Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Everything is better with duck fat

We carved our Jack-o-lantern last night, and as I was getting ready to roast the resulting pumpkin seeds, I realized that I had leftover duck fat in the fridge from the great cassoulet adventure. Since duck fat is the king of fats, I couldn't resist trying it. My husband wasn't nearly as enthusiastic about the possibilities (it was him saying "don't do anything weird or French to them" that made me remember the duck fat), so I did a batch with butter as well, for a compare and contrast.

They're both good, but there are definitely some subtle differences. The ones with butter taste a little popcorny in a way the duck fat ones do not. The duck fat ones have a little hint of meatiness or umami.

Duck Fat Roasted Pumpkin Seeds
1 1/2 cups pumpkin seeds
2 tsp melted duck fat
kosher salt to taste

Toss washed pumpkin seeds with melted duck fat and sprinkle with kosher salt. Roast in a single layer at 300 degrees for 45 minutes or until as brown as you like them, stirring at the halfway point and later if necessary.
Mmm. Duck fat.

Happy Hallowe'en!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Hot Chocolate

My last night in Chicago, I went out for dinner with 10 people from eGullet to Hot Chocolate. Hot Chocolate is the restaurant of well known Chicago pastry chef Mindy Segal (pictured at left, whipping us up some milkshakes). I first had her desserts at an otherwise disappointing meal at MK, and not wanting to go back to MK, I was thrilled to hear she'd opened her own restaurant.

Thanks to Ronnie's previous visits to the restaurant for dessert, he was able to talk directly to Mindy and let her know we'd be coming in. They set us up at the kitchen table - just outside of the kitchen, actually, but with a good view of the pass and the activity going on.

The menu is pretty relaxed - five or six starters, four salads, a few sandwiches, and a handful of entrees. With such a large group, we managed to try nearly everything on the starters and entrees lists. The starters were mostly pretty good - with my brandade ("a classic French dish of salt cod, potato and garlic puree") being a highlight. The entrees, on the other hand, were nearly all disappointing - some oversalted, some underseasoned, some cold, some overcooked. Which was too bad. I'm not sure if the kitchen just wasn't used to serving that number of people at once, or if this is a more general problem (I have heard the accusations of oversalting in other forums).

But then there were the desserts. When it came time for dessert, Ronnie asked Mindy to just take care of us. And that's how I managed to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams - tasting every dessert on the menu. I'll admit to being a dessert junky, and I find it so hard to pick just one! This was one night that I didn't have to. Mindy sent out 11 desserts - one per person - and we passed them around in a hilarious frenzy of chocolate and sugar. We were all laughing from the sheer extravagence of so much dessert excess. It was truly awesome.

The desserts (descriptions are from the menu):

Apples - warm heirloom apple turnovers, roasted apple ice cream and brown butter-cider "buerre blanc"

Raspberry Preserve - house-made brioche pudding with raspberry preserve, fresh whipped cream, and vanilla bean clementine orange sorbet

Pear - roasted bartlett pear "cobbler," ginger snap ice cream, port wine and tapioca broth

Pumpkin/Pecan - "Cinderella pumpkin" pie in a graham cracker crust with maple-pecan ice cream and toffee sauce

Banana (Volume VII) - "banana split": chocolate brownie, caramelized bananas, banana sherbet, cocoa nib chocolate chip ice cream, chocolate sorbet, chocolate sauce and butterscotch

Mocha Milk Chocolate 38% - Mocha mousse "dome" with a dulce de leche caramel espresso shortbread and tiramisu creme

Chocolate (64%) - A warm souffle tart, salted caramel ice cream and pretzels

Chocolate (72%) Cake and Shake - "all American chocolate cake." Layers of chocolate buttermilk cake, bittersweet chocolate mousse, chocolate ganache butter cream and served with a vanilla bean milk shake

Creme Brulee - A classic custard infused with vanilla bean and a caramelized crust served with fresh figs

Warm Brioche Donuts - Warm and delicious, served with hot fudge (thanks to Ronnie for the picture - I managed to miss this one)

Cookies and Vanilla Bean Milkshakes - An assortment of cookies, and a little shotglass sized milkshake for each of us.

