Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Guest Post | 53rd & 6th Halal Cart

Hello everyone -- it's Marcus here, again. Admittedly, Stefie's epic Alinea adventure is a hard act to follow in terms of writing reviews. And yet, Stefie managed to execute this feat elegantly to the tune of a 45-dollar truffle burger from B&B. How can I possibly top all this in a single review? What kind of foodie-venture could possibly be an appropriate and worthy follow-up, especially when you consider that Alinea was one of only two Chicago restaurants to recently acquire three out of three Michelin Stars?

The answer is painfully obvious: The 53rd and 6th Halal Cart, of course.

Whether you know it as the 53rd and 6th Halal Cart, or the Famous Halal Guys, or simply as "Chicken and Rice," it's all the same. A Halal cart by any other name would be just as addicting.

The cart operates on the southwest corner of 53rd and 6th here in Manhattan, and is open from about 7:30 p.m. to 4:00 a.m., which are strange but convenient hours for anyone coming home from work or looking for a late-night meal. Be aware that there IS a cart at the exact same place that is open during the daytime, and this is an entirely different, unrelated cart. But even if you arrive within the correct timeframe, there are many carts open on this intersection (and intersections nearby), making it confusing for the uninformed to know how to find this particular cart.

Luckily, an easy way to spot the cart for the geographically-challenged is to look for the long line of people. The line will be decently long before the cart even opens, but once the Halal Guys start serving platters, the line actually moves more quickly than you'd expect. Expect anywhere from a 15-30 minute wait on average, but you're looking at about an hour wait if the line is starting to reach the benches located down the street.

For about six dollars, you can get a rice platter with either chicken, lamb, or both. There will be a small side of lettuce and pita bread, to boot.

If you walk around to the right side of the cart, you'll find the bin containing sauces. Usually the distribution of sauces is a bit more even than what's depicted in the above picture, but you'll have access to white sauce, hot sauce, and barbecue sauce. The latter two sauces are both in reddish bottles and can be difficult to tell apart. The barbecue sauce bottle has a browner tint to it compared to the fire-engine red tint of the hot sauce bottle.

Stefie ordered the chicken and rice combo and layered it with a light dose of white sauce and barbecue sauce. The first thing you'll notice is that these platters are large. This Halal cart doesn't mess around. Unless you're already nearing a state of insatiable voracity by the time you get in line, it's going to be a challenge to take the whole platter down in one sitting, but if you share with a friend and split the cost, you're basically paying three dollars for a large meal... in Manhattan. Over here, three-dollar dinners are hard to come by.

I, on the other hand, decided to get the lamb and rice combo with a dash of hot sauce and a light mixing of white. The lamb is juicy and flavorful, whereas the chicken is relatively drier and blander, but the combination of rice and sauce makes the platter greater than the sum of its parts. The white sauce is especially good. It's not as heavy as the yogurt-like white sauces you'll get at other Halal carts, which makes it a bit easier to digest. It goes well with the hot sauce (not so much with the barbecue sauce, in my opinion), but you should not add too much of either unless you want an extremely greasy meal.

But to be more specific, you should probably go easy on the hot sauce. The first time I had visited this cart, I had a masochistic desire to push the spice levels into overdrive. Up until that point, I had been disappointed at the notion that nothing in NYC had provided me with anything I had considered "spicy." Vietnamese sandwiches at their maximum levels failed to stimulate. Habanero chicken always fell flat. Scorching-hot Chinatown soups barely earned as much as a yawn from me. I can tolerate a lot of spice. And so, in all my arrogance, I decided that there would be no harm in dousing my chicken and rice with a healthy ring of hot sauce.

Oh, dear, was that ever a bad idea. I have no clue what the Halal Guys put in that hot sauce, but the primary ingredient is clearly something that was forged in the ninth circle of Hell and then fused with the fury of a thousand suns. Don't try to be a hero with the hot sauce. There is no Elysium to be achieved, here -- only punishment for your hubris in the form of an unbearably hot, searing reminder: yes, it is possible to simulate the experience of drowning in magma. I vividly recall coughing uncontrollably as my eyes and nose began to produce enough liquid to keep a small country hydrated for weeks. Even after dousing the remainder of my dish in the white sauce, it just wasn't enough to offset the inferno that was ravaging my insides. If, by any chance, you find yourself in a similar predicament, there is an ice cream cart located a few seconds south at the same intersection. Dairy is your best weapon against spice. And let me tell you, though -- without going into too much detail -- that the onslaught does not quite end immediately. The spice will come back to haunt you the next day. There's no escaping the feeling of dread that accompanies the sensation of a fireball ready to erupt deep within your core. You've been warned.

Icarus flew too close to the sun. Oedipus tried to avoid his incestuous fate. Marcus thought he could handle the Halal Guys' hot sauce.

Findings: Overall, though, as long as you go easy on the sauces, you'll really enjoy what you find at this cart. The portions are very generous, and the price is relatively low. Between the choices of lamb and chicken and the three sauce variants, you're sure to find a combo that you'll love. The line is oftentimes long for a reason. Regardless, the wait is worth it. Check this place out when you get a chance -- but leave your ego at the door.

Price point: $6 for a chicken and rice platter.

--October 1, 2010

Famous Halal Guys / 53rd & 6th Halal Cart
corner of 53rd Street and 6th Avenue
New York, NY 10019
open daily from 7:30pm-4am

Friday, November 26, 2010

Food for Thought | Roger Vergé

“The cook creates and marries ingredients as poets marry words. We play chords with flavors to invent new and subtle harmonies.”
--Roger Vergé

Friday, November 19, 2010

Food for Thought | Louis Pasteur

“A bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world.”
--Louis Pasteur

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dinner | Burger & Barrel Winepub

After reading a bunch of press I had seen (first in Grub Street), I was dying to try Burger & Barrel Winepub (aka B&B), mainly because the same group behind Lure Fishbar had newly opened it very recently (three weeks prior to my actual visit). As I'm a big fan of the décor and experience I had at Lure Fishbar (as I've mentioned before in my post on Marea), I wanted to see what other tricks the restaurant creators had up their sleeves.

