Eclectic Curiosity

Three Nights of Culinary Bliss

Posted on September 7th, 2008, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Miscellany. No Comments

Well aware of the culinary devotion and rigor of analysis that recreational diners on such sites as Chowhound and Zagat possess, I hesitate to call myself a foodie. But my experiences last week at three of the finest and most innovative restaurants in the US – Zenkichi, moto, and Alinea – probably say otherwise. That I would plan a trip around the chefs’ (and sommeliers’) tours leaves no doubt that I’m dedicated to this generalist thing, even on a taste level. 😉

The first outing, Zenkichi, was a pleasant accident. In New York with friends, one of us received a random text message recommending an obscure modern Japanese brasserie in Brooklyn’s hip Williamsburg area. So obscure was the place that when we went looking for it earlier in the day we passed it twice without realizing it. Zenkichi’s facade is a sheer face of wood planks; windowless and apparently doorless except for a small index card sized latch. This was their signage…

The ambiance inside was much more decorative although still in a dark and restrained way. After walking upstairs and along a pathway over cobblestones and streaming water, the six of us were seated in a cozy and quiet alcove booth.

I partook in the Omakase for Three, which consisted of:
-Miso Soup
-Raw tasting of Alaskan Sock Eye Salmon, Junsai & Uzaku, and Maguro Carpaccio
-Sweet Duck Salad
-Hirame Isobe Tempura
-Grilled plates of Saikyo Cod and Grilled Lobster & Summer Vegetable
-Tsukune Chicken
-Kanpachi Nigiri
-Frozen Black Sesame Mousse and Dessert Sake

The meal, served at just the right casual pace, was delicious and had the other three people in our party ordering extra plates of “what they’re having.”

The following night it was dinner for two at Chicago’s moto. Moto was really the impetus for this trip. Having met its chef, Homaro Cantu, at Idea Festival last year and having interviewed him for this blog (here) soon after, I was suitably intrigued to sample his science lab prepared and transmogrified creations. To that end, my lovely accomplice and I embarked on the “grand tour moto,” a 20-course four-and-a-half hour tastebud adventure. Here’s what was on the menu (which is, famously, edible) the evening we stopped in:

-Edible menu with summer truffle
-Liquid center scallop
-Kalamata and feta
-Nitro sushi roll
-Loaded baked potato gnocchi
-Biscuit creme brulee
-Ants on a log with foie gras
-Seared buffalo hot wings
-Cuban Missile Crisis
-Fresh from the garden
-Smoked pork with cornbread
-Roadkill of fowl
-Fajita with aromatic utensils
-Vodka tonic
-Blueberry cake & ice cream
-Powdered peach doughnut
-Chocolate & fluff

Now, I was in this more for the experience than the review, so you’ll have to excuse that I didn’t take detailed notes. But suffice it to say that dishes like “Ants on a Log” and “Cuban Missile Crisis” are simultaneously what you’d expect and not. The magic of moto is in how unusual cooking techniques (dry ice, lasers, centrifuges, etc.) and artistic presentations toy with your ideas of food. The amazing greek salad, for example, was liquified; the tangy hot wings were printed on flavoured paper; and the Cuban Missile Crisis resembled a cigar and was served in an ashtray. The standout for me was a relatively unattractive plate of fowl called Roadkill. It was one of those heavenly bites that cause the world around you to evaporate.

Truly an experiment that every foodie should encounter. And I must add that the waiters – some of whom also work in the kitchen – were great – friendly, good-humoured, and passionate about the food they were serving.

The night following that we ventured to another part of beautiful Chicago to indulge in the bliss that is Alinea. Like moto, Alinea’s chef, Grant Achatz, is also young and innovative – although in a more traditional sense (loosely speaking). His tour menu included the following fascinating 26 courses:

-Steelhead Roe, smoked salmon, grape, celery
-Lemongrass, oyster, sesame, yuzu
-Tomato basil, mozzarella, olive oil
-Rouget artichoke, garlic, bottarga
-Cobia tobacco, radish, cedarwood
-Chicken Liver, bacon, caramelized onion, vin santo
-Watermelon, green coriander, tomari, bonito
-Oxalis Pod, sweet, hot, sour, salty
-Short Rib, Guinness, peanut, fried broccoli
-Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter
-Lamb, potato, sunflower, sweet spice
-Foie gras, fig, coffee, tarragon
-Rhubarb, ginger, basil
-Transparency of raspberry, rose petal, yogurt
-Nasturtium abalone, ginger, eggplant
-Lobster, popcorn, butter, curry
-Yuba, shrimp, miso, togarashi
-Wagyu beef, maitake, smoked date, Blis Elixir
-Black truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan
-Duck foie gras, mole flavors
-Bacon, butterscotch, apple, thyme
-Strawberry violet nicoise olive
-Dry shot pineapple, rum, cilantro
-Sorrel honey, fennel, poppy seeds
-Whole wheat, almond, apricot, chervil
-Malt cherry, cashew, vanilla fragrance
[Gallery here]

The flow was ideal, each small course was an interesting new idea (my favourites were the Hot Potato Cold Potato play with temperature and the unusual use of bacon in sweet dessert), and the service was impeccable. Complimenting the symphony of flavours and scents was a perfectly attuned progression of wines, breads and butters. I have to believe that this is about as good as it gets.

And on the fourth day, if you’re wondering, we came back down to earth with a deliciously greasy, carelessly served Chicago deep dish pizza from Giordano’s!

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