Friday, August 22, 2008

will fly for food.

At the end of July, Mr. Cupcake and I decided to throw caution to the wind and take a trip to Chicago for an indulgent meal at Alinea. It really wasn't as carefree as it sounds. You see, we had these reservations since May, but were on the fence as to whether or not we should go. With airline prices so high and a looming trip to Australia, we were planning to cancel. However, I found a pair of fairly reasonable tickets last minute, so we decided to say to hell with it, let's go.

You may be wondering what kind of restaurant would cause anyone to jump on a plane just for a meal. Alinea is a relatively young restaurant (opened in 2005), but is well known for its usage of molecular gastronomy. It was named the number one restaurant in America (2006) by Gourmet Magazine, ranked one of the top 50 restaurants in the world by the S.Pelligrino people, and earlier this year, Grant Achatz (owner and head chef) won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. I've been hearing about this place off and on for the last couple years, and while all the accolades are great, what's even more amazing is how Achatz overcame mouth cancer while at the height of his career.

OK, so enough back story. Now to the food. There are two options when ordering at Alinea: the 12 course tasting and the 24 course tour. We tried to get the tour, but it was booked and they put us on the waiting list. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be, and we had to settle for the tasting. Since this meal was almost a month ago, my memory is a bit hazy, so please bear with me.

King Crab - sudachi, avocado, bay branch

It's really hard to mess up anything that is deep fried. Seriously. It's the perfect way to start off a tasting menu because who is going to say, man, that deep fried crab sure tastes terrible. Not going to happen. This deep fried ball was attached to a bay branch that functioned more as a utensil. The batter was light, and it was filled with crab, avocado, and sudachi. The first thing Mr. Cupcake noted was the strong citrus flavor mixed in with the crab. Sure enough, sudachi is a Japanese citrus fruit.

The butter

I really love butter presentations. The shapes reminded me of scoops of sorbet or ice cream, similar to what I've had at other fancy pants restaurants. The butter on the left was a cows milk butter with black Hawaiian salt. The butter on the right was a very mild goat's milk butter. I definitely preferred the cow's milk.

After most courses, a guy would come around and serve us bread. Each serving of bread was different. Being the carb lover that I am, I looked forward to seeing what would be served next.

Tomato - basil, mozzarella, olive oil

This was a modified caprese salad. The large white log in the background was a foamy buffalo mozzarella dipped in liquid nitrogen (I think). There was also dehydrated tomatoes, basil sorbet, a cube of jellified concentrated vinegar of some sort (sherry perhaps? I don't remember), and two spheres of tomato water. It was definitely an experience because the familiar flavors were there but presented in a unique way. Being that I love tomatoes, my favorite part was the concentrated, powdery tomato. I also adore buffalo mozzarella, but this was foreign to me. My taste buds recognized the flavor, but my brain was telling me that this doesn't add up. This course was a perfect example of what molecular gastronomy is for those who are curious.

Bigeye Tuna - artichoke, garlic, bottarga

The most memorable components of this course were the freshness of the tuna and the crispy strands of garlic. I especially liked the garlic strands. They were lightly fried tendrils infused with garlic. The truth of the matter is, I like anything that is crispy. I'm sort of like my cat. He likes crispy things too... tortilla chips, plastic, etc. The crispy just adds that extra layer of texture that makes everything in the world OK.

Wagyu Beef (Part 1)

The server came out Wagyu beef dipped in liquid nitrogen held together by chopsticks. We were instructed to not touch the beef as it was frozen solid and could shatter. We were to appreciate it as a center piece for the time being. Now, this is where Mr. Cupcake decided that this was gimmicky. I on the other hand decided that there had to be reason for dipping the beef in liquid nitrogen. Perhaps it made the beef slightly more tender. Something, right? We continued to ponder why they would do this. To be continued...