I wanted to surprise Marcus with a new place to eat last Friday, so I thought it would be perfect to try out B&B on a Friday night as its name boasts it to be a winepub, which I found to be intriguing, as public houses (i.e., where pub actually comes from) tends to focus on beer/ales/ciders on draft, not necessarily wine. Incidentally, the restaurant's name is derived from the main features on its menu--burgers and local wine on tap (thus, the barrel in its name). I liked the concept, so I thought it was worth checking out.

A couple days before I planned to take Marcus here, I read this article in Serious Eats about the supposed new "It" burger. I didn't want to read too much about it (as TV as in food, I still believe in avoiding spoilers at all costs), but definitely wanted to come see for myself. All I knew was that it contained white truffles in some way and that it cost a whopping $45 a pop.

I underestimated the popularity of this place--being that it just opened, I thought Marcus and I could waltz right in a little before 8 PM and just get a table. Major fail on my part as there were no empty tables, and the bar was completely lined with people. Just as a warning, B&B does NOT take reservations. It has a first come, first served policy (contrary to its website which offers an option to "Book a Table"), but I think they do take reservations for large parties.

Guests who are waiting for the next available table are invited to wait by the bar (you can also opt to eat the bar, but the menu is limited to certain plates), so we both got a drink each while we were waiting and chatting. The restaurant has a dark interior and is very lowly lit at night, with selected areas that are lit for emphasis, creating a striking dramatic contrast. The walls above the bar area are lined with shelves filled with endless bottles of wine (and occasional black chalkboard every so often) throughout the restaurant's circumference (see above photograph).

After about thirty minutes of waiting, Marcus and I were able to get closer to the bar (as I was able to score a seat). The restaurant's main dining room surrounds the open bar area, so it is very open. On the Daily Specials board (see above photograph), the "White Truffle Burger" is advertised with particular emphasis by the stars on both ends, where the "spotlight" on the center of the "Daily Specials" board really should have shone solely on the starred burger instead. I had told Marcus about how this is the new "It" burger and how I wasn't sure if it would be worth it to order because of the steep price. I tried to keep it a secret (i.e., the actual menu price for the burger), but that didn't last too long. There were two bartenders working that night (Farran and Sarah, who were great and super helpful). Marcus asked Farran if the white truffle burger was worth ordering, and without hesitation, Farran reported that this was in fact true, as he said he's had it a few times already, splitting it with the bar and waitstaff. Also, he was the one who (unwittingly) ratted me out on the burger's contentious price, as he casually replied to Marcus, "It's totally worth every bite. I mean, it's definitely great to order with a group of four so that everyone can have a taste of it. In fact, we encourage that. So even after splitting it among four, it'd be roughly $11 per person--not bad at all."

The cat was out of the bag--I couldn't keep Marcus in the dark any longer. You see, he is quite quick with numbers. I was still on the fence about ordering it at all, so I was pretty sure this would sway us in a more prudent direction. But instead of the "have-you-gone-mad" reaction and the "are-you-effing-insane" rant I was expecting, he looked at me the same way he looked at the counter girl at Madeleine Patisserie, the day we ordered every macaron flavor available, and said, with no reservations, "Let's order it."

I really liked the neat use of the black chalkboards throughout the restaurant, particularly this quotation by Oliver Wendell Holmes, which was very appropriate being that it was a winepub: "Wine is a food." I love restaurants that give things like this some thought.

Per another recommendation from Farran, I ordered a glass of the Château Bel-Air-Ouy "Grand Cru" from Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux with a 2000 vintage. He told us that this would go very well with the white truffle burger, so in the spirit of splurging this night on gastro-grub, I basically said, "Screw it," closed my eyes, and allowed myself to enjoy a $30 glass of wine. I had Marcus try a sip, leading him to say this was probably the best glass of wine he's ever had. I will have to agree with him on that. It was very smooth and rich, and for someone who still has much to learn about wine, I could definitely tell the 10-year vintage had developed a very complex flavor and depth, which I really enjoyed even by itself, before the food arrived.

We started off the meal with chicken lollipops with ancho chili barbecue marinade. The chicken was the "candy" part, and its bone was the "lollipop stick". The meat was very soft and flavorful. It was almost a little too spicy for me but still very enjoyable. A gourmet take on token bar "buffalo wings".

And the feature dish you've all been waiting for: the infamous white truffle burger! Serving the burger with fries, a side of truffle aioli, and onion rings, Chef Josh Capon (the mastermind behind this "new" burger) used beef supplied by Pat La Frieda, a local meat purveyor. And now for your spoiler alert (may the drooling commence): on top of this medium rare burger is melted robiola (an Italian soft-ripened cheese) and some shaved white truffles, perfectly doused with a homemade truffle aioli (made from truffle shavings and leftover peelings). I really like how the above photographs turned out--very dramatic, if I do say so myself. It was very fortunate for us that the mâitre d' sat us in a booth, though with much sinkage, that had really, really good lighting. It just so happened that the light shone right at the center of our table, permitting my camera to capture very decent photographs that, in any other circumstances, would not have done the documentation of the food eaten that night any justice. The burger tasted as what the perfect burger should--a medium-rare center that manifests itself to be succulent, slightly bloody, practically melting in your mouth. And the savoriness of the black truffle--a continuous umami eruption with each and every bite! It was the kind of richness you'd imagine yourself to only be able to reach what I like to call "foodie nirvana" (more commonly known as a taste/food-induced orgasm), the kind exhibited by Meg Ryan with that sandwich she ordered in that acclaimed scene from When Harry Met Sally. Chef Capon did not overdo the aioli or the shavings of the black truffle (not that one could afford to, anyway), as it paired agreeably with the beef. Add the 2000 vintage Bordeaux, and you've got yourself a great Friday night meal at the gastropub of all gastropubs (if such a title could exist). Destination: food coma.

