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Peter Green

The Fat Duck 2010

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February 11, 2010

There are few things as fun and invigorating as an overnight intercontinental flight.

Waterboarding, perhaps?

We were back, and this time we had reservations (of the dining variety).

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Now, I’ll preface this matter asynchronously.

Before I left on this trip, once I knew we had bookings, I busied myself reading Heston Blumenthal's

Further Adventures In Search of Perfection and the opening history section of The Fat Duck Cookbook. This was as a means to getting to know the chef better.

The result of this prep work was exactly what he wanted. Excitement. The thrill of a little kid being taken out to an opening movie, or a trip to the sweet shop.

Well enough.

We came away from the meal with as much excitement as when we went in. Immediately after the meal, I put down my initial reactions, and what were, in most cases, guesses. So, upon my return home many weeks later (a couple of weeks ago), I sat down with The Fat Duck Cookbook, and started educating myself on what we’d enjoyed. (In case you're going to as, "No, I was not about to use up half my luggage weight allowance carrying The Fat Duck Cookbook with me as a working reference").

Hence, I’ll be writing most of this in two (perhaps three) time zones, so bear with me if things get a little tense (past, present, or future. I’ll leave the plus qu’imparfait out of this).

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There’s a comfort to recognizing places. Much of the trip to Bray was still in our mind’s eye from our earlier foray to the Hinds Head. Luckily, that recognition factor meant that we had a clue (or at least our driver did) as to where the parking was, as much of the village is limited to residents’ parking only.

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It was cold enough - and we were hungry enough - that I couldn’t even rally our group to pose out front. By the time I had the camera focused on the door, they were through and in.

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We never peeked inside last time (I’m funny about these things) so I was looking forward to seeing what the fuss was about.

What I found was a pub’s interior redone as a dining room. White plaster walls, and rough-hewn dark wood beams (conveniently located to bash your brains in) as per traditional building codes – this in counterpoint to white linen, light brown serving trays with clean, straight lines, and horizontal, bright abstracts, with a lustrous yellow theme to bring the room up. (We debated the topics of the paintings – whale songs, topographies – I hold the one by the window, that my friends felt might be eggs, was actually a vertical profile of Heston Blumenthal. They told me to keep quiet until after the meal, someone might hear).

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A bowl of interesting olives arrived (extended, irregular and lozenged in shape), their green complementing the tones from the lilypad in the bowl that made up our center-piece.

We started with still water, and then they brought the selection of sparklings – rose, brut, and a blanc de blance by Tattinger, the BdeB being our choice all around.

The delivery of the menu is a bit of a tease, as there’s not a choice in the matter. Lunch or dinner, it’s the one tasting menu.

(In fact, it’s best to think of the restaurant as having two seatings, rather than lunch or dinner as different items. One seating just happens to be quite early, at noon)

There is a valid reason to present the menu, and that’s to check on allergic reactions (or intense dislikes). While the majority of the house was engaged in the same meal (which gives you a great ability to preview and prepare for what’s to come), there were some individuals who were receiving different plates at times.

But, to the food.

Lime Grove

Nitro Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse

(2001)

Our opener, to cleanse the palate, was a technical affair.

The tray had an ice cream bucket, a selection of plates, and a flask of liquid nitrogen.

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(Yoonhi still won’t let me have liquid nitrogen in the kitchen.)

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It’s such a pleasant change to see a good pour of superfrozen fluid. The bowl steamed over, and I commented on the chill on my leg.

“it’s my hand that’s feeling the chill,” advised our waiter.

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Apart from the table’s equipage (is that a word?), our waiter had a seltzer bottle of mousse. This he spritzed onto a spoon.

This was then taken into the bowl, and worked around to flash freeze.

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“Yes, it is rather chilly.”

The result, a perfect little meringue. The liquid nitrogen had achieved the same effect as heat would, normally – the removal of all of the moisture.

“What is cooking?” says Yoonhi, and then answers the question, or at least muses upon it. “With protein, it’s the addition of heat, which denatures the protein. Egg white is protein, as is meat. But cooking isn’t really the heat, per se, it’s the modfications to the proteins. We ‘cook’ with acid in ceviche. ”

We have the most interesting conversations at times.

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The meringue was tamped with green tea powder – a quick ‘Pop! Pop!” The dish was delivered to Yoonhi, and she was advised to take it quickly. Meanwhile, a small atomizer was used to perfume the air with lime notes.

I have the book, and, given the length of time it’s taken me to come to rest and get back to regular writing, it’s worth taking a look and commenting. Many of my original questions are well served by the Fat Duck Cookbook, even if it has put a serious dent in my lap from bedtime reading.

So, how do you design a palate cleanser?

Plus, you want one that’s cool.

Blumenthal gives credit to Mrs. Agnes B Marshall, who put forward liquid oxygen as a tool for making ice cream, some 100 years ago. The argument is that cooking, as with science, sees change through evolution, rather than revolution. What seems like a brilliant new idea is often presaged decades (or centuries) earlier.

“Get an experimental chef and a like-minded scientist together and chances are that – sooner or later – they’ll be playing around with liquid nitrogen.” (page 135)

Originally, back in 2001 when the dish debuted, he’d been going through way too much liquid nitrogen. So much was going to waste in the earlier versions, sitting about, or evaporating to the table. The answer was in the thermos flask we saw earlier. Not as Macbethian as the original South African stewpot he’d used, but far more sensible. (I have fond memories, too, of Paco Rancero and his assistant manhandling that massive liquid nitrogen canister onto the teaching stage back in 2004 in Singapore).

His objective with this dish was to cleanse the palate, and to get the appetite going. Getting the appetite going means, effectively, salivating. It’s that mental trigger that has our mouth watering at the thought of certain foods.

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Citrus, for instance. The thought of lemons and limes gets me going, and this is often accomplished at the start of a meal with a pleasant aperitif. No fat, just the alcohol to carry the flavours about the palate. A gin martini with a twist of lime, for me. In this case, the chef opts for vodka as a neutral spirit to whisk about the other flavours.

Analysis from Tony Blake had shown Heston that green tea tannins could be effective in neutralizing residual flavours in the mouth. How much of a “kick” the tannins deliver can be controlled through the heat of the water used to infuse.

Ferran Adria gets a nod for his work with whipping cream canisters. They provide the “light puff!” needed in the finish of the mousse.

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Just a hint of fumes from the nose as you take it into your mouth just to have it disappear; curls of vapour twisting dragonlike from your nostrils.

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As a committed fan of Jeffrey Steingarten, it behooves me to comment upon the bread and butter.

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The congealed mammary fluid was a lush yellow, rich in fat. Perhaps a criticism from our table was that it was just too cold to spread easily. But, given the nature of the block, I see that this could lead to unconstrained polymorphism that might not fit the aesthete at hand.

The bread was crisp of crust, with a variety of voids internally. Soft and pully, meeting the criterion of a dinner companion. Luckily, it wasn’t so soft that it couldn’t take the too-cool butter, but you had to be careful.

Another dish from 2001 was Red Cabbage Gazpacho, Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream. A lush, satiny bed time story of a soup.

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Mustard ice cream, seeds apparent like moles on a top model, recumbent on a bed of diced cucumber, put to sleep with a gazpacho of red lettuce.

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As expected, the mustard worked very well in an ice cream, the granularity of the seeds against the cream and the richness of the cabbage. Toss in the bit of crunch from the cold cucumbers, and the match is all good.

It’s an interesting study., and one he admits is one of the few he hasn’t fiddled with over the years. I’d wondered about the original draw to this idea, and the book reveals that it lay in memory of fresh, peppery, red cabbage from his youth.

Of course, he does like ice cream. And cold on cold is hard to argue with.

In the details, he’d found that the cabbage aroma dies off quickly, so he reinforces the gazpacho with fresh cabbage juice just before serving. The cucumbers, which were a delight, were brought up in intensity by sous vide’ing them beforehand, retaining that “jade green colour”.

Jelly of Quail, Langoustine Cream, Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast (Homage to Alain Chapel)

The tribute is to Alain Chapel’s restaurant in Mionnay, and his Gelee de Pigeonneaux, Trous Sot-l’y-Laisse et Jeunes Legumes.

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From our appetizer of the tea fields, to the green of the garden, we moved to the deeper forest. A wooden board hosted a slab of truffled toast, topped with radish and parsley. This brought forward the earthy smell of loam. The bowl contained a trio of purees; peas in the bottom layered over by a quail puree (200 quails to make today’s puree) in turn topped by a cream of langoustines. Resting on this was a chicken liver parfait with a fig tuiles atop.

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To settle the atmosphere, we were also served little singlets (what do you call these things?) of oak moss essence served as if they were breath fresheners. This was put out on a bed of said moss.

Oak resin had seen some use in stews and other dishes where the intent was to get a deeper flavour (credit here goes to Francois Benzi for bringing the aroma to Heston during a session at Fermenich). The Fat Duck had already been messing around with it in their earlier ice cream of leather, tobacco, and oak that had drawn my friend R’s interest many years ago.

