Posted by: chance47 | 02/27/2010

Every Last Bite…

As any midwesterner can attest, the very idea of leaving a scrap of food behind on your dinner plate is tantamount with mortal sin or, at the very least, puppy-kicking.  Eating quickly commonly goes in tandem with cleaning your plate as well.   I think when money can commonly become scarce and when both parents, or the single parent, work all the time, family meals become a chore.  Growing up, there are very few meals or dishes that stick with me or create some sort of sense memory.

Cheap and easy was commonly the way to go.  Hamburger Helper, Pizza Kits in boxes, trips to Ponderosa, stews in crock pots or soups from the freezer.  So more times than not, the goal was to eat the food quickly and get back to TV.   Clean the plate, rinse the dishes, brush your teeth and watch “Northern Exposure”.

The few dishes that still cause a great rising of warmth and satisfaction in me are the dishes that came out of those rare times when my mother had the time to cook.  She’s honestly a great cook, even if she doesn’t think so, but so rarely could devote the effort.  But I challenge anyone to give me a better mustard potato salad than hers.  I’d remember the mornings waking up to the smell of fried potatoes in the pan and would instantly begin salivating.  My aunt’s fried chicken recipe was to be rivaled and I am still trying to recreate it on my own.  Fried green tomatoes, cast iron corn bread.  These are the foods that made me realize what flavor was.

It was exciting upon moving to Chicago to see all of the endless food options I had.  Any country, any kind of cuisine and any kind of preparation.  Through my artistic endeavors I found myself drawn into a close circle of friends (see: Lauren, Erin, Dave, Laura, and Jamie) who made food and flavor a priority in their lives and I loved the synergy that the love of a good meal and the love of a good friend brought me (I also discovered the world of wine and booze…as in, “Hey…did you know that on top of the fact that this here whiskey concoction that’s getting you drunk as a skunk and making you ‘popular’, it also pairs nicely with that bone marrow you’re eating?”)  In Chicago, I was certainly cleaning my plate at every meal, but I was not eating quickly.  In Chicago, I had learned how to savor.

But with this bevy of gourmet options in Chicago came a price.   Literally.   And the more and more I ventured out the larger and larger the final tabs got.   The immediate feeling at looking at a bill and thinking, Sixty bucks…for a meal?  Sixty bucks?   Dear lordgoneuptothemountain, is like a kick in the gut.   To think that there was a time that I ate for two weeks on sixty bucks.   Conflict.

I learned, it’s not just the food I am paying for, it’s the experience.  That, to me, is priceless.   I see that bill ($60, $70, and sometimes $120) and I cringe inside (thinking of all the debt I could be paying off, starving children in Botswana, saving for a future and worst of all DEARLORDWHATMYMOTHERWOULDSAY).  But then I look up from my emptying wallet, see my friends, their full bellies, their smiles, and all that goes away.  Memories tend to fade, but I can honestly say, the ones tied with the tastiest bites stick around the longest.

Ever year, Lauren and I, make culinary New Years plans.   We pick a restaurant on our list that we have been salivating to go to but can’t imagine paying for.   Its a special night, so it should be a special meal.   Past entries have included the now closed Aigre Doux and Art Smith’s Table Fifty-Two.  This past New Year’s we aimed big.  Extremely big.  Bigger than big.

Finally after YEARS we were able to cross off our list of restaurants to try what we considered a perhaps unreachable dream.   We went to Alinea.

Alinea opened in 2005 to copious amounts of acclaim and over its few years has garnered multiple awards and mentions in tons of magazines.   The chef/owner Grant Achatz created a restaurant that deconstructs classic flavors and presents them in dazzling fashions that challenge the palate.  Some people call it molecular gastronomy.  I call it magic.

Lauren and I saved for months for this dinner.  Forty dollars apiece every single week would be neatly tucked away into an envelope and stashed securely in Lauren’s apartment.  Alinea is the kind of place where reservations must be made far in advance and all men must arrive in a suit jacket.   This was every variety of “foreign” that I could imagine.  At the beginning of our saving, I honestly told myself we would never actually get there.   That misfortune would intervene and cause one or both of us to spend our saved money for some urgent family matter or an organ transplant; something of that ilk.   But as New Year’s approached, it became very clear to me that I would be dining at not only one of Chicago’s most revered and unique restaurants, but, in all honesty, one of the world’s.

I suppose it’s odd to say that fear and panic crept into my mind.  One might expect me to go on and on about how excited I was.  How I was so full of anticipation I was literally bursting into a million pieces everyday.  Truthfully I was scared.

