Part Two of a recap of the Absolut Sensory Analysis Workshop.
With the education, tasting and Vodka Speakeasy portion of the Sensory Analysis Workshop over, we were directed to a room dominated by a large, mirrored communal table. The “table settings” were bottles of Absolut Glimmer; blue lighting gave the space an otherworldly glow.
We were about to experience a multi-course dinner and cocktail pairing from Chicago’s Grant Achatz and his Alinea team. The crew that traveled to L.A. for Absolut Achatz was a dozen strong, including chef de tournant Craig Schoettler, who is heading the upcoming Aviary cocktail lounge.
During the dinner, Achatz introduced the food courses while Schoettler did the honors with the paired cocktails.
We began with a Trio of Edible Cocktails:
- Girolamo Sour – a version of a cocktail created by Stephen Cole (The Violet Hour). It’s made of four layers of frozen and chewy puddings: slightly sweetened lemon juice; Luxardo Amaro; Luxardo Bitter; lemon pudding. Garnished with grapefruit zest.
- Jack Rose – hollowed-out apple is poached in Laird’s Bonded Applejack and house grenadine, then encased in an Applejack-grenadine gel. The cavity is filled with grenadine, then garnished with lemon zest, citric acid, maldon salt and micro thyme.
- Cynar Flip – Butternut squash custard made with iota carrageenan, cooked sous vide with Buffalo Trace and brown sugar, then pureed. The top is brûléed with demerara sugar and a piece of Carpano Antica “candy” is added. It’s topped with a Cynar pudding, micro sage and a nage made from Flor de Caña 7 year rum.
Second Course – Steelhead Roe & Distilled Cocktail
Steelhead Roe: Frozen coconut mousse is topped with steelhead roe, served with freeze-dried coconut and pineapple, pineapple foam and a licorice dot. Each wonderful bite revealed different layers of temperature, flavor and texture: the frozen and cubed coconut; a taste of the tropics in the pineapple foam and powder; the rich, golden roe; a hint of anise from the licorice.
Distilled Cocktail: Absolut Vodka, distilled pineapple soda, ice cubes of distilled basil and distilled coconut, and a drop of Pernod Absinthe. The concept with this tall drink is to play with the absence of color, as well as present a cocktail with ingredients from the steelhead roe dish.
Third Course – Moscow Mule & Yuba
Moscow Mule: Absolut Peppar, finger lime cells, Fresno chili, lemongrass stalk. We were told to pour the sidecar of vodka into a glass with the other ingredients, then use the lemongrass stalk as a swizzle stick to mix the Moscow Mule. Even without ginger beer, the resulting drink had the same tangy bite that you’d expect in the classic vodka cocktail.
Yuba: The yuba (dried bean curd) is rolled, dehydrated and fried, then wrapped with shrimp, pickled onion, orange taffy and togarashi (Japanese spice). The inkwell is filled with miso mayonnaise for dipping. The eye-catching dish is the ultimate breadstick, with a crunchy mix of salt, sweet and a spicy bite that paired well with the snap of the Moscow Mule.
Fourth Course – Apple Spherification & Fall Lobster Stew
Apple Spherification: Absolut Citron, Absolut Kurant, Pommeau de Normandie (apple dessert wine), champagne and apple spheres, served in a highball. We used a glass straw to sip Alinea’s boozy, autumnal take on a boba drink.
Fall Lobster Stew: Chestnuts, lentils, lobster, maitake mushrooms, roasted root vegetables, cider nage and rosemary vapor. In his earlier presentation, Achatz discussed flavoring with aroma, such as the Alinea dish in which rosemary sprigs are inserted into a heated slate and their essence infuses pieces of lamb. For this course, hot water is poured over rosemary, and its aroma has a similar effect on the stew.
