Tag Archives: rhubarb

Atera-fying Epiphany

4 Jun

Great restaurants strive to not only deliver excellent meals to guests but also to change the way the guests see food altogether.  The goal of the restaurant is to wow the guest and keep them coming back for more.  Last weekend, I dined at Atera in Manhattan on my birthday, and unfortunately, the epiphany I had during my meal was not about how food should be or about how excellent the cooking was at such an establishment.  Rather, I was confronted with an existential life crisis of identity.

What have we done?  I asked myself.

Having just turned 21, I grew up appreciating food in a slightly simpler time, when restaurants by Mario Batali and Daniel Boulud were at the top of the food chain, serving very high-end Italian and French food, respectively.  By the time I was in high school, more cutting edge restaurants were on the rise: Momofuku had gained traction, wd~50 was getting a lot of attention, and then Alinea was getting popular.  Chefs were playing with their food like never before, and it was exciting.

During high school and college, I got the opportunity to stage at wd~50 and Momofuku Ssam Bar and learn what their cooking was all about.  I ate at both restaurants multiple times and found that the chefs were spot-on in their creativity and talent and that their teams of cooks did a great job.  I ate at Alinea during a visit to Chicago and had arguably one of the best meals of my life.

In the past couple of years, I have kept up with the popular food scene in a less hands-on way, because I’ve been away at Cornell and I haven’t had as much money to spend on eating out and traveling to Manhattan.  During my time in college, Noma in Denmark rose to the top of the restaurant scene.  Across the ocean from Noma, I could only admire the food from afar through cookbooks, magazines, and online journals; however, I found it incredibly innovative and beautiful.  Its allure lies in its connection with the wild and the way Noma’s chefs translate the flavors and beauty of Denmark’s land onto the plate.

One voice in the back of my head always asks me: “are we playing with our food too much?”  I think a lot of people in the world of food ask themselves the same thing.  What ever happened to channeling nostalgia to create wonderful dishes?  Are the plates some chefs are putting out these days too precious?  Over-done?  Devoid of soul?

Although I found the food at Atera beautiful and in some cases, delicious, I think that was my first real dining experience at a restaurant of its caliber where I felt sure that some chefs lost the meaning behind cooking.  I won’t go over every single course, but I will cover the highlights in addition to courses I felt let me down.

Atera did put out some really solid food that night, even if it wasn’t the majority.  Some of my favorites included the quail egg, the chicken liver mousse on pork blood wafers, beef tendon chicharron with uni fish sauce, the bread course, the uni with roasted sweet potato, the roasted squab, the rhubarb dessert, and the white chocolate dessert.

For the most part, I enjoyed these dishes because they achieved the harmony others didn’t because they were seasoned properly and executed well.  These dishes had a little more soul than did the others, in my opinion.  Although it may sound silly, the bread and butter at Atera might well have been the best thing I ate all night.  One piece of bread was a dense, grainy bread, and the other was a sourdough roll “heavily basted in pork fat.”  The butter was cultured, giving it an intense, cheese-like character that was really unique.

Of course, although I had a good time at Atera, I was fairly disappointed in a number of courses I ate.  Some of the flaws were the food, but some were actually mechanical issues I’ll get into.

First of all, it was a muggy, ninety-degree day in Manhattan.  That meant all the crisps and wafers Atera produced suffered and lost their crunch.  Of course, Atera cannot control the weather, but if the kitchen staff couldn’t find a way to de-humidify or store these items in a drier area, it probably should not have had so many delicate wafers and crisps on the menu during the humid summer days.

Another mechanics issue was that some of the flatware was pretty difficult to use.  I’ll blame the chopstick dysfunction on my own rustiness, but I really did want to ask one of the cooks for their tweezers when I was trying to pick up a slice of scallop with those smooth, polished-wood chopsticks we got for one course.  One real problem, though, was that the fluke crudo, which was topped with a sheet of vinegar ice, was served with an odd little wooden spoon.  The spoon was really difficult to use as a device to crack the vinegar ice, and I actually ended up catapulting the ice onto the table outside the bowl.  Even for scooping up the minced raw fluke, the spoon was kind of clunky.

Most importantly, much of the food I ate was underwhelming.  A “lobster roll” of meringue “rolls” and a tiny bit of lobster salad was too sweet and far less exciting than the lobster roll my friend ate at The John Dory the next morning.  And the waiter chided my friend and me for waiting a few minutes to eat it.  I understand that the meringue might have sogged a bit, but this kind of just illustrates that more and more, we are designing meals around the chefs’ ideals over the customers’.  I realize that sounds silly, coming from a cook, but we are in this business to make the customers enjoy the full experience and feel happy.  Not for the customer to follow orders, necessarily.

"lobster rolls"

“lobster rolls”

A piece of beautifully pickled rutabaga was coated in beeswax…which kind of covered my teeth for a little while there.  Don’t we take the wax off of rutabagas before we cook them on purpose…was this some kind of an ironic joke?

waxy 'bagas

waxy ‘bagas

A painstakingly piled up crudo of razor clam, almond, and garlic lacked acidity and reminded me of an underseasoned almond gazpacho.

razor clam crudo

razor clam crudo

Sepia noodles in chicken bouillon could have been poorly prepared Top Ramen, if I had been blindfolded.  A beautiful cube of halibut, cloaked in a layer of buttermilk whey was cooked perfectly but left me wanting for excitement beyond the flavor of fresh fish with yogurt.

halibut with buttermilk whey

halibut with buttermilk whey

The desserts seemed a little better, but a lot of them tasted very basic.  The cracked egg ice cream, made to look like a cracked egg, was little more than sweet cream or vanilla ice cream surrounding slow-cooked egg yolk, molded in the shape of an egg and coated with a sugar crust.  It looked like a cracked egg, sure.  The technique was outstanding, sure.  But it just tasted like vanilla ice cream with a sugar crunch, in the end of the day.

cracked egg ice cream

cracked egg ice cream

The walnut sundae that followed it was nothing spectacular, although I do love a good walnut sundae.  But I could have gotten a full-sized walnut sundae at an ice cream parlor for the same price, really.  Despite the subtle nuances, it would have brought me equal or greater pleasure.  Not because I’m a fatty who wants more ice cream, but because I would get what I was expecting.

