Sunday, September 7, 2014

When Food is Art, Art is Yummy

My husband loves sports. I cannot catch a ball.

I love to read. John would rather wait for the movie.

However, we do share at least one common interest: FOOD. We love eating and all things related to food. We love cooking food, watching shows about food and even reminiscing about the best food we've ever eaten. Perhaps our favorite thing to do is visit fun restaurants at which we eat more food.

We consider ourselves foodies, but mostly because "foodie" is a nicer word than "glutton."

Actually, it would be a bit of a stretch to call ourselves foodies since the goal of most of our meals these days is to shovel in as much food as possible before the inevitable spilled drink or dinnertime meltdown. The most exotic thing we've eaten recently is take-out from Mr. Wonton. However, when we're not scraping dried macaroni off the floor or hiding in the pantry with potato chips, we like to envision a future where we can once again frequent fabulous restaurants. Or at least a future where we can roast brussel sprouts without anyone yelling "EW!"

So maybe we are only foodies in our minds. We are faux foodies.

A while ago we were watching a show (about food, obviously) that featured a segment on an avant-garde style of cuisine called molecular gastronomy, in which chefs utilize chemistry and physics to transform the tastes and textures of food, creating a unique and innovative culinary experience.

Basically, you get a dish that looks something like this:
Caviar, egg custard, red onion gelee and brioche foam.
It tasted like the ocean, spread on buttery bread. 

Or this:
Green apple taffy helium balloon: bite the balloon, suck out the helium and enjoy the taffy.

There are only a handful of restaurants in the US that specialize in molecular gastronomy, and one happens to be in Chicago. When we were planning our Chicago trip (and by 'we' I mean me, obviously), we decided that gourmets such as ourselves could not pass up the opportunity to indulge in the ultimate foodie experience. The restaurant, called Alinea, would be a true test of our foodieness.

We arrived on a Thursday evening, not knowing what to expect. It was hard to believe that this unassuming grey building housed a restaurant that books up months in advance. There was no sign, no name prominently displayed, only four silver street numbers to reassure us that we had come to the right place.
This better be good.
We entered and made our way down a long, dark, narrow hallway that seemed to dead-end, when all of a sudden, a silver panel to our left slid open and we walked into the dining area.

The dining room was small, only five tables in all (although there were a few more tables in the floor above). There was no soft background music, no aroma drifting from the kitchen, and the windows were covered so as to let some light in, but block any outside distraction. Clearly, the most minute details had been considered to insure that nothing took away from the main attraction: the food. In fact, the most noticeable feature of the dining room was actual stalks of rhubarb suspended from the ceiling over each table.

I immediately began to document our experience. If we were to become true foodies, we needed to take notes. I think some large kale leaves might look divine hanging from our kitchen chandelier.

Diners are not presented with menus at Alinea (much too conventional), instead the servers bring out one surprise course after another, fifteen in all on this particular night.

One of our first courses came out in the form of a large nest. Our server explained that there was a root vegetable called salsify hidden somewhere within. It was marinated in soy sauce and other flavors and tasted a little like beef jerky, only less chewy.
I should definitely whip up a batch of these for our next preschool playdate. They would be a big hit.
If only I knew where to buy some salsify. 
It became clear very quickly that this was more than a meal. It was meant to be a gastronomic affair. Every ingredient was carefully selected and prepared in a way that highlighted each individual flavor. Every bite was an event. The chefs may have utilized science to create these culinary sculptures, but this was more than chemistry. This was art.
And art was yummy.
One of my favorite courses was a dish called "Hot Potato, Cold Potato," a deconstructed take on potato soup. The dish was placed in the palm of my hand and I could feel the chill of the cold, creamy broth through the tiny bowl. At the same time, I could see steam rising from the piping hot bits of potato, leek and truffle secured on the silver pin. Our server instructed us to swiftly pull the pin, letting the hot vegetables drop in the soup, and rapidly drink the soup in one gulp, like taking a shot.


It was a marvelous sensation of hot and cold combining as they slid down the throat, creating the impression that one had enjoyed an entire bowl of potato soup in just one mouthful.

It was reminiscent of the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Violet Beauregarde heedlessly samples Willy Wonka's three-course meal chewing gum. She is delighted at the sensation of enjoying tomato soup, roast beef and baked potato all in one stick of gum. Unfortunately, she turns into a giant blueberry during the dessert course and all the fun is over for her.

Fortunately for us, our fun was just beginning.

Roasted corn atop manchego cheese grits with truffle. THIS I could have eaten all night.



Also, it turns out that the dangling rhubarb was not only for decoration. It doubled as a garnish for the rhubarb and celery root salad.




As different courses arrived at various tables, the diners oohed and ahhed over every morsel. "The dehydrated yogurt rock was divine!" exclaimed one. "Compliments to the chef, my ashed goat cheese paired perfectly with the licorice graffiti!" In fact, while we were on course 9 or so, one patron had just finished his meal. He proceeded to shake the hands of the servers and sommelier as he declared, "Thank you so, so much! This has been a life changing event for me!"

John and I locked eyes across the table. "Is this meal changing your life?" I whispered. He leaned over the table, "Maybe we haven't gotten to that course yet."

At that precise moment our server arrived to whisk away our plates, "And how were the lily bulbs and lychee gelee?" I glanced at my husband and we both knew the other wanted to shout LIFE CHANGING! But neither of us could manage a word, for we were both overcome by a fit of giggles.

"I'll take that as a good sign," replied the waiter.



Dinner at Alinea was a modern art masterpiece. The use of color and texture was dazzling and the medium was new and innovative, but in the back of my mind I couldn't help but be reminded of the story The Emperor's New Clothes. Amid all the euphoric exclamations of praise, there was a small part of me that wanted to channel the boy who spoke plain truth while everyone else played along with the pageantry. I had a tiny urge to stand up and declare to my fellow diners, "You guys! We are eating FLOWER PETALS and BUBBLES! My toddler eats those EVERY DAY FOR FREE!!"

But I didn't, because then everyone would know I was just a faux foodie.

Don't get me wrong, it was a wonderful experience. We had SO MUCH FUN. We ate foods we'd never tried in ways we could have never conceived.

For me, it wasn't a life changing event, but it was a once in a lifetime experience.

Besides, I already had my life changing event.

He was sitting right across the table from me the whole night.


2 comments:

  1. Oh yes, my husband and I are total gluttons too...I mean FOODIES! ;)

    ReplyDelete