Soon after, he read about a pea ravioli encapsulation in a magazine story about Adrià. It reminded him of his own “truffle explosion”–a truffle broth thickened with old-fashioned gelatin and chilled solid enough to serve as a filling for ravioli. When simmered, the filling melted; it spurted into diners’ mouths. The push to evolve the idea behind the dish (the alginate-calcium combination would be used for all manner of tricks, such as an alarming rush of hot beet juice from an innocent-seeming icy white lemon-thyme foam) was typical Achatz: the discovery and research, the time spent browsing technical websites and speaking with representatives of additive makers unused to customers who want to order in one-pound, not fifty-pound, quantities.
Truffle explosion was a Trio signature, though in his restless way Achatz soon left it behind. My visit to Alinea fell near the anniversary of its opening, a week in which Achatz brought back some of his greatest hits; I asked him to make the ravioli. The effect was interesting enough, but the salty broth and the pasta casing were lukewarm, with cold, hard grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on top. The temperatures didn’t seem intentional, showing that the execution must be flawless for many of Achatz’s effects to come off.
Achatz likes “thermal reversal,” as he calls the exploding-ravioli effect. He uses it for the raspberry ribbon, freezing a sheet of boiled-down, thickened raspberry puree and syrup raked to a perfect 16th of an inch; cooks cut the sheet into ruler-straight ribbons to lay across the flavored dots placed along rectangular plates, and then partially melt the ribbon with a blowtorch, just before it is served, to create the molten-plastic effect. Broken slabs of dark Venezuelan Ocamari chocolate wait beneath a lamp all evening, heated to 94 ºF, until they are transferred to a dessert plate with dehydrated chocolate pudding, cassia mousse, and figs braised with port; the shards just hold their shape but melt in the mouth like s’mores.
These dishes require low-tech methods to achieve the desired results, and Achatz can even find use for low-tech thickeners like plain gelatin and the lab staple agar (for those pert beads of buttermilk pudding). But my own favorite use of a gelling agent was the mixture of caramel and sodium maltodextrine, which absorbs fat rather than water, the way cornstarch and most other thickeners do. The caramel flakes look something like white-chocolate nut clusters and re-form as chewy dime-store vanilla caramel in the mouth. It’s a gee-whiz moment that’s plain fun.
Fun is something Achatz wants diners to have, along with the occasional scare (those acupuncture-reminiscent needles). But some of his ideas don’t go over. He once bought black atomizers and filled them with essence of shrimp cocktail, made by pushing shrimp shells, stock, tomatoes, horseradish, and vinegar through a countertop wine press. Waiters sprayed the atomized essence into diners’ mouths. The effect was uncanny, but it provoked an outcry. Critics said Achatz wanted to divorce diners from actual food. Among other things, he says, he was accused of wanting to change the molecular structure of food and feed the world with essences. Achatz, not an especially whimsical fellow himself, wanted to tell critics to lighten up: none of the accusations were true. But he nevertheless threw out the atomizers.