Culinary alchemy: A revolution in the kitchen

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Slideshow: Food for thought,the incorporation of molecular gastronomy
Produced by Douglass Oster with photography by Douglass Oster and Steve Mellon.
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Jellies, foams, powders and purees.

That is the essence of molecular gastronomy, the revolutionary new trend that has American foodies flying around the world to taste such delicacies as Sea Water Jelly or Foie-lipops (foie gras panna cotta crusted with Pop Rocks and served on a stick).

And Pittsburgh foodies can have it all right here. For once, we have a restaurant touting the biggest innovation in dining that could bring food lovers here for some reason other than a tailgate party at Heinz Field.

Chef Kevin Sousa is thinking outside the plate and breaking all the rules in the lab/kitchen of the Bigelow Grille at the Doubletree Hotel, Downtown. Inspired by famous Spanish chef Ferran Adria, Mr. Sousa has rearranged flavors, temperatures and textures and added aromas and humor to provide diners with a food adventure that is as fun as a trip to Disney World.

I have re-christened his Alchemy menu "Shock and Awe" (with full credit to Mr. Rumsfeld and Co.). It consists of 25 bite-sized courses. Even when you know what to expect from this new culinary style and have read about the scientific techniques that produce it, each course presents a mysterious and unexpected surprise.

Ever so Pittsburgh-appropriate, the first course is pierogi. You know that it won't be pillows of potato-onion stuffing inside a thin shell, but can you believe tiny beads of frozen, liquefied pierogi -- sort of like Dippin' Dots -- served with a shot glass of hot, highly concentrated sauerkraut consomme? It was a textbook introduction to the principles of molecular gastronomy: temperature, texture and flavor modifications served with a slice of impish humor.

The next course is "blue." This sweet and salty tongue-teaser is a stick of candy cotton flavored and colored with blueberry and wrapped around a center of gorgonzola cheese. Just one bite, but it's a taste of pure pleasure.

Next is lobster tenderloin. A lobster medallion the size of a half dollar sits on a bed of umi-flavored aioli and is topped with a razor-thin slice of crunchy, fresh white truffle and a spoonful of tarragon-infused foam and two pink peppercorns. In that one bite, there are five layers of textures and oh so many flavors.

The following course arrives balanced on a tightrope! It is a crostini that is iced with a paste made of foie gras fat. In the process of making the icing, the liver is separated into solids and fats, with most of the flavor concentrated in the fat. Sun-dried strawberries add a further flavor and chewy texture.

Split pea is one olive-sized ball of bright green that is gelatinous on the outside. Bite through the shell and an intensely pea-flavored liquid explodes in the mouth.

It would be unfair to unveil all the mysteries of an Alchemy dinner. Part of the fun is the surprise in each course. But I will tell you that venison treated to a dry rub of chocolate and chipotle before grilling will taste like no other deer meat.


Bigelow Grille

Doubletree Hotel
1 Bigelow Square
Pittsburgh 15222

Alchemy menu: Dinner only, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Reservations must be made 24 hours in advance.
Basics: A world-class experience, this 25-course menu is prepared using scientific methods that change textures and tastes of common ingredients.
Price: Dinner: $80. Paired wines, $25.
Summary: No smoking. Accessible. Major credit cards accepted. Parking in Doubletree Hotel Garage.

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Chef Kevin Sousa's kitchen is filled with tools, ingredients suitable for a science experiment    

Who would have dreamed that a classic guacamole could be scientifically altered to take on the consistency of cheese and be sliced with a knife? Peanut powder is as light as dust and transforms grape sorbet into something ethereal.

I loved the foamed milk that had been infused with smoke from vanilla-flavored pipe tobacco and poured over a warm, coffee-chocolate milkshake. Bacon ice cream? It is a special treat when paired with miniature French toast.

The wasabi fondue Chef Sousa has created as an accompaniment for sashimi should become a staple of all Japanese restaurants. I won't tell you what is in "food for thought," but I will say it is clever wordplay based on the ingredients. Can you guess what it might be?

A whimsical approach to taste combinations and to presentations is another of Chef Sousa's strong cards. A toothpaste-like tube contains braised shortribs, and a miniature caviar can has frozen beads of a flavorful vegetable. A beautiful block of tropical wood, polished to a fine patina, holds the sticks of cotton candy when they arrive at the table.

Diners use a single implement dubbed a "spork" or a "foon" which is, in fact, both: the spoon at one end and the fork at the other.

Each course is delivered with theatrical flair by Jim Young, a Bigelow Grille waiter who has worked with Chef Sousa since their days together at Kaya in the Strip District.

Mr. Young explains each dish and instructs the diners on the best way to approach it. Some are meant to be eaten in one bite and others can be nibbled. Mr. Young obviously enjoys his duties, and he adds enormously to the evening's pleasure.

Bigelow Grille manager Todd McCullough has chosen the wines that are paired with dinner. Interesting and well matched with the food, there is the German riesling, a white burgundy from the Cote d'Or and a Chilean sauvignon blanc to begin the parade of six wines. California pinot noir and syrah followed, and the evening ended with a big and fruity red from the Campania region of Italy made from the aglianico grape.

Not familiar with that grape, I rushed home to look it up in Joe Bastianich's great book "Vino Italiano." Aglianico, he writes, is a noble grape with archaeological roots back to the earliest days of winemaking in the Roman empire.

Only 12 diners can partake of the special menu on a given night. When I experienced the Alchemy menu, there was a table of five friends celebrating a birthday and another table where a prominent local restaurateur and chef were exclaiming over each course. Our dinner, which began at 7 p.m., lasted for more than four hours.

Before the evening was over, the three tables had bonded together to share comments about our extraordinary experience. We all agreed that it was the equivalent of a rite of passage for anyone passionate about food.

The futuristic dishes that Chef Sousa is creating for Pittsburgh have their roots in Europe. Ferran Adria of El Bulli restaurant on the Catalan coast of Spain and Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, England, are considered the pioneers of the techniques. They were already working with chemical compounds and unusual kitchen tools as the 20th century was drawing to a close.

The primary supporters of the molecular movement in the United States are Grant Achatz at Alinea and Homaro Cantu at Moto in Chicago, Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 in Manhattan and Jose Andreas at Cafe Atlantico in Washington, D.C. Chef Andreas worked with Ferran Adria in Spain before settling in Washington.

I recently dined at Cafe Atlantico's Mini Bar. The meal began with an "olive oil bonbon," a tiny bubble of what looked like hand-blown glass. It was, in fact, hand-blown sugar syrup. When cracking the hard, glass-like sugar shell in the mouth, there was a flood of intensely flavored olive oil. That was followed by a marble of celadon green jelly. When popped in the mouth, the gelatinous surface collapsed and released a spoonful of Spanish green olive juice.

Kudos to the management of Bigelow Grille who supported Chef Sousa in his desire to bring this revolutionary cuisine to Pittsburgh. This required a heavy investment in tools not found in restaurant kitchens.

No two chefs come up with the same creations. Considering the amount of work involved in producing such amazing food, it is not surprising that there are very few kitchens in America serving this new cuisine.

How lucky can we be that one of them is in Pittsburgh? I predict that it won't be long before Bigelow Grille becomes a stop on the Foodie Express. Kevin Sousa's amazing Alchemy menu will "shock and awe" all who are interested in food, cooking, science, creativity or theater.

Elizabeth Downer can be reached at or 412-263-1454.


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