Sunday, May 20, 2007

Pastry Day at the Connoley's

[Rob] With our rare time off we both enjoy our different hobbies. Mine is pastries. Last night I made three winners:

Rose Panna Cotta with Rose Syrup (you can see in the pic that I didn't scimp on the vanilla).

Chestnut Olive Oil Cake with Fleur de Sel Caramel Cake and a 70% Chocolate Glaze.

What's interesting about this cake is that often times in high altitude our cakes turn our dry. This (and the previously posted cake) were super moist and light.

And finally, Lemon Rosemary Gateau-ettes. Lemon Rosemary Pastry Crust filled with Rosemary pastry cream - very yummy.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Alinea: More Complete Account, The End

[Tyler] The last course, and finally we got a chef's whisk -- one of Chef Achatz's signature serving contraptions. This was an upside-down whisk, stuck into a metal base, and used to hold a ball of gooey yumminess. The ball was meyer lemon, surrounded by caramel, stuck on a cinnamon stick and then deep-fried. Thanks to the preparation, the cinnamon released it's scent, infusing the dish.

We took the sticks out of the whisk, and ate the caramel like a lollypop.

And that was it.

Alinea: More Complete Account, Part 14

[Tyler] I call this course the S&M Course. The serving contraption was a long metal rod held at an angle by a heavy base, and pointing up at us like a thin robot . . . well . . . appendage. My first thought was that it might put an eye out if we weren't careful. To make matters worse, the server said, "This is intended to be eaten without your hands. Just lean forward and bite it off."

We leaned down and chomped the caked, and I was immediately impressed with the sensation of tiny little needles stabbing the roof of my mouth. The spun muscovado sugar tasted nice, but hurt. Really.

I was so taken by the crystalline spears puncturing my palate that I didn't even notice the licorice, anise, and orange flavors mentioned in the menu entry for this course. All-in-all, a mildly intriguing idea but not my cup of tea, kind of like S&M.

"And the chocolate course," said the server, "because every meal should have some chocolate." This was an extra-smooth chocolate ganache, served with passion fruit. I think it had a soy foam and lime flavors to accent the passion fruit.

One of the things we learned on this trip is that ganache can and should be very smooth. If you've never made a real ganache, it's a lot of work, and to find one as smooth as this one was pretty impressive. The chocolate tart we had at Vanille Pâtisserie also had a beautifully-smooth ganache in it. Thanks to these two experiences, Rob has a new idea of the perfection he wants to shoot for.

Alinea: More Complete Account, Part 13

[Tyler] This was the ice cream, or perhaps sorbet, course. The rectangular item was orange ice cream, but the most amazing flavor on the plate was the olive oil ice cream on the left. It was a little dab of whipped and frozen olive oil, with sugar and lots of vanilla (the gray color is from the vanilla seeds).

Our server said this was her favorite, and I can see why. Frozen olive oil sounds gross, but because of the kind of fat that's in olives, it doesn't get that stick-to-the-roof of your mouth texture that some cold fats do. Instead it was simply a nice, not-too-sweet, subtly nutty ice cream. It was also a good compliment to the orange. Think about how good orange-infused olive oil is, and you have a hint of how well they pair.

This was Rob's favorite dessert course. The white thing is a long ribbon of coconut, twisting in and out of the other elements on the plate. I don't really remember what all was in this dessert It actually seemed to me like too much was going on, and I couldn't concentrate on the different elements -- which is funny, because that's always my main complaint about Rob's desserts. "Focus on one element. Why do you have to throw in the kitchen sink?"

However, I do remember the grilled kiwi slices tucked under the coconut on the left-hand side. Grilling kiwi really brings out it's flavor, in case you ever want to try it at home.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Alinea: Plus One

[Tyler] "This next course is technically contraband," the sommelier said as he brought it to the table. "We're not allowed to sell it, but there's nothing that says we can't give it away."

It was, of course, foie gras, recently outlawed in the city of Chicago. And that's why I say our meal was "twenty four courses, plus one." They gave a course away.

The foie gras was surrounded by a delicate meringue. It looked a little like one of those horrible divinity candies everyone's mother used to make at Christmas. But the flavor was subtleness itself, and the texture was light and cloudlike. I've never really liked the fatty, ickiness of foie gras. But this I enjoyed thoroughly.

