When I first ate at Alinea on August the 1st 2009 I stated it was the best dining experience of my life (http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2009/08/alinea-chicago-il.html), trumping an extended tasting at The French Laundry that cost twice the price...I knew at some point I’d go back, but there were many other places to try on my ever growing list. After Alinea I visited Savoy and Robuchon, L2O, Daniel, Picholine, Ko, and did an extended tasting at Per Se before Benno left - all save Ko were excellent and worth their price - but none trumped Alinea. When the opportunity arose on an Ash Wednesday cancellation when I’d conveniently have a layover at O’Hare I called my friend Dave and asked if he’d be interested – he said “Oh Hell Yes,” an appropriate response.
Arriving moments before my 6:00pm reservation I checked in with the hostess and as my friend was stuck in traffic I was escorted to the table, upstairs this visit. A larger room than the downstairs but with tables equally spaced I chatted with one of my multiple servers about the artwork – provided in this case by a local artist and changing with the season, my previous visit, and dining in general. Watching a few neighbors receive their dishes from the shorter menu I saw some familiar items but also some new ones I’d soon be experiencing. When my friend arrived the Sommelier stopped by and discussed the wine pairings, however Dave opted for a bottle of California Red and I had a few small pours along with my water.
In order to not belabor the discussion I will note that the service during this visit to Alinea was every bit on par with my previous experience – ever present but never obvious, descriptive without talking down, water and wine filled as if by an invisible hand. While the waiter-to-diner interaction I loved on my first visit was obviously less important (and less focused upon) since I was not dining alone, I still felt as though our servers wanted to know us as diners and went out of their way to ask and answer questions. Finally, while Alinea has done away with bread service in order to focus on the food (unfortunate as their butter was sublime) the courses flowed seamlessly without the need of bread to refresh the palate and while I myself left comfortably full my friend noted even before the main dessert that he was getting stuffed.
Beginning the meal approximately 10 minutes after Dave’s arrival our first dish was excellent – it wowed me and gave Dave an idea of what was to come. Entitled Char Roe - Plantain, Ginger, Papaya the dish acted to pair the salty roe with tropical nuance – per our waiter Char comes from cold water and they wanted to give it an island vacation. Served inside a nutmeg “glass” we shattered the elegant presentation like a crème brulee to release the amalgam of roe and spices that I believe included cilantro and basil into a foam and gel with strong hints of papaya, plantain, ginger, and lime. A great degree of texture, a great balance of sweet and salty, creamy yet spicy and acidic – an intense and beautiful opening dish.
Dish two was an Alinea signature and was seen by myself on the previous, Yuba - Shrimp, Miso, Togarashi. Like an old friend the pen-in-ink dish greeted my palate with a wonderful mélange of savory and sweet, spicy and aromatic, crisp yet texturally varied.
Dish three was a dish I’d heard about but didn’t understand until I experienced it. Entitled Chao Tom - Sugar Cane, Shrimp, Mint the dish was Alinea’s take on the traditional Vietnamese dish usually served as a skewer of shrimp. In this case the dish was indeed served on a skewer, but aside from that the presentation was entirely unique. Featuring a compressed piece of fresh sugar cane that had apparently been boiled in shrimp and ginger stock before being topped with garlic, mint, peanut, and shallot the diner was instructed to place the bite in his/her mouth and chew it up to extract all the flavor prior to spitting out the fibrous cane. Following the instructions I have to say I wasn’t entirely impressed by this dish in terms of texture but its taste was excellent and the concept certainly not something I’d seen prior.
Distillation - of Thai Flavors was the next dish and this time unlike prior it was served solo in a wine glass prior to the pork dish as a palate cleanser. Featuring prominent heat on smell the distillation had none on sipping – a total mind bender – and instead tasted like a salty fish sauce with hints of lime.
At this point in the meal our “centerpiece” of 2 flags came into play. Described on the menu as Pork Belly - Curry, Cucumber, Lime we were delivered a multi-tiered plate that we were instructed to subsequently disassemble and reconstruct into a hammock. Onto the hammock our flags, actually flowered rice paper, were then draped and topped with a heaping spoon of slow roasted pork belly. From here on out the dish is left to the decision of the diner as multiple accoutrements are provided with which to create a haute-spring roll. Including spicy, sweet, savory, and pungent ingredients I opted to simply use all and was greatly rewarded with a delectable admixture while my friend deferred on some of the spices and was equally impressed.