Lobster - peas, spring onion, mint vapor

Up next was a lobster foam soup that contained several large pieces of lobster. I don't always love lobster, but something about the warm foamy soup made it work for me . My favorite part was the green mass in the middle. Inside the thin, delicate casing was liquefied English peas. When I plopped the mass into my mouth, it burst open and was all kinds of delicious. It reminded me of a non fried version of the pea croquette at Manresa.

Short Rib - Guinness, peanut, fried broccoli
This course was Mr. Cupcake's favorite course up until the very end. There were a lot of things going on in this dish, but unfortunately, I can't remember most them. I do remember that the short ribs were incredibly tender and overall it was incredibly delicious. The other notable aspect about this dish was the Guinness. Guinness you ask? Well, you see the light brown film that covers the dish? That's Guinness, you know the beer. It provided a sweetness that I wouldn't have expected. This is pretty much the only time I can recall where I enjoyed the flavor of Guinness.

Wagyu Beef (part 2)

Curious what happened to our Wagyu beef center piece? Well, basically we watched it melt into limp slices of beef over a few courses. It was soft, and ready for the next course.

Wagyu Beef (part 3) - maitake, smoked date, Blis Elixir

Our server came out with plates of maitake mushrooms and a smoked date. He then took the beef and laid it on top. Another guy came around and drizzled the plate with Blis Elixir. Blis Elixir is a special sherry vinegar from Spain (?). This dish was as tasty as they get. The beef just melted in the mouth while the mushrooms and date complimented the entire dish. It was lovely.

Mr. Cupcake asked our server if the liquid nitrogen served any real purpose, and he told us it was so we could watch the evolution of frozen beef to not. It turned out that Mr. Cupcake was correct.

I had Mr. Cupcake take a picture of his plate just to show the difference in presentation since they did it in front of us. His picture is a little clearer too.

Hot Potato - cold potato, black truffle, butter

This was a soup playing with temperatures. The suspending stick contained a truffle, a potato, and small block of Parmesan cheese. I'm not sure what the second white block was. It might have been butter, but I don't remember. We then pulled the stick down so all the contents fell into the soup, and gulped it down. The potato on the stick and the potato soup were different temperatures (one hot, one cold), but I can't remember which was which. In any case, it was delicious, and I loved it. Mr. Cupcake on the other hand felt the chunks were too big and thus the textures took away from the experience.

As they took away the dish, our server asked us if we liked the Campbell's soup. Cute. :)

Duck - chocolate, blueberry, Thai pepper

OK, so they told me this was chocolate. That's really all I heard before I scarfed it down. I had cleared the plate before I realized I didn't take a picture.

It was basically a soft bar of chocolate that encased pieces of duck. The strange thing about this dish was it didn't taste very good with just those two components. However, there were other layers of flavor including white and green purees that represented the parts of a green onion. There was also blueberry and a hazelnut puree. Mixed together, the flavors completely changed the course and made it surprisingly good.
It wasn't just this dish either, as this held true in a lot of the courses. It's genius how the dynamic changes and the flavors suddenly worked well together.

Rhubarb, Watermelon, Bacon

This course was presented as a trio and all are described below.

Rhubarb - ginger, basil

This sphere was full of rhubarb juice. Our server told us a story about how this dish evolved, and told us that it was important that we keep our mouths closed when we eat it. Apparently, someone once bit down into it and the liquid shot across the room and landed on the person's date. Since then, they warn people to keep their mouths shut when eating. He wasn't kidding. The liquid literally explodes once the sphere is punctured, and I nearly dribbled all down the front of my dress. Fortunately, I managed to save myself and keep it in.

Bacon - butterscotch, apple, thyme

This was a play on the whole salty, sweet, while savory. It was a piece of bacon with a drizzle of butterscotch, pieces of apple, and thyme. I have read raves about this particular course, and when they presented it to the lady sitting next to us, I was pretty sure she was going to wet herself from excitement. I agree bacon makes pretty much everything taste better, and this was definitely tasty, but I just felt some of our other dishes thus far were more memorable.