But oak resin was in thin supply, and so they moved to oak moss, which was more accessible (and common in use of perfumeriers). This was worked up, and infused in the “breath mints” we saw before us.

From the deep woods smell of oak, it’s a small step to get to truffles, and so these were a natural companion.

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And, as the theater of dinner is an important part of the meal, the bed of oak was hit with dry ice (reminiscent of the way that Da Dong serves out his final fruit).

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I do enjoy the theater.

It was all very pretty, but it was really the amalgamation of the flavours that drew attention. The peas gave a fullness, the cream provided the fat, and the quail lent a slight gamey gelatinous texture. And we all just like chicken liver and parfaits, so that’s a bonus.

Blumenthal, of course, goes into more detail. He was looking for a release of flavours from these dishes; a release which would stage itself over time. First we took the film in our mouth, and then we dug down into the bowl to ensure that we had a selection of each element. And he also wants that contrast in the textures of jelly and cream.

This dish – originally from 1999 - did vary from the book (which was published in 2008). In the book, the top with a parfait of foie gras, but, as that was to follow, he’d moved to chicken liver instead.

There’s star anise in there, (”It punches above its weight”), along with other Asian flavours. But there’s also Armagnac, Madeira, and Chardonnay, backed up by the carrots and leeks and onions of our part of the world.

And the truffled toast just makes it that much earthier.

This was one of my favourite dishes of the meal.

ROAST FOIE GRAS, Rhubarb Puree, Braised Konbu and Crab Biscuit

If you look this up in the book (on page 177) you’ll see instead Roast Foie Gras ‘Benzaldehyde’, Almond Fluid Gel, Cherry, and Chamomile. I like the changes, as the seaweed and sesame that top the foie, reminding me of Korea. And the crab biscuit is a natural with the seafood note.

This dish also carries on the theme of combining sea and soil, something that Blumenthal credits to L’Esperance.

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To perk this up, he’d worked up a slug of rhubarb sporting some green, and dotted the plate with balsamic. The rhubarb replaced the stone fruits used earlier, and is a sensible substitute (I like using rhubarb alongside foie gras when I cook in Vancouver).

I’d written soon after the meal that “This was a good example of solid technique, with no real fuss or technological wizardry”. My friend, Ean ensconced beside me had been grousing to some extent at the experimental elements of much of the meal, but was more comfortable with this dish.

So, when I turn to the book, I find that the effect I so admired in the foie gras was a multi-stage evolution. Originally, Heston Blumenthal had been roasting his foie gras in the oven, constantly turning it, and hitting it with liquid nitrogen to adjust the heating gradient. From there he became obsessed with the issue of oxidation, and how to avoid it, which in turn led to sous vide. And then the focus became the temperature gradient to use, in order to avoid the “pappiness”

So, what I ate had been done sous vide two days before, allowed to settle, then brought back to temperature for the meal and then blowtorched at the end to sear.

It’s a lot of work, but the results were admirable. I should try this at home.

But enough work. Next we were back to fun.

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The thought of it made me all brillig in my slithy tothes.

We would be having mock turtle soup.

MOCK TURTLE SOUP (c.1850)

"Mad Hatter Tea"

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This is one that wasn’t in the book, a new invention.

The bowl was set with a mock up of a turtle egg, with little enokis sprouting up, a little slab of meat, diced cucmber and radish, rolls of truffle, two dots of balsamic, and a tangle of coriander.

That’s simple enough.

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Then, of course, we needed the March Hare’s pocket watch. This was delivered plop into a teacup.

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Hot water was then introduced to the pocket watch, and the pocket watch to the hot water.

“Charmed.”

“I’m sure.”

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This revealed that the watch was gold leaf wrapped about turtle bouillon.

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And then the broth goes all mumsy on the borogroves.

I showed this to Scud, thinking it would interest him. “You’re drinking gold” was his reply.

“Yes”, I said.

“Gold”, he said, shook his head, and wandered off.

I question how we’ve raised that boy.

(Note: There's a lot of Asia wending its way through the cooking here. I wonder if the gold element came from the West, or if it's in the Indian tradition of taking small amounts of gold in your diet?)

The Sound of the Sea (2007) came next.

This was covered in part in Further Adventures In Search of Perfection when he investigated fish pie. The thesis of the chapter was that food enjoyment is as much milieu as mastication. That emerging the diners in the proper environmental aspects (here auditory) would enhance the food.

Hence, enter the iPod conch(no jokes about shell scripts, please).

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(I have to ask…..if we succumb to the recorded screechings of seagulls, are we in tern gullible?......sorry.

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Yoonhi seemed to appreciate the idea (if not my jokes).

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The dish was quite a bit different from the book. Gone were the oysters, and in their place samples of salted fish (halibut and hamachi I could identify) on a bed of flavoured tapioca, a salty foam (originally this would have been worked up from the reserved sea juices of the shellfish, but as they had been replaced by fish, it’s unclear what the basis was for this) giving us our waves on the beach (or low tide scum, depending on how you look at it). Everything on the glass plate was to be eaten, and that’s what we did.

It was a fun dish to pick through. There were little “sea jelly beans” which the book describes as Japanese lily bulbs. There are fried baby eels and anchovies worked into the tapioca after it’s been fried up. Miso oil is used to give it the wet sand texture.

Underneath, of interest, is sand from the beaches of Venezuela.

SALMON POACHED IN LIQUORICE

Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise, Golden Trout Roe and Manni Olive Oil

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The salmon in licorice was constrained in comparison. A very nicely done piece of salmon wrapped in a licorice gel, topped with trout roe (not ikura, as I’d first thought), and resting on dollops of vanilla aioli, individual grapefruit bits (as you’d find in a good Thai yam som o), and artichoke hearts, all drizzled with manni olive oil.

Oh yes, and more beads of balsamic.

This dish, from 2003, has changed a bit. While the use of licorice is still the centerpoint, the asparagus has given way to artichoke hearts, which is a trifle odd, as it was the common compound of asparagine that had drawn this dish together originally.

Be that as it may, it was a very pretty thing to see, and nobody at the table had any complaints as to the execution. The salmon came out soft, rich, and well balanced with the licorice root in the gel. The mayonnaise/aioli and the olive oil put a bit more fat into the mouth, and the grapefruit tanged things up (and kept you busy sniping at the little lobes).

POWDERED ANJOU PIGEON (c.1720)

Blood Pudding and Confit of Umbles (2007)

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The pigeon followed. This was Ean’s favourite dish, one he felt that showed a chef’s mastery. The bird was – for me – just right, a shade off of bloody and the skin crisp. The jus was excellent, and the wafer was reconstructed from duck. And pigeon in the back was a blob of black pudding that looked like a pat of chocolate, and onions were lightly caramelized and supported by a bit of vinegary foam.

His focus in the book’s notes is on the construction of the bird, how to get the skin crisp while the meat is tender. Traditionally, caul fat would be used, but this requires a slow cook (to render the fat) that would be a bit over the top for the pigeon. The answer lay in transglutaminase, which allows him to bind the proteins.

My interest, however, lay in the blood. This had a fantasticaly smooth, rich nature. Cream, of course, was part of the answer, infused with the Asian spices that he was using in the cracker and elsewhere (a touch of Sichuan peppercorn, but I can’t say I felt any numbing). After some time in the fridge, it’s taken to the Thermomix and introduced to the blood, doing a slow dance for some hours at 170 F. Once you have a smooth puree you just keep it handy in a water bath. It’s almost like making blood ice cream.

We’d worked through a couple of chardonnays at this point, contrasting New Zealand with Australia (“Imagine, a Kiwi with a bigger mouth than an Australian?”). At this point we entered the realm of desserts, and so took the sommelier’s suggestion of a finishing wine, a Maculan Torcolato 2006 form Venice.

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I wouldn’t have mentioned the wines at all, as this meal was much more a matter of food, but it’s interesting that the Venetians are getting so much of a push in the sweet wines lately. We saw this at The Latymer, and I was exposed to more during the course of this trip (but that’s for later).

TAFFETY TART (c1660)

Caramelized Apple, Fennel, Rose and Candied Lemon

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First, a treat. Crisp wafers of caramel over puffs of cream and apples. Piles of nuts and stuff on top. Running parallel, a sorbet of black current (our guess) with crystallized rose petals. And the candied lemon. This is one of his recreations of an older English dessert, something that leaks over into the menu of the Hinds Head to good effect.

A very soothing little thing, the apple’s sweetness with the soft give of the cream. A bit of crunch, and, if you tire of that, you just shift your attention to the sorbet.

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I already used the Hemingway line. I’ll let the picture above speak to our level of satisfaction.

And so, as we approached the end of the meal, it was time for breakfast.