One last thing.  Atera makes beautiful food, but the restaurant is also a poster child for the issue all chefs with a penchant for foraging or a love for esoteric herbage should think about: are those micros and flowers adding flavor or not?  The answer better be yes before the herb or flower goes gratuitously on the plate.  Or else they should be used sparingly—with discipline.  I think I left Atera with a damn bridal shower in my stomach, and many of the petals, et cetera did not add much to the dishes.

Now, I’m not writing all this down because I think Atera is a bad restaurant; on the contrary, I enjoyed going and learned a lot.  However, I won’t be going back.  Because I don’t know what we’re all getting at here, and now I have to go explore the world to find out what I want out of food.  I watched a team of cooks in blue/gray aprons fiendishly plate each course with tweezers for two hours to put out plates that I found over-manipulated and slightly uninspired.  In a way, what I saw could have been a parody of what cooking has become.  I want to believe we haven’t grown into a generation of cooks (and diners, for that matter) so busy talking about amaranth, spirulina, nettles, and sorrel varieties, that we forget what cooking and eating is in the first place.

I voiced my concerns to a friend the other day, and we both hoped we could come out the other side of this one day.  Will we all step back to get the macro view anytime soon?  Will we look back on the early 2000’s penchant for choosing odd ingredients over cooking with soul and laugh?  Or will everyone in the world wax poetic about amaranth by 2023?

What even is food?


Study Week? Let’s Bake Instead (Or in addition too, I suppose).

14 May

Study week has hit Cornell, and everyone is holed up studying for finals.  It is not like the rest of the year.  People turn intense, and the atmospheric pressure intensifies slightly (seemingly) as a result.  What to do to combat the evils of quiet hours and boring study material?  Bake!  I know, you’re thinking, what could be more fun than accounting practice problems and studying sexual harassment cases for Human Resources?  While it’s a close call (ha ha) I will take baking any day!  Besides, I could at least write it off as studying for my Culinary Theory and Practice class.

The first thing I made–before study week came around–was a rhubarb upside-down-muffin-bread pudding.  It sounds random, but the thing was a product of ingredients I had on hand.  I am admittedly a person who eats just the top of the muffin (not only because I prefer it, but also because a whole muffin is too much), and therefore, I found myself with a squirrel-like collection of muffin butts in my freezer.  Why did I save them?  I really don’t know.  Don’t judge.  It sounds quite sick, especially because I didn’t even wrap them but rather left them open to stale and burn.  Grody.  But perfect for bread pudding application.

After making a batter with eggs, brown sugar, and cream, I dumped in my diced muffin butts.  Then, I poured honey in the bottom of a cake pan and arranged sliced rhubarb over it.  After pouring over my bread pudding mixture, I baked it at 350 for about 45 minutes.  While it was still warm, I turned it out and found a beautiful result:

tart rhubarb plus too-sweet cupcakes from dining hall=balance. namaste.

Later, during the actual study week, I decided to bake a pie.  I had a bunch of extra pie crust from a cooking contest I participated in over the weekend, and since it baked so well before, I couldn’t let it go to waste.  Made with delicious Plugra butter, the crust was rich and flaky.  Since I was not in the mood for a hearty apple pie, I decided to make a banana cream one, since our dining hall had plenty of bananas available for my pie making fun.  While baking the pie crust, I whipped up a cinnamon-brown sugar custard for the filling.  I usually don’t make pudding with flour, but since I had no cornstarch, I went for it and got dazzling results.  After both crust and custard cooled, I assembled my pie, topping it with bananas and toasted coconut.  Delicious.

perfect creamy to crunchy ratio.

I made my last study week baked good this morning…at five AM…I guess my brain was not used to sleep after I only got three hours the night before.  However, all good things came of it: I decided to make cookies since I had been doing more cake/pie things recently, and they came out beautifully.  A little cake-ier than a usual chocolate chip cookie (I used a quasi-chocolate chip cookie approach, minus the chocolate chips), the cookies came out screaming to be sandwiched with some kind of sexy filling.

Caramel seemed appropriate, since I had added a pinch each of cinnamon and smoked paprika to the cookie batter.  Unfortunately, I went a few seconds too dark on the caramel, so I had to add a few things to make it more palatable. Some salt, peanut butter, cream cheese, and butter later, the caramel was a tasty, satiny spread.  My suite mates and I were very happy with the results.

tower of cookie porn.

I urge you to follow suit: when you find yourself adrift in a sea of work, surrounded by people who would rather lose sanity studying enough to get an A+, bake something.  It’s therapeutic, it doesn’t take much time out of your own study efforts, and you get awesome eats for your study session out of it!  All good things, my people.

Solitary Confinement Never Tasted so Good.

3 Jun

I have never had less to do in my life.  I am bored after leaving school, I am bored after returning from my trip to Chicago, and I am bored waiting to go on my trip to Spain in a couple weeks.  What have I done during my epic-ly long hours at home?  I’ve cooked, cooked, and cooked more.

Before returning home from school, I thought about what going home would mean, pros and cons style.  Yeah, I know people only really analyze pros and cons when they actually have a decision to make.  And no, I did not have to decide whether or not I was going home from school.  I was going.  According to my dorm’s resident advisor, anyone who stayed past May 22 would be charged $35/hour for every extra hour spent in the dorm.  Not an attractive idea.