Watermelon - fresh coriander, tamari, bonito

Of all the dishes we had that night, this is the only one that did not work for me. It basically tasted like watermelon and fish. I'm open to being enlightened, but this mouthful was anything but.

Sorrel - honey, fennel, poppy seeds

I honestly don't remember much about this dish other than the honey was fabulous when mixed with all the other components. I do remember trying to poke a piece of the plate because in the dim light it looked like part of the food. Imagine my surprise when my fork went clunk because I was trying to eat the plate.

Whole Wheat - almond, apricot, chervil

The whole wheat dish was easily the best dish of the entire night. There really wasn't anything too fancy about it. It was a wheat cake that looked like and had the consistency of a fluffy piece of wheat bread. Surrounding it was a scoop of almond ice cream, sliced almonds, caramel sauce, and an apricot sauce. There was apparently some chervil. The server presented the dish and then proceeded to pour something on it which I believe was a warm foamy milk. The whole dish was dreamy and I could have eaten 10 more. Mr. Cupcake and I were in agreement that this dish was perfection.

Chocolate - blueberry, hazelnut, Thai pepper

Remember the duck and chocolate dish that I failed to show you because I pretty much woofed it down before I remembered I was suppose to take a picture? Well, this is the dessert version of that dish sans duck. It was a shot glass filled with a freeze dried (?) version of the key elements. We were instructed to take it as a shot. The chocolate flavor was rich and we could taste the blueberry and hazelnut, but we didn't really get a good feel for the Thai pepper. It pretty much didn't exist. That's OK, because we had just experienced perfection, and it's really hard to go up against that.

Our total bill including meal, 2 glasses of wine, a glass of sparkling cider, and tip was $454.10. I'm not sure what the breakdown was because I never looked at the bill.

And that concludes our 12 courses at Alinea. It was a beautifully prepared meal... one that I won't forget for a long time. In the end, Mr. Cupcake and I were actually glad we didn't get the tour because over three hours, we were full. We also agreed we liked it more than our experience at the French Laundry. Why? It was the combination of interesting flavors and the fact that the staff was knowledgable while being pretty laid back. One of the things I really didn't like about the French Laundry was I felt like I was being watched the entire time. Don't get me wrong, some courses were like a revelation (and some weren't), but at the same time, I felt that having someone constantly watch me takes away from the experience. Then again, some people really love the attention in that they don't have ever ask for anything. Alinea's staff does a good job of making people feel welcome while still maintaining the flash of a top tier dining establishment.

So what does one do after a meal like that? We changed into our play clothes and headed off the Martini Park to meet up with my fabulous cousin, Julie!

Except, they wouldn't let us in the door. They were like, "we have a dress code". Apparently they didn't appreciate Mr. Cupcake's selection from his fine t-shirt collection (he reads tshirt blogs you know), or perhaps it was my mary jane crocs. Whatever the case, the doorman was a douche bag and I recommend staying away from this über lame establishment.

No worries though. We ended up giving our money to an Irish pub that was next door to Pete Wentz's new hipster bar. Since we ate dinner at 5:15pm, we found ourselves hungry again come 11:30pm, so we did what any normal person would do:

We ordered cheezy tator tots with bacon and jalapenos. Yep, a perfect way to end an already decadent evening.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

reunited and it feels so good

I keep hearing rumblings that I haven't blogged since Sept. 2007. I had to check for myself, and what do you know, the grumblings were indeed accurate. Perhaps, you've been wondering what I've been up to. Well, the past nine months were filled with travels, and enough food that I've managed to soften up. Fortunately, the Wii Fit coupled with my elliptical are here to find what once was. So, now, a summary for those who are curious and for those who aren't, then you may want to stop here...

Mr. Cupcake and I found ourselves back in Kentucky, a place we thought we'd never revisit. Due to good friends and a wedding, we returned.

