Set vivid against the little soft cities

When people ask me where I’m from, I usually say I’m from nowhere.

We moved a lot. My parents weren’t in the military; they were just adventurous, or following their careers — or restless.

Along the way from my birth to junior high, there were stops in rural Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, urban Chicago, suburban Chicago, and, finally, Lexington, Massachusetts, where we stayed until my sister and I graduated high school.

Now that I’m grown up and home is where Michael and I choose to make it, I’ve had the chance to visit most of the towns of my youth, all but Chicago, the city that holds some of my firmest childhood memories.

Bright, sunny morning

Then, a couple months ago, my enterprising sister captured us dinner reservations at Alinea for my birthday and suddenly a long-weekend trip to Chicago was planned and booked.


The dinner — and the city — were glorious. It was a whirlwind of both familiar and new tastes, sights, and smells. We’d round a street corner and the sight of an old familiar building or sculpture would blow me back in time 30-odd years.

Wrigley Building

In the Museum of Science and Industry, somehow grown even bigger and more spectacular than I remembered it, several ancient exhibits of my childhood remained: the Coal Mine (which we decided to skip because of the long queue); Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle; the Great Train Story; the Whispering Gallery (where Hyla sang an aria); Yesterday’s Main Street (where we treated ourselves to ice cream sundaes); and, tucked into a small corner, much diminished from its previous incarnation, Farm Tech, where we discovered the best birthday surprise I could have asked for.


Those of you familiar with the Mold-A-Rama will instantly know why I actually — and without shame — ran across the room to touch it. It makes things like this:


Little toys, freshly molded out of a waxy-plastic that is still warm (really, hot enough to burn) when it comes out of the machine. It’s a plastic that gives off a unique, childhood memory-triggering smell for as long as the plastic stays warm. When we were kids, my sister and I had dozens of plastic animals molded from similar machines sprinkled throughout the Brookfield Zoo (I’m happy to read that they still have many Mold-A-Rama machines at the zoo! I’m also somehow both surprised and not surprised to learn that we’re not the only ones with fond memories of the Mold-A-Rama).

We made two tractors, and carried the warm little toys near our noses all afternoon, sniffing them and marveling in a smell that we never thought we’d come across again.

It was a day that could only be capped by an over-the-top, fabulous, 25-course birthday dinner at Alinea, culminating with a dessert that was intricately constructed on our table, before our eyes, by Chef Achatz himself. He talked to us! He also has the ability to drip melted chocolate from a spoon to form squares. The man is a force of nature.

Alinea Grand Finale

I could go on and on about Chicago and tell you about the Greek feast we had our first night there with our friend Kelsey; the treasures we discovered and rediscovered at the Art Institute; the other feast we had at Morton’s with our nephew, Joe; the foggy days and then the dazzling sunlight of our last morning there; the perfect bowl of oatmeal we found in a little coffee shop; the view from the top of the John Hancock Observatory; and the view from the top of the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel.

It’s hard not to love a city that seems so confident and assertive and ready to shout out that it is what it is, like it or lump it. A city that boasts larger-than-life-sized urban sculpture; a Whitman’s sampler of architectural styles; union rallies on street corners; tacky gift shops and a fashionable high street; kitschy coffee shops, kicky cupcake bakeries, and Michelin-rated restaurants; and some of the friendliest strangers you’ll ever meet.

There’s too much to say.

Instead I’ll just leave you with some of my favorite images of the city “with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” I’m a country girl through and through, but Chicago, you still have a piece of my heart.

Museum of Science and Industry

"The Bean"

Climbing 2


America Windows 2


El tracks 1

Early evening lights

View from Hancock - Straight lines

Return of The Fat Duck

Two years ago tonight, Laurel and I had the chance to eat at The Fat Duck. I posted the menu from that evening here, and meant to write more about the experience, but one thing lead to another and here we are two years later. In fact, thanks to Laurel, we had written up a little diary of the meal, something about each course and the entire experience, and as I check the date, it was completed by November 15, 2006. So what took me so long to post it? Heck, maybe I knew I’d want to save it so I’d have something special to post on the first day of November 2008.

Ok, so here it is, and this makes my job today easy.

The Fat Duck – November 1, 2006

Arrived in Bray about an hour early, so went to the Hinds Head Hotel (pub) next door to the restaurant. Fabulous old, Tudor style pub/inn, owned by Heston Blumenthal. Each had a bottle of Sheppy’s Cider with Honey. Learned what “Devils on Horseback” (prunes stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped with bacon) are and what the poppies are all about.

