Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Chicago: A Four Star Weekend

Last month the coffee business brought me to Chicago for a few days to attend CoffeeFest, the Great Lakes Regional Barista Competition and Executive Council meetings for the Barista Guild of America. I decided that I would make a crazy weekend of it by staying at the W Lakeshore and dining at both Charlie Trotter's and Alinea on consecutive Saturday and Sunday nights. Then, if I had it in me, I might go for a third night at the always enjoyable Chicago Chop House.

In the end, I never made it to the Chop House. I ended up gorging on pedestrian fare like the Chicago Hot Dog and Portillo's Italian Beef - both of which were quite tasty and a wonderful, greasy and cheap counterpoint to the rest of the weekend.

I've compiled the experiences a bit differently than Blogger likes to display posts. I've combined all four articles (including this one) in a time cascade meaning that you read the articles down the page in column format like you would a newspaper article, rather than the up reading, chronological format that is typical of Blogger.

So, in a nutshell, after finishing this, read the Trotter's article, then Alinea and then Compiled at the bottom of the page.

In short, the restaurants were amazing, educational and inspiring. I hope that all of you enjoy the images and the thoughts.


Chicago: Charlie Trotter's

Ever since I read the book Lessons In Service from Charlie Trotter I've been intrigued to eat at his restaurant. His approach to service and hospitality, not to mention food, seemed beautiful. Servers in suits, attentive service and top quality food. It was a scene made just for me to dine.

The weather in Chicago was crappy that weekend. O'Hare had been shut down and our friends from the West Coast just didn't make it. Had I not left Baltimore on the 2pm flight, I would not have made it to Chicago and my visions of dining grandieur would have been flushed.

But that was not the case and I found myself, along with Barista Matt, on our way through the snow to the remodeled rowhomes on West Armitage. Two short than our reservation for four, we hung out a bit by the bar while they arranged our table then we were on our way.

The decor is refined and tasteful. Subdued incandescent lighting produces a warm light that puts you at ease - even though the dress code requires a coat. But I guess it would be weird if the staff was dressed nicer than the guests. Luckily I brought a comfortable jacket.

Won't waste time chatting about inane subject matter, it's time to get to business. The Grand Menu of 8 courses was $175. The wine pairing was an additional $85. Both Barista Matt and myself went with the Grand Menu and Tasting.


Artic Char with Savoy Cabbage & Mustard
Henriot "Blanc Souverain - Pur Chardonnay" Brut NV


Four Story Hills Farm Avian with Poached Egg, Truffle Chutney & Pumpernickel Crisp
- Santiago Ruiz "O Rosal" Rias Baixas 2005

Okay, I'll say it now. The poached egg blew me away. Poached for ten hours at 40C. The texture was immaculate. It was sublime. It is almost impossible to describe the mouthfeel and the exquisite texture and how I dream of an egg such as this.


Japanese Tai with Grapefruit, Clams, Shima Mikan & Pink Peppercorn
Monthelie "Premier Cru - Chateau Gaillard" Domaine Annick Parent 2002

My first real experience with foam and it was, well, weird. Don't think I like the foam thing. Nothing of substance - just fleeting.


Roasted Monkfish Tail with Parsnip & Iranian Pistachio Emulsion

The roasted tail was wild. Who would have thought of this? Kinda like strange crisps. Crunchy. Interesting. And kinda tasty. Wonder how it would go with salt and a Coke.


Axis Venison Loin with Quinoa, Black Cardamom Mole & Ash Baked Eggplant
Felton Road Pinot Noir, Central Otago 2004

The venison was good, but the Pinot Noir was BAM! Bangin'! A beautiful pairing of bold flavors. Amazing.


Grilled Blood Orange Sorbet with Jicama & Cilantro
Seven Hills "Pentad" Walla Walla 2003

Again, the wine pairing was BA-BAMM! Fuckin' rockin'.


Organic d'Hiver Pears with Carmelized Endive & Burnt Hickory Syrup Ice Cream
J.J. Christoffel Erben "Urzinger Wurtzgarten" Riesling Eiswein, Mosel 2002

Eiswein - BAM! Again. Who is this sommelier and why won't he let up? I need more. Easily the most challenging dish of the night. See that white sauce second from the left? It was some sort of cheese sauce that was just challenging. Here's this sweet dessert kind of dish with this savory, salty kind of cheese that totally clashes with the sweetness and you're trying to find its' meaning. Challenging. Amazing.

