Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Alinea, Chicago: Exquisite and Exemplary 22 Course Tasting Menu

As you walked through the red corridor and come to the end of the hall, the automatic door to your right opens, and standing behind it is a welcoming hostess. You glance over to the right and survey the kitchen. The kitchen is spotless and the chefs are quietly and efficiently working.

The hostess takes your coat and escorts you upstairs to the modern yet simplistic dining room.

Utensils set on a white pillow lay in the center of the table.

The 22 course tasting menu is presented. There’s only one menu choice. Wine pairing is offered for an additional charge (between $150-$195). The menu itself is insightful. The bubbles beside each course illustrate the size of the course (larger bubble meaning larger serving) and taste (courses go from savory to sweet when the bubble is position left to right). It's brilliant.

You know you are in for a treat. You’re at Alinea, the three Michelin Star, Best North American restaurant and Top 6 restaurant in the world. Chef owner Grant Achatz is known as one of America's best chefs in modern cuisine and molecular gastronomy. So sit back and enjoy one of the best dining experiences you'll ever have.

1. Steelhead Roe ~ dijon, rutabaga, grapefruit
Cocktail of Pierre Gimonnet Brut with Chrysanthemum liqueur and bitters
When our waiter first brought by the menu, he asked if there was anything we didn’t eat. The first course had mustard which I dislike, so he said the kitchen would substitute. I was surprised when the first course was served promptly and both my friend and my plates looked identical. I was sure they had forgotten to omit the mustard. But the kitchen had replaced the self encapsulated mustard custards with thick banana slices. You could not tell the difference between the two dishes. The rutabaga and ruby red grapefruit sauce was thick and complex, and littered with steelhead roe and licorice (not caviar) spheres. The flavors in this first course really came together and popped. It definitely woke up my palate.

2. Yuba ~ shrimp, miso, togarashi
Fried tofu stick was wrapped with shrimp, and dipped in a miso emulsion. I found the texture of the shrimp to be rather interesting. It wasn't rubbery or overcooked, in fact it was a tad undercooked, but in a good way. The flavors in this course were milder than the previous course, but I did find it fun to be able to use my hands to partake of the finger food.

3. Oyster Leaf ~ mignonette
Very interesting course. There was no oyster on this shell but the leaf surprisingly tasted like oyster. The best way to describe how you're supposed to consume this is to eat it like you would an artichoke leaf.

4. Scallop ~ hitachino weizen, old bay
The scallop was cooked nicely and topped with a Japanese beer foam and balanced with sharp scallions. You eat this dish as you would take a shot.

5. Razorfish ~ carrot, soy, daikon
Emmerich Knoll ‘Kellerberg’, Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria 2004
I like razor clams but don't see them served often. The fresh shellfish was topped with carrot, ginger and tapioca pearls. The sauce had a nice spicy kick. Tilt the clam back to get every last drop of sauce.

6.Urchin ~ green garlic, vanilla, mint
The presentation of this course was so delicate. The uni was encapsulated in a vanilla gelee and propped on top of a bowl of green garlic emulsion. Unfortunately I could barely taste the uni and I thought the flavors were overpowered by the intense cilantro and watercress. The broth however was delicious. It was salty, flavorful with a buttery finish.

7. Halibut ~ black pepper, coffee, lemon
Testamatta ‘Cicala del Giglio’, Toscana 2009
The blandest looking dish, you ask? Don't doubt Achatz. There's genius in everything he does. This dish presented in a monochromatic presentation was brilliant. Every element that you know to be black (coffee, black pepper, black licorice) was in fact served in a white form. The dish was anything but boring. This was an exceptionally cooked piece of fish and was appropriately seasoned. The lemon pearls, coffee, pepper foam and vanilla combinations sound odd together but came together. I also enjoyed the parsnip puree which was rich and creamy.

8. Rabbit ~ parfait, rillette, consommé
Niepoort ‘Redoma Branco’ Douro 2009
This was one of my favorite courses of the night because it was a trio of rabbit. The first course was served on the top section of an egg shaped container. After you are finished, you are instructed to remove the lid to continue on with the second and subsequently, third portions. Apparently Chef Achatz first noticed this bowl and conceptualized this course to utilize it.

Part 1 was rabbit mousse with creme fraiche parfait which was smooth and livery. For a contrast in texture, they served this with fried apple, spaghetti squash tuille, puffed butternut squash seeds and fried sage.

Part 2 was rabbit rillette with butternut squash puree, mushrooms and blood sausage. I really enjoyed this dish. The sweetness of the butternut squash and apple gelee worked well with the intense and salty blood sausage.

Part 3 was rabbit consommé with a cinnamon stick. A hot rock was placed at the bottom of the bowl to keep the broth warm.

9) Wild Mushrooms ~ pine, sumac, ramp
Peay ‘Scallop Shelf’ Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2008
I love mushrooms so this was another favorite. The selection of wild mushrooms was earthly and filling. The mushrooms and white peach rested on a pine cream sumac with crumbled pine nut and pickled ramps. Beautiful dish that looked like it was a snapshot of a garden plot. This dish really illustrates the point that fresh vegetables can create a mouthwatering dish.

