Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween, Pho, and Gelatin Filtration

A little late for an acknowledgment of Halloween, but oh well.  (Hot dog via WBEZ)

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In other news, I made some pho this weekend (well, really just the stock so far) but I’m trying something different.  I usually don’t bother to clarify the stock because I’m too lazy and I don’t mind that my stock is murky as long as it tastes good.  However, while watching an episode of Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection  I stumbled upon a technique to clarify stocks without the hassle of using a protein raft.  The technique, gelatin filtration, involves freezing the stock and letting it melt very slowly through a strainer.  The details are described here by the always awesome Harold McGee.  I’m really curious as to how clear the stock is going to come out and if I’m going to miss any of the mouthfeel provided by the gelatin that will be removed.  I’ll update with the results of the clarification process and my thoughts on pho too.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Alinea: 9-06-09, Courses 4-5

LILAC – scallop, shellfish, honeydew


I’d never eaten anything with lilac in it, and I really didn’t know what lilac smells like so I wasn’t sure what to expect.  The lilac was integrated into what the server described as “pillows.”  The pillows were made of kudzu and were silky smooth and melted in my mouth.  They’re the white circular things in the picture.  It might have been the fact that my sense of smell was almost shot, but I couldn’t really taste the lilac.  I feel floral notes tend to be very dependent on aroma, so this could explain it.

Despite this, the lilac was the first dish that really made me think “wow.”  Although the main component of the dish was said to be lilac, the broth was pure essence of briny shellfish and was the real star of the dish.  I thought to myself “this is what clam chowder should taste like.”


A porous bread was served with the dish, which made it an excellent vessel for sopping up broth.  The honeydew foam and tiny balls of honeydew added a nice sweetness to even out the brininess, but I wasn’t completely in love with it.  The server mentioned that Achatz liked pairing shellfish with melon, but I didn’t leave convinced that shellfish and melon was a home run combination.

On to things that I didn’t like.  The scallops were cooked fine, but a couple of the mussels I got were overcooked and a little rubbery which shocked me considering the caliber of the restaurant I was eating at.  Also, there were small slices of raw celery that garnished the top of the dish, and if you know me then you know how much I hate raw celery.  I like to pride myself on how I’m not a picky eater and will eat anything, but more than a few bites of raw celery can make me gag.  I could've done without the celery, but that’s only because of my weird aversion to raw celery.

PIGEONNEAU - á la Saint-Clair


I knew something was up when antique stemware was placed on the table.  The server then described that the next dish would be paired with a drink: a house-made cherry balsamic soda.  It’s probably not fair to compare the soda to black cherry flavored Shasta, but it reminded me of it.  Only way more complex.   The balance of sweetness and tartness was perfect.

Then, the squab came out plated on antique dishes from 1903.  The server explained how on nights with lots of Tours (the dish was only available on the Tour) things can get a little crazy because they only have a limited number of antique dishes.  The story is that Achatz went hunting for the perfect antique dish but fell short because the vendor didn’t have enough.  Apparently Achatz turned to eBay and found someone selling antique dishes that met his aesthetic demands and at a decent quantity.

The squab itself was cooked nicely and laid on a bed of foie gras mousseline inside of a pastry.  Two quenelles of foie gras, mushroom, and onion outlined the circumference of the pastry with a super tasty sauce rounding out the dish.  Each individual component of the dish was amazing, but it wasn’t until I was smart enough to take a small slice of each ingredient, slather some sauce on top, and eat everything in one bite did the dish get elevated to a new level.  I suppose I wasn’t used to so many components to a dish being on the plate; this was the first of several times during the night where I was confused as to how I should eat the food.  What wasn’t confusing, however, was how well the cherry balsamic soda went with the squab.  It vividly reminded me of eating turkey with cranberry sauce.

Aside from the amazing taste of the dish, I couldn’t help but grin with glee and chuckle inside.  I took the fact that Achatz did such a classic dish prepared so classically as a retort to all the critics who may label his progressive style of cooking as heartless molecular gastronomy that strays away too far from what cuisine should be.  To me, it was Achatz saying “I’m more than just fancy foams and jiggly gels.”  The contrast of this dish with the rest of the meal was a nice touch.

After 2 incredible and substantial dishes, we would experience what is arguably Achatz’s signature dish: Black Truffle Explosion.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Alinea: 9-06-09, Courses 1-3

The day to eat at Alinea finally came and I had one of the worst colds I’ve ever had in recent memory.  I was coughing pretty much nonstop, my body was rundown, my sense of smell was at limited capacity, but there was no way I was backing out.  Plus, I would’ve been charged a hefty cancellation fee.