Later, 2003 Barista Champion Heather Perry would ask me over breakfast - if I had experienced this dish anywhere else, would I have hated it outright or did I like it (or try to like it) merely because I was dining at Charlie Trotters?

Great question and I still don't know the answer.


Chocolate, Tea, Caramel
Warre's Late Bottled Vintage Port 1995" Brut NV

Oh, LBV 1995 - now you're killing me. Who keeps this stuff? If it was mine, it would have been long gone. Barista Matt couldn't get enough and asked for another round of chocolates. Didn't know you could do that! But I was pleased.

Easily one of the best meals I've ever had. The flavors were rich. The textures were varied and the wine pairings were the best I've ever experienced. A true compliment to the food. I've never experienced that before. Amazing.

The service was top-notch and everything I had hoped for after reading the book. Barista Matt asked to tour the wine cellars, so into the recesses of Trotter's we went. Down, down,down, past the kitchen, past the locker room and into the cellar where I came face to face with a mid-20th Century Petrus. Amazing. If only I understood wines more...

Chicago: Alinea

When I was trying to figure out how difficult it would be to obtain a reservation at Charlie Trotter's, Jay Cunningham suggested Alinea as an alternative. At the time I knew nothing about Alinea or it's chef, Grant Achatz. A little internet research yielded some dramatic results. Started at Trotter's, worked at The French Laundry, staged at El Bulli and then was Sous Chef at French Laundry before heading off to Chicago to first work Trio and then open Alinea.

Read the experiences on eGullet if you want to know more about the ambience. It's modern and refined and everyone is sharply dressed. The open kitchen with its' modular design is just gorgeous. It has quickly become the inspiration for the modular design of Nail Salon Espresso.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After the completely fabulous (and expensive) meal at Trotter's the night before, I was about to leave my hotel room with $300. Then I thought better of it. Perhaps I'll need another hundred, just in case. Tucked another hundred into my wallet and I was off with $480 in my pocket. That's $400 for the dinner and $80 for cab fares and incidentals. Plenty of cash for this Bling Bling Barista.

Forget the extaneous stuff. You can read about the layout, design and ambience on the Internet. Let's get right to the nitty-gritty. Everything you've heard about Alinea being one of America's cutting-edge restaurants is true. The food is wild. The food is good. The pairings are tasty and subtle. There was no blasting chorus of wines like at Trotter's. Everything just fit nicely together in a smooth and subtle symphony. My team of captain and sommelier were wonderful. Everyone in the dining room spied on each others' tables to see either what was coming or fondly reminiscing about that same dish.

Originally, I had planned on dining with Bronwen but when her flight from the West Coast was cancelled due to Chicago weather, I ended up dining solo. They graciously accommodated me at a luscious dark walnut table as I sat on the wall-length couch, arms propped with pillows. How nice.

You have a choice at Alinea. Some sort of short menu or The Tour. Of course, having travelled all this way, I was choosing The Tour. Then there's the wine pairings - $85 for the short pairing or the same amount as The Tour for The Tour Pairing.

The Tour is $195. The Tour Pairing was an additional $195. A quick head calculation and I was glad I brought that extra Franklin. The Grand Tour it would be.

And here it is, The Grand Tour as it was presented to me on Sunday, Februrary 25, 2007:

Note: if the course was paired with a wine, that wine is listed below.


Croquette - Smoked steelhead roe, several garnishes
Chartogne-Taillet "Cuvee Ste-Anne" Brut with Pineau des Charentes


Octopus - shiso, papaya, toasted soy


Chanterelle - Carrot, curry, ham
Quinta do Alqueve Fernao Pires, Ribatejo, Portugal 2005


Apple - horseradish, celery

An encapsulation of the celery juice inside a horseradish sphere sitting in apple juice. Trippy.


Monkfish - banana, onion, lime
Vincent Danver Chassagne-Montrachet ler Cru "La Romanee" 2004

This one was three preparations of monkfish - poached, fried and mousse.


Duck - mango, yogurt, pillow of juniper air
F.X. Pichler Gruner Veitliner Smaragd "Loibner Berg", Wachau 2004

Just wild. Get close and smell the juniper as it emanates out of the pillow.


