Saturday, August 28, 2010

A foodie in the UAE: #7

The hardest part about living overseas has been missing out on an entire year of my sister's life. We are two years apart in age and are at the same time complete opposites and exactly alike. We were always close growing up but as adults have become freakishly linked, despite the fact that we haven’t lived in the same city since we were both in high school, and have lived over a thousand miles apart most of the past 8 years. Through this distance we’ve managed to speak on the phone almost daily, take turns visiting each other’s homes, meet up for half a dozen sister weekends in New York City, and join each other with spouses on several vacations, so that we’ve consistently averaged 3-4 visits a year.

But this past year, my decision to live on the other side of the world combined with her owning a successful and growing salon in San Antonio made phone calls difficult and visits impossible. When we saw each other this summer it had been just shy of 12 months, a record which would explain the tearful scene we made in the lobby of the hotel in Austin, where we finally reunited.

My sister and I are close for many reasons, but one of our shared passions is food. Together or apart we are always in search of the best dining experience possible, whether this means cooking at home or going out of our way to visit a spot we saw reviewed on Food Network. Fortunately our husbands are into food as well and are more than happy to accompany us. Together the four of us have eaten some really stellar meals in San Antonio, Boston, New York, and New Orleans as well as more remote places like Missoula, Montana and Bar Harbor, Maine.

So when we all decided to fly to Chicago to visit our brother and his family this July, we started researching the plethora of dining possibilities. As we were making plans I stumbled upon the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2010, and it just so happened that the highest ranked restaurant in North America, #7 in the entire world, was right there in Chicago. This was a no-brainer. We had to try it.

Aptly named Alinea (Latin for "off the line"), it is off the beaten path in a somewhat nondescript neighborhood and is the kind of place you don’t just stumble upon but must plan (and save) for months in advance. You have to know it’s there and they have to know you’re coming. And if you’ve signed up for the Chef’s Tasting (really the only way to go), you must be willing to suspend control over your dining experience (literally, you have waiters introducing each of the 12 courses and instructing you exactly how to eat them). But if you are compliant, you and your taste buds will be introduced to combinations of flavor you never thought possible.

The restaurant is decorated in neutrals and minimalist furnishings with a noticeable absence of music and everyone speaking in hushed tones, slightly odd at first. But once the parade of dishes begins you're grateful not to have any distractions. The food is designed by chefs, who are equal parts artist and scientist, to engage and manipulate each of your senses and bring about a symphony of taste.

I’ve eaten in a lot of fine restaurants, but it’s rare that I want to stand up and applaud. I am so grateful to have shared one of my most memorable experiences of the past year with my sister. It helps to make up for lost time.

I can’t possibly do justice to each dish, but I’ve posted several pictures from our meal. You can read more about the inspiration and creative process on Alinea’s blog.

Down the rabbit-hole we went,
this other-worldy entrance was indicative of the Wonderland to come
(iberico [cured Spanish ham], sherry, honeydew) -
Kind of like a split-pea-soup sorbet ...except not gross
(curry, cashew, lime) -
A super-rich-create-your-own taco
(celery, Tabasco, oyster cracker) -
I spent 4 years in New England but never had clam chowder so good
(rhubarb, lilac, fennel) -
A three-layer "egg" starting with cold crab mousse (shown here) followed by warm bites of seafood in the middle, and finally a hot fennel soup on the bottom. Delightful.
(cold potato, black truffle, butter) -
This one came with specific instructions and, if done correctly, brought a mouthful of creamy, buttery heaven
TOURNEDO a la persane
(Australian Wagyu, tomatoes, stuffed pimentos, fried banana) -
Banana and steak? Who would've thought, but yum!
(lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate) -
Dessert #1: Looked like pasta but tasted like lemon meringue
(hibiscus, vanilla bean, tapioca) -
Dessert #2: This one required one giant slurp to get the full effect
(coconut, menthol, hyssop) -
Dessert #3: chefs covered our table with a silicone cloth and proceeded to create this work of art in chocolate. We ate every last bite straight off the table.


  1. Lisa told me all about the wine tasting that accompanied your dinner experience - and the final check!! Maybe I should say "tattled!" Quite a memory builder.

  2. Heard a reference today on a TV program to "molecular gastronomy," meaning using biochemistry to develop new tastes and culinary experiences. Sounds like that is what Alinea's is all about, with how Lisa described each dish to me.

  3. How amazing that you got to go to Alinea!!! I will probably never go there myself but really enjoyed reading this post and imagining it. :)


  4. Oh, I wish I were adventurous with food!! I love that you got to do this with someone so very special!! I cried when I read that you cried.
    But I laughed when you said you wanted to stand and applaud. Awesome.