The Not-So-Full English Breakfast

(Part 1)

Parsnip Cereal

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This was theater on several levels. First was the staff, who appeared with our fixings and cheering greetings of “Good morning!” I admired the pretty (focus is my problem) eggs, proudly sporting the Fat Duck’s emblem.

But that’s to come.

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We began with a bowl of Fat Duck cereal taken with a pour of full cream flavoured with vanilla. The cereal is crystallized parsnip chips, a byblow of the sweetbreads dish he used to serve with parsnip puree and cockles.

Nostalgia”, as he says in the small card on the table “is memory, and memory is highly personal.” The simple pleasure of a mini-box of cereal (and the minis hold a special place in our hearts) can’t help but make you smile.

This kept us busy as the cooking gear for the eggs was set up.

The Not-So-Full English Breakfast

(Part 2)

Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream

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Our “eggs” were broken into the bowl, revealing that they had been blown and then injected with custard.

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This in turn was hit with liquid nitrogen, and worked up to produce a fine ice cream in a flash of time.

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The staff do really seem to enjoy their work.

The liquid nitrogen makes for a very quick ice cream, and the texture is wonderful.

Blumenthal’s musings on the dish indicates his concern with the scrambling of eggs. In ice cream it’s this going over with the eggs that is avoided so fastidiously. But what if you were to take it past that point, let the eggs cook up, and then blend it back down?

And then, what if you infused bacon flavours into the milk before you did this?

Ice cream. Bacon. How can you go wrong?

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The result was served on a piece of glazed “pain perdu” – brioche accelerated to staleness, and then sous vide’d with a mix of vanilla, sugar, milk, eggs, and walnut liqueur. Atop this is a long, crisp candied piece of pancetta and my beloved bacon ice cream.

You can never go wrong with bacon.

Table comment (unascribed) from my notes: “That’s just amazing.

The Not-So-Full English Breakfast

(Part 3)

Hot & Iced Tea

Breakfast needs a good cuppa.

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The tea was an interesting twist. A thermal gradient, hot to cold, taken in one fell swig – quickly, before the temperatures muddied – and then assessed in your palate.

This is a wonderful trick, accomplished through the use of tea gels, giving just enough viscosity difference to keep the illusion intact.

Whisk(e)y Wine Gums (2006)

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Wine gums, and old candy store favourite, were replaced with whisk(e)y gums, something I wholeheartedly approve of.

This had a mixed reception, however. If you are a drinker of whiskey, then it’s a fun study of the amounts of peat and smoke in the different gums. The heartier gums, redolent of the bogs, were a treat for me, the flavour disassociated from the alcohol and concentrated.

They did a Glenlivet, an Oban, a Highland Park (I always think of a Korean in a kilt), a Laphroaig, and a Jack Daniels.

But if you’re not, then the flavours, are rather…..disconcerting. Some at the table much preferred the Jack Daniels for its more accessible flavours. Others just didn’t care that much for them.

Still, for the malt aficionado I heartily endorse this.

Entering the final stretch, towelettes were served, each a small marshmellow of a puck until it was hit with hot water, at which time it all became rather Freudian.

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Tea was proferred, but most of us passed. Ean, the exception, felt like a cup, and so I recommend the Silver Needle, a white tea.

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I love the almost milky flavour of these teas. They also had an aged pu’er from the 1970’s that looked tempting.

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The tea was properly washed, and then poured and backpoured. I snuck a bit of Ean’s and appreciated the soft, milky tones of this marvelous tea.

”Like A Kid In A Sweet Shop”

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Finally our sweets arrived, in a jaunty pink and white bag.

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This contained four treats, which I photographed horribly, so let me just describe three of them. Technically, you could take this bag of treats back home to linger over, but home in this case held a pair of ravenous young men, so we decided to dally over them here and take our notes.

The first was a playing card – the Queen of Hearts (going back to Alice) – white chocolate about a red tart interior. The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts

The second was an Apple Pie Caramel, with an Edible Wrapper (no need to unwrap) (2006) - wonderfully soft, and no danger to my fillings. The wrapper on this draws from the same source as the film used for oak moss flavouring in the puree dish earlier.

The third was an Aerated Chocolate Mandarin Jelly (2005) A round, brown hemisphere of happiness reminding me of an Aero bar with it’s tidy pore structure. Sicilian mandarin “essential oil” was used to get the hint of oranges in this.

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And the fourth a tangle of sweet coconut, which I really liked, meant to replicate the old “baccy”. Coconut Baccy Coconut Infused with an Aroma of Black Cavendish Tobacco (2006).

I like coconut. And I still remember the smell of my dad’s pipe back when he was a smoking man (a burning obsession, back then).

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I was surprised to read that this dish was inspired not from childhood, but from Galette of Rhubarb, as he played with rhubarb and coconut combinations. From there the associations with sweets of Christmas Past came about.

And credit goes to David Thompson for advising on the right coconut to use for the proper texture – recommending coconuts in their “teens” for use.

Mr. Thompson does know his coconuts.

At this point, we were done.

They were kind enough to take us for a tour of the kitchen. We were asked not to take photographs however, which is fair enough as they’d been quite free in the dining room, as long as we didn’t disturb others.

As expected from The Fat Duck cookbook, the dimensions are challenging. I would have difficulty fitting in the kitchen, let alone maneuvering. It’s a tight fit, but the staff are smilling, and (I’m assuming we were unannounced) there’s no swearing or cantankerous behaviour.

In part, the economy of space is a tip of the iceberg. This is the working kitchen, but there is also a separate baking area letting out to the back, and across the street is a prep kitchen, where the mis is worked up; the schedule of long lunch, long dinner not allowing enough of a gap in the day to be able to handle both.

Also across the street is the famous experimental kitchen, which must have been where we saw Heston rushing to last trip to the Hind’s Head.

All in, the Fat Duck runs on a staff of some thirty or so with a bit of overlap in shifts. For the front of house, it’s pretty much one person per table. That’s a lot of staff.

When you consider issues like this, and the funds that have gone into research, you can see where the money goes in a set up like this (”You were drinking gold, for Heaven’s sake”……”Quiet, Scud”)

Needless to say, I was well impressed. We’d eaten and been entertained for almost four hours, and were leaving properly full. It would have been nice to meet up with the good Mr. B, but as we’d chatted on the earlier visit, it wasn’t the end of the world (we did think we’d seen a bald-headed man in chef whites talking frantically into a phone through the window earlier, but we couldn’t be certain if that was him).

Months later, back at home, I found that working through the cookbook and seeing how things were done has brought it all back to me in detail, drawing even more value from the meal.

So, would I go back?

Yes. But I would wait for the menu to change over, to get the full effect of the work. I liked the mix of theater and flavour, and I really do admire the obsessive (if not manic) nature of Heston Blumenthal.

The world (at least the one I want to be in) needs more of that.

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Went with a few work colleagues the other week, lots of theatre but I think I prefer food thats more, well, tasty han theatric. Had a few extra things :wink: ...

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We reviewed The Fat Duck for the IWFS journal Food & Wine in 2005. For anyone interested my report is below. I won’t bore with all the photos it is just bits on plates the same as it is today, in fact it doesn’t sound as though it has changed much, still very expensive theatre!

Pam Brunning report for IWFS F&W

The Top Restaurant on the Planet

When is a restaurant not a restaurant?

When it is the Fat Duck – it is pure theatre.

When Ruth Reichl, editor in chief of the legendry US food magazine Gourmet landed at Heathrow she was asked by passport control, “Business or pleasure?”

“I’ve come to eat,” she told him.

“Business then,” he replied brusquely. “Nobody comes to London to eat for pleasure. I wish you luck love. Don’t you know that English food is terrible?”

Ms Reichl and her team of restaurant critics proved him wrong. “The food across all levels is fantastic,” was her verdict. She enthused about everything from a toasted cheese and onion sandwich, made with Montgomery cheddar and thick slabs of French Poilâne bread, from a stall in Borough Market, to the gastronomic heights of The Fat Duck.

Our visit was instigated by the gift of a voucher for dinner, received from some very close friends (IWFS members) that insisted we could not go through life without telling them exactly what we thought of Heston Blumenthal’s revolutionary techniques.

Three days after I booked the Restaurant Association announced that The Fat Duck had been voted top restaurant in the world. So, just a week after the award, at 7pm, on a wet April evening we sat with bated breath awaiting the sixteen course tasting menu with accompanying wines, compiled by a man that is said to be ‘turning gastronomy on its head’.

Act 1. Green Tea & Lime Mousse poached in liquid nitrogen. The mousse was sprayed into a spoon then immersed in a bowl of liquid nitrogen. It emerged hard and ‘smoking’ – pop it straight in the mouth we were told. A crisp cold shell that dissolved into an ethereal lime flavour on the palate, a great performance

Act 2. An oyster shell containing two slithers of oyster sitting on a bed of passion fruit jelly and horseradish cream finished with a thin paper thin crisp of caramel laced with pepper. The oyster was inconsequential, the horseradish and pepper heightened the palate bringing the passion fruit through rich and creamy.

