A Risotto Dinner.

Do you ever have a craving for something — a food, let’s say — and you simply can’t get enough?  And when you get your hands on the thing you’re craving — Breyer’s Smooth and Dreamy Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream, for example — do you have to just stuff yourself with it until your desire evaporates like summer rain on a hot sidewalk?  And then, do you not crave that item again for something like six months?

I am so that person.  I am the prime example of that person, and right now I want risotto.  I’ve been trying to space it out, maybe one risotto dish a week, but it’s been so hard.  I just want risotto all the time, so when I bumped into this lemon-centric recipe from Bon Appétit I was eager to test it out.  I mean, it has lemons and cheese and risotto, and I love eating all three of those things.  To put it bluntly, these could easily be my Desert Island Foods (along with Breyer’s Smooth and Dreamy Mint Chocolate Chip).  You know what, though?  I was kind of underwhelmed by the results.  Sad, but true.  The lemon flavor was really pronounced and quite lovely, but everything else kind of faded away into the background.  Since I couldn’t let risotto beat me at my own game, the very next night I pulled out the arborio rice for round two.

lemon-and-caramelized-onion-risotto1If I were a clever person, I would have sat down with a bowl of Bon Appétit‘s risotto and taken notes on a pad with each mouthful, analyzing as I chewed to determine was missing or what could be possibly added to enhance the dish.  Friends, I am not a clever person.  What I did instead was look around my kitchen to see what I had on hand, which is how I ended up grabbing an onion, snatching a hunk of Gruyère and rummaging around my (messy) spice cabinet for some nutmeg.

I decided to caramelize some onions because, seriously, what isn’t better with caramelized onions?  (Well, maybe Breyer’s Smooth and Dreamy Mint Chocolate Chip — haven’t tried that one yet.)  I also chose to use Gruyère instead of Parmesan in my version, in order to add Gruyère’s nuttiness to the crisp lemon flavor and the sweet onions.  So regardless of my ultra-scientific methods, I’m so pleased with how my risotto came out.  I’ve actually made my rendition of Bon Appétit‘s recipe a few times to bang out all the kinks; it’s a great dinner, especially alongside a fresh green salad.

Lemon + Caramelized Onion Risotto, adapted from Bon Appétit
Makes six first-course portions or four main-course portions

6 cups chicken broth (water is okay, too)
4 ½ tablespoons butter
2 ½ tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 large shallots, chopped
2 cups arborio rice or medium-grain white rice
¼ cup dry white wine
1 cup freshly grated Gruyère cheese
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 teaspoons grated lemon zest

  1. Bring broth to simmer in large saucepan over medium heat. Reduce heat to low; cover to keep warm.
  2. Melt 1 tablespoon butter with 1 tablespoon oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat.  Stir in the sliced onions until well coated, cover, and lower heat.  Stir occasionally until onions are translucent; remove cover, increase heat and continue to stir until the onions take on a really rich golden caramel color.  When the onions are done, remove them from the pan and set aside.
  3. Melt 1 ½ tablespoons butter with oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and sauté until tender, about 6 minutes. Add rice; stir 1 minute. Add wine and stir until evaporated, about 30 seconds. Add 1 ½ cups hot broth; simmer until absorbed, stirring frequently. Add remaining broth ½ cup at a time, allowing broth to be absorbed before adding more and stirring frequently until rice is creamy and tender, about 35 minutes. Lower heat then stir in cheese and remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Stir in nutmeg, parsley, lemon juice, lemon zest and caramelized onions. Season risotto with salt and pepper. Transfer to bowl and serve.

A Weekend Writing Conference, or Ann Patchett is my Spirit Guide.

This past weekend in Boston was utterly gorgeous, and I spent about 94% of it indoors.  You know what, though — I loved every minute of it.  The sun is bad for you, after all, and writing is not.  So instead of lying in the park with my T-shirt rolled up, I was at Grub Street‘s Muse and the Marketplace writing conference.

The Muse is two packed days of workshops, readings, signings and lectures.  The whole event is pretty rigorously paced, with three workshops or lectures each day.  As a participant, I could have also signed up for lunch with published authors, meetings with agents and query letter evaluations (last year I met with an editor to discuss my work) but this year I specifically chose lectures that addressed topics I needed to tackle with my own writing.

Here’s what went down:

Saturday
Got to registration a little later than planned and therefore missed the free breakfast.  This didn’t bother me but I was sweating profusely from walking to the Park Plaza and desperately needed something to drink.  Bumped into Farrah from my writing group before heading to my first lecture, “Time Travel In Fiction: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”  I chose it because I’m working on something with a lot of flashbacks, and besides, who doesn’t like a Joyce Carol Oates reference?  The class — which was both incredibly fascinating and terribly helpful — was led by Alix Ohlin, who was clever and a great speaker and very smart, and as I took notes I realized my pen’s ink matched my shoes exactly, teal.  My only other pen was, um, light teal.  Grabbed a coffee before “Traits, Quirks, and Habits: Crafting Characters from the Inside Out” with Lynne Griffin.  Took more notes with teal pen.  Caught up with my friend Terry over lunch; we took a great Grub class last summer with Kate Flora, and now Terry has a fantastic and funny idea for a book I can’t wait to read.  Poked at a dry piece of chicken and stole extra rolls while Alan Cheuse and Dinty W. Moore read excerpts from their work, and Mr. Moore described the conference as “the grubbiest” he has ever attended, which got lots of laughs.  Met up with Farrah again at Rakesh Satyal‘s “Culture Clubbing: How to Write About Ethnicity Without Beating Your Readers Over the Head.”  Farrah and I are both of Lebanese descent, and apparently equally interested in including this is our respective work.  Afterward went to an hour-long lecture on “The Art of Column Writing” with Suzette Martinez Standring.  Braced myself for the heat, began perspiring as soon as I left the hotel.

