Alinea, Revisited

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Frankly, I was a little apprehensive as I approached Alinea’s unmarked door several weeks ago to meet my close friend from high school, Ageless Dr. M., and his partner G, in town from the East Coast, for our dinner reservation. Despite, arguably, being the most talked-about and most written-about restaurant in Chicago, and a true dining destination (anecdotally, I’ve heard that around 60% of the restaurant’s nightly reservations are from out-of-towners) I haven’t been back in close to three years – since my wondrous, mind-expanding dinner with BFF Rene which landed at the top of my most memorable dining experiences of that year.  With the financial and time commitment it requires, it’s not like you can go to Alinea any old day of the week because you don’t feel like cooking or you feel like celebrating a good performance review or a Cubs win.  I also feel that dining there is such a singular experience, creating wonderful new memories and strengthening old ones, that you want to have the right dining companions to savor its pleasures and surprises with; the unexpected, daring, yet thoughtful connections it makes between food, chef, and diner over the course of several hours.  Ageless Dr. M is one of my oldest friends from the Philippines and is passionate, like me, about all things culinary (and, unlike me, is quite the home cook), so during his and G’s visit to Chicago, Alinea needed to be part of the weekend itinerary, no question about it.  But part of me still wondered – would Grant Achatz’s acclaimed “molecular gastronomy” cuisine still blow me out of the water and into the stratosphere, the second time around?  Might those still-vividly etched memories of my first encounter with his food lose some of their burnish because this next go-round would feel somewhat familiar or comfortable?  I’m glad to say, though, that dining at Alinea in early April was like dining there for the first time once again (a very welcome culinary Ground Hog Day) – astounding, breathtaking, horizon-broadening, thought-provoking, definitely not familiar nor comfortable, and yes, delicious to the last bite.  The big Chicago food news this week was of Alinea being voted #7 in the world and #1 in North America in Restaurant Magazine and San Pellegrino’s “World’s 50 Best Restaurants”, finally overtaking a restaurant owned by Achatz’s mentor, Thomas Keller, as the best in the region (either The French Laundry or Per Se had occupied the top regional slot since the list’s inception in the early 2000s).  I couldn’t loudly, whoopingly, agree more, and with my recent experience, I’m pretty convinced Alinea would crack that top 5 (all held by European restaurants) pretty soon.  I think that unmarked, nondescript black townhouse on Halsted St. contains, behind its doors, what 21st century fine dining is and should continue to be.

I’m not going to attempt to do a detailed play-by-play of the dinner.  It doesn’t make sense since one has to experience it to truly appreciate it.  Plus, there were so many components and cooking techniques in those dishes that, despite copious notes, I wouldn’t be able to say exactly and comprehensively what each of the 14 dishes were comprised of *(we went for the Tasting menu, the Tour had approximately 24 dishes).  Instead, I’d like to tell you the reasons why I went home that night convinced that I couldn’t get Achatz’s food anywhere else in this city, or in this country.

The first course of steelhead roe, plantains, and papaya encased in a nutmeg “glass” set the pace for the evening. We had to break the “glass” and then mix up all the ingredients inside together with some plantain puree, carbonated ginger beer foam, and other elements on the plate.  It was playful and interactive, reassuring us that despite all the hallowed-temple-of-dining acclaim, this wasn’t going to be a stuffy, self-important, hush-tones meal. It was quite delicious as well, a very interesting mix of sweet, sour/citrusy, and spicy flavor tones, and delicacy (the roe) and density (the plantain and papaya).

Steelhead Roe – plantain, ginger, papaya

Then the “palate primer” came out.  In a small, sexy wine glass was a course called “distillation of thai flavors.”  It was liquid, with the consistency of water, but the surprising flavors of lemongrass, Thai chilis, and fish sauce balanced in a minimalist but definitive way.  There were no mistaking those flavors and where they came from; but one had to wonder how they got there.  It also evoked memories of Bangkok, where I had spent a lot of time in years ago; not those of the jostling, frenzied, people-and-motorcycle-mad streets that were conjured up by the many authentic Thai storefronts I frequent in Chicago, but those of the languid, gracious lawns of its famous temples, such as the Grand Palace.  Brilliant.

