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Dinner at Alinea: The vanilla bean quandary

photo-38Last week I was back in Chicago and finally got to try a restaurant that has long fascinated me –  Alinea, chef Grant Achatz’s world-famous venue for highly experimental cuisine.

We got in off a waiting list for a Wednesday 9 p.m. reservation for a meal that would last three hours. The restaurant serves one prix fixe menu of about 20 courses (some as small as one bite) for $185.

It was a huge splurge but also such a thrill that I put it in the mental accounting category of Springsteen tickets rather than restaurant dinners. Plus, the meal was so intriguing, joyful and soulful, and the staff worked so hard to surprise and delight its guests with a bravura performance that the price seemed justified. (That said, I haven’t dared open the Amex bill…)

Yet there was one detail that may have been a little excessive. I’m still thinking about it.

This spaceship landing pad thingy holds a fritter made from lobster, gruyère cheese and lychee that is impaled on an entire Madagascar vanilla bean. The odd flavors came together thanks to that subtle whiff of vanilla under your nose as you pull the fritter off with your teeth. It’s almost like the vanilla tripped an unconscious switch that affected your perception of the other flavors. That sleek, leathery bean also felt like the Rolls Royce of cocktail toothpicks.

But what happens to the vanilla beans once they perform this slight function? “We throw them in the garbage,” said our waitress.

Serioiusly? All that growing of vanilla orchids, then harvesting and curing of the beans, just to end up with a bunch of silly skewers?

And yet…

Over the years I’ve tried so many vanilla-flavored lobster or crab dishes. Chefs are attracted to the weird logic of this pairing. Crustacean shellfish and vanilla have a similar olfactory pitch. They are both fresh, sunny, sweet, buttery, inviting.

But few chefs pull off this pairing. It is usually intriguing for an instant (that unconscious switch in your brain), but then it tastes like someone dropped a cupcake in your bisque. This sweet spice has just too strong and permeating a flavor.

Yet this dish worked because it was all aroma. The smell of a glorious fresh vanilla bean under your nose as you ate the food was all you needed. There is no better expression of this spice.

But should it really be pitched in the garbage afterward? Maybe I should have asked to take it home. What do you think?

Also, if you’d like to hear more about the meal at Alinea, I’d be happy to oblige.

40 comments Add your comment

jimmy

August 17th, 2010
11:07 am

I’d like to hear more – did you go with the wine pairings?

Joe

August 17th, 2010
11:09 am

Yes! More, please!

Steve

August 17th, 2010
11:11 am

i’d like to hear more about the meal as well.

Barbara

August 17th, 2010
11:18 am

If I had thought of it at the time, I would have taken it home.

I think that it is an unnecessary extravagance, wasteful to the extreme. The equivalent of getting beautiful, fresh urchin; hollowing them out as a serving vessel and tossing the innards. With the level of creativity that Achatz has, I am confident that they could develop an alternate method of conveying the experience without wasting an entire bean per person.

Deanna

August 17th, 2010
11:23 am

Yes! I want to hear about the entire meal! And has Achatz made a full recovery from his cancer?

Patti

August 17th, 2010
11:30 am

More, please! We ate at moto in Chicago some years back with the same concepts. Brilliant dinner, if not the best meal I ever had, the most interesting.

real foodie

August 17th, 2010
11:32 am

Can we please get someone to write about food that costs less than $100 per plate? I am sorry; but, normal people do not spend this much and on such exotic stuff!
There is a recession going on, you know!

Snorkleboy

August 17th, 2010
11:47 am

Yes let’s hear more about the meal!

Son of Puerquito

August 17th, 2010
11:51 am

@ real foodie: keep your mouth shut please. It’s a splurge, a meal beyond simple nourishment. Something you do on a special occasion, maybe once a year. Like John said, it is more like a concert from an artitst you really love. Not cheap, but totally worth it becasue you will remember it fonndly for years to come. If you can’t see the fundamental difference between Alinea and Maggianos then you are the one that is not “normal”…

Foodgeek

August 17th, 2010
11:55 am

I would have saved the vanilla bean and put it into a bottle of vodka.

Yes, it would be lovely to hear about the rest of the meal.

Nick Kokonas

August 17th, 2010
12:02 pm

If a diner requests it, we cryovac the vanilla beans so that they may take them home. We do not do this as standard policy simply because it would seem odd to hand everyone a vanilla bean on the way out the door… but a fair number of people request it and we are happy to oblige.

Thanks for the kind write up and I am glad you enjoyed your meal.

– Nick Kokonas

John Kessler

August 17th, 2010
12:06 pm

Thanks for the quick response, Nick!

Kar

August 17th, 2010
12:17 pm

John, I’m assuming that you can at least deduct the cost of these meals as part of your professional expenses. I bet though that it’s getting harder and harder to get “comped” these days. Especially for someone who isn’t printed in their town.