Sunday
Got to the hotel with enough time to grab a cup of coffee and a marble bagel, which I promptly wrapped in napkins and stuffed in my bag, before bumping into Steve Almond; tried to have a chat before getting separated in the elevator, but learned his four-month-old is named Judah Elijah, which I think is a nice name, particularly with the reverse alliteration.  Attempted to balance my notebook on my knees during Merrill Feitell “Mechanical Physics for Fiction Writers,” which was so straight-up good that I filled pages with notes when I wasn’t too busy laughing at her jokes and stuffed bunny prop.  Immediately afterward, ran downstairs to the Porter Square Books table to buy a copy of her anthology, Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes, along with The Missing Person by Alix Ohlin, The Silent Boy by Lois Lowry and Naming the World by Bret Anthony Johnston.  Ran back upstairs for Steve’s lecture on “How to Achieve Sudden Impact,” and am pleased to report his sense of humor in front of an audience is the same as his humor in front of one person.  Farrah and I ate lunch together (soggy chicken) and listened to Ann Patchett‘s keynote speech.  In the middle of it, I sent a text to Marcella and Keith: “Ann Patchett should be my spirit guide.”  She spoke for something like forty minutes without notes, and bluntly about writing.  This is the best job you’ll ever have, this is hard work, there’s not such thing as doctor’s block so why writer’s block?*  Clapped until my hands felt sore then made my way back upstairs for “Diving Into the Novel” with Vyvyane Loh, who was so full of information that I could practically see the story I am working on come together right in front of me.

* This, of course, is paraphrased.  Ann Patchett is much more clever than that.  And she spoke about much, much more with an almost intimidating amount of intelligence and a lot of humor.  Ann Patchett is funny!

But are the Subtitles Really Neccesary?

last-restaurant-standing1Not too long ago, I told you all that my new favorite food-related television show was Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word on BBC America.  Well, I’m sorry to say that I lied.  My new new favorite food-related television show is Last Restaurant Standing, which is also on BBC America.  I know you’ll forgive me when you hear the premise:

Restaurateur Raymond Blanc brings in nine couples to compete for the chance to partner with him in opening a new restaurant.  The couples are made up of husbands and wives, parents and children, partners and friends; one of the two serves as the head chef, while the other is front of house.  Each couple is given the keys to a restaurant space, which they then turn into their dream eateries.

Sound interesting enough?  There’s more — Last Restaurant Standing has two different types of episodes: service, and challenge.  The former shows the couple running a dinner service, as well as dealing with a task like using a whole pig when designing that night’s menu or feeding diners with dietary restrictions.  The couples are then evaluated on their performance, and those with the worst review are made to participate in the challenge episodes.  In these, the couples are made to complete such assignments as designing a cookbook concept, creating an airline meal for first-class passengers or cater a dinner party for very particular clients.  Then, based on their work and customer satisfaction, one couple is eliminated.

One reason I enjoy the show, aside from the obvious focus on food, is that all of the competitors are so supportive and respectful of each other.  No one’s talking smack, like on the similarly-themed-albeit-canceled NBC show The Chopping Block.  No one’s rooting for anyone else to fail — in fact, there’s surprisingly little negativity at all, except when one of the contestants disappoints themselves.  Not once does anyone point fingers, something I find utterly fascinating.

Another thing I like about Last Restaurant Standing, which is called The Restaurant abroad, is how pretty it is.  Each episode showcases lush photography, charming background music and wonderful voiceover narration that makes it feel as though a kindly-yet-worldly nanny is telling the viewer a bedtime story.  It would gently lull you to sleep, were the show uninteresting.  Instead, it slips you into a lovely kind of stupor.  I mean this in the best possible way.

This Sunday, BBC America is running a Last Restaurant Standing marathon for those of you who want to get caught up on episodes you might have missed, or those of you who just want to get sucked into some British reality television.  I’ve got plans, but I encourage you to lounge on your sofas all day and check it out!

Marathon Monday, or Getting Out of the City.

I remember my first Marathon Monday in Boston: I had to go to the printer to pick up copies of a short story I was submitting to a writing workshop the next day…  and of course the printer I ended up using was in Copley Square, practically sitting on top of the finish line.  I know, don’t tell me —  dumb move, but come on.  I was new to the city!  I didn’t know any better.  I had to elbow my way past throngs of marathon aficionados, and what normally would have been a fifteen-minute walk ended up being something like forty-five, because of all the revelers and runners.

Anyway, my point is this: unless you’re super-into marathons, get out of the city.  Which is exactly what Keith and I did, heading up I-95 to Newburyport.  Though we had a two Newburyport destinations in mind and one in Salem to loop us back home, our main goal was to do what the Filipino side of my family calls making paseo.  Making paseo is easy — it’s basically a mini-road trip.

joppa-fine-foods When we got to Newburyport, we first made our way to Joppa Fine Foods in the Tannery Mall, which is made up of all really cool and interesting converted mill space.  After sampling a few different cheeses, we decided on Pradera (Dutch cow’s milk) and Erhaki (French sheep’s milk), as well as a bottle of my favorite peach Lambic and a crusty, crunchy baguette.  In retrospect, I’m surprised we didn’t devour it in the car, but that might have been because I was too excited about our next stop, Tendercrop Farms.

tender-crop-2Tendercrop Farms is a small farm in Newbury that not only sells its own fruit and vegetables but also its own meat, poultry and baked goods.  Keith loaded up a basket with two different kinds of sausage (andouille and sweet Italian), corncob smoked bacon and cinnamon-raisin bread while I checked out the selection of herb seedlings in the nursery.  Something else I checked out was Buffy, Tendercrop’s buffalo; if you click on this photo, it will take you to a short slideshow of Buffy trying to ignore me.  I’m not joking when I say it’s a short slideshow — Keith pretty much pulled me down off of the rock I was perched on, saving you all from a twenty-frame slideshow of Buffy chewing.  (And yes, I needed to stand on a rock to see over Buffy’s fence.  What can I say?  I’m short, and that fence is tall.)  What you can’t see in the photos is Buffy’s penmate, a nameless white llama who also ignored me.

the-old-spotAfter Tendercrop, Keith and I made paseo down to The Old Spot in Salem, where we were planning to have a late lunch (or early dinner, depending on how you look at it). I decided to order The Old Spot’s eponymous meat pie ($15.00) and a shandy with Hefeweizen ($5.oo).  I love a shandy: it’s happy and light, and a perfect counter-balance for something like meat pie — which Keith described as “cold, winter food.”  He’s not wrong there.  The Old Spot’s meat pie is made Guinness-stewed lamb and beef that is then smothered with rich, buttery mashed potatoes; with toasted corn kernels adding a bright sweetness and scallions giving the dish a crisp crunch, it’s a hearty one-course meal that would warm any stomach, no matter the weather.  (One note: I did think the beef and lamb were a bit under-seasoned, but those potatoes were perfect.)