Living in a town with a sad lack of restaurants doing interesting *plated* desserts, this was like heaven for me. Everything was great, and in the flurry of eating it was hard to take notes or remember details. Some of my favorites were the seasonal desserts - the pumpkin/pecan, apples, and pear. Of the "signatures" the mocha milk dome and the chocolate (64%) were slightly more awesome than the rest. All of the ice creams and sorbets were great, and if I go back, I'll certainly be tempted to just go for a flight of those.

If I lived in Chicago, I'd probably go for dessert here once a week. (Although maybe on a weekday - we were there on a Friday night, and the music was louder and the atmosphere more "clubby" than we would have liked.) Given our dissappointing entrees, however, I'd probably get dinner elsewhere. Or better yet - just grab a salad or starter (all of which were good) and maybe a cheese course (the cheese list looks great) before heading into dessert, which is where the star of Hot Chocolate shines most brightly.

Hot Chocolate
1747 Damen Ave
Chicago, IL 60647

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Project Cassoulet est fini!

I'm pleased to report that the cassoulet (see earlier post) turned out pretty well. Especially since I had to make some on-the-fly modifications to the cooking instructions when I was just too busy making chocolates on Saturday to also make and bake cassoulet. (The recipe calls for cooking it one day, refrigerating it overnight, then cooking it again before serving.) But my son woke up WAY early today, so that gave me lots of time to play with today.

Everyone seemed to really like it. It's certainly a completely decadent kind of meal - the beans absorb the fat from the duck and pork, and get a lovely creamy texture. The long slow braise makes all the meat melt in your mouth tender, although much of the flavor of the meat goes to the broth. Definitely a fun experiment to have tried, although I'm not sure if the results are worth the effort or expense (although making my own duck confit would have saved me a bundle).

We served it with the 2001 Domaine de la Tourade Font des Aieux Gigondas. I had planned to decant it, and should have, as it improved quite a lot in the glass. It was a nicely assertive wine with good structure, tannins and acidity, which allowed it to cut through the out-of-control fat content of the cassoulet.

If you'd like to try it for yourself, the recipe I used is here.

Halloween Candy for Grownups

Starting last Mother's Day, I've been doing occasional chocolate truffle sales for my friends, coworkers, and neighbors. While Mother's Day and Father's Day are more typical occasions for such a thing, I decided to explore some creative flavors and market Halloween Candy for Grownups. I had orders for about 220 candies, and have been working on and off since Wednesday. Truffle making mixes periods of intense activity with long blocks of time spent waiting for things to set up. Last night was the final big push.

Here they are, all laid out and ready for packaging:
The flavor assortment:
L to R: Pumpkin Seed Praline, Coconut Ghosts, Candy Corn, Caramel Apple

For the pumpkin seed praline, I caramelized sugar and mixed in toasted pumpkin seeds, then cooled it and chopped it up fine. The ganache was 8 oz butter, 11 oz chocolate, and 6 oz of praline. These were dipped and sprinkled with extra praline. Using butter instead of cream in the ganache allows the praline chunks to stay crunchy. (Melt the chocolate, then let it get quite cool and stir in room temperature butter and then the praline.)

The coconut ghosts are 12 oz chocolate, 8 oz coconut milk, and 1 tsp coconut extract, coated in chocolate and rolled in unsweetened coconut.

The candy corn are just a plain chocolate ganache (12 oz chocolate, 8 oz cream), dipped in tempered chocolate and garnished on the top and bottom with candy corn.

For the caramel apple, I made an apple cider infused caramel, cut it into pieces, and dipped it in chocolate.
Apple Cider Caramels
2 c apple cider
Reduce to 1/3 cup, set aside.

2/3 c cream
6 tbsp butter
Heat to boil, then set aside.

