Greatness comes in degrees, especially in dining - what is great to one may taste 'fishy' or 'bland' to another; words like "challenging," "avant garde," and "evolutionary," however, are far less open to interpretation are palate. Having experienced refined "greatness" at The French Laundy, Charlie Trotter's, Alex, and others along and less great yet "challenging" foods at The Bazaar and Moto in the past it was with great excitement yet some reserve that I walked into Alinea exactly 2 months after making my reservation - using my previous experiences with "mg" to temper my expections of the tenth best restaurant in the world I hoped the hype wouldn't be impossible to live up to.
Being in the medical field I had actually first heard of Chef Achatz in early 2008 (despite his long history of tenure at such restaurants as Charlie Trotter, Trio, and The French Laundry and Alinea's actual opening in 2005) when I read about his diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma - an incredibly rare disease in a non-tobacco user. Fascinated by his story and his unique culinary style I'd had Alinea on my short list for some time but had not yet had the chance to dine there as the restaurant had ironically been on winter break during my two previous visits to the windy city. In my typical fashion I'd done my homework and contacted the restaurant prior to my arrival in order to make them aware of my distaste for beef - a simple request that was easily handled by the gracious and helpful staff.
Arriving approximately 15 minutes prior to my 8:30 reservation I certainly would've walked past the unmarked building had I not known what I was looking for. Stopping to take a picture and then entering the long white hallway I was instantly greeted by the host and told my "experience is being readied" - apparently meaning my table wasn't clean yet. To pass my time? "How about a tour of the kitchen?" I graciously accepted and walked about the enormous prep room where greater than 30 chefs and sous-chefs all smiled but remained intent on their work. Moving about the room finishing plates and suggesting augmentations was Chef Achatz - given the size and complexity of the dishes I was simply stunned at how controlled everything was. Taking a seat at the small table outside the kitchen I glanced through the Alinea Book for about 3 minutes before being led to my seat in the corner overlooking the downstairs dining area. As expected, the room was full - which is to say there was a total of 11 other diners in the incredibly well spaced room.
Comfortably seated and appreciating the combination of ambient and active lighting the room had a sleek but classic feel to it featuring ebony tables, custom chairs, and unique modern art. Greeted by one of my 4 servers for the night (well, 5, but we'll get to that later) I was brought my centerpiece - a black vessel with a sprig of rosemary. As many have previously noted the centerpiece at Alinea often becomes functional as the meal goes on and this was no exception. With water filled the sommelier stopped by to assist me with wines - interestingly, despite my non-drinking status the somm still spent significant time at my table assisting as a server and presenter and actually turned out to be one of the most interesting and down to earth persons I've met in some time - listening to him talk beer and wine with the neighboring table was especially intriguing.
Beginning the tour, my first dish of the evening was delivered approximately 15 minutes after seating. Entitled "Steelhead Roe-Traditional Garnishes" the dish featured a smokey roe sourced from Chef Achatz's first boss in Grand Rapids Michigan paired with traditional flavors in nontraditional forms - specifically bread foam and a dollop of egg-dill crème fraîche. Tasting the roe first and then the dish as a whole I was impressed by the manner in which the initial sweet/buttery notes quickly gave way to the smokey saltiness of the roe and this flavor smoothly transitioned to the smooth/sour-creaminess of the dill-egg-drop. Very impressive, even for someone who largely considers caviar overrated.
Dish two, "Pork Belly-Iceberg, Cucumber, Thai Distillation" was delivered with instructions - those being to first drink the Thai green chili shot - similar to the greek salad at Moto, but much less pungent the shot was a good primer with a dash of heat. Following this was a "stacked" salad of crispy iceberg lettuce cups layered with pork belly and cucumber atop a sweet dressing laden with basil seeds and perhaps coconut. Rousing tastes of Chang's Pork Buns at Momofuku yet vastly more refined the overall effect was superb with sweet/fatty contrasting well against crisp/savory.
Served with the second dish was the first of the four breads for the evening – a savory and smoky Lime-Cilantro roll. Served with a delicate house made goat's milk butter and another house-churned cow's milk butter topped with Hawaiian black lava salt the breads arrived from time to time and other options for the evening included a slice honey-coriander loaf with dish four, a bacon callah with dish 8, and a buttery dinner roll with dish sixteen – each was excellent and clearly meant to compliment the dish with which it arrived.
Dish three, a single bite, was "Oxalis-Juniper, Gin, Sugar." Essentially a sour bud of the perennial encased in a gelatin cube of sweet juniper berry, bitter gin, and a flavor similar to lemon or lime the overall flavor was brief and fleeting yet potent with the initial sweetness giving way to a mild bitter.