Something else I should mention: Keith got the slow-roasted pork sandwich ($8.00), and it was fantastic, layered with Swiss cheese, Dijon mayonnaise and crunchy pickles, which gave the sweet pork a zippy bite. I would go back to The Old Spot for the sandwich alone.

The Old Spot is a British-style pub located on a picturesque corner of town across from the Hawthorne Hotel; it’s also near the Peabody Essex Museum, the Salem Witch Museum and the House of the Seven Gables — which inspired the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel of the same name — so a stop at The Old Spot is ideal even for a Salem-centric trip…  something I’m already thinking of planning for the next three-day weekend.

Joppa Fine Foods
50 Water Street
The Tannery
Newburyport, Massachusetts 01951
978.462.4662
joppafinefoods.com

Tendercrop Farms
108 High Road
Newbury, Massachusetts 01951
978.462.6972
tendercropfarms.com

The Old Spot
121 Essex Street
Salem, Massachusetts 01970
978.745.5656
theoldspot.com

Old Spot on Urbanspoon

Lunch at Myers + Chang.

Not too long ago, Stephanie and I met up for some food and a bit of catching up.  We had put together a list of restaurants open for a weekday lunch; one spot after another got crossed off until we were left with Myers and Chang, an Asian restaurant on Washington in the South End.  We had both been wanting to check it since it opened, so we had made plans to meet up at noon.

myers-chang-2Myers and Chang calls itself an “indie diner” serving variations on traditional Asian fare.  I don’t know if I would personally describe the restaurant as a diner per se, mostly because the space is way too stylish and slick to be your everyday greasy spoon.  After all, the first thing I noticed when I walked in, even before I saw Stephanie at our table, was the bold and graphic dragon decal emblazoned across the floor-to-ceiling window.  What other diner has décor like that?

myers-changAfter much deliberation, Stephanie and I decided to share a few small plates — the better to tour the menu, right?   We chose the pork belly buns ($9.00), the crispy spring rolls ($5.00) and what the menu described as “Mama Chang’s pork dumplings” ($11.00).

The first of our dishes to arrive were the spring rolls, which were made with chives, bamboo shoots and shiitake mushroom.  They had a pleasantly green flavor, very fresh, and weren’t the least bit greasy, even though they had clearly been deep-fried.

While we were busy eating and having a gossip, the pork buns appeared.  While these pieces of braised pork smeared with hoisin were nothing compared with Momofuku Noodle Bar‘s drool-worthy buns, Myers and Chang’s little sandwiches were still quite nice, moist and fatty.

Our last dish were the potsticker dumplings, which, like the buns and rolls before them, were nice.  I guess that’s where I have trouble with Myers and Chang.  Everything was fine.  And that’s it.  I left scratching my head a bit.  Where were the chefs’ personal touches and updates on these typical Chinese and Korean dishes?  Our food tasted good, don’t misunderstand, but why would I be drawn into a self-stylized diner with Chinatown a few subway stops away?  I’d give Myers and Chang another chance to blow me away with their food — they’ve won me with their aesthetic and with their servers’ cheerful demeanors — but I’ll make sure I’ve got a few Chinatown backups at the ready.

Myers + Chang
1145 Washington Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02118
617.542.5200
myersandchang.com

Myers & Chang on Urbanspoon

Redoing a Classic.

Normally I don’t like to make anything from a recipe that requires special equipment.  I only have so much space in my kitchen cabinets, after all, so where am I going to store a pasta machine, panini press, a yogurt maker, a slow cooker, an espresso machine, a meat grinder, an electric slicer or a deep fryer?* I’m not exactly Ina Garten, with my own barn in the backyard specifically for cooking, baking and entertaining — no matter how appealing such a barn sounds.  I’m all for a room of one’s own.

And now I’ve gotten off topic.

blood-orange-madeleines2The exception I’ll make to my so-called rule, though, is the madeleine tray.  They stack right up, taking up practically no space, and it’s so easy to find an inexpensive mold that buying them in triplicate won’t break the bank.  Think of it this way: you’ll get reimbursed in flavor.  The intense citrus of these little cakes can’t be denied.

Traditional madeleines are made with lemon; each bite will also bring you the distinct luxury  felt only when eating something baked with a lot of butter.   Still, butter or no, as any Proust fan knows, having a madeleine is revelatory.  I’ve tried a few different recipes, and the one I’ve had the most repeat success with is David Lebovitz‘s, so when I got the idea in my head to make an orange-y madeleine, I didn’t want to mess with perfection.  Instead I went with a simpler recipe, but I decided to whip up an orange version of David’s lemon glaze to make my cakes as orange-y as possible.

In the end, I was happy with my experiment, but I’m thinking next time of how to possibly include some Cointreau or similar in there.  Also, I was pleased to see how astonishingly malleable a madeleine recipe can be, so now my mind’s buzzing with different ways to imbue various flavors into the batter.  I’ll keep you posted…

Blood Orange Madeleines, adapted from Bon Appétit
Makes about 25 cookies

2 large eggs
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
one blood orange’s worth of zest
pinch of salt
1 cup all purpose flour
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, cooled slightly

  1. Preheat oven to 375°. Generously butter and flour large madeleine pan.  Using electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar in large bowl just to blend. Beat in vanilla, orange zest and salt. Add flour; beat just until blended. Gradually add cooled melted butter in steady stream, beating just until blended.
  2. Spoon 1 teaspoon batter into each indentation in pan. Bake until puffed and brown, about 12-14 minutes. Cool 5 minutes. Gently remove from pans.