1 1/2 c sugar
1/4 c corn syrup
1/4 water
Cook to light brown

Add cream, butter and reduced apple cider all at once, stirring constantly (it will foam up - use a good size pot). Cook to 250 degrees, using fairly low heat - you want to take about 10-15 minutes to get it up to temperature. Pour it into a 8 inch square baking pan that's been lined with two pieces of oiled parchment paper, one in each direction - this creates a "sling" to pull the caramel out of the pan. (If you're new to caramel making, this is a just a variation on this recipe, and the link includes more detailed instructions.)
I like the flavor, but I'm still trying to figure out how prevent the caramels from spreading so much after they're dipped - they were supposed to be nice cubes, not flat squares...

All boxed up for gift giving:
I've got the usual small amount of overrun to get rid of, as last minute sales and/or for dessert tonight for my birthday cassoulet party.

Friday, October 27, 2006


I'm not alone in thinking that the food at Schwa is as good as any restaurant in the city. (Even Alinea.) Chef Michael Carlson was named one of Food and Wine Magazine's Best New Chefs for 2006, and Chicago Magazine named him Best New Chef as well. And the restaurant received three stars from Phil Vettel at the Chicago Tribune.

What makes all this a little unusual is the setting. Schwa is a tiny restaurant - just 26 seats. It's located on the edge of Wicker Park, on a stretch of Ashland that's not exactly what one would call "gentrified." (If you're having trouble finding the restaurant, just look for the neon palm trees from the tire rim place across the street.) It doesn't have a liquor license, or even any glassware other than tumblers for BYOB. The staff is minimal - Chef Carlson and Sous-Chef Nathan Klingbail, one server, and a dishwasher.

But what it's lacking in amenties, it makes up for in fabulous food and a funky atmosphere. The music is a little loud, the decor is minimalist, and the chefs are making your food and delivering it right to your table. It ends up being a very intimate restaurant.

Okay, enough with the background, on to the food. I apologize in advance for the photos - the lighting in the restaurant is very indirect and pretty dim, and these required quite a bit of post-processing to be useable. The real thing looks much better!

Amuse: Candy Apple
A little unusual to have something sweet as an amuse, but it was certainly a seasonal way to get things moving!

Panzanella: tomato, brioche, basil
This deconstructed riff on the classic bread salad was quite complex. Elements included (peeled) heirloom cherry tomatoes, a brioche bread pudding topped with a tomato sorbet, basil puree, caramelized fennel puree, and some shaved fennel. And some parmesan and basalmic too. The picture doesn't at all adequately express what a beautiful plate this was. And interesting - there were bits that didn't work really well for me (like the bread pudding), but the concepts were all really neat.

Prosciutto Consomme: melon, arugula
Another riff on a classic dish, this time cantaloupe wrapped with prosciutto. With prosciutto is actually the only way I can really tolerate melon, but even given that limitation I liked this dish. There was regular prosciutto, and some delightfully crispy prosciutto, and melon in various form. And the consomme, of course. Yum.

Quail Egg Ravioli: ricotta, brown butter, parmagiano reggianno
Schwa's signature dish, and in a dead heat for my favorite dish of the night. The raviolis are filled with ricotta cheese and a quail egg yolk. For best results, put the hole ravioli in your mouth and bite down, so you don't lose any of that luscious yolk. The brown butter sauce, parmesan and crispy sage leaf just push it over the top. This is the dish that makes me (and everyone else) regret that Schwa doesn't serve bread - you want something to collect the rest of that buttery goodness. BYOB = bring your own bread?

Illinois Sturgeon Caviar: avocado, cauliflower
My other contender for dish of the night. There's an avocado puree in the bottom of the dish, topped by a cauliflower puree, some finely chopped cooked cauliflower and a scoop of caviar on top. Simple, but soooo good. The flavors just combine beautifully.

Lobster: potatoes, gooseberries, lavender
Butter poached lobster, potato puree, roasted fingerling potatoes, and swiss chard, all topped off with a lavender emulsion (ie. foam). Pretty good. The roasted fingerling potatoes had the nicest texture.

Sweetbreads: rhubarb, humboldt fog
I'd never had sweetbreads before, and this was a great way to try them for the first time. Crispy veal sweetbreads and piece of red wine braised rhubarb, with some sort of sauce and a streak of creamy Humbolt Fog goat cheese.

