Dinner at Russell House Tavern.

My cousin Niki’s in town from the Philippines for a month, and since she’s a cook this means we’ll likely be eating out a lot while she’s here.  Last night we met up at Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square, and let me tell you that you should stop reading right now and get yourself over there.

It’s busy and loud at the restaurant, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying your food — especially if you get the crispy soft-poached egg ($7.00) off of the small plates menu.  Don’t pay any attention to the spare, boring-sounding description (“Pecorino aïoli, toasted brioche, house pancetta”).  Honestly, those words do nothing for this dish.  Maybe it should instead say something like “absolutely amazing, will make you want to order thirds, trust me.”

I’m really not being ridiculous here.  The sous-chef is a friend of Niki’s, and after introductions and hellos, we pummeled him with questions about this dish.  Apparently the egg is poached at a precise temperature — I think he said 140° — for something like forty-five minutes before it is breaded and deep-fried.  (Yes, you read that correctly.  Breaded and deep-fried.)  The egg is then placed on a small mound of greens and encircled with a creamy ring of aïoli that just about knocked me out of my chair.  Though the restaurant has only been open for barely over a month, the egg is already considered to be its signature dish.

After such a start, I guess it would be natural to have doubts as to whether other menu items could possibly stand next to that fantastic egg but I’m here to assure you that you have nothing to worry about.  I made a meal of small plates and appetizers — some of which I grudgingly shared — but the very reasonably-priced dinner menu has options that include pizzas, sandwiches and steak frites.  It’s an American gastropub after all, and though I can’t speak for its British predecessors, I don’t think they’d have any objection to Russell House sharing the category.

In addition to the egg (oh, that egg), we ordered the spinach gratin ($9.00) and charcuterie board ($10.00) to share.  I never have anything negative to say about charcuterie, and I dare anyone to try to do that regarding the chicken liver pâté, the smoky pork rillettes and the anise-flavored terrine that I tried to keep for myself.  The gratin was nothing to complain about either; its blue cheese base went so well with the sesame-zahtar flatbreads we spooned the spinach onto.

The one dish I didn’t share was the steak tartare ($10.00), which is probably because I’m just a greedy person at my core.  What I really liked about the tartare was, aside from its tenderness and delicate flavor, that the beef was chopped rather than ground.  Otherwise, I feel as though I’m eating a raw hamburger.

One last thing and then I’ll let you go: make sure to have a safe way to get home because when you see the beer/wine/cocktail list you are going to want to try one of everything.  I don’t advise that, but I do suggest you get the Battle of Trafalgar (which is worth its price of $9.00 and more).  It’s dangerously good, and should be since it’s made with Pimm’s, St. Germain and honey.  If you’re not a mixed drink kind of person, the beer selection will probably make you happy.  I know I was pleased to see Goose Island Matilda, my favorite beer from my trip to Chicago, on the roster.

I can’t stress enough how much I think Russell House Tavern is affordably-priced.  The portions, even on the small plates, are generous (though I’ve got to say that no one at my table ordered an entrée, so I can’t truthfully comment on that).  Gigantic salads passed us, we couldn’t finish the gratin, Keith took half a pizza home.   I truly think that the menu is comparable in value-for-money to Garden at the Cellar, which is one of my favorite places to eat in the area, and if Russell House proves to be consistent both will be competing for a place in my heart.  Or stomach.  Whichever.

So what are you waiting for?  Go already.

Russell House Tavern
14 JFK Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

Russell House Tavern on Urbanspoon

Dinner at (the new) Ten Tables.

I’d been wanting to check out the new Ten Tables in Cambridge for a while.  I had visited the original Jamaica Plain restaurant at the end of the summer; the memory of that meal had stayed with me over the fall and winter, so when Keith suggested trying the recently-opened Harvard Square spot for dinner I immediately made a reservation.

Ten Tables, 1I started with the spring sorrel velouté with bacon, crème fraîche and a sprinkling of chives.  I chose the dish because I specifically wanted to experience the soup’s texture; a traditional velouté is one of the five “mother sauces” in French cuisine, and its name comes from the word for “velvety” — the perfect adjective to describe each spoonful’s mouthfeel.  Honestly, I think I have a pretty decent vocabulary, and still I can’t come up with a better word.  Flavor-wise, the smoky bacon and sweet, tangy sorrel were a fantastic combination, and the rich, slightly sour crème fraîche added even more lusciousness to every slurp.