Blood Orange Glaze, adapted from David Lebovitz

¾ cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed blood orange juice
2 tablespoons water

Stir together ingredients until smooth.  Dip each cookie into glaze and let rest on cool cookie sheet or cooling rack until glaze becomes firm.

* You’ll notice I left out an ice cream maker.  That’s because I’m certain I can squeeze one into a cupboard somewhere.

A Late Dinner at The Publican.

A sad but true story:  My friend Lara and I lost touch when we went away to college.  We had spent high school sitting a few seats away from each other in more subjects than I’m capable of remembering (I think we were in at least one Global Studies, almost all of our Spanish courses, perhaps every English class…) but I did such a terrible job at maintaining a long-distance friendship that our level of camaraderie dwindled because of it.

Here’s the happy ending though: an e-correspondence has popped up between us.  Since Lara’s finishing up with her Ph.D at the University of Chicago, the moment I knew I was going to be in town I immediately sent her a message detailing our plans.  We decided to meet up for a tour at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Robie House on the university’s campus in Hyde Park and then spend some time catching up before getting to our reservations at The Publican.

the-publican2The Publican is the newest eatery from the team behind Avec and Blackbird, but unlike its predecessors, the focus at this restaurant is on beer.  Had I been drinking that night, I would have started with the Cane + Ebel red rye from Illinois’s own Two Brothers Brewing Company, before moving on to Goose Island‘s Pere Jacques, a Belgian-style ale.  After all, when in Chicago, right?  Massachusetts law makes it tricky for breweries and vineyards to ship product in; the selection at liquor stores can be very limited, so when we travel Keith and I try to take advantage of locally-made drinks.

publican-dining-room1When we walked in the restaurant’s doors, the first thing I noticed was the noise.  The dining room is big and cavernous; sound bounces around the space like a superball.  The second thing I that caught my eye was the space itself.  For one thing, the ceiling is ridiculously high, and from it hangs countless globe-shaped light fixtures.  For another, like at Avec, a majority of the tables are set up family-style; the rest are shuttered away behind mini barn-like doors.  (You can see them in  this picture here, which is from the Publican’s site.)  I was happy to learn that our table was one of the sealed-off; not only did we get a little bit of privacy — the wooden walls are came up past my shoulders, when I was seated — but the three of us were able to have a conversation without shouting at each other, which is always nice.

the-publican-1The Publican is similar to Avec in one more way: the menu encourages sharing.  Our server informed us that three small plates and two larger ones would be more than enough for our little group, so we had a caucus and decided on our choices.  Since we said we were okay with our selections arriving as soon as they were ready, our dinner started with frites ($5.00).

If it were up to me, all meals would begin with frites, so I was thrilled to see them blooming out of a paper cone like a golden bouquet.  I wasn’t disappointed by the fries — they were so warm they all but melted, and the garlicky mayonnaise we requested went fantastically with the crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside frites.  Lucky for Lara and Keith, a member of staff placed the cone on the opposite end of our gated table from where I was seated.  Otherwise, it would have been very likely that I wouldn’t have shared a single stick.

the-publican-2The second plate we received over our barn door was pork belly atop a pool of black-eyed peas and pickled shallots ($16.00).  Lara had never had pork belly before; once we learned this, Keith and I both insisted upon ordering it (though, to be fair, chances are I probably would’ve demanded the belly regardless).  As I watched Lara have her first bite of belly, I realized how badly I wanted her to love it as much as I do.  In my mind, belly of pork is as close as you can get to heaven — while eating, anyway.  I love its tender texture, and the finger of fat that covers the meat is my absolute favorite part of each bite.  My mouth is watering now, many meals later.

the-publican-3Another plate that we three agrees on was the boudin blanc ($15.00), much to my absolute delight.  I love hot dogs and think of sausages as their chicer, equally lovable older sisters, so the thought of passing the boudin up was a devastating one.

Boudin blanc is white since the sausage is made without blood; this one was served atop a small pile of  apple and celeriac.  Orange-infused mustard had been drizzled over it all, resulting in something fantastic.  Each bite was a bit tangy and a somewhat nutty and, as with the frites, I did not want to share at all.  I did, albeit reluctantly.  I still regret it.

the-publican-4I’m just now starting to realize how pigcentric our meal was, especially now that the time has come to discuss the next dish: pork ribs with polenta and a helping of caraway-mint slaw ($20.00).  The ribs were sweet and lovely, and the polenta crisp, but what really got my attention was the minted slaw.  I had never known that I liked slaw until I had the Publican’s version; it had the perfect amount of mint essence.  Sometimes — well, more like oftentimes — I find mint to be one of the most overpowering of aromatic herbs, beating down into submission whatever other flavors might be present.  That was definitely not the case here.

The ribs, briefly, were sweet and meaty, and devoured almost instantaneously.

the-publican-5The three of us wanted to make sure we ordered some sort of vegetable-focused dish, particularly since  we knew we had one more porky plate coming our way.  Once I saw the  sunchoke sformato ($6.00) with pancetta and dill vinaigrette on the menu, I knew which vegetable I would be voting for.  I had tried sunchokes for the first time last spring in Maine and had loved their crunchy sweetness; I wanted to taste that flavor again.  Not only wasn’t I disappointed with the sunchokes, but a small piece of me totally fell in love with the sformato.  Creamy and milky, it added a lush sort of luxury to the earthy vegetables.

the-publican-6Our last plate, a potée, was another meatastic dish, though it didn’t revolve completely around the axis of pork, as it featured a veal cut.  The Publican’s potée was made out of a minced-meat crépinette, a sizable piece of pork tenderloin and a veal breast ($25.00); the three cuts had been simmered with vegetables, and was similar in feeling to a pot-au-feu.  I think of both dishes as comforting, cold-weather food, the sort that is meant to heat you from the inside out — which ultimately, for me, made the potée perfect Chicago food.  No frosty breeze would be able to blow me over, not with this warming my belly.  In fact, when we left the Publican, the temperature had dropped even further, something that made a perverse sort of sense as we were amongst the last of the patrons to gather our coats and slip reluctantly out into the cold.  The truth of the matter is this: I had forgotten about the chilly air outside, and the iced-over puddles lacing the street.  All that was on my mind that night was the food, the company and the conversation, and how the combination of it all filled me with a toasty glow that stood up to an arctic Chicago evening.

