Eleven Madison Park last night, where the chefs collaborated on showcasing the magic of Chicago’s Alinea. If you’re planning to attend one of the remaining three nights of the NYC dinners, stop reading now, as we don’t want to spoil your fun. Otherwise, hop aboard for our takeaway of the 21st Century LTD dinner. Here’s what impressed us most:
1. Suddenly the $646.71 (total after tax, pairings) didn’t seem so expensive when Alinea partner Nick Kokonas explained a little bit about the costs involved in this chef swap: “We had to bring down 17 people and put them up for a week. We spent $12,000 on Fedex and other shipping. We custom cut tabletops, and did all the floral arrangements. We brought $35,000 worth of custom service ware and rented a 45-foot U-Haul.”
2. Fun in a formal dining room (almost as much fun as those Beard after parties): participating in a leaf fight at the beginning of the meal to clear off the tabletop décor of fall foliage.
3. Service, defined: as one of my dining companions started to fashion a head wreath with the leaves, a server rushed out with bobby pins so she could keep it in place.
4. The leaves were brought in from Michigan since we don’t have fall foliage yet and they were specially sterilized to be used on the table.
6. The warm reception and goodbye: Glasses of apple cider bobbing in a trough upon entry; caramel hiding in a “streusel” pumpkin patch on the way out.
7. The custom service ware: everything from driftwood to mini picnic tables to an “anti-plate” with a hole in the bottom.
8. The layering of tablecloths dramatically peeled away and folded up, flag-style, course-by-course.
9. The “foreshadowing” of courses to come, as each piece of tableware became instrumental in service.
10. The progression of flavors from the sea to the mountains to the sweet, with knockout new dishes along with Alinea classics. Our favorites: Tuna belly with sea salt foam, Thai banana and kaffir lime, served in a delicate glass orb on a pile of sand, described as “what you taste when you crash on your surfboard;” an arty corn plate with huitlacoche, sour cherry, deep fried corn silk; brook trout served with charcoal burning under maple-cured wood with sage, bourbon and nasturtium; the soup dumpling-like black truffle “explosion;” lamb 5 ways with 60 garnishes made of 86 ingredients; an edible, green apple helium balloon.
11. The finale, when Humm and Achatz come to the table with mugs of dry ice and dark chocolate “bombs.” They delicately place the “bombs” on the table; painstakingly pour the dry ice in through a hole in the bombs; caringly paint the tablecloth with orange reduction, quince, and sherry vinegar; then pick up the bombs and smash them on the table. As we cried a joyous “Mazel Tov!” the treats inside the chocolate—waffles, chestnuts, cotton candy-- spilled out for us to enjoy.
12. Walking away with a signed menu. Witness below.