The accompanying entrée we ordered in tandem with the burger was the short rib ravioli with braised short rib and ricotta salata. While Marcus enjoyed the burger almost as much as I did, he actually found the ravioli to be great as well. The short rib meat was braised to the right texture, and the hearty sauce served with the ravioli appeared to have been the braising sauce used for the short rib meat. The cheese sprinkled on top and the ricotta on the inside was light and gave a nice creaminess to the robust flavors of the sauce and meaty interior. The ravioli was a good amount past al dente (Italian for "to the tooth"), the perfect consistency for such an enveloping pasta.

Findings: Please go with three friends to Burger & Barrel and order the white truffle burger before it's gone (anticipated month of menu extinction indefinitely, or until black truffles are back in season next year, is January). It is totally worth it, especially as an appetizer split with a party of four! Also, the splurge on the Bordeaux is also a must--it's as if the burger and the Bordeaux go hand in hand. And if you do decide to do live on the edge and do something crazy for once, please go to B&B early--chances are if you dilly-dally (as we did), it'll take you an hour to get a table and another half hour to get your burger. The service is pretty good, and the bartenders are fun to talk to. And if the white truffle burger is gone by the time you make it to B&B, don't fret! It seems like everything is delicious there, so you can't go wrong ordering something else (when in doubt, ask the bartenders and the servers)! P. S. I'm still having dreams about that burger, and I fully admit that I may have drooled while writing parts of this post.

Price point: $30 for glass of Bordeaux (2000 vintage); $10 for for the table dish; $18 for entrée; $45 for the daily special.

--November 5, 2010

Burger & Barrel (B&B) Winepub
25 West Houston Street
New York, NY 10012

Friday, November 12, 2010

Food for Thought | Luciano Pavarotti

“One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”
--Luciano Pavarotti
from his autobiography My Own Story, 1981.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Q&A | Dan

Dan, one of my best friends from college, and I met during sophomore year while working on our school's yearbook. It wasn't until senior that he and I started becoming really great friends, where we became each others' ear and shoulder for support and began embarking on many great trips together (through Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston), usually for art/design, shopping, and good food. As I've mentioned in my El Vez post, Dan and I, as restaurant-design fanatics, unofficially started what we called our "Starr Restaurant Tour" of NYC, Philly, and beyond. Dan and I are always on the prowl for really solid design aesthetic as well as delicious comfort food when we have our long-awaited reunions between here and Philadelphia. I look forward to many more adventures with Dan (and documenting them here, of course). Who knows -- maybe he'll be switching cities soon (NYC, I hope), so we can hang out more often as we should! Thanks again, Dan!

Dan and me at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (the day we hit up four "Starrs" -- including Barclay Prime as Dan will mention below -- in one day)!



Philadelphia, PA

Barclay Prime in Philadelphia – I have only frequented this Stephen Starr gem once (with none other than Stefie), but I would go again in a heartbeat.

I am a very “comfort food”-oriented person, so places (in Philadelphia) you can find me most frequently tend to serve simple, all-American cuisine (such as Marathon Grill, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and Pizzeria Stella). Italian eateries such as the Olive Garden, Café Dolce, and Pizzicato are also regularly frequented.

During the day, a Starbucks Caffè Americano; at night, a pomegranate martini (or any martini really)

I cannot pass up the sight of a Philly soft pretzel, especially fresh ones from sidewalk vendors in Center City.

strip steak (cooked on the grill) with garlic mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables

My mother’s homemade five-layer lasagna – made with a sauce passed down from my grandmother and served with garlic bread – is fantastic.

Although I have been to Italy once (spent a weekend in Rome in 2008), I would love to go back and explore the edible offerings in areas such as Venice and Milan (and to sample wine in the Tuscany region). One thing to know about me is that I could live solely on Italian food, and “going straight to the source”, so to speak, seems like the perfect adventure.

Giada de Laurentiis, Emeril Lagasse

An amazing confit de canard that I had in Paris two summers ago (at a restaurant whose name I cannot remember unfortunately) – I have not been able to find an equivalent duck confit in America.

cooked carrots, black olives, anything overly spicy

triple chocolate mousse cake sprinkled with chocolate chips

Unfortunately, I do not own any cookbooks or food-related coffee table books at this time, but I am always open to suggestions!

à la mode, caramelize, pinot

Four Tines!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Chef's Tasting | Alinea

So here's the post that you've been (im)patiently waiting for--my pilgrimage, if only one timezone over, to one of the most innovative, original, and inspiring restaurants in North America: Chef Grant Achatz's Alinea. Originally, I had planned to take my mom here as a Mother's Day gift back in June, when I had my annual visit to Chicago to visit my kai family (Cantonese equivalent for "godfamily" whom includes my mom's best friend, her husband, and their daughter), but a family emergency came up which required my mom stay back on the East Coast to help out. Unfortunately, I had to cancel the reservation for the two of us, which left an open ticket to Chicago for my mom to use within the next year.

I kept mulling over when I'd be able to sit down and dine at Chef Achatz's culinary laboratory, because it had seemed at the time that I was so close (being able to actually book a reservation in June) yet so far away (the East Coast isn't exactly neighbors with the Mid-West). Then I thought of a great idea--Kai Ma (as I've introduced her in my post for her birthday) had her 50th birthday coming up in October (on 10.10.10, no less!), so I was thinking my mom and I could come visit her for her birthday weekend as well as take her to Alinea to celebrate the milestone birthday along with Kai Yeh (my godfather) and Laura (my godsister).

Once Kai Ma confirmed that the three of them were "in" for this birthday dinner at Alinea, I added a reminder in my calendar so I'd know exactly when to call the restaurant, in hopes of scoring a reservation for a party of five with no issues (boy, did I ever underestimate that)! I made sure the reservation policy (i.e., all reservations for a desired month are open to the public on the date of the 1st, two months prior) didn't change from since the last time I had called (i.e., if I wanted any reservation for a date in October, I would have to call on the first of August).

