also known as the long-awaited alinea review.
words fail me (and this is a big deal, because as long-time readers know, i'm a girl with a LOT of words. like the real lagerfeld.)
alinea was our big blow out meal. make no mistake: it was a COLOSSAL blow out - easily the most expensive meal we've ever eaten. in the interests of transparency and to maintain consistency in my restaurant reviewing, i will disclose our final bill at the end of the review. trying to forget that this was US greenbacks at a 80%exchange rate helps a little, but a very little at that.
when you first enter the restaurant, you enter a cool, low lit hallway with black, glossy floor tiles and white walls, glowing softly with an almost-pulsating, otherworldly pink light. no one is there to greet you, there are no exits/entryways that you can see. you're a little confused and you make tentative steps forward, looking for any way to gain access to the restaurant. you keep moving forward, searching for a door, when an invisible panel slides open to your left like you're spending a saturday night in the starship enterprise and you are greeted with a phalanx of staff.
that's kind of the last time you're left to figure stuff out on your own without a road map. from then on, your entire experience at alinea is a result of being prodded, expounded to, orated at, and guided, more often than not by multiple people. going to the bathroom you're practically lead by the hand and no sooner do you rise from your seat (of course your chair is pulled out and in for you any time you show the slightest hint of movement - heaven forbid you should use a single muscle - seriously, they're one step away from spoon feeding you), then someone arrives to fold up your napkin and de-crumb the table. i've eaten at swank joints before. i'm used to the napkin re-fold. i usually like to return to the table and quiz the dotytron, "did you do that? aww thanks" lol! this napkin re-fold was like nothing i've seen before. the napkin you return to is more pristine than the napkin you left! it's like stepford wives napkins!
speaking of bathrooms...the decor was a little lacklustre! especially after the grand entrance - the dining areas and the bathrooms were pretty humdrum. like a mid-range 4 star hotel style. kind of anonymously spare with nondescript looking art. i was a little disappointed.
so we sit and get the rundown on how the meal is going to work and to confirm the details that you've already given them over the phone when you make the reservations - either the 12 course tasting or the 25 course tour, whether you have any food aversions, allergies, will you be having the wine pairings, etc. the wine pairings get their OWN preamble, "we price based on the amount poured, if you'd like more of one wine, we can by all means pour more, we usually pour between 2-3 oz, etc." we go with the 12 course tasting.
we were attended by 3 different people. our sommelier looks like miranda july. except he's a guy. kind of like miranda july / sideshow bob. super thin and rakey with a giant poof of teased hair that kind of puts russell brand to shame. seriously, he looked like this:
(except he was wearing a tie.) (hereinafter refered to as MJ) we were also attended by a server who looked like a slightly more pinched martha plimpton in her 'parenthood' era, but with dark hair (MP), and a red headed anne shirley type who was clearly the most enamoured of her job there and the cult of achatz and had this freshly scrubbed, "golly jee willikers" kind of vibe happening (AS).
MP tells us this story about how "when chef was designing the tables he wanted a very plain black square tabletop and he didn't want any flatware on the table. so what did he do? he designed a special plate for you to put your used flatware on. when you're finished with the cutlery with the dishes, please put them on this." said with with a self-satisfied smirk and a flourish that produces a white square plate, upon which is a flat square linen pillow, that is attached to the plate and prevented from sliding around by way of a wire threaded through two holes and twisted on the bottom of the plate like a fancy twist tie.
the opening alcohol emerges. MJ is actually very nice and very enthusiastic and seems kind of giddily in awe of his job. he's pretty endearing because of how much he looks like miranda july and how dorky he is. "at alinea we like to start with an aquavit instead of a cocktail. way back when people would ship aquavit in special casks in ships across the equator and they noticed that something marvelous happened to the aquavit as soon as it crossed the equatorial line. flavours became more pronounced and richer. no one makes aquavit like that anymore, except for these people -" another flourish, another bottle is produced from behind his back - he's practically skipping with glee. "yes, they actually take the aquavit and put it into casks and put the casks on a boat and have the boat sail across the equatorial line before bottling it." LOL!!!!! do you UNDERSTAND how ridiculous this place is?!??!!!
first course: roes with traditional garnishes. this was a savoury, ephemeral. you had the pop and crunch of the fish eggs and the saline saltiness of the foam, the richness of that yellowy smear on the plate and the cool, limpid flavours of the jellied stuff. it worked really well as introductory course to gently bring your palate to attention.
on the left, you have house-churned butter with hawaiian black salt. on the right, a goat's milk butter - pleasantly barny. to go with a flaky, tender biscuit. throughout the night we had an army of breads to accompany our meal. if we finished one too quickly, they would bring out another before you even noticed its absence. meanwhile, the servers and sommelier would be taking note of your comments and scribbling them down in a black book discretely placed on a buffet where the service wines were being stored.
