living underground in the real world

all vegans should go to Alinea

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I went to Alinea and it was exactly like they said it would be.

Twelve courses with wine pairing. All vegan (for us), of course. It cost more than any of the many expensive restaurant meals I’ve had, and it was exactly that much more amazing: without a doubt one of the best meals imaginable. I went with three of my favorite people in the entire world, and it was an absolutely perfect night.

I needed a good night, preferably one where food took a starring role. I’d been down on my job for a little while. Sometimes it seems all dirty dishes and aching feet—endless, back-breaking work without the excitement that new discoveries should provide. This summer has been less than stellar in terms of amazing produce, and because so many farmers are having trouble it’s been more difficult than usual to wholesale the large quantity of perfect produce I depend on. For all or none of these reasons (who knows why these things happen?) I’ve been in a bit of a rut, and was secretly depending on Alinea to snap me out of it.

It worked, and I’m still grateful. On the flight home from Chicago I sat in my seat and looked out at the clouds and felt it all returning: the willingness to force myself to keep growing, pushing, doing it. Ideas, inspiration. Alinea.

Alinea is the leader of the so-called molecular gastronomy movement, and here’s what I want to tell you, internet: vegans should be embracing this molecular gastronomy business. It’s so vegan friendly. It uses tools we’ve been using forever (agar, kuzu, flax seeds, various powders and elixirs), but it uses them unapologetically, not as “replacements,” but as interesting elements of a dish on their own merit. It seeks to refine flavors and pare away extraneous ingredients, and as we all know, nothing mucks up the flavors of a dish more than stringy cheese and eggs and nastyass meat. Molecular gastronomy is made for us, my vegan brethren.

I’ve talked about this before, but a trip to the temple of MoGo solidified it all in my mind. Though it’s hard to tell for sure, it seemed that even the non-vegan tasting menus were pretty damn vegan friendly. Everyone in our dining room seemed to get roughly the same meal as us.

menu

I scanned this in sort of sideways, but I think that makes it even better. Let me explain it: the bigger the circle the bigger the course. The circles to the left are more savory, the circles to the right are more sweet.

I know: your mind is already blown. Let’s go course by course, slowly so as not to make your head explode too rapidly. (Because we’re not super annoying diners, please forgive that these photos were taken with a discreet iPhone camera):

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Yuba! I’m a giant fan, what a nice way to start the meal. This weirdo stick was crunchy (yuba-crunchy) and the cucumber was somehow made into a strip (not the orange strip, maybe that was the miso somehow? I have no idea!) and wrapped around the yuba base. It was a savory lollipop of loveliness.

The champagne that came with it was probably my favorite wine of the entire meal, all crispy and mouth-opening and exciting and super bubbly. “Here we are!” it whispered.

“Let’s GO!”

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My point about this dish is: FLAX SEED SNOT. I make f.s.s. all the time, I strain it and call it “vegan egg whites” and use it as egg whites and that’s all. I was super surprised to see a puddle of it at the bottom of this dish. It tasted mucilaginous and like you’d expect: not like much. But it was interesting and the rest of the dish, the parsnip wafer (shaved and cooked sous-vide maybe?), the Thai flavors (peep that micro Thai basil!), the whole thing, was just lovely.

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My favorite dish, solely because of the color.

The first of the fruit roll-up-type items, executed, of course, flawlessly. It was gentle and tender and perfectly pink, a newborn skin encasing summer fabulousness. Not too flowery for a dish called LILAC, and reminded me all over again of the perfection of pale pink plus pale green. Rhubarby things and celery-y things and little topnotes of fennel. Springy and light and gentle. Blushing. And foam, which some might say is, like, so over, but it worked so well in this dish. The square thing in the forefront was made, I believe, from honeydew, and it was all tenderness and sweetness.

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A savory and sweet little soup, with the garnishes on the fork put in one hand and the cup in the other. We were told to eat the food on the fork then drink the rest of the soup.

These theatrics might have annoyed some diners, but I was 100% with them at all times. Unlike other fancy restaurants I’ve been to where the formality tips too far toward stiff, cold, and overly serious (Charlie Trotter’s, it is to you I speak), the servers were friendly and real and took such obvious interest in their jobs that it all just fit together perfectly.