With some minor delays and date-to-begin-calling changes on part of the restaurant, August 16 finally rolled around, and I was desperately staring at my watch, waiting for it to turn 11 AM (Alinea's front desk opens at 10 AM, Central Time) and exhibiting intense symptoms of RLS (i.e., Restless Leg Syndrome). I took this phone call very seriously--I had synchronized my watch down to the second and had preset the restaurant's number on my cell, so that all I would need to do is press Send to dial away. I was more than ready (or so I thought). Thoroughly convinced that I wouldn't even need to cross my fingers as my meticulous planning would yield me a much-desired, hassle-free reservation for a party of five, I have to admit in hindsight that this minor hubris on my part will have cost me forty-five minutes of my life I'll never get back.

Then, it turned 11, and without a flinch, I pressed send. Busy signal. I tried again.
*Neer-neer-neer* All circuits are busy. Please try again later.

Panic mode commenced. There were no other alternatives, no Plan "B". I had my heart totally set on Alinea--how could I substitute another gastronomic destination after having spent so many moments dreaming and drooling over the Alinea cookbook, the result of Chef Achatz's culinary ingenuity?

But at 11:44, just as my heart was about to sink, it was no longer a busy signal or an "all circuits are busy" message. It was actually ringing! To think that constantly pressing redial over and over for the course of several failed phoning attempts would have me nearly forget what a dialing signal sounds like! The mâitre d' answered, but before I could respond with all of the necessary information for a reservation, the internal hysteria had only then began to wind down, as I was gasping into the receiver, totally out of breath. To my dismay, as I started to regain composure, there were no tables remaining for five. I could feel my heart sinking again. I asked her if there were any tables left at all, and the mâitre d' informed me of an open table of four at 5 PM, offering me a spot on the wait list for any cancellations that would allow for a party of five. I guessed I had to take what I could get, after having tried to get through to the restaurant for that long.

Without a moment to lose, I was the lucky reservation holder for a party of four at Alinea on Saturday, October 9 (which I dub to be Fortuitous Omen #1, as the Chinese like to celebrate birthdays on or before the actual birth date). So excited that I'd finally be going to there at all, I even considered lugging Chef Achatz's Alinea cookbook all the way from New York to Chicago, all 6.6 pounds of it (random tidbit, courtesy of Amazon.com) for him to sign, but there is no guarantee (per the mâitre d' whom I asked) that he'll even be there, as he's constantly being called in and out of the kitchen for various things. So I opted not to risk having my suitcase blow the maximum weight that would result in a ridiculous penalty fee. I would very much rather put that money towards the meal that night.

Thankfully, the Saturday morning of the dinner, I had received a call from Alinea, saying there was a party cancellation that would allow for us to have a table for five with no problems. Kai Ma was very ecstatic that the five of us would be able to embark on this wonderful culinary adventure together--birthday and all. I should've known this was Fortuitous Omen #2, indicative for great things to come that night!

So I (on the left) finally made it to Alinea (pictured as the granite-colored building) with (to the right of me) my mom, Kai Ma, Laura, and Kai Yeh (not pictured here, as he's taking the photo for us).

Before I made it to Alinea, I read the introduction to the Alinea cookbook to learn more about its chef and his origins. Located in the neighborhood of Lincoln Park of northern Chicago, Alinea is the home to Chef Grant Achatz and his explorations of classic flavors with a twist (it's how I see it, anyway). Since his graduation from the Culinary Institute of America, Chef Achatz had worked four years at The French Laundry (he sent his résumé every day to Chef Thomas Keller until he gave in and hired him), cooking his way up to become a sous chef. It was there he learned to recognize "food in an artistic away, in an individual expressionist way," where "constant creativity" slowly became a part of his mentality in the kitchen. He also trained under Chef Ferran Adrià, the father of "deconstructivist" cuisine, in his "kitchen laboratory" at elBulli--"a kitchen that is not a kitchen"--where he honed his inner creativity, giving him the confidence to begin exploring "new avenues in the kitchen."

After The French Laundry, Chef Achatz left to become the executive chef of Trio in Evanston, Illinois (now closed), where he really got to fully develop his avant-garde, cutting edge cuisine. Here, he met Nick Kokonas, a Chicago businessman and a regular patron at Trio. He became so blown away by the chef and his food that Mr. Kokonas told the him that "if he ever wanted to open his own restaurant, maybe they could partner in some way." Three years later, Chef Achatz and Mr. Kokonas collaborated to build a restaurant where "invention, creativity, and surprise would drive the food." And so, Alinea was born and continues to thrive on the gastronomic bucket lists of foodies and beyond. Gourmet magazine named it the Best Restaurant in America back in 2006. Also, as of late, it was named one of the World's 50 Best Restaurants by S. Pellegrino (at #7) and subsequently as the Best Restaurant in North America (as it is the first North American restaurant appearing on the list).

I guess that was enough background and history. Let's begin the journey through twenty-one courses.

My mom showing off the restaurant's address, 1723 North Halsted!

View of inside Alinea, upstairs from our round table (Fortuitous Omen #3). The Chinese prefer to dine at round tables because they seat more people and contain no sharp edges (typically bad feng shui). Also, round tables allow all diners to see each other (without differentiation of status, as well).

These were placed as "mystery centerpieces" (the "orange flags" and rosemary sticks)--we were told by our captain that they'd be incorporated in the course of our dinner later on. It'll surprise you as much as it did me. Details to follow later.

Napkins served at Alinea with its logo embroidered on them. This logo is actually an artistically-designed pilcro (¶), a symbol typically seen in editorial marks to denote individual paragraphs. A pilcro is sometimes called an alinea, and incidentally, the Latin root behind this word (and of course, the restaurant's name), a linea, means "off the line"--what Chef Achatz likes to call "the start of a new train of thought" (as he shared during his guest appearance on The Martha Stewart Show last week). I discovered this random tidbit after my visit, and I find it to completely heighten my understanding behind the chef's philosophy behind his restaurant and cuisine. Very beautiful.