Well, as I said, there were pros to going home, so I was somewhat excited anyway.  What were those pros?  And what were the cons?

Pros: Obviously, I missed my kitchen.  I mean family, Mom.  Yes.  Family.  I missed my family and kitchen, so I was glad to go home to both.  It would be great to see my parents and younger siblings, and I would have so many ingredients and pots and pans at my disposal!

Cons: My parents both work, and my younger siblings are both still in school all day.  Friends, you ask?  None of my friends are out of school yet.  Now, being all alone would be less apalling if I lived somewhere interesting.  But if you ask me, my small town in Bergen County, NJ, offers few activities more exhilirating than doing lunch and maybe getting my nails done (which, incidentally, I never do, since I can’t wear nail polish to work.)  So. in clonclusion, I am bored out of my mind.

I have done some fun things since coming home from school.  As described in my last post, I had a great meal at Alinea in Chicago with my sister.  I also had a nice time celebrating my birthday at home with my family and grandma. I got a meat cleaver, a chicken door stop, and a pair of shorts.  Random?  If you know me, these gifts are normal.  But I digress.

chicken door stop

Anyway, the rest of the time I’ve been home, I’ve been making so much food that my mom has asked me to stop.  She thinks we can’t eat this much food.  I think we just need to pump out some more babies.  More mouths to feed+me=success?

A few minutes ago, I made a liquer flavored with Cap’n Crunch and toasted marshmallows.  Before that, I made sake-ginger pickles.  Dinner was  King crab sushi with ginger, basil, lime, and sriracha.  I also made pork enchiladas with the leftover pulled pork from Memorial Day.  This morning, I made peanut-lime cupcakes with chocolate frosting, smoked paprika, and chocolate covered honeycomb candy.  Epic day?  Not in the least, considering the past two weeks.

cupcakes, after many were eaten

Yesterday, I made chocolate-covered honeycomb candy after learning how to make the candy on Nigella Express.  It was just 1/2 c sugar abd 1/4 c golden syrup boiled into a molten syrup combined with 1.5 t baking soda and stirred into a puffy, crisp mass.  Yum…As for the extra chocolate I melted, I mixed crushed tortilla chips, lime zest, and toasted coconut into it to create exotic chocolate clusters.

For dinner last night, I made homemade ravioli with shiitake-tofu filling.  If that sounds weird, it was only weird in how natural and delicious it tasted!  My brother ate it all, since I told him it was a cheese filling.  In reality, I had sauteed a bunch of sliced shiitakes until crisp and dark, pureed them in a food processor with about a pound of tofu, a little cream cheese, a pat of butter, salt, lavender leaves and some garlic chives, and some champagne vinegar.  It was a mousse made in heaven.  Inside ravioli, the filling was great.  I tossed the warm ravioli with butter and fresh, chopped herbs along with some spring mix.

On Memorial Day, I came home from Chicago midday.  I was sitting with my parents and grandma for a while, but when stories began to repeat themselves in our conversation, I briefly excused myself to whip out a pie.  I made an all butter crust before realizing we were limited on fruit.  Hmm.  3 nectarines, a peach, and an apple?  We had some dates and prunes, too.  None of the fruits would be enough for a pie on their own, so I decided to throw ’em all in. So I did.  All that fruit with a few tablespoons of sugar and a little flour went into the pie, and I topped it with a lattice crust.

mixed fruit pie

Surprisingly, the fruit mix was delicious, and the pie was well-received by my family.  Score!

Among my other creations this summer were rhubarb coffee cake, honey-vanilla tofutti, pumpkin pudding, curried softshell crabs, brownies, blondies, green tea ice cream, chocolate ice cream, butterflied chicken on the grill, skirt steak burgers, and more.  What will come next?

Tour Menu at Alinea: I finished it. Suck my…stick of sugar cane?

1 Jun

When my sister decided to go to school at Northwestern this year, I knew I’d be visiting her–if not to see her lovely self, at least for the food.  So, on my second journey to Evanston/Chicago, I decided I could not pass up the opportunity to eat at Alinea, no matter how outside my budget it was, no matter how far in advance I would have to make the reservation.

It turns out I was prepared: I planned a day to visit my sister–in the end of May.  I planned this journey in February/March, so I had ample time to call ahead and make my booking.  And I got just what I wanted: a Friday at 5:45 reservation on May 28th.  I mentally wrote off the expensive venture as a birthday present to myself; my real birthday would be two days after my meal.

A few months later, when I had started to gear up for my exciting journey, my dad decided to surprise me: he called Alinea, added my sister to my “party of one,” and told me he’d take care of it.  WHAT?!  I was so surprised, that I could only sit, stunned and confused, when he told me the news.  For so long, I had dined in gourmet and high-end establishments solo; none of my family members chose to spend their big bucks on  food outings.  So, when I knew my sister would be experiencing the Alinea Tour with me, I was stoked.

We took the bus into Chicago last night and just made it to the restaurant on time; rush hour traffic was working against us.  However, upon entering the sneaky doors, we were relieved and excited:

outside Alinea. There's no sign!

Upon sitting down, we anticipated what was to come.  I was starving; I had barely eaten all day in preparation, and Madison was hungry, since she also abstained from lunch after I warned her of the 25 courses to come.  After the servers greeted us and got us water, we started our adventure, scratching the surface of our experience with our first course:

English peas:

english peas

Like the opening riff of a great rock song, the English peas course brought exciting flavors together and pumped up our excitement for the rest of the show.  There was a frozen pea mousse, encapsulated sherry, burrata cheese, and small sprinklings of honey powder.  The small glass of deliciousness was magical; it had a fresh, clean pea taste and sweet nuances abounded.

