Wednesday, February 23, 2011

niche (2), st louis mo
1831 sidney street, st louis mo

although there are several restaurants in st. louis that i have not yet been to, i think it is safe to say that niche is my favorite restaurant in the city currently. this was our fourth trip to niche, and the second since the inception of pat likes to eat (click here for our last visit). each trip to niche has exceeded the trip prior, and this meal was no exception.

for the first time, we opted for the chef's tasting menu with the wine pairings. we asked about making a substitution for the beef course, and after a quick word with the chef, our friendly and informative server told us that this would be no problem. we also added an extra course to the tasting for good measure.

maple custard - roasted mushrooms, bonito caviar
enrico prosecco valdobiadiene nv

the first course definitely got things going on the right track. entitled maple custard, this was a wonderful combination of sweet and savory elements. served in an egg shell on a small pedestal, the maple custard was mixed with earthy roasted mushrooms and topped with bonito caviar. although it was explained to us, i cannot exactly recall what the bonito caviar actually was. we were told it was made in house, and was not caviar at all. regardless, it mixed very well with the mushrooms and custard, and helped make our first course a winner.

after our eggs were cleared away, a nice house made foccacia with kalamata olives was served. like our last visit, no spread was offered with the bread, but that was not a problem at all. served at room temperature, the bread was wonderfully soft, and had a subtle olive flavor throughout.

lobster - brown butter hollandaise, apples, togarashi, tarragon, celery
hiedler "loss" gruner veltliner kamptal 2009

course two was a piece of bread topped with a generous portion of lobster, apples, celery, tarragon, and togarashi. the streak of sauce on the plate was an incredibly rich brown butter hollandaise. what made this dish interesting was the togarashi, which was caramelized in nature and reminded me of the top of a creme brulee from a textural standpoint. flavor wise, the togarashi was sweet at first and then turned quite spicy. this was a fantastic mix with the sweet lobster meat, and made this dish a contestant for the best dish i have had in st. louis.

pappardelle - braised short rib ragout, mascarpone, apple, orange, olive oil
green and red zinfandel napa valley 2007

dish three was the course we added to the tasting. this was a nice pappardelle pasta with short rib ragout, mascarpone cheese, apple, orange, and olive oil. overall, this was a great dish that rivaled the pappardelle with duck sugo i recently raved about at sepia in chicago. carrie and i were also both quite taken by the green and red 2007 zinfandel paired with this course. fruity yet still earthy and complex, this was a wonderful wine that i plan to seek out in the future.

sorbet of lemon and fennel

next up was a palate cleanser, a sorbet of lemon and fennel. delicious and refreshing, we both very much enjoyed the cleanser. apparently the cleanser was served out of order, but with the substitutions and additions we made to the tasting, we felt it had a good impact where it was served.

uni alla chittara - sea urchin, crab, mint, chili flake
belle glod "meomi" pinot noir sonoma/monterrey/santa barbara 2009

next up was a dish that was only available as part of the tasting. this was a nest of chittara pasta with sea urchin, crab, mint, and chili flake. this dish had a bit of heat to it from the chili flake, but not too much so as to over power the sweet flavors of the crab and urchin.

golden tilefish - brandade, polenta, salsa verde, walnuts
sauvignon blanc

course five was the course we substituted for the fillet of beef. this was both carrie and i's first experience with tilefish, and if it is always this good i can see us ordering it often when available. sitting atop a bed of polenta and topped with salsa verde and walnuts, the wonderful fish was cooked to perfection, and reminded me of the flavor of maybe lobster or scallops.

frozen coconut and passion fruit lime terrine - hazelnut lime financier

course six was a surprise, as it was sent out compliments of the chef. this dessert was a frozen coconut and passion fruit lime terrine with delcious hazelnut lime finaciers. the terrine was perfcetly tart, and went well with the small french cakes. both carrie and i actually preferred this dessert to the one that was included as part of our tasting.

sticky date cake - yogurt orange and coffee parfait
valamasca moscato d'asti 2009

our final course of the evening was a sticky date cake with orange yogurt and coffee parfait. although we preferred the lime terrine with the financiers, this was still a very formidable dessert. the date cake was sweet and delicious, and the coffee parfait was also quite nice.