The Publican
845 West Fulton Market
Chicago, Illinois 60607
312.733.9555
thepublicanrestaurant.com

Publican on Urbanspoon

The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food by Judith Jones.

the-tenth-museI can’t think of the last time I read a memoir that was as aptly named as Judith Jones’s The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food.  I don’t necessarily mean the “muse” part; Ms. Jones’s “life in food” is so apropos, as each of the book’s three hundred pages devotes practically every single word to food, eating, cooking and cuisine.  Not only that, but also consider this: basically each of Ms. Jones’s days has somehow involved the analysis of food.

As an expat in post-World War II Paris, Ms. Jones first learned about cooking and food — well-seasoned, lovingly-prepared food.  In addition to waking up her culinary senses, Ms. Jones describes her life traipsing around the French capital, details of which sound positively ahead of their time.  Who else can you think of that ran an illicit supper club in a princess’s apartment?  Not many names come to mind, if any at all.

Eventually, Ms. Jones becomes an editor for Knopf; while she goes on to work with and befriend such people as Anne Tyler, Marcella Hazan and John Updike, it is her relationship with Julia Child that is by far the most interesting.  As the woman who brought Mastering the Art of French Cooking to America, Ms. Jones also brought us Julia Child herself.

Of course, there’s more to both the memoir and memoirist than Julia Child and la belle France; Ms. Jones tells tales of friendship with Jeffrey Steingarten, of cooking with Lidia Bastianich and traveling with her husband.  In some ways. Ms. Jones’s writing reminds me of M.F.K. Fisher; both describe their prim culinary upbringing and their food-related travels, and both women came-of-age in Paris — something I’m obscenely jealous of.  And, as in the case of Ms. Fisher, I can’t bring myself to call Ms. Jones anything other than that — this is a grand dame of cooking and writing here.  She deserves respect, I think.  Maybe I’m uncharacteristically old-fashioned in this way, but there you go.

Dinner at Alinea.

alineaThe trickiest part about eating at Alinea is finding your table at Alinea.  I had saved the restaurant’s street address and telephone number to my phone; nevertheless, we would have walked right past it had Keith not spotted the matte gray building at 1723.  (Silly me, I had been in search of some sort of signage or similar.  Clearly my mind was in the wrong place.)  Still, just because we had located Alinea didn’t mean we could just enter the restaurant, oh no.  We opened the charcoal-colored doors, expecting to step into the foyer; instead, we found ourselves in a long white lacquered hallway glowing with purple light.  Only when we walked in a bit did a hidden panel in one of the walls slide open, revealing the foyer I had been looking for.

After our coats were taken, Keith and I were shown to our table in the front dining room.  To say it was intimate would be an incredible understatement; there are three dining rooms in the restaurant, and each holds only five tables.  As we took our seats, I noticed something else.

“There’s no music,” I whispered across the table.

alinea-menu2Without music, it was excruciatingly difficult not to eavesdrop on our neighbors…  which of course implies they could just as easily eavesdropped on us.  It also meant that we could hear the restaurant’s waitstaff explain each of the meal’s various courses before it was our turn, and because I chose to sit with my back to the room, Keith actually saw each course.  See, Alinea isn’t like other restaurants in more than one regard.  Sure, its cuisine is on the more nontraditional side, but unlike other establishments that offer à la carte in addition to a tasting menu, Alinea’s diners only have the tasting option.  Actually, that’s a bit of a lie— it’s more accurate to say that Alinea diners have two tasting menu options: the twelve-course for $145.00, and the “grand tour” for $225.00.  Keith and I went with the grand tour.  We don’t fool around.

You know who else doesn’t fool around?  Alinea. At Keith’s urging, I called ahead to ask about the restaurant’s picture-taking policy.

“We ask that photographers restrain from using a flash, so as not to disturb the other diners,” said the very polite woman who answered the phone, after thanking me for asking what she called a “considerate question.”

I’m mostly a rule-follower, so I left the flash off.  I’m only going to include a few photos; not all of them came out as well as I’d hoped.  Oh well.  I’m also going to break it down by course, how it was presented to us, with the best pictures of the bunch.

• • •

alinea-1HOT POTATO | cold potato, black truffle, butter
Introduced to us as our amuse, this was a cold potato soup; suspended over it was a sphere of hot potato and a shaving of black truffle.  What was interesting, flavorwise, was the cold soup and hot globe — I wrongly assumed the soup would be hot and the ball cold, and that twist was a fun surprise.

In case you were wondering, and I know you were, the soup was served in a shallow palm-sized bowl made of speckled wax.  The hot potato and other ingredients had been impaled with a pin which had been poked through the wax; together they were suspended over the broth.

alinea-2YUBA | shrimp, miso, togarashi
Next came the only dish of the night that was composed of an “edible utensil.”  In this case it was a rolled up piece of yuba, or beancurd, around which the chefs had somehow wound a prawn.  The yuba and shrimp were arranged like a quill in its inkpot, but instead of ink we had a mayonnaise dip spiced with togarashi, a Japanese chili pepper mix.  Now, even though I’m a self-professed heat baby, I can honestly say that I enjoyed this immensely.  It helped that it was all flavored with sweet orange, but still — good stuff, this.

