I've made trip to Evanston twice now. Once to satisfy my curiosity, once to check if the first meal was a fluke. For me, Grant Achatz is the most important chef in the world at the moment. He's at that point of the bell curve where the inventiveness of molecular gastronomy meets emotionally and physically satisfying food and he nails both almost every time. I can forgive him the almost as the misses (and there have only been five out of all the dishes i have eaten) as food this thrilling and inventive doesn't come without experimentation.
I don't need to be convinced about molecular gastronomy. However as a person who hates pigeon holes I kind of resent the term. Sure, the label helps me identify the restaurants I want to eat at, but more importantly it allows people to bracket Achatz, Blumenthal, Adria et al together without concern for the differences in their approach and food. For me, Adria is the mad, crazy alchemist determined to conjure gold out of tomatoes, Blumenthal the chemistry teacher who impresses you with his culinary flights of fancy while convincing you that molecular gastronomy the obvious next stage in the evolution of dining out. And then there's Achatz. To me his food is more emotional, on the plate no less inventive than Adria and Blumenthal, but deeply rooted in (to me) the intrinsic necessity of a cook: to sate an appetite yet to create food that people want to eat again. And in my case, again and again and again.
I believe that everything we eat adds up to form your personal pantheon of food experience. As a former anorexic a tendency to fetishise food still remains. Memories of driving myself crazing sniffing the biscuit barrel yet denying myself the cookie makes me desire food that smells great. Equally, huge portions daunt me and I would rather eat 15 different single bites than one large portion. As someone who has taught herself a basic understanding of the principals of a number of different cuisines, I love food that takes something I've cooked myself and subverts it. I believe that food can evoke memory more than anything and so I like to eat food that reminds me of other food I have eaten. Yet I crave the new and exciting and love nothing more than trying something for the first time. Achatz satisfies all of these personal needs.
And so onto the food and restaurant. The room and the service are relaxed and informal. The room reminds me of a log cabin, it's kind of low ceilinged, with a real
warmth to it. The staff are having a blast and this translates into a fabulous experience. I've eaten here alone both times and I am almost loath to go back with friends as talking to the waiters about the food and wine is a damn sight more interesting that most dinner conversations. I’m not going to talk about every dish I’ve eaten here, there are too many for that, but instead I'll concentrate on my favorite bits.
Cheese n Cracker, Salad, Virtual Shrimp Cocktail, Chicharrones con Salsa.
Some might see these dishes as curiosities but to me they are some of the most entertaining, whimsical and delicious on the menu. Cheese n Cracker is a crisp
parcel filled with Wisconsin cheddar. I joked to my waiter that I didn't think Americans knew how to make cheese, but this was stellar. A molten, oozing single bite of great cheese wrapped in the cracker. Salad is a granita of different lettuces (juiced and then frozen and shaved) dressed with oil and vinegar. The inventiveness of the execution should be enough by itself, but it was perfectly dressed as well, something that many traditional restaurants can't pull off with real lettuce. It came at the half way point in the TDF and was a perfect palate cleanser and it also regirded my loins for the second "half" of the meal. Achatz has cleverly created a long and involved tasting menu that has phases, doesn't throw all the cool and inventive stuff at you at first and that is perfectly paced. Virtual Shrimp Cocktail is an atomizer that you mist onto your tongue; didn’t work for me, reminded me of my asthma medication, but the flavor was there, even though the delivery mechanism failed.
North Dakota goose (foie gras, roasting goose aromas) Rib eye of Prime Beef (spring lettuce, morels, smoked tongue) Tapioca of Roses (raspberries, clove, cream) These are the dishes where smell really comes into play and Achatz's desire to deliver new ways of experiencing the food and smell are apparent. The goose is served with a small dish on the side full of aromatics and a hot stone is placed on the dish (with a warning not to eat it) that releases the aroma. The rib eye of smoked beef comes with a small beaker over the beef and tongue, the beaker is filled with smoke so you experience the real hit of the smoking as you eat. The tapioca of roses is served in a plastic tube with a single red rose and three warm raspberries on the plate. The first dish I was served at El Bulli came with a rose, but I found the experience somewhat embarrassing as we'd literally just sat down and were being commanded to sniff. Achatz saves this until the end, so you're more relaxed and happy to let yourself do what he says. Last time I ate here one diner grasped the rose in his teeth and was grinning like a schoolboy. Not something I saw at more formal places like El Bulli or Gagnaire.
Tempura of Gulf Shrimp (vanilla, cranberry, Meyer lemon) Black Truffle
Explosion, Confit of Melysol Melon and Fricassee of English Peas (cured
goose, ramps, pearls of eucalyptus). The tempura is the most delicious thing I have ever eaten, beating Ramsey's Tarte Tatin by a very long way. It's not the most inventive thing on the menu but it's made of things that i love (prawns, vanilla, fried food) delivered in a new way (speared on a vanilla bean) and eaten by lifting the bean upwards and lowering the tempura into your mouth. People look almost religious as they throw their heads back and eat. The temptation to snatch it from the hands of those who closed their eyes to do this was strong, but I managed to resist. The Confit of Melysol melon is Achatz's take on that old faithful melon and Parma ham. Melon is balled into almost nerd sized balls, arranged and then covered with the thinnest slice of prosciutto that's flashed under the grill until it becomes transparent. this dish works in so many different ways; you've had it before but never like this, the melon is the sweetest you've ever eaten and it looks like the candy you had as a child. Simply stunning. And the fricassee of English peas. What a spring like dish! To me it's a riff on the peas and mint thing, but here the mint is replaced with eucalyptus pearls (gelled balls flavoured with eucalyptus oil) that mimic the size, shape and mouthfeel of the peas, but with a surprising flavor.
There's an erotic nature to Trio that I don't want to overemphasize, but needs mentioning as so few restaurants deliver this. It's not seedy erotic, more the frisson of flirting when you know you shouldn't and playfulness that comes from being physically and mentally stimulated. I don't know if it's intentional or just imagined by me, but the delivery of the food (frozen hibiscus lollipops to suck, tempura with vanilla beans allowing you to close your eyes and throw back your head (still can't stop thinking about this dish) charred pineapple and smoked salmon speared so you lean in, as if for a kiss and, on my last visit, a tube of foie gras) coupled with the low lighting and drapes on the ceiling, makes this a really intimate place to eat.
If you live in Chicago and you haven't been, go. If you live anywhere else, get on a flight and go.
(It's late and I am tired. Not sure if this takes the conversation anywhere. It's an old post from eG)