Our next course was a one-bite tempura shad roe with bacon, shallot, and mustard, skewered on a branch of bay leaves.  This course was a delicious explosion of savory flavors, and we had fun sticking our noses into the fragrant bay leaf plumes that were sticking out of the tasty little tempura bomb.

shad roe and bacon tempura on a bay leaf branch!

Continuing the “on a stick” theme, our next course was a stick of yuba, or tofu skin, wrapped with shrimp and placed into a small vessel of red miso emulsion.  Next to the yuba stick was a small stick of sugar cane soaked in shrimp flavor with some chiles and some mint.  I enjoyed the yuba stick, especially because the red miso sauce was so umami-ful and delicious.  The sugar cane seemed a little weird, though, because we were asked to chew on it and then spit it out.  The flavor was good, but not particularly knock-out, and I felt strange spitting food back out.

Next, we were presented with cordial glasses of distilled thai flavors to prime our palates for the next course.  The flavors were all there, but it didn’t really blow our minds.  So you can make a clear consomme by clarifying with gelatin or whatever.  We get it.  But was there really a reason to prime our palates with thai flavors, given the fact that the previous course had thai flair?

The next course was really great.  When we initially sat at the table, a server had put down a sort of flag by each of our places.  The flag seemed to be some sort of rice paper with herbs in it, and he had assured us that it would become a part of our meal later.  Well, on course six, the time had come.  One server brought us trays with many condiments on them, and then he asked us to remove the trays and set them in the center of the table, revealing a wooden tray underneath with metal ornamentation in the middle.  He then asked us to take  out the metal pieces and cross them to form a stand in the middle of the tray.

Following our little building session, the server removed the flags from their “poles” and draped them over the stands we had made.  OK…and then he put a scoop of pork belly in each rice paper “hammock.”  Yay!  He then told us that we were free to make our own spring roll, choosing any or all of the condiments on our trays: marigold and mint leaves, curried mango slices, cucumber, red pepper sauce, another kind of basil seed sauce, cashews, lime, and black Hawaiian salt.  I loved this course, especially because the flavors were all so lively and complimented the delicious pork belly very well.  I could have eaten another, but I knew I had yet a long road to travel.

make your own spring roll!

I think I was in love with our next course.  I almost never eat crab at home, since we don’t live in a place with readily accessible fresh crab.  So, when we had a crab trio, I was excited to taste such delicious crab flavors.  Our server presented us with a ceramic orb, on top of which rested a white, opulent ball of crab panna cotta.  On top of it was rhubarb gel, lilac, and some form of fennel.  Inside the crab panna cotta was a buttermilk ice cream, and below it was a sage element–either gel or something more frozen.  I loved the silkiness of the crab panna cotta: it was smooth and rich, and the crab was such a pure flavor!  The rhubarb gel on top was tart and delicious.

love at first bite: crab panna cotta

When we finished the crab panna cotta, our server lifted the top of the ceramic orb off, revealing three small bites with the same flavors presented in the top of the orb.  This section also contained avocado covered with chopped, toasted almond, which was very good.  Of the three parts of the dish, the middle layer was my least favorite, but it was still very tasty.

blurry, but you can see the three different elements

Finally, our server lifted away the middle layer of the orb to reveal the last of the crab dishes: a hot, creamy crab ‘bisque’ of sorts, with fennel, a piece of king crab, encapsulated star anise (YUM!), and cipollini onion.  This was a rich and beautifully velvety composition of the flavors Chef Achatz chose for the dish as a whole, and the burst of star  anise was unique and exciting.  What a dish.

the encapsulated star anise was a flavor bomb!

Next, we were presented small, round bowls with a skewer of octopus cooked in red wine across the top. The bowls were round.  We were not allowed to put them on the table.  After eating the octopus, we were instructed to drink the fava bean soup in the bowl beneath, and it was delicious.  The only thing I wondered was whether there is a way to remove the starchiness from the soup that comes from the fava bean.  That aside, the dish was very good, and the service was excellent: a restaurant must be extremely confident in its servers’ timeliness to serve a dish that guests are not allowed to put down.  Slow service could mean a guest would have to hold the bowl forever; however, the top notch service at Alinea meant we only had to drink the soup before the servers swooped in and took care of our bowls in a timely manner.

The next course was a brilliant celebration of a great farm: Elysian Fields Farm, from which many chefs get their lamb.  This dish celebrated the farm as a whole.  There was sous vide lamb on a rosemary skewer.  There was deep fried lamb fat (amazing.)  There was goat milk pudding, squares of delicious polenta, and a pool of a sort of popcorn creme anglaise.  A delicious lamb jus also graced the dish.  I believe there was a blackberry element as well.  Everything went together so well–I’m sure Elysian Fields Farm would be proud to be celebrated in such a beautiful dish.

little lamby making mommy and daddy proud as star of the plate!

I was very excited when our server came to our table with the next small dish: hot potato, cold potato.  This dish is basically a cold potato soup with a hot potato and a beautiful slice of black truffle on top.  When you remove the pin suspending the potato and truffle over the soup, the elements canon-ball into the soup, creating the most delicious combination.  I liked the flavors and variations on temperature.  I really liked that my sister, a self-announced truffle hater, loved this course!  Success!  Yay!

Madison, happy to have eaten A WHOLE SLICE OF TRUFFLE!