What if when I go in, they know?   They know I don’t belong.   What if they take one look at me and say, “Excuse me sir, but it’s painfully obvious you are from a small town in Indiana and this food would be beyond your comprehension.”

Lauren, to her credit, did her best to assuage any fears I showed outwardly.  She kept reminding me, and herself, not to have expectations and to just enjoy the experience, the atmosphere and, most importantly, the opportunity to try truly unique cuisine.  Most looming of all was the price tag.   Without naming a number, I can honestly say this was and probably will be the most money I have ever spent at a restaurant.   This was, and probably will be, the most money I spend on anything except maybe a college education, a new bed or laptop computer.   Days before the actual reservations I remember talking to my mother on the phone about my New Year’s Eve plans.

“So a nice dinner huh?”

“Yeah.”

“What kind of food was it?”

“It’s…um…deconstruction.  Molecular gastronomy.”

“Um…”

“It’s like food science.  Like what I’m eating tastes like a PBJ sandwich but its made with rice and oil and smoke and magic.”

“How much does something like this cost?”

“….”

“Ben?”

“Oh…Mom…shit…I mean…I’m probably going to spend close to two hundred dollars.”  God…I am such a liar.

“Total?”

“Total.  Yes absolutely.  Total.”

“No wonder they’re making you wear a suit jacket.”

Then New Year’s Eve Arrived.   Lauren and I dressed to the nines (and even took a couple “Prom Night” photos).  It was bitterly cold outside and we raced our way to the restaurant, hoping that what lay inside was warm, inviting, and truly original.

What we came to instead was a rather nondescript silver looking door.   Completely unadorned.   Starkly unimpressive.   I remember Lauren and I both looked at each other, for just a moment, with raised eyebrows and quizzical smiles.   As we approached the door it slid open and the world of Alinea inside was made clear to us.

Our coats were taken and we were seated (and when I say seated…I mean seated…I’m used to ladies being led to their chairs and pushed in towards their table, but they did that for me too.  And when I asked for the restroom, instead of pointing they way, they followed behind me making sure I would find it okay).   The attention to service was immaculate.  There was not a chair unpushed, a napkin unfolded, an empty cup not taken away.  Every detail accounted for.

The menu itself…

I hardly know where to begin.

It’s typical for many restaurants to have pre fixe menus on major holidays.   Alinea is always pre fixe.   You eat what they are constructing.   That’s part of the excitement.

They offered us menus for the evening to let us know what was coming, but Lauren and I put them to the side.   We wanted to be surprised.  After agreeing to the predetermined wine pairing for the evening, the events began.

The first course was a “traditional” caviar starter.   I have to laugh almost.  I’m rarely accustomed to an actual traditional caviar amuse bouche or any amuse bouche at all.  To call this dish “traditional” is like calling Patty Griffin a typical singer-songwriter.  It was a concoction of all the flavors of caviar on a toast point you would be used to.  Minus the caviar and the toast.   Instead you had an emulsion that tasted like caviar and a foam that tasted exactly like toast.   My tongue was immediately confused and begging for more.

Every course, and there were fifteen of them, was playful, exotic, challenging and delicious.   The second course was grilled shrimp, except it was a piece of sugar cane that you chewed in your mouth, allowing the flavors to pour out and fill your mouth.   There was nothing to eat.  We were giving a napkin to put our sugar cane husk back into and all that was left in our mouth was the taste of perfectly grilled shrimp.

The dishes kept coming, paired perfectly with different and complimentary wines.   I began to look around at other patrons.  Some were taking pictures of each dish on their camera phones.  Others were staring at their plates, not even knowing where to begin the first bite.  I have to admit, there were a couple of courses that even intimidated me.  There was a matsutake mushroom dish with so many components that I spent half the dish just trying to find the “perfect” bite before realizing that was the point of the dish.  The ingredients and seasonings used in each dish were of only the most amazing quality  Black truffles, white truffles, campari, mint, juniper, and allspice.  Every piece of protein (trout, goose, pork belly, duck, and wagyu shortrib) was cooked perfectly.

Our server, to his credit, was equally game with the playfulness of the dishes.  I think he could discern that Lauren and I were no flavor-combo novices.   At one point he brought a dish to our table and called it,  “Food”.    Rather than describing it to us, he left us up to decide what it was.    And, to our credit, we were able to discern at least half of the creations on our plate (to be a bit more descriptive it was a painting of beets on our plate.   Beets prepared in countless manners with fennel sneakily stuffed into particular bites to add an extra kick to the taste).   Lauren and I beamed with pride that we impressed our waiter.