This served as our "flatware pillow" for all clean, unused flatware to be placed before its respective course. Additionally, this "pillow" is featured on the Alinea cookbook cover.

Just before I delve into what you've all been waiting to drool over, I'd like to point out something about the structure of Chef Achatz's menus. The "title" of the course features its main ingredient--the focus of the entire dish. After each "title" (a snapshot of the menu will conclude this blog post), there are differently sized opaque circles, representing (relatively, of course) the size of the course at hand, followed by a catalog of the rest of the accompanying ingredients for each course. I've italicized each "course title" so you'll know what the main focus of each is.

Our twenty-one course dinner began with three atypical cocktails. Presentation (not in liquid but solid form) was extraordinary, and the serving-ware used was really clever. The first (on the right) was lemon with Luxardo bitter, Luxardo amaro, and grapefruit. This was to be taken using the metal toothpick from the circular frozen block plate and placed wholly in our mouths. This was very refreshing--tasted very much like a frozen lemon drop cocktail--definitely my favorite of the three.

The second (in the middle) was apple with Laird's apple brandy, grenadine, and thyme--an ode to the classic Jack Rose cocktail, which typically contains applejack (a concentrated hard cider), grenadine, and lemon/lime juice, but with a thyme twist (ha-ha to the rhyming of lime and thyme)! We "drank" this cocktail by removing the metal scoop from the little granite-colored plate/bowl. The apple brandy was very potent and bitter in flavor, so it wasn't something I was too crazy about, but I still really liked the idea behind it.

The last cocktail (on the left) was squash with cynar, Carpano Antica, and 7-year flor de cana (seen as rum foam here), served on a pedestal, to be used as a champagne flute. This was also very bitter (probably because of the bitter apéritif nature of cynar and the strong flavors of the Carpano Antica vermouth), but the presentation was very lovely. Overall, I wasn't dissatisfied with the cocktails--they just weren't cocktails I would usually order from a cocktail menu.

For Laura, as she is still in high school, was given "cocktails" sans the alcohol: for lemon, she was given frozen and chewy grapefruit; for apple, she was given cider, grenadine, and thyme; and for squash, she was given molasses, Carpano Antica, and sage. As such, the essence of the cocktail was maintained in a non-alcoholic form. She told me they were delicious.

Our first "food" course was the Steelhead roe (the orange-colored rainbow trout eggs) with coconut (cubed and in frozen mousse-form), licorice (the black dot), and pineapple (dried as well as foam). The richness of the roe along with the sweetness of the coconut/pineapple and sharpness of the licorice went really well together. It was not just about the taste, though--the interplay of different textures and temperatures (the foam, the frozen mousse, the dried pineapple, the cubed coconut) was a nice surprise. Also, from an artistic standpoint, love the abstraction here. Absolutely beautiful--very avant-garde.

This next course was chao tom with sugar cane (rectangular prism seen above), shrimp, and mint. As you'll probably notice throughout the entirety of this dinner, the waitstaff gave us very specific instructions for each course. Here, we were told that rectangular prism part of the hor d'oeuvre was there only for the juice, so we had to put the entire thing in our mouths, bite/chew/slurp in the juice from the sugar cane stalk to get the full flavor of the sugar cane mixed in with the shrimp and mint, and spit out the remnant of the cane. Definitely a Vietnamese-inspired dish (as you can see from the origin of the dish name)--very strong flavors from the mint and sugar cane.

Served alongside with the chao tom, this dish was the yuba (i.e., Japanese tofu skin known as dried bean curd) with an interesting combination of shrimp, miso, and togarashi (Japanese seasoning). It was served in this granite flat vase-like item with a creamy spicy sauce, most likely seasoned with shichimi togarashi (the seasoning's full name)--a typical Japanese spice mixture containing seven ingredients: coarsely ground red chili pepper (main ingredient), ground Sichuan pepper, roasted orange peel, white and black sesame seeds, hemp seed, ground ginger, and nori (dried seaweed--the kind used in sushi rolls). As you can see, the long branch-like item is made from yuba. Wrapped around it is the shrimp (thinly sliced) seasoned with white and black sesame seeds (indicative of the shichimi togarashi seasoning). I loved the crunch of the yuba (integrity of the main ingredient was still in tact even with the moistness from the shrimp and the creamy sauce at the end within the serving dish) and the chilliness of the shrimp with the spicy Japanese seasoning. I could also taste the subtle use of miso in there as well. These two Asian-inspired dishes were very well-executed for a restaurant classified as New American (which I tend to disagree with--after having eaten at here, I certainly find its cuisine to not be of singular classification, but of embracing many of the world's cuisines).

This was probably on everyone's top favorite that night. It involved both our taste buds and our sense of smell (I was going to throw in olfaction, but I don't want to sound too pretentious, haha). This was the maitake with root vegetables (carrots and brussel sprouts), chestnut custard with lentils, and "autumnal vapor". The "autumnal vapor" was created by pouring hot water into the lower bowl, atop the apples, cinnamon, hay, and pumpkin (seeds intact), exuding the redolence of fall's harvest or a "hayride" per Chef Achatz. Maitake (Japanese for "dancing mushroom") is a polypore mushroom that grows in clusters at the base of trees, typically oaks. After having read this, I understand why the chef plated this dish the way it appears above. As maitake is found at the base of trees, the chef is, in essence, reverting the mushroom back to its natural environment (with hay, fallen apples, pumpkins, and cinnamon) as close as possible on a dinner plate. Ingenius! The maitake was very tender and flavorful (as it seemed to have this super-concentrated taste of several mushrooms), even more so enhanced by the vapor. The root vegetables and chestnut custard lentils were great, too. All of the hearty flavors of fall found in this almost soup-like vegetable stew. Back to basics--love it!

