Thanks everyone for your input. I didn't realise the Google Maps estimate was off by such a huge amount. As such, I think we'll just take the train to Carcassonne instead.
We'll keep Hôtel de la Poste & Auvergne for the next France trip.
In June I'll be doing a 6.5h drive from Paris to Carcassone in a day. I have two questions.
(1) Are there any great "rustic and traditional" places along the way? (about midway,2h-4h in, would be nice)? (i.e. not fancy Michelin food, we're already doing Arpege and Ambroisie in Paris, and need some contrast).
(2) Are there any recommended activities along the way that can be done in 3-4h? (We can reach Carcassone by nightfall, so we have a fairly wide berth if there are some great activities to do in the middle of the journey)
Any day on the week of Tuesday 10th June to Saturday 14th June! I'm currently hoping to do it, but they only accept parties of 2 or 4 :(
Try to rent a zipcar, or use UberX or Lyft (if you have a data plan) to get around. They are the cheapest car services available in Providence if you don't own one
Hi Charles! Surprising to see you on this board! I'm a Singaporean chowhounder currently based in Providence (graduating this May).
1. Dinner - Birch is a must do (for dinner). I have been there more than 10 times since they opened last July, they are simply head and shoulders the most innovative restaurant in RI, and the best I've tried in New England.
You can read some of my write-ups on my blog on birch: kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/birch-providence-sep-13-loca-vore-movement/
2. Breakfast - If you are in for Breakfast, try Kitchen - they have the best bacon I've tried in the Northeast (including NYC)
3. Dinner - Persimmon in Bristol (25 min drive) has a playful take on RI fare that is unique, it's probably the second best restaurant I've tried in RI after Birch.
4. Dinner - My experiences at North have been decent. Their best dishes are the ham biscuit and fried chicken. Thier food is similar to Momofuku Ssam Bar in NYC. I would get their vegetable offerings and avoid their noodle offerings, which are much better done at Ssam Bar.
5. Lunch/Dinner - I'm going to say avoid La Laiterie and Gracie's. You will be disappointed.
6. Dinner - Get the polenta from Mike's Kitchen if you can. Canteen style dining, but very good polenta. It was once featured in NYTimes.
RECOMMENDATIONS I'VE HEARD FROM OTHERS I TRUST
7. Matunuck oyster bar in the summertime I've heard is great
8. Black Pearl in Newport for New England clam chowder (Lunch, maybe?)
Thanks for the great write-up! Sounds like Local 121 is back on the radar.
Tegui (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
For photos, please go to: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com...
Address: Costa Rica 5852, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Main #1: Goat Cheese, Beet, Strawberries, Basil (3/5)
Main #2: Almond soup, toasted serrano ham chips, fresh figs. (3.5/5)
Main #3: Octopus, homemade salami, tapenade (dehydrated black olives), melon, avocado. (3.5/5)
Main #4: Rabbit Terrine, Corn Ice Cream, Apricot, Cucumber Yoghurt, Dabs of Hot Pepper (1/5)
Furthermore, the cold corn ice cream made for a very uncomfortable mouth-feel when eaten with the lukewarm, coarse, dry terrine. Really, really bad dish. I did like the corn ice cream on its own, so it salvages one point. The appearance of ice cream so early on, also may have played havoc with my appetite.
Main #5: Ricotta Gnocchi, White Truffle Foam, Popcorn (3.5/5)
Main #6: Quail, Malbec Reduction, Dried Fruit Sorbet. (0/5)
Main #7: 24 hour lamb, eggplant, thyme yoghurt, Mediterranean vegetables (2.5/5)
Melon, White Chocolate Granita, Licorice and Balsamic Vinegar Reduction (4.25/5)
Strawberry sorbet, Blueberry Leather, Panna Cotta dabs (3.25/5)
Central (Lima, Peru)
For photos, please go to: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/central-lima-jan-14-peruvian-terroir-art-on-a-plate/
Address: Ca. Santa Isabel 376, Miraflores, Lima – Perú
The Chef. Chef Virgilio Martinez’s fame precedes him. In the last year, he has opened a restaurant in London (called Lima), and he has another restaurant in Cuzco, gateway to Machu Picchu. An advocate of Peruvian cuisine worldwide, he is only 36 years old, and Central has been reviewed by Lima’s foremost dining guide (a little red book) as the best restaurant in Lima. Previous to opening Central, he worked at Lutèce (New York); Can Fabes (Sant Celoni, Spain), and served as executive chef at two restaurants of the Astrid y Gastón restaurant chain (prevalent in the Spanish world), in both Bogotá and Madrid.
You know what, I spent some time in Madrid and in Barcelona 10 years ago. After awhile, I went back to Peru and I saw more calm in the city. In the gastronomic sense, it was just okay, it was good. I had this epiphany when I went to Southeast Asia and I saw how people were very proud of street food. That really inspired me to go to the very unknown parts [of Peru]. So I got to know these parts, and I got to know all these ingredients. When I saw 200 ingredients that I’d never seen in my life, I was like, okay we have to do something with this because this is just amazing. And then we started to do the research on recipes with those ingredients. That was my personal motivation to go back to Peru and do my thing. – Virgilio Martinez
Two Visions of Peruvian Haute-Cuisine. Of the four high-end restaurants and menus I visited in three days in Lima, I could split them into two kinds – the first as Peruvian fusion (Astrid y Gaston’s [AyG] 20 years menu, Maido’s Nikkei menu); and the second highlighting Peruvian terroir (Central, Malabar, more casual: Amaz). I felt that the first type of Peruvian fusion haute-cuisine was not as enjoyable for me – it was almost as if I was being treated to a menu by committee, where disparate elements (Chinese shortrib and glutinous rice at Maido, Peking cuy and cannoli at AyG) were being put on my plate just to punch home the point that Peru was a cultural melting pot of Spanish, Italian, Incan, Chinese and Japanese immigrants. As if the presence of diversity on the menu was more important that the way tastes could unfold on the menu. In almost all of the cases, these “affirmative action” style dishes flopped. Fried rice with cod and oyster sauce does not a good dish make, AyG. The “affirmative action” trap is an all-too-common one that fusion restaurants fall into. The fusion restaurant gimmick: Ingredients from culture A are mixed with ingredients/preparations of culture B to produce a decent dish, but one in which the ingredients are replaceable, and there isn’t an essential reason to mix those two cultures. Very few fusion dishes follow an inner logic of the tastes themselves. A good rule of thumb seems to be: if fusion results in a dish that is merely interesting, don’t serve it. In the past year I could count on one hand the fusion dishes which were brilliant (sake-souffle at RyuGin, and Pejerrey Tiradito at Maido off the top of my head). Even at Maido (a restaurant I enjoyed very much), the only fusion dish which was essential was the tiradito; the other fusion dishes were well-executed but forgettable; and the chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) style dishes were consistently the weakest parts of the menu at both AyG and Maido.