As we neared the end of our feast, dessert began.   Not one dessert, but many, each complimenting one another perfectly until eventually Grant Achatz himself came out to turn our entire tabletop into the presentation for the main dessert.   A neoprene mat was placed upon our table and his hands deftly plated frozen pieces of chocolate and mint and  nitrous set puddings.  We were left with spoons and a dessert sprawled across the terrain of our table.   Lauren and I, like kids in a sandbox, just began to play.

Amongst all of this food science and magic and artistry it would be easy to lose the potency of the ingredients amongst the flair.   A patron could walk away from the meal and not understand what they ate or perhaps feel cheated that at the end of the evening they didn’t actually eat a “real” dish.   This could be true, but halfway through our evening (yes I know I am backtracking) the lynchpin of the meal was brought to our table.  Right after Lauren and I had been transfixed by a presentation of duck speared on a branch of juniper full of smoke and wafting aromas, we were given a pasta dish.  Tagliatelle in a butter and parmesan sauce with white truffles shaved on top.

No flair.   No science.   No gastronomy.

It is, without a doubt, the most delicate unbroken butter sauce I have ever tasted.  The pasta was cooked to perfection and as the white truffle melted into the butter, I found myself with an ache in my throat.  My mind filled with images of fried potatoes, cast iron corn bread, and mustard potato salad.

I was home.

The evening could have ended there, only it didn’t.  There were several more courses to be had and several more glasses of wine to drink.  By the time we were finished and the bill came, I looked at the final number and barely flinched.   Placed my money with the check and just smiled.  Every bite had been savored and, much like when I was young and in Indiana, every plate was clean.

Lauren and I left the restaurant, nearly silent with broad smiles on our faces ( I say nearly silent, because apparently it is Alinea’s custom to accommodate their NYE guests with a complimentary ride home and, as there were no cabs available, Lauren and I were hailed a stretch limo…I wish I were kidding, but I’m not.  Alinea hailed us a stretch limo and we rode home, bellies full, in style.  And in case you are wondering if the boy who isn’t used to caviar amuse bouche or jackets required establishments had ever ridden in a stretch limo before…the answer is no.)

It was a week later, at a holiday party where we consumed massive amounts of amazing food and wine, upon being asked to describe the experience that I began to feel panic at that final restaurant bill.  I sat, sipping $15 wine, with two very close friends (Erin and Dave) and tried to explain to them what the meal was like.  Words were escaping me and only the final number on the tab stuck in my mind.   As I fought to describe the experience and justify the cost, I failed.  Perhaps it was the several glasses of wine or the frustration of my tongue being tied, but I began to cry.   I had spent more money on a single meal than anyone in my family or hometown would ever spend on anything.

Who am I kidding? I thought, I didn’t deserve that meal.  There were better things I could have put that money towards. I felt extremely foolish.  Foolish for crying about food.   For crying about money already spent.  Foolish for feeling so undeserving.

My face had been glued towards the floor and I forced my eyes up to look at Erin and Dave.  They were smiling.   They understood my frustration.  They had just returned from an awe-inspiring and whirlwind trip from Spain and had been sharing their various culinary treasures they had purchased while in Europe.  They too were terrified of their pocketbooks.

I asked them,  “Do you regret it?”

Neither of them of them could have said “no” any more quickly.

I looked at their faces.  I looked at us, sitting there with our glasses of wine and our full bellies.  I thought of Lauren’s face at the end of our meal at Alinea when all she could say was, “Definitive.”   I thought of that butter sauce and those delicate white truffles.  I smelled potatoes frying in a pan and fresh cast iron corn bread.

My plate was clean.

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Responses

  1. This post is “definitive.”
    Beautiful. Just…beautiful.

  2. Loved this. Keep the honesty coming, please!

  3. We had the exact same experience at Alinea. I always look at that meal as something akin to a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I’d think nothing of spending that amount on a long weekend in, say, NYC (heck, it’d be a bargain!), so that helps me to contextualize.

    The meal was unlike anything I’ll ever experience again, and it easily gave me as much pleasure as said weekend in Manhattan. I’ll never forget it, and that strikes me as well worth the money.

    My husband — who was positively giddy about his meal at the time (he’s a vegetarian, and we also went with two vegans, and everyone was punch-drunk with joy by the end) — might tell a different story now. I think he would’ve rather bought a nice guitar or something. But for me, I’ve never had so much as a wince of regret. And if I unexpectedly came into that kind of purse again, Alinea’s exactly where I’d want to spend it.


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