Expectations are different when you go to someone's house for dinner and when you go out to eat at a restaurant. I'm not just talking about service. When you are at a dinner party, no one is going to take your order and refill your water glass every ten minutes. That would be pretty weird. And I'm not talking about quality necessarily. Many meals I've eaten in people's homes trump meals, often expensive ones, I've eaten in restaurants.
When dining out, I expect a certain level of technical precision. Every ingredient should be handled just so, seasoned properly, and cooked to perfection. I don't expect any of my friends, or myself, to dice potatoes and carrots in perfect cubes. Restaurant dishes should also display a level of ambition and inventiveness that comes with being a trained chef. I want original flavor combinations, surprising plating techniques, new methods of preparation. Restaurant food should wow. It should make you moan and lick your plate and chew thoughtfully to detect magical, secret ingredients.
Last weekend, my friend Casey--the Casey of man-bait chicken potpies, Good. Food. Stories., and general kitchen prowess--invited Dan and me to come over for dinner. Casey and her husband Dan own a house in New Jersey. I lived in Jersey for a few years and have deep-seated angst over my time spent there. It takes a lot for me to go back. Especially via Penn Station.
It takes the promise of a six-course meal of recipes from the Alinea cookbook. (And the company of these fine people, of course.)
Alinea is an award-winning restaurant in Chicago that specializes in innovative, whimsical, and at times shocking deconstructions of classic dishes. At Alinea, nothing on your plate is what it seems. Peanut butter and jelly is a single, peeled grape on the stem that is encased in peanut butter and wrapped in paper-thin brioche. One menu item is called "foie gras, spicy cinnamon puff, apple candy" and looks like a tiny, jelly-filled truffle. It takes over a dozen steps to make and contains a substance called Methocel F-50. Don't ask me what that is.
I have never eaten at Alinea, but have tasted chef Grant Achatz's food at the James Beard Awards. His team placed bite-sized morsels of something (I can't remember what) on long, curved skewers so guests had to lean forward to grab a bite straight off the skewer. People were amused, delighted, puzzled, and some even walked away. That is what Alinea does in a nutshell.
Not too long ago, Achatz put out a cookbook for home chefs, and Casey got her hands on a copy, hence our six-course tasting menu. Another Alinea fan, Carol Blymire, is currently blogging her way through the whole book at Alinea at Home, which is a super-entertaining read, if you don't follow it already. I laugh and shake my head at almost every post. I don't know how she does it. I am linking to her blog below to give you an idea of the staggering amount of work that goes into each dish. It's really quite amazing.
And I don't know how Casey pulled this meal off either. There was an ingredient/prep list on her refrigerator that made me feel a little light-headed just looking at it. Had she been cooking for days? After she handed me a blood orange-Cointreau-orange vodka cocktail, we were presented with trays of snacks, Achatz-style. As in, they weren't identifiable.
First course: Idiazabel, maple syrup, smoked salt
This is a cheese cracker that Carol aptly dubs Alinea Cheetos. They tasted a bit styrofoamy, but in a pleasantly chewy way.
Second course: Cheese, in cracker
These pillowy little nuggets tasted like soft Superpretzels filled with cheddar cheese. Meaning: effing amazing. A syringe was involved in the making of this dish. Casey said she got one at her cats' vet. Clever girl.
Third course: Bacon, butterscotch, apple, thyme
This is essentially candied bacon with an extremely thin layer of dehydrated green apple on top. I didn't really pick up the thyme, but the caramel sweetness of the bacon melded perfectly with the tart apple, which almost dissolves in your mouth. A+.
Bonus course: Salad
This is lettuce that has been dehydrated and reconstituted into lettuce-like leaves. Kidding, it's just salad. With Ranch dressing with bacon and blue cheese on the side. Casey's good like that.
Fourth course: Hot potato, cold potato
Casey skipped the truffles on this dish, which we gave her a hard time about, of course. It's essentially a cold, extremely creamy potato soup with tiny cubes of hot potatoes and cold butter and cheese that combine in the broth, heightening the baked potato flavor. It was really sensory and also really delicious.
Fifth course: Pork, grapefruit, sage, honeycomb
This was the entree, and it really was the shining centerpiece of our meal: succulent pork tenderloin, crispy pork bits, grapefruit, braised fennel, a drizzle of honey, and a clear sage pudding underneath that served as an aromatic sauce. Cornbread on the side. Casey will be writing more about this dish later, and how to adapt it to make it a tiny bit easier.
Sixth course: caramel popcorn, liquified
This was a little strange. It tasted like Poppycock but in liquid/foam form, heavy on the butter. I have to say I didn't love it, but it was interesting. And the little espresso cups were adorable.
Bonus course: Ice cream sandwiches
No, this is not another trick. It's an ice cream sandwich with homemade caramel ice cream, served "flying saucer"-style, a la Carvel. Some things should look like what they are. Ice cream sandwiches fall into that category.
The meal was every bit as memorable as anything you'd experience in a big-name restaurant. But if we had eaten these dishes at Alinea, our focus would have been more on the food than each other. Instead, we chatted, listened to music, watched their cats wrestle on a chair in the living room. The meal lasted about four hours, but by the time 11:30 rolled around, we were shocked. Time passes easily when you're with good friends, eating good food.
Dinner parties are about people and socializing, and the food, no matter how incredible, is secondary. Although when someone spends such a considerable amount of effort making it, you can't help but feel even more special.