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I think it’s fairly well known by now how unassuming Alinea’s facade is on the street, but for the uninitiated, the only signage for Alinea is its valet parking sign.  One could easily walk right by the building and wonder where arguably the finest restaurant in Chicago is located if they miss the sign.  This was just the start of Alinea challenging one’s sense of how things should be.


Ah, the infamous hallway.  I had read about it before, so I knew what to expect.  I forgot to take a picture of the hallway (picture via, but my mom who lead the way pretty much ended up like the guy in the picture.  The hallway is an optical illusion of sorts, making you believe there is an entrance at the end by gradually funneling you to the end.  However, once you get to the end, you’re taken by surprise by a sliding door behind you to the left and you must make your way back a few steps.

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We were greeted by the hostess who led us to our table on the first floor.  At the table, there awaited 3 servers behind each of our chairs to seat us.  I snapped a picture of the linens, which had a Alinea’s namesake on it.  After confirming that we would be having the Tour, typically about 24 courses, and that we had no dietary restrictions, the centerpiece for the night was place at one end of our table.  It looked like a ceramic gourd filled with what was thought to be dry ice due to the condensation and frost that slowly built up on the outside.  The centerpiece comes into play later on in the meal, and I was pretty excited to see what it would eventually be used for.

OSETRA – traditional garnishes

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The first dish out was osetra caviar with “traditional garnishes” prepared in an untraditional way.  The server described how Achatz wished to highlight the mouthfeel of the caviar, and so rather than serving it traditionally with some type of bread or cracker it was served along side a foam brioche.  The foam tasted so much like brioche.  It kind of blew my mind how a foam could taste exactly like bread.  Capers, onions, and dill were distilled and made into a gel to round out the traditional flavors alongside an egg yolk emulsion and crème fraîche.

 PORK BELLY – iceberg, cucumber, thai distillation


The second dish was a Thai-inspired pork belly dish served with a distillation of Thai chili, lemongrass, and fish sauce.  The distillation was taken like a shot and was meant to set the palette for the types of flavors in the pork belly.  The smell of the distillation was overwhelmingly of Thai chili, with traces of lemongrass and fish sauce.  The distillation tasted like mildly salty water, but not in a bad way as the saltiness subsided almost immediately.  Ultimately, I didn’t think the distillation added anything to the dish other than the initial aroma of Thai chili.

The pork belly was cooked incredibly well and sandwiched between two piece of crispy iceberg lettuce, topped with various herbs, and rested atop a pool of basil seeds.  I’d never had basil seeds in anything but Vietnamese basil seed drink (nuoc hot e, referred to as the “tadpole” drink when I was young), so having it part of the dish was neat and reminded me of my youth.  Another point of familiarity for me was the fact that the pork belly was paired with crispy lettuce.  This is such a common practice in Vietnamese cuisine: I’ve been wrapping cha giò in lettuce since I can remember.


The pork belly arrived with a bread accompaniment: a cilantro roll.  The two butters served were a butter made in-house topped with black lava salt and another butter from Wisconsin.  The cilantro roll made perfect sense going with the Southeast Asian tone of the pork belly.

OXALIS – juniper, gin, sugar 


The oxalis came incased in a gel on what is probably best described as a metal guitar tab with a curve at the tip.  At the time of eating, I had no idea what oxalis was, but it gave the bite a fresh bitter greens/floral taste.  Combined with the subtle sweetness of the gel, it served as a nice palette cleanser since Southeast Asian flavors can tend to be very in your face and set things up for the first substantial dish of the night: the lilac dish.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Alinea: Preface

Sometime in 2006 I watched a TV program hosted by Anthony Bourdain called Decoding Ferran Adrià which documented El Bulli and its progressive chef, Ferran Adrià.


I thought the things Adrià was doing were pretty freaking sweet (the mainstream media refers to it as “molecular gastronomy,” a label that many progressive cooks and chefs shun), but never thought I’d ever have a chance to dine at a restaurant remotely close to that caliber.  I’d never dined at an upscale, haute cuisine restaurant before and thought I probably never would.  To me, that was just a fantasy, and most of my restaurant experiences had been relegated to more modest Chinese or Vietnamese places that my family would frequent (and still do).  Don’t get my wrong, those places are freaking awesome too and comparing those types of restaurants to each other is unfair to both parties, but I started to get the itch for experiencing something more “refined.”