Ten Tables, 2The follow-up to my starter was an adobo-rubbed bavette steak, frites and a ramp-infused aïoli.  When asked, I had requested that the meat be brought to medium-rare, which it was; in retrospect, I should have said something like, “Whatever the chef thinks is best.”   Don’t get me wrong — my steak was perfectly cooked, but the cut did not lend well for medium-rare.  Each bite was a challenge to chew, and its squishy texture made it difficult to cut… which was all too bad because it tasted wonderful.  We all know I’m a heat-baby, but the spice rub here balanced intensity and elegance exactly like The Tightrope Walker (which I saw in Chicago earlier this year).

Ten Tables, 3As soon as I spotted the chocolate terrine with sea salt and Thai basil ice cream on the menu, I knew I had to have it.  The terrine’s texture and taste were both reminiscent of an ultra-dense mousse — which made me incredibly happy, as chocolate mousse just might be my all-time favorite dessert.  Chewing was completely unnecessary, as each concentrated, chocolatey mouthful slowly melted on my tongue.

The ice cream was an utter surprise, oozing a refreshing licorice fragrance.  Normally I back away from all things anise, but this cold globe was the exception to the rule.  This I want to eat directly from the carton, in front of the open freezer, at three o’clock in the morning.  It was that good.

You might have noticed that I didn’t mark each course’s cost with its description; that’s because Ten Tables Cambridge runs a special on Sunday nights, the best evenings to stop by.  For $38.00, you can pick an appetizer, an entrée and a dessert from the menu.  Not a bad deal at all, particulary for food of this caliber.  After all, the restaurant is located in the basement space recently vacated by the old Craigie Street Bistro (now Craigie on Main on the fringes of Central Square), giving it some pretty big culinary shoes to fill, something I think it does excellently.

Ten Tables
5 Craigie Circle
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

Ten Tables on Urbanspoon

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

Publican on Urbanspoon

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.

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.

1723 North Halsted Street
Chicago, Illinois 60614

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.

Lunch at Blackbird.

Friday afternoon found Keith and me in almost the same place as the night before, but instead of being at 615 West Randolph, we were at 619.  And  instead of sitting inside Avec‘s slick wood-paneled walls, we sat by Blackbird‘s sleek floor-to-ceiling glass window overlooking the street.

Blackbird is owned and operated by the same team behind Avec, but the parallels between the two restaurants mainly end there.  Both spots share an attention to detail, but it’s clear even from the sidewalk that Blackbird is Avec’s more sophisticated older sister.  While Avec is all edgy hard angles, Blackbird’s interior could only be described as, well, sexy.  It’s almost as if each surface craves human contact, particularly the soft gray banquettes.

Sexy or not, lunch is definitely the more economical way to experience Blackbird, where the dinner entrées average out at $32.50; the restaurant offers two different prix fixe menus alongside its à la carte choices.  You can select three courses from a set menu for $22.00, or spend $15.00 on a sandwich and a salad; for an additional five dollars, you can even get a glass of Blackbird’s featured wine.

blackbird-1Regardless of the special lunch deals, I ordered off of the regular lunch menu, mostly because one of the appetizers sounded too good to pass up: duck tartare with dried strawberries, A1 and tater tots ($14.00).

First of all, isn’t this the prettiest plate?  Second, a clarification: the A1 smears each encased dollops of strawberry preserves, and  were dotted with crumbled up bits of dehydrated strawberries.  It was not mixed with the tartare, which was probably the most surprising thing I’d eaten in a long time.  The first bite I took brought Asian flavors to mind — mostly sesame, specifically — but after that all I could think about was its marvelous texture and delicate taste.  In fact, I soon realized that I was sliding smaller and smaller amounts onto my fork, to make the tartare last that much longer.  When my plate was scraped clean, I asked for more detail on the tartare, and learned this: the following parts of the duck are roasted at a low temperature for four hours, then bound together with a housemade mayonnaise — breast, skin, and heart.  Now, eating heart didn’t and doesn’t bother me at all, but I did say to Keith that I found it interesting that this particular ingredient hadn’t been listed on the menu.  Should it have been?  Or is Keith right in saying that the sort of person who doesn’t mind eating a duck tartare probably wouldn’t mind eating heart?