I much preferred the Peruvian-terroir type restaurants. I learnt while researching Lima’s dining scene that there was a deviant strain of terroir-restaurants called “Amazonian cuisine”, attributed to Pedro Schiaffino of Malabar and Amaz. While I enjoyed both Malabar and Amaz, I felt that Peruvian-terroir took a big step up at Central. The flavors here were more precise and complex. It also has a larger canvas to play on – while a big part of Central’s ingredients comes from the Amazon, but it also encompasses all elevations and climes.
“Scientists have calculated that there are thirty-four types of climatic zones on the face of the earth. Peru has twenty of them. ‘In Inca Land one may pass from glaciers to tree ferns within a few hours,’ Bingham wrote, still astonished years after arriving.” - Turn Right at Machu Picchu, Mark Adams.
The Food. The menu I had was called Mater Uno. It has been expanded to about 18 courses now, but remained at about 13 courses when I visited in early January. The most memorable tastes were (1) the cut chirimoya fruit with cocoa – the chirimoya had the texture of pineapple with the taste of soursop; remarkable; and (2) the cushuro cyanobacteria with mashed frozen potato. The chefs at Central plate with painters’ brushes. In their hands, elegant paintings appear on our plates, feasts for the eyes. Occasionally the dining experience crosses over into didactism, where native Peruvian ingredients are placed on our plate just because the average diner has zero familiarity with them, and Central is trying to educate us on their provenance. But I always found the tastes precise, calibrated, with no flavour overwhelming the dish. Even though the food was unfamiliar, the tastes were balanced.
SEA: Seaweed Calamari (4.5/5)
SNAPSHOT OF THE SEA (5/5)
COASTAL INTERACTION (5/5)
WATERS OF THE LOWER ANDES (4.75/5)
EXTREME ALTITUDE (5/5)
RED JUNGLE (3.75/5)
ALTIPLANO AND LAKE (3.25/5)
PURE AMAZON (4.25/5)
MOUNTAIN RANGE AND FOREST (5/5)
Malabar (Lima, Peru)
For photos, please go to: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com...
Address: Av Camino Real 110, San Isidro 15073, Peru
Malabar is a bit different from 3 other renowned restaurants I visited in Lima (Astrid y Gastón, Maido, and Central). Strangely, none of the waitstaff speak English, so it was off to the races with my halting Spanish to comprehend the dish explanations. One can only imagine that this is a deliberate choice on the part of chef-owner Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, since during my lunch at Amaz (his more casual twist on the Amazonian concept, located in the upmarket Miraflores district) two days earlier, there were plenty of waitstaff who could speak English.
Another difference about Malabar was that it was the only one of the four in the San Isidro financial district, about 5km away from the Miraflores district.
While Malabar’s food was pleasant enough, I have to confess that reflecting on the meal 2 months later, no tastes really stick with me. It was nicely plated, but no one dish grabbed the stomach or made me remember the food besides that it was quite pleasant. Having had no immersion at all in this cuisine and its ingredients, I was running based purely on taste and smell. If one could eat with one’s eyes, this would be great cuisine. I have faith that the ingredients sourced here from the Amazon (which Chef Schiaffano leads a vanguard) are all very rare, but the concept of this restaurant seems to be first a showcase parade of unfamiliar ingredients brought into elegant visual forms, presented to the diner experimentally, to see which Amazonian ingredients are a hit with gourmands. I ended up appreciating Schiaffano’s gastronomic project to support conserving the Amazon ecosystem and culture, much more than the direct gastronomic results themselves.
For a better version of this type of Peruvian terroir cuisine, I would recommend Central over Malabar, which had at least 3 very memorable dishes.
‘Mugaritz-style’ stone potatoes.
Queso de castaña: Flores de jengibre, tomates confitados y congonilla (4.25/5)
Taidai de pescado con jugo de tumbo, mastuerzos y tobiko (4/5)
Yuca: Mojo de naranja agria, fariña, tapioca y masato (4.25/5)
Huatia de papa: Papa cocida en su tierra, charqui de alpaca y quinua negra (4/5)
Octopus, Pepper, Seaweed (4.5/5)
Paiche en aji negro: Habitas regionales guisadas y maduros (3.75/5)
Escolar en adobo: Cebollas de trenza y camotes crujientes (4.75/5)
The most remembered dish of that lunch – a spicy sambal-like covering around the escolar fish. I feel it is a bit facetious to serve the escolar in such meagre portions, but such is the tyranny of the tasting menu – would it have been better served in a large portion, family-style?