First to enter the restaurant after it opened and first to be seated.  Seated at interior corner table by the fireplace, with view of the room. Laurel: “The best seat in the house”.

Served a small plate of green olives.

Offered champagne from the Champagne cart.  Rebecca and I each had a glass of Taittinger, Brut Réserve NV.

We looked carefully through the menu, felt daunted by the Tasting Menu (too many items that we thought we wouldn’t enjoy: oyster, mackerel, sardine, salmon). We each decided on a la carte items and closed the menu. No one came for our order. We kept waiting. We thought about it. We changed our minds and decided we’d come all this way: we’d better order the Tasting Menu.

Offered choice of white or brown bread from a basket (each took brown), and offered choice of unsalted or salted unpasteurized butter, served in a ½ inch high round pat with salt grains on top.

Sommelier asked if we wanted wine and we said, “No”. A little while later, a waiter delivered the wine list anyway. When the sommelier returned, we asked him to recommend a glass of red for each of us that would go well with the entire meal.

Nitro-Green Tea and Lime Mousse (with vodka) – table-side preparation, on wood board brought to the side of the table.  Mousse squeezed from a whipped cream style canister onto a spoon, then “cooked” in a bowl of nitrogen, formed into a small meringue.  “It is to eat right away” (spoken by our server in a thick French accent).  Cold burst shattering and evaporating into lime and tea flavors.  Said to clear the pallet before eating – lime and tea start the saliva, and vodka cleans the oils off the tongue.  Saw the same served to others by server picking up the meringue on the tip of a translucent stick (similar to a chop stick) and handing it to patron to be eaten off the stick.

Oyster, Passion Fruit Jelly, Lavender –  single half oyster shell perched on a round cake of salt on a small, rectangular wood board.  Oyster, cut into two pieces, in the bottom of the shell, coated in passion fruit jelly, with two jagged ice crystals sticking up out of the oyster.  Rebecca “tastes like the sea.”

Beet Root and Orange Jellies (off menu) – two small squares of translucent gelatin served on a square plate, orange beet root and blood orange.  Were told by the waiter to “eat the orange one first.”

Pommery grain mustard ice cream, red cabbage gazpacho.  Large white bowl with small center depression.  Small scoop of the ice cream (white flecked with mustard grains) centered in the bottom of the depression.  At table, server poured around it a pool of magenta gazpacho.

Jelly of Quail, Langoustine Cream, Parfait of Foie Gras – served in an egg shaped cup perched on a stand, with pea foam at the bottom of the cup, layered over with quail jelly, langoustine cream, and a small scoop of foie gras parfait centered on top, with a thin cheese crisp poked into the top.  Served with a toast handed to us by the waiter.  Told to scoop straight down into the dish with the toast to get a bit of each ingredient with each bite.

Sommelier brought us each a glass of really delicious red wine, possibly a pinot noir.

Snail Porridge with Joselito ham and shaved fennel.  Three snails served in a pool of green “porridge”, flavored with butter, garlic and herbs, covered with a fine shaving of ham, with a nest of shaved fennel on top.

Roast Foie Gras, almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile creams.  Square plate, two stripes of cherry sauce running top to bottom with foie gras centered on them, and a single almond slice each at the top and the bottom of the cherry.  On the upper right, a swirl of chamomile cream, with a cherry resting in the middle.  Angled along the bottom left corner of the plate, three tiny (1/4” x  1/4″) squares of gelatin, all amber colored, from bottom to top almond, cherry and chamomile flavors.

Sardine on Toast Sorbet, ballotine of mackerel ‘invertebrate’, marinated daikon.  On the left, a small “ballotine” of mackerel (rolled into a bundle with the skin on the outside and sliced into a round disk).  On the right, a scoop of the sardine on toast sorbet, topped with salmon caviar and a cheese tuille, both laid on paper thin rectangles of marinated daikon.

Salmon Poached with Liquorice, Asparagus, pink grapefruit, ‘Mannie’ olive oil.  Two servers, plates placed in front of us, one shaved a stick of licorice with a micro-plane grater over the salmon, the other drizzled olive oil over the dish, then they switched places and repeated.  Bottom left, a black square – barely cooked salmon wrapped in a black, chewy liquorice gel.  Upper right, a drizzle of vanilla mayonnaise, with two asparagus tips laid across it.  Scattered across the plate, grapefruit segments and tiny dots of (sublime!) balsamic vinegar.

