most famous creating and it once again wowed me. While Dave merely stated “that was interesting” upon mastication of Black Truffle - Explosion, Romaine, Parmesan I still contend that the only problem with this dish is that I can’t easily make it at home…or order a whole plate of them.

Dish ten through twelve constituted the the “dessert” portion of the first half of our menu and began with Peanut Butter - Dried and Spicy. A delicate bite of dehydrated peanut butter and what I assume was either cayenne or curry (or both) the most interesting aspect of this dish was the fact that the mouth-feel and taste was that of peanut butter while the palate and nostril essence was that of the spice.

Following the peanut butter was Thai Banana - Beer, Mustard, Pecans. Apparently a unique style of chewy banana called Hua Moa this dish was a small slice topped with candied pecan, mustard icing, and a somewhat hops accented finish.

Having already had peanut butter and banana it was only natural to end this trio with bacon – in this case Grant’s now-famous bow presentation of Bacon - Butterscotch, Apple, Thyme. More savory than I remember it the delectable pork texture poked through the caramel apple flavor this time with great effect.

Bridging from sweet to savory to begin the second half of our tour was something that would’ve likely seemed more novel had I not been to David Chang’s Momofuku Ko in January – but regardless the effect at Alinea was not only on par, but superior. Foie Gras - Pear, White Wine, Allspice was described as “pushed and pressed” and featured a confetti of creamy foie gras terrine with hints of allspice served over a sauternes gel and topped with crispy wafer thin slices of spiced pear. More textural than the famous version at Ko due to the pears and more nuanced with the allspice – I was impressed, Dave was “oh, wow – that is amazing.”

For dish fourteen, Sturgeon - Potato, Leek, Smoke, it is hard to believe that something with so much going on could have such great flow – it worked much like a Dali painting or fine jazz. Utilizing a beautiful sous vide preparation of sturgeon studded across the plate and complimented with purees of leek, chive, and potato plus slices of radish and celery the dish was served linearly and bridged by a long sheet of crispy potato above and a fruit roll-up like gel that tasted of both apple and liquid smoke. Eaten piecemeal or putting it all together this dish was a work of art and a study in food.

Moving along towards heavier textures was the tempura preparation of the evening, in this case Goose - Stuffing, Prune, Juniper Aroma. Presented as what appeared to be a bowl of pine needles with the wonderful aroma of juniper we were instructed to grasp one branch and upon lifting we discovered a single bite tempura attached to the end of the “skewer.” Featuring prunes soaked in alcohol, stuffing with accents of fennel and onion, and a central portion of fatty goose breast all perfectly prepared this was yet another dish I’ll not soon forget – as much as I loved the sweet potato with cinnamon, this one was even better.

Dish sixteen, another classic - Hot Potato - Cold Potato, Black Truffle, Butter, albeit without the use of the magnetic wand to collect the pin on this occasion. Warmer than I remember last time the potage was still sublime and if possible the essence of truffle even more pronounced on this visit.

At dish seventeen our menus temporarily diverged because of my distaste for the texture of beef flesh (or so I thought.) Delivered to Dave was the classic Filet du Boeuf Goddard while I myself was delivered “Poussin - Winter Root Vegetables.” Classic recipes served with classic flatware and a French Bordeaux I was quite pleased with my dish of buttery chicken with crispy skin, potato croquettes and spheres, and caramelized onions alongside three different styles of black truffle. For Dave’s dish he was treated to a thick slice of sous vide Wagyu loin, sweetbreads, tongue, and mushrooms topped with a savory reduction. Insisting that I try the loin because it was “amazing and tastes nothing like ‘steak’ at all” I obliged and must admit it was divine – almost ham like in texture with a clean and grassy taste.

Dishes eighteen through twenty were a course of edible cocktails, a new concept Chef Achatz and team have been toying with and will apparently soon be implementing into a new restaurant. Served as a trio we started with Passion Fruit - Rum, Cranberry, Orange. Intended to represent a Hurricane cocktail I found this the most delicious of the three with a passionfruit shell containing an admixture of passionfruit seeds, rum, and cranberry orange juice that had a texture of tapioca.

Following the hurricane was Elixir Vegetal - Sugar Cube, Fennel, Lemon. Served on the silver tray and featuring a single sugar cube accented with Grande Elixer Vegetal plus sweet fenel bulb, and lemon I personally though this tasted of a Mojito without the mint – in general I didn’t taste any alcohol, however.

Having returned from New Orleans that day I found a degree of irony to the next dish - Kumquat - Rye, Peychaud's, Demerara in that it was intended to taste of a Sazerac (a drink I’ve never tasted but was omnipresent in NOLA. With heavy hints of anise and rye plus a sourness that tasted like lemon I have to say this was my least favorite of our 29 courses that evening and even Dave noted “wow, that is strong.”