We were able to visit our favorite restaurant, the Holly Hill Inn. We use to be regulars and missed it dearly once we moved to California.

We also made a few stops at Graeter's. Oh sweet Graeters! Ice cream has never been so perfect. This stuff is that good. So good, that I have it shipped to my house at something around $11 a pint. It's all in the chips and worth every penny.

Shortly, thereafter, we left the wedding to head back east for an unexpected funeral. It was amazing to see the colors of the trees.

Mr. Cupcake and I are emotional eaters. To deal with any lingering sadness, we did what any rational person would do: we stuffed ourselves silly with NY style pizza, banh mi, and a full sample of bagels including those at H&H Bagels. It was the right thing to do.

Seriously, it's impossible to find a bagel this crisp and chewy back on the West Coast. Delicious one indeed.

In November, Mr. Cupcake's friend turned 30. He decided to celebrate with a ginormous beach house in Cabo. We opted to skipped Thanksgiving with the family and spend it on the beach instead.

We checked out the local scene including the Costco. I heart Costco. It's pretty much the same with a few local product choices here and there. I should have gotten a churro.

While Mr. Cupcake was off deep sea fishing, I had the chance to eat street food from a taco stand.

Chorizo and cheese on a tortilla. It was the meal that I remember. So simple, but hit all the right notes.

Christmas rolled in, and one of my favorite gifts was the Baker's Edge pan. My first attempt and yeah, only (I know, I'm pathetic) was a recipe for banana bread. The recipe is interesting because it doesn't contain any sort of fat like a big blob of butter or a half gallon of oil. We actually just finished the last piece up today since it freezes so well.

Some time passed and what do you know, I turned 30. I'm an old bag who still looks like she's in high school. Not as tramatic as I thought it'd be, but it helps when a friend sends some glorious Christopher Elbow Chocolates. He's from Kansas (like me!) and makes a mean salted caramel. Coincidentally, he recently opened up a shop in San Francisco.

Before you know it, it's May and I found myself in Colorado with a good friend and a giant. Okay, she's not really a giant, but she might as well be. She's just shy of 6'3". I'd show you a picture, but she might eat you.

Our mission over the next four days was to eat good food and just relax. Along the way, my friend and I stumbled upon a place called the Sunshine Cafe in Silverthorn, CO. The B.L.A.T. was a great way to start off the trip after an early morning flight from Cali.

After stuffing ourselves silly, we left the giant, and headed back to Denver. Little did we know, the best meals were ahead of us including this banana split from Snooze. The other meal was Frasca in Boulder. It was an Italian meal that I won't soon forget, and if you're in the area, you shouldn't miss it.

Over Memorial Day, we trekked it in Mr. Cupcake's ambulance (don't ask) to Reno! And let me tell you, it's nothing like Vegas. Places like the Bouchon Bakery, the Wynn Buffet, and all the other lovely places are no where to be found. Instead...

I was able to watch Chrisi shave about a year off his life with this breakfast. And then...

I watched Mr. Cupcake shave at least two years off his with an Awful Awful burger from the Golden Nugget. Good food never appeared during our visit to the Biggest Little City.

Finally, we celebrated our 3 year anniversary. Apparently, 2008 is the year of the 3's - age 30 and 3rd year anniversaries.

To celebrate, Mr. Cupcake scored us a meal at the famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley. I had finally completed my Norcal trifecta - Chez Panisse, The French Laundry, and Manresa. To top it off, he managed to get a reservation at Alinea, a place that's been on top of my food list. He's a good man, that Mr. Cupcake.

I hope that the next post won't be another nine months, but I'm not promising anything. There are some interesting developments including a half flat of strawberries sitting in my fridge, tomatoes soon to be in season, and a trip to Australia. If your lucky, something might pop up in your RSS reader someday soon.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

one hot mess

One of the stops during our 2007 Euro tour was of course Paris. While it's never been high on Mr. Cupcake's list, it was definitely on mine.