Puca picante de costillar de res (4.5/5)
Chirimoya, plátanos manzanos y yogurt orgánico (4/5)
Cacao: chocolates nacionales (4.5/5)
Maido (Lima, Peru)
For photos, please go to: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/maido-lima-jan-14-nikkei-delight/
Address: calle San Martín 399 (esquina: calle Colón), Miraflores, Lima, Perú
“Nikkei Experience – The Third Reality”
“Life is movement. Nothing is static or absolute. No one is. We are in a state of constant flux, just like the Earth, the tides, bacteria, light, the blood in our bodies, colors, seeds. Like family trees, cuisines are constantly being redefined, their identities enriched by an intense intercultural exchange which has formed the basis of all civilization ever since humans shared their first sounds, products, ideas, and customs. Fusion cuisine is just that: cooking, an inclusive word that perfectly encompasses it all. The fireplace is where bloodlines merge, where people come to sing, individual and group histories are forged, life gestates. The fireplace is where dialogue is fostered, the elements meet, opposites attract. Thus was born Peruvian Nikkei cuisine: from a complex history called Peru; and another, equally complex, far-off and foreign history called Japan that merged to live in harmony and create the third reality: Nikkei Cuisine.” – Mitsuharu Tsumura – Josefina Barron
Astrid y Gaston (Lima, Peru)
For photos, please go to: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com...
Old Address: Cantuarias 175, Miraflores District 15074, Peru
Gustu (La Paz, Bolivia)
For photos, please go to: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/gustu-la-paz-jan-14-food-as-world-changer/
Address: Calle 10, No. 300, La Paz, Bolivia
Boragó (Santiago, Chile)
For photos, please go to: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com...
Address: Av. Nueva Costanera 3467, Vitacura, Santiago, Chile
With the release of the Top 50 Latin American restaurant list (http://www.theworlds50best.com/latina...) and with limited local intelligence, I decided to try a good chunk of those in the top 50 in 4 countries (Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru) while taking a 3 week trip through them. The following replies contain my reports from each of those restaurants
Based on a CH and Google search, it seems the only place is l'Auberge de l'Ill near Strasbourg. Are there any others?
If budget is no issue, the Joel Robuchon Restaurant seems to be a good option for the best restaurant in Singapore. See a recent experience here:
Of interest perhaps: Amanda Freitag discusses her dessert kitchen in this article. http://www.grubstreet.com/2014/03/che...
Hmm I had a very different experience when I did the extended tasting lunch (for two) in December last year. I only had 15 courses. Only two dishes I would say were really great - their interpretation of "Mac and Cheese" with scallop and orzo; and the cut of "Calotte de Boeuf". Very poor value for what it was, the mains were well-prepared but somewhat lacking imagination; the desserts especially could put down an insomniac.
Perhaps that was because we weren't regulars there... but for $600 per pax I expected much more.
Pictures here: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com...
Congrats pepsican! I hope you will have a great meal there like I did. The chefs will also appreciate off-beat beers and scotches there if you bring some for them :P
Look forward to hearing about how it goes.
When I was in Prague, the best thing was the vegan cheesecake at Maitrea/Lehka Hlava - in 6 days there I went to have it thrice.
A tart raw strawberry sauce drizzled on top of a raw “cheesecake” – made with cashew nuts, walnuts, raisins, coconut butter, and honey.
Bu Pun Su, what would you say are the best restaurants in Singapore?
I don't put much store by the Top 50 list. I can chip a bit with my experience eating many of the Latin America Top 50 List in 2013 (6-8 restaurants, most in top 15).
The Lima, Peru restaurants were very solid, as was Borago in Chile. But due to an unjustified preponderance of Argentine reviewers - a truly awful restaurant called Tegui made it to #9 in Latin America, and best in Argentina. I think there is always risk of geographical bias, possibly from Thailand.
My non-foodie friends who have been to Nahm were also unimpressed by the mains, though they liked the desserts.
Thanks for sharing nsxtasy! I admit, my expectations going into Alinea were sky-high due to my two-year wait to eat there, and so I was more easily disappointed. We were also in and out of there in 2h20 mins (on a Friday night), and the courses came pretty fast.
Can I ask if you had the last seating? Because that sounds to me like that's the best seating to go time-wise.
For full photos, please go to my blog: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/grace-chicago-mar-14-herbal-baroque/
I knew almost nothing about Grace when I stepped in. I only knew that in the year that they were open since December 2011, Grace has had a meteoric rise, garnering two Michelin stars immediately. This is the restaurant that Chicago expects to be its newest 3-star Michelin restaurant.
Some people have called it “Chicago’s per se”. I think that is a mistake. The dissimilarities with per se are much more striking than the similarities. Firstly, the plating of food. The plating at per se is a style one might call classical, putting the main ingredients front and centre. The plating style at Grace eschews that to put the ingredients by the side; in two piles; even three dimensionally (see the Alaskan king crab). The plating has more in common with the chaos on view at Schwa. Secondly and more substantially on the flavours, make no mistake – Grace is exciting. Licorice, in particular, played a part in 4-5 dishes across the 18 we tried across both Flora and Fauna menus. It was not uncommon to have up to 15 different ingredients in one dish, as the kitchen strived for a very precise effect. Some touches, with the onion in the perigord truffle custard, were sensational and subtle. This paradox – baroque of taste and minimalist of plate – is what drives Grace forward.
As a diner, you have a choice between two menus. The Flora and the Fauna menu. The Fauna has the better mains. The Flora has (slightly) better desserts. Beware though: if you’re accustomed to having meat in some measure on your menus, you will likely be dissatisfied with Flora mains, which are much more intellectual-exercise than delicious-plate (a problem I had with vegetarian Kajitsu in New York as well). Strangely, the Flora menu isn’t vegetarian by default, I guess some animal products still find its way into the sauces. Most people, faced with this conundrum, order different menus across the table, so that everyone can try a bit. All kinds of herbs find their way onto both menus, and many of them hail from Asia. A Indian tamarind named kokum, Vietnamese herbs, bold use of licorice: at times it almost seems as if each dish was constructed around a single herb (USUALLY EMPHASISED WITH ALL CAPS). My overall verdict on the menus: each menu features very strong dishes, but they tend to alternate (the 2nd dish on Fauna, the 5th dish on Flora). There is already a 3-star Michelin menu on the table, if we take the strongest dishes of both Flora and Fauna. The Fauna menu was the one served to me, and so apologies if my descriptions or recollections of the Flora menu are patchy.