Act 3. Pommery Grain Mustard Ice cream drizzled around with red cabbage gazpacho. The ice cream was fine once you have got your brain around savoury ice cream. The gazpacho was by far the worst flavour of the evening – rotting cabbages. Reminiscent of my childhood when we lived next to a field of cabbage that was often left to rot when the bottom fell out of the market.

Act 4. Jelly of Quail, Langoustine Cream with a Parfait of Foie Gras. A pepper crisp again garnishing a teaspoon portion of the parfait, floating in the Langoustine cream, which hid a layer of quail jelly in the bottom of the dish. Delicious, subtle flavours that melded well together.

With the above courses we drank a Lustau Fino Sherry from southern Spain.

Act 5. The infamous Snail Porridge. The thought of this dish is the reason I didn’t get himself here sooner. What a revelation, don’t think snail liquidised into a porridge, as most people do. A thick soup of cooked oats with parsley and garlic butter swirled in to give a bright fresh green appearance and good flavour, topped with half a dozen snails (cooked, naked snails contrary to some of the cartoons in the press!), garnished with a julienne of Jabugo ham and shaved fennel. An fascinating dish, served with a very pleasant 2002 Grüner Velliner Smaragd Achleiten, Nikolaihof from Austria.

Act 6. Roast Foie Gras. A small (approx. 3cm) square of perfectly cooked foie gras dusted with fresh chamomile, with a garnish of almond fluid gel, two streaks of cherry preserve and a cherry. Wine, a 2003 Tokaji Furmint, Szent Tamas, Szepsy from Hungry.

Act 7. Sardine on Toast Sorbet. Another much maligned dish, no it’s not sorbet made with sardines on toast. A teaspoon of sardine flavoured sorbet served on two wafer thin slices of marinated daikon (mouli), a small ballotine of boned mackerel, some pearls of caviar and a thin tuile of toast on top, an interesting combination. With this we drank 2002 Riesling Trocken, Gold-Quadrant, S. Kuntz, Mosel.

Act 8. Salmon Poached with Liquorice. Another small square, this time wrapped in a very thin liquorice coat. The salmon, poached slowly, was moist and so translucent that it appeared to be raw. This was served with two spears of ‘Pertuis’ asparagus, pink grapefruit, ‘Mammi’ olive oil and a grating of liquorice which was performed by the waiter with a flourish. One of the most outstanding dishes, but just as you were really starting to enjoy the flavours they were gone! The 2001 La Grolaigt Veneto, Allegrine fron Italy with this was the best wine paring of the evening.

Act 9. Poached Brest of Anjou Pigeon Pancetta. The pigeon was lightly cooked, pink, juicy and very tender. The pancetta, filled with meat, quatre épices and pistachio, was crisp and delicious, a lovely contrast of textures. Another great course, I could have eaten a double portion of this one too. The wine was 2002 Yerring Station, Shiraz-Vionier, from the Yarra Valley. A hard wine that needed more ageing but softened a little with the pigeon.

Good, plain brown and white bread was served with the option of salted or unsalted butter. We kept stocked up on this as we had been told by friends that they went home hungry.

The next three courses we felt constituted the ‘interval’.

Acts 10. A white chocolate disc with some beads of caviar on top which we were told to place on our tong and leave to melt. Fine, white chocolate and fish - I think I missed the point of that one.

Act 11. Mrs Marshall’s Margaret Cornet - a tiny cone of ginger ice cream with which we were given a card telling us the story of Mrs Agnes B. Marshal ‘The Queen of Ice Cream’, the first person to make ice cream using liquid gas in 1901.

Act 12. Pine Sherbet Fountain – a tub of sherbet with a straw – a miniature of the ones we used to have as kids – the trouble was mine was empty! With these was a tiny box of parsnip crisps.

Act 13. Mango and Douglas Fir Puree with a Bavarois of Lychee and Mango with blackcurrant sorbet. Beautifully presented, the bavarois was light and creamy but once the resinous flavour of pine hit the palate it overpowered the subtle flavours of the lychees. The blackcurrant sorbet was also very intense. With this was served 1989 Beerenauslese Reichgraf von Kesselstada.

Act 14. Carrot and Orange Tuile topped with a Bavarois of Basil accompanied by beetroot jelly. After so many sweet things the savoury bavarois was quite an assault to the taste buds.

Act 15. Smoked Bacon and Egg Ice Cream with pain perdu and tea jelly. A creamy ice cream with a slightly savoury, smoky flavour, resting on a purée of sun dried tomatoes accompanied by a square of bread that was caramelised on the outside and soft and moist in the centre. I am not sure where the ‘perdu’ came in, my dictionary it translates as waisted, ruined, sunk or god-forsaken! Along side was served an egg cup of tea jelly. On the whole we found the sweet courses disappointing.

A glass of 1984 Vin Santo, C. Argiros from Greece was satisfactory.

Act 16. Praline Rose Tartlet, a tiny crisp praline shell filled with a rose jelly.

The Finale - Coffee was not included in the £97.50 a head tasting menu, by this time we decided hell, what was another £4.50 a head!

One cup of good strong coffee served with Leather, oak and tobacco chocolates. The tobacco were very like a good cigar, soft and cool to start and then the heat hit you at the back of the throat. The leather and oak were rather nondescript.

The staff put on a brilliant performance, every one was word perfect in their detailed knowledge of the composition of the dishes and the wines and the service was impeccable.

The wines, served in Ridel glasses of course, were interesting, some matching the food better than others. We thought that £67.50 a head for what were rather meagre portions was rather over the top. There was better value to be had selecting from their vast wine list.

I had a chat with the maestro himself, a quite, unassuming man who has not let fame got to his head. He oversees nearly 40 people, working in a very confined space, the atmosphere is relaxed and happy, and they are obvious gaining much enjoyment from what they are achieving.

Service at 12.5% was £42.44.

A once in a life time experience, I am told. :hmmm:

I think my next report will be on a sandwich in Borough Market!

The Infamous Snail Porridge

02-04-2010 13;49;22 snail .JPG


Pam Brunning Editor Food & Wine, the Journal of the European & African Region of the International Wine & Food Society

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An interesting application of inflation?

Pam's meal five years ago costing £97.50. Today, the similar meal - £150. I feel Pam got the best of this.


John Hartley

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Interesting to see how the menu's changed - or really NOT changed, I suppose - since I was there in the summer of 2006. That roast foie looks insane. The lack of change in the menu does make me wonder if I would go back, but when I think of how joyous that meal was I think I probably would.

I'm always frustrated at knowing that there's so much work that goes into a dish that I'll never see, understand or fully appreciate. Every dish at Fat Duck, and Alinea too, made me wonder what exactly I was missing. All I knew was that it must be a lot. I should pick up his cookbook, and go back to the Alinea cookbook as well so that I can try to wrap my head around the laborious techniques.

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And she had a voucher, too.

Still, I don't begrudge the price. Yoonhi and I were discussing the matter, and in comparison to the prices charged in many other places in the London area it's not too far out of line (and the meal, per head, was less than some of my extravagances from a couple of years ago).

As I mentioned, you can see where a lot of the money is going (and liquid nitro isn't cheap).

It's cold comfort for those on sterling and euro payrolls, I know, but even with the increased prices now isn't a bad time do an eating tour, given the relative strength of the Canadian and Australian currencies.

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An interesting application of inflation?

Pam's meal five years ago costing £97.50. Today, the similar meal - £150. I feel Pam got the best of this.

I also went in 2005, at £97.50. With some courses the same, there is little incentive to repeat soon, and there's not even a ALC to give you some consumer choice. So it's like a one-off experience. But I suppose there's still plenty of demand.

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We went last Thursday evening. I have written about it on my website. Worth every penny and every inconvenience. Very similar to the first person, but we had the snail porridge before the sounds of the sea... and no English Breakfast. Instead, we had the BFG - and it was deadly. Deadly.

I would go again and eat the exact same meal all over again in a heartbeat. I am sure there were all sorts of little aspects I missed in each dish. But, alas, we live in Alberta, Canada, so the chances of going again are slim to none. I will say, however, that the staff was exception. Fun, full of wit, humor and made the evening even better than it would have been without their warm light hearted touch.

Take a look at my post at

http://www.acanadianfoodie.com/2010/04/08/the-fat-duck-in-maidenhead-heston-blumenthals-triumph/

Detail. Simple perfection. Brilliant.

:)

Valerie


Make it Happen

Valerie: A Canadian Foodie

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http://www.acanadianfoodie.com

I love my Thermomix!

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We went last Thursday evening. I have written about it on my website. Worth every penny and every inconvenience. Very similar to the first person, but we had the snail porridge before the sounds of the sea... and no English Breakfast. Instead, we had the BFG - and it was deadly. Deadly.