the appearance of the second dish and the accompanying preamble is the moment where i broke the fourth wall and precipitated my *rolleyes* amusement with the proceedings. the plates were placed in front of us and AS immediately started into a monologue, delivered with the impassioned zeal of a true believer: "when chef was growing up by the shores of lake michigan, he has vivid memories of eating seafood in the spring." (ummmm...can i get a !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and a ???????????????!!!!!!) "you'll notice that this dish has elements of spring in the lilac pillows on the bottom of the dish, mixed with the scallops and clams." as much as i chaffed over the over-direction and what i found to be a bit of a preening, patronizing tone, this dish was exquisite. it was so very, very light, the flavours barely making an impression before dissipating on the tongue. the lilac pillows were FANTASTIC. basically, lilac-infused cream, made to form the softest, most trembling curds on the bottom of the plate that provided a soft backdrop to the gentle sweetness of the honeydew beads and the sweet resistance of the shellfish. this dish really WAS the essence of spring - transient, fleeting, verdant.
tea tree oil bread. the baker shows up at work at 2 in the morning. the tea tree oil was barely perceptible. more the faintest lingering essence on the palate, mostly in the nose. the bread was more like a tender medium rye.
the lettuce here had been frozen with cucumber (or something, some of the particulars start to get a little fuzzy, even while you'r eating, because you're inundated with so much information) to form an ultra-crunchy, icy, layer, sandwiching shredded pork belly braised with coconut milk. the dish was supposed to be the essence of thai food. you were instructed to start with the thai distillation in the spoon, which tasted exactly like what it purported to be - a distillation of thai flavours. it was all there - galangal, lemongress, ginger, shallot, thai basil. the spoon was sitting on a fine bed of brunoised galangal, lemongrass, shallot, and the little red spot is sriracha. i loved the thai distillation and the unholy zombie union of the frozen-lettuce-cucumber thing...less enamoured with the way the coconut pork belly worked with the dish overall. everything was so clear and clean that i felt the richness of the pork belly mingled with the richness of the coconut milk kind of dampened the brightness of the dish. if the pork had had a bit more acidity, or been cut through with the heat (as opposed to the sriracha sitting off to the side of the plate) i think everything would have melded a bit better.
white asparagus soup with sorrel, white pepper (the little styrofoam things), pieces of green asparagus and honey. like the richest, creamiest purée of white asparagus you've ever tasted. white asparagus velvet - smooth, thick, satisfying - an intense contradiction between the delicacy of the vegetable and the weightiness of the delivery. the most asparagusiest asparagus dish i've ever eaten.
when he found out i wasn't having the wine pairing, MJ offered me some of their homemade soda. the one i ordered was cherry, thyme and balsamic. it was AMAZING. very fresh and light and fizzy without being saccharine and cloying. refreshing instead of making you feel like hell.
okay, we're heading into the heavier, "main course" type stuff now. the theme of this dish (so i'm told by AS) is "butter." so you have butter poached lobster, the ribbon is puréed popcorn, some actual corn pieces, crushed popcorn, a square of mango (incongruous and unnecessary to the overall plate), beads of curry sauce (malaysian style), and that little orb off to the right is a ball of melted butter. this dish came with a little wee slice of pan de mie or brioche, toasted (forgot to take a pic, sorry!), which we were instructed to hold between us and the butter orb as we pricked the orb to mix the melted butter all over the plate. we were assured that people have gone home wearing the butter, as it has a tendency to explode (it shares this tendency with a number of other dishes in the alinea culinary pantheon.) this was a great dish. it's not my first time coming up against the corn and seafood thing. we used to serve popcorn on the seafood platters at canoe and any new englander worth their clambake would know that boiled corn is a hallowed part of any lobster boil. the dish was great. rich, satisfying, luxurious, decadent. the flavours worked (except for the aforementioned mango) the curry added just the right amount of musky exoticism to the otherwise straightforward flavours of butter and shellfish.
black truffle explosion (see!) this came in a rather silly dish that was just the rim of a small plate, without a middle. resting in the hole was a spoon with a black truffle ravioli. it's one of achatz's signature dishes - one of the ones he made his name with, that got him alinea. you're instructed to pop the whole thing in your mouth, because it WILL explode. when you bite through the tender pasta, a rush of warm, molten, black truffle broth floods your mouth. it's very delicious, but not THAT impressive for anyone who's ever had a xiu long bao at shanghai dimsum. same idea - jellied broth put inside a dough casing, cooked (steamed, i'm willing to bet) until the inside is liquid, and served. i've never had a more direct black truffle delivery before. it packs an intense wash of black truffle flavour in one heady bite...enough to make you realize what all the fuss is about (i find that when black truffle is just shaved over stuff, you lose some of mysterious, earthy, depth of flavour.