CAULIFLOWER | five coatings, three gels, cider
“A lot of people don’t like cauliflower,” one of our many servers said as he laid our bowls in front of us, explaining that the next dish had been devised as a way to make the vegetable more user-friendly.  I happen to adore cauliflower, but I think that just let me appreciate our third course even more, as I can’t even imagine anyone feeling otherwise. This was comprised of five cubes of cauliflower purée, each of which had been encrusted with flavors like peanut and ginger; three miniature custard cubes; and a thin sheaf of dried cauliflower.  An apple broth was poured into our bowls tableside.  This was probably the most elegant bowl of comfort food I have ever consumed.  People who don’t like cauliflower don’t know what they’re missing.

PEAR | olive oil, black pepper, eucalyptus
This was the first to incorporate into the meal what would eventually become a theme of sorts — air.  I know what you’re thinking (“Huh?”) so let me try to explain: Chef Grant Achatz is interested in dining with all senses, and so we were sometimes given dishes that required us to inhale as we ate, and to be aware of aromas. Our fourth course was a perfect example of this.  Placed before us were covered bowls; when the lids were removed, we breathed in the strong scent of eucalyptus wafting off of the leaves garnishing our china.  Then we slid the globe of pear suspended in eucalyptus gelatin off of the spoon and onto our tongues.  I happen to love pears, so I really appreciated them in this form, which included a salty bite at the end.  Keith, on the other hand, is a member of the Anti-Pear Party, so he didn’t fare as well as me… though some of that might be because he mistakenly ate one of the eucalyptus leaves.  When I asked him what he was doing, Keith looked at me in abject shock… especially when he learned that the plant is poisonous to humans.

“It tasted like a cough drop,” he said, reaching for his wine glass.

Along with being our first aerated dish, this course also happened to be the first of three recipes that  Carol Blymire over at Alinea at Home has tackled, well, at home, with the help of the Alinea Cookbook and Mr. Achatz himself (he sent her a care package of compounds and hydrocolloids). You can read about Carol’s case of mistaken eucalyptus identity here, as well as see a photo of her end result.

alinea-51WILD STRIPED BASS | saffron, shellfish, parsnip
What’s interesting about this — and I can’t tell how clearly you can see it in this picture here — is that while there’s obviously a great deal happening on this plate, most of it was hidden by the yellow sheet.  That yellow sheet, by the way, was made of chamomile concealed pureéd parsnips and a variety of shellfish.  I assumed the chamomile would taste apple-y and delicate like the tea or the herb itself but what I didn’t foresee the gentle gingeresque flavor underneath, which provided a nice zingy counterbalance to its sweetness.

alinea-6YOLK | soy, wasabi, yuzu
I really like the presentation of this dish.  I’ve got an affinity for things that are simple as well as things that are small, and this could have been dwarfed by a postage stamp… if postage stamps were cubed.  I also appreciate that while this little box of a course was so very tiny, it was still given as much consideration as its larger counterparts and was literally elevated on a miniature stand. And don’t be fooled by its bittiness — there was a wallop of flavor packed in this unassuming little package, which makes sense considering it’s an egg yolk suspended in a soy gelée that had been imbued with wasabi.  It was all topped with a teensy basil leaf and shaving of yuzu.  It was a ton of fun, but I’ve got to say that for some reason, it made me think — in the best possible way — of Vienna Sausages (which my parents’ dog loves, something I’m sure you wanted to know).

alinea-7CHICKEN | sesame, morel, Indian flavors
If when you look at this photograph you think of meat on a kebab stick, then you and Alinea are on the same page.  Inspired by Indian skewers, this dish featured bite-sized nibbles of chicken bits, each playing host to a series of different seasonings.  Keith thought one morsel tasted of chai, incredibly enough.

That cloud at the end, by the way, is a turmeric and saffron foam.  Of course.

BACON | butterscotch, apple, thyme
Here’s another course that Carol cooked at home.  You can see it in the picture below; it’s what looks like is hanging from an extremely scaled down Cirque du Soleil swing.  The bacon was indescribably sweet, but in the most enjoyable way.  There was nothing cloying here — just sweet, salty, candied bacon.  Fascinatingly, other diners not partaking in the grand tour received this and the next two courses as desserts, something that never would have occurred to me.

alinea-8-101SWEET POTATO | bourbon, brown sugar, smoldering cinnamon
This marked our second air-related course.  It was a foot-long cinnamon stick; one end had been set ablaze, releasing a sweet-scented charred aroma, while the other had somehow scooped up deep-fried liquefied sweet potato.  Even I, as someone who does not stand in the corner of the sweet potato, could have happily eaten more of these drumsticks, which reminded me of boardwalk fried dough.  As Keith said to me from across the table, it tasted “like a carnival.”

MUSTARD | passion fruit, allspice, soy
The teensy butter-colored column in the corner of this photo is actually a layered disc of sweet and zesty sorbet.  I don’t know if you can make it out in the picture or not, but it started to melt in the short amount of time it took me to bring my camera out from under my napkin.  Our server had to admonish me to eat up before it turned into a multi-hued puddle.

FOIE GRAS | turnip, shiso, sudachi
Immediately before a member from Alinea’s battalion of servers approached with our portions of this next dish cupped in his two hands, another attendant placed eyeglass lenses on the table in front of Keith and me.  Seriously, it was like we were at Pearle Vision, picking out new glasses.  We were then given bowls that were the texture, shape and size of an overlarge egg — which meant we had to hold the containers in our hands while eating.  Only when we were finished would we be able to put them down on the lenses, so as to not scratch the table’s glossy surface.  Balanced on the bowl’s lip was a fork, the tines of which fit precisely into little slots notched into the bowl, and on that fork was a pristine wedge of foie.  After depositing it onto my tongue, I then tilted the bowl’s contents — a turnip soup laced with citrus — into my mouth.

alinea-12LOBSTER | popcorn, butter, curry
“This next course,” a server said to us, “is about butter, and the things that complement it.”