Fifth Course – Absolut Sazerac & Smoking Pheasant
Absolut Sazerac: Absolut Vodka, Pernod Absinthe, Peychaud’s Bitters and lemon peel. More participation, as we pour the Absolut, stir and finish with a twist of lemon oil. Like Wondrich’s Old Fashioned variation from the Vodka Speakeasy, this Sazerac is sure to elicit similar cries of heresy.
Smoking Pheasant: The lightly fried pheasant with green grape and walnut is pierced with smoldering oak leaves, which are torched just before the dish is served. Even though burning leaves aren’t part of my own childhood memories, as their fragrance filled the room, it felt like we were in a backyard in the Midwest instead of a mid-century loft.
Sixth Course – Barrel-Aged Martini & Wagyu Short Rib
Barrel-Aged Martini: Absolut 100, Noilly Prat, house orange bitters. In anticipation of the Aviary opening, Achatz and Schoettler began barrel aging spirits and cocktails in the summer. The martini emerged from the aging with a deeper, smokier flavor profile.
Wagyu Short Ribs: The short ribs are cooked sous vide and served with broccoli, mustard seeds and peanuts. A Guinness gelee is layered over the dish. The short ribs offered multiple levels of texture and flavor, and when paired with the barrel-aged Martini made for a stellar match.
Seventh Course – Black Truffle Explosion & Royalty Status
Black Truffle Explosion: During his presentation, Achatz said that an idea came to him while he was working in the kitchen at The French Laundry: “exploding ravioli.” Achatz got the job at Trio after he made the dish for the first time for owner Henry Adaniya. Achatz took his version of a xiao long bao (Shanghai soup dumpling) to Alinea, where a raviolo is filled with hot truffle broth and topped with romaine and shavings of black truffle and parmesan. One bite releases the luxuriously rich broth, a burst of flavor that Achatz playfully likened to Freshen Up gum.
Royalty Status: Absolut Pear, Yellow Chartreuse, Poire Williams, Crème de Cassis. Achatz instructed us to gulp down the drink without stopping. To our surprise, the drink started off hot and finished cold.
Eighth Course – White Truffle Milkshake: More decadent than you can imagine, the White Truffle Milkshake has chocolate, salt and is topped with powdered Nutella.
Ninth Course – Tom and Jerry & Tabletop Dessert
Tom and Jerry: Absolut Vanilla, Averna, Amaro Abano, Coffee Aroma. After eight courses and paired cocktails, this classic eggnog alternative was just what was needed in the brief interlude before the Mother of All Desserts was served.
Achatz said during the workshop that he didn’t want to be “confined by the geometry of the plate.” With that in mind, a silicone sheet transforms the entire table into a canvas for Achatz and a sous chef to “paint” a dinner course right in front of guests.
For our Tabletop Dessert, bottles of Absolut were emptied onto the communal table and the surface was wiped down. To begin, custard mixture was poured into molds and allowed to set.
With a mix of choreography and improvisation, the Alinea team began creating the dessert on the mirrored glass. A riot of color and ingredients began to coalesce: blueberries, chocolate flakes, strawberry and chocolate sauces, honey, cream, peanuts.
This was fine dining as performance art: with each pass, the energy in the room built to a crescendo. If you were in the room, you couldn’t help but be caught up in it; when was the last time you clapped and cheered for a dessert?
Freeze-dried nougat was brought out, broken up and crumbled onto the table. As the nougat thawed it created a dried ice effect, adding a sci-fi element to the presentation.
We were handed spoons and dove into the sprawling dessert. Ingredients were purposely spread out to force us to reach across each other, mix and match, and share spoonfuls. It was messy, loud and fun. And oh-by-the-way, delicious.
The word “genius” gets bandied about a lot, but in the case of Grant Achatz it’s a fitting description. The creativity, innovation and skill that went into the Absolut Achatz dinner was astonishing. What a privilege to be able to experience a multi-course dinner from a three-star Michelin chef at the top of his game. Best meal ever? Well, here’s hoping I have many more great dining experiences ahead of me. But this one is going to be very, very hard to surpass.
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