Bonus Course: eggplant confit
This was an extra, not on our menu. Just a single bite. Pretty tasty, and I don't even like eggplant!

Beef: raw, pickled, braised
Bad picture, so I'll map it out for you. In the lower right on top of the cube, there's beef tartare topped with a raw quail egg. Yum. Below it on the plate is a smear of yuzu honey - out of this world, and a good combo with the tartare. In the center is a pickled beef tongue, with a garnish I can't recall. In the upper left is a lovely braised beef short rib, with a sweet potato puree beneath it. Great dish.

An unusual take on the cheese course, this was a single spoonful of Morbier risotto. The green is summer savory (oil, I think), and there are dehydrated peach chips on top. Tasty, and interesting combination. The risotto texture was perfect. We liked this a lot, because as good as risotto is, typical portions on restaurant menus are often too large when served in conjunction with a lot of other food. (The lobster risotto at Tru is a notable example.)

We had two different desserts, but the picture of the other one is REALLY bad, so you only get to see the strawberry-olive shortcake. Strawberry-WHAT? Yep. It was a little odd, but also tastier than you might think (and I say this as someone who's not so fond of olives). Nicoise olive shortcake, strawberry sauce, strawberry and olive oil ice cream, basil sauce, and some candied olives.

Our other dessert was better - a two chocolate brownies, one topped with a pie pumpkin sorbet, and the other with a pumpkin puree, with chocolate sauce, and pumpkin seeds and some creme fraiche. Very nice, seasonal dessert.

Wine: Since Schwa is BYOB, we couldn't do a different wine for each course, or we would have been staggering out of there! We brought a half bottle each of a red and a white wine. The white, which we drank from the amuse through to the lobster, was A & F Boudin, "Domaine de Chantmerle,' Chablis, 2000. This started off decidedly odd, with this weird kind of appley thing on the palate that had us wondering if the bottle was corked or something. Fortunately, that mostly blew off. Any failings in the Chablis were made up for in the red, however - a 1991 Ridge Monte Bello that was major big yum. As I said previously, Schwa provides only tumblers for wine, so if you're a wine geek, you'll probably want to bring your own glasses. (Tip for travelers - borrow some from your hotel!)

Because there are so few staff, the arrivals for the evening are staggered, so you might presume from the empty tables that the restaurant is underappreciated. But in fact, it's one of the hottest reservations in Chicago right now, with weekends filling up months in advance, and weeknights not much slower. The general feeling among Chicago foodies is that it's only a matter of time before Chefs Carlson and Klingbail get wooed away to something bigger and better-funded, so if you want to appreciate the intimate and exceptional simplicity that is Schwa, don't delay!

1466 N. Ashland
Chicago, IL 60622

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Project Cassoulet is underway

(I'm taking a break from my Chicago restaurant reviews to preview other culinary happenings, but I've still got several meals in the queue, so stay tuned if you've been enjoying the Chicago series.)

My friend Ronnie in Chicago gave me a package of homemade Toulouse style sausages. "Perfect," he said "for making cassoulet." I've been wanting to try my hand at this decadent French bean and meat casserole, so I decided that cooking up a big pot of cassoulet to share with friend would be a perfect way to celebrate my birthday.

Decision made, now I just needed to source the ingredients. I stopped by Sparrow Meats yesterday and placed an order for 2 lbs of pork belly and 1 lb of pork rind, and 3 wild boar sausages to supplement the ones from Ronnie (boar isn't necessarily "traditional" for cassoulet, but they were his suggestion for a nice garlicky sausage). Then I stopped into Zingerman's for duck confit, but they are cooking cassoulet this week too, and didn't have any to sell me! Carlos suggested I try Morgan and York (previously known as Big Ten). My hopes were raised and then dashed, when he said they had 3 of the needed 4 legs of confit, but then reported that it had gone off. However, he called his supplier, and they can have me four legs tomorrow, so we are back in action.

I have been unsuccessful so far at sourcing any fancy French beans, so I'll probably end up using Great Northern or canellini.