Grace’s dining room is a classy muted bronze in colour. No natural light seeps in, except a brightly-lit kitchen sealed it by glass at the very head of the room. It is the open-kitchen concept that is all the rage today. Both of us were seated facing the kitchen, the metaphor of dining as theatre made explicit. Grace certainly has all the trappings and food to merit a 3-star rating (if the best of both menus are combined). I would be surprised if it doesn’t make it within a couple of years.
The Tribune’s special feature on the story behind Chef Curtis Duffy and Grace – http://graphics.chicagotribune.com/gr...
What we had:
Amuse: “Log of Delights”
Amuse: “Log of Delights”
Quinoa chips, a lemon cup of intensely-lemon-scented(incl. zest and all) cold risotto, candied pineapple, ham with the slight taste of ginseng.
Fauna #1: Chawanmushi: osetra caviar, yuzu, PURPLE SHISO (4/5)
Chewy “bubble tea” balls in a ham-flavored chawanmushi, with puffed rice, a sprig of seagrapes. Osetra caviar at the center.
Flora #1: Salsify: golden char roe, apple, OXALIS (4.25/5)
Fauna #2: Alaskan King Crab: kalamansi, cucumber, LEMON BALM (5/5)
A tremendous dish. This dish alone was worth the entrance fee. King crab and small cubes of cucumber sit at the bottom of the bowl, with calamansi (a particularly tangy and acidic Southeast Asian lime) juice surrounding. A neutral sugar glass holds up the upper deck of ingredients, the including trout roe. To begin the dish, I smashed the upper deck into the lower deck with a spoon. It was all you could have asked from a dish, in both taste and effect. In the effects department: it had 3-dimensionality, interactivity (diner plays the chef), and time-sensitivity. In the taste department, the meaty flavor of king crab was contrasted the small neutral refreshing taste of cucumber, and the sourness of the lime, transformed by the dissolving sugar glass into a dessert-like thin calamansi sauce. The sugar glass was just the right thickness, not too sharp and easily dissolved in the mouth. This dish will haunt my dreams for a long time.
Flora #2: Winter Vegetables: huckleberry, amaranth, TARRAGON (3.25/5)
Bread #1: Whole Wheat Croissant, Herbed Butter and Butter
Fauna #3: Scallop: tamarind, smoke, FLAVORS OF LICORICE (4.5/5)
A whole Maine scallop from Desert Island, with licorice and anise hyssop purees. A coconut custard by the side.
Flora #3: Beet: black garlic, apple, RED RIBBON SORREL (3.75/5)
Bread #2: Red Onion and Black Olive Waffle
Fauna #4: Duck: sunflower, cranberry, MARJORAM (4.75/5)
A duck confit tortellini, with cranberry and an intensely flavored duck-consomme. This was a very complex dish, and everywhere I scooped with my spoon there was new bit of sweet solid stuff which I could not place. Tastes of lemongrass permeated the dish.
Flora #4: Sweet Potato: picholine, grapefruit, YARROW (3.5/5)
Bread #3: Rye baguette with sprinkled rye berries
Fauna #5: Sweetbreads: ten grains, caperberry, SAGE (4.5/5)
Perfectly fried sweetbreads, resting in a pile of multigrain, in a rich jus.
Flora #5: Perigord Truffle: crème caramel, sherry, CHIVE (5/5)
Another amazing dish of the night. Shaved truffle – still retaining all its crunch unlike some that can taste like cardboard – is put on top of a custard that has the taste of sherry, with caramelised chipolini onions. Little slices of brik (Turkish dough) scattered on top provide textural contrast. Superb. Decadent. Sherry, custard, and the texture of fresh truffle. Divine.
Bread #4: Pretzel with black lava salt from Hawaii
Fauna #6: Miyazaki Beef: romaine, peanut, VIETNAMESE HERBS (5/5)
“The discovery of Miyazaki” is how this dish was described to me. Miyazaki is perhaps the best beef in Japan, outranking wagyu. A slice of raw dreamy Miyazaki beef on top of a rice cracker, perfectly rare-cooked Miyazaki beef. Tender and full of fat. With something like fermented turnip undearneath, and various fresh, taut, Vietnamese herbs that evoked some of the street food I had in Saigon. It was paired with a cup of tom yum broth. This had some of the best elements of Southeast Asian cooking: the Indochinese rice cracker, the Vietnamese herbs, the peanuts and tom yum evoking Thailand. Tremendous.
I ate my Miyazaki beef using my rice cracker as a taco. Possibly the most expensive taco I’ve had to date.
Flora #6: Swiss Chard: red wine, elephant garlic, CHERVIL (3.75/5)
Fauna #7: Raspberry: lychee, kokum, NASTURTIUM (4.5/5)
A dessert building on the Ispahan base (also see, Restaurant Andre’s version) – strawberry, raspberry, lychee. Strawberry sorbet, dehydrated raspberries, dehydrated lychee. The 4th and 5th wheels were a cylinder of earl grey (one of the trendy tastes in Chicago – I had it all three nights in a row at Schwa + Alinea + Grace) and kokum puree, from an Indian tamarind.