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Oh how I love pandan. I grew up with many pandan-flavored desserts without really knowing what pandan was until a year ago when my mom handed me a couple bottles of pandan extract. I always wondered why some Vietnamese desserts were colored green. Well, the answer to that is pandan.

Its aroma and taste are floral, leafy, and tea-like, with the taste being much more subtle than the aroma. Pandan has a real affinity for coconut and vanilla flavors. Almost a year after receiving the pandan extract from my mom, I finally got to making my first pandan dessert a few weeks ago: Vietnamese pandan banana bread. More on Vietnamese banana bread (bánh chuối nướng) in the future, as it's one of my favorite things to eat ever. However, this past weekend, I made a pandan chiffon cake. A disclaimer: I suck at baking and sometimes it utterly scares me.

My first step towards pandany goodness was to buy a tube pan. I'm not sure why having a tube pan is so critical (from what I've read) for a proper chiffon cake. Perhaps the unique distribution of heat caused by the inner cylinder helps for a fluffier and lighter texture? Also in terms of hardware, I should point out that I accidentally left my coffee/spice grinder at the Lincoln Park Community Shelter when I volunteered there a couple months ago to prepare dinner for the guests. Hopefully it's still there by the time I cook dinner there again in December. I needed the grinder to produce some caster sugar, which is finer than regular granulated sugar. Instead, I just used my food processor which did the job just fine.

Taking Michael Ruhlman's advice from his book Ratio, I made sure to get all my other mise en place locked down and organized. I think the main concern here was to prevent as much air loss from the whipped egg whites when they are sitting around waiting to be folded into the batter. Creaming sugar and egg yolks and then adding in coconut milk, oil, and the pandan extract was uneventful.

I don't think I beat enough air into the egg whites. I always have problems telling when I have stirred egg whites versus soft peaks versus stiff peaks, which is just one of the many reasons baking scares me. More on this later.

After folding in the egg whites and putting the batter in the pan, I crossed my fingers and put the pan in the oven. But, after about 20 minutes I smelled some burning. I opened up the oven and saw this:

It's hard to make out, but the top the cake had a crack in it like cakes and bread sometimes get. I honestly thought the top of the cake had exploded and some batter fell to the bottom of the oven directly onto the heating element. It wasn't until I was washing the pan did I realize that the batter probably leaked out from the bottom of the pan. The tube pan is actually 2 separate pieces: the outer circumference and then the inner tube which also consists of the bottom of the pan. I ended up having to poke the charred cake out of the oven with a wooden spoon.

Once the cake is baked, it needs to be cooled upside-down. I think the reasoning behind this is to allow the air expand and ensure that the weight of the cake doesn't deflate itself.

The wine bottle worked great...until 10 minutes later when the weight of the cake (the recipe I followed turned out to actually be a double up of yet another recipe) and probably the fact that the pan is nonstick made it slip out of the pan.

:( I ended up having to cool the cake on a cooling rack and there were 2 big cracks in the cake. I forgot to take pictures of the cake once I ate it, but the top half of the cake was super fluffy and light as a chiffon cake should be. However, the bottom half was super dense and super eggy. I'm not sure if this was due to underbaking the cake, not whipping enough air into the egg whites, or the cake falling out of the pan while it was cooling. The taste was mostly of coconut and vanilla, with a hint of pandan on the finish. This is what I love most about pandan: it is so subtle and delicate yet there is no doubt that it is there.

As for pandan desserts that I grew up with, it was pretty much anything Thai or Vietnamese that had green in it:

Thai lod chong nam ka ti (pandan rice noodles with coconut milk)

Vietnamese bánh bò nướng lá dứa ("baked pandan cow cake"; yes cow cake and more on that in the future). Photo via

Vietnamese bánh xu xê ("husband and wife cake"). Photo via

Vietnamese bánh da lợn ("pig skin cake," but looks like the photo has a more American-friendly translation of "green leaf cake")

What's in a name?

Well, my name. In the name of the blog that is. The focus of this blog will be things food-related. I really enjoy cooking, but above all I love eating. I don't eat out very often since I cook a lot, but when I do I like to splurge. I'll be posting a mix of things I cook and experiences I have at various restaurants.

I like to think that I have a well-traveled palette thanks to growing up with a Vietnamese mom and a Chinese dad who can both cook well and have fairly sophisticated palettes due to their intense traveling around the world for business. Anyways, my hope is to get people who come here to try something new, gain some perspective on things outside their comfort zone, and get me to try something new.