Dish number four of the evening was the first dish to truly make me gasp “wow” of the evening – it was called “Lilac-Scallop, Shellfish, Honeydew” and it was perfection. Explained with emphasis on the freshness of each ingredient the dish consisted of a mélange of scallops shucked immediately prior to service, razor and littleneck clams served piping hot, and crisp celery tempered against honeydew foam, melon balls, and “lilac pillows” of panna cotta. Briny but light, pungent yet floral, crisp yet smooth – and honeydew that didn’t overwhelm but simply complemented – a virtual rollercoaster of experiences in a single dish.
Dish five – to quote Monty Python – ‘and now for something completely different’ – “Pigeonneau a la Saint Clair.” Complete with 19th century flatware, wineglass, and plating this dish was meant to evoke thoughts of a classic time – specifically the time of French gourmand Georges Auguste Escoffier. Utilizing none of Achatz’s ‘molecular gastronomy’ but instead a classic and straight forward recipe direct from Le Guide Culinare, this dish seemed to me almost a cheeky poke at those who treat Alinea’s ultra-modernism as a flaw and a statement that classic technique certainly has its place in their kitchen. A pure lesson in refined French cooking the crispy buttery tart was expertly topped with tender squab, pearl onions, fresh mushrooms, and creamy balls of foie gras all accented by a wonderful au jus. As a non-drinker I was additionally served a glass of Cherry, Balsamic, Thyme Soda that was easily better than any house-made soda I’ve ever tasted.
Following the classy retrospective, one of Grant’s signatures – “Black Truffle-Explosion, Romaine, Parmesan.” Served in the anti-plate there really isn’t much to say about this dish that hasn’t already been said – like chef Keller’s Oysters and Pearls this is simply something that must be experience to be understood. With instructions to fit the whole raviolo in the mouth and seal your lips before biting down the truffle stock filled item topped with lettuce and parmesan simple explodes and fills not only the mouth but also the palate, nose, and limbic system with a sense of awe. If something can indeed taste “more” like what it is than the actual item, this is it – it is like a black truffle, but moreso.
Sitting and savoring the lingering memories of the explosion I was next brought a garden – literally. Delivered to my table in a hefty stone pot was an enormous tomato plant in a bowl full of potting soil, steaming hot rocks, and olive essence – the air instantly filled with the smell of a fresh summer garden and reminded me of days picking vegetables or shopping the farmers market at home. What followed the pot, however, was anything but familiar. Featuring 3 types of organic heirloom tomatoes from raw and crisp to poached and sweet, “Tomato-Fig, Nicoise Olive, Pine Nuts” was quite possibly my favorite savory of the evening. Paired with the tomatoes were an olive oil snow, pine nut both crumbled and whole, figs of varying types and textures, and multiple emulsifications of nicoise olive/fig gel – a veritable playground of tastes, textures, temperatures, and flavors that invited the lucky diner to not only mix and match but to simply bathe in the experience of fresh vegetables expertly prepared.
Dishes eight, nine, and ten were served as a trio and the diner was instructed to eat them in order from smallest to largest – a myriad of unique flavors all consumed under the essence of burning cinnamon – very nice. The first bite, “Mustard-Passionfruit, Allspice” consisted of a single bite – an ice cream lozenge if you will. Having tasted mustard ice cream once at Rosendale’s in Columbus and a mustard-green slush at Manresa I had some idea of what to expect – but was completely wrong. Spicy yet mellowed by the icy temperature, the mustard itself actually came though only in heat and base-note – what truly came to the palate was the sexy essences of passion fruit spliced with savory allspice. After consuming the following dishes I understood the order – this wonder truly opened the palate.
The next dish, “Bacon-Butterscoth, Apple, Thyme” is another Achatz classic and features a single crisp slice of salty bacon that contrasts yet compliments the long lasting taste of caramel/butterscotch. Adding a bit of fibrous contrast and a mild degree of fragrance are apple and thyme – if I had to compare the dish to anything it would actually be a caramel apple with nuts, strangely.
The final dish of the trio and the source of the cinnamon hue lingering throughout the dining area was “Sweet Potato-Bourbon, Brown Sugar, Smoldering Cinnamon.” Served in the squid and still piping hot despite my lingering over the bacon and mustard, this handsome dish was essentially deep fried sweet potato pie with heavy top-notes of bourbon meant to be eaten off of the smoldering stick of cinnamon. Spicy, woody, dare I say “camp-firey” and unique yet entirely familiar – incredible.