Flora #7: Buddha’s Hand: passionfruit, brown butter, LEMON BALM (4.5/5)
Fauna #8: Pear: black sugar, licorice, LEMON VERBENA (4.5/5)
Another good dessert. A dome of (white chocolate?) covers licorice-tinged financiers, and Asian pear ice-cream. The licorice here was a star player, cutting through just pear and butter, and elevating the financiers.
Flora #8: Medjool Date: chartreuse, honey, CELERY (3.75/5)
I found this a bit one-dimensional, with the starchy sweetness of medjool date overpowering the other ingredients.
Fauna #9: Chocolate: pineapple, hazelnut, BANANA MINT (4.25/5)
A rooibos-infused goats-milk, strong tasting, into a traditional preparation of chocolate-hazelnut and pineapple.
Flora #9: Young Coconut: fennel, pistachio, BRONZE FENNEL (5/5)
Amazing, I remember – a cylinder of young coconut pairing with a tart cherry. A cylinder of coconut meringue and pistachio gelato were good, but all it needed was that sensational squiggle of coconut with a tart cherry.
Memory: Alaskan King Crab; Perigord Truffle Creme Caramel; Miyazaki Beef; Young Coconut
For full photos, please see: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com/2014/03/01/alinea-chicago-feb-14-pack-in-the-plebs/
I had waited for two years to dine at Alinea. In 2012 I was denied the opportunity when Alinea suspended taking reservations for two months while they got their new ticketing system set up. In 2013, I had set-up a virtual assistant to watch over Alinea cancellations for the one Wednesday I was back in Chicago (I did my math, about 75% of the time, a Wednesday 2-top or 4-top would be released), but it didn’t happen.
But for my birthday, I managed to snag a 2-top for Friday way in advance. But perhaps I shouldn’t have bothered. What a disappointment. Firstly, the legendary meals lasting 4 hours, with 23 course extravaganzas are long over. Alinea’s hey-day, it seems from browsing food posts on Chowhound and blogs, was 2005-2011. Alinea has streamlined down to 13 courses. (14 if you count the birthday surprise). But a by-product is that meals last about 2 hours, maybe 2.5 hours tops. Considering that I had been royally entertained at Schwa for 3.5 hours the night before at half the cost of Alinea’s top-of-the-line price ($340 per pax), I felt I was just one more diner in a conveyor belt fine-dining experience. You come, and for two hours, are mildly entertained by a parade of Harry Potter dishes. Then you leave and another couple comes take your place. Encapsulating what I felt was the scene before me. A couple from Pittsburgh (Alinea neophytes, like me) had flown in, and taken the wine pairing (probably at 530pm). They were out by 730pm making gushing noises, and at 8pm another identical couple (Alinea neophytes, once again), had flown in, and taken their place at the same table. Quelle horreur! The thought occurred to me: what if this table was turned over three times a night, with 3 identikit mid-30s couples taking their seats again and again? Was this the theatre of the absurd, the Myth of Sisyphus incarnate? Certainly our servers, in serving the same tricks to the four occupied tables on the first floor, seemed to be afflicted by a peculiar type of whimsy without fun.
Secondly, the tables are too close together, strengthening the nagging suspicion that Alinea is now in the pack-in-the-plebs stage of its existence. It doesn’t matter when there’s loud music like Schwa, but in a hushed gastronomic temple vibe like Alinea, the tables can be too uncomfortably close for conversation. (It reminded me of another bad offender, Restaurant Andre in Singapore.) It didn’t afflict our table, but that’s because we were fairly experienced diners – but Alinea has a duty to its neophyte diners too. The two tables to my left were clearly special occasion tables, and they were uncomfortable with the table distance for their whole two hours, and spoke in hushed whispers. I felt for them – more personal space should have been given.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the flavours were too safe. Peruvian food is fine, but if I wanted to eat straight up Peruvian I would go to a Peruvian restaurant. Duck with 60 pairings? I once made the terrible mistake in Prague of seasoning my own steak tartare, which came out a tasteless mingy meat-mash, instead of being a delicious glob of myoglobin. From that fiasco, I learnt that the genius of the chef is in his proportioning the dish just right. So proportioning the seasonings to my own duck came across to me as a gimmick. A orange-sweetbread in the style of Panda Express was simply awful. Deconstructed Indian food remained deconstructed and never came together. The highs were a rambutan and finger-lime (what is it with finger-limes and Chicago? I’ve had them twice in a row, and nowhere else) jelly dish, and the signature hot potato cold potato. But they were few and far between. I came to Alinea because I heard that Grant Achatz was that rarest of chefs, someone who combined the molecular wizardry of Harry Potter food, with a sensitive understanding of flavor combinations. But rare glimpses aside (the rambutan dish), the tastes were big and one-dimensional, rarely emphasising interplay of two or god-forbid, three ingredients. In short, it felt like I was served merely Harry Potter food.
If Alinea continues turning out meals of this quality, it is hard to see how it can maintain three Michelin stars on merit for much longer.
CHAR ROE: banana, ginger, passion fruit (3.5/5)
Banana cream and passionfruit foam, with roe of char (similar to “ikura”, except ikura is roe of salmon). This was okay, primarily distinguished for the rocking bowl it was served in that thwarted a good picture of it for about 15 seconds.
SCALLOP: citrus aroma, thirteen textures (3.5/5)
Yuzu, lemon grass and lemon verbena formed the hazy citrus aroma. A very pretty pot and clam shell hid a carbonated ceviche sauce, with Maine diver scallop, and some onions. It was all told, simply Peruvian ceviche with Maine scallop. Not unpleasant, but unspectacular in substance. Maine scallop was more to be applauded for its bare fact of existence on our plates (this year’s Maine scallop catch has been low and some areas have prematurely ended their season by imposing moratoriums) than its taste, which lacked the sweetness of scallops I had recently in Momofuku Ko and Peru’s Maido and tasted more meaty than anything.