Drew

August 17th, 2010
12:24 pm

John, I had the privilege dining at Alinea a few years back. Overall I thought the food was really good, not great. I think what you pay for here is the creativity, the time it takes to make each dish and the attention to detail it takes to put a 20+ course meal together. Service was out of this world – felt like you have the entire staff to yourself , explaining what and how each course is made. Also a extremely knowledgeable sommelier that personally poured each glass of wine for the pairing and gave a history report on each glass.

They had a few add on options which we opted for – the wine pairing (At Bacchanalia, the wine pairing is only an additional $35 or so I didn’t bother to ask) here, the wine pairing is additional $270 for two and also the extra fresh truffles over fettuccine ($75 extra pp). Dinner for two, ended up costing $900 w/ tip $1080.

http://c1.ac-images.myspacecdn.com/images01/102/l_f5fb325c3bb930f3b37265f66b290248.jpg

Baltisraul

August 17th, 2010
12:30 pm

real foodie……Great comment. Fine dinning was something that alot of people could enjoy. Not so much any more. The down turn in the economy has people with food interest wanting info on things they can afford in todays market. If you get a review on a fine dinning resturant now and plan on going to that place in 9 mons from now it will probably be closed anyhow. Just not enough investors willing to go into that segment of the industry because of the ultra high risk of going out of business. Too bad, but thats just the way things are and you must adjust. Ever notice when John does a blog on Bar-B-Que he is overwhelmed with responses. DUH!

Son of Puerquito

August 17th, 2010
12:45 pm

@ Baltisraul: it’s not the segment, it’s the market – Atlanta.
Fine dininig is alive and well in other cities. You know, like the one John just visited…

Susy

August 17th, 2010
12:45 pm

We went to Alinea a few years ago – it was a once in a lifetime experience, just fantastic. There are those of us who, even in this economy, will continue to save so that we can have experiences such as this. That was a major highlight & purpsoe of our trip to Chicago – along with going to Wrigley Field! Please keep up the variety of writing, John, many of us want to know about the special experiences along with the daily dining spots.

Baltisraul

August 17th, 2010
12:47 pm

Drew….$1080 for a dinner for two! How can a place turn enough tables in todays market to make that place turn a profit. You made my case for me, though I don’t enjoy the results.

Baltisraul

August 17th, 2010
12:55 pm

Son of….you are right, for example, NYC,Chicago will always have fine dinning. But other major markets are seeing a serious decline in up scale eating. A little fine dinning news is ok. My point is the AJC readers want the majority of their info local and affordable. Its too bad but many great places that have been around for a long time have closed their doors everywhere in this country.

Susy

August 17th, 2010
1:04 pm

Alinea doesn’t seek to turn tables. They know exactly how many diners they can serve in an evening, and most evenings have wait lists for those openings. I still want to be able to fit good food into my vacations, even though those are further between these days, and like to read about others’ experiences, so I can make better informed decisions about where I’m going when I do get to hit a new city.

Lucy

August 17th, 2010
1:08 pm

Vanilla beans hold their flavor for a very long time, at least in my experience. If I use a bean for custard or ice cream, I pull out the bean, rinse it, then bury it in a jar of sugar. I’ve heard of making your own vanilla extract with a vanilla bean and vodka, but no personal experience there. Cryovac-ing the bean seems thoughtful, but I’m not sure I see the value in sealing it in a petroleum product when there are other alternatives.

John Kessler

August 17th, 2010
1:11 pm

Kar – It would be unethical for me to accept a comp in a restaurant. Nor is it something I would or could submit as a business expense to my employer. I suppose there may be a tax deduction in there, but this was really more the advance birthday present kind of experience.

Baltisraul – If more people responded that they wanted to hear less about this kind of dining, I’d shut up pronto. But it sounds like there are enough who would like to keep the discussion going.

Kar

August 17th, 2010
1:33 pm

John, that surprises me. I would think as a food writer that you’d be required to dine out frequently for your job and that it would be automatically submitted for reimbursements or used as a deduction for local restaurants. I thought comps were ok if you weren’t writing about the experience professionally.

Maybe it’s different for writers as opposed to chefs who need to be aware of what their competition is putting out.

Also, I think that one of the facets of your blog that people do enjoy is that you cover such a wide range of experiences from the high end “experience” meals to a cheap barbacoa taco on Buford highway.

John Kessler

August 17th, 2010
1:51 pm

Kar – I just don’t feel right taking comps. Even when I do a freelance story for a national publication I make sure they know that’s my policy. Thanks for the nice comments about the blog. I do try to mix it up, but I know there’s a segment of the readership that wishes I’d avoid the high end altogether…

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Baltisraul

August 17th, 2010
3:25 pm

John, you are probably right, as you do this as a pro. I used to be able to afford fine dinning, now not so much . I guess the tab of $1080 for two put me over the top this morning. And the fact we are losing high end places on a far to regular basis even though I can’t at this juncture afford to go. I still don’t want them to vanish. My ship might come in again!

