The Year of Eating Gloriously

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Yes, this year felt a little bit more glorious than years past.  Not only because I had really, really great food – in restaurants, in homes, in hawker centers – but also, since I flew close to 80,000 miles for work and a little play, I was very fortunate to have shared many generous, heartwarming, unforgettable meals with family and old and new friends not just in Chicago, but in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Boston, Scottsdale, Minneapolis, Houston, Manila, and Singapore, as well.  I’ve had meals this year with the highest-quality ingredients sourced from the best purveyors (and in one X-Marx Chicago dinner, foraged from a patch of green in Humboldt Park), spectacular culinary inventiveness from chefs at the top of their game,  and unexpected pairings, combinations, and cooking techniques; but more importantly, most of these meals were also celebrations with people I cared a lot about, full of remembrances, excitement, and possibilities, with personal bonds strengthened or re-ignited or instantaneously created. 

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Alinea, Revisited

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Frankly, I was a little apprehensive as I approached Alinea’s unmarked door several weeks ago to meet my close friend from high school, Ageless Dr. M., and his partner G, in town from the East Coast, for our dinner reservation. Despite, arguably, being the most talked-about and most written-about restaurant in Chicago, and a true dining destination (anecdotally, I’ve heard that around 60% of the restaurant’s nightly reservations are from out-of-towners) I haven’t been back in close to three years – since my wondrous, mind-expanding dinner with BFF Rene which landed at the top of my most memorable dining experiences of that year.  With the financial and time commitment it requires, it’s not like you can go to Alinea any old day of the week because you don’t feel like cooking or you feel like celebrating a good performance review or a Cubs win.  I also feel that dining there is such a singular experience, creating wonderful new memories and strengthening old ones, that you want to have the right dining companions to savor its pleasures and surprises with; the unexpected, daring, yet thoughtful connections it makes between food, chef, and diner over the course of several hours.  Ageless Dr. M is one of my oldest friends from the Philippines and is passionate, like me, about all things culinary (and, unlike me, is quite the home cook), so during his and G’s visit to Chicago, Alinea needed to be part of the weekend itinerary, no question about it.  But part of me still wondered – would Grant Achatz’s acclaimed “molecular gastronomy” cuisine still blow me out of the water and into the stratosphere, the second time around?  Might those still-vividly etched memories of my first encounter with his food lose some of their burnish because this next go-round would feel somewhat familiar or comfortable?  I’m glad to say, though, that dining at Alinea in early April was like dining there for the first time once again (a very welcome culinary Ground Hog Day) – astounding, breathtaking, horizon-broadening, thought-provoking, definitely not familiar nor comfortable, and yes, delicious to the last bite.  The big Chicago food news this week was of Alinea being voted #7 in the world and #1 in North America in Restaurant Magazine and San Pellegrino’s “World’s 50 Best Restaurants”, finally overtaking a restaurant owned by Achatz’s mentor, Thomas Keller, as the best in the region (either The French Laundry or Per Se had occupied the top regional slot since the list’s inception in the early 2000s).  I couldn’t loudly, whoopingly, agree more, and with my recent experience, I’m pretty convinced Alinea would crack that top 5 (all held by European restaurants) pretty soon.  I think that unmarked, nondescript black townhouse on Halsted St. contains, behind its doors, what 21st century fine dining is and should continue to be.

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Foodie Night Out: Gourmet Wine Cellar Chicago

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Chicago foodies of all shapes, sizes, shades of black clothing, and types of Jimmy Choo heels descended on the Field Museum last night for Gourmet Magazine’s Wine Cellar, a celebration of how great a restaurant town this city is, which benefited the American Institute of Wine and Food.  Thanks to the generosity of Greg, the husband of my friend, the lovely Dulce, and who works for Gourmet in the West Coast, BFF Debra and I got to participate in what was clearly one of the highlights of the Chicago culinary calendar.  Most of the city’s top restaurants and chefs were out in full force and it was a kick, for this inveterate food fan, to see a goggles-wearing Homaru Cantu blowtorching a Baked Alaska with strawberry puree and truffle oil (aptly called, well, Baked Alaska Inferno) at the Moto table; or a very unassuming, and thankfully healthy- and boyish-looking Grant Achatz, one of the greatest chefs in the world currently, hanging butterscotch-flavored, rehydrated bacon on a deconstructed chicken-wire type contraption at the Alinea table, or Christophe David shaving slices off a humungous piece of jamon Iberico at the NoMi stand.  And since my life is always inadvertently eventful, I managed to shamelessly introduce myself and gush all over a very game Stephanie Izard, owner-chef of the deeply-mourned, dearly-departed restaurant Scylla, and currently one of the favorites to win Top Chef Chicago (yay!), as well as get filmed (yes, filmed!) by a Food Network crew doing a documentary on Achatz, while gobbling down the aforementioned Alinea bacon offering (since I never signed the release form..maybe they’ll blur my face?  But will they leave in my stretched out belly?  Could I be recognized from my stomach??? Yikes…and then *faint* with a thud!)

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