I would go again and eat the exact same meal all over again in a heartbeat. I am sure there were all sorts of little aspects I missed in each dish. But, alas, we live in Alberta, Canada, so the chances of going again are slim to none. I will say, however, that the staff was exception. Fun, full of wit, humor and made the evening even better than it would have been without their warm light hearted touch.

Take a look at my post at

http://www.acanadianfoodie.com/2010/04/08/the-fat-duck-in-maidenhead-heston-blumenthals-triumph/

Detail. Simple perfection. Brilliant.

:)

Valerie

Great pictures Valerie. I'm green with envy!

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i notice the new website is finally up after like what, 2 years of saying its going to be changed? looks pretty nifty.

those really are some great pictures Valerie, makes me want to go back sooner. shame theyre not doing the breakie anymore i really enjoyed that, probably my favourite part of the meal next to everything else.

really wish i didnt look at your review. youre gunna put me down £150.

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i notice the new website is finally up after like what, 2 years of saying its going to be changed? looks pretty nifty.

those really are some great pictures Valerie, makes me want to go back sooner. shame theyre not doing the breakie anymore i really enjoyed that, probably my favourite part of the meal next to everything else.

really wish i didnt look at your review. youre gunna put me down £150.

I was going to make a comment about hoping you have plenty of time free for calling them, but I see that you now have the option of using an online reservation system for weekday lunch reservation instead of phoning them. I'll be interested to hear how well that works (if it meets your needs).

The new website is certainly flashy, but I wonder how well it will work for slower connections and for the visually impaired (with the continually shifting background)?

As for the "breakie" no longer being on I would see that in some respects as a good sign - at least if it means that the menu will change more frequently than in the past.

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I would bet that they still do the breakfast... that the BFC is a new item, and outrageously amazing... and that as they develop other PERFECT dishes like these, they will switch up a few things. One of the reviewers here didn't get the snail porridge, and then I did... Certainly, the oysters are off the menu (sadly, too) But, it is probably a smart move to have the menu switched up at times for people that have already been there. But, I would go back again, anyway - and be happy to eat exactly the same thing all over again. :)

valerie


Make it Happen

Valerie: A Canadian Foodie

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http://www.acanadianfoodie.com

I love my Thermomix!

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It was probably with some trepidation that my wife suggested going to the Fat Duck as my 60th birthday present from her. And it was with some trepidation that I said that I’d love to. It was going to be a dinner unlike any other we’d eaten. It was going to be wacky. It was going to include food that didn’t sound instantly appealing. It was going to be eye-wateringly expensive.

So, the reservation was made. An opportunity to mention any dietary issues had been given (and would be repeated on arrival) but we decided to “go for it” and trust that everything would be OK. And, if it wasn’t, then we could always get a bag of chips on the way home. So, there we were. Ready for anything. But, perhaps, the biggest surprise was in the whole ambiance of the place. It was extremely relaxed and, whilst service was formal, there was not a hint of stuffiness. Some diners had “frocked up”, others were dressed in jeans and polo shirts. Neither group looked out of place. We were about to start on a four hour experience of great food, theatre and just downright good fun. It will be fair to say that my wife found the meal more challenging than I did and, whilst she found all the dishes to be excellently constructed and interesting, there were several that were simply not to her taste. Apart from a couple of the courses, I liked everything.

I no longer drink alcohol but a long tasting menu is always a challenge for my wife in matching wine to food. The restaurant offers a pairing which would have brought eight different wines but, if she was not to leave Bray absolutely legless, this would have to be pared down. This is when the skill of a good sommelier comes to the fore. He was able to select four glasses from the eight which, in conjunction with a champagne aperitif, kept her going all evening.

And so to food:

LIME GROVE, nitro poached green tea and lime mousse. Kit is delivered to a side table – plates, a bowl, a flask containing the liquid nitrogen, a pressurised bottle of the mousse. The waiter squirts nitrogen into the bowl; mousse onto a spoon and it goes into the nitro. A few seconds later, the blob has set and is plated. A dusting of the green tea. One mouthful. It feels like meringue – crispy on the outside, soft inside. The waiter squirts an atomiser of lime scent into the air. Perfect theatre. Perfect citrusy palate cleanser.

RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO, Pommery grain mustard ice cream. Bread arrives before this. Nothing fancy – just white and brown. But it’s excellent bread with a good crust. It’ll be regularly offered throughout the meal. A small quenelle of the ice cream sits in the bowl and the soup is poured over. You notice the mustard first, then the sweetness of the ice cream and, finally, the distinct flavour of the cabbage.

JELLY OF QUAIL, crayfish cream, chicken liver parfait, oak moss and truffle toast. The most theatrical dish of the evening. Placed in front of you is a bowl and a wooden board. On the board sits the toast. In the bowl is almost everything else. In the centre of the table is a small tray of oak moss. On this are two slivers of film of “essence of oak moss” which we’re invited to place on our tongues. They taste of, erm,, oak moss. In the bowl, there are four layers. A bottom layer of pea puree, topped with the extremely rich quail jelly, then a thin layer of the crayfish cream (in truth, not detectable to our palates) and, uppermost, the chicken parfait. You are about to eat when waiter pours dry ice onto the moss and your table is completely covered with the mist of the forest floor. It lingers while you eat. It had us laughing out loud. This is a wonderfully rich and delicious dish which I loved, the crisp truffle toast contrasting well with thr softness of the jelly concoction. It was the first dish which didn’t find favour with my wife (which meant I got “seconds”).

SNAIL PORRIDGE, Jabugo ham, shaved fennel. Perhaps the best known Blumenthal dish, it was again a very rich flavour in the porridge. Neither of us had eaten snail before and we were both surprised how little flavour they had in themselves. The fennel was heavily salted and, whilst it was no doubt intended to have the predominant flavour, we were less than convinced that it worked better than a fuller pure fennel taste.

ROAST FOIE GRAS, gooseberry, braised konbu and crab biscuit. Foie gras is something that we’d usually choose not to eat but we’d decided to put ethical considerations to one side and “go for it”. Of course, you cannot entirely escape your prejudices and it was, perhaps, no surprise that this simply didn’t appeal to us. Of course, it was technically brilliant – the soft richness of the liver; topped with the crunchiness of the seaweed (and something else) topping, the tartness of the gooseberry. No doubt, many customers would love this. We wouldn’t be amongst them.

MOCK TURTLE SOUP. I think this is from one of the “Heston’s Feasts” programmes and was back to just damn good fun. In the bowl, a little piece of veal, a pretend egg, little dice of veg. Alongside a cup. The waiter drops the Mad Hatter’s gold pocket watch into the cup. And pours water on. You then stir and the watch dissolves into the water, forming the gold flecked stock for the soup. You pour it into your bowl and, there you are, a delicious soup of deep savoury flavours and textures. Wonderful.

“SOUND OF THE SEA”. Theatre continues with the presentation of an iPod enclosed within a conch shell. You listen to the gulls and the waves lapping whilst you eat. There are slivers of raw yellow fin tuna, halibut and mackerel. They “swim” in the sea – actually a foam of fish and seaweed stock. It laps against the shore – the sand made from semolina, fried eels and vermouth. This is fab. We don’t want to take off the ear pieces. But it’s time to move on.

SALMON POACHED IN LIQUORICE, artichoke, vanilla mayo, trout roe & Manni olive oil. Neither of us was keen on this dish. The salmon was wrapped in the liquorice and topped with roe and drizzled with the oil. There were blobs of the mayo dotted around and it was the strong taste of the vanilla that “did for us”.

POWDERED ANJOU PIGEON, blood pudding, potted umbles, spelt. I loved this but my wife didn’t – but then she’s not a fan of game or offal. Here there was pigeon breast – two slices very soft, perhaps poached; a larger chunk fried. The blood pudding actually in the form of deeply rich thick sauce – almost the consistency of congealing blood. Separately a bowl of the umbles, in a creamy sauce, topped with crispy spelt. A masterpiece of a dish – my wife admiring the skill if not the taste.

HOT & ICED TEA. A palate cleanser and Blumenthal’s witchcraft is again employed. The glass of tea, intended to be drunk in one swig, is, as described, hot on one side, iced on the other. I swigged and tasted hot tea on the left side of my mouth, whilst cold on the right. There must a gelling agent in there somehow. Burn him, burn him!

MACERATED STRAWBERRIES, olive oil biscuit, chamomile & coriander. A seemingly straightforward summer dessert. Delicious berries made special by the oily biscuit and the hint of spices. There was excellent sugar craft here, in the form of a miniature plaid picnic blanket, draped over the berries. Oh, and there was a delicious jelly & ice cream cornet to eat first. Summer in a few bites.