The next course was apple with horseradish and celery, served in a vase-shaped shot glass with a small leaf atop. "Open wide and close quickly," they urged (i.e., take it like a "shot"). "Everything must go inside the mouth all at once." I complied, doing exactly so--the orb fell into my mouth, surrounded by the celery juice (the green liquid seen above). Before I could realize what to do next, the orb shell exploded (probably from the heat and moisture inside my mouth) with a boom of flavors. A refreshing rush of sweet apple juice spilled forth, followed by the mellow biting zing from the orb's shell, which was made using horseradish. The unlikely combination of the three worked quite well, making for a nice segue between hor d'oeurves and/or starter dishes described above.

Our captain introduced this dish as the chef's monochromatic dish (as witnessed above), for which the main ingredient is halibut, served with razor clams, black pepper, vanilla, and lemon. I love the concept behind this dish--limiting the ingredients to one shade of color while creating something that plates well and tastes great. The halibut was cooked well, still tender on the inside, and the razor clams were my favorite part of this dish. Easy to eat and not very chewy -- and it had a nice, peppery seasoning.

My favorite photographed course that night (I've been in dire need of practicing my DSLR focusing skills): the pheasant with green grape, walnut, and "burning leaves". Instructed to be eaten in one bite (sans leaves, of course), the pheasant was to collapse as it was eaten. The "burning leaves" portion of this meal consisted of the leaves being blow torched in the kitchen, to effect childhood memories during the fall season. Very intense, sensory-wise. Also, this was my first meal consisting of pheasant, and the overall taste was nutty and reminded me fondly of duck. The batter used was light (the technique used is similar to the way the Japanese make tempura, by mixing the batter with soda water), and its result--crunchy. The presentation here was also stellar, making for another unique way of plating. Also, part of a pheasant's diet consists of leaves, so that fits in well here, too.

Another top favorite of the night as well as the most "interactive" course: the short rib. We were instructed to remove the glass (which had on it the olive, blackberry, sweet potato, garlic, and cherry to be used later as part of the dish) from the wood (see "1") and place it in front of it (see "2"). Below the glass (as seen in "2") is a pair of odd metal prongs sitting inside the wood that we were told to remove (see "2"). Where was the short rib--the main protein of the dish--you ask? A very curious question, indeed.

Once removing the metal prongs, we linked them together (see "3") and turned them upside down (see "4"). The captain's assistants used the pair of thick, flat chopsticks that held the "orange flags" in place (i.e., the "mystery centerpieces" from the beginning of the night -- see photo from earlier), to rest the "orange flag" on the set of assembled prongs (see "5"). The "orange flag" was a flat, tomato pasta. Next, they put a chunk of braised short rib meat (see "6")--you know, the kind that falls right off the bone--and asked us to place whatever "toppings" (see "1") we'd like on top. Once we did this, they instructed us to enclose it, like a ravioli-dumpling (see "7"). This was probably my #1 favorite overall (the maitake was a close contender, though). I love that we were able to "play" with our food here, and again, the presentation and atypical "dinnerware" were another marveling surprise--very clever and brilliant. Tfhe short rib was braised thoroughly for a tender, hearty texture, and the enveloping tomato pasta was soft and flavorful. The addition of the miscellaneous "toppings" brought out the ingredients of the short rib and the tomato from the ravioli. Another interesting point is that the "centerpieces" don't go unused at Alinea--they become a part of the entire meal (the rosemary will be seen later)!

Kai Ma, enjoying her personally handmade short rib ravioli-dumpling, along with Laura, chowing down in the background.

The following course was the hot potato with cold potato (i.e., chilled potato soup), black truffle, and butter. We were told this was a very time sensitive dish, so we had to drink it all in one shot: once we pulled the metal toothpick down and out, the contents (i.e., the black truffle and hot potato below it) were to fall into the chilled potato soup. The bowl was made from wax, which we used to drink the contents. The infusion of hot and cold along with the refined pungence of the black truffle sent an umami (Japanese for "good taste or flavor"--also known as the "fifth" taste of "savoriness") wave over our taste buds--the starchiness of the potatoes absorbed the flavor of the black truffle very nicely and evenly.

This main course was the pigeonneau (i.e., French for "squab") à la Saint-Clair, served on vintage, antique-y dishes to emphasize the "period" preparation of the squab. The cooking style, à la Saint-Clair, is an ode to a French gastronome August Escoffier, who was an early proponent of the use of squab in French cuisine (thank you, kevinEats, for refreshing my memory of Chef Achatz's philosophy behind this dish). In Le Guide Culinaire, his main contribution for updating and "tweaking" French cuisine, Escoffier had several "recipes" and "techniques" for the best ways of preparing squab (i.e., young pigeon), and this dish prepared by Chef Achatz is one of those ways. The preparation of the squab (more detail here with Mark Bernstein) is somewhat challenging in that it is in fact a smaller bird, where the breast meat tends to be overdone before the legs are even at that point. For this reason, Chef Achatz prepares each portion separately, as seen above, to maximize the texture and flavor for all parts of the squab without overcooking. So for this course, the poached squab is served over a tart puff pastry with mushrooms, mousse of foie gras, onion, and parsnips. This was probably the most savory of all the courses with the squab perfectly poached with the assorted vegetables and richness of the foie gras complementing it precisely. I think what really struck me about this dish was not only the preparation and the history behind it, but the reason why Chef Achatz decided to insert such an interlude of a course within a very forward-thinking tasting menu. It is his way of showing off his ability to execute the complexities behind fine, classic French cuisine (as he did so during his tenure at The French Laundry). Very cheeky and quick-witted--kudos to the chef!

