“Can you talk to me about tablecloths?” a reporter asked last week.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“I’m writing the history of tablecloths, and I thought you’d be able to address trends in restaurants.”
Sorry; wrong woman. Tablecloths, it turns out, are one of my blindspots. I must have written about them, but no tablecloth ever left a lasting impression on me.
Still, thinking about the once ubiquitous white tablecloth (or the occasional red checked one) left me considering how much restaurant design has changed in recent years. A leisurely leaf through this Manhattan Menus Guide (published in 1980, edited by Marjorie Cohen, Carol Stanis, and Jane Warwick), was a reminder of many old favorites. The menus are fairly predictable (think rosemary chicken, steak bordelaise) ……
….but the pictures of all those empty dining rooms was something of a shock. How different our restaurants once looked!
Here’s The Algonquin; I was twelve by the time I got there, and the Round Table crowd was long gone. What I remember best is that the waiter served amaretti with my parents’ coffee, and then dramatically set the wrapper on fire and tossed it into the air. It flamed furiously, fizzled quickly, and simply vanished into the aether. I was charmed.
The stark simplicity of Tamura, across from The World Trade Center. (I never had the pleasure).
Lutèce. My mother always longed to go there, and it was one of the first places I took her when I finally had the money. I can almost picture the lovely Andre Soltner standing at our table, discussing the menu in his endlessly gracious manner.
Tavern on the Green: Another favorite of mom’s. (She could never resist a circus, and in the hands of Warner Le Roy that’s exactly what it was.)
And finally, the pool room of the Four Seasons in the Seagram Building, one of the most famous dining rooms of all time. The Four Seasons is still open, but if you want to check out that superb space this may be your last chance. The restaurant changes hands in five weeks.
For eleven years Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonos have been pondering that question.
So if all you’re looking for is a delicious dinner, their flagship, Alinea is not the place for you.
In the years since they launched their first restaurant, they’ve opened others.Next, The Aviary and most recently Roister.But their main playground has always been Alinea, and when they closed it for a complete renovation, everyone with an interest in the future of restaurants wondered what it would now be like.
The answer: more theatrical.
You understand this most forcefully if you opt to eat in The Gallery, walking into an elegant dark room lit by ornate candelabras.A communal table? you think.Did I really sign on to eat with strangers?
But you gamely sit down – after all, you’ve bought into the experience – and watch waiters set beautiful little ice sculptures filled with fancy tidbits – caviar, truffles, crab, egg custard – while the maitre d’ circles the table pouring glasses of 2002 Bollinger RD.It’s pure luxury.
Next you are invited into the kitchen for cocktails, where you eat a deconstructed pickle and watch an arcane drink get whipped up on this antique contraption (“There are only thirty in the world!” Grant says happily).
And you file back into the dining room. Or a different dining room? In your absence, the set has been struck and the stage completely rebuilt; the long table and its candelabra have vanished, and small tables now float through the room. Your party has become a private one. This is disorienting in the best possible way; an announcement that this evening may be delicious, but it is going to be about a lot more than food. Fasten your seat belts.
It’s quite a ride.One of the cast – it’s hard to call this revolving troupe of servers anything so prosaic as waiters – appears with a beautiful little bowl filled with what looks like crinkled sheets of paper.
As he covers it with hot broth the aroma of just-picked corn fills the air and the paper begins to melt like the Wicked Witch of the West. Now they are supple sheets.Noodles? You wonder. Not quite. These are made of scallops, and they’re pure magic in the mouth.Even better are the little rolls of crisp nori that go crackling into the mouth to reveal a filling of creamy scallop mousse.
Up next: “Yellow.” Curry. Mustard in many guises – oil, seed, etc. Egg yolks. All wrapped around a bite of sweet potato and folded into flower petals.
“Eat this fast!” says the master of ceremonies, ladling a hot Parmesan dumpling into the bowl, where a little bubble of yellow tomato soup sits waiting.It’s all hot and cold, smooth and crisp, a little circus of the mouth and about the most playful dish you can imagine.
Behind you, a bowl bubbles merrily sending the scent of citrus wafting through the room as you watch a little mountain of yuzu foam breath above white asparagus cream laced with lychee and shards of lily bulbs.There’s more here:a lemon-scented bite of apple.