this dish was kind of redonkulous. as your server painstakingly explains to you, it's a riff on the all american bbq. you have your little small post-it-note sized square of braised wagyu beef (actually, smaller) - that is REAL wagyu beef from japan, not like, "wagyu style." the potato element is a potato custard that's coated in the crushed potatoes. there's a little pile of salt and pepper for your to dip your beef in and to top it all off, "in chef's childhood, no steak bbq would be complete without A-1 sauce" represented here in POWDERED form. in its OWN CLEAR SACHET. so you have all the flavours of A-1, but in power form, and you're supposed to open up the sachet, sprinkle it on the beef, or on the side of the plate and dip as you please.
right. at the beginning of the meal, MP had placed this weird, black, clay vase type thing shaped like a laboratory flask on the table, with the foreboding comment, "this will come into play later." through the course of the meal, we noticed that the base of the flask was starting to frost over. when the wagyu dish came out, MJ gave us the whole deconstructed all american bbq spiel and then paused dramatically - "so we have the steak, the potatoes, the A1 and all the other elements of a classic bbq, but wsomething is missing, and that something is the actual grill -" (at this point he produces a pitcher from behind him and pours something into the flask which makes the flask start spewing dry ice vapour) "- none of the items have actually been barbecued so what you have here is the smell of the grill. we have grilled wagyu fat and rosemary, all meant to give you the essence of a bbq even while none of the elements on the plate have been grilled." !!!!!!!!!!!!!! so insane! in all honesty, i didn't feel like i was at a bbq. it mostly smelled like rosemary. but i appreciate the effort (kinda.) most of all, i appreciated the TASTE OF EFFIN' WAGYU BEEF. holy sweet mother of f**k. that s**t is amazing. sooooooooooo fatty. like the fattiest tuna belly fatty. ribbons of fat. so tender. it almost made me cry and i stretched that tiny piece of beef for a full 15 minutes, parceling out the tiniest of bites at a time to make it last longer.
after those theatrics, we gradually segued into the sweet portion of the meal. the first sweet-savoury bridge was a thin strip of bacon, suspended on this rocking wire contraption with butterscotch, thyme, and a little wisp of apple. the bacon-dessert thing has been done to death by this point. this was okay, nothing groundbreaking.
this was the last "explosive" item on the menu. it was a pomegranate shot with a yoghurt ball and cassia sprinkled on top. you had to take it down in one shot because just the simple pressure from being enclosed in your mouth is enough to make the thin yoghurt shell burst and your mouth is flooded with liquid (i think it was yoghurt liquid.) this dish was a great palate cleanser. the tastes were so light and gentle that you really felt your tastebuds recalibrating - unlike the classic sorbet intermezzo, your mouth isn't shocked with a rapid temperature change - this was a tangy and fresh clarifying shot.
we followed that up with the classic test tube alinea course. in this case, we were supposed to suck that all back in ONE SHOT. that seems unrealistic to me. the flavours and textures, when combined, were supposed to mimic bubblegum. AS came over to our table and with much enthusiastic, aww shucks enthusiasm, gave an impassioned lecture on how the recipe for bubblelicious bubblegum is kept top secret so that in order to replicate the flavours the staff had to chew and chew a lot of bubblegum until they could get it right. apparently, when you chew bubblegum there are distinct floral notes, so you have from the bottom up, hibiscus, creme fraiche, and long pepper and bubblegum tapioca pearls. this was meh. i'm not the biggest fan of bubblegum and it wasn't so willy wonka fantastic that i actually thought that i WAS chewing a piece of gum...it just tasted like artificial bubblegum flavoured tapioca pearls.
the first of three sweet-ish plates, we get a riff on a cheese plate. this was rhubarb honeycomb, rhubarb cotton candy, carmaelized onion (the little golden jelly blob in the foreground of the plate) and a goat's cheese cheesecake. DIVINE. this dish was a winner through and through. sweet, salty, tangy - the carmelized onion was so very oniony but truly BELONGED on that plate and was the star of the show, imo - sweet, musky, and a perfect foil to the gentle gaminess of the cheesecake shot through with the bright acerbic rhubarb - a study in the effect of texture and density as flavour delivery mechanisms. oh, i forgot to mention that this course came on a PILLOW OF LAVENDER AIR. as you ate, the weight of the plate depressed the pillow which slowly let out a faint whiff of lavender. this was over-the-top to me. the dish didn't need it - it was gimmicky.
