So I've eaten at two of the nation's top restaurants, Charlie Trotter's and Alinea. What do I think? Was it worth it?
In a word: absolutely. At both restaurants the service, hospitality, presentation and food were top notch. The pinnacle of fine dining. Friendly, accommodating, respectful and enjoyable. Not to mention comfortable. And when your dinner takes at least three hours - you NEED to be comfortable.
It was an incredible weekend of the finest dining possible. I got to see first-hand the definition of 3-4 Star Service. It's what the United States Barista Championship gives so much lip service but understands so little about. This level of service is more than just the rigid "service from the left" theories of yore. It's about tailoring the service to fit the experience. It's about making continual adjustments to the process to accommodate the guests. It's about being on your game in a way we don't usually see when eating out.
And for a five hundred dollar meal, you'd best be experiencing something vastly different than Red Lobster.
It's too easy to use superlatives, like "the best" or "incredible" or whatever comes to mind. Whatever you choose, chances are that it would be true of either restaurant. The wine pairings at Trotter's were bold, definitive and struck a strong chord with my palate. Flavors I had never experienced together that made wine pairings actually enjoyable rather than trying to understand what all the fuss is about and why doesn't someone bring me an ice cold Coke.
Trotter's wines were so impressive that I tried to hunt down the Seven Hills Pentad and the Felton Road Pinot Noir to no avail in Baltimore. Add to that the incredibly succulent and amazing poached egg and it sears my memory to the point that I can't stop thinking about that poached egg and its' indescribable texture.
But the whole experience was strange too. As I reflect on the experience, I'm wowed by the overall presentation. I'm blown away by components of dishes, but no one dish (as a whole) stands out in my mind. It was experimental. It was an experience. But I'm not awestruck by any course in particular.
The Apple course at Alinea stood out when I was reviewing the images. An encapsulation of celery juice in a sodium alginate/horseradish ball, sitting in apple juice that, when consumed, the ball breaks - flooding the mouth with the mixing juices. Wild. Unexpected. And it made me think of how that treatment could be adapted to a signature drink for competition.
Actually, it also reminded me of 2006 USBC Champion and 2007 Great Lakes Barista Champion Matt Riddle's ginger signature drink - which I thought might benefit tremendously from such a presentation.
I remember the Yuzu strictly for its' cool factor. Was it really outstanding? Perhaps. But the whole "freezing stuff on the Anti-Griddle" is just cool beans.
The roasted corn gelee in Alinea's Coconut course just blew me away. The concentrated flavors of roasted corn - in a gelee. Amazing. I must make this at home. I must find a way to combine something like this with espresso. I must. I must.
On Monday morning, while we were having breakfast at a local joint, 2003 USBC Champion Heather Perry asked me the most poignant question of the experience. If I had tasted the cheese sauce at a restaurant other than Trotter's would I have hated it? In other words, did I "like" it and label it "the most challenging dish" and thought of it as "challenging my palate and preconceived notions" BECAUSE it came from Trotter's?
How much does ones' preconceived notions about a restaurant colour his/her experience?
For example, if I went to 7-11 one morning and got a cup of truly exquisitely prepared Red Mountain a la Counter Culture Coffee, would I recognize it? Or would I disregard it outright because "I knew" that 7-11 serves only crap coffee?
Likewise, at either Trotter's or Alinea, if I was served the most incredibly horrible dish known to man, would I acknowledge it or label it "challenging" because "there's no way" that either restaurant would serve anything less than incredible?
Maybe I did hate the cheese sauce. It was savory, tangy, salty and an extreme counterpoint to the sweetness inheirent in the rest of the dish. But perhaps I was more open-minded because I was expecting stellar courses.
In the end, I don't know for sure and it will take more reflection to really decide which side I stand.
In closing, the meals were phenomenal, but there's something missing for me. Desire. Desire is what's missing. I reflect back on my Trotter and Alinea experience and find myself satiated that I tried them. I'm not plotting a return trip to Chicago. I'm not devising ways to raise a thousand bucks so I can eat there again. I'm not dreaming of the food.
I don't know what it is. Maybe I'm just a simpleton, but when I think about my favorite restaurants, like Les Halles in Washington DC, Imanas Tei or Helena's in Honolulu, KC Kitchen or Firefly on Paradise in Las Vegas, I desire to be there again. I think of their food and I'm lusting for it. I DREAM of eating at these places again. I plot and maneuver to eat there. No nefarious deed is too, well nefarious, to dine there again.
Not so with the greatest in American restaurants.
But I'll never forget that weekend.