Black Truffle - explosion, romaine, parmesan

Far out. The truffle juice explodes out of the ravioli onto your tongue. One of the most gushed about courses on eGullet.


Short Rib - Guiness, peanut, fried broccoli
Paolo Bea Montefalco Rosso Riserva "Pipparello", Umbria 2001


Yuzu - frozen and chewy


Chestnut - Blis maple syrup


Persimmon - brioche, mace, grapefruit
Weinbach Gewurtztraminer "Altenbourg" Vendanges Tardives, Alsace 2003


Licorice Cake - muscovado sugar, orange, anise hyssop

Definitely the wildest preparation.


King Crab - vinegar, aromatics, rice
A.R. Lenobie "Rose Millesime" Brut, Damery 2000


Skate - caper, lemon and brown butter powders
Francois Villard "Terrasses du Palat" Condrieu, N. Rhone 2004

That swirl that looks like the galaxy were the powders. Mind-blowing.


Pineapple - bacon powder, black pepper


Lamb - date, mastic, rosemary aroma
Jean Royer Chateauneuf-du-Pape "Hommage a mon Pere" S. Rhone 2001


Hot Potato - cold potato, black truffle, butter


Venison - encased in savory granola
Azelia Barolo "San Rocco", Castigilone Falletto 1998


Foie Gras - spicy cinnamon, apple pate de fruit


Orange - olive oil, green olive, almond
Disnoko Tokaji Aszu "6 Puttonyos", Hungary 1997


Coconut - saffron, kiwi, cornmeal
Cavalchina "Le Pergole del Sole" Muller-Thurgau Passito, Veneto, Italy 2003

Notice the translucent brown jelly on the right corner. It was a roasted corn gelee and it rocked the house.

Chocolate - passionfruit, kaffir lime leaf, soy
Abbazia di Novacella Moscato Rosa "Praepositus", Alto Adige 2004

- I apologize about this course. I guess I got so carried away (not to mention blitzed on the flowing wine) that I must have forgotten to snap a photo.


PCaramel - meyer lemon, cinnamon perfume

That's it. That was the complete 23 course Tour at Alinea. Grant wasn't in that evening but the food was wild. The utensils were wonderful and that roasted corn gelee rocked the house. Twice. Somewhere along the way, I enjoyed some sort of bottled water and a sort of French pressed coffee from Intelligentsia. I say 'sort of' because even at this grand restaurant they still don't quite "get" the nuances and finesse of great coffee.

The dining room was full when I arrived so I mainly kept to myself and tried to snap the pics as unobtrusively as possible. The friendly ladies dining next to me asked if I was a food critic. Perhaps I should have said yes. Then again, I later noticed the couple across the room snapping images of their meal as well. Just label me "tourist."

I ended up being the final diner in my dining room which allowed me to actually chat with Olivia, the captain and Scott, the sommelier and ask them their thoughts on service and their experience working in one of America's top restaurants. Passion and commitment to service seemed to be the predominant thought. Throughout the evening the service was friendly but reserved and respectful. I think I would prefer service slightly (and I do mean slightly) more colloquial, but that's a personal preference on the way I would like to be treated and not a criticism on their approach.

In the end, I was glad that I brought the extra hundred, but distressed that I didn't bring another hundred. Here's the breakdown of my bill:

Menu - $195
Wine - $195
Bever - $8
Sub - $398
10.25% tax - 40.80
Total - 438.80

Now remember, I only had $480 in my pocket, lose $30 for the round-trip cab ride to and from Alinea and that leaves me with $450 in cash. Quite a bit short to cover the tip. Ended up charging $100 to my credit card and covering the balance in cash and I spent a total of $540.00 on dinner for one.

Holy Crap.

This was easily the most reckless dinner I've ever spent money on. Five Hundred and Forty Dollars. I must be insane. There must be something wrong with me. Yes, it was a business trip. An exploration into understanding the level of service and approach to service at the top echelons of the hospitality industry. But it was expensive for a dinner. True, it was cheaper than the Culinary Boot Camp at the Culinary Institute of America. But it was an expensive dinner.

But was it worth the Five Hundred Dollars? That is the question.

It was absolutely one of the wildest meals of my life. I'll say that for now and leave the analysis to another post.

Chicago: Compiled

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?

Good questions.

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.