LOBSTER: curry, earl grey, grapefruit (3.5/5)
From Peru to India. A cumin and puffed rice ball; dehydrated yoghurt; curry and carrot puree sauces; grapefruit “caviar”. I, who sang the praises of Schwa the night before in tripling-up lobster, citrus and earl grey, am puzzled by the appearance of earl grey on the menu. I did not taste any earl grey anywhere. Anyway, the deconstructed Indian food dish never came together. I dislike deconstructed dishes which do not in some way proportion the food. Was I meant to mix it all up? But it was too big and there were so many ingredients. Was I to bite each ingredient individually? But where is the harmony?…
A precursor to a future dish was also set down in front of us.
EBI: celtuce, caramelized miso, yuzu (3.75/5)
Most memorable for the clean taste of celtuce cubes (something like braised kai-lan, for Southeast Asian readers). Again, pleasant without being mindblowing. The precursor to the next dish was set on fire.
WAGYU: parsnip, black trumpet, kombu (4.25/5)
A5 wagyu is the highest grade of wagyu obtainable in the United States, it was precooked and for visual efffect roasted in a fire, along with roasted parsnip (tastes like carrot with the texture of ginseng) and a black trumpet puree, with a strip of (mushroom?) leather and (parsnip?) cream. This was not bad. The beef was a bit lukewarm, but I can’t complain given the long period where it was sitting in the fire, pretending to cook while actually cooling down.
LILY BULB: rambutan, distillation of caviar lime (4.75/5)
The first dish which I enjoyed for its sake alone, this was a palate cleansing dish after the rich wagyu. Slivers of lily bulb (bai he, an occasional ingredient in Cantonese cooking usually used for shrimp or vegetables), with shaved rambutan, and squeezed-out sacs (vesicles) of finger lime, and finger lime jelly, with a distilled syrup of finger lime and ginger. One advantage of using finger-lime, as I understand it, is that its vesicles or “citrus caviar” is easily squeezed out. This dish was vaguely Southeast Asian in provenance, combining the rambutan and lily bulb with the Australian finger lime. Very refreshing.
SWEETBREADS: orange, ginko nut, mustard (2/5)
“Done in the style of Panda Express” said my server. I would not consider that a compliment. Sweetbreads, fried in the style of Sino-American “orange chicken” (cornstarch, flour, egg), is sat in an orange sauce, with a gingko nut and carrot sauce around the plate. This was uncannily similar to Chinese take-out food. Perhaps this was the intention, but I came to Alinea specifically to eat something unique, not take-out Chinese, and I couldn’t help feeling that a course had been wasted on providing verisimilitude to something I normally take pains to avoid eating. I mean, sure, Alinea can probably make the greatest donner kebab in the world, complete with day-old spit grease, but that doesn’t mean I want to eat a donner kebab at Alinea…
WOOD EAR: pig ear, allium, black garlic (4/5)
Wood ear, or “mu er” in Chinese is a black fungus that has the texture of jellyfish – very similar to the European fungus jew’s ear. Here it was set with a deep fried pig’s ear (delicious, but can we have more than a single sliver?), and black garlic and onion sauces made savory with parmesan. What was interesting to this Chinese palate was the pig’s ear, which was really expertly fried. At this point of the meal, I sensed a disconnect – perhaps this sort of “world cuisine” could have been mindblowing to someone who had not been eating wood ear and pig’s ear since childhood. Perhaps the novelty of the rambutan dish would have been starker if I wasn’t intimately familiar with all ingredients. The ceviche dish I might have considered top class, if I hadn’t been to Peru the month before, and tried ceviche ten different ways. To this Southeast Asian Chinese diner, Alinea’s Chinese-inspired dishes were solid but not mindblowing. Similarly to a Peruvian traveller, that Peruvian dish would be merely solid.
HOT POTATO: cold potato, black truffle, butter (4.75/5)
This Alinea signature was luxuriantly rich, a hot sphere of Yukon potato topped with a slice of black truffle and butter and Parmesan cheese, into a cold truffle soup. A pin preserves the temperature of the individual ingredients, before being dropped into the soup. Time-sensitive, and every bit as good as people claim it to be.
DUCK: ……..?????…………!!!!!!!!!!!!! (4/5)
60 different garnishes for 5 different preparations of duck. I think there was roast, confit, foie gras with a graham cracker base. “Choose your own adventure” with the toppings, the servers advised. As I said above, the genius of the chef is in his proportioning the dish just right. So proportioning the seasonings to my own duck came across to me as a gimmick. All parts were well prepared, but this dish was clearly an effect dish, rather than a tribute to the vision and taste of a single chef.
PISTACHIO: marscapone, strawberry, black walnut (4.25/5)
A pleasant dish of pistachio gelato, marscapone, lemon gel sphere, Missouri-black-walnut chocolate cake, and dehydrated strawberry marshmallow. Good, solid.
BALLOON: helium, green apple (5/5)
Hehehe. Finally, an effect dish that is so one-of-a-kind it makes the experience of dining at Alinea worth it! Another Alinea signature – the green apple balloon is filled with Helium and brought to diners anchored to a pin. Diners bring their mouths to the balloon, and gently… kiss it, sucking out the helium and making funny noises. It’s a riot. Also very messy.
Making of Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGMCmbLq2qs
MILK CHOCOLATE: pâte sucrée, violet, hazelnut (3.25/5)
Another Alinea signature technique: a dessert is plated on a whole table, covered with a silicon mat. A chef plates it in two minutes. The milk chocolate and frozen milk had a bit of a sour tinge that didn’t appeal to me, though the pate sucrees (very similar to kueh bangkit or Bengawan Solo’s nut pastries, for Southeast Asian readers) was the best part of the dish. Notes on visual effects: The squares come from micro-protrusions in the silicon tablecloth, which the violet syrup would settle into a square if it’s the right viscosity. The colour change of certain squares to blue uses a natural pH indicator, the squares of which are added citric acid, I think.