since our first visit to niche in march of 2010, carrie and i have dined at five michelin starred restaurants, including alinea and l20 which both received the full three star rating. while nothing we have had at niche compares with the cuisine at alinea, the lobster course (with a few tweaks) we enjoyed on this night would not have seemed terribly out of place to me on l20's tasting menu. i believe that if niche were located in chicago (or any city michelin would visit) there is a chance it would receive one star, or at least be named to the bib gourmand list. st. louis is very lucky to have niche, and i look forward to visiting this fine restaurant time and time again.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

sepia, chicago il
123 north jefferson street
chicago, il 60661

the final meal of our most recent chicago food trip was lunch at sepia. built from an 1890 print shop, sepia's food and space embrace classic thought with a modern edge. the kitchen is run by chef andrew zimmerman, who was the sous chef at nomi (also in chicago) before taking the job at sepia.

arriving at the restaurant via taxi right on time for our 1:30 reservation, we were given the choice of sitting up front in the window, or in the actual dining room. i had seen pics of the dining room online, and we went that route. sepia's decor is absolutely gorgeous, with lots of exposed brick and ornate chandeliers covered with interesting light shades. 

my cocktail for the day (on the left) was the boston martha, made with magnolia and oolong tea infused bushmills irish whiskey, yellow chartreuse, honey, lemon, egg whites, and orange bitters. there was a lot going on with this one, and i really enjoyed the frothy quality the egg whites gave the drink. carrie's drink, called la brasilena, featured leblon cachaca, muddled limes, cynar, vanilla brown sugar syrup, fall bitters, and an ancho chili sugar rim.

a nice french baguette was served with butter, and i commented to carrie that it had been awhile since we had such a simple bread offering. while it may have been basic, it was delicious, and a nice change from some of the more complex bread offerings we have had lately.

my first taste of chef zimmerman's cooking was actually my favorite, and came in the form of pappardelle pasta with braised duck sugo and parmesan. this was a wonderful dish with long sheets of delicate pasta topped with delicious duck. i was sad when it was time for carrie and i to trade plates. save for the dishes i had at alinea, this is a contender for best dish of the trip.

carrie's choice of starter was the best frisee salad either of us have ever had. topped with the typical poached egg and thick cut bacon, the salad was fantastic.

for my entree, i chose the cubano sandwich with fried plantains. the sandwich was made in typical fashion, with slow roasted pork, ham, pickles, and mustard. while it was a good sandwich, i was a tab underwhelmed by it as a whole. if given a do over, i would have chosen a different starter, and ordered the larger portion of the pappardelle that was available as my main.

carrie chose the market fish and chips as her main, and we both agreed that they were also good but by no means great.

moving on to dessert, i went for the pistachio bisquit ricotta cream, lavender yogurt-ice cream, and cherry syrup. a decent dessert, but honestly not that memorable.

carrie's went for the coffee cardamom caramelized tart with chocolate frangelico sauce. this offering fared much better than the pistachio bisquit, with the carmelization adding a nice element of texture to the coffee and chocolate flavored dessert.

all things considered, our meal at sepia was good, but not great. there some great offerings like the duck pappardelle, the frissee salad, and the coffee tart, but there were also some things that were just ok. price wise, this was luckily the most affordable meal we had on this trip (save for pequod's). sepia's dinner menu looks promising, and if the dishes are more in vein of the pappardelle, i would imagine that an excellent meal could be had. however, we have a lot of dinner places on our list of "must try" restaurants in chicago, so i do not see dinner at sepia in our plans anytime soon.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

alinea, chicago il
1723 north halsted street
chicago, il 60614

located in a nondescript building in a residential portion of chicago's licoln park neighborhood, alinea is rated at number seven on  s.pellegrino's list of the world's fifty best restaurants. it is also the highest ranking restaurant in the usa on the list. alinea is also one of two restaurants in chicago (l2o is the other) to be awarded the full three stars by the michelin guide, which is one of the highest accolades a restaurant can receive. i first learned of alinea about three years ago, and dining there has been an obsession of mine ever since. i have spent countless hours reading reviews, watching youtube videos, and learning as much as i can about the fascinating restaurant.

alinea is run by head chef and owner grant achatz, who is know as one of the leaders of a style of cuisine considered molecular gastronomy. prior to opening alinea in 2005, achatz studied at the culinary institute of america in hyde park, new york, and worked under world class chefs such as charlie trotter at charlie trotter's and thomas keller at the french laundry (where he became sous chef). after stints at these esteemed restaurants, achatz returned to chiacago and became the executive chef at trio (now defunct). it was at trio that he really came into his own as a chef.

