Tomato soup and bread

Frank Bruni, The New York Times’ restaurant critic, wrote on this on his blog today:

The most pleasurable meals aren’t about the rarity or quality of the food and the setting. They’re about the indulgence of eating when you didn’t intend to in a place you just trip across.

Truer words…

On a spring day in the Tuscan countryside — this story starts idyllically but you should soon realize it wasn’t — when I was trying to keep from vomiting what little was in my stomach as I sat in the middle of the backseat of a “large” European sedan between two other adults as we drove over roads with bumps that, in Iowa, are called hills.

Finally, we stopped in a little town whose name I will never know. There, desperate for something to eat, we went in to a wine bar where the proprietor was halfway through his lunch: a bottle of red wine.

We ordered lunch. It was simple. It was safe. Tomato soup and bread.

I have been trying to find food that lives up to that meal ever since.

Down the Alinea rabbit hole

On Thurday, we spent five and a half hours eating our way through 24 courses.

The restaurant was called Alinea. For my mother’s 50th birthday four years ago, my father took us to a place I hadn’t heard of in Evanston, Ill., called Trio. The meal we ate there became the benchmark for all other meals. Lamb, cooked sous-vide before it was cooled, with four different flavors. Beef short ribs served in a glass and flavored like root beer. Seared foie gras as part of a deconstructed mince meat pie. Candied nori in chocolate for desert.

When the chef of Trio left, Grant Achatz, he left to begin Alinea. The restaurant received good press and we were excited about eating there the first chance we got. When Gourmet named it the best restaurant in America, I was worried that we wouldn’t get the chance to even make a reservation.

When I called three months early, I was told I had to wait until November for the restaurant to open its January reservation book. When I finally got through, at 11:00 a.m. on November 1 while sitting in the j-school’s resource center, I was told that they would be closed for the two weeks following our anniversary.

Flash forward to 5:30 p.m., January 4, 2007. It is pouring in Chicago, the rain filling every crack, depression and gutter in the street. Laura and I get soaked just hailing a cab during rush hour.

The cabbie can’t find the restaurant. Nobody knows what to look for. The restaurant, it seems, has only large, white numbers proclaiming its address on the front.

Alinea works hard to keep its dinners of guard. Opening the large black doors, you enter a hallway that is constructed in such a way as to skew perspective. The black floor looks like it’s running down hill, the right wall — covered with floor-to-ceiling panels that encroach into the hall — seems to want to eat the dinners.

At the end of the hall, a sudden SWEESH!

Doors in the left wall disappear into the wall ala Star Trek, exposing the restaurant. You are clearly no longer in Kansas.

Everything about Alinea is unconventional. There are no table clothes or chargers at your place setting. The centerpiece is minimalist — ours was two sprigs of rosemary, each in a small, metal base — and becomes part of the meal. The menu, which the waitrons practically refused to give us, has two options: 12 or 24 courses. The food is served on ware known as “the antenna,” “the squid” and “the anti-plate.”

Then, of course, there’s the food itself.

The opening course was soup. Sort of. A bowl small enough to fit in your hand is brought to the table and set in front of you. Suspended above the cold soup by a small pin sticking through an equally small hole in the side of the bowl is, in order from top to bottom, a slice of black truffle, a warm ball of potato, a half-inch section of chive, a cube of Dutch butter and a cube of Parmesan cheese.

From here it continued, for five and a half hours, for 24 courses. . Poach monkfish, fried munkfish and munkfish mousse served with shards of “onion paper.” Duck confit, duck breast and crispy duck skin with various puddings served on a plate on top of a pillow that emitted juniper-scented air as it deflated.

Beef short rib served under a sheet of warm — yes, warm — Campari gelatin. Skate wing served with browned butter, capers and lemon. Each in powered form. With banana slices. (Who would dare pare capers and banana?)

Three medium-rare lamb medallions served on a brick so hot the meat still sizzled and each topped with a different flavor. Venison rolled in granola topped with oatmeal foam.

And while four dessert courses — each with its own dessert wine — almost put me in a coma, I wouldn’t have hoped for a better meal.

My first amazing meal

Going out to dinner was the last thing that crossed my mind following the sailboat ride through choppy waters which caused one member of our party to vomit and everyone to feel nauseous. But it turned out to be one of the top five meals of my life.

Tomorrow, my family and I are going back to Madeline Island for a long weekend. The center piece of the trip is returning to that restaurant where I had my first amazing restaurant meal. Like a good book, I wanted to wade deeper into the meal, to taste everything, but also didn’t want it to end.

I’ve had better meals since, at TruCharlie Trotter’sJean Luc Figueras and now-defunct Trio (when Alinea‘s Grant Achatz was there). But this meal was the first time I became truly excited about the eating experience. I wanted to talk about the food, not just eat it.

I have lost my copy of the menu, which I kept stuffed into my copy of Larousse Gastronomique, but I still remember what I ate. Duck “saltimbocca” with wild rice-stuffed crepes and seared foie gras.

It was the first time I had eaten fatten duck’s liver. I was amazed to find how it did melt deliciously in your mouth and coated your tongue in a bath of fatty goodness just like I had read about.

What will be most interesting for me to discover upon my return is whether the restaurant can live up to my expectations this time. The first time to Wild Rice I had no expectations but now what I expect from a restaurant is much more.

I love dead pigs

I love dead pigs: bacon, bratwurst, pancetta, spicy Italian sausage, even the eyes, ears and organs that make up scrapple.

So I was intrigued when one of my favorite food-writers co-wrote a book on charcuterie.

I have a bad habit of collecting cookbooks that I end up using all too infrequently (see: Larousse GastronomicThe French Laundry CookbookThe Professional Chef). After all, nothing kills the will to cook at home like doing it all day at work. But since I have retired from food service forever (knock on wood), I am making a concerted effort to return to our home’s kitchen.

So, over various holidays, the wife gave me the appropriate sausage-making accouterments. (If anyone would like to buy me a sausage stuffer for, say, Labor Day, just let me know.) And this week I began my first foray into sausage making.

I picked the easy possible recipe Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn provided: Mexican chorizo. Readily available ingredients and no need to stuff the ground meat into pig intestines.

I began by hitting up my local grocery store for a fatty 4-pound hunk of pork shoulder butt and—what could be better—an extra pound of fat.

The scents wafting off cut-up pork mixed with fresh garlic and oregano, ground chipotles and anchos, paprika, cumin and pepper nearly made me delirious. I shoved the bowl of raw pork in the wife’s face, imploring her to inhale. She was not as excited.

If nothing else, charcuterie—whether dry-curing saucisson sec, smoking bacon or salt-curing cod— is about patience. When I started grinding the next day, I made a big mistake. I got impatient. Grinding meat takes time, especially when you’re forcing five pounds of it through the one-inch opening of a home grinder. Because of a lovely-sounding condition called smear, I ended up having to clean the grinder out ever 30 seconds or so, getting raw chorizo everywhere.

But the sausage was delicious. Even without pig brains, eyes or intestines.