One more thing: If I was going to feel guilty about this meal, there was more obscenity than just the foie gras -- and, yes, I do feel a little guilty. :-)

Alinea: More Complete Account, Part 12

As far as I know, this was the only course with a title: Hot Potato, Cold Potato. The soup was a vichyssoise (cold potato soup), and the bowl had a tiny hole on the side. Through the hole, they had placed a pin and skewered things on it. The big ball was a piece of hot potato topped with black truffle. I think the smaller items were a little piece of butter, and perhaps a cube of cheese, along with a baby herb. To eat this course, we had to first remove the pin, dropping the hot items into the cold soup. Of course, anything with potato, truffle, and butter is a-okay with me.

One thing I wonder about is how they got the pin to stand at attention -- it stuck up at about a thirty degree angle. The bowl doesn't seem thick enough to hold the pin steady, and the bit of pin outside the bowl wasn't weighted in any way.

This was our last savory course -- bison encased in savory granola. I don't know what the sauces were, or what the foam was. I think the long, green things were pieces of chive.

There was something about the texture of this course that didn't appeal to me. It almost tasted like the bison was ground, and the granola was heavy on the oats. The whole effect wasn't bad, but a little bland.

Alinea: More Complete Account, Part 11

"In preparation for your next course," our server said, "I need to know if you're both comfortable using chopsticks." Of course, we both were.

This is where the rosemary centerpiece came into play. The course was three variations on lamb, served on a very hot brick (after we finished eating the course, I lightly touched the brick out of curiosity and burned my finger). According to our server, the lamb was precooked, and the brick was used only for the sizzling effect and to release the rosemary's fragrance. They put the rosemary in the hole at the back, and used the rosemary's stand as our chopstick rest -- nice touch. The heated rosemary immediately let off a strong fragrance, which infused the course.

I don't remember what the three variations were, but we ate them front-to-back. The back one was sweet, perhaps a plum jelly or jam, and the two front ones were more savory. The menu says this course contained date. I think that was in the center medallion, but maybe it was used in all three.

Incidentally, Rob's been working with Suzi at Art & Conversation to create a dish similar to this. She made him some special bricks with herb holes that he could heat to high temperatures and serve with meat. His first experiment was going to be bison and rosemary fragrance. Great minds think alike.

Thanks to Alinea, we now know that we need to precook the meat. Rob was planning to try to sear it on the brick. I think this would also be good with ahi tuna, but we haven't figured out what herb to serve with it. Perhaps something Asian, like anise.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Alinea: More Complete Account, Part 10

One of the young men brought these little squares on the end of a paddle wrapped in a white linen sheath. We both looked at him, waiting for him to do something. Finally, he said, "These you just take in your fingers."

The center was a square of bacon powder, and it was wrapped in a sort of pineapple leather (although Rob pointed out later that it wasn't sticky or chewy like fruit leather).

The most memorable thing about this course was the wine. The sommelier had poured us Phillipe Portier Quincy 2005 from Loire to go with the skate. We had a little left, so after eating our bacon and pineapple, we took a sip of wine. We both immediately made terrible faces. The combination of that wine with the bacon was simply awful.

We heard from Fat Guy that they changed the wine pairings for the next night, when he ate at Alinea. So, they must have realized their mistake.

Alinea: More Complete Account, Part 9

This is the course Rob talked about most in the days following our dinner. The meat was skate, and the preparation was fairly traditional, save for one detail. Instead of a lemon, browned butter, and caper sauce, Alinea served it with powdered lemon, browned butter, and capers. That's what the swirls are on the plate.

According to Rob, this is one of Chef Achatz's signatures. He freeze-dries foods and then powders them. You probably can't tell from the picture, but there was extra browned butter powder on the fish, as well as a little wedge of the powder on the left side of the plate.

Rob thought the swirls in the plate were meant to be the Alinea symbol, which is the top part of a paragraph symbol () and is meant to represent "a new thought." But, looking at the picture, I think the swirls were just swirls.

Now you can see how we were able to eat twenty-four courses (plus one) and not be too stuffed. This course was a single white asparagus spear, served in five variations.

The first bite was simply the head of the asparagus. Next to that was a bit wrapped in very thinly sliced chorizo, which was divine. I couldn't identify the next three or the sauce, but they were all good. (I especially liked the way the sauce was squeezed across the top and allowed to ooze down between the spears, like mud oozing through toes.)

Finally, the last bite was a hard-cooked quail egg yolk -- though not too hard so as to be dry, of course. I think the little green bits at the front of the plate were the buds off a stalk of green asparagus.

Alinea: More Complete Account, Part 8

With what does one follow rhubarb? Why, strawberries, of course!