We were fooled by the next course: it was sweet…had we already made it to dessert?  Not!  “Haha,” I could hear the kichen saying; this foray into the sweet was only a tease–we would soon return to savory.  But it was a delicious tease:

Three courses came out together, a sort of circus of flavors, presented in various creative forms.  The malt, which we were instructed to eat first, was a reflection of the flavors in beer: malt ice cream, beer foam, and oat crumbles all played extremely well together.  But blueberry foam?  Where did that come from?  It was delicious, no doubt, but in the grand scheme of the dish, I didn’t see the relevance.  It wasn’t that it clashed flavor-wise, but it was a very powerful flavor that perhaps outshined the other elements.  I enjoyed the buttery/ oaty/ malty combo, but perhaps the blueberry foam could have been a hops-flavored foam?  Or a barley-flavored foam?  …

L to R: bacon, beer flavors, banana-nutella

The next “act” in the little circus layed out before us was a small bite called, simply, “banana-nutella.”  It was sweet, it had a melt-in-the mouth sensation, and it was well balanced.  A hint of salt rounded it out nicely.

Last and perhaps most amusing was the bacon on a sort of tight-wire with butterscotch, apple, and thyme.  We love caramelized bacon, so this was a welcome element of the meal.  I enjoyed plucking the bacon off its quasi-swingset to savor the butterscotch sauce squiggled onto its lower half.  I liked the melting quality the bacon had, but I wondered if it could have been more crisp.  Nonetheless, the course was fun and tasty.

woohoo! I'm bacon! On a swing!

As I mentioned before, in reality, we were back to savory after those sweet-ish dishes.  Haha!

Our next bite was actually a slap in the face.  Not literally: afterall, the service at Alinea was just awarded by the James Beard Foundation as best in the country.  The servers would not slap us–literally.  But, instead of enjoying the kitchen’s take on the Sazerac cocktail, a small cylinder of kumquat with rye gel, peychaud’s bitters, and demerera, we were forced to consume a non-alcoholic version, made with coca cola.

Now, I may be underage (in the USA, a beef about which I won’t rant right now), but I doubt that a half-teaspoon of rye would affect me in the least.  I understand a restaurant’s liability when serving drinks to minors, but really?  I found being refused the original dish offensive.  And I don’t want to sound bitter, but coca cola and kumquats are not a match made in heaven.

Moving on, though, we rallied from that microscopic-in-size but great-in-adversity blow.  Our next course was a take on clam chowder!

Growing up vacationing on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, I am a huge fan of New England style clam chowder.  Its richness, its brininess, and the nostalgia it holds for me make it an ideal food.  At Alinea, it came served on a large clamshell.  The creamy bisque was spot-on, and it was garnished with tobasco “caviar,” brunoise clam, bacon, potato, celery, and thyme foam.  The most honest addition, however, may have been the crumbled oyster crackers on the leftmost side of the shell.  They were just plain old oyster crackers, but I wouldn’t have my chowder any other way.  The tobasco caviar was the most exciting addition to the dish, because it added a fresh, zesty pop.

On the other hand, I really felt that the kitchen failed the chowder by using raw celery in the mix of garnishes.  The potato was cooked.  Obviously.  The clam, too was cooked.  Duh.  And the bacon was cooked to crispy perfection.  So why was the celery raw?  It was not refreshing but crunchy and awkward.  Although everything else was great, the dish could be improved if the celery was sous-vide to aromatic and soft perfection.  Cooked celery is both flavorful and delicious, so I feel cooking it until just tender would have done the celery more justice.  I’m not trying to sound snobby, but although it’s nitpicky, it’s true.

clam chowdah

The next bite was a sort of palate-cleanser, I guess; it was more aromatic and perfumy than substantive in taste.  Our servers presented us with a small, rectangular rice-milk jelly surrounding a green almond.  It was garnished with some wasabi powder and yuzu.  We thought this course was interesting, but perhaps it was not our favorite.  Maybe if it had been stickier, like a Turkish delight, with the same flavors of yuzu, wasabi, and rice milk, I would have liked it better.

We were getting full, so when we saw that our next course was vegetables, we were kind of happy.  The “salad” was a small, beautiful assortment of vegetables and herbs.  We each had a carrot, a radish, some dill, and maybe a marigold.  The whole thing was dusted in ranch powder.  Hmm…I didn’t know.  Did I like it?  I think I would have rather had the plain vegetables.  They were beautiful little things, but with the ranch powder, they looked like they’d been sprayed in pesticides and tasted dry but sour.  Ranch dressing is a bit sour, but it’s also lube for the vegetables.  If it’s a powder, you lose the lube effect, and then where are you in life?

beautiful vegetables; the DDT is actually ranch powder

When the vegetable plate was removed a bowl of soup underneath was revealed.  It was a ranch flavored vichyssoise soup.  It had a great mouthfeel–more velvety than a dressing–but it tasted exactly like ranch dressing.  My sister, Madison, accurately commented, “it’s just like Homer Simpson’s ranch hose fantasy.”  It was exactly that–just not in a hose.  The soup was good, but I would have preferred the ranch dressing to STAY IN THE HIDDEN VALLEY.  I THINK THERE’S A REASON YOU’RE HIDDEN.

I know it sounds like I’m complaining a lot, but our meal was literally all up hill from here!  I loved the rest of our meal with a passion.  Our next course was a hands-free one: sardine on toast with horseradish and tomato.  I loved having a canape presented on a long wire right in front of my mouth, and the fishy sardine flavor with spicy horseradish and tomato was great.

If I lost my hands to dry gangrene caused by ergot, Alinea would still feed me.

A highlight of our meal was the next course, which we ate off a log.  Sous vide squab breast, strawberries, olives, eucalyptus, and onions were all delicious, and the sensory experience was only hightened by the aroma of the warm birch log below.  We were  amazed by the beautiful presentation.  I am a huge sqaub fan, and warm strawberries are also my thing.  Hence, combining the two and slapping ’em on a log was a big win for the Achatz team.

squab on a log!