In a meal that contained many wowing moments it was our final savory that provided the most oohs and aahs both for its presentation and its taste. Dubbed Venison - Fireplace Log, Pumpernickel, Licorice this seasonally inspired dish was described as the chef’s attempt to recreate the smell of a fireplace and actually served the dish on a charred log. Explaining to us that the organic feel of the dish was created with the concept that all black foods can logically be paired together we were left to explore. Featuring the hearty flavors of black trumpet mushrooms paired with sweet raisins in the sauce, bitter pumpernickel bread and black garlic in the “dirt,” butter braised vegetables to offset the crispy dried trumpets, and finally a sensual nearly raw sous-vide preparation of venison and a cranberry gelee this dish was truly an experience and the smell of the log led Dave to exclaim that he’d no longer accept foods not served in such a manner...though I’m pretty sure his wife will have something to say about that.

Transitioning to desserts was a quick palate cleanser - Lemon Soda - One Bite. Quite literally a dissolving packet this “dish” was the very essence of a lemonhead with a carbonated tingle not unlike a pop-rock without the pop.

Dish twenty three, four, five, and six were served together and featured three classics and one new taste. Beginning first with the Transparency – of Raspberry, Yogurt Dave was very pleased by the intense raspberry rock candy/fruit roll up hybrid while I noted a tad less of the flower essence from previous yet a more intent raspberry flavor.

Moving next to Bubble Gum - Long Pepper, Hibiscus, Creme Fraiche I’m not sure Dave liked this dish but I again was impressed by the manner in which the individual tastes peaked through as I inhaled the tube while the overarching flavor of bubble gum was indeed the essence that lingered on the palate afterwards.

Moving next to the novel item of the group (and my first experience with the antenna service piece) we experienced Quince - Hazelnut, Bacon, Thyme. With a texture like granola and a flavor not substantially different from the previous bow presentation earlier I have to say this dish did not move me, but I did like its inclusion – it will be interesting to see if this develops over time, perhaps into a course exploring manners of pairing bacon with fruit in unique presentations.

The final pre-dessert was Pound Cake - Strawberry, Lemon, Vanilla Bean and again it truly did bring forth memories of Junior’s strawberry cheesecake, though I actually quite liked it as the “mignardise” course during my first visit moreso than its current pre-dessert placement in the menu. Dave particularly liked this dish, as I recall.

Heading towards the larger desserts we were next served something I’ve never eaten – Hay. While some may state Hay is for horses, I’d be quite alright with Hay - Burnt Sugar, Coffee, Huckleberry any day of the week. Intended to bring forth memories of fall and winter this dish features a custard made by steeping hay in heavy cream and the overall flavor of the reduced pudding is quite grassy and nutty, not unlike a chestnut or hazelnut. Paired with a bitter coffee accented cookie and sweet huckleberries with additional visual appeal and texture added by a burnt sugar crystal perched on top the dish is finally served atop a pillow of mellow air that to me resembled the smell of dry leaves and flowers – sweet yet earthy much like the dish.

Finishing the pre-dessert we were next brought the now-famous silicone sheet and my mind flashed back to my previous meal – a meal I stated would be once in a lifetime “unless Chef Achatz presents to my table to prepare a course again” in the future. Thankfully, both for myself and for Dave, while the dish I had on my previous experience was perhaps once in a lifetime the chance to watch the Chef work was not. Entitled “Chocolate - Coconut, Menthol, Hyssop” the video can be seen here and is most certainly worth 1,000 words or more Like a peppermint patty only infinitely more nuanced the most impressive aspect of the dish was the strong contrast between the warm 68% Valrhona chocolate and the medicinal cool of the menthol while the coconut in its various forms balanced the two by enhancing the chocolate tones and mellowing the menthol. Additionally playing with hot and cold concepts – the hot liquid pudding and the liquid nitrogen mousse, chewy and crunchy – the coconut rocks and the menthol/chocolate crumbs, and finally adding a spicy component with the anise hyssop I was glad Dave was getting full so I could sneak a few extra spoonfuls of the mousse.

The final taste of our evening was a fitting end to a winter menu - Eggnog - Pedro Ximenez, Benedictine, Buffalo Trace. Similar to the Watermelon-Lime, Nasturtium dish from the summer menu in presentation the dish consisted of an eggnog shelled sphere filled with a spicy and vegetal cocktail with notes of cinnamon floating in a shot of sweet Pedro Ximenez. Taken as a single bite the sphere ruptured on mastication filling the mouth with a balance of sweet and cinnamon while the end effect was punchy with a hot bourbon finish.

Settling the tab and thanking our servers we finished coffee and espresso before making our way to the street, finding the car, and headed for the ‘burbs. Throughout the drive we discussed the food and experience, each of us loving both similar and different parts, but both thoroughly impressed and trying to decide when to make a return visit – yes, me, the guy who rarely dines at the same place twice even in his home town planning for a third trip…yes, it really is that good.