May 27, 2009
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Alinea: what the Pigeonneaux a la Saint-Clair are saying

Kevin Eats ate at Alinea just a few days before we did, and offers wonderful descriptions and photography.

Near the end of the tour, our dinner at Alinea had a standard from Escoffier: pigeonneau a la Saint Clair. The course has been controversial; why include a staid 19th century showpiece in the middle of this wonderful postmodern feast? Achatz himself explains part of the point, but I think he is simplifying the thought.

What is this course saying?

First, what is pigeonneau a la Saint Clair?

With the meat of the legs prepare a mousseline forcemeat, and, with the latter, make some quenelles the size of small olives, and set them to poach. Poële the breasts, without coloration, on a thick litter of sliced onions, and keep them underdone. Add a little velouté to the onions; rub them through a tamis, and put the quenelles in this sauce.

In the middle of a shallow croustade, set a pyramid of cèpes tossed in butter, Raise the fillets; skin them, and set the on the cèpes; coat them with the prepared sauce; surround with a thread of meat glaze, and plant the quenelles all around.

OK: that’s the instructions. Why do we do this? It’s not just hoops to dance through, or an arbitrary set of rules or customs.

First: why pigeonneau – squab? At this point, we want some poultry to set off the steak and potatoes. Squab makes sense; we want a taste, not a turkey. This is a perfect time for a small bird: it’s a big menu.

But how do we approach the problem of cooking a whole bird perfectly, when the whole bird is so small? This is always the problem with poultry; the breasts are overcooked before the legs are done. Besides, legs are hard to carve, so squab is famously hard to eat. (The last time I had squab was at a wedding; that was just a little bit hostile!)

No problem: we’ll carve up the bird and prepare the parts separately in order to get each morsel right. We bone out the legs in the kitchen (where we have sharp tools and aprons), and mince them up to get rid of the toughness. We mix them with egg and cream to make an emulsion, and poach these little balls of squab sausage.

For the breasts, we want to season them gently and cook them very gently. If you have a great big chicken breast and the outside is just a little bit overdone for texture, it's no problem; make it a tiny squab breast, and a thin layer of overcooked meat adds up to the whole thing. So we cook it gently, gently, on a bed (a litter!) of onions. And then we mustn’t waste those lovely onions, bathed as they are in meaty juices, so we add a little bit more stock and turn them into a sauce. Add some mushrooms, since they go well with poultry. Serve in a shallow pastry bowl, which brings everything together, absorbs the delicious juices, and gives us another texture to experience and another place to vary the flavor.

So: it’s not arbitrary or fusty. It’s a solution to an old cooking problem.

It’s also a ridiculous amount of work. But we’re not being convenient here, we’re throwing everything to the winds to make the dish exactly right.

Now, lots of Alinea addresses the same sort of problem, using different means. Take that truffle explosion: a raviolo, topped with a slice of black truffle, and filled to bursting with black truffle juice. The idea is, simply, to have a burst of pure truffle flavor. But you can’t just do it, because you can’t fill ravioli with truffle juice, because the liquid will just run out on your counter. So we start working with gels and reductions, and we start reimagining tableware because we need to get that one perfect truffle raviolo to you without breakage or leakage and while it’s the perfect temperature.

This is a good way to cook a squab, just as the wagyu short ribs (perfectly rectangular, meltingly tender pieces of short rib on a Guinness gelatin sheet) are a perfect way to cook short ribs. The course is an argument that what Achatz does is not a repudiation of traditional cooking (as nouvelle was), but simply expands its horizons.