After I returned, I logged onto Chowhound, and through the mass of reviews, I noticed a trend among the sentiments of repeat Alinea diners in the last year: they too concurred that Alinea had been losing a bit of its sparkle:
"Sadly you might have noticed a trend there. My first four Alinea dinners remain among my several meals ever but recently I had a fairly disappointing experience. My meal lasted barely over two hours (prior meals were nearly four), service not as attentive or friendly as with prior visits. Also some amateur mistakes were made, such as we were twice asked if we needed a cab, both times said “no” and as we were leaving were informed our cab was waiting (not something you expect from a three Michelin star venue regarded as one of the world’s best). While some of the courses were memorable and phenomenal (loved the scallop course and the corn dessert) and a couple other quite good, a majority of the menu was no different (or only tweaked) from my last visit nearly a year back (and a few unchanged from my first meal there – including a rather boring, uninspired ginger course that is fine once but weak as a repeat and ridiculous the fifth time).
Chef Achatz has been spending less time in house (turning a lot of the creative and executive duties to Chef Bagale), they lost some wonderful front of house staff and Achatz/Kokonas seem as though they have placed expansion of their brand and maximizing profits ahead of customer satisfaction and trying to continue having Alinea evolve and improve. To an extent they seem to be coasting on their reputation and past success (which can only carry you for so long). While I hope this is just a hiccup in Alinea’s lifespan and Achatz and company rise to the challenge and opt to make another push towards Alinea becoming the world’s best restaurant (they certainly have the talent), unfortunately Alinea may be past her prime and Grace very well could become widely regarded as Chicago’s top venue in the not too distant future.
I found my last dining experience at Alinea to be a very poor value – especially if you have dined there within eighteen months and are expecting a significantly different menu rather than a watered down version of what you previously consumed with a handful of new courses interspersed. Several fine dining venues just in Chicago now have better service (Grace and Boka really shine in this area), most undergo significant menu changes seasonally (Grace, Moto, Boka, El Ideas, Sixteen, Elizabeth for example) and Grace and Goosefoot have IMHO better tasting food (with others such as Moto, El Ideas, Schwa, L2O, Boka and Elizabeth serving nearly as good cuisine). All of these venues are less money (some considerably so) and aside from Elizabeth do not require the hassle of non-refundable tickets (and Elizabeth does have some flexibility with regards to tickets sales if a conflict arises).
Alinea is certainly no longer the United States’ best restaurant and unless improvements are made it is no longer head and shoulders above other top tier venues in Chicago." – user Gonzo70 at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9283...
I hope that this ultimately disappointing visit to Alinea is a hiccup, and the Alinea that stood head-over-shoulders over all other restaurants in Chicago will return. Until then, it is doubtful I will revisit any time soon.
Memory: Lily Bulb with Rambutan, Hot Potato Cold Potato, Green Apple Balloon
For full-photos, please see: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com...
Memory: The buzz of really loud hip-hop, doing shots with the chef, butter poached lobster, marinated cuttlefish, antelope loin, Chimay Brulee, Root beer float, honeycomb brittle
A restaurant I remember with great fondness. Here is fine dining with all the pretense stripped out. The front of house is the back of house, with chefs serving you – and they’re always knowledgeable about every dish that they serve. Chefs Joshua and Michael were really friendly, and made me feel at home. The pulsating rap made each table anonymous, in their own drunken revels – this place is BYOB. I enjoyed the casual fine-dining vibe here, carpeted floors and clawed chairs always make me feel a bit uncomfortable and stiff.
Set in a corner of Ashland Avenue that’s almost industrial wasteland, it’s easy to walk past Schwa. The “dining room”, if you want to call it that, is an orange-lit space that’s maybe 80 square meters in area. I knew all of this before I came to Schwa – the only criterion I would use to call my meal a success would be the food they would serve. From the packed dining room (and Schwa is notoriously difficult to get a reservation at), I would say a lot of diners agree – creature comforts are secondary to the food. And what a meal I had.
A tip for getting a reservation: I called around 1pm. Most people claim they have success from 12-4pm. The key is, if the dial-tone goes straight to the message that “the mailbox hasn’t been set-up” instead of ringing about 5 times first, that means someone is on the line. Spam your calls then.
1. A Night at the Movies (4.25/5)
Sour Cherry Dot (Sourpatch Kid); Pizza Cotton Candy; Inside-Out Nacho; Popcorn Soda
Recreation of a typical movie experience in America – nachos, pizza, gummies, and popcorn, except deconstructed – and remade. Tells of their playful nature. Flavors were remarkably accurate. Gummy was indistinguishable from the real thing, candy floss (another movie food) was well-seasoned with pizza flavor, soda tasted of that buttery popcorn taste, and the nachos were good.
2. Butternut squash + cantaloupe jelly; Peanut Leaf; Curry Puree + Chocolate Nibs; Gooseberry as Palate Cleanser (4/5)
This was a more experimental dish. I remember the jelly having great flavour, which I originally thought was due to curry, but Josh said it was squash and cantaloupe. I have on my tasting notes “fruity taste of christmas pudding” somewhere on this dish.
3. (Extra Course) Quail egg ravioli with parmesan shaved black truffle (4.75/5)
A schwa signature, this was served with no spoons. Picking it up with my fingers and downing it in one bite, a rich and luxuriant cream sauce was really delicious. I can see why this is an ever-green on the menu. It says as much about Schwa as it does about me, that I had no qualms greedily tipping the small bowl over my lips to get every lick of that sauce.