Ah, Paris. Land of things such as this great structural feat. I can't say that the Eiffel Tower brought out all these overwhelming romantic feelings that others might feel when visiting.

However, the sight of all the glorious pastries in all the boulangeries and pâtisseries did warm my heart in ways I've never felt before.

And the people of Paris were really quite lovely. The way they freely roamed the street going about their business was a real pleasure to see.

My only advice for someone planning a trip to France is to plan all food excursions ahead of time. This is of my biggest regrets. I'm usually fanatical about researching where to eat on vacation, but for some reason, I just didn't do it this time around. It turned out to be a huge mistake for many reasons. Mostly, we had a lot of sub par meals because people make reservations months in advance. This isn't to say we suffered completely. One of my highlight meals in fact was lunch at Le Comptoir.

If I remember correctly, we didn't have to have a reservation for lunch. Instead, we just had to show up before they opened. Mr. Cupcake, J9, and I waited outside for about a half an hour and had no problems getting a table for an early lunch.

I ordered the Thon juste rôti à la plancha (bleue). According to Babelfish, this translates to "Tuna just roasted with the plancha (blue)" I'm not sure what plancha is, but tells me that "a la plancha" is Spanish and "grilled on a metal plate". I can buy that.

The textures and flavors of the tuna were so simple, yet, so perfect. The tuna was topped with fresh roasted vegetables, an olive oil and balsamic mixture, and fried garlic. I loved the light crispiness of the garlic with the smoothness of the tuna. I remember sitting there thinking, I could probably make something like this at home.

Many moons later (approximately three and a half to four months), I decided I'd be like last week's episode of "Top Chef" and attempt to remake the fish I had in Paris based on taste. Actually, I did this before I watched this episode, but I thought maybe it'd sound better if I said "Top Chef" actually inspired me.

Mr. Cupcake and I go to the local farmer's market almost on a weekly basis, and buy a random assortment of fruits and vegetables. This dinner wasn't really planned, but I decided I would go ahead and use some of the vegetables we bought last Sunday. This included the garlic, tomatoes, and long beans. I also bought a couple of zucchinis from Safeway (boo) because I decided I needed them for this experiment. I chopped up the long beans, zucchini, and tomatoes and put them on a baking sheet. I then tossed them in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper. The oven was set to 435 degrees and the vegetables roasted.

Next up was the garlic. The garlic was pretty simple. I sliced a couple of cloves and threw them into some hot oil. They fried fried up pretty quick.

We then salt and peppered our lovely pieces of ahi tuna from your favorite place and mine: Costco. They were pan seared for about 3 minutes on each side until a nice crust formed.

Finally, came the assembly. Plate the tuna, add the vegetables, fried garlic, basil, a few sundried tomatoes, and a final drizzle of olive oil and balsamic. The final outcome: one hot mess.

Visually, I could have used a few style pointers. Maybe if I had plated it on a fresh white plate, it would have looked like the original. Or not. Taste, well, taste was OK. The tuna was a little over cooked. Searing ahi looks so much easier on TV than it is in real life. Mr. Cupcake thought maybe the tuna wasn't as fresh as it could have been. Also, I have to say that the long beans were a poor vegetable choice for this dish. They were tough and somewhat bitter. I really wanted them to taste like French green beans, but sadly, they didn't. I think next time, I will skip the sun-dried tomatoes, extra olive oil, and balsamic drizzle at the end. The vegetables had enough flavor without that step. The real winner of the dish was the roasted tomatoes. My love for tomatoes in season goes deep. Roast them for 45 minutes in a 430 degree oven, and it's sheer bliss.

With a few of these tweaks, I think this will be a successful dish. Seeing how the tuna was only so-so, I may try this with a different fish or maybe chicken or pork. See, Europe is a glorious place! It brought inspiration to my own kitchen from far, far away. Sadly, with the current dollar to Euro exchange rate, I probably won't be going back anytime soon.