Part Two: Eat the Avant-Garde

Food is a major part of my life. Being able to cook with a certain competency has opened doors for me, given me floors to stay on when I had no money and is a key component of the photography I am paid for. When I travel anywhere food is at the centre of my experience, and I have been willing to try a lot of things along the way [rat and scorpion in Vietnam, for instance], so that I seldom miss opportunities for  new tastes in foreign cultures. Chicago is home to two of the canonical food gods: Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz. Going to Chicago without being able to dine in these restaurants seemed like insanity, so V. generously gave me dinner at Alinea for my birthday present and I ponied up the cash for Trotter.

I should point out that V. suggested Alinea. I should also explain that Charlie Trotter taught me how to cook…well, in a manner of speaking. Trotter used to had a show on PBS that aired in the 1990s on Prince Edward Island every Sunday afternoon, and I religiously watched it with fervour. Trotter’s “Kitchen Sessions” inspired me to try new, fresh foods and to become fanatical about presentation. I would have to admit that my own style owes as much to his vision of fusion cuisine than to anyone else, so when Chicago was going to happen we found a table two months in advance and got ready for the Grand Menu. Trotter’s menu is in constant flux, is based on the seasons, and he never cooks the same thing twice – sounds familiar. There is a kitchen table in the kitchen, but with a minimum of four guests and a minimum bill of about $1200 I had to pass, but I was more than content to sit and taste what I could only imagine was his palette.

Eight courses and then another eight for V., plus a wine matching for each course and a juice course were expertly shared by the two of us. Again, you cannot order a la carte here, so for us to taste the range of the Vegetable and Grand Menu, we decided to each order one and share bites without catching the ire of other guests. So where are the photos? None. you cannot expect to take in full gear and shoot a menu in lowlight at one of America’s big restaurants without being escorted out. I can say, however, that I had the best scallop ever and a medjool date pudding to die for. For her part, V. found the menu to be okay, but not mind-blowing. She was right insofar  as Trotter’s style is now 22 years old, and the culinary world has absorbed much of his originality and moved onwards. To see his platings and taste the softer flavours now would have to be different than when I first saw them. Regardless, for me, it was dinner set out by a master that I had learned a few tricks from, and has to be the most important meal I have eaten.

The next night we made our way to the molecular gastronomy of Alinea. V. had done her homework and found this to be getting better reviews than Trotter’s, and when I looked at Achatz’s book in the bookstore I saw platings that looked like sculptures I could only imagine to exist. Alinea’s thing is using a bit of science, a bit of witchcraft and a lot of talent to produce inventive and interactive platings based on a single flavour. The first dish was trout roe in a nutmeg sugar casing that looked like fragile glass. I cannot describe the food as it is still too new for me to fully understand yet, however, it was flawless and it had a vibrance which is distinctly modern. This had to be the best dinner I have ever eaten, which means it beat out the kitchens of Morimoto, Flay, Batali, Lee, McEwan, Aprile and Picard for the top spot. It did hurt to walk out of the restaurant [two consecutive nights of tasting menu experiences is not a good idea], but the best restaurants have always challenged me to eat with abandon.

So why wasn’t Chicago heaven then? When a person hits two of his lifetime restaurants in one trip, then it should be monumental. I still haven’t figured it out yet. The food in Chicago was like its architecture – artful, brilliant and perfect – maybe I am more comfortable when those characteristics are matched with authentic emotions of a local diner or food stall.

The next entry will look at some more photography and examine some other experiences enjoyed in the U.S.A. where umbrellas are dangerous weapons.

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