Ganners

August 17th, 2010
3:34 pm

JK–Sounds wonderful. Do yo have more presentation photos? I would have dinner there in a heart beat. We scored an AMAZING dinner at Nobu in NYC that was in the same price range. As for calling it a “meal”, no–that was an experiance. Sure it is expensive….different people people spend hard earned money on different things. Franklin Mint plate collection anyone??

RK

August 17th, 2010
3:40 pm

Vanilla beans are cheap, online…it’s not like they are throwing away $10.

Feast

August 17th, 2010
5:18 pm

I would enjoy reading more about your dinner at Alinea.
Keep on truckin’, eatin’ and bloggin’.

Sincerely,
Feast

Art

August 17th, 2010
6:14 pm

JK, I vote for more about the dinner… Did it come with wine pairings?

Brett

August 17th, 2010
8:44 pm

John, thanks for the write up, look forward to hearing more. Hope “the who pays that much for dinner” comments don’t stop you from writing about your experience.

I don’t often spend that much on meals, but on occasion me and the gf will splurge and I’m always interested in hearing about a super dining experience such as yours. In fact, you would think readers who may be suffering from the economical downturn might be interested in your experience, it could then be added to their wish list for when things improve….

I’ve done Bacchanalia (good) and a chef’s table at Park 75 (great). I hope to continue fine dining experiences for special occasions in the future. In fact, some of what you write about your experience may help me decide if I want to do a weekend in Chicago and dine at Alinea.

Lisa

August 17th, 2010
9:42 pm

please, pretty please. More about the meal. That poor vanilla bean. I wonder if the vodka and bean combo would smell of lobster.

Darin

August 17th, 2010
11:51 pm

Though I can’t afford to dine at a high-end place except as a splurge once every couple of years, I’m thankful they exist and that I can read about them. I think of a place like Alinea as a culinary-arts laboratory — a gallery for the fine art of experimental food and restaurant development. There are moneyed people out there who can afford to be patrons of this and other arts regularly and, for the sake of the artists and the medium, I’m glad they can do it.

There are less-expensive kitchens run by crazy geniuses (Dynamic Dish comes to mind) where experimentation happens on a scale more affordable to those of us with modest incomes. But I think there’s a benefit to culinary arts as a whole when there are also places where experimentation can happen in an atmosphere where there are no cost limitations.

I don’t see how anyone can regularly read this blog and claim that there is an over-emphasis on high-end restaurants. Places like Alinea are the exception to the rule here from what I’ve seen.

Food Dude

August 18th, 2010
12:16 am

Nice post! Its nice to see some articles about fine dining in the AJC. I dined at Alinea back in March ‘06 and was fairly entertained… the food was creative (some hits and misses) and the wine was fine, but I gotta say the table was the highlight of the experience… it was a very nice table.

That being said, my personal go to in Chicago is TRU…

Theresa

August 18th, 2010
7:25 am

Just a moment while I put on a flame proof suit… I’m glad John enjoyed his meal, and I respect his opinion, but I was not impressed by my meal at Alinea. It seemed to me that more effort was being made to present the food in unique ways, than to make sure it tasted good. For example, one course we had was bacon on a “trapeze.” The bacon was suspended on wire, and arrived at our table stone cold. The cold bacon was not good, and the “trapeze” seemed silly to me. Another course was served in a cup with a rounded bottom that we had to hold in one hand, since we couldn’t set it on the table. I think the meals we’ve had at Seegers, Quinones, and several other Atlanta restaurants were much better. I know the molecular gastronomy movement is very hip these days, but I prefer that the flavor take precedence over the cooking method or presentation. Still, I’d like to hear more details about John’s experience, and I’m ready for the flames….

John Kessler

August 18th, 2010
8:15 am

I’ll have more coming later today. Theresa – most of the people I know who’ve gone to Alinea have made the exact same comment.

FOODandGOLF

August 18th, 2010
6:07 pm

My brother is going there next month. Cant wait to compare experiences.

Johnnie McKenzie

August 19th, 2010
3:07 pm

Dining at Alenia is almost indescribable. It’s art. It’s food taken to a level many of us can’t imagine. It’s worth whatever the price. And the Alenia cookbook is also worth the price. The tobacco infused custard with blackberry on top was one of the first things we made.

Monica Ricci

August 19th, 2010
6:18 pm

This place is now on my “Foodie Bucket List”. However, I will be sorely disappointed if the feast is, as Theresa indicated, solely for my eyes. It would be nothing short of a tragedy to spend that much money and have that sort of edible beauty placed in front of you and then have it not actually taste amazing.

As for the vanilla beans, I think the Cryovac send-home is a bit much. Gimme a bev nap and I’ll stick those babies in my purse to make sugar with later. :o )

keep on keeping on....

August 20th, 2010
3:12 pm

the blog is great john, from high to low end. the folks who don’t want to read about the high end don’t have to and same can be said of the low end. i enjoy it all. as a chef, you get inspiration from the simple to complex and it is always interesting to read your blog no matter what you are writing about. it is a great source for those of us living way, way, way OTP.