on july 23rd, 2007, achatz announced he had been diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma (cancer) of the mouth. luckily, the young chef was able to beat the cancer, and went in to full remission without any loss of taste whatsoever.

our reservation was for 9:15pm, and our cab arrived just five minutes prior. upon opening the large double doors, guests are welcomed by a glowing pink hallway that looks like it belongs in some sort of fun house at a carnival. there is a strange light sculpture swaying at the end, but before you reach it, a steel door swooshes open on the left.

after walking through the doors, we were greeted right away, and were able to get a great view of the bustling kitchen. i didn't notice him at the time, but chef achatz himself can be seen dressed in white in the very middle of the photo directly above. the energy in the kitchen is amazing, with the thirty plus chefs and sous chefs working at a frantic yet precise pace. after announcing our name, we were led to our upstairs table by a very friendly (and equally beautiful) hostess.

water was poured immediately, and we were greeted by our captain, who filled us in on what to expect. as we already knew, there are no choices when it comes to food at alinea. unless there is an allergy or dietary restriction of some kind, each diner is served the same meal, with no supplements or upgrades available. the only decision necessary is in regards to wine. while alinea has an extensive list of wines by the bottle, the only way to do a meal of this nature justice is with the offered wine pairings. there is no bottle of wine on the planet that could pair adequately with a tasting menu this varied and lengthy. we eagerly obliged to the pairings, but asked if the pours could be a bit lighter than the norm, to ensure sobriety for the duration of the meal. neither of us are heavy drinkers, and we have had tastings with wine pairings at moto and l2o that became hazy by meals end.

as i mentioned above, it was our "captain" who greeted us at our table initially. at alinea, you are served by a team of four or five people, including a sommelier who explained each wine we enjoyed that evening. everybody that approached our table was a true professional, and while they were not as laid back as the team at moto, they certainly never talked down to us or made us feel unwelcome in any way. i will go into more detail on the service later, but now it is time for the food!

"are you ready to get your drink on," was the question posed by the server who delivered our first courses. served as a trio, these were edible cocktails, with the first one taking inspiration from a drink made at chicago's the violet hour. being that alinea does not have a bar or offer cocktails proper, these nicely accommodated our penchant for beginning meals with a mixed drink of some kind. each "drink" had a food element present, as well as the necessary alcohol needed to considered these cocktails.

lemon - luxardo bitter, luxardo amaro, grapefruit

the first cocktail was frozen, and had both bitter and sour notes to it along with a bit of fruity sweetness.

apple - laird's apple brandy, grenadine, thyme

the second cocktail had a bit of a bite to it from the apple, and had the strongest alcohol flavor of the trio.

squash - cynar, carpano antica, flor de cana 7 year

the final cocktail had a very sweet flavor to it from the soft piece of squash.

golden trout roe - dijon, rutabaga, grapefruit
cocktail of pierre peter brut with chrysanthemum liqeur and bitters

our first proper course featured golden trout roe that chef achatz sources from michigan. the fish eggs were paired with dijon mustard, rutabaga, and grapefruit. if this wasn't enough, the black colored "eggs" are actually liquorice. like many offerings at alinea, this dish pairs together flavors that you would never think to combine, but somehow work. my fear was that the mustard, which is not something i typically enjoy, would overpower my palate and ruin the dish. this was not the case at all, and while each unique flavor was detectable, no one ingredient pushed its way to the forefront to dominate the dish.

shrimp - three parts, gumbo flavors
emmerich knoll "kellerberg" riesling smaragd, wachau, autria 2007

the next course provided us with our only awkward moment of the night. the shrimp done three ways was presented to us without silverware, but there was a pillow placed next to our plates that i assumed a fork should rest on. after trying to eat it with my hands and finding it rather difficult, i flagged down a server (which only required me to crane my neck slightly, and he was there in a millisecond). it turned out that the course was indeed intended to be eaten with the hands. while this was still quite palatable, i found it to be one of the weaker courses overall. however, the dry riesling it was paired with was one of my favorite wines of the night.