This next course was frozen strawberry puree, with a little line of wasabi on it. And again, the finger-food bite was served with a pin. The serving "plate" was interesting, because it was frozen. The little slot on the bottom was used to slide a pastry spatula under it and pick it up to place it in front of us (and then to remove it from the table when we were done). The wasabi wasn't very noticeable, but we also didn't savor this course like we might have.

The strawberry was the beginning of three quick courses for us. I think we sort of taking a break from the intense tasting we'd been doing up 'til then -- and probably that's what the chef intended.

The next course was a sweet tuna jerky. You can see white and black sesame seeds on it, and I think the stringy things were candied orange peel. We ate it with our fingers.

The third quick course was a green almond served in a square gelée of some sort. Green almonds are slightly sweet and their texture is less crunchy than ripe almonds.

The point of this course was that it titillated all the regions of our taste buds -- sweet, sour, salt, and hot. It had little bits of what looked like citric acid, cayenne pepper, sugar, and salt on the corners of the cube. When you ate it, your whole tongue experienced it. Fun.

The serving utensil was also fun. It had a little square of sticky-something (rubber?) on the glass block, so the spoon could hang over the edge without falling off. Fun to look at, as well as to eat.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Alinea: More Complete Account, Part 7

[Tyler] I already talked about part of this course in a previous post. Our sommelier brought this to the table, looking exactly as it is in this picture. He said the first element was hot, and he would be pouring cold rhubarb juice over it (in the shot glass on the left).

"See if you can identify what the warm ball is," he said, as he poured the juice. I shot mine, and immediately recognized my favorite vegetable -- beet. The beet and rhubarb was a great combination. In fact, I think Rob may be working on a beet-rhubarb dessert idea, inspired by this course.

The other six items were variations on the rhubarb theme. Eaten from left to right, they were: Crispy rhubarb "leather," possibly freeze-dried. A piece of candied rhubarb, served on a pin (they liked using these pins for small items to be eaten by hand). A rhubarb mousse served on a curry leaf -- I don't remember what the little crystallized pieces were in that bite, but we scraped it off the leaf with our teeth, which was fun. Coconut and rhubarb with a sprig of mint (I think). Rhubarb ice cream, skewered on a longer pin. And, finally, a more-complex bite, with a foam and a sprig of dill (?) on top.

The last bite was served on a "monocle" (their name for it), which was intended to be scooped into the mouth like an oyster on the half shell. It seems to me, we had an earlier course on a monocle. I remember the look of it on the black table, and I remember wondering how to eat it. However, that course didn't show up on menu, and I've lost the complete memory of it. Hmm. At any rate, I already knew what to do with a monocle when this course came around.

Update: Rob just called me and reminded me where we saw the monocle earlier in the meal. In the octopus course, our server brought us a monocle before the young man brought the bowl. The monocle was where we placed our fork, after we ate the octopus and before we drank the soy milk.

Alinea: More Complete Account, Part 6

[Tyler] It took us about four hours to finish the meal. I'm hoping I can finish the recounting this week. Whew! This is exhausting. :-)

The young man who brought this course to the table said it contained "everything you could want" -- beer, peanuts, and short ribs. Unfortunately, the idea was better than the final product. The square is a Guinness gelée, and there was a lighter beer in the sauce (sort of a Black and Tan effect). Although the individual elements were top-quality -- the short ribs were good, the herbs were delicious, and the textures were nice -- the overall product was sort of muddied. I think this was both of our least favorite course.

Now it was time for some fruity diversions, before the next big meat course. This was honeydew melon with Blis Sherry Vinegar (I think it was vinegar and not sherry, and I forgot to bring the menu to the store today, so I'm recounting completely from memory). Blis is a company Chef Achatz worked for in the past. The melon was used in another gelée, which formed a little bowl for the sherry vinegar. The course was a refreshing contrast to the more-heavy flavors of the peanuts and beer that had come just before it.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Slight Divergence...

[Rob] Two nights ago Ken and Jeannie from Bayou Seco came by to help us cut some cheese for a cheese party. Jeannie had made a chestnut cake and shared a smaller version with us - the larger version will make its appearance at the cheese party. Between that chestnut cake and the pastry shops in Chicago I am in orgasmic overload to get back to the kitchen.