Our next course, presented on a spoon rested in a bottomless bowl, was the TRUFFLE EXPLOSION.  Essentially, this course is a little raviolo with a liquid truffle interior.  It looks so innocent…a naked little raviolo…and then you bite down, and…nom nom nom!  All the truffle filling floods your mouth.  I even choked on mine a litte, but it was worth it (yes, I know how grossly sexual this sounds, but hey, there’s no other way to describe the truffle explosion).

Next, our server set our table in an old school French fashion, complete with gorgeous classic silverware and ornate goblets with bird designs.  What is all this?, I wondered.  She was  setting the stage for our tournedo a la persane, a classic dish from Escoffier.  A perfectly medium-rare wagyu fillet with caramelized banana and a stuffed pepper sat before us.  And what a velvety fillet that was.  Delicious!  A carnivore’s deight!

I was unsure of what the banana and rice-and-cheese-stuffed pepper were doing on the plate.  It was like the beef was a third wheel on their date.  I could see a Cuban flare with the combination of rice and peppers and banana, but beef?  How about pork?  I liked the banana/pepper couple together, but I thought that the rich, gorgeous beef should have gone to prom solo.  Sorry, Escoffier.

Now, we were really done with our savory dishes.  Time for dessert!  My sister was glad; she has a major sweet tooth.  But I warned her; she is a girl inexperienced in long tastings: the sweet stuff will kill you.  I love desserts too, but I know that jones-ing feeling that creeps up during dessert courses.  That feeling like adult-onset-diabetes may be my fate.  The I need water but can’t fit it in my stomach feeling.  Now equally aware of our fate, we soldiered forward.

Like the previous circus, a new trio of courses came out before us, just as beautiful and exciting.  “Put this packet on your tongue.” Said our server, pointing to a small, triangle of mysterious substance.  “Oh,” I said.  “We’re being rufied.”  Our server laughed and jokingly affirmed, as we placed the lemon-soda powder-filled packets on our tongues.  When the outer membrane dissolved, sour sweetness filled our mouths.  Yum!  It was fun and delicious, even if I would never accept such a “candy” in a dark alley.

Next, we ate a raspberry transparency embeded with rose petals.  It was both fruity and aromatic, and I was excieted as I nibbled through it.  I was also curious about the long, clear plastic tube that lay on a napkin on a dish in front of us.  What was it?

Our server told us to suck out of the straw in one slurping motion.  She comforted us, saying everyone in the restaurant makes the awkward slurping sound at that course and that there was really only a tablespoon of contents in the tube despite its large look.  We could do it!  We sucked out the tricolored stuff, making a loud farting noise.  We laughed at the noise as well as at the fun flavors in the tube.  A layer of creme fraiche, a layer of bubblegum flavored stuff, and tapioca.  One of the layers was hibiscus flavor, and all of them went together great.  The bubblegum flavor was a bit of nostalgia I appreciated.

bubblegum=fart noise, but delicious!

The next was maybe my favorite dessert course: Earl Grey, lemon, rose, and caramelized white chocolate.  A pillow of Earl Grey scent was placed on our table before us, and then our plate was placed atop.  As the plate sank down, the Earl Grey scent enveloped me.  I ate the earl grey sables, rose jelly, caramelized white chocolate, and lemon curd in a peaceful state of mind as I smelled the delicious tea scent coming from the pillow!  Talk about a sensory experience.

it just smelled so damn good!

Our next course should have been the last, but since the kitchen new it was my birthday, they sent out a little “cake” course.  A ball of chocolate stood alone on each of our plates, and then the servers poured a warm vanilla sauce over top until the sphere melted.  Inside was ice cream and some cake!  I loved eating the hot vanilla sauce with the melting chocolate, ice cream, and cake.  What’s better than hot fudge?  Hot vanilla just may be.

Have you been awaiting the finale, dear reader?  Well here it is.  A server cleared our table and put out The Mat.  I knew what was coming.  After setting out some condiments, the server said that “someone” would be up shortly to prepare the dessert.  Someone, huh?  I  might have heard of that someone somewhere.  Does his name start with Grant and end in Achatz?  Ding!

What next!? (As if I was unaware...)

Chef Grant Achatz walked calmly up to our table to prepare the amazing final course.  I wanted to propose to him, but he didn’t seem in the mood.  Too focused.  He began by saucing with coconut sauce.  Then, he poured equal amounts of chocolate sauce into two glass cylinders.  Coconut mousse/ meringue geode-type things went next.  Then piles of chocolate/menthol gravel.  Then, a steaming rectangle of frozen chocolate mousse, fresh out of the liquid nitrogen.  Sweet!  He crushed it up in the middle of our table and then finished the post-apocalyptic-looking dessert with some small anise hyssop greens, a sign that life could go on after our meal was over.

Removing the cylinders, Achatz showed a warm chocolate pudding had set before our eyes within a minute.  Wow!

I wanted to go in face-plant style, but they brought spoons.

It was amazing.  We scarfed it down like starving children at a birthday party.  The feeling afterwards was not a far cry from eating too much ice cream cake.  Ughh, we moaned, having eaten too much chocolate-y goodness.  Waterrrr.

Our experience at Alinea was epic.  Nothing short of epic.  If a few things here or there were a tad off, I couldn’t care less.  Let me give you a measure of how good it was:

I liked it Better Than Per Se.

I know.  I said it.  It sounds crazy, but the food was just as on, technically speaking, and a lot more creative with flavor combinations and presentations.  I would love to see Achatz and Keller duke it out Iron Chef style {I would be a judge, of course : ) }, but I truly believe Alinea was one of the most amazing fine dining experiences I have had in my short and underage life thus far.

Go to Alinea.  It is worth every penny.  I would spend lots of money to go back there.  Thank you to my wonderful father who, for some reason, thought I was worthy of a meal at Alinea for my birthday.  I must not be such a bad daughter to have warranted that experience!  Next time at Alinea, it’s you and me, Popsky.

