Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Alinea: Down the Rabbit Hole
From its disorienting red hallway to the meal's final dessert being plated and eaten off the dinner table itself, Alinea manages to throw all of the conventional rules of fine dining out the window. But with a trio of Michelin Stars and a top ten ranking on the San Pellegrino list of the worlds best restaurant, Chef Grant Achatz, alongside business partner Nick Kokonas, together stand at the forefront of modern American cuisine. Thus, there was almost no way that our vacation could be considered "complete" without dining at the best restaurant in Chicago, and maybe the entire United States.
Located inside an unmarked townhouse on North Halsted, we emerged from our cab unsure if we had arrived at the correct address. Confirming this was indeed the restaurant, we entered through the inconspicuous doors only to be greeted a long narrow hallway awash in vibrant red light. Two "hidden" sliding glass doors opened to our right whereupon we were met by the hostess who led us to our table on the second floor. As one might expect, Alinea's interior was modern with comfortable over-sized chairs, black tables and white walls illuminated by purple lights.
Unlike most restaurants, we received no menu, and were only asked about any allergies and wine preferences. Declining wine pairings, we each started our meal with a Champagne Cocktail made with Chrysanthemum, Orange Bitters and Absinthe. The cocktail, with its floral and citrus notes, was light and refreshing.
Shortly after receiving our drinks, our first course, Steelhead Roe with Dijon, Rutabaga and Grapefruit, arrived. A mélange of various flavors and textures, we loved how the popping of the salty roe, pungent mustard seeds and bitter grapefruit segments combined with the silky rutabaga pana cotta and luscious soup. This dish officially started our meal with a bang!
Next was Yuba with Shrimp, Miso and Togarashi. Here, a shrimp had been carefully coiled around a piece of fried yuba which rested in a shallow pool of miso spiked with togarashi. Much like the previous dish, texture was the key element as the crunchy yuba was quite enjoyable with the salty miso. My only complaint was that neither of us could detect the presence of the togarashi, which would have added a spicy element to the dish.
We were next presented with a trio of dishes. First, was an Oyster Leaf with Mignonette. Resting inside a cleaned oyster shell on top of a mound of crushed ice was a single green leaf seasoned with a mignonette. Amazingly, the leaf tasted exactly like an oyster and was quite clever. Our server explained that these leaves grow on the coasts of Scotland and are renown for their similarity to the briny bivalves.
Next, was a Scallop seasoned with Hitachino Weizen and Old Bay. Surprisingly delicate, we were pleasantly surprised how the Old Bay didn't overpower the scallop or beer foam.
Last, but certainly not least, was a Razor Clam with Carrot, Soy and Daikon. Instructed to tilt the shell into our mouths and eat it in a single bite, the salty soy reduction was a complimentary foil to the sweet clam and vegetables.
The following course, Foie Gras with Green Garlic, Vanilla and Mint, arrived on the edge of a fork inside a custom made bowl. A cube of rich foie gras was enveloped by an intensely flavored vanilla jelly and was topped with green garlic and mint. No larger than a single bite, this was pure decadence.
Having finished our cocktails, we proceeded with a bottle of Riesling. In addition to returning with our wine, our server also placed two "mystery flags" on the table that would be featured in the near future.
Arriving in yet another custom dish, the next course was actually a series of three different dishes, each served at different temperatures and containing English Peas with Olive Oil, Chamomile and Green Apple. Dish one was served warm, consisting of a savory pea purée with fresh peas and pea tendrils.
After we had finished eating, we were instructed to lift the top portion of the dish which revealed freeze dried peas, a pea meringue and olive oil jelly. Served cool, the interplay between the sweet meringue and savory peas were vastly different experiences from a single ingredient.
We lifted this dish yet again for the final portion, a cold pea soup with a parmesan cream and an apple sorbet. The sweet soup, perfectly good on its own, was further enhanced by the savory parmesan cream and sharp apple sorbet. Here, the progression from warm to cold gave me a much deeper appreciation for the same ingredients.
Now playing with our sense of smell, our next course featured a piece of Hamachi with West Indies Spices, Banana and Ginger. A warmed vanilla bean served a duel purpose: in addition to acting as the dish's sole utensil, it gently filled the air with its aroma and paired wonderfully with the banana and ginger. The hamachi went unexpectedly well with the sweet elements and proved to be another satisfying, and inventive dish.