Poached Breast of Anjou Pigeon Pancetta, Pastilla of its leg, pistachio, cocoa and quatre epices.  Small breast with wing bone centered on plate with pistachio cream drizzled over and small bits of candied pistachio sprinkled on plate.  Upright triangle of the “pastilla” – leg meat encased in crisp pastry shell.  Also, each on top of pigeon breast and at top left corner of plate, half of a tiny cooked onion, and radish.

Optional Cheese Plate – Cart brought to table – given option of blue, hard, soft, and “very strong” cheeses.  Chose a selection of hard and soft cheeses.  Served with walnut bread.  Told to eat from the softest to the hardest cheeses (counter clockwise on the plate).

Sommelier came to the table during the cheese course and said “It looks like something is missing.”  We asked him to select a dessert wine for us.  He said he was going to bring us a glass of Muscat, but then came back to the table and said he had changed his mind, and brought us each a glass of Clos Dady, Sauternes 2001

Mrs Marshall’s Margaret Cornet.  First given a card describing the history of Mrs. Marshall and the invention of the ice cream cone.  Then brought a plate with two small cornets on a bed of sugared purple flower petals, and asked to pick one cornet up each.  Orange ice cream in a ginger flavored “cone” rolled in sugar, with a ring of pastel colored pastilles on the top edge of the cone.

Pine Sherbet Fountain.  Small green paper tube with the fat duck logo, with a strip of vanilla bean sticking out of it.  Told to open the tube with the vanilla bean, and scoop out the sherbet.  Sherbet was a tart powder.  Were told this was a palette cleanser.  (A “Fountain” in the UK is a penny candy much like Lik-m-Aid”.)

Mango and Douglas Fir Puree, Bavarois of lychee and mango, blackcurrant sorbet.  On left, white rectangle of gelatinized Douglas Fir puree (texture similar to a crème brulee) topped with mango, pine nuts, two tiny squares of harissa gelatin, and shavings of douglas fir, on right scoop of blackcurrant sorbet with rectangular blackcurrant tuille sticking out of it.  On lower left of plate, a pool of lychee and mango cream, which was also drizzled on the plate.  Across lower left corner, above the lychee and mango cream, a row of three tiny squares of harissa gelatin.

Carrot and Orange Tuile, Beetroot Jelly.  Server handed us each a “lollipop” – a paper-thin rectangle of carrot and orange candy on a stick – then placed on the table a square plate with two small, deep red, translucent squares of beetroot gel coated in sugar.

Breakfast Cereal (off menu) – A waiter asked if we were ready for breakfast now.  Placed a large round bowl with small center depression in front of each of us.  Each handed a small green box labeled “Fat Duck Cereals” and a small pitcher placed in front of us.  Told it was parsnip cereal with parsnip milk.  Inside box, a small cellophane bag with thin, dried parsnip flakes.  Poured into bowl, and poured parsnip milk from pitcher over it.

Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream, Pain perdu and tea jelly – table side preparation, by the same server who made the Nitro-Green Tea and Lime Mousse.  Copper pot over a burner brought to the table, but told by the server she was out of gas so she would have to cook with nitrogen.  Said she was preparing “scrambled eggs with crispy bacon.”  “Cooked” the ice cream in the copper pot.  Another server brought out plate, and first server placed bacon and egg ice cream onto bed of salty bacon gelatin on left side of the plate.  Also on the plate “pain perdu” (rectangle of French toast) in middle, and scoop of salty caramel on the left.  Served with an egg-shaped cup of tea jelly to “cleanse the pallet”.

Hot and Cold Tea – A clear, double walled glass placed in front of us, told to drink from it exactly as placed.  Golden colored, tea flavored viscous liquid, simultaneously cold and hot, split down the center..

Hot Teas – Rebecca – Wenshan Baozhong, Laurel – Lapshan.

(Off menu) Served four chocolates in a half cacao shell filled with cacao nibs, and a small plate of sweets.  Chocolates – two each of caraway and pine.  Plate of sweets, two each of single malt whisky gels (amber round gels coated in sugar) and lavender tarts (tiny tart with crisp pastry shell and a dark purple liquid filling).

Five hours (and several bathroom trips) later, we were finished. Yes, we were full, but not absurdly so. We called for a bill and taxi and both took much too long, and we arrived back at the Maidenhead train station just as our train to London was pulling out. It was a cold, long, restroom-less wait on that platform, and a drowsy 40-minute ride back to London, and then a freezing walk to the taxi back to our flat. It was 2 am by the time we were in our beds. Our flight home was later that day. And we’ve been talking about that meal ever since.

Next stop, Alinea.