finally - dessert proper. we have the chocolate course, which featured chocolate crumbs, olives, prune (lurking under that undulating velveteen cover of chocolate), pine ice cream and a pine soup. it kind of tasted a bit like christmas morning. we were advised by MP to "mix it all up and have fun" and that the pine soup could be very overwhelming, but i didn't find it so...more minty and breathy than anything else.
our last course of the night was brought by AS, who looked up at us, beaming, and placed the serving contraption before us with the soliloquy, "i don't know where you're from, but where i'm from, we have state fairs every year. and a signature state fair item is deep-fried everything. here we have sweet potato pie, deep fried, on a burning cinnamon stick." the sweet potato pie part was delicious - smooth, custardy, sweetly starchy, encased in a gossamer thin but primordially pleasing brittle shell of fried batter. the big - WTF - was the burning cinnamon stick. it just smelled like indeterminate burning wood, instead of the warm, toasty, make-you-want-to-impulse-buy-a-house, spicy, comforting olfactory nostalgia that i think achatz was going for.
and with that, we were done. spent. i'm not sure how people sit down for 4+ hours and deal with the 25 course tour. i'd hate to be yammered at for 4 hours. plus, the tasting is a LOT of food. we were stuffed. apparently the tour features all the same dishes as the tasting but supplemented with more of the one bite items in the same vein as the sweet potato pie and the truffle explosion. i don't know how people do it. we got a brief tour of the kitchen - it's all induction heaters, sparkling, immaculate, huge staff. they don't have the giant tilt fryers and steam kettles that i'm used to seeing, but there's not a lot of saucing going on. i was told they maybe put on a pot of stock a week. there's a lot of composing, not a lot of à la minute cooking - the kitchen was the coolest, most sweat-free kitchen i've ever seen. most of the dishes are room temperature, cool, or a few degrees warmer - nothing comes out sizzling or piping hot.
i think the coolness of the dishes is symbolic of the coolness of the experience. if things were hot, there'd be a lot more unpredictability and instability in the overall dining experience. the staff, the food, the plates, the details, they're all so micro-managed and minutely tuned and directed to circumvent any potential serendipity. you're told what to eat, how, and what you're going to get out of the experience, through any number of overt (verbal) and subtle cues (no cutlery on the tables). the table next to us clearly didn't know what they were getting into...they were obviously a super moneyed couple of the california-italian vein. the dishes were too small for them, they were too delicate, the wines too refined (they loved super tuscans and were vocal about expressing such.) each time they complained about a wine or course, the server would surreptitiously appease them and then go over to a little booklet on the buffet that was functioning as a server station and scribble down some notes.
the tendency of the restaurant, as an extension of achatz's cooking philosophy to take itself so seriously is very much in keeping with the molecular gastronomy banner. things are clinically whimsical to the point where the humour and cheek erased. it's dazzling, cerebral, but not "fun" per se. this doesn't have to be the case. wd-50, in manhattan's lower east side, is the brainchild of one of my favorite chefs, wylie dufresne - who is nerdy to the extreme, but who's favorite dish in the world (according to a recent 'top chef' challenge) is eggs benedict. he and i are kindred spirits. for a molecular gastronomy take on eggs benny at his restaurant, he uses thomas' english muffins, in a tiny cube, because he believes (and i concur) that after trying every brand in existence, there's nothing better. dining at wd-50 is much more relaxed and easy-going. as an aside, the bathrooms are also TOTALLY cool...way cooler than at alinea.
i don't think i'd ever go back to alinea, whereas i felt the need to go back to wd-50. alinea is hyper-mediated and hyper-contrived in a way that takes the fun out of dining. let ME come to my own conclusions about the dish! i don't need the lecture on chef's every fleeting fancy that went into the final product. i mean, some backstory is great, but it seems really forced at alinea - like they're so worried you won't "get it" that they make sure to preemptively steer you away from whatever outlandish and off-map conclusions you might have come to all by your little self. it's paternalistic, over-directed, hyper-constructed, and ultimately contradictory. this is a type of cuisine that is based on such an intimate understanding of the basics, that the creativity of the chef can play and deconstruct and reconfigure things limited only by their imagination. unfortunately, you as the consumer are not trusted with having the facilities to enable you embarking alongside chef's flights of fancy. the top-down control of every facet of the organization mars what could be a truly captivating, sensory rich exercise.
okay. now here's the part that REALLY mars the experience...lol! the final total, with tax and tip came to $575 USD. in other words, MORE than we spent on 3 nights at the hotel and MORE than our flights. i understand how redonkulous that is. i knew it going in, i know it now when my credit card and my essential fiscally responsible character are weeping silently. don't think i don't realize what a bougie f**ker i sound like. i know that's a ridiculous amount to spend on a meal. we all have our indulgences.
errrr...i'm going to leave you with that.