The Last Days of Spring Break…

30 Mar

Even though I knew the time had come to buckle down and get myself ready to go back to school, I couldn’t exactly stay out of the kitchen.  You’d think I would know myself enough by now to predict such behavior, but, alas, I had too much faith in my ability to buckle down and get out of the kitchen.  Never again will I trust my will power.

I cooked and ate for the final four days of my Spring break.

Sadly, though, in the midst of my cooking, I had to fast in preparation for an endoscopy.  What?  Fast?  Surely, not me?  Well, I had to fast.  Very unfortunate.  Very.

I wanted to eat, but out of the list of things I was allowed up until 7 AM the day of the procedure, I only really had chicken broth at the house.  What a breakfast!  Later, at the endoscopy center, a nurse told me I wasn’t allowed to cook or drink alcohol all day after the procedure.  I wanted to ask her, then, what she had in mind for my next 18 hours.  Instead, I mentally agreed to spare my liver and not drink but to cook anyway.  How harmful could cooking be?

It was fine.  I made a beautiful vanilla-bean and Cognac cheesecake topped with a thin layer of date puree.  It was fabulous!  And I didn’t pass out from anesthesia while making it, so ha: don’t tell me not to cook.

Later in the week, I continued to spend lots of time with food.  One day, I went to lunch in New York City with my sister, and we ate at L’Orange Bleu in SoHo.  It was not only adorable inside, with real-live-frenchass people running the place, but the food was also great.  I had a salad with Manchego croutons and figs, along with a small dish of really intense ratatouille.  My sister had a Moroccan chicken tagine dish, which was also delicious.

The day after that, I met up with a friend back in the city, but on this outing, the sole purpose was eating.  We covered a lot of ground in the city, from Greenwich Village to the Upper East Side.  We started with bagels at Murray’s. ate Vietnamese on the Lower East Side, and then hit Momofuku Milk Bar and Bakery (amazing red velvet cake ice cream.  What?).  Then, we stumbled upon a strange vegan bakery, and ventured to Clinton Street Bakery and Dessert Truck.  At this point, we did feel diabetes setting in.

So, we sought out Indian food at Mitali East!  After that, we grabbed all-you-can eat sushi at Yuka on the Upper East Side.  If you think it ends here, you have more reason than we did.  But I spotted Slice, a new pizza place, and wanted a piece.  The chickpea and curry sauce pizza slice was great, but what was even better was chasing it with fro’ yo’ from Pinkberry.  Even though I used to be a skeptic, I found Pinkberry’s chocolate frozen yogurt delicious, especially topped with mochi, cheesecake bites, and cinnamon streusel.

I guess the highlights of the day were the following dishes: a bran muffin from Clinton Bakery, epic soft serve from Momofuku, lamb vindaloo curry from Mitali East, the “Taste” pizza from Slice, and the frozen yogurt.  Even though everything was great, I remember those the most vividly.  They were knockouts.

The rest of my week was random.  One night, I made dinner for a family gathering: sunflower seed focaccia with figs; green and white asparagus, corn, and mushroom succotash; braised short ribs with olive, orange, and rosemary; and peach, rhubarb, and strawberry pie.

sunflower seed focaccia with figs

braised short ribs with olive, orange, and rosemary

asparagus, mushroom, and corn succotash

peach, rhubarb, and strawberry pie with lemon-almond ice cream

The next day, I experimented with molded chocolates.  I didn’t have cream for ganache, so I made a smoked paprika caramel and mixed in chocolate to achieve a nice filling.  They were not too shabby!

molded pimenton-caramel chocolates

Finally, before leaving home, I made sweet Passover kugel for my sister and I to take back to school during Passover and a coconut bunny cake for Easter.  I don’t know why, but I enjoy making my bunny cakes Cyclops-esque.  Maybe because my mom wishes they could have two eyes.  I find the Cyclops bunnies entertaining.  Don’t you?

Cylcops bunny cake!

Momofuku Ko: Dinner

18 Jun

Last night, I made my epic pilgrimage to Momofuku Ko.  After such an experience, I must assert that a foodie is to Momofuku Ko as a Muslim is to Mecca.  If one is physically and financially capable of making such a trip, then one must make every effort to do so.  Could this be a first pillar in one of the five (or more) of foodie-ism? 

My reservation was at 9:30, but since I didn’t want to be late, I loitered around in the neighborhood for a while leading up to it.  Finally, around 9:20, two young men walked out of the restaurant.  One of them pronounced, “dude, that was some of the best food I’ve ever eaten.”  Needless to say, I was ecstatic to hear such positive feedback about the meal on which I would soon be dining.

I walked into the restaurant a few minutes early, but I was seated promptly anyway (upon presenting my print-out reservation confirmation, of course.)  Now here is where I wish to say something that is not in accord with other reviews of Momofuku Ko:

Even though there is minimal service, it is not because the staff wishes not to be hospitable.  The space is merely too small to have an extensive waitstaff.  However, as for the service I did receive, it was cordial and prompt.  Furthermore, I believe it a gross exaggeration to say that the chefs who cook and present the meal are at all kurt or hostile.  On the contrary, they were friendly, they were having fun making the food, they did not mind re-explaining the dishes, and they asked numerous times whether we were enjoying the meal.  Could this be the holier-than-thou and cold staff for which I was prepared by so many past reviews and blog posts?

Perhaps an evolution has occurred over time with the response of the diners, but speaking from my own experience, I cannot say I’ve ever met a nicer or more enthusiastic group of chefs. 