More citrus, this time topped with Ayu, the delicious firm fish that is a harbinger of spring in Japan, sitting on a tempura tangle of tiny fish.“It’s too beautiful to eat,” said the woman at the table behind me (she had, it turned out, flown in from Tulsa just for dinner).
But I noticed that her plate went back empty.
This little purple sculpture (blueberries and Lapsang Souchang tea), is a hiding place for morels – big fat ones – coddled in cream. What I liked even better was the onion composition on the side; onions finally get their due!
A mescal moment – which I forgot to photograph.I was so enthralled with the theater here, the way one server passed by with a cloth and handed it off like a baton, then smothered the fire sending the scent of pinon and other woods in the air,
that I neglected to take a picture of the Mexican flag chicken that came with this, or the little mescal-drenched bit of pineapple served on a colorful skull skewer.
But then there was this – to paraphrase Clifton Fadiman,lettuce’s leap to immortality. A humble leaf gets pride of place; draw back the crunchy curtain to find a little scrap of beef cheek nestled underneath. On the side, a slice of melon, magically transformed into something approaching a liquid.
Lamb, lamb neck, black garlic, blackberries. The most straightforward dish of the evening.
And then this: the Alinea version of a Reuben sandwich which involves, among other things, black truffles, crisped rye, cauliflower and gruyere.
With the meat courses gone it’s time for dessert.
And there are a few. Rhubarb, strawberry, anise and campari, all deconstructed.
Next comes the now classic edible balloon, which comes with complete with squeaky voice…..
And finally one of the actors climbs up on a chair….
removes a painting from the ceiling and the entire troupe comes tumbling out, like clowns emerging from a circus car, to dash around the dining room splashing food onto your plate, painting it with colors and flavors, constructing dessert. Fruit, chocolate, cream, crunch – it’s a crazy, wild, halcyon delight, more Cirque du Soleil than Paul Bocuse, and a delicious way to end this raucous experiment in eating.
What is a restaurant? Alinea’s answer is that a restaurant is a place that feeds your brain as well as your body.
I’m in Chicago for the Printer’s Row Literary Festival. Great event.
Had dinner last night at Sun Wah, home of the famous Duck Dinner (see above). It’s a casual barn of a place filled with huge families enjoying terrific food and having a wonderful time. Lots of birthdays, celebrated with the clanging of a gong.
We ate a ton of food: wonderful ong choy, great tripe, clams with black bean sauce, bittermelon and beef, congee…. But it’s the duck that’s the main event.
Bentonville Arkansas (yes, the home of the Waltons of Walmart), is a big surprise. This is a fantasy of small town America as imagined by the very rich. The people are lovely, the streets are clean, the trees are green, the schools excellent. There’s a farmers market in the town square on Saturday, and one of the most beautiful museums in the world, Crystal Bridges, which is not only free but open until 9 at night.
And there is food. Really good food. I spent a single day there, eating as much as I could. But I need to go back; if you love art and food, this is a very good town.
I began with dinner at The Hive in the very hip 21 C hotel, whose lobby smells so enticingly of wood smoke you are drawn, irresistibly, into the restaurant. One of the dishes that emerges from the wood-burning oven are these spectacular clams with citrus, chili and breadcrumbs – a rural interpretation of the usually urban clams casino. Loved them.
I loved quail with strawberries too….
But what completely won my heart was hominy with mascarpone and parsley. It’s an homage to the polenta with mascarpone that Judy Rodgers made famous at Zuni Cafe – a dish so rich and wonderful it reminds you that you’re glad to be alive.
Lunch was at Crepes Paulette, a little cart in the center of town that is achingly popular. The line stretched on for 45 minutes. Le Jardin was worth the wait: the buckwheat crepe was filled with melted cheese, spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes. Even on a 100 degree day, I ate every bite.
Dinner at Eleven at Crystal Bridges was another impressive meal. It started off with the most wonderful ceviche with avocado, fresh greens and more of those fragile, fragrant local strawberries…..
went on to whisper thin slices of beef carpaccio…..
and a sprightly pea soup with bee balm and smoked herring.
The main course, this lovely composition of risotto, quail stuffed with sausage, ramps, and peas….
was followed by an equally artful dessert.
