Tonight, I asked Grant Achatz if I could hug him. Fortunately, he had the foresight to preserve our collective dignity, and he said no. It wasn’t just the glass of Jean Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc, Rhone 2000 talking, either. Rather, it was a dish named Chestnut, quince, chocolate, baked potato.
On paper, the dish looks like what you’d chow down on at 3 a.m. after you break out the water bong and smoke down a Snoop Dogg sized portion of kushâ€¦.which is to say, what would happen if possessed by monster munchies and a fogged noggin, you head to your kitchen cupboard determined to hook up a loaded baked potato only find that you have some Hershey’s chocolate syrup, a moldy quince, some petrified chestnuts, and a bag of Idaho Russets left over. This, of course, is an imaginary construct, since the only stoner even remotely likely to have such a pantry would be Andrew D’Ambrosi of Top Chef, season 4.
But that being said, from Achatz’s palate to the plate to my tongue, it’s the best dish I’ve ever had in the Alinea kitchen, even better than the black truffle explosion or hot potato, cold potato. Sure, those two plates serve up a batch of comfort that would soothe you even if your life resembled all of the worst scenario country music songs combined, but, they’re almost totally predictable. What’s not classic about pasta dough, black truffles, and parmesan?
With â€œchestnutâ€, you still get a heavy dose of comfort with a dollop of warm mashed potatoes so creamy, your denture-free grandma would approve, but that’s followed by an explosion of chocolate gelee so congruous with the mashed spuds in your mouth, but so inconceivable in your brain, that even Jacques Torres on an acid trip could never conceive of this.
Over the next week or so, I’ll likely parse my whole experience of the Keller/Achatz $1,500 a head meal at Alinea to celebrate the publication of their new cookbooks in a couple of articles I have planned, but this was one moment and one bite, hugs or not, that couldn’t wait.
(Caveat: As longtime readers know, I’m a stickler against taking comped meals, even for features. But, as a contributing author on the Alinea book, I made an exception for what I suspected might turn out to be one of the great opportunities and experiences of my life, one that I could not otherwise afford.
I do believe you have to be in the room to tell the story, and I needed, for a variety of reasons, to get in to this particular room. While I’m grateful for Keller and Achatz’s generosity, I do believe I can still judge the experience with integrity. On the other hand, given all this information, that’s for you to decide.)