THE BFG, Black Forest Gateau. A dessert from another TV show which attempted to perfect this British classic dessert. We’re old enough to remember when this was a feature of dinner at a Berni Inn (after the prawn cocktail and steak & chips). And we don’t diss Berni Inns – this is where folk like us went for celebration meals. As for eating the creation, it was really good gateau with some kirsch ice cream on the side. And an atomiser of an indeterminate “essence of Black Forest” to spray around.

WHISK(E)Y WINE GUMS. The wine gums come “stuck” to a map of Scotland showing the region from which the flavours come. Even in my drinking days, I was never a fan of Scotch and now this was just so-so.

LIKE A KID IN SWEET SHOP. The Fat Duck’s offering as petit fours to go with coffee (extra charge). They arrive in a stripy paper bag – just like when you were a kid and went to spend your pocket money on penny chews, sherbet dabs and blackjacks. There was an “orange aero”. And a caramel with edible cellophane wrapper. And the Queen of Hearts – a white chocolate playing card, encasing a tart fruit filling. And a paper pouch, just like you’d buy loose tobacco – but here the baccy made from coconut but infused with tobacco flavour. Bloody good coffee, as well.

So, in conclusion, how do I feel about my birthday treat? It was an evening that I’m really glad I’ve experienced. I’d eaten some outstandingly tasty and enjoyable food. I’d eaten even more outstandingly interesting food. It had been fun. And I can now say to anyone who asks “I’ve been to the third best restaurant in the world”. There’s not much more a foody could ask for.


John Hartley

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I think your reaction was about the same as ours John - some great dishes some not so great but an experience. We decided it was a one off event - it had to be done. I can go one better than you - we have been to the ‘Best restaurant in the World’ - it was when we went and it cost less in those days, mind you the menu sounds about the same. I am disappointed you didn’t take any photos! :biggrin:


Pam Brunning Editor Food & Wine, the Journal of the European & African Region of the International Wine & Food Society

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      2. Upon analyzing our other heat source needs we decided to place a large focus on induction. By utilizing portable induction burners we are allowed the flexibility to give as much power as needed to a specific station in the kitchen. Obviously induction’s radiant heat is very low, and this allows us to keep the temperature in the kitchen reasonable, yet the power is quite high. 31,000 BTU's of highly controlable heat. But the main reason for choosing this flexible source of heat is the fact that each chef typically employed at least four different cooking applications on a given night. This huge flux in technique and the realization that the menu would change entirely in 8 weeks time meant that we had to design a kitchen that could evolve on a nightly basis. And last, we are very specific with temperatures; induction makes it easier for us to hold a liquid at a predetermined temperature for long periods of time without fluctuation. They operate between 85 and 500 degrees farenheit. We did a great deal of research on the different producers of induction and favored Cooktek. The fact that they are the only U.S manufacturer of commercial induction cooking equipment and located in Chicago made the decision easier. Their innovative approach to induction may prove to be even more exciting as we are already talking about new product development in the future.

      3. a. The complexity of the presentations and a la minute plate-ups of the food require a great deal of surface area devoted to plating. This was one of the most critical factors in determining the basic shape of the kitchen. The size of some of today's popular plates, the amount detail in each composition, coupled with the fact that producing tasting menus vs. ala carte means sometimes large waves of same dish pick ups made it necessary for us to have over 44' of linear plating surface.
      b. Virtually nothing goes vertical above the 36” counter top in the space. All food, plates, equipment, and dry good storage are contained by under counter units. There are a few exceptions such as the infrared salamanders, the three-door refrigerator, and the hood. This allows all the cooks a clear line of communication between each other and the front staff. It allows me an easy sight line to survey the entire kitchen’s progress with a quick glance.
      Given these two points it seemed obvious that we needed to combine the two and create custom pieces that would fulfill both needs. Large spans of plating surfaces with all food and equipment storage below. As you can see we ended up with two 22’ long units. Each function as a pass and under counter storage.
      The building is 21’ wide wall to wall. This allowed us just enough space to create two lines on each exterior wall with their passes forming a 60” corridor for the pick up of plates and finishing of dishes.
      4. We decided to add a station to the kitchen. At Trio we had five including:
      a. pastry
      b. cold garde manger
      c. hot garde manger
      d. fish
      e. meat
      Now that we had more space, and the ability to give each station multiple heat
      sources regardless of their location in the kitchen, we could spread the workload even further. We also realized it doesn’t make much sense to identify each station by classic French Bragade terms. A saucier did not solely cook meat with classic techniques and prepare various traditional stocks and sauces…in fact quite the opposite. This holds true with most of the stations, with the exception of pastry, but even they will have very unconventional techniques, menu placement and involvement in the kitchen systems. We will add a station that will be responsible for a large majority of the one-bite courses both sweet and savory.
      5.Given the size constraints of the building we realized a walk-in would not be possible in the kitchen. If we were to have one it would be in the basement. Having experienced this at Trio we decided to design the kitchen without a walk-in, making up for the space in various lowboy locations and a three-door reach-in. I experienced the walk-in less environment when I worked at Charlie Trotter’s. It is certainly different, but as with most things if done properly it provides a very efficient environment. It works best in situations where fresh products are brought in daily for that days use. And prevents ordering in large quantities. It also provides us with very specific units to house different items. We will utilize the 3-door refrigerator to store the majority of the vegetables and herbs along with some staple mise en place, and items that cannot be made in very small quantities like stocks. Raw meat will have it’s own lowboys as well as fish, dairy, and all frozen products.
      6. At Trio we found ourselves using the salamander a great deal. It is very useful for melting sugar, bringing on transparent qualities in things like fat and cheese, cooking items intensely on only one side, and it is a highly controllable non-direct heat source. Due to the air gap between the foodstuff and the heat elements the cook can control the degree of heat applied to the dish based on the technique he is using. It becomes a very versatile tool in the modern kitchen, so much so that we will install three Sodir infrared salamanders.

      Again, this is to insure that all the cooks have access to all of the techniques in the kitchen. As I said before it is important for our cooks to be able to sauté, simmer, poach, fry, grill, salamander, and freeze at the same time and sometimes for the same dish.
      We have a few unusual pieces of equipment in the kitchen; the most is probably a centrifuge. A few months ago Nick and I were driving home from a design meeting and ended up talking about signature dishes and menu repetition. Of course the black truffle explosion came up and he asked if I would have it on the menu at Alinea. I replied a firm no, but shortly thereafter said I would enjoy updating it. We threw around some tongue and cheek ideas like White Truffle Implosion, and Truffle Explosion 2005….I said it was a goal of mine to make a frozen ball with a liquid center….but then dismissed it as nearly impossible. Within a few minutes he said …”I got it…we need a centrifuge” His explanation was simple, place the desired liquid in a spherical mold and place on the centrifuge…place the whole thing in the freezer. Within days he had one in the test kitchen. I guess this is better suited for the kitchen lab topic that we will be starting in a few weeks…
      We are working on a upload of the kitchen blueprints. When those post I plan on going into more detail about certian aspects of the design. Doing so now would be pointless as the viewer does not have a reference point.
    • By ronnie_suburban
      It’s the first day of cooking in Alinea's Food Lab and the mood is relaxed. We’re in a residential kitchen but there’s nothing ordinary about it. Chef Grant, along with sous chefs John Peters and Curtis Duffy are setting up. The sight of the 3 steady pros, each in their chef’s whites, working away, does not match this domestic space. Nor does the intimidating display of industrial tools lined up on the counters. While the traditional elements are here in this suburban kitchen: oven, cooktop, sink, so too are the tools of modern restaurant cookery: pacojet, cryovac machine, paint stripping heat gun…wait, a paint stripping heat gun?
      In the physical realm, the Food Lab is a tangible space where the conventional and the unconventional are melded together in the quest for new culinary territory. With Alinea’s construction under way, the team must be resourceful. This meant that renting a space large enough to house both the office and the kitchen aspects of the food lab was out of the question.
      The decision was made to take over a large office space for the research and administrative aspects of Alinea and transform a residential kitchen into the Lab. Achatz and the team would work three days per week at the office researching all aspects of gastronomy and brainstorming new dishes, while managing the project as a whole. The remaining time would be spent in the kitchen executing the ideas formulated at the office. “At first I thought separating the two would be problematic,” says Grant “but in the end we are finding it very productive. It allows us to really focus on the tasks at hand, and also immerse ourselves in the environment conducive to each discipline.” The menus for opening night—containing as many as 50 never-before-served dishes--must be conceived, designed, tested and perfected. The Alinea team does not want to fly without a net on opening night.
      On a more abstract level, the Food Lab is simply the series of processes that continually loop in the minds of Chef Grant and his team. While there is no single conduit by which prospective menus--and the dishes which comprise them--arrive at Alinea, virtually all of them start in Chef Grant's imagination and eventually take form after brainstorming sessions between the Chef and his team. Menus are charted, based on the seasonality of their respective components, and the details of each dish are then laid out on paper, computer or both and brought to the kitchen for development. In this regard, the Food Lab provides something very special to the Chef and his team. “We consider the food lab a luxury,” says Grant. Once Alinea is open and the restaurant’s daily operations are consuming up to 16 hours of each day, time for such creative planning (aka play) will be scarce. Building a library of concepts, ideas and plans for future menus now will be extraordinarily valuable in the future. Otherwise, such planning sessions will have to take place in the 17th and 18th hours of future workdays, as they did when the Chef and his team were at Trio.
      Today, several projects are planned and the Chefs dig into their preparations as soon as their equipment setup is complete…
      Poached Broccoli Stem with wild Coho roe, crispy bread, grapefruit
      Stem cooked sous vide (butter, salt, granulated cane juice)
      Machine-sliced thin bread
      Dairyless grapefruit “pudding”
      Dried Crème Brulee
      Caramel orb shell made with bubble maker and heat gun
      Powdered interior made with dried butterfat, egg yolks, powdered sugar & vanilla
      PB&J
      Peeled grapes on the stem
      Peanut butter coating
      Wrap in brioche
      Broil
      Micro-grated, roasted peanuts
      Instant Tropical Pudding
      Freeze Dried Powders of coconut, pineapple, banana
      Young coconut water spiked with rum
      Muscovado Sugar
      Cilantro
      Candied Chili
      Jamaican Peppercorn
      Vanilla Bean
      The steps required to comprise each dish are, as one might imagine, intricate and numerous. For the Poached Broccoli Stem, Chef Grant begins by separating the broccoli stems from the florets. The stems are stripped of their fibrous exteriors and pared down until they are uniform in size. Grant comments on the use of the second hand part of the vegetable: “This dish started with the roe. Every year we receive the most amazing Brook Trout Roe from Steve Stallard, my friend and owner of Blis. Typically, we serve the eggs with an element of sweetness. I find it goes very well with the ultra fresh salinity of the week-old roe. This time around we wanted to take a savory approach so I began looking into complimenting flavors in the vegetal category. About the same time, our group had a discussion about secondary parts of vegetables and the stem of broccoli came up. I had a past experience with the stem and found it to be very reminiscent of cabbage. Knowing that cabbage and caviar are essentially a classic pairing, I felt confident that we could work the dish out. Now I'm struggling to decide if this is a broccoli dish or in fact a roe dish, I think they really battle for the top position and that helps makes the dish very complex."