Because this wasn’t nearly enough food to fill a day, we ended up at The Pressroom late at night for drinks and snacks. Fanny Bay oysters, flown in from Seattle, were briny, clean, pretty as orchids and gorgeous in the mouth. As for these spicy shishito peppers with their little crumbles of crisped garlic – they were just pure fun..
The evening ended with those fried pig tails at the top. Crisp and succulent, the sweetness of the peaches framed the natural richness of the pork.
I can’t think of a more perfect little morsel to munch while drinking cocktails on a sultry southern night.
“Can we discuss your meal?” asks the head maitre d’.
It’s a bit after you’ve been seated, but not before the Champagne cart has come sidling up to the table, aimed at seduction. And not before you’ve opened the little gift box sitting so innocently on that creamy tablecloth. Inside you discover two little black and white cookies. These are not sweets: take a bite and your mouth fills with the savory pleasures of Cheddar and apple. And we’re off!
There are choices to make, courses to consider. Still, when the man mentions asparagus will be one of them, he neglects to note that it will arrive in its own private air-filled pig bladder.
And when the pig bladder is burst open what is revealed? One single, perfect spear.
Oh, and did I mention the black truffle that managed to sneak into the sauce?
Luxury is very much on offer. To begin: a beautiful wooden tower breaks apart to reveal oysters (Widow’s Hole) on a bed of ice, sprinkled with caviar. Another tier holds little rye crisps encircling a puree of morels….
another produces fava bean croquettes topped with various pickled vegetables and, most wonderful of all, spring radishes and peas to dip into whitefish salad popping with tiny pearls of roe.
And then there is more opulent caviar:
served with tiny English Muffins and corn and ham-infused Hollandaise. The notion? You create your own little Caviar Benedicts. Eggs, in other words, and eggs.
None of these courses, of course, were considered courses. The real meal is about to begin. For starters you can choose the most beautiful fluke you’ve ever seen, marinated in grapefruit and perched on a bed of bright spring peas. On top? An Easter bonnet made of tiny sprouts, sprigs and blossoms.
On the other hand, you might have chosen foie gras instead of fluke.
And you would not have been the least bit sorry.
Lobster’s up next, a perfect little claw, poached in butter and served with two intense sauces: one lemon-drenched, the other made of the lobster’s own juices. On top, a punctuating bitterness of dandelion.
Now that asparagus, with all its attendant pomp and circumstance.
And then the main courses:
This intensely aged beef was, hands down, one of the finest pieces of meat I’ve ever indulged in. Just a couple of bites, but the flavor resonates in your mouth long after the steak itself has vanished.
This duck , glazed with honey and lavender, was no slouch, but what I particularly appreciated was the rhubarb; crisp and cinnamon-scented, it is rhubarb reverently treated as a vegetable instead of the usual fruit.
On the side, the a remarkable morel custard, like the most extravagant chawan mushi you’ve ever encountered:
Potatoes showcase the many faces of the worlds most versatile vegetable. On top, the crackling regal magnificence of pommes Anna; underneath, the soft rich friendliness of potatoes cooked in cream.
Then there was cheese, not an ordinary slab, but sly little muffins hiding a warm nugget of Camembert baked into the middle. It was accompanied by two little spring compotes – rhubarb and sorrel – to slather on the top.
And then desserts – strawberries,
and finally Baked Alaska, which exploded into flames.
One of the great pleasures of dining at Eleven Madison Park is watching the light fade in that big, windowed room.As twilight falls the atmosphere changes dramatically giving you the sense of being in a theater where you are privileged to be on stage.
Tonight, just as the sun sank away a passerby leapt up to press his middle finger against the window. He was not visible, just that prominent finger.I was probably the only one who saw it, but in that moment he broke the fourth wall, brought reality crashing into the restaurant.
It made me ask myself, again, if luxury dining is something to feel guilty about, and I sat there for the longest time, pondering that question.
It is, admittedly, an idea that is rarely far from my thoughts. But at this moment, sitting in that comfortable seat, surrounded by solicitude as course after course of lovingly prepared food was presented for my pleasure, the question became especially acute.
There are no easy answers. We each indulge in luxuries of one kind or another – art, travel, theater, clothing, private schools – each ask ourselves if we should not be spending the money on others instead of ourselves.
But this is the main thing I took away from that wonderful dinner: if you’re lucky enough to celebrate the occasional meal at Eleven Madison Park, you had better revel in it. Because being blase here is just not okay.