halibut - black pepper, vanilla, lemon
testamatta 'cicala del giglio', toscana 2009

as good as the first few courses were, the halibut course was the first one to completely blow me away. presented in monochromatic fashion, we were left to decipher the flavors on our own, with instructions that each flavor may not be an ingredient typically thought of as something white. the halibut was cooked perfectly, and may have been the best few bites of white fish i have ever had. the accompanying flavors were lemon, coffee, vanilla, and black pepper. the combination of textures and flavors going on here was mind blowing.

after our plates and silverware from the halibut course had been cleared, our centerpiece for the evening was delivered to the table. at alinea, there is a unique centerpiece each evening that plays a role in the meal at some point.

rabbit - parfait, rillette, consomme
vinyes de coster 'igneus mas', proirat, spain 2007

the next dish was served in stackable bowls, and upon completion of a course, a server would remove a layer of the bowl to reveal the next course. the top portion of the bowl was a rabbit parfait, which is essentially a rabbit mousse.

the next portion of this three part dish was rabbit rillette. this was my favorite of the three, and was melt in the mouth delicious. also present here was some blood sausage, which was also very good.

the final component of the course was a rabbit consomme. in the broth a a cinnamon stick and a river stone. the stone was there to keep the consomme warm while we were eating the other parts of the dish, and the cinnamon stick added a nice flavor to the broth.

hot potato - cold potato, black truffle, butter

next up was one of achatz's signature dishes. entitled hot potato cold potato, this was a a pin skewering butter and a hot potato topped with a generous portion of black truffle. below was a cold potato soup. we given this course with a warning that this was alinea's most time sensitive course, and was meant to be eaten immediately. we were further instructed to pull the pin, which dropped the items into the soup, and shoot the entire thing at once as though it were an oyster. obviously, there was a sharp contrast of temperatures here, and the flavor was essentially potato soup with a heavy influence from the truffle. when a server returned to clear this course away, a magnetic wand was used to pick up the pin from the table, demonstrating alinea's incredible attention to detail.

short rib - olive, red wine, blackberry
quinta da vicosa, alentejo, portugal 2005

our next course brought out centerpiece into play. what seemed like simple red flags actually turned out to be tomato pasta. we were brought a box in which we were instructed to disassemble and rebuild, creating a hammock of sorts for the pasta to rest. a wonder helping of beef short rib was placed into the pasta, and a variety of other ingredients were presented, and we were given the opportunity to make our only ravioli to our taste. some of the choices were smoked salt, blackberry, black garlic, and pearl onion. i honestly cant recall exactly what ingredients i put into my ravioli, but i kept it pretty basic. the pasta had a nice flavor and texture to it, and the short rib within was savory and delicious. we were provided hot towels for our hands at the completion of this course.

hamachi - west indies spices, banana, ginger

a single bite, this was basically a tempura fried banana with spices and ginger. skewered on a twig, this was a sweet and wonderful little bite.

canard - a la cussy
maison tardieu-laurent 'vieilles vignes', chateauneuf-du-pape 2004

the antique silverware and wine glass delivered to the table before this course was a stark difference from the modern flatware and wine glasses we had be presented prior. this course dates back to the early 20th century, and was by far the most normal thing we were served. we have three succulent duck breasts, foie gras, and an incredible flaky pastry. to me, this course is achatz saying that while he can create incredible things no one has ever seen before, he can certainly still prepare a classic to perfection. this was one of my favorite courses of the night. a small note, the dot of sauce on the plate that is disturbed was done in my over eagerness to dig into this course, and is not the way the course was placed before me.

venison - cherry, cocoa nib, eucalyptus

this was another one biter, and brought achatz's penchant of using scent from a non-edible item into play to enhance a dish. this course was a single bite of venison flavored with cherry and cocoa nib. the cube of meat was skewered and placed into a bowl of highly aromatic eucalyptus leaves. the venison was a tasty little bite, and i think the eucalyptus scent did help to make it even better.

black truffle - explosion, romaine, parmesan

without question, this was the course i was most looking forward to. another signature dish present on every revision of the menu, this course is called the black truffle explosion. served on a bottom plate dubbed the anti-plate, this is a single raviolo filled with black truffle stock, and topped with lettuce, parmesan cheese, and a slice of black truffle. we were instructed to put the entire raviolo in our mouth, seal our lips, and bite down. what happens next is an incredible explosion of earthy truffle flavor. simply amazing.