Completing the “first half” of the meal in shortly under two hours, act two began anew with another chef’s classic – the famous “Hot Potato-Cold Potato, Black Truffle, Butter.” Raised with a Hungarian Grandmother one of the memories of my childhood was her wonderful albeit unrefined potato soup – older now with a more refined palate I still miss that soup…or at least I did until I tasted this. Instructed to hold the paraffin bowl in my left hand and remove the pin with my right hand the dish proved a conceptual exploration of the contrast of hot and cold with the truffle topped steaming hot potato falling into the icy cold truffle potato soup. Taken in a single shot the varying textures and temperatures provide a provocative mouth feel while the flavors harkened back to childhood in an entirely different way – sure it would ruin the hot/cold concept, but I’d eat this dish by the crock-pot if allowed the chance. Pay close attention as your server collects the dish – one of the unique joys at Alinea is their toys – in this case a magnetic wand to collect the pin from the table.
Still mesmerized by the previous course, dish twelve arrived shortly thereafter and once again re-invented its constituents by presenting them in totally unexpected ways. “Yuba-Shrimp, Miso, Togarashi” featured a crispy stick of tofu skin with a spiral cut gulf shrimp coursing down its length and then coated with chives and spicy togarashi. Situated like a pen in an inkwell, the well itself contained a miso-mayo that lent a sweet aspect to the dish and mellowed out the heat while enhancing the savory components.
Dish thirteen proved an unlucky dish to photograph as it was served in a round-bottomed bowl that required holding in the hand until completion. “Foie Gras-Peach, Fennel, Shiso” was served on as two small pieces of peach and two small sections of pate on a fork which was delicately balanced over a pungent yet sweet puree of foie/fennel/and peach. Unique in texture, I was particularly fond of the overall aromatic presentation to the palate that was accomplished by balancing the rich and cool liver with the sweet/tart components. The liquid beneath reminded me of a lemony version of Daniel Humm’s Strawberry/Foie sorbet at EMP.
Dish fourteen was the first dish of the evening that contained something I’d never heard of – “Mangosteen-Oyster, Mint, Yuzu.” Listening to the description with much anticipation given the unique “nut-like” shell and subsequently doing some research it appears the Mangosteen is akin to the pomegranate given its production of an aril, but the taste/texture is anything but. Nutty and rich with a creamy and almost vanilla flavor, the mangosteen fruit actually bore a lot of similarity in texture to a fresh oyster – clearly this too was noted by Chef Achatz who chose to present the fruit paired with an oyster laden cream accented with mint and contrasted with the tangy zest of yuzu. Truly unique and truly delicious – known as the “queen of fruit” I shall certainly seek out the Mangosteen on future menus.
Dish fifteen and finally the centerpiece came into play – entitled “Lamb-Minted Peas, Cherry, Rosemary Fragrance” the dish was served with chopsticks and consisted of three flawless pieces of lamb tartare topped with minted peas, black cherry, and rosemary from front to back. The “plate” for this dish (handled with an oven mitt due to the heat) was actually a 500 degree block of iron with a hole in the back – a hole into which the sprig of rosemary from my centerpiece was inserted instantly singing the sprig and releasing the oily and beautiful scent of the fine herb. Starting with the minted peas and following with the rosemary and finally the cherry pieces of lamb I was wowed by how each ingredient added a different nuance to the fatty lamb. Thankfully I was warned to wait a few seconds before popping the pieces into my mouth as the bottoms were still sizzling – a burned tongue for what was to come would’ve been a tragedy. Like the hot potato dish another “device” was produced to collect this dish – a metal peg and silicone pad that allowed the plate to be lifted effortlessly while protecting the wood and the server’s hand.
The final savory of the evening was my only substitution – seeing the dish presented at the table next to me as Wagyu beef I expected a variation and sure enough, “Halibut-Powdered A1, Potato, Chips” arrived with a show. A playful take on summer-grilling, this delectable morsel of flawlessly prepared and lemon accented fish simply melted in the mouth with its crispy flesh giving way to a nearly sashimi textured interior – the way fish is supposed to take and on par with the sous vide versions at Providence. Aside the fish was a “packet” of A1 – or rather the powdered essence of the original recipe with high notes of anchovy and raisin and more refined undertones of clove – and sea salt plus freshly cracked black pepper. The potato component, appearing almost as a tater-tot, was actually a puree of butter and potato coated with panko and flash fried – honestly it may have been better than the fish! Accompanying this masterpiece was the second utilization of my centerpiece – a vessel containing dry ice and “elements of the grill.” With hot water added the high-school-science-esque volcano erupted with the scent of onion, garlic, charcoal, lemon, and smoke and simulated the smell of a barbeque indoors – much more effective than that time we attempted to grill in our freshman dorm at OSU.