10) Hot Potato ~ cold potato, black truffle, butter
This is a famous dish because of its unique presentation and is one of Achatz's mad scientist like creations. A pin is skewered with a hot potato ball topped with black truffle, Parmesan chunk and butter cube. When you pull out the pin, the ingredients are dropped into the chilled potato soup. When you shoot everything back like a shot of oyster, you realize the magic of this dish. The soup is simple yet complex with infused truffle flavor. The black truffle lends an upscale factor to this course, and the Parmesan is the perfect nutty and salty component to the dish.

A couple courses prior, our waiter brought by an odd contraption with two orange flags. We weren't told what it was for and were asked not to touch it. We found out it was edible when my friend sampled a tiny corner of the wrapper. Turns out, they left it on the table to encourage conversation and ignite curiosity. The wrappers were for our next course.

11) Short Rib ~ olive, red wine, blackberry
Quinta de Vicosa, Alentejo, Portugal 2005

We were asked to put together our serving equipment which included a metal stand. Ingredients were brought by and we were asked to assemble our own ravioli. I just love how Alinea is daring enough to ask guests in this fine dining establishment to put together their own dishes.

The ingredients include smoked sea salt, blackberry, charred onion, nicoise olive, tart cherry, tobacco pudding in spoon, salsify, parsley, tomato vinaigrette, fermented garlic, and pickled turnip. The short ribs were beautifully cooked, fork tender and braised in a rich salty sauce. I really enjoyed the DIY method as I was able to omit the items that I do not care for. It was fun to play with the ingredients. Who would have thought that blackberry and fermented garlic would go so well with short ribs? I only wished the tomato pasta could have had a little seasoning.

12) Hamachi ~ west indies spices, banana, ginger
This was a spiced banana fritter that had a light and airy breading and was not greasy. The fried ball was infused with ginger, passionfruit and vanilla bean. Once again, unique combinations. Unfortunately I couldn't taste the hamachi, it seemed that the banana flavor overwhelmed the other components.

13) Agneau ~ sauce choron, pomme de terre noisette
Napanook, Napa Valley 2007
The lamb dish is where Achatz pays homage to French chef August Escoffier. The lamb loin sits on a crouton and is topped with a poached artichoke heart and asparagus stem. The choron is a tomato bernaise sauce. The side of hazelnuts adds a crunch. It's a contemporary take on a very traditional dish.

14) Venison ~ cherry, cocoa nib, eucalyptus
The skewered cube of venison was tender. It was served on a bed of eucalyptus leaves and lightly dressed with sweet cherry compote.

15) Black Truffle ~ explosion, romaine, Parmesan
One of my favorite courses and also their signature dish, this was a soup dumpling served in a spoon. You are advised to eat it with lips sealed tight as the warm truffle infused broth may end up exploding at your dining companions. The rush of flavors from the soup was delightful. It was comforting and soothing. The wrapper wasn't thick or gummy. The dish was delicate and delicious, something that I could easily consume many more of.

16) Yuzu ~ snow
Palate cleanser of yuzu frozen by liquid nitrogen. Tangy and cold to the lips.

17) Sweet Potato ~ cedar, bourbon, pecan
Nittanus ‘Premium’ Beerenauslese, Burgenland, Austria, NV
This dish really played with your sense of smell. The dish was served on a heated cedar plank which infused its scent into the food. Sweet potato mousse was accompanied with bourbon, crumbled pecan, cayenne pepper fairy floss. It's good to be reminded that great desserts do not always have to include chocolate. I also enjoyed the sweet dessert wine pairing.

18) Lemongrass ~ dragonfruit, finger lime, cucumber
The test tube was filled with an interesting mix of fluid and gelatin. It was fun to suck all the ingredients out from one end. I found the shot of dragon fruit and lemongrass to be very refreshing and sweet.

The next three dessert courses were served concurrently.

19) Bacon ~ butterscotch, apple, thyme
20) Nutella ~ bread, banana, chocolate
21) Lychee ~ jasmine tea
AE Dor ‘Pineau Francois’ 1es, Pineau de Chartentes

The swine on a swing is the only item that remains from the original menu. It was basically candied bacon with a nice sweet salty combination. The center dessert was a freeze-dried nutella banana sandwich. I loved how the dry items combined together in your mouth. The last item was a thin sheet of lychee chard dusted with Jasmine tea powder that dissolved on your tongue and left an intense lychee flavor.

Last but not least, the dessert grand finale.

22) Chocolate ~ blueberry, honey, peanut
Toro Albata ‘Don PX’ Gran Reserva, Montill-Moriles, Spain
Ingredients were brought to the table but don't touch them. A rubber mat was placed on the table and the dessert chef came by to assemble this last course.

He expertly creates dollops and smears of chocolate and caramel on the canvas.

He also caramelized the creme brulee with a torch.

The end result is a masterpiece of chocolate shortbread, peanut butter nougat, pickled blueberry puree, milk sweetened with honey, hot chocolate, green and purple basil, honey custard brûlée and milk chocolate mousse that was frozen in liquid nitrogen and cracked table side. I enjoyed them all but my favorite was the mousse which had an intense chocolate flavor.

It's hard to articulate how amazing dinner at Alinea was. Service was impressive. Our waiters were professional but also had a sense of humor. I've had