      Chef Grant processing the broccoli

      The stems are placed in a polyethylene bag, along with butter, salt and granulated cane juice. The bag is sealed with a cryovac machine

      The sealed stems are placed in a 170 degree F water to cook, sous vide, until extremely tender; about three hours

      Broccoli stems after cooking
      The crisp bread element is fabricated via the use of an industrial deli slicer. Chef Grant then brushes the sectioned pieces of poached broccoli stem with eggwash, affixes them to the thin planks of brioche and places them in a fry pan with butter.

      Grant's mise...not your ordinary cutting board

      Poached Broccoli Stem and Crisp Bread cooking

      Ready for plating

      A bright green broccoli puree is made with a vita-prep blender. Here, Chef Grant "mohawks" it onto china given to him by Thomas Keller

      Smoked Coho roe has arrived via Fed-Ex, courtesy of Steve Stallard

      Chef Grant devises a plating scheme for the Poached Broccoli Stem while Curtis looks on

      Chef Grant ponders one potential plating of the dish. He called this incarnation 'predictable' and started over.

      Another plating idea. This version is garnished with broccoli petals and ultra-thin slices of connected grapefruit pulp cells. The yellow petals are stand-ins for what will ultimately be broccoli blossoms
      Grant is still displeased at the dish's appearance. "The dish tastes as I envisioned it....texturally complex, with the crispness of the bread, the soft elements of the floret puree and stem, and the pop of the eggs. The buttery richness from the bread gives the stem the flavor of the melted cabbage I loved at the [French] Laundry. And the hot and cold contrasts from the roe and broccoli …I like it…..I just don’t like the way it looks.” Another attempt and the group agrees, it is better but not “the one.” The use of the thinly sliced cross sections of peeled grapefruit energizes the group. In the next rendition, they make small packets with the ultra thinly-sliced grapefruit containing the roe...

      A third plating configuration for Poached Broccoli Stems; this one featuring the packets of roe wrapped in ultra thin sheets of grapefruit pulp cells
      At this point the team decides to move on and come back to it next week. After some conversation they decide that in the final dish, broccoli will appear in at least 5 forms: poached stems, floret puree, some raw form of the stem, the tiny individual sprouts of broccoli florets, and the blooms. Grant feels that Poached Broccoli Stem could be ready for service, although he still envisions some changes for the dish that will make it even more emblematic of his personal style. “Our dishes continue to evolve after they hit the menu. It is important for us to get to know them better before we can clearly see their weaknesses.”
      The thought for the dried crème brulee originated over a year ago when a regular customer jokingly asked for a crème brulee for dessert. “He said it as joke, I took it as a challenge,” says Grant. "Of course, we never intended to give him a regular crème brulee.” The team tried various techniques to create the powder-filled caramel bubble while at Trio to no avail. An acceptable filling for the Dried Crème Brulee has been developed by the Chef and his team but several different methods, attempted today, to create the orb from caramelized sugar have been less than 100% successful.

      Caramel blob awaiting formation. Chef Curtis kept this pliable by leaving it in a low oven throughout the day

      Chef Grant’s initial idea to use a metal bubble ring and heat gun (normally used for stripping paint) to form the bubbles does not work as hoped. Attempts to fashion them by hand also come up short.
      Says Grant, “At Trio we tried a hair-dryer. When Martin told me about these heat guns which get up to 900 degrees F, I thought we had it for sure. If it was easy everyone would do it I guess.” Eventually, Alinea partner Nick Kokonas garners the task’s best result by positioning a small, warm blob of sugar onto the end of a drinking straw and blowing into the other end. The results are promising. Curtis suggests using a sugar pump to inflate the orbs. That adjustment will be attempted on another day.
      “We intentionally position whimsical bite in the amuse slot, it tends to break the ice and make people laugh. It is a deliberate attempt to craft the experience by positioning the courses in a very pre-meditated order. A great deal of thought goes into the order of the courses, a misalignment may really take away from the meal as a whole.” For PB&J, the grapes are peeled while still on the vine and then dipped into unsweetened peanut butter. They are allowed to set–up, and then they are wrapped with a thin sheet of bread and lightly toasted. When the peeled grapes warm, they become so soft they mimic jelly. The composition is strangely unfamiliar in appearance but instantly reminiscent on the palate. PB&J is, according to Grant, virtually ready for service. There are a couple of aesthetic elements, which need minor tweaks but the Chef feels very good about today’s prototype.

      Chef John peels grapes while still on their stems

      Peeled grapes on their stems with peanut butter coating

      Chef Grant studies the completed PB&J in the Crucial Detail designed piece

      PB&J
      Often, creative impulses come by way of Alinea’s special purveyors. “Terra Spice’s support over the past couple of years has been unprecedented, and it has accelerated with the start of the food lab,” says Grant. “It is great to have relationships with people that think like we do, it can make the creative process so much easier. Often Phil, our contact at Terra, would come into the kitchen at Trio and encourage us to try and stump him on obscure ingredients. We always lost, but not from lack of trying. He even brought in two live chufa plants into the kitchen one day.” The relationship has developed and Terra team has really made an effort to not only search out products that the chefs ask for but also keep an eye out for new ingredients and innovations. In August, Phil brought by some samples of products that he thought the Alinea team might be interested in trying.

      Phil of Terra Spice showing the team some samples

      Coconut powder and other samples
      Grant recalls “the most surprising item to me was the dried coconut powder. When I put a spoonful in my mouth I could not believe the intense flavor and instant creamy texture, it was awesome.” That was the inspiration for what is now Instant Tropical Pudding. The guest is presented with a glass filled with dried ingredients. A member of the service team pours a measured amount of coconut water into the glass and instructs the guest to stir the pudding until a creamy consistency is formed.

      The rum-spiked coconut water being added to the powders
      At the end of the day, the Chefs assess their overall effort as having gone “fairly well.” It’s a mixed bag of results. Clearly, the fact that things have not gone perfectly on Day 1 has not dampened anyone’s spirits. The team has purposely attempted dishes of varying degrees of difficultly in order to maximize their productivity. Says Grant, “Making a bubble of caramel filled with powder…I have devoted the better part of fifteen years to this craft, I have trained with the best chefs alive. I have a good grasp of known technique. The lab's purpose is to create technique based on our vision. Sometimes we will succeed, and sometimes we will fail, but trying is what make us who we are." The team's measured evaluations of their day’s work reflect that philosophy.
      According to Chef Grant, “The purpose of the lab is to create the un-creatable. I know the level at which we can cook. I know the level of technique we already possess. What I am interested in is what we don't know...making a daydream reality.” With little more than 100 days on the calendar between now and Alinea’s opening, the Chef and his team will have their work cut out for them.
      =R=
      A special thanks to eGullet member yellow truffle, who contributed greatly to this piece
    • By ronnie_suburban
      Sometime this week, at an undisclosed location in the city of Chicago, Chef Grant Achatz begins the next leg of his journey to open his new restaurant, Alinea. Grant will christen the 'food lab' where the menu for Alinea will be developed. eGullet will be trailing Grant and his team throughout the process -- not just in the food lab but through every facet of the launch. Over the next six months, we will follow the Alinea team as they discover, develop, design and execute their plan. We'll document behind-the-scenes communications, forwarded directly to us by the Alinea team. We will be on the scene, bringing regular updates to the eGullet community. And Grant will join us in this special Alinea forum to discuss the process of opening Alinea. eGullet members will have the opportunity to ask Grant, and several other members of the Alinea team, questions about the development of the restaurant.
       