Recently on EGullet a poster had asked about savory additions to chocolate. This is not a new concept - salt, curry, lavender, etc. are all commonplace these days. But someone had mentioned Thyme. So today I picked the infant flowering heads from our garden Thyme and set to work. I decided to push the concept even further so I made a dark chocolate olive oil cake. And thinking it a good marriage, I used our O brand California Mission Olive and Organic Clementine Olive Oil. And as Tyler is always telling me, I can't leave any dessert simple, so I topped it with a Cluizel chocolate square set in cinnamon whipped cream. I filled the center with Pierre Herme's outstanding recipe for chocolate pastry cream. The result - Torta di Cioccolato di Olio di Oliva e Timo:

Friday, May 11, 2007

Alinea: More Complete Account, Part 5

In preparation for this course, our server came and moved everything on the table. "I need to make lots of room for the next course," she said. We had been the first seating in our room, so we had no idea what was coming -- other people seated in our room had less surprises, because they saw us eat everything before them.

So, we sat, waiting for who-knew-what. Then one of the young men brought two linen pillows, and placed them before us. Another server placed the plates on the pillows, and we smelled smoke drifting up. "Can you identify the smell?" he asked. It was lavender.

The pillows had been filled with lavender smoke, which was expelled by the weight of the plates. The food, itself, was duck in three textures -- crispy skin, confit, and something else I can't remember.

The young man who brought this course to the table said, "Now, the first thing I want you to notice is the deep, dark sauce in the bottom of the dish." We both nodded gravely, and he smiled. "Actually," he said, "this is what we call our anti-plate. It doesn't have a bottom. That's the table showing through." The plate was basically a notched rim suitable for holding the spoon.

The spoon contained a black truffle raviolo "explosion" (their name for it). Topped with shaved truffle, Parmesan, and romaine. When you popped it in your mouth and bit down, the raviolo exploded with black truffle soup, and the other items balanced the texture.

This was our first experience with fresh black truffle in that concentrated of a form. We've had little bits of truffle in things (like truffle salt in mashed potatoes -- yum), and I had a shaved canned truffle at a local restaurant once. But, now that I've had it fresh, I completely understand what all the fuss is about. Delicious!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Alinea: More Complete Account, Part 4

[Tyler] The next course was the celery juice, granny smith apple juice, cocoa butter, and horseradish shot I mentioned in an earlier post. Notice how tall the shot glass was. Only the top half was open -- the bottom was solid glass. The whole thing had been stored in a freezer, so it would keep the juices cold when the chefs poured them in. I think the cold may have been important to keep the cocoa butter solid. We're still trying to figure out how they made this dish, and it was definitely the most dramatic course of the night.

Besides wine pairings, Alinea also has bread pairings. I think there were three breads served throughout the course of the evening, some of which were intended to be paired with more than one course. In this picture, you can see the whole wheat pretzel with Thai long pepper, which was paired with the monkfish.

The shape of the dish this course was served in added to the mystery of eating it (it also made it a bit of a challenge to eat with a knife and fork). There were slices of fresh banana tucked in among the monkfish in the edges of this bowl, and we were both a little surprised to find them.

One of the things Chef Grant Achatz likes to do is combine sweet, savory, sour, and spicy flavors in unexpected ways. Normally, one wouldn't think of serving fresh bananas this early in a meal, because their sweetness seems more suited to desserts. But they worked perfectly with this course.

Alinea: More Complete Account, Part 3

[Tyler] This was probably my favorite course. I already talked about it in an earlier blogpost. Chanterelle mousse with carrot foam, curry, and ham. It came to the table looking like the picture above. Then, after our server described it to us, she removed the glass ring and it settled to look like the picture below.

We were both surprised, upon tasting it, to find out the curry was Indian Madras. For some reason we were both expecting an Asian yellow curry.

I honestly almost picked up my plate and licked it clean when I was finished -- and the great thing about the atmosphere at Alinea is that I'm sure no one would have minded. Perhaps if I'd been on my tenth wine pairing, instead of my second, I would have done it.

Alinea: More Complete Account, Part 2

[Tyler] This first course was served without any silverware on the table. It was a croquette rolled in panko and garnished with smoked steelhead roe and some teeny-tiny herbs. (There were lots of these baby herbs in the meal.) The server set it down, talked about it, and then said we should pick it up by the base and tip it back into our mouth for one complete bite. Rob loves croquettes, so this was a good start to the meal.

We had two people who were responsible for our room (about five tables). One was the sommelier, and the other seemed to be our head server. However, there were also a series of young men who brought courses to the table. They seemed to be directly associated with the kitchen, and I don't know if they served other rooms or not. All of the servers were impeccable, but casual and friendly.