But isn’t that everything? I hadn’t realized I had said this aloud until she laughed, even though I wasn’t being intentionally flippant.  With what exactly does butter not pair well? Still, my pondering wasn’t going to distract me from my butter-poached lobster, toast, or mango, let alone the buttered-popcorn sauce that glided over it all.  And yes, you read that correctly.  Buttered-popcorn sauce.  It was stunning, in every possible definition of the word.

PORK BELLY | iceberg, cucumber, Thai distillation
Before he allowed us to eat our next course, one of our servers handed us each a spoonful of gelée.

“Taste this first,” he said, “and tell me what you think it is.”

I absolutely hate these sorts of games, when I’m playing them.  The intense amount of pressure to get it right stresses me out; still, I tasted and guessed, “Cucumber?” — only to be told it was instead the “essence of Thai flavors.”  Truly, does anyone get that one right?

When we were finally able to turn our attention to our dishes, we found a belly of pork laced with lemongrass, ginger and peanut — all very classic Thai ingredients.  What was most intriguing was a bright dot  speckling the edge of the plate — the color of hot pepper, it had none of its numbing heat.  In fact, I overheard a server telling another diner that a method had been devised to capture the pepper’s essence without any of the burn, leaving behind a complex, savory drop.

BLACK TRUFFLE | explosion, romaine, parmesan
Like the yuzu/wasabi egg yolk before it, this was more of a “taste” than a dish — though I’ve got to say the taste was anything but small.  I loved this one, and not only for its flavor.  I loved the drama of it, particularly when a server described it to us: “Here we have black truffle explosion.”  I mean, I’m basically the kind of girl who even though she knows the entire Shu Uemura product line by heart and enjoys cute animals, also likes zombie literature and action flicks.  Of course I’m going to be into something called “black truffle explosion.”  The fact that it was superb didn’t hurt either.  Visually it looked like a single tortellini underneath a shaving of black truffle, except inside was a liquefied distillation of the fungi that, well, exploded into your mouth the moment you took a bite.

I should probably mention that the tortellini is best put in your mouth whole.  Otherwise you end up with a black truffle explosion… down your front.

alinea-15WAGYU BEEF | powdered A1, potato, chips
I was a little hesitant when I heard this course included A1, as its something I’ve never really liked.  Of course, I should have known better.  Apparently the chef learned what the sauce’s ingredients were, turned each one into a powder and slid a sampling of it into little cellophane packets.  We were instructed to spill its contents into the sprinkling of salt and pepper on our plates before dragging pieces of Wagyu through it all.  Suffice it to say I’m now an A1 convert — but only if the A1 comes from the Alinea kitchen.

Another thing about this one: it was our third course to include air.  At the beginning of our meal, a wobbly sort of vase was placed on our table; a server explained that the Alinea philosophy was that nothing useless would rest on the tabletop.

“Just consider this object,” she said, giving it a spin.  “Play with it, think about it… it will come into play later on.”

As time passed, Keith and I both noticed frost forming on the bottle of the vase (here’s a one that’s similar, to give a better sense of it).  Later, when it was time for this course, the same server poured something into the vase… which rapidly began to release a fog that spilled over our table and smelled vaguely of chive.

GRAPE SODA | one bite
The first of our dessert courses started with more powder.  This time it was “served” in an edible packet that was maybe a one-inch square, and tasted intensely of grape soda, right down to the fizz.  In all truthfulness, I’ve never liked grape soda (or grape jelly, or grape juice, or grape anything that wasn’t just a plain old grape) but this was really interesting and fun.

YOGURT | pomegranate, cassia
We were warned that the globe floating in this shot glass was bigger than it appeared, and so we should take the entire bubble in one bite.  Before I say anything else, allow me this: I felt like a blowfish with this in my mouth.

Conceptually, this yogurt sphere is very similar to the liquid olive made by Fabio in the fifth season of Top Chef.  There was a thin membrane around the yogurt, allowing the dollop to retain its shape in the shot glass, where it lay in a shallow pool of pomegranate.  The yogurt was released only when I applied pressure with my tongue.

alinea-16-18BUBBLE GUM | long pepper, hibiscus, crème fraîche
This just might have been Keith’s favorite of all of the courses we had that night.  We were given glass straws and told to suck on them… without being informed as to what was inside.  I’m not a squeamish eater, so it doesn’t bother me, not knowing exactly what it is I’m about to consume, but in this instance I was a bit peeved — especially since we were clued in after we were finished.  When I learned what was in the straw, I wanted seconds; I felt as though I missed the chance to really think about precisely what I was chewing…  which were tapioca pearls cooked in Bubble-Yum stock.  See what I mean?  How miraculous is that?!  And how irritating to be told afterwards.  I understood (and understand) the desire to add mystery, but yet I feel it would be possible to tell diners halfway into the straw so that they might contemplate the completely wonderful lunacy that is Bubble-Yum stock.

TRANSPARENCY | of raspberry, yogurt
Again, I’m not sure how clear it is in the picture; above the bubble gum straw is what looks like a silver disc holding a magenta flake.  That flake was a thin, crisp and crystalline sheet that tasted of a perfectly tart raspberry.  Embarrassingly, our server accidentally knocked mine over, and while I tried to tell her it was okay, she insisted on bringing me a new one.  For the record, when a slender raspberry pane hits a hard surface like a tabletop, it shatters.

alinea-19RHUBARB | goat milk, onion, lavender air
This marked our final airy dish.

Oversize square pillows were laid before us; we didn’t even have a chance to wonder what they might be doing there when our servers set our plates directly on top of them.  The dishes’ weight caused them to slowly sink into the pillows, which had been inflated with lavender-scented air.  It wasn’t just the compression of the plates that released almost-invisible wisps of mist into the space between us; it was also the force of our forks, as we scooped up a cloud of cotton candy and cheesecake.