The third course was jaw-dropping, the first of several.  When we were first seated, we noticed that there were small flags set in the middle of the table, which we were told to ignore.  For this course, our servers came out with large blocks of beautifully finished wood with glass plates on top of them containing a variety of elegantly plated ingredients such as banana slices partially dusted with curry powder, a couple of cashews, toasted marigold leaves, diced red onion, diced cucumber, a small bowl of lime and basil seeds in coconut cream, a single drop of sriracha on a spoon, among others.  We were told to carefully remove the glass plate, then to unfurl our wood blocks, revealing black metal “girders” (for lack of a better term), which we then used to attach the flags on the table, actually hand-painted rice paper, to form hammocks with.  Wow!  Our servers then scooped slow-braised pork belly on to the rice paper pouches and told us to mix and match whatever ingredient we wanted on the glass plate to come up with a DIY spring roll that we should eat with our hands. 

My brain just exploded at this point so I wasn’t paying any attention to what Ageless Dr. M and G were doing; I dumped everything on my glass plate into the pork belly mixture and was rewarded with an exhilarating combination of assertive ingredients working beautifully, harmoniously well together.  The pork belly was deliriously and luxuriously milky-soft and it was ineffably seasoned by the other ingredients – the three bites of the spring roll combined garlicky, spicy, sweet, creamy, sour, oniony, fruity in a dish that confidently transcended one’s preconceptions on what it was or what it should be.  It was Asian in concept, but not defined by a sense of roots or place.  I also loved the fact that this was a dish that not only marvelously captured our 21st century ethos of choice and self-reliance, but paid homage to the fact that meals were originally (and continues to be in many parts of the world) eaten with one’s hands.

Pork Belly – curry, cucumber, lime (the initial glass tray very darkly photographed)

I needed a second jaw since the first one was already scattered all over Alinea’s sleek dining room floor when the fourth course came out.  It started with a lobster “parfait” which was made up of chilled lobster gelee, lobster croutons, parsnip ice cream, and white poppyseed nage, which looked and tasted like more solid foam (I think there were some ginger candy in there as well).  It was a heady dish since every bite was different:  sometimes rich, sometimes tart, sometimes sweet-savory, at times cold, at other times warm or room temperature.   

Once we were done, the first container was removed to reveal a second bowl nesting inside containing lobster meat, eggplant confit, mungbean sprouts, and coriander, among others.  In order to make it into a “warm lobster salad”, a chai tea liquid was poured over these ingredients and then allowed to filter through slats on the plate and into what could only be a third bowl underneath.  These were big, brazen flavors in the dish- the firm-fleshed, sweetish lobster absorbed a tinge of the smokiness of the chai tea while complemented by the fullness of the confited eggplant.

Once we finished the “salad”, the bowl was removed to reveal the third container with the poured liquid steeping underneath with lobster stock and a variety of herbs and spices.  This lobster bisque “essence” was then poured onto a shot glass to finish the course:  I thought it was less of a lobster bisque, which, for me, connoted comfort, warmth, unapologetic brassiness, and more of a strong, thick tea, with savory, mostly seafood, elements.  It was probably my least favorite of the three parts of the course. Overall though the lobster course was exhilarating, thoughtfully, imaginatively, and playfully conveying the various ways we could use this important food product

Lobster – parfait, salad, soup (the top photo was the salad before the liquid was poured, bottom photo was the parfait)

The most breathtaking, and to me, the best, course of the night came next.  Sturgeon, that Bette Davis of white fish, haughty, aggressive, larger-than-life, so difficult to cook well, was prepared sous-vide and paired with an apple cider and potato “smoke”, which was like a hybrid sauce and gel, and garnished with a potato crisp, leek puree, potato puree, fresh radish, and parsley and celery croutons.  The dish was plated beautifully with the fish and the smoke moving diagonally from lower left to upper right, with peaks and valleys, the garnishes dotting the landscape, visually evoking a great symphonic piece.  But the taste, man, it was more spectacular than the view!  The robust oiliness of the fish was tempered by the sous vide, and its succulent meat was complemented by the pungent masculinity of the smoke, the enveloping creaminess of the purees, and the insolent sharpness of the croutons.  It was a dish that I could have eaten on and on, to continuously uncover surprising layers and associations, akin to seeing a great Michael Haneke film or Edward Albee play.