One of the young men brought us our next course. (I won't use numbers, because there was no way for us to keep track as we were being served. It's only after the fact that we were able to look at the menu and even count them -- there were twenty five in all.) He smiled and said, "As you can see, this bowl is round on the bottom. If I set it down, it'll spill. So, I need to have you take it in your hand."

The fork was set in a little slot in the bowl, and contained octopus and other garnishes. I've never had octopus I liked, because it always seems tough. But this was juicy and delicious. The soup was actually toasted soy milk -- what a great taste that is! We drank the milk and were then able to place the bowls on the table, since they would no longer spill, being completely empty of the delicious sauce.

Alinea: More Complete Account, Part 1

[Tyler] I know a lot of people are going to be asking (a lot already have), so here's my rundown of our whole Alinea experience. Thanks to Fat Guy of eGullet for the picture -- since Rob and I chose not to take any. I'm going to post this in several parts, to make the posting easier.

First off, Alinea is about the experience, not just the food courses. In a previous post, I talked about the almost spiritual, and yet playful, atmosphere of the restaurant. The entrance works as a metaphor for that. The front of the building is pretty nondescript, just a building in a suburban neighborhood of Chicago. However, as you walk in the entryway, you enter an austere atmosphere of gray walls and hidden lighting. The hallway gets narrower and narrower as you walk back, and it seems like you're going to have to squeeze behind the last jutting light. Then, suddenly, the wall to your left opens and the restaurant is visible. The friendly staff greet you and take you to your table.

So, from the very beginning, you have a sense of zen playfulness and surprise, which will carry you through the entire evening.

Keeping with the theme of simplicity and surprise, we weren't given a menu until the meal was over. The idea was that we would simply sit at our black table (no tablecloth) and let the courses come to us with no preconceptions. Then, at the end, they would give us a paper menu, which we could take home as a memento of the night and a reminder of the courses.

The first thing the servers did (after greeting us, checking in with our plan to do the Chef's Tour, our lack of food restrictions, and chatting a bit about New Mexico, which they remembered from our reservation) was to place two rosemary stalks on our table. They informed us that these would serve as our centerpieces, and would enter into one of the courses later on. I was a little surprised that they served filtered tap water, but I guess Chicago is supposed to have really good water.

Our first wine was a Champagne cocktail. They served this before the meal, when the only thing we had on the table was our water and the rosemary centerpiece. Alinea has a two-tiered wine pairing system, and we chose the top tier (if you're going to splurge, why not go whole hog?). However, I'm not going to talk about the wines in these posts, unless there's something substantive to add. Suffice it to say, the pairings were mostly phenomenal, and I don't know enough about wine to say anything substantial about what we drank.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Worth a Groggy Morning Train Ride

[Tyler] I have to admit I was not thrilled with the idea of getting up early in the morning to go hunting for pastry shops in neighborhoods we weren't familiar with. Karin, the nice concierge, helped a lot, by giving us specific directions. But, by the time we found Bittersweet, I was pretty grumpy and ready for breakfast.

The coffee and danish from Bittersweet, and walk to Vanille Patisserie helped a lot. And, then, walking into the store, I finally understood why Rob was so intent on making it to this place. The pastries were so beautiful, and the staff were really great. (Make sure you visit the Web site and look at the pictures.)

The woman who helped us with our order reminded me a lot of Kristen, who used to work at The Kumquat. The whole atmosphere was one of bringing joy, which of course reminded me of our store. She even gave us specific directions for walking back to the train line, and suggested an alternate walking route because it would take us through a prettier neighborhood and not be any longer.

By the time we left Vanille Patisserie, I felt like I was on a sugar rush, and I hadn't even eaten any of the pastries yet. Now that's bringing joy to customers!

Pastry Quest

[Rob] Our first stop was at Bittersweet, which came highly recommended as the best in town. When I asked folks where we should go I said, "I don't want bars and brownies." Bittersweet had some of what I wanted, but focused more on b&bs. We sampled their shortbread, macaroons (French not coconut), and a ganache tart. All were very nice, and I especially liked the silkiness of the ganache - I have a new standard to shoot for with my own. These were the first macaroons I have had other than my own and realized that I was on track with what I was making.