CHOCOLATE | prune, olive, pine
I don’t want to admit this, I really don’t.  Here I go anyway: I did not like this dish.  I feel badly about it, but when you consider that I only have issues with one out of more than twenty, that’s a very respectable ratio.  (The grape soda doesn’t count; I said it was fun and interesting.)  Here, the team in the kitchen prepared a gauzy sheet of chocolate that was quite similar to the chamomile sheet: thin, creamy and hiding something.  The “something” here was prune, which I found too sweet.  It was all meant to be mixed with a liquid white chocolate before being eaten, and while it did taste less cloying with the addition of the white chocolate, I still found this to be a bit on the disappointing side.  I still finished it though.

DRY CARAMEL | salt
Our final course also happens to be the last of those that Carol replicated at home (at least to this date, anyway).  It’s funny — when I first read Carol’s post in November, I remember emailing the link to Keith and my friend Joann, and writing how simple it sounded.  “We can do this,” I typed, adding several exclamation points.  You know what, though?  I’m glad we never did, since it would have taken away the special-ness of having it for the first time in Alinea’s dining room.  Imagine: would it have been passé, “sipping” powdered caramel from a small-scale version of a glass, and feeling it turn to liquid from the heat of our own mouths?  How terrible that would have been.

• • •

Then, our meal was over.  We lingered over dessert wine and coffee, we chatted, a taxi was called.  It was late, and we had been eating for more than three hours.  What was left to do aside from pay the bill, shrug into our coats and step out into the cold?

Dining at Alinea isn’t mind-altering, nor is it life-changing.  Neither is it cheap; once wine was added onto our check and when we calculated gratuity…  Well, let’s just say it cost more than our airfare.  What Alinea is, on the other hand, is an exercise in highly refined, exceptionally stylized play.  There’s a sense of humor here.  Don’t misunderstand — there’s an intense level of seriousness too, but it’s clear that everyone is having fun.

A few more things to consider:

  • At the end of dinner, patrons are given print-outs of the evening’s menu like the one at the top of this post.  Each course is listed, along with a concise-yet-cryptic description and a dot.  The dots’ sizes may seem random, but they’re not.  The smaller the dot, the smaller the course.  The larger the dot, the more substantial.  In our meal, the Wagyu was the largest portion, and the grape soda was the smallest.
  • Alinea offers a wine pairing to both the tasting menu and the tour; the tour’s total quantity of wine is equivalent to three glass-worths.  If you don’t want to go all out with the pairing but still would like a bit of wine, the restaurant’s beverages are priced by the ounce, and the sommelier can suggest as many — or as few — varietals as you request.  What he might not do, even with a significant amount of prompting, is tell you the cost of those beverages.  Which is how Keith ended up drinking a dessert wine valued at $20.00 an ounce.  It was delicious though.
  • Obviously, dining at Alinea is a singular experience, but something else that the restaurant does to set itself apart is provide a bread service — meaning all of the larger savory courses came with an accompanying bread that had been baked specifically to pair with that dish.  For example, we had a fenugreek-thyme roll alongside the cauliflower-apple soup, and a pink peppercorn-and-picholine brioche with the chamomile and shellfish.  (One bread in particular had been flavored with coffee seed and saffron, and a single bite of it utterly transported me back to when I was a child, to a time when we frequently visited my grandmother in the Philippines.  This piece of bread tasted exactly like pandesal, Filipino bread, and I wanted to ask for a shipment to take home.)  We also had two different butters: goat’s milk, and cow’s milk sprinkled with black lava salt.
  • Regardless of whether which menu you would like to try, when you call to make a reservation you will be asked the standard sorts of questions you normally would expect when booking a “tasting” meal: food allergies, dietary restrictions, etc.  Keith and I said no to each inquiry, but the next day, over another typical Chicago meal, we wondered, What would a vegetarian eat at Alinea?  Clearly the pork belly would be out, as would the Wagyu, the foie, the bacon, the chamomile, the lobster, the chicken, perhaps even the yolk.  Curious, I phoned the restaurant and asked.  “We welcome vegetarians at Alinea,” responded the friendly voice on the other end of the line.
  • Alinea is open for dinner service only, five days a week: Wednesday through Sunday.  Even in these uncertain times, the restaurant was booked solid for more than one month out.

Alinea
1723 North Halsted Street
Chicago, Illinois 60614
312.867.0110
alinea-restaurant.com

Alinea on Urbanspoon

Update:  Since I wrote this post, Carol Blymire has also prepared “SWEET POTATO | bourbon, brown sugar, smoldering cinnamon”at home, which you can read about here.

Food + Drink: A Mix CD.

Lately all I’ve been wanting to do is make mix CDs.  I’ve been working on an epic one lately that’s meant to be encouraging/inspirational for writing; it includes such songs as “The Slow Descent into Alcoholism” by The New Pornographers and “I See A Darkness” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy.  It’s really been helping.

Anyway, I told my friend Stephanie about my fixation and she was so intrigued by my need for an underlying thematic element that I immediately volunteered to make her a mix.  Since, like me, Stephanie’s constantly obsessing about food, it only seemed fitting that I put together a food-centric playlist.

  1. Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog” by Johnny Cash
  2. “My Sugar So Sweet” by Nick Drake
  3. The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1” by Neutral Milk Hotel
  4. “Meat” by Noise Addict
  5. Oyster” by Jawbreaker
  6. “Pork + Beans” by Bettie Serveert
  7. Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young
  8. Gimmie Some Salt” by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
  9. Just Like Honey” by The Jesus + Mary Chain
  10. You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” by Spoon
  11. Apple Scruffs” by George Harrison
  12. For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea” by Belle + Sebastian
  13. (Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister” by The Stone Roses
  14. Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones
  15. Bird Stealing Bread” by Iron + Wine
  16. Lips Like Sugar” by Echo + the Bunnymen
  17. Apple Bed” by Sparklehorse
  18. Fortune Cookie” by Pizzicato Five
  19. Coffee + TV” by Blur

I’ve got to say, it came out really great.  Drop me a line in the comments if you want a copy and we’ll set it up.