4. Chestnut agnolotti with 3 types of consomme (sweet potato; iberico ham; persimmon) gelatinized into cubes; crispy prosciutto; shaved chestnut (3.5/5)
Agnolotti means little purses in Italian – and they held sweet chestnut puree. I was not the greatest fan of this dish, since I felt this was one of the rare times the flavor combinations were slightly off – the sweetness of chestnut + other two types of sweet gelatin cubes marginally overpowered the ham preparation.
5. Carbonated pears with Ossetra caviar, white chocolate foam, basil chips in the style of kale chips (4.25/5)
Carbonated pear balls? Why not indeed! It was an odd combination, caviar and carbonated pear, but the white chocolate harmonised the dish with its fat content; and the textural contrast of basil crisps balanced it. But the combination wasn’t as enlightening as the following two dishes.
6. Butter poached lobster; lavender bubbles; soy skin “yuba” tuile, oyster mushrooms, orange segments, with earl grey foam; and our best approximation of crumpets – which is actually olive oil cake (5/5)
The conventional pairing of lobster would be with a citrus/mango sauce to provide fruity contrast. But I believe Schwa has provided a playbook to elevating those flavors. The secret is earl grey tea gel, which has the herbal taste that really triangulates between the rich chewiness of lobster and a baseline sweet fruit flavor. A dish of genius.
7. Marinated cuttlefish, finger lime, a slab of apple ice, sunchoke + lemongrass panna cotta, herbal broth with many herbs (incl. cucumber and fennel) (5/5)
This dish worked on at least two different ways. At the centerpiece is the thumb-sized hard slab of apple-ice. First, it brought out the smooth cucumber and fennel taste from the salty, pungent and oily herbal broth. Second, the cut, marinated cuttlefish and finger lime was seasoned in a way to remind me of Thai papaya salad, Here apple ice was a sucking lozenge, its cool hard sweet apple flavor cutting through the Thai-papaya-style seasoning. Another great dish.
8. Thanksgiving Dinner (4.5/5)
Sweetbreads crusted and fried, with stuffing puree, mustard grains, foie gras + sweetbread gravy, and mock cranberry sauce (actually pomegranate)
Pleasant, the sweetbreads were expertly (diced and) fried. The foie gras +sweetbread sauce had a nutty taste like peanut. I may have had a greater reaction to this dish if I had had more experience eating Thanksgiving dinners.
9. Antelope loin, shot down by a sniper, with trail mix crust, pickled pistachio, dried cherry leather and sauce (4.5/5)
The first time I’ve had antelope ever, I think. Michael explained that it was shot from a helicopter by a sniper in Broken Arrow Reserve in Texas 2 days ago. Due to the vigor of the antelope, if it is shot from any closer, the stressed out antelope would presumably attempt to flee, and in its stressed death would go into rigor immediately, making the meat completely unpalatable, hard and dry. This meat was served rare, and what a cut of meat – it was so soft, that it was pliable to the butterknife I was cutting it with (the kitchen gave us a butterknife for that reason presumably). The rest of the accompaniments were secondary – besides being a passable trail mix. I guess I had my first taste of ultra-high-density fast-twitch-reaction-fibre meat!
10. (Cheese Course) Yeast ice cream, fermented huckleberry watermelon jelly, with Chimay cheese “brulee” (5/5)
Amazing. Chimay cheese below was treated with a creme brulee crust above (how did they do it?), and the funky taste of good bread came from the yeast ice cream. Ostensibly a cheese course, this was a great tribute to beer. Rounded. Completely unique. I miss it already.
11. Root Beer Float (5/5)
Parsnip icecream with butterscotch shavings, to be dumped in a root beer float
Another amazingly balanced dish. The clean taste of parsnip was an inspired choice to be dumped into root beer – and a whole spoon of butterscotch. I wish I had had a whole mug of this!
12. Honey Sorbet, yuzu gelee, bee pollen, honeycomb brittle (4.75/5)
I am haunted by the taste of that honeycomb brittle. Salty, sweet, with a lightly burnt taste. The thought occurs to me that if I came to Schwa every month for dessert, I would be a very happy man. The desserts have been absolutely outstanding, zany and off-the-wall, while remaining perfectly balanced and very pleasant.
13. (Extra Course) A crystal of cold air, then “lemongrass + ginger + ?” snow, and a bit of pee (yellow sauce incl. rutabaga) (4/5)
A common sight in the winter months everywhere is yellow snow (I.e. dog piss) I am glad to report this tasted considerably better than that! This was more of an effect dish – the crystal once popped in the mouth became menthol, and a rush of cold air killed my taste buds, and then shoving saucy snow into my mouth heightened the menthol taste. One of the oldest effects known to me (menthol + cold == more cold), this was evocative of the harsh Chicago winter I was about to step out into shortly.
See replies for individual write-ups (all quite long)
Know this is a bit of short notice, but I'll currently have reservations this Thursday night (27th Feb) for a table for two at Schwa, and my planned dining partner can't make it. If anyone has been wanting to try Schwa and is interested, please drop me a line at email@example.com!
Love your description! I think Warm Apples and Lemon run it a close second and third too, all the desserts are well-worth trying. I think 2014 will be exciting, with all the guest chef stints coming up.
"birch’s tribute to breakfast consists of whipped grain milk, on top of apple sauce and a cornmeal johnnycake, mixed with the kitchen sink: honeycomb, puffed rice, oat snaps, and a few other things that are delicious. Eating this is like eating the best bowl of breakfast cereal ever. The mix of textures is complex, with at least four different kinds of crunchiness: thin, oaty crunchiness from the oat snaps, hollow crunchiness from the rice, and sweet dense crunchiness from the honeycomb, and what I think are airy cylinders of dried apple. One of the best desserts I have ever tried anywhere." - What I wrote in October and in my 2013 round-up: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com...
Persimmon in Bristol, RI is one that I have heard about quite often. Haven't personally been there though.