Then we took a 15 minute walk to Vanille Patisserie. Now this is what I was looking for! Over the top complicated pastries. In fact, we walked out with nearly $50 in sugar, most of which was eaten by noon (with our friends). Here we had an orange exotic mousse, macaroons, a caramel espresso mousse and a few other fun things. We waited too long and all of the mousses had died from heat exhaust so they were unphotographable, but they all tasted amazing. The macaroons are coming back to Silver with us to share with staff and volunteers (and my stomach). The staff at VP was exceptional with their friendliness and generosity of information. Hands down VP was the better of the two, but both are heads above the rest. Definitely worth a visit for anyone going to Chicago.

A Night in Another Country

[Rob] Our last day in town was spent hunting down pastries - more on that once I get the pictures uploaded. We met some old friends for lunch and had a sandwich down by the Sears Tower. Tyler loaded us on a train and we headed south to where Cabrini Greens housing project used to be. We were trying to get to Hyde Park, but suffice it to say, it didn't happen. So we jumped back on the train and recouped, and then we headed north again to Devon St. This street really is amazine. We were starving at this point so we jumped into an Indian restaurant that had a number of articles and awards posted in its window. I thought that would be a good sign. What we ended up with was over-priced mediocre food. We were the only ones in the restaurant, and as we continued our walk we saw every other restaurant had plenty of other customers. Must not have been the best choice.

But then we continued down the street until we saw the Georgian/Russian section, followed by the Hasidic section. At one point we jumped into a drug store to get some aspirin and in line were two white gay men (our friends), an African American Muslim couple, a Pakistani man, a Hasidic man, and an elderly white couple. That's Devon St.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Our work here is done.

[Rob] We're finished with the show for this year. Yesterday was our presentation. About thirty people attended, which is good according to the show organizers. Neither of us had ever gone to a presentation at the show because we've always been so focused on buying products and finding customer requests. We think it went really well, and only one person left during the presentation, so that was a good sign. What was really touching was the woman who approached Tyler afterwards, who was in the process of opening a store like ours, and said she had been to all the presentations so far, and they seemed all geared toward the big stores so she was feeling discouraged, and our presentation gave her hope that she could make her store work. Bringing joy!

I did my prowl of the show floor and here's what I've found:

1. Fage: After a year and a half of requests I found the stuff! I approached someone at the booth and joking said, "You guys do a great job at marketing. I've had tons of requests for your product. Unfortunately, your distribution network hasn't gotten it to me and so now I have tons of disappointed or upset customers." He told me (in what I read to be a sincere way) that I should give him a call after the show and he would personally guarantee that he would get some to turned out to be the President and COO of the company. For those of you who don't know, Fage is a sour cream consistency yogurt that has been touted as healthier than yogurt, and it tastes far superior. Keep your fingers crossed.

2. Rose Essence: This is totally being bought with Betty St. John in mind. A drink mixer, the essence is a faint rose taste that is not sharp like a rose water, but gently takes your drink to the English country-side. Betty - this one's for you!

3. Peanut Butter: This has failed for us before, but we want to try again. A company we found has 10 different flavors - all are natural and really wonderful. I liked the Double Chocolate. Tyler liked the Thai Curry.

4. Apple Butter: Possibly our current longest-standing customer request, apple butter from Indiana. I was shocked when I saw this at the show, but now I can bring it in and bring joy to one more customer. What that customer doesn't know (and he's a huge salsa fan - Carl) is that they now have a spicy line...

Many more great things out there and on there way...but now we're off to pastry quest!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Another Consierge...another adventure

[Rob] Apparently I need to refine my request for "small, ethnic restaurant." To me that means off the beaten path, less expensive, different. In hotel-land, that means "not a steak house." Tonight we asked our latest concierge (I should have used the website listed in a previous post comment). We ended up at Le Colonial - a French Vietnamese restaurant on Rush St. It was what you would expect - somewhat pretentious, somewhat pricey, with good food. We both stuck to soup and salad - mine being a seared scallop and noodle salad.

On the walk home I decided that my intestines need to resolve the culinary battle within. At first I thought it must be the sodium alginate from Alinea. Then I thought it might be the butter from Colonial. But then I remembered...its the KABOB!

24 Courses...13 Wines...1 Perfect Evening

[Rob] We made the decision not to be food tourists and take pics at Alinea (there was plenty of flashing going on). Mostly because 'you had to be there' to appreciate it, but also there's a plethora of pics online for you to see what type of food they do. This pic was just pulled from the web. The food was everything I expected, but what made the night was the staff. They were hyper attentive without being in the way. What surprised me most was that the staff was real and personable. I think if we had pushed them to be formal and distant they could have, but they weren't. They were very real and enjoying sharing their food with us. The Sommolier was absolutely amazing! His pairings were so completely on the ball that every time we thought we had a perfect mouthful of food, we added the wine, and it was even better.

