Last 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?
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.