Sturgeon – potato, leek, smoke

The next course was interesting, but quite precious – a one-bite tempura of shad roe stuck on one of Alinea’s signature metal contraptions with a bay twig whose aroma one was supposed to inhale while eating.  The seventh course though was another stunner, and my second best dish of the night.  It was Achatz’s homage to the greatness of culinary tradition, a humble recognition that molecular gastronomy could only have been possible through the evolution of visionary cooking techniques throughout the centuries.  The beef course was a contemporary rendition of August Escoffier’s filet de bouef, godard.  Served on an antique plate with antique silverware, it was a beautifully composed dish of a piece of sous-vide wagyu tenderloin, seared perfectly rare, surrounded by delicate quenelles of truffle and beef, lightly breaded sweetbreads, a buttery mushroom cap, braised cockscomb (yes, you read that right), and veal stock and champagne sauce dots.  The dish was seriously awe-inspiring to this diner, demonstrating perfect techniques but also an impressive thoughtfulness on how to view culinary legacy through our contemporary eyes.  I was just breathless (and was mercifully revived by the excellent Burgundy wine pairing that was also served in antique wine goblets).

Filet De Boeuf – godard

The duck course, which came ninth in the tasting menu, was bookended by two Alinea classic one-biters- the “hot potato, cold potato” dish which stuck potato and truffle on another metal contraption and which one then pulled to drop them into a potato soup waiting below, and the butterscotch-apple flavored bacon hanging on what looked like post-modern clotheswire, a dish I’ve had at my previous meal.  The duck course was effervescent, markedly capturing the essence of early spring-soft, comforting, fleeting-in its combination of perfectly medium-rare duck breasts, cushiony duck gizzards, sweet morels and English peas, refreshing mint, dewy lettuce leaves, and earthy foie gras, all gently ensconced in billowy chamomile tea foam. 

Duck – morels, english peas, chamomile

Then the three dessert courses arrived.  Frankly, I could have done without the final dessert course, a gimmicky combination of bubble gum tapioca, crème fraiche, hibiscus, and long pepper that you sucked out of a test tube-like device.  The other two, though, were superb.  Course number eleven was showstopping:  on a plate were two piles of “rocks/gravel” that were formed out of pine nuts among other things (some of the stuff I couldn’t even tell what they were; they were all delicious though and the whole thing tasted cookie-like), crowned with lemon custard spheres, and then joined together by a mischievously shaped white chocolate “noodle”; this plate was on top of a pillow which released an Earl Grey tea aroma as you ate through the plate. A take off on “tea and cookies”, Alinea imaginatively expanded on the original’s refined sensibility.  Mindblowing.

Earl Grey – lemon, caremelized white chocolate

The other dessert was an abbreviated version of the “mat” dessert which in the Tour version was pretty elaborate and prepared tableside, sometimes by Chef Achatz himself.  The Tasting version was a plate of chocolate custard, coconut mousse, coconut pudding, things that looked chocolate and menthol “rocks”, chocolate “dirt”, and hyssop garnish.  Combining all these elements together produced a haunting, almost ethereal taste sensation – the warm, earthy sweet-bitterness of the chocolate was layered by the creaminess of the coconut, the cooling assertiveness of the menthol, and the subtle spiciness of the hyssop.  It was a different dish, somewhat of an acquired tasted, but definitely memorable.

Chocolate – coconut, pine nut, menthol, hyssop

This was definitely the best meal I’ve had so far in 2010.  I’ve now resolved to come to Alinea more frequently than every three years, because as a food-oriented person, it’s my responsibility to continue to be challenged by a strong, inspirational 21st century culinary point of view.  Dining at Alinea isn’t simply eating to sustain, but it’s eating to transform – definitely in the way one looks at food, where it’s sourced, how it’s prepared, what it connotes and associates; but also in the way one looks at, and thinks of, the role of cross-cultural influences, the innovative use of technology, mindful risk-taking, and the power of legacy, the defining characteristics of our 21st century world, as translated in culinary terms by the genius of Chef Achatz and his team.

*I had to look up some of the ingredients and preparations at the invaluable Alinea Mosaic blog.

Alinea is at 1723 N. Halsted in the great city of Chicago.

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5 Responses to “Alinea, Revisited”

  1. Jomart Says:

    Francis,
    That was an excellent piece! I cannot forget that experience, I felt like I was back in Alinea as I was reading your blog. I’m looking forward to our next tasting!

  2. G Says:

    excellent culinary coverage from chicago’s chez…the cuisine and the chez’s conversation making for a very memorable evening – STUPENDOUS & SUPER SARAP ;)

  3. francis Says:

    Thank you, my dears! Your company at the dinner was invaluable. Come back soon!

  4. Joe Says:

    Wow! Sounds like you leave body parts all over the floor, especially jaws and minds. Beautifully written, bro.

  5. francis Says:

    Thanks Joe! We can disagree on Beckett, but we can agree on great cuisine.

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