But back to my dish…

I should take a second to say that the tater tots were fantastic.  Not too long ago, Keith and I ate at Cambridge’s Garden at the Cellar with our friend Melissa; the three of us discussed the restaurant’s tater tots.  They’re like deep-friend balls of mashed potatoes, I had said, to which Keith had replied, Isn’t that what all tater tots are? Melissa and I tried to explain that sometimes tater tots are made of shredded potato, which is exactly how Blackbird makes theirs.  Crunchily, saltily, perfectly so.

blackbird-2For my main, I chose the croque-madame, a grilled ham and Fontina sandwich topped with a fried egg and served alongside a substantial pile of pommes frites ($11.00).  I’m always so torn as to what to do with the egg on a croque-madame; I don’t know if it’s “proper” to break the yolk and let it soak messily into the toast, but that’s how I like it.  While the sandwich itself was very nice indeed, I almost felt sorry for it, as it had to follow as incredible an opening number as the tartare.  Personally I’m very familiar with having to play second fiddle, so in that regard I’m sympathetic to the  croque-madame, charming as she is, but at the same time I don’t know if anything on the menu could compare to my starter, I really don’t.

There’s a thoroughness at Blackbird that’s lovely to behold; Keith had a gorgeous little baby spinach salad with morels and white asparagus ($12.00) that was so beautifully composed that I wish I had a photograph of it to share with you.  Since I haven’t, I’ll just hope that those of you who can do drop by Blackbird.  Take advantage of the lunch menu, and pretend I’m there with you, praising each plate set in front of us.

619 West Randolph Street
Chicago, Illinois 60661

Blackbird on Urbanspoon

A Late Dinner at Avec.

Located in the West Loop, Avec is a popular spot, one that doesn’t take reservations.  For that reason, we thought dropping in later in the night would improve our chances for getting a table for Keith, his friend Dave and myself; we only had to wait about fifteen minutes.

Avec’s menu promotes family-style eating; rather than the traditional appetizer and entrée offerings, the menu is divided into small and large plates.  Two small plates, we were told, equal the size of a large, so we decided on two of each size.

avec-1We started with chorizo-stuffed medjool dates alongside smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce ($9.00); the small earthenware dish it was served in might have been from a tagine, which is fitting as both date and dish are North African.  Its sauce was smoky and sweet, thanks to the roasted peppers; in the end it delivered a sizable hot kick — well, it felt like that to me, spicy sissy that I admittedly am.

Our second small plate was a frisée salad with pan-fried frogs’ legs, prosciutto and fried fennel, all of which were drizzled with a paprika aiöli ($11.00).  I chose this not only because I love frisée, but also because I’ve never had frogs’ legs before, believe it or not.  The legs had been fried to a nice crispiness, and the meat had a subtle fishy flavor that I found really appealing.  Also, it did not taste like chicken.  If anything, there was a chicken-like texture to the meat, but if anything the legs reminded me more of fish than of anything else.  As a whole, the salad was incredibly fresh and light — a nice way to start a meal.

avec-2Though I enjoyed the small plates, the two large plates  we ordered were even more of a hit for me.   First up was bucatini pasta with housemade Italian sausage, neck sauce, tomato, fresh herbs and Reggiano cheese ($16.00).  Even if the rich chunks of meat hadn’t been as appetizing as they were, my favorite part of this still would have been the nutty, chewy noodles.  I could have eaten a plate of these alone; by “alone” I mean both “without any accompaniments,” and “without sharing.”  Dave and Keith are lucky that my sense of propriety prevailed, as I could have easily grabbed the bowl to my chest and charged for the door.

avec-3We followed up the pasta with a flatbread scattered with yet another sausage; this one was a housemade merguez sausage, and its partners on the pizza were white anchovies, feta, roasted garlic purée, chili flakes and fried orange chips ($15.00).  I loved the combination of the citrusy orange, the hot chili and the sweet garlic — it was an exciting mixture of flavors.  The sausage here had a complexity to it as well, and its denseness gave the lighter elements of the flatbread a nice weight.