Stay tuned for further progress reports - Sunday is the big day, but authentic cassoulet requires a multi-day cooking extravaganza.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Hot Doug's

Hot Doug's (the Encased Meats Emporium and Sausage Superstore) is a Chicago institution of sorts. Not as traditional as other Chicago hot dog joints like Superdawg et al, it nonetheless has a cult-like following among foodies and those in the know. There's almost always a line stretching to (or out) the door. The standard menu has a wide variety of dogs and sausages, all with celebrity names (like "The Madonna" described as "Andouille Sausage - mighty, mighty, mighty hot!"), but the specials menu is always worth checking out. Every week there's a different "Game of the Week" - This week that was a kangaroo sausage with gin-juniper mustard and rosemary marinated goat cheese (pictured above). And a "Celebrity Sausage" - the Frank Lucchesi (he's been running through names of former Cub's managers lately), a corned beef sausage with horseradish mustard and chicken liver mousse, is pictured below.

The owner and proprietor, Doug Sohn, is nearing celebrity status on his own. Maybe it's the Buddy Holly glasses. Maybe it's the way he spends a couple minutes chatting with every customer as they order. Maybe it's the way he's openly defying the recent foie gras ban in Chicago (there was no foie gras sausage on the menu the day we were there, but we did get to see his citation letter, proudly displayed at the counter).

Hot Doug's is a bit off the beaten track for visitors to Chicago - our taxi from downtown to the restaurant cost more than lunch, but I expect there's some relatively easy public transit way to get there. And it's definitely worth the effort, especially on Friday or Saturday, when they serve french fries cooked in duck fat! (Although as you can see from the picture below, the regular fries are might fine too.)

Hot Doug's
3324 North California
Chicago, IL 60618
(773) 279-9550

Sunday, October 22, 2006


Alinea. I've been dreaming of eating at Alinea ever since it opened. I was fortunate enough to eat at Trio twice while Chef Grant Achatz was the chef there, and I followed all the details posted on eGullet about the much-anticipated opening of his own restaurant. Achatz is one of the leaders of the molecular gastronomy movement in the US and his cuisine combines unsual ingredients with wacky serving utensils and a sense of whimsy and fun. But he never puts style above substance - all of the food tastes good, which is why Alinea was recently named Best Restaurant in the US by Gourmet magazine. And all of this is delivered in a refined environment with excellent service.

You have just two choices - the 12 course Tasting, or the Tour at around 24 courses, although the exact number varies. We opted for the Tour and split the "upgraded" wine pairing. A friend of mine is fond of saying that meals like this are more ride than meal, and at 24 courses and 13 wines, Alinea certainly fit the bill. But what a ride it is.

Our upgraded wine pairing paid off right from the start, with a lovely rose champagne (Nicolas Feuillate Brut Rose "Palmes d'Or" Epernay 1997) for the first two courses.

Hot Potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter
A wax bowl is filled with a cold potato soup. A pin pierces the bowl, a piece of parmesan reggianno, a cube of butter, and a chunk of hot potato. You pull the pin to drop the ingredients into the soup, then slurp it all back. This allows for an excellent contrast of flavors and temperatures. I loved the way the black truffle lingers on the palate long after that single bite (and slurp) is gone.

King Crab, vinegar, aromatics
This was beautiful to look at - the crab encased in a crystal clear gelee of rice wine vinegar. The sushi rice was perfectly seasoned, and there were a bunch of little garnishes - ginger, black pepper, microlemongrass, saffron, etc. The rice vinegar gelee managed to be vinegary without being overly sour. Very nice.

Trout Roe, cucumber, coconut, bonito
Naiades Verdejo, Rueda, Spain 2004
This was a great combination - beautful trout roe from Michigan, creamy coconut pudding and avocado puree, a sheet of lime rock, a drizzle of cilantro juice, and a sprinkle of bonita powder, all topped off by a cucumber foam. Light, refreshing, perfectly in harmony. And the wine pairing was a hint of great things to come - it was a perfect match, with hints of cucumber and lime to echo the food.

(A note on the wines - all of them were excellent, but I didn't take notes so I won't have much to say about them. A wine pairing is really the only way to go with a meal like this, with such a huge range of flavors.)