foie gras - macadamia, birch, orange

this was our last savory bite of the meal, and i honestly do not remember much about it except that it was a bite of foie gras on the fork with some sort of orange liquid to drink in the bowl. i think any course placed after the black truffle explosion would be easily forgotten. i think maybe it would have been better to close the savory portion of the meal with the truffle explosion.

snow - yuzu

served as a palate cleanser, this was basically a yuzu flavored snow cone. very refreshing.

sweet potato - cedar, bourbon, pecan
nittnaus riesling beerenauslese, burgenland, austria 2002

this was another course that brought the sense of smell into play. served on a very aromatic piece of canadian cedar, this was sweet potato with pecans, cinnamon distillation, cayenne cotton candy, and a bourbon component of some sort that i cannot recall. i found the aromatic aspect of this course to be even more powerful than that of the venison/eucalyptus course.

lemongrass - dragonfruit, finger lime, cucumber

this was another single bite (or slurp) course. we were told we could pick up the glass tube and play with it a bit, letting the contents within float around. next we were told to suck on one end and try to get the whole thing in one gulp. we were hit with refreshing flavors of lemon, lime, and a bit of cucumber. the make up of the dish was part liquid and part gelatin of some sort.

the next three courses were served as a trio, and we were instructed to eat from left to right.

bacon - butterscotch, apple, thyme

first up was another course i was looking forward to, and was unfortunately a bit disappointed by. this was a single piece of bacon hanging on a bow with some apple shavings, thyme, and butterscotch. it was tasty for sure, but was not the bacon revelation i was expecting.

nutella - bread, banana, chocolate

this was a rather basic course, with flavors of nutella and banana coming to the forefront. while it was good, it seemed a bit out of place all things considered.

pineapple - ham, freeze dried cherry, clove

the final component of the trio was a transparency of pineapple coated with little specks of ham, freeze dried cherry, and clove. incredible thin and very pretty, this dessert reminded me of a fruit roll up in terms of taste, not texture.

chocolate - blueberry, honey, peanut
toro albala 'don px' gran reserva , montilla-monles, spain 1982

after the trio, it was time for our final course of the night. a rubberized table covering was placed on the table, and several small bowls and utensils were brought to the table. what happened next was something i will never forget. grant achatz himself appeared table side and personally prepared our dessert right on the table. over the next three or four minutes, chef achatz combined blueberries, honey, peanut nougat, nitrogen frozen chocolate mouse, and a few other ingredients in artistic fashion. to some, it may look like a big mess that a child could have done, but to really watch the dessert take form, observing the sheer precision achatz demonstrated was truly amazing to watch. most importantly, the dessert was absolutely delicious, with lots of different contrasts in both taste and temperature. it took us well over ten minutes to eat it, and i wish i had taken a picture afterwards to show how thoroughly we spooned the table clean!

at the conclusion of the meal, were were given a copy of the nights menu to take home. i requested mine to be signed by the chef, but he was busy in the kitchen at the time, so i was told it would be mailed to me (UPDATE: got the menu!). there is a method behind the bubbles on the menu. the bigger the bubble, the bigger the course, the darker the bubble, the more intensely flavored, and the farther right the bubble, the sweeter the course.

the level of service and attention to detail at alinea are both amazing. servers flawlessly described each course, and were able to answer any questions we had with ease. the sommelier also did a great job presenting each wine, and threw a bit of humor into his descriptions. it was apparent that he really enjoyed his job and had a real passion for wine. each time we went to the bathroom, our chair was pulled out, and were given a new napkin upon return. carrie even noticed that the toilet paper in the bathroom was always folded into a point.

overall, alinea easily met my expectations. as i mentioned earlier, this meal has been on my mind for years, and finally getting to go was a bit surreal. we walked by the restaurant earlier in the day to take some pics, and seeing the building for the first time felt a bit like i was dreaming. i will say, however, that i wish i didn't know as much about alinea as i did prior to dining there. i had a good idea of what courses we would be having, i knew about the fun house hallway entryway, and i knew that there was a good chance grant achatz would prepare our dessert. while i was still blown away, i can only imagine what it would have been like had i not known what to expect. either way, it was the best meal i have ever had by a wide margin, and carrie and i are already planning to return in the summer of 2012.

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