The most memorable for me was a skate tail (fish) plated on three powders (freeze-dried browned butter, lemon and caper). The powders were plated and formed into the Alinea logo.

My favorite courses were, of course, "desserts." One (of 6) was a coconut ribbon delicately draped around a polenta pudding, roasted kiwi and saffron threads. Another was a croquette of caramel with Meyer lemon. Each wonderful, and each perfect.

Afterwards we had to walk around and call a friend to share it with. Upon final reflection, my lesson learned is don't try to calcuate the tip after 13 wine tastings! And the kabab did not ruin my dinner :).

Temple of Food

[Tyler] All last night, I dreamt about our dinner at Alinea. Processing the experience in my dreams, the restaurant became a temple where the gods were worshipped by the joyfulness of their subjects eating delicious food. In the real restaurant (as opposed to the dream Alinea), there was a flower decoration that loomed over our table. I asked the server if it was made out of banana leaf, and she said, "No, it's actually a dried palm. I think it looks like an elephant head." In the dream, it became an elephant-headed god that watched us eat.

I think that's a pretty good metaphor for my experience at Alinea. It was almost holy. Everything was focused on experiencing the flavors of the foods and wines to their fullest -- like we were celebrating the lives we've been given, and celebrating the lives of the plants and animals we ate throughout the course of the meal. The whole atmosphere was one of quiet reverence, but with a celebratory overtone. Sort of like a good church on Sunday mornings.

Is that too woo-woo? Well, then let me just say the food was fabulous, and the wine-pairings were phenomenal. My favorite course came early in the meal (remember, each course is at most six bites). It was a chantarell mousse, flecked with tiny pieces of candied carrots and itty-bitty slices of green onion, then topped with a carrot foam. The foam gave the course a depth of flavor, without overpowering the delicate mushroom.

The most interesting were two courses that involved shooters -- sort of like shots. One was a shot glass filled halfway with fresh celery juice, with a small ball floating in it. The ball was made of cocoa butter and wasabi, and filled with granny smith apple juice. When you tipped the whole thing into your mouth, the cocoa butter broke, bursting the apple juice and wasabi flavor onto your taste buds and mixing it with the celery juice. It was truly like a party in your mouth.

The other shooter was a warm beet ball. The server brought it to the table and then poured cold rhubarb juice over it. He didn't tell us what the ball was, but only that it was warm (they love surprises at Alinea). "Can you identify the flavor?" he asked. Of course, I recognized the beet right away -- it is my favorite vegetable -- and I loved the way it paired with the cold rhubarb juice.

I'll let Rob tell you about some of the other things we ate. But I think I'm going to be processing the twenty four courses in my dreams for several nights to come.

Serge's Not the Concierge

[Tyler] Well, we made an important discovery yesterday afternoon. Our hotel has two lobbies! There's the downstairs entrance, which is not really the lobby and is where Serge works, and then there's the third floor lobby, which is where we checked in and where the concierge works.

Once we found the real concierge, as opposed to the doorman, a whole world of possibilities opened up to us. The nice concierge gave us directions to Devon Avenue, and gave us important tips on where to take the bus and when to get off ("when it starts looking all Bollywood").

Devon Avenue is the east Indian, Pakistani, and Orthodox Jewish section of town. We didn't have time to walk as far as the Jewish neighborhood, but we did get to sample some great Indian Kabob sandwhiches. Of course, by the time we got there, it was 3pm and we had 5:15 dinner reservations at Alinea, but that didn't stop Rob from stuffing his face.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