Now, while I relished my meal, I’ve got to say the following about Avec: if you don’t like people, don’t eat here.  In a way, the restaurant’s layout is like its menu: it is set up to encourage communal dining.  Most patrons are seated at long wooden tables, either on stools or benches; each table seats about eight, so if your party is on the smaller side, chances are you’ll be sharing the table with two or more groups.   We ended up sitting at a very popular table…  meaning we had to get up about three times during the course of our meal to let other diners in and out.  And while you won’t have to worry about anyone trying to eat off your plate, per se, the quarters can be close; Keith did comment at one point that he thought his neighbor would accidentally drink out of his water glass.  It didn’t happen, but it’s easy to see how it might.

615 West Randolph Street
Chicago, Illinois 60661

Avec on Urbanspoon

Lunch at Hot Doug’s.

Here’s the thing: I love hot dogs.

Here’s another thing: when I say “love,” I mean it in an epic, Shakespearean, star-crossed sort of way.  Ours is a legendary affair.

Considering my past liaisons with the hot dog, I quickly came to realize that it would be truly impossible for me to travel to Chicago and not partake in a dog or two.  (Or, in this case, three.)  But where to go?  The city is packed with hot dog and sausage emporiums, after all, and a Google search for “Chicago hot dog” brings up a handful of local joints peddling dogs.  In the end, the winner was Hot Doug’s, which in 2007 was the first Chicago restaurant to break the foie gras ban.  Could there be a more perfect match for me than a hot dog seller who loves foie?

And so, less than two hours after we landed in the city, Keith and I stood in front of the Hot Doug’s menu, mulling over our options.  Hot Doug’s offers about ten “regular” dogs, meaning they’re always available (though their names oftentimes change), and about six specials, which change daily.  During our visit, the specials’ global influences were certainly evident, ranging from Algerian merguez to teriyaki chicken to Alsatian sausage.

hot-dougs-dogsKeith and I had already agreed to share “The Dog” (Chicago-style with mustard, onions pickles, relish, and tomatoes; $1.75) and the Marty Allen thuringer (made with beef, pork and garlic; $3.25), along with a large sack of fries ($2.25).  The combination of our hunger and my hot dog love made us doubt two dogs for the pair of us would be enough, so we asked Doug himself to pick the third.  Should we have the smoked Portuguese linguiça with smoked paprika Dijonnaise and queso Iberico ($7.00), or the ribeye steak sausage with horseradish cream sauce and smoked Cheddar?

“I’m always partial to pork,” he said, so the linguiça it was.  And you know what?  I think it was my favorite of the trio.  The smokiness of both the linguiça and the paprika sauce was absolutely magnetic; even as Keith ate his half, my hand kept reaching for the dog.  When he wasn’t looking, I dragged a few fries across the sausage’s surface, picking up as much of the Dijonnaise as I could.

The Dog was actually my first brush with the Chicago version, and I have to say that it was without a doubt love at first bite.  The relish in particular was a surprising bit of loveliness, bright and sweet.  The Marty Allen was also fantastic — we got it with what the menu described as caramelized onions; sautéed would be more accurate, though they were delicious nevertheless.  The thuringer itself tasted like a traditional dog, but with a more intense, denser flavor.  Mouthwatering stuff, these dogs.

A few things to note, if you plan on stopping by Hot Doug’s:

  • Hot Doug’s is nowhere near an El stop.  There is, however, a bus stop located directly across the street at the intersection of Belmont and California.
  • Make sure you give yourself plenty of time at Hot Doug’s, and not just to savor the sausages.  I can all but guarantee that you will encounter a line; apparently in nicer weather, it wraps around the block.  I overheard an inside tip, though: call ahead to place an order for take-out, and you can skip the wait altogether.
  • Hot Doug’s offers fries cooked in duck fat, but only on Fridays and Saturdays.  If you’re coming in just for those, check your calendar first.  (I didn’t know this, and would have been far more bummed out than I was had I not eaten duck fat fries before.  They’re definitely special.)
  • Technically, Hot Doug’s is open Monday through Saturday from 10.30 to 4.00, though it’s best to phone in to confirm that the restaurant is in fact open.

Hot Doug’s
3324 North California Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60618

Hot Doug's on Urbanspoon