Following the international trend set by previous dishes our next experience was sever in the hand bowl and featured Octopus - Green Garbanzo, Mint, Dill. First taking the intensely flavorful and smoky octopus with hints of coriander and dill and subsequently chasing it with a soup of what I can only describe as hummus spiked with sour yogurt this dish provided a unique flavor profile that started briny and savory but finished creamy and tart.
With each dish previous impressive it was dish seven that provided the first showstopper of the evening…or should I perhaps say three showstoppers? Entitled Lobster - parfait, salad, soup this dish was surprise after surprise after surprise. Featuring the air of chai the first presentation was a parfait of chilled lobster consomme, grapefruit, mint flavored cream, candied ginger, and pistachio ice cream along with a crumbly mixture of what our server stated was pistachio and lobster cracker. Hot/cold, sharp/smooth, tart/refined – and it only got better.
With my friend assuming this course was done he stood up to use the restroom and our plates were oddly not cleared. Assuming this meant there was more to the dish I waited and sure enough on Dave’s return the top of the plate was removed to reveal the salad component – poached lobster and eggplant confit, parsnip, mint, cilantro most notably and topped with a savory vinaigrette.
Finishing our salad (and guessing where this dish was going) the plate was again taken apart yielding the hefty aroma of chai in a lower bowl. Taking this lower bowl and straining it into a cup our server finally presented us with the “soup” of the dish – an admixture of lobster broth, cream, clove, cinnamon, and undoubtedly other spices that tasted like a thick and creamy chai at first but left a gossamer finish resonating of lobster and cinnamon (uniquely similar to the lobster at Picholine, actually.)
Dish eight (or perhaps eleven if you counted all the lobster dishes as separate) was Duck - Chestnut, Mace, Brussels Sprouts and given the amount of duck I’d consumed in the previous week I was looking for something great…and per usual Alinea delivered. Featuring honey accented duck breast and foie gras served in a sweetened duck stock with hints of mace the duck alone was beautifully prepared and only improved by its accompaniments of fennel, crisp Brussels sprout leaves, and what our server described as “chestnut pillows” that tasted much precisely like chestnut but with the texture of whipped cream.
Dish nine was perhaps Chef Achatz’s most famous creating and it once again wowed me. While Dave merely stated “that was interesting” upon mastication of Black Truffle - Explosion, Romaine, Parmesan I still contend that the only problem with this dish is that I can’t easily make it at home…or order a whole plate of them.
Dish ten through twelve constituted the the “dessert” portion of the first half of our menu and began with Peanut Butter - Dried and Spicy. A delicate bite of dehydrated peanut butter and what I assume was either cayenne or curry (or both) the most interesting aspect of this dish was the fact that the mouth-feel and taste was that of peanut butter while the palate and nostril essence was that of the spice.
Following the peanut butter was Thai Banana - Beer, Mustard, Pecans. Apparently a unique style of chewy banana called Hua Moa this dish was a small slice topped with candied pecan, mustard icing, and a somewhat hops accented finish.
Having already had peanut butter and banana it was only natural to end this trio with bacon – in this case Grant’s now-famous bow presentation of Bacon - Butterscotch, Apple, Thyme. More savory than I remember it the delectable pork texture poked through the caramel apple flavor this time with great effect.
Bridging from sweet to savory to begin the second half of our tour was something that would’ve likely seemed more novel had I not been to David Chang’s Momofuku Ko in January – but regardless the effect at Alinea was not only on par, but superior. Foie Gras - Pear, White Wine, Allspice was described as “pushed and pressed” and featured a confetti of creamy foie gras terrine with hints of allspice served over a sauternes gel and topped with crispy wafer thin slices of spiced pear. More textural than the famous version at Ko due to the pears and more nuanced with the allspice – I was impressed, Dave was “oh, wow – that is amazing.”