Akayagara, radish, coriander, poppyseed
No picture for this one - it was served in a round bottom bowl, so we ran short of hands. A fork topped with the akayagara (a type of fish) fit into a slot atop the specially made bowl, and the poppyseed milk was in the bottom. You eat the fish on the fork, then follow it with the milk. Tasty.

Matsutake, mango, peanut, yuzu glass
Pra Soave Classico, "Monte Grande," Veneto 2003
Matsutake mushrooms from Oregon were served three ways here - pureed, diced and sauteed, and dehydrated. As with many of the items on the menu, there were a ton of other ingredients - mung bean edamame, mint juice, mango peanut crumbs, soy nage, yuzu "glass" - but it managed to come together somehow. As the pictures show, this is served in what appears to be a tall glass but is actually a tube, which the server removes at the table. This wasn't one of my favorites, but my tablemate liked it a lot.

Rabbit, cider, roasted garlic, smell of burning leaves
We liked to call this one the "pot" dish. Who knew that burning oak leaves smell just like pot? A glass containing smoke was carefully placed over the food, and then lifted up at the table. Grant Achatz is well known for these dishes that use various aromas to put you in a particular frame of mind. In this case, we found that we could also taste the smoke in the dish. With cider gelee and garlic puree, black pepper and thyme, this was a perfect seasonal dish, and it was served with a cup of lovely rabbit consomme instead of a wine pairing.

Peach, smoked paprika, carrot
Peach juice is captured inside a hollow shell of cocoa butter, carrot juice and smoked paprika. once in your mouth, the fragile shell breaks and the liquid rushes out, so our server made a point of warning us to be sure our mouths were closed lest we soak the person on the other side of the table... Interesting, although I wasn't tremendously fond of the way the cold cocoa butter felt in my mouth.

Kobe Short Rib, beets, cranberry, campari
Wine: Cabanon Bonarda "Boisee," Oitrepo Pavse, Italy 2003
Even though it's not mentioned in the description, this was as much about fennel as beets. There was shaved fennel, fennel puree, and fennel fronds. The beet side included the beet-campari sheet covering the short ribs, a single golden beet, and an interesting dehydrated beet ribbon. I was already starting to get full, so I took a short course on this one, trying a bit of everything, but not finishing it. Good, and a very dramatic plate.

Black Truffle, explosion, romaine, parmesan
The Black Truffle Explosion is the closest thing to a signature dish as Grant Achatz has. It was on the menu at Trio nearly his entire tenure there, but was mostly retired once he moved to Alinea. Grant is a constant innovator, and once a dish goes off the menu, it's usually gone forever. However, with the recent uptick in business due to the Gourmet accolades, he's started adding some classics back on to the menu to free up some time for experimentation for the future. (There's an interesting interview with Achatz about this at Hungry Magazine.)

I'd had the black truffle explosion (BTE) once at Trio, and was excited to see it on our menu at Alinea. Inside the ravioli is the liquid essence of truffle, and it really does explode in your mouth. A little bit of parmesan and some wilted romaine lettuce gilded the rose. (To my tastes, the wilted romaine was a much better accompaniment than the broccoli puree I'd had a Trio, as it added a little bit of texture as well as good flavor.)

We liked it so much, my friend joked "I'll have another one of those, please" to our server. And about 5 minutes later...

Black Truffle, explosion, romaine, parmesan #2
The second BTE was even better than the first, presumably because it was an extra course, and thus it was hotter when it arrived.

Squab, huckleberry, sorrel, long peppercorn
Wine: Hermitage "Cuvee Emilie" Domaine des Remizieres, Rhone 2002
A plethora of squab presentation - leg, breast, crispy skin, some confit - with a huckleberry sauce and three fresh huckleberries, a long peppercorn custard (yum) and some micro sorel. Beautiful plate, this one. We noticed them bringing our plates in, then whisking them off again - a huckleberry had moved out of place and had to be adjusted before they could serve it. The wine for this course was fabulous - easily my favorite of the night.