A signature Chef Achatz dish, this next course was the black truffle explosion with romaine and parmesan. A raviolo delicately filled with truffle stock, topped with a slice of black truffle, romaine lettuce, and a sprinkle of parmesan, we were told to take this in one bite. The explosion followed immediately after, where the rush of umami recurred here, too. For any kitchen, you can never go wrong with impressing your guests with the tang of umami. Kai Ma and my mom said this reminded them of Shanghainese soup-filled dumplings (i.e., xiao long bao). All that was missing was a meaty interior and a splash of red vinegar. Nevertheless, we really enjoyed this course.

Served on an unusually-shaped sizzling hot plate (second photo), this course is the lamb with red cabbage (back piece), peach (middle piece), and rosemary aroma. Excuse my out-of-focus photos--we were told it was a "time sensitive" course (i.e., temperature related) so I took these photos as fast as possible. As you can see, they also used the rosemary holders placed on our tables as chopstick holders (first photo), then placed the actual rosemary into a designated spot on the hot plate for the course's aromatic effect (third and fourth photos). I liked the bite-size portions and the concentrated flavor of the peach and red cabbage. I think I may have waited too long (damn time used for photo taking!) that the lamb may have been more medium-well than medium. Otherwise, the rosemary flavor was very pervasive, and the lamb nearly tasted like there was actual rosemary with the lamb.

The next three courses were served concurrently. The first (on the left) was the pineapple with freeze-dried cherry (the transparent portion mixed with pineapple) and country ham (sprinkled in powder form on freeze-dried cherry). The overall taste reminded me of the toppings typically found on Hawaiian pizza. This was served between a rocking stainless steel clip that you'd hold and unclip accordingly. Savory and tangy simultaneously--nice intermission between entrées and dessert. The second (in the middle) was the bacon with butterscotch, apple, and thyme, served on a suspended wire rocking contraption. The bacon tasted as it sounded--sweet glazed with some thyme. Presentation was definitely the strong-suit for this course. The last (on the right) was the liquefied caramel popcorn. All of us at the table were saying how this seemed like something outside of the television cartoon, The Jetsons--food no longer appearing as "food" but in pill- or liquid-form (as seen here). Very innovative--tasted just like caramel popcorn without the nuisance of kernel shells.

Shortly after, the captain asked if any of us would like to finish the evening with a cup of tea or coffee, so I asked if I could have a cup of Earl Grey. She said that Alinea does not offer Earl Grey tea on the beverage menu because of the course on the tasting menu that is focused on Earl Grey as its main ingredient. I'm not gonna lie--I was a bit let down. Earl Grey has always been my tea of choice, and now I couldn't have it because the chef didn't want any thunder stolen from one of his last courses.

Fortunately, the letdown didn't last too long--Alinea won me back almost in an instant with thise next course, which was the Earl Grey with lemon, pine nut, and caramelized white chocolate. The whole dish rested on an air-filled pillow (see in group photo below), which continued to collapse with the weight of the plate and its contents, releasing an Earl Grey-scented aroma to enhance what would have been our mono-sensory experience of tasting the contents on the plate to the dimension of a multi-sensory dining experience (very similar to the aromatics of the autumnal vapor for the maitake and burning leaves of the pheasant). Along with the maitake and the short rib courses, this one ranks up there for us, too. The texture of the entire dessert was very delicate, which isn't to say the kitchen skimped on flavors and tastes--this certainly was not the case. Even as someone who isn't particularly fond of white chocolate (I'll always prefer dark), it shocked me how much I enjoyed the caramelized version that was featured in this course. It was as if the ingredients used were things that go well with tea--the "milk" as the white chocolate, the lemon as itself, and the pine nuts as something complimenting the tea. Beautiful execution--definitely my favorite "aroma" from the tasting menu.

Mom, Kai Yeh, Laura, Kai Ma, and me with our Earl Grey dessert and pillows.

Inside Alinea at night.

The next dessert dish was the bubble gum "cocktail tube" with hibiscus gel infused with long pepper (on the left), crème fraîche (middle), and a bubble tea (right) made with tapioca pearls and Bubble Yum. We had to "drink/eat" this in one "pull". This was another fun dish that reminded me of bubble tea (those flavored teas with a long, thick straw to fish out the black tapioca pearls bobbing at the bottom), only bubble gum flavored. The tube part of the dish seems like the type of straw that typically come with bubble teas. As seen in the many of the above courses, Chef Achatz seems to use a basic element of a dish or ingredient and encapsulate the surrounding ingredients into this said element or original environment (e.g., emulating maitake in its original habitat, incorporating Jack Rose apple cocktail flavors in solid form, creating the aroma of burning leaves for the pheasant), which makes for a very thorough history and thought behind those courses.

Kai Ma's complimentary birthday dessert--melting chocolate and crème!

As the last course of the tasting menu, this was the chocolate mousse (set in liquid nitrogen) with apricot (seen as the orange), honey brûlée (seen in the back, with the torched surface), and peanut nougat (topping the mousse). The nougat was light in texture and rich in peanut flavor, an unusual (but complimenting) combination with the different textures of the mousse (smooth and creamy) and the brûlée (hard surface, custardy interior). With these three "dessert" type items combined into one course, the sweetness of the dish was not overdone as it was mostly subtle, for when the three were combined, it rendered the optimal sweetness.

Inside the kitchen at Alinea--quiet and spotless. Unfortunately, as Chef Achatz pretty much "works the line" every night he's at the restaurant, it is hard for him to leave to greet and meet guests (we had already tried asking the captain to see if there was a possibility of meeting Chef Achatz). Not all was lost, though (see below).

To my excitement, Chef Achatz graciously signed my menu, adding a little message: "Toward creativity!" How fitting :]!

Findings: Let me reiterate the Tweet that I posted upon leaving Alinea that Saturday evening: Grant Achatz is a genius!