Now for the food:


Soft Tofu with morels, green market radish with butter and salt, mirin-glazed biscuit with chicharron (sprinkled w/ spicy salt)

Scallop “crudo” with pineapple vinegar and ham

Cold Dashi with charred pea shoots, sugar snaps, cucumber, and Santa Barbara Uni

Lightly smoked soft cooked egg with haggleback caviar, confit onions, sweet potato vinegar, and fingerling potato chips

Rice porridge with Chinese sausage, crawfish, lime zest, and dill

Dredged and sautéed soft shell crab with Old Bay butter sauce, celery “noodles,” and hearts of palm

 Shaved foie gras with lychee, pine nut brittle, and Riesling gelee

Deep fried beef short rib with chive puree, sautéed onion with lavender oil, charred baby leeks from Rosco, NY, and chive blossoms

Cantaloupe sorbet with honey-verbena granite

Rhubarb with olive-oil-crème-fraiche ice cream, black pepper crumble, and black pepper ganache

Where to start?  I suppose the beginning. 

The first course was a trio that I ate in order from lightest to boldest flavors.  The radish with butter was fresh and delicious, and the peppery flavor played well with the butter and salt.  The tofu was soft and beautiful, and the silkiness with the rich flavor of the morels was magnificent.  Lastly, the biscuit with mirin glaze was busty and unctuous, and although it was not as flaky as it was sort of cakey, it was basically like, “here I am, love me or leave me,” and I loved it, eating every last morsel.  The chicharron was a nice nod to the awesomeness of carnivorism and the beauty in life that is pork.  After having eating the biscuit, I thought that the scallop crudo was refreshing and awakening.  The ham was nice with the tangy vinegar and soft, fresh scallop.  Next, the cold dashi was like a tranquil sea after the tangy scallop, so it was a nice progression.  The pea shoots were a textural element, and the snap peas and cucumber were sweet and crisp.  Also, the uni was phenomenal, and it added the proper salty/brine to counter the sweetness from the pineapple before.  Not only did all of the dishes balance and delight, but the progression was logical. 

The next dish may have been my favorite of the ten courses.  An elegantly presented plate, the dish arrives with a soft cooked and lightly-smoked egg partially split open atop a bed of confit onions.   By the split in the egg is a perfect, dark, and hansome cannelle of haggleback caviar.  Sweet potato vinegar is applied minimally, and wee fingerling potato chips adorn the dish.  All the diner has to do to get the full glory is to break the peeking yolk and consume a perfect bite with all components.  The onion confit was comforting and smooth, and although smoke was not a prominent flavor, the egg was cooked just right.  All of the elements in the dish belonged together.  The caviar was like salt for the egg as well.  It all just made sense.

Continuing the breakfasty-inspired jog, the subsequent course was a rice porridge with Chinese sausage and crawfish.  The porridge was homey and original, and the sausage and crawfish were complimentary but kept their integrity, even if the sausage was not a crazily assertive flavor.  Lime zest and dill made the dish a modern interpretation and a more complex one at that.  I was not fond of the small-diced vegetable (celery, perhaps) that topped the porridge; it ruined the soft mouthfeel with too much of a crunch.  Still, this dish isperfect in that Americans do not get to eat rice porridge often, and it opens up new avenues for those to whom it speaks.

The crab that followed was crazy.  I’m already a big fan of soft shell crab.  Here, they dredged it in flour and sauteed it in butter just how I like it.  However, they made a perfect sauce with the unpretentious ingredient Old Bay Seasoning.  The butter sauce was expertly done, though, so I felt that this was a nod of respect or paying of homage to the modest cooks and fishermen who use it to kick up their simply baked or grilled catch.  The celery ribbons were a fresh foil to the rich sauce, and the hearts of palm were crisp.  I believe I will not throw away that ever-shunned container of Old Bay in my spice drawer quite yet…

At this point, I was already in a state of bliss.  However, the chefs brought me to euphoria with their signature dish of shaved foie over lychees, pine nut brittle, and Riesling gelee.  The pile of foie “snow” melted on the palate, screaming foie gras even though the mouthful was so light.  The riesling gelee was like having the perfect wine pairing right in the dish, and the brittle and lychees offered texture and sweet coolness respectively.  I decided then that I would have been a happier child had the ice cream truck brought foie snow cones.  If only…

More, I say!  More!  The course that came next was unfair.  Is it legal to take a tender, fatty piece of meat and then deep-fry it?  Well, I suppose, because that is what they did to the short rib, and no police showed up.  It was probably the best beef I have had in a long time.  The pink, juicy rib was succulent and yielding simultaneously.  The dark crust on the outiside was a carnivore’s dream.  I didn’t think that I could eat a whole piece, let alone the two on my plate, but let’s be serious.  I almost cleaned my plate.  Needless to say, the many ways of onions were amazing, especially the one anointed with lavender oil. 

Dessert is bittersweet.  Not because it has bittersweet chocolate in it, and not because it contains a dark dark caramel, but because it signals that the end is near.  Still, because it is delicious, how can one not love it?

The first dessert was a perfect cantaloupe sorbet over a honey-verbena granite.  Even though sorbet is always my last choice for dessert, this one was ethereal, capturing the perfect essence of the perfect cantaloupe.

Next and last was the rhubarb dessert.  It all worked so nicely, especially the flavor of the olive oil in the ice cream.  Even though one of my black pepper crumble pieces was less crumbly than it could have been (it was like a struessel), it was amazing. 

I sipped my espresso, rather upset but hoping that if I just stayed, they would keep feeding me.  They did not.  The last dessert left me thinking of the rhubarb pies to come, though; it is summer after all, and I grew optimistic.  As I departed, I thanked the chefs for a great meal, and not a trace of exaggeration was present in my remark.  I will go back if I can ever get in again.  After a meal like that to inspire my reservation-getting, I am confident that I will.