Concord Grape, frozen and chewy
By now I was ready for a change of pace, and a few cold bites were just the thing. No picture again, as we found that the dishes served without a plate were really hard to get pictures of. (But there's one on the Alinea website, here.)In contrast to earlier and later courses that contain a laundry list of ingredients and garnishes, this was simply a lozenge of concord grape puree, frozen on the anti-griddle. It was intensely grapey, and the texture was really interesting.

Chestnut, blis maple syrup
Another little frozen bite, and this one I liked quite a bit. A sweetened frozen disk of chestnut puree, with a little divot to hold a pool of maple syrup that has been matured in bourbon casks, and a sprinkling of coarse sea salt to bring it all together.

Crabapple, cheddar, eucalyptus, olive oil
Wine: Pfeffingen Ungsteiner Herrenberg Scheurebe Spatlese, Pfalz 2003
Clearly the kitchen had had enough with simplicity, judging from this next course. Let's see if I can decipher the notes well enough to list all of the accompaniments to this tangy frozen crabapple mousse - tellicherry pepper tuille, crispy sage leaves, extra virgin olive oil jam (yes, jam), ecalyptus sauce, cheddar custard, sweet onion marmalade, and a cherry blossom. Phew! It was fun to taste all the garnishes alone, with the crabapple, and in varying combinations. The wine pairing for this one worked really well. The grape variety is a hybrid, and it had some of that foxiness that you get from hybrids, which meant it actually could stand up to a dish with eucalyptus in it! Not something you can say for a lot of wine.

(A note on the progression of courses: You'll have noticed that the last few dishes seemed rather dessert like, even though we're only in the middle of the meal. When Grant first started doing these extended tasting menus at Trio, he served them with all the desserts at the end. But he found that the meals were more enjoyable for people when they didn't have six or seven desserts in a row at the end, and that having some sweeter and lighter courses in the middle helped rejuvenate people for the last half of the menu. So the menu flows from roughly from savory to sweet twice over the course of the meal, with a similiar flow of wines white to red to dessert twice as well.)

Quince, prosciutto, orange, juniper
Grant has had a number of customized serving "dishes" created for the restaurant. One is a sort of antenna, where the food to be eaten is pierced on the end and eaten by the diner hands free. (See a picture of it here.) Kind of goofy, but fun. This dish was our antenna dish. Pierced on the end of the antenna was a roulade of pureed and dried quince and prosciutto. Other flavors included braised mustard seeds, bitter lemon, micro cilantro, juniper, and a honey glaze.

Shellfish, gooseberries, horseradish, celery ice
Wine: Raventos i blanc "Perfum de Vi Blanc" Penedes, Spain, 2004
I'm a celery fan, so this one worked really well for me. Celery leaves, and celery ice topped a shellfish sponge, and diced celery sat underneath it along with a pool of gooseberry coulis. A single meat each of crab and mussels garnished it all. Very nice.

Hamachi, buttermilk, blackberry, green peanuts
Wine: F.X. Pichler "Loibner Berg" Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria 2003
The hamachi was topped with a roasted peanut topping of some sort, and green peanuts were sprinkled underneath. It was garnished with blackberry sauce, some sort of buttermilk concoction, and tarragon leaves. This smelled great, and I wanted to like it more than I did - it was a fine dish, but the hamachi is a very fishy tasting fish, and that didn't work so well for my tastes.

Bacon, butterscotch, apple, thyme
Another of the odd serving methods. Hanging from a wire was a perfectly crispy strip of applewood smoked bacon, wrapped with chewy butterscotch and apple leather. You pull down on the bacon to pull it off the trapeze, and pop it into your mouth as a single tasty bite of salty sweet goodness. (No picture for the same reasons mentioned elsewhere, but you can see it here.)

Lamb, date, mastic, rosemary aroma
Wine: Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape, S. Rhone, 2000
Three pieces of lamb sat sizzling atop a 450 degree rock. The sprigs of rosemary that had been decorating our table were fitted into a hole in the stone to give just a hint of rosemary to the proceedings. (This brought my back to my first meal at Trio, where we had a dish with rosemary vapor, created by pouring boiling water over rosemary leaves.) The lamb was perfectly done, but then the rock gave it a really nice sear on the bottom - you had to be careful how you ate it, lest you burn your tonge. The three toppings where a mastic cream, a pickled date puree, and a red wine braised cabbage. Especially nice wine pairing for this one as well.