And of course there was lots of wine.

Speaking of theatrics: At this point the lava bowl thingie that had been slowly icing up on our table (dry ice?) since we sat down was filled with a tea of sorts and started dramatically smoking.

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The server explained that it was filled with aromas of a summertime barbecue, rosemary and other herbs and I was delighted that it wasn’t a meaty, nasty BBQ aroma at all. Drama!

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This dish was “supposed” to be a take on steak and potatoes. It didn’t exactly work with the tired substitution of eggplant for steak, and I don’t know how it would have worked so great with steak either. Meh. The backyard grill aroma was lovely, but it was basically a very crispy, potatoey tater tot with a square of braised eggplant, plus a teeny packet of seasonings that were explained as the chef’s take on A-1 sauce. OK, sure. Nothing wonderful, certainly serviceable.

My mom, however, loved the potato square so much that two days later she was still telling her friends how it tasted “so much like….potatoes! I can’t explain it. It was great.”

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After the BBQ, they put a big giant platter of cut tomato plants on our table, to waft the aroma of tomato-time in the garden. Anticipation!

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The next course was an ode to tomatoey, Mediterranean, summery flavors.

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This is a big fat heirloom with “olive oil snow” which blew my mom’s mind so hard she is still talking about it. “It was so cold!!” Mom, it was called snow. “And it tasted just like olive oil!” It was olive oil! I think it was e.v.o. frozen with liquid nitrogen and broken into chunks. It was delicious.

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There were figs, and a Niçoisey olivey saucey thing that was interestingly textured, and that white disk was some exquisite pine nut cheese. Plus purple basil and Genovese basil and YUM. I think this was just about everyone else’s favorite course, with reason.

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“Transparency of raspberry.” Yep. Raspberry and fruit leathery and very palate cleansey.

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A little shot glass, which we were instructed to down in one gulp. I do not like gulps. I poked the ball in the center with my finger and it gushed out into the glass, then I cautiously drank it down, while watching everyone else’s surprised expressions when the ball exploded in their mouths. Playfulness. Watermelony and limey.

And then

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I’d been warned about this by a friend: the lavender air.

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The tables were cleaned off completely and pillows were brought out, filled with…lavender air. As we ate our next course, the first of the sweet ones, the pillows gradually deflated until the plates were on the table.

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The corollary to the pink and seafoamy course at the beginning, this one was all girly and childish too, with onion cotton candy (delicious) and rhubarb (why this meal was so springy in August is your guess, I have no idea) and all-around delightfulness.

And the lavender air was perfuming everything with a real lavender essence, not room-deodorant fake lavender, not even lavender essential oil: just real lavender, herbaceous and sweet without stickiness.

And then the table was really cleared. No water glasses, no wine glasses (I had a collection of about 4 by then, as I like to taste each dish with different wine because I am a giant insane freak who likes to note how different wines change the dishes),

no silverware,

no dishes,

no tablecloth.

And then a new tablecloth was brought out, a steel grey neoprene affair. It was dramatically unrolled with our help, and then little bowls, dishes, and spoons were massed at one end of the table.

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and then

and then

and then

who came out of the kitchen then and began quietly, calmly, beautifully, healthily, vibrantly, and with a gentle but ultra ultra laser beamy focus, got all Jackson Pollock right on our table with sauces and coulis and gelled jams and tobacco-infused (rice) creams and, finally, a block of liquid nitrogen chocolate ice cream which dramatically crumbled as he set it down?

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Of course, Grant Achatz himself.

(no pictures of the performance–we’re not that dorky!)

at first we thought maybe it was because a friend-0f-a-friend worked in the kitchen, but he repeated the performance at several other tables which, while less VIPy, endeared him to me even more.

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I know I’m a dork, but I just wanted to give him a hug. For giving us such a special night, for surviving tongue cancer, for his miraculous brain, for it all. I was completely under the spell. I wasn’t thinking about all the starving people I could have fed or shelter dogs I could have saved with my large chunk of hard-earned cash I was trading for one meal. I was indulging myself, and in that spirit I dove in deep. I drank the port that paired so perfectly with the blueberries and the maple, and savored the crunch of the liquid nitrogen ice cream and looked at my bestest friends in this decidedly non-hog-butchery city on this special night.

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Afterward there was something on fire, then tea and good espresso and the last of the wine, and when we were let out onto the street we realized that almost four hours had passed.

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Did I mention I was wearing heels?

I took them off as soon as I got to the table, and didn’t put them on again until it was time to leave.

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24 Responses to “all vegans should go to Alinea”

  1. veronica

    It all looks unbelievable!!!!!!!!!!!!
    The dish Grant Achatz plated (or tabled, I guess?) looks so amazingly beautiful, I am in awe. Wow.

    Reply
  2. brittany

    hmm i checked out the website… do you request vegetarian/vegan menu when you make the reservation? and if there’s something you can’t eat due to an allergy, do they get all offended?

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Oh yeah. Your weirdo celery allergy will not be a problem. When you pay that much for a meal, they will do almost anything you can imagine. And yep, I just called up and asked if vegan tasting menus wouldn’t be a problem, and they were super knowledgeable and rad about it. GO!!!!!!

      Reply
      • brittany

        Very cool… I’ll be in Chicago for Columbus day, although I doubt I can get anyone to go with me and mom’s potato and fruit allergies might be more challenging. Oh, right, and I’m destitute. ;)

  3. Dani

    you’ve won me over! I must admit, though I’ll pay more for organic produce and even pay the inflated prices at the Marin County Farmer’s Market, I am actually quite stingy about paying a lot for a restaurant meal. It’s just that so often the food is expensive and still sucks. I hate getting suckered. BUT, this has made me want to go to Chicago and eat there! And has singlehandedly changed my thoughts about molecular gastronomy!

    Do you have any restaurants in the SF bay are that you really love? 30th bday coming up! Perfect excuse to spend a lot of money on a good vegan meal.

    Reply
  4. lagusta

    Oh hey, I never answered this. I only know of Millennium, have you been there? You probably have. It’s vegan and fancy and irks me in some ways but in general I guess it’s great. I’ve only been there once. I know commenter Randy has been there a bunch, maybe he’ll weigh in with his thoughts….or other good SF places!

    Reply
  5. Sara

    Hmmm, the flax seed snot looks like chia seed snot to me…was it easily scooped up and eaten?

    Reply
    • lagusta

      ah! I bet it is chia seeds! Yep, it was too small to be flax seeds.

      Reply
  6. Plate and Pour

    I always wanted to go to Alinea but wasn’t sure if it was worth it as a vegetarian. After reading your post, I felt confident that it would be amazing and indeed it was! Thanks for sharing your experience!

    Reply
  7. Eddie Shepherd

    Alinea and Grant Achatz are huge culinary heros to me. I’m a vegetarian chef in the UK and I think in creating a meal like this they dispel any old fashioned ideas of what vegetarian/vegan food must be. I totally agree modern techniques and ingredients couldn’t be more perfectly applicable to veggie/vegan cooking, I hope they give us a chance to do food at a high level and ‘re-brand’ meat free cooking, getting away from negative prejudices against it.
    I’m no where close to the level the guys at Alinea are at (they make my food look like a small child’s attempt in comparison) but you can see some of how I use modern techniques and ingredients in vegetarian and vegan cooking at my website – http://www.veggiechef.co.uk
    Great article, really cool, I desperately hope to eat at Alinea one day.
    Eddie Shepherd

    Reply
  8. Scott

    I found this article incredibly inspiring. I made a reservation to eat there on March 10th, my 40th birthday! I am so excited.

    Reply
  9. Scott

    That was not only the greatest meal of my life, but also one of the greatest experiences I’ve had. Completely vegan AND nut free. A brilliant 40th birthday. Thanks for posting this article and letting me know this was possible.

    Reply
  10. RandiJM

    Thank you for this! My boyfriend wanted to go there when we’re in Chicago next month, and I just assumed there would be no way to accommodate veganism at such a fancy place. But now thanks to you we are going! So excited. Mostly for transparency of raspberry.

    Reply

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