      A Perfect Pairing?
      By the time he was 12 years old, Grant Achatz knew that he would someday run his own restaurant. The story of Alinea is the story of Grant's personal development as a chef and a leader. Grant was brought up in a restaurant family. He bypassed a college education in favor of culinary school, after which he ascended rapidly to the position of sous chef for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry in Yountville, California. In 2001, Grant took the helm of Trio in Evanston, Illinois, which had previously turned out such noted chefs as Gale Gand, Rick Tramanto (Tru) and Shawn McClain (Spring, Green Zebra). In 2003 Grant won the James Beard Foundation's "Rising Star Chef" award, and other prestigious awards followed. By 2004, Grant was recognized as one of the most influential and unique voices on the international culinary scene.
       
      In January 2004, Grant met Nick Kokonas, a successful entrepreneur who was so obsessed with haute cuisine that he had traveled the world in search of it. After globe-trekking specifically to eat at such culinary meccas as Alfonso 1890, Taillevent, Arpège, Arzak, and the French Laundry, Nick was in near disbelief when he realized that the "best food in the world was 10 minutes from my house." Nick had not previously consideredbacking a restaurant, even though he has both relatives and friends in the industry. But in Grant, he saw an opportunity to help create something great.
       
      Through Grant's cuisine, a bond formed between the two men. So inspired was Nick by Grant's culinary ideas that he returned to Trio almost monthly. Finally, he challenged two of his friends, one from New York and the other from San Francisco, to fly to Chicago and experience Trio. He wanted to prove definitively to his skeptical, coastal buddies that Trio was the best and most important restaurant in the country, assuring them that "if the meal at Trio isn't the best meal you've ever had, I'll pay for your meals and your flights." Nick won his bet: his friends were blown away.
       
      Later that night, after service, Grant joined Nick and his guests at their table. The men chatted about a variety of topics and in the '14 wines' haze of the late evening, they discussed Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure, Joseph Wechsberg's gastronomic memoir. The next day, Grant emailed Nick to ask again about the title of the book they had discussed. Not only did Nick remind him, but, within a few days, sent Grant a copy of Wechsberg's book. A friendship was born.
      Shortly thereafter, Grant sentNick his business plan for Alinea, sending an email after evening service. By the following morning Nick had read it and replied with his own enthusiastic amendments. With a burgeoning friendship already in place, trust developing between the two men and proof they could work together crystallizing before their eyes, it became clear that they would become a team. Says Grant, "I think most people, in a lot of ways, look for themselves in other people in order to match with and I think to a large degree, the reason why we get along so well is that our personalities align very well."
       
      Nick felt the same way. "It's one of those situations where everything just lined up right. I had the interest, I'd started a number of different businesses and I felt like it would be an opportunity to work with someone who I'd get along with very well. I wouldn't want to build a restaurant just to build a restaurant and I doubt I'll ever develop some other restaurant. I think this is the right situation at the right time."
       
      Grant adds, "I think we're both very driven and passionate people. So for me, it was about finding someone I could trust, someone that I knew was going to think like me, be as motivated or more motivated than me. Those things were very, very important--and something I hadn't seen--or something I didn't believe in--that I saw in Nick." Nick continues, "I think a lot people come to a chef with their pre-existing vision of the restaurant they want to build. I didn't even want to build a restaurant before I saw his vision, so it wasn't like I was saying 'I'm building this restaurant and I want you to be my chef' -- it was more like 'I think you should build a restaurant, what can I do to help you build it?'" Grant would have the additional supportive backing he'd need and Nick would have another venture -- and one he solidly believed in -- in which to direct his business acumen.
       
      It's All About The Container
      Anyone who's eaten Grant's cuisine at Trio knows that he is intensely concerned with food and the optimal ways to prepare and serve it. His dishes innovate in flavor; they challenge, tease and delight the senses. But Grant is also driven to innovate in service and technique, constantly seeking new vehicles to deliver sensations to the diner. He works closely with a trusted collaborator, Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail in San Diego, CA to create original service pieces for many of his dishes. And as Grant has searched for additional ways to expand the continuity of the dining experience, it has become clear to him that it starts before the diner even gets to the restaurant's front door.
       
      According to Grant, "You can pull it back as far as you want. The experience is going to start before someone even picks up the phone to make a reservation to this restaurant. It's going to be about their perceptions; why are they picking up the phone to make a reservation? What did they see? What did they read? What's leading them up to that point? They call to make a reservation, that's another experience. The drive to get to this neighborhood is another experience. The minute they open their door and take one step out of their car, now they're surrounded by another experience."
       
      Advancing the functional elements of how food is served is an innate part of the cooking process for Grant, who seeks to render the traditional boundaries of dining obsolete. When asked what he will be able to accomplish at Alinea that he couldn't accomplish at Trio, Grant says, "the obvious is to create the container in which we create the experience. I think that's the very exciting thing for me that I've never been able to have a part in." For Grant, a restaurant's physical space represents the ultimate container and the ultimate personal challenge. The result should break new ground in the world of fine dining.   Grant and Nick are intense and competitive. In both their minds, "crafting a complete experience" is the primary focus of Alinea. According to Nick, "the whole idea is to produce an experience where the food lines up with the décor, which lines up with the flow through the restaurant and from the moment you get, literally, to the front door of the place and you walk in, your experience should mirror in some respects--and complement in others--the whole process you're going to go through when you start eating." Grant takes it a step further. "It's about having a central beacon from which everything else emanates and therefore, it's seamless. The whole experience is crafted on one finite point and if everything emanates from that point, then there's no chance that the experience can be interrupted."
       
      The search for Alinea's space further reflects not only their shared philosophy but also their separate intensities. Says Nick, "One of the things we felt really strongly about, and we both came to it, was that we wanted it to be a 'stand alone' building because if you're in something else you can't help but take on some of that identity. And it's really difficult to find the right size building in the right kind of location, with the right kind of construction that was suitable for the identity of Alinea."
      Nick and Grant drove down every street within a chosen geographical band, armed with a giant map and a set of green, yellow and red markers. Once they had found a set of acceptable streets, they asked a realtor to show them every space available on them.
       
      "Once we did find the building," says Grant, "whichever space we would have chosen, we would have analyzed and considered each different aspect to provoke a certain emotion, a very controlled emotion depending on how we wanted it arranged. But I also think that we wanted the neighborhood to feel a certain way, the street to feel a certain way. Is it like Michigan Avenue where I have people 4-deep, walking straight down the sidewalk, non-stop, all day and all night or is it more of a tranquil environment outside? All those things were spinning around and once you identify the golden egg, then you have to go find it."
      While they would probably never admit it, each innovation, each step they take together in building their venture serves as yet another a opportunity for the Alinea team to challenge the restaurant's competitors. Their attention to all the details provides countless opportunities to distinguish Alinea from other restaurants.
       
      Here the two men can share in the creation, combining their diverse skills and experiences into a unified and shared vision. Alinea will be their baby. They want it to be the best --not just the best food -- but the best everything. They even want the experience of calling for a reservation to be a memorable one.
       
      The Path From Here
      In that spirit, the Alinea food lab opens this week. Grant refuses to promote even one of his legendary creations to 'signature dish' status. Instead of populating Alinea's menu with previous favorites from Trio or 'trial' dishes that have been only roughly tested, Grant and his team will take six months to devise, develop and perfect the dishes and delivery modes that will appear on Alinea's opening menu. When the idea of maintaining a kitchen staff for six months before the restaurant's opening was presented to its investors, in spite of the additional expense, "it seemed like a no-brainer" according to Nick. Grant is an equity partner--a true chef/owner--in the venture and there is a solid consensus among all the backers about the priority of his vision.
      * * * * *
      In addition to being one of today's foremost chefs and culinary innovators, Grant Achatz is a long-time member of eGullet, and a lively, provocative contributor to our discussion forums. Read his March, 2003 eGullet Q&A here.
      Photos courtesy Alinea
       
      eGullet member, yellow_truffle, also contributed to this report
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