First Night...not a sign of things to come

[Rob] You know how they say that IPods know what you're thinking? Well, our consierge doesn't. Serge is very nice, but when we asked him for a recommendation of a small ethnic restaurant, we weren't really looking for a fast food restaurant in WaterTower Place on the Miracle Mile.
[flashback moment]
Back when we lived in Indianapolis, I used to publish a restaurant guide for out-of-the-way ethnic restaurants. I loved finding the new dive that was striving to make it. Once they made it, I moved on feeling my work was done. So when I travel, those are the types of restaurants I seek out. There is greater risk of disaster, but there is a bigger payoff potential since they're new and trying harder to make it. Once a restaurant makes it, its so easy to fall into a pattern that degrades into mediocrity.
[but I digress]
Tyler and I spent much of the night talking about chains. We're not opposed to chains, but Serge had suggested to the couple in front of us at his concierge desk that they try Rainforest Cafe or Cheesecake Factory. While walking around we saw Hardrock Cafe. All are fine restaurants and you get what you get, but they're not what we're looking for. How could Serge know so little about us! Its not really Serge's fault, but when we returned we thanked him and told him about our great journey off the beaten path.
[back to the topic]
So, under Serge's direction, we went to Wow Bao - an Asian Bun restaurant. Interesting concept and decent enough food, but man o man! After I ate three, I realized I needed about 5 more if this was going to be my dinner. But with blood sugar up, we moved onward. We walked another hour, getting further from the Miracle Mile, and feeling like we were closer to a restaurant that would fit the bill. We never quite found what we were looking for, so we opted for Kerryman Irish Pub which was loud and dark, but had beer. We both scanned the menu and went for the fish and chips. Okay, so the Kumquat Guys couldn't do better than that on their first night in Chicago, but we have big plans coming! (Really, the whole point of tonight was to stretch our stomach in preparation for tomorrow at Alinea.)

By the way, we're both feeling plump with humidity and breathing like a team of oxes down here at sea level! Roar! I'm ready to run up the Sears Tower for a morning jog.

Great Lakes, Batman!

[Tyler] You gotta love the free wireless Internet access at the Albuquerque airport. It means I can start blogging right away, even before we leave NM.

Like Rob, I woke up early this morning, thinking about the trip. The great news is neither of us has been thinking about the store. Everyone asks if we're nervous about leaving The Kumquat for five days, but there's no need to worry, when we have such great staff and volunteers.

Instead, I woke up thinking about the restaurants we'll be eating at. Tomorrow night is a dinner at Alinea. And, one night, we're planning to eat at Soul Vegetarian, a completely vegetarian, but very traditional soulfood restaurant on the south side of Chicago. Rob's also drooling over the pastry shops he's planning to visit, but I'll let him tell you about that.

The exciting news of the morning is that you almost had grilled kumquat guys. Our Great Lakes plane sprung a fuel leak on the way over the Black Range. The pilot assured us we had plenty of fuel to make it to ABQ, but I have to admit I was thinking more about what might happen if that spraying fuel caught a spark on landing. My parents once had a plane catch fire, and it was one of the scariest things they've lived through (even counting living in Zambia during the Rhodesian war). However, they did get to slide down the safety chute, which is something I've always wanted to do -- Mom says she can't remember what it felt like, because she was thinking more about the smoke and flames. Ah, well.

Not even 6 am yet...

[Rob] It's Saturday morning, just before 6. I've been up since 4 listening to the winds rattle our doors - the question is...will our plane take off?

Since I've had a couple of hours to think, I've been thinking about finding some last minute Mother's Day chocolates. Michel Cluizel is on its way - and we love those. Vosges is also on its way, but that's not quite Mother's Daysy. We'll have to see what else is out there and bring home with us.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Whad'ya Want?

[Tyler] One of my favorite things about the Fancy Food Show is looking for those hard-to-find things people really want. I loved the year we tasted every smoked salmon at the show, looking for the best -- that's how we found Kasilof, which is still one of my favorites.

So . . . what do you want us to look for at the show? Leave your ideas in the comments to this post, or email them to us.

Inquiring minds want to know.


[Rob] The Fancy Food Show in Chicago is just four days away and we're gearing up for the big event. We use this show each year to find the hottest and newest food products, and bring them back to Grant County. This is also when we take a shopping list written by an entire city! All of the requests that you've made with us that we have not been able to find will be on our shopping list this weekend. But enough about the show...we're back in our old stompin' grounds.

Rob received his Doctorate from Purdue, and Tyler earned his Masters from Earlham. We lived in Indy for a while which is just a short day drive to the Windy City. We think this one of the best big cities anywhere.

We only have a few short days in Chitown and much of our time is booked with the show. On Monday we'll be presenting at the show on building community. Tuesday we've dedicated to walking the floor and eating as much food as we can - we do it just for you ;)

Before we get to business, on Sunday we're heading to Alinea. This is one of the top restaurants in the country, and has offered ample fodder for dessert ideas. We've heard that this 20+ course meal with wine pairings goes at least 4.5 hours, so we're both in stomach stretching mode.

The other focus for me is hitting the top pastry shops in town. I've used my egullet friends to steer me in the right direction. I'll show my pastry conquests later in the blog.

So feel free to send us your thoughts and product wishes and we'll keep you posted on the trip.