Bison, gruyere, pumpernickel, ramps
Wine: Bodega Mustiguillo "Quincha Corral," El Terrerazo, Spain, 2003
The presentation on this one is fascinating. Cubes of cold smoked North Dakota bison sit atop a ragu of plumped raisins with Worcestire sauce, and the whole thing is buried beneath a pile of dried gruyere and shreds of toasted pumpernickle bread, and garnished with pickled ramps. Surprisingly good.

Raspberry, goat milk, red pepper taffy, pistachio
Wine: Malvira Birbet (Brachetto), Langhe, Italy NV
Rasberries and red peppers... fascinating. Combined, we were told, because they were both red. Okay... But all in all I have to say it worked pretty well. Lots going on here - raspberries were filled and wrapped with a chewy red pepper taffy, and set upon lavender pudding and goat milk tapioca. Pistachio came in three forms - a puree, a tuile, and a brittle. And the whole thing was adorned with a blanket of raspberry sauce. It looks like it should be some sort of solid, the edges are so perfect. We asked and they let us in on the secret - the raspberry sauce is frozen on a sheet of acetate. The frozen strip is laid over the dessert, then the acetate is peeled away and the sauce allowed to melt. What a clever way to get a really dramatic presentation! The wine was a nice light and lightly sparkling red or rose, with a great nose of raspberries and roses.

Licorice Cake, spiced with hoja santa leaves
Wine: Tamellini Recioto di Soave "Vigna Marogne," Veneto 2000
Neither of us being licorice fans, we were a little worried about this one, but it was actually a very nice spice cake. Once you got to it, anyway, which involved peeling away parchment paper, then the hoja santa leaves that wrapped the cake. Accompaniments included a sweet potato cream, roasted something with licorice leather (we're 22 courses and 12 wines into the meal at this point, so you'll have to forgive the quality of my notes!), muscovado gelee, and oranges stewed in some sort of Mexican liqueur from the Yucatan.

Chocolate, bergamot, cassia, figs
Wine: De Bartoli "Bukkuram" Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, 2001
This was a little ridiculous, as course 23 out of 24. At least an ounce of dark chocolate, heated right to the dividing line between liquid and solid, set atop a sheet of dehydrated chocolate mousse, and served with a scoop of cassia bud ice cream and some stewed figs. A bergamot flavored black tea is poured into the bowl right at the table. We couldn't possible eat it all - I think I took one bite, just to say I had. I know that over-the-top death by chocolate desserts are popular, but this was totally overkill. I would have been much happier with a single spoonful of chocolate at this point in the meal.

Caramel, meyer lemon, cinnamon perfume
The final course was another that brought back fine memories of Trio meals. Then, it was crab and meyer lemon on a vanilla bean, this time it was chewy caramel, meyer lemon, and a cinnamon stick. Both crispy and satisfying bites, though.

I know some people have left Alinea hungry, but this was not one of those nights. After 4 1/2 hours of eating and drinking we were both stuffed to the gills, but happy and satisfied. We stopped in the kitchen to chat with Chef Achatz on our way out, and he was gracious and friendly. (I was pleased and surprised that he remembered me from my kitchen table meal there. But we were having so much fun we were a little rowdy, so I guess that made an impression...)

I was impressed with the evolution of his food from Trio to Alinea, and told him that - there's a level of maturity and polish that seems new. While there were certainly dishes I liked more than others, there weren't any clunkers anywhere on the menu, something I wasn't able to say after my trips to Trio, where I felt there were things that just didn't work. All in all, it just seemed very refined. Which, in some ways, made the experience a little less fun - the service was a little more formal, the atmosphere quieter and more reverent, somehow.

Anyway, it was a fabulous meal, and a fabulous evening. Service was fabulous too - doubly so when we realized the next day that I'd left my umbrella with the coat check at the restaurant, and someone from the staff took the time to deliver it to our hotel, since we weren't going to have an opportunity to be back that way.

1723 N. Halsted
Chicago, IL 60614