Appropriately wowed by what I’d just experienced I was informed that I’d be moving onto dessert next and was once again brought a trio. Instructed to once again take them in order, the first dish – “Watermelon-Lime, Nasturtium” was a hard-shelled sphere made of lime and filled with a pink center – like a watermelon. Sitting in a broth of Nasturtium the optical-illusion of a shot glass was consumed and the sphere exploded I the mouth creating a flavor much akin to Hawaiian Punch.
Following this dish was a long cylinder – “Bubble Gum-Long Pepper, Hibiscus.” Instructed to place the tube in my mouth like a cigar and “suck hard” on the purple end what followed was a rollercoaster of scents, tastes, and textures that due to the method of delivery actually filled the nose, mouth, and sinuses with the very essence of Bubble Gum. Interestingly, despite the overarching “theme” of the flavor, the distinct tastes of tangy hibiscus, bitter long-pepper, and sour crème fraiche accented with bubble-yum tapioca pearls were all notable as they traversed the mouth.
The final part of the trio, another Achatz classic – “Transparency-of Raspberry, Yogurt” was sort of a blend between a fruit roll-up and a piece of rock candy. Thin, hard, and served in a metal clip I wanted to steal for business card holding purposes the wonderfully tart raspberry was well tempered by the smoothness of yogurt and the high notes/fragrance of rose-petal.
Moving on and getting full (no worries, not full enough) I was next brought one of Alinea’s pillows – this time filled with Lavender Air. Accompanying the pillow, “Rhubarb-Goat Milk, Onion, Lavender Air.” Setting the plate atop the pillow the diner is instantly welcomed to this experience with a slow release of lavender tones that seem to last forever. Atop the plate and actually well complimented by the floral tones is yet another exploration of textures and aromas with goats milk cheesecake, rhubarb marmalade, sweet onion cotton candy, rhubarb jelly, crystallized rhubarb, and a milky yet sweet onion accented ice cream. Seemingly entirely out of place, this dish actually reminded me of desserts at Providence and Charlie Trotter’s where several disparate elements somehow come together to equal a whole vastly more impressive than the sum of their parts.
Asked if I’d like coffee at this point I accepted – served after the completion of the next two dishes (IE, around 12:10am on 08/02) the double press of Intelligentsia Sumatran blend was quite good – though I will admit I was a tad annoyed when this appeared as an $8 surcharge on my bill. Certainly not a big deal given the price and quality, but if I have one gripe about incredible fine dining it is strange surcharges like this (Alex, TFL, Trotter’s, and Providence have coffee included – fyi.) All that said, when something so small as that is your only gripe in a 4.25 hour meal…yeah.
Arriving next was a young man I hadn’t seen before – and he was carrying what appeared to be a tarp – actually a long silicone drape (I later overheard a story at my neighboring table about how these drapes were invented and also how they are cleaned – a two day process that evolved my respect for Achatz’s dedication even further.) What followed the drape being spread on my table was the arrival of ~10-15 small bowls and plates – and then a surprise I couldn’t have even imagined – Chef Achatz himself arriving to the table to prepare my dessert tableside – for 2 minutes and 6 seconds. If a picture is worth a thousand words, look below. I say a video is worth a million – watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wti01daBGYs. Simply called “Chocolate-Blueberry, Tobacco, Maple” the dish was a masterpiece served by a master – poached blueberries, blueberry gelee, spherified maple syrup, a block of chocolate mousse frozen with liquid nitrogen, malt icecream, tobacco infused cream, thyme…just turn up the volume and listen to the man. Only 2 tables in the room (mine and my neighbor’s immediately afterward) had the chef himself prepare the dish – an honor I’ll remember as much as the signed menu I received at meal’s end.
The final dish of the evening, a mignardise of sort, was “Pound Cake-Strawberry, Lemon, Vanilla Bean.” Much like the Sara Lee pound cake that my server suggested this was modeled after in texture I actually found the flavor more akin to Junior’s famous strawberry cheesecake with its subtle hints of lemon and heavy essence of vanilla imparted by the vanilla bean used as a serving tool.
When it was all said and done I sat and sipped my coffee while reflecting on the meal – was it the best ever, was it “once in a life time,” was it worth the trip for any foodie – yes, maybe, and yes. Comparing Alinea to my other two favorite meals ever – an extended tasting at The French Laundry and a spontaneous tasting menu at Providence – I simply cannot get over how much Achatz reinvents your idea of what is and what can be done in the kitchen with each and every dish. While Yountville’s 3-starred establishment turns out flawless dish after flawless dish each and every time, Grant’s kitchen does the same and with more gusto, more flourishes, and a smaller bill. With regard to the “maybe” above – I only say that because there is no doubt I’ll be back – but unless Chef Achatz presents to my table to prepare a course again this meal was most definitely “once in a lifetime.”