I know I may sound like a pretentious food snob or an echo of token foodie talk, but it's not propaganda--it's the complete and utter truth. For a tasting menu so extensive and lengthy (it was composed of twenty-one meals, after all), there were no disappointing courses. Not one. The amount of vision, detail, and forethought as well as the level of technique, execution, and perfection is arguably unmatched. I have had my fair share of tasting menus (though nothing of this grandeur) in several fine dining establishments in Manhattan, and I haven't come across anything of this caliber on a culinary level. Chef Achatz's vision behind Alinea is forward thinking, constantly in motion, very dynamic. His kitchen laboratory is perpetually pushing the envelope to explore and discover new frontiers in taste, technique, and presentation (as evidenced in my photographs and descriptions above)--something I admire tremendously.

Each and every course throughout the menu's progression contained some unexpected surprise (all good, of course) which added the extra dimension of playfulness to the entire experience -- in particular, the interactive nature of the dinner (i.e., having specific instructions as to how to eat each course for the restaurant's guests) as well as the multi-sensory thought behind each course (i.e., not limiting or relying on a guest's enjoyment of the dish solely through taste). I mean, when was the last time the chef encouraged you to "play" with your food?

Anyway, I know the price point is pretty steep, but it was definitely worth every penny. It was so very hard for me to completely capture this wonderful meal in words, so please use my photographs and descriptions in this blog post as some consolation for my inability to fully express how moved I was by the entire experience at Alinea. Nevertheless, I'm incredibly glad I was able to experience the single best meal in my life (I have no qualms saying such a thing) with my mom and my kai family, especially as a prelude to celebrating Kai Ma's 50th birthday with such an elegant, impressive, and totally mind-blowing meal. All fortuitous omens, countless culinary delights, lovely presentations, no disappointments, and great company. Can't ask for more than that.

Also, just a big, big thank you to my Kai Yeh for taking us all out that night!

Price point: $195 per person for the 21-course fall tasting menu.

--October 9, 2010

1723 North Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60614

Friday, November 5, 2010

Food for Thought | Charlie Trotter

“A jazz musician can improvise based on his knowledge of music. He understands how things go together. For a chef, once you have that basis, that’s when cuisine is truly exciting.”
--Charlie Trotter
from Atlasphere interview with Jennifer Iannolo, 12.15.2003.

Q&A | Marcus, ii

I was reading this Q&A in The Daily Meal about my cousin, Francis Lam (former feature writer of Gourmet, now senior writer for Salon.com's food section), and there was a question asked by the interviewer, Arthur Bovino (The Daily Meal editor), that had an "a-ha" moment for me.

The question was:
Is there one adjective used to describe food that you wish people weren’t allowed to use anymore?
Francis's was sinful. As you may already know, mine is tasty, and I've had a slight vendetta against its use, especially as it had been a word Marcus used quite frequently. So I sent the Q&A over to Marcus to show him that I wasn't crazy for having a food-related word that I believe should be banned from use. So here's our conversation regarding the issue--I found it to be hilarious. Enjoy!
Marcus: I know they do! I've always hated the word decadent. Like, "Ohhhh look at how naughty I am -- I'm enjoying this chocolate, mmmmm it's so fattening, but I don't care because it's sooo good -- I'm such a rebel" or something.
Stefie: Hahaha, I don't like decadent, either.
Marcus: It also falls in line with my chocolate commercial theory.
Stefie: What's that?
How unrealistic they are -- how it's always the same. It's like whirling fabric in the background with some hot girl delicately selecting an arbitrary chocolate, then taking an unrealistically-sized bite out of it while closing her eyes and throwing her head back as if it's giving her some sort of massive dopamine orgasm, followed by some douchebag voiceover about how decadent it is.
Marcus proceeded to send me various YouTube videos linking to chocolate advertisements featuring Nestlé, Lindt, and The Vision Factory, illustrating his observation almost exactly.
I guess not.

Please see other videos featuring
Ferrero Rocher, Dove*, and another Dove* for further evidence regarding this phenomenon.

*Thanks, Shayna!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Etcetera | justifiable deliquency

I know I've been quite the delinquent blogger--you can blame it mostly on the demands from the bean counting world (those beans don't just count themselves, you know) as well as the long process behind finishing the blog post surrounding my visit to Alinea--it was such a memorable meal (without sounding like I'm overly rhapsodizing, it was probably the single best meal I've ever had in my life) that I want to be able to re-tell it in exactly the same light that I experienced it. I'm nearly halfway there, so hopefully I'll be finished by tonight or this weekend, so bear with me. I promise the photographic documentation as well as the notes I had taken with each course will surely make up for my absence from the blogosphere.

In the mean time, here are some things that are on the menu (both blogworthy experiences and upcoming meals) that I look forward to sharing with you:

The Blogworthy (as you can see, Marcus is still right--I'm eating more than I can write)

  • The Martha Stewart Show (discussion about MoMA's new Counterspace exhibit about the modern kitchen with exhibit curator Juliet Kinchin; making jam with Blue Chair Fruit's founder Rachel Saunders)
  • Live at the NYPL (New York Public Library): "Eating Culture" featuring Ruth Reichl in conversation with René Redzepi of Noma and David Chang of the Momofuku empire.
  • Noma cookbook signing with René Redzepi at Williams-Sonoma at Columbus Circle
  • MoMA's Counterspace exhibit visit
  • Michael White's Alto
  • revisit to Michael White's Marea
  • 'inoteca
  • Grub Street's Food Festival
  • Daniel Humm's "new" Eleven Madison Park
  • Dan Barber's Blue Hill at Stone Barns
  • book launch party at Chelsea Market for Amanda Hesser's Essential New York Times Cookbook and Melissa Clark's In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite
  • 53rd and 6th Halal Cart [Marcus]
  • Luke's Lobster [Marcus]
  • McDonald's and the return of the McRib [Marcus]

The Upcoming Fanfare

  • a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge over to Grimaldi's Pizzeria
  • Top Chef's Harold Dieterle and his new restaurant Kin Shop
  • strong>Butter Lane's cupcake making class
  • Barneys' "A Foodie Holiday" window display
  • Insieme
  • Thanksgiving!
  • Soba Nippon

That's it for now. I'll be back with a bang, I promise! :D


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