Chef Achatz and company toyed with more aromas with the following dish consisting of Wild Mushrooms, Pine, Sumac and Ramp. Looking like a scene stolen directly from a forest floor, various mushrooms were beautifully arranged on a plate with ramps, sumac and pine.
Soon after spotting the signature paraffin wax bowls, I knew exactly what was going to follow. Hot Potato-Cold Potato with Black Truffle and Butter is an Alinea classic, and for good reason. It is simply awesome. Warned that the dish was time sensitive, I was barely able to get a picture before pulling the pin which released a cold potato and black truffle into a piping hot soup and slurping it down. The juxtaposition of temperatures and vivid flavor of the truffle made this dish really memorable.
After wondering how the aforementioned mystery flags were going to be used, our suspense ended as our server disassembled the centerpieces to reveal their true nature: tomato and fermented black garlic pasta which would be used as an edible container for the following course. We were each given a glass tray containing various condiments as another server spooned Short Rib into our pasta. Finally, we were instructed to complete the dish by adding the various condiments which included: Olive, Red Wine and Blackberry. While very original, neither me nor MW were extremely blown away by the flavors of this dish and felt it verged on being campy.
Black Truffle Explosion with Romaine and Parmesan is another Alinea classic and was equally incredible as the potato course. Instructed to eat the ravioli in a single bite, a black truffle liquid exploded in our mouths. Rounded out by the parmesan, and it was apparent as to why these two dishes remain fixtures on the restaurant's ever-changing menu.
We went back to the future with the next course. Agneau with Sauce Choron and Pomme de Terre Noisette is a classic dish that hearkens back to the days of Paris 1903 when Auguste Escoffier was credited with inventing this dish. Paired with a minerally Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, pieces of lamb sat on toasts and topped with artichoke hearts and asparagus. The wine paired wonderfully with the gaminess of the lamb and rich sauce choron, and was still enjoyable despite having dined at Next Restaurant.
We concluded the savory portion of the meal with what appeared to be a bowl filled with a tangle of Eucalyptus leaves. A small pin protruded from the mass to reveal a cube of Venison flavored with Cherry and Cocoa. The venison itself was much milder than I had expected, but I was ultimately disappointed as neither the cherry nor cocoa were discernible and the medicinal odor emitted by the eucalyptus leaves seemed downright strange.
Acting as a palette cleanser, we each received a Yuzu-flavored Snowcone. Frozen with liquid nitrogen, the yuzu formed a delicious and refreshing snow that prepared us for our desserts.
Next was Sweet Potato with Cedar, Bourbon and Pecan. Presented on a charred cedar plank, this was essentially a deconstructed sweet potato pie. Containing all of the typical flavor profiles (bourbon, pecan, brown sugar), this was an ingenious take on a soul food favorite.
Thanks to the distillation process, Chef Achatz was able to obtain a pure liquid containing the concentrated flavors of Lemongrass, Dragonfruit, Finger Lime and Cucumber. Encased in what looked like a giant glass straw, we were meant to suck on one end, taking everything down in one shot. Looks can be deceiving, as what initially appeared as little more than a tube of water ended up tasting like the very essence of these exotic ingredients.
But as good as our meal had been up to this point, nothing could quite prepare us for the final dessert. Listed as Chocolate with Blueberry, Honey and Peanut, our server first rolled out a gray silicone mat onto our table. Chef Achatz then appeared with a tray full of various ingredients, meticulously plating each element directly onto the mat. The crescendo of the meal arose when the chef "smashed" a crater of chocolate mousse that had been frozen with liquid nitrogen, causing our table to become totally engulfed by a cloud of mist. After personally thanking Chef Achatz for a wonderful meal, we ate. The combination of ingredients looked more like a piece of abstract art than the incredible dessert that it was, but I assure you that it was most memorable dessert we've ever had, and one we'll likely never forget.
Chef Achatz's food simultaneously managed to met expectations and surprise us at the same time. In terms of sheer preparation and execution, the food was undoubtedly three-star level, challenging us with unexpected flavors and stunning presentations. But that isn't to say that our Alinea experience was flawless. Wine pairings were heavily pushed and service felt robotic, and even worse, rushed. Add to that, having to witness a table being scolded for accidentally using flash, and we left with mixed feelings. Despite having the best food during our vacation, Alinea was far from being our most enjoyable meal. Still, I'll continue to look forward what the future holds for both Chef Achatz and the restaurant.
1723 N Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60614
To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.