For dish fourteen, Sturgeon - Potato, Leek, Smoke, it is hard to believe that something with so much going on could have such great flow – it worked much like a Dali painting or fine jazz. Utilizing a beautiful sous vide preparation of sturgeon studded across the plate and complimented with purees of leek, chive, and potato plus slices of radish and celery the dish was served linearly and bridged by a long sheet of crispy potato above and a fruit roll-up like gel that tasted of both apple and liquid smoke. Eaten piecemeal or putting it all together this dish was a work of art and a study in food.
Moving along towards heavier textures was the tempura preparation of the evening, in this case Goose - Stuffing, Prune, Juniper Aroma. Presented as what appeared to be a bowl of pine needles with the wonderful aroma of juniper we were instructed to grasp one branch and upon lifting we discovered a single bite tempura attached to the end of the “skewer.” Featuring prunes soaked in alcohol, stuffing with accents of fennel and onion, and a central portion of fatty goose breast all perfectly prepared this was yet another dish I’ll not soon forget – as much as I loved the sweet potato with cinnamon, this one was even better.
Dish sixteen, another classic - Hot Potato - Cold Potato, Black Truffle, Butter, albeit without the use of the magnetic wand to collect the pin on this occasion. Warmer than I remember last time the potage was still sublime and if possible the essence of truffle even more pronounced on this visit.
At dish seventeen our menus temporarily diverged because of my distaste for the texture of beef flesh (or so I thought.) Delivered to Dave was the classic Filet du Boeuf Goddard while I myself was delivered “Poussin - Winter Root Vegetables.” Classic recipes served with classic flatware and a French Bordeaux I was quite pleased with my dish of buttery chicken with crispy skin, potato croquettes and spheres, and caramelized onions alongside three different styles of black truffle. For Dave’s dish he was treated to a thick slice of sous vide Wagyu loin, sweetbreads, tongue, and mushrooms topped with a savory reduction. Insisting that I try the loin because it was “amazing and tastes nothing like ‘steak’ at all” I obliged and must admit it was divine – almost ham like in texture with a clean and grassy taste.
Dishes eighteen through twenty were a course of edible cocktails, a new concept Chef Achatz and team have been toying with and will apparently soon be implementing into a new restaurant. Served as a trio we started with Passion Fruit - Rum, Cranberry, Orange. Intended to represent a Hurricane cocktail I found this the most delicious of the three with a passionfruit shell containing an admixture of passionfruit seeds, rum, and cranberry orange juice that had a texture of tapioca.
Following the hurricane was Elixir Vegetal - Sugar Cube, Fennel, Lemon. Served on the silver tray and featuring a single sugar cube accented with Grande Elixer Vegetal plus sweet fenel bulb, and lemon I personally though this tasted of a Mojito without the mint – in general I didn’t taste any alcohol, however.
Having returned from New Orleans that day I found a degree of irony to the next dish - Kumquat - Rye, Peychaud's, Demerara in that it was intended to taste of a Sazerac (a drink I’ve never tasted but was omnipresent in NOLA. With heavy hints of anise and rye plus a sourness that tasted like lemon I have to say this was my least favorite of our 29 courses that evening and even Dave noted “wow, that is strong.”
In a meal that contained many wowing moments it was our final savory that provided the most oohs and aahs both for its presentation and its taste. Dubbed Venison - Fireplace Log, Pumpernickel, Licorice this seasonally inspired dish was described as the chef’s attempt to recreate the smell of a fireplace and actually served the dish on a charred log. Explaining to us that the organic feel of the dish was created with the concept that all black foods can logically be paired together we were left to explore. Featuring the hearty flavors of black trumpet mushrooms paired with sweet raisins in the sauce, bitter pumpernickel bread and black garlic in the “dirt,” butter braised vegetables to offset the crispy dried trumpets, and finally a sensual nearly raw sous-vide preparation of venison and a cranberry gelee this dish was truly an experience and the smell of the log led Dave to exclaim that he’d no longer accept foods not served in such a manner...though I’m pretty sure his wife will have something to say about that.
