On February 27, Mrs. Hackknife and I had the great pleasure of attending one of Alinea Restaurant's pop-up meals in Miami, conducted while the flagship location in Chicago was undergoing extensive renovations. Mrs. H. and I have previously dined at Alinea and I can assure you that the associated experience is a spectacle like no other, so we were understandably excited to see what surprises were in store for us when Chef Grant Achatz and Co. took the operation on the road to South Florida.
The host venue for these pop-up dinners was the new and swanky Faena Hotel in South Beach, the type of place where you'd expect to run into LeBron James and where a giant, gold-plated woolly mammoth skeleton in a glass case (you can see it here) isn't really at odds with its surroundings. The dinners were held in a tropically-styled back lounge normally reserved for drinks (or possibly a breakfast service) and we were fortunate enough to be seated at a table up front, right next to the bar, which had been co-opted by the kitchen staff for plating dishes.
Our amuse bouche was a love letter from home, a Chicago hot dog disguised as a small gelatin cube of "hot dog" essence (that's the only way I can think to describe it) topped with dots of red tomato, yellow mustard, and green relish. In case you're wondering, yes, it really did taste like a Chicago dog (although I missed the poppyseed bun and the celery salt).
A circular platter not unlike the kind Grandma would put out for homemade cookies at Christmastime arrived next at the table, but instead of snickerdoodles was a disk of plantain/papaya crowned with a generous helping of Osetra caviar doused in a bit of rum, a wonderful fusion of luxury and Caribbean ingredients.
This is Alinea's version of guiso de maiz, or Cuban corn stew, served in a trick bowl whose sweet contents (an echo of late summer barbecues in the Midwest when the corn stalks are head-high) could only be accessed via metal straw. Perched above the stew on the glass rim were beguiling small (yet flavor-packed) creations featuring chorizo, tomato, pumpkin seed, and more corn.
In what could have only been conceived for Alinea's pop-up meals in Madrid (this is where they hunkered down before coming to Miami), a glass plate featuring a near-identical reproduction of a famous painting by Spanish artist Joan Miro (you can see the original here) appeared. Instead of acrylics, though, the "paints" were various sauces for a deconstructed snapper bouillabaisse, including green fennel/parsley/dill and red saffron aioli. Not only did the sauces individually pair well with the delicate fish, but also when slathered together in the act of turning the Miro into a Jackson Pollock.
Chef Achatz frequently appeared at the plating station, calling out orders and checking dishes while simultaneously consulting his smartphone (hopefully making plans for the future Alinea pop-up in Tampa).
The following course was another fish stew, although this one (called moqueca) is normally associated with Brazil and ended up being a hybird of Peruvian ceviche, featuring cobia and Key West pink shrimp marinated in coconut milk and leche de tigre (a citrus marinade commonly used in ceviche). A server poured citrus tea into the bowl, adding a dimension of aroma to the dish, which was dramatically kept cold by resting it atop a cauldron of steaming dry ice (you can see a snippet of video at the top of this posting).
Circling back to small bites, three unusual serving pieces were brought to the table, each nestling a particular combination of ingredients: a lump of crab tempura enhanced with green curry/cucumber and impaled on a vanilla bean, a flash frozen dollop of soda, lemongrass, and chili (this was Alinea's version of a "Siam Sunray", Thailand's new signature cocktail), and a chewy slab of pig ear seasoned with tamarind, watermelon, and Szechuan pepper (my apologies for the mediocre photo).
What you see above is essentially a salad disguised as urban art (or graffiti as they call it on the menu), edible flowers poking out of pothole shards of ash meringue (not as unpleasant as it sounds) paired with beets and goat cheese, all sporting a streak of strawberry vinaigrette (applied by a server at the table using a spray paint can, authentic down to the glass marble inside)
We outright missed taking a picture of the next course, one of Chef Achatz's signature creations - a small bowl of potato soup into which a needle holding some truffle, chive, butter, Parmesan cheese, and a chunk of cold potato has been placed. The diner slides the ingredients off the needle and into the soup, yielding a mega-tasty potato stew (or liquified loaded baked potato). Sadly, this hot potato-cold potato dish was retired at the conclusion of the Miami pop-up.
When is a centerpiece not just a centerpiece? It's when it's also a holder for pieces of a rich, pink bread made from (among other things) duck fat drippings. Where's the rest of the duck, you ask? Well, it showed up as part of several unctuous small bites featuring ginger, yogurt, and edible gold leaf, all resting in a bright bowl of clear duck consomme, a course fit for royalty if there ever was one.
I sensed some hijinks when another centerpiece was delivered, this time a flaming bowl of charcoal. After a few minutes, our server returned to extinguish the fire and reveal that one of the briquettes was actually a well-wrapped cut of Japanese Wagyu beef, charred to perfection by the fire (and left blessedly medium-rare on the interior).
This bite of meat represented the most flavorful beef imaginable (clearly, there's a reason that true Wagyu commands an astronomical price) and made the ultimate "steak and potato" dinner when paired with some romaine hearts and a light green chimichurri sauce (a la Argentinian grill).
Next up was another signature dish being put out to pasture, the amazing black truffle explosion (liquid truffle essence, chopped cabbage, and Parmesan cheese all packed within/atop a single raviolo) that dates way back to Chef Achatz's French Laundry and Trio days. This bite that launched a hundred modern tasting menus will be greatly missed.
We soon encountered another friend, a hanging piece of bacon (as if on a clothesline) cured with butterscotch, apple, and thyme. This dish was my first ever experience with Alinea's gastronomic magic at a Field Museum evening food event in Chicago in 2009 and I was pleased to meet it again.
Of course, no Alinea meal is complete without some sort of edible fruit leather balloon. The greatest hits parade continued with this green apple novelty, in which the diner sucks out the helium (trying not get the sticky leather in your hair or on your clothes) and then eats the balloon (the string, by the way is not edible).
When they rolled out the plastic table cover, I knew we'd reached our final course of the evening. Mrs. H. and I had had a very similar version of this dessert in Chicago, although this iteration had been slightly altered for the tropics. A flurry of syrups (banana, molasses infused with Fernet Branca - a bitter Italian liqueur) were dashed across the table (dare I say into another Miro-like arrangement?), followed by bricks of frozen chocolate mousse that are dramatically smashed into pieces, then sprinkled with edible glitter and chunks of dulce de leche candy. You are then free to scoop up this mad creation any way you like, each spoonful representing a different experience of textures and flavors (although, truth be told, I think I preferred the original a bit better).
The one downside of this whole meal (which was spectacular for the most part, well worth the long drive to Miami) was the pacing, an acceleration over what we'd encountered at the flagship restaurant. In this case, what had been a 3-hour evening-long event had been compressed into 90 minutes, and we found ourselves back on the street at 7:30, scarcely past sundown with nothing left to do that evening except marvel at what had just occurred. My guess is that the economics of the pop-up only made sense when two (or possibly even three) seatings could be jammed into each night; still, having paid as much as we did, it would have been nice to linger a bit over each course. One thing hasn't changed, though - Chef A. and his crew remain at the top of their profession and we can hardly wait for what surprises the new and improved Alinea will have in store...