Transitioning to desserts was a quick palate cleanser - Lemon Soda - One Bite. Quite literally a dissolving packet this “dish” was the very essence of a lemonhead with a carbonated tingle not unlike a pop-rock without the pop.
Dish twenty three, four, five, and six were served together and featured three classics and one new taste. Beginning first with the Transparency – of Raspberry, Yogurt Dave was very pleased by the intense raspberry rock candy/fruit roll up hybrid while I noted a tad less of the flower essence from previous yet a more intent raspberry flavor.
Moving next to Bubble Gum - Long Pepper, Hibiscus, Creme Fraiche I’m not sure Dave liked this dish but I again was impressed by the manner in which the individual tastes peaked through as I inhaled the tube while the overarching flavor of bubble gum was indeed the essence that lingered on the palate afterwards.
Moving next to the novel item of the group (and my first experience with the antenna service piece) we experienced Quince - Hazelnut, Bacon, Thyme. With a texture like granola and a flavor not substantially different from the previous bow presentation earlier I have to say this dish did not move me, but I did like its inclusion – it will be interesting to see if this develops over time, perhaps into a course exploring manners of pairing bacon with fruit in unique presentations.
The final pre-dessert was Pound Cake - Strawberry, Lemon, Vanilla Bean and again it truly did bring forth memories of Junior’s strawberry cheesecake, though I actually quite liked it as the “mignardise” course during my first visit moreso than its current pre-dessert placement in the menu. Dave particularly liked this dish, as I recall.
Heading towards the larger desserts we were next served something I’ve never eaten – Hay. While some may state Hay is for horses, I’d be quite alright with Hay - Burnt Sugar, Coffee, Huckleberry any day of the week. Intended to bring forth memories of fall and winter this dish features a custard made by steeping hay in heavy cream and the overall flavor of the reduced pudding is quite grassy and nutty, not unlike a chestnut or hazelnut. Paired with a bitter coffee accented cookie and sweet huckleberries with additional visual appeal and texture added by a burnt sugar crystal perched on top the dish is finally served atop a pillow of mellow air that to me resembled the smell of dry leaves and flowers – sweet yet earthy much like the dish.
Finishing the pre-dessert we were next brought the now-famous silicone sheet and my mind flashed back to my previous meal – a meal I stated would be once in a lifetime “unless Chef Achatz presents to my table to prepare a course again” in the future. Thankfully, both for myself and for Dave, while the dish I had on my previous experience was perhaps once in a lifetime the chance to watch the Chef work was not. Entitled “Chocolate - Coconut, Menthol, Hyssop” the video can be seen here and is most certainly worth 1,000 words or more http://www.youtube.com/user/uhockey1#p/a/u/0/DrYgagwhjAY. Like a peppermint patty only infinitely more nuanced the most impressive aspect of the dish was the strong contrast between the warm 68% Valrhona chocolate and the medicinal cool of the menthol while the coconut in its various forms balanced the two by enhancing the chocolate tones and mellowing the menthol. Additionally playing with hot and cold concepts – the hot liquid pudding and the liquid nitrogen mousse, chewy and crunchy – the coconut rocks and the menthol/chocolate crumbs, and finally adding a spicy component with the anise hyssop I was glad Dave was getting full so I could sneak a few extra spoonfuls of the mousse.
The final taste of our evening was a fitting end to a winter menu - Eggnog - Pedro Ximenez, Benedictine, Buffalo Trace. Similar to the Watermelon-Lime, Nasturtium dish from the summer menu in presentation the dish consisted of an eggnog shelled sphere filled with a spicy and vegetal cocktail with notes of cinnamon floating in a shot of sweet Pedro Ximenez. Taken as a single bite the sphere ruptured on mastication filling the mouth with a balance of sweet and cinnamon while the end effect was punchy with a hot bourbon finish.
Settling the tab and thanking our servers we finished coffee and espresso before making our way to the street, finding the car, and headed for the ‘burbs. Throughout the drive we discussed the food and experience, each of us loving both similar and different parts, but both thoroughly impressed and trying to decide when to make a return visit – yes, me, the guy who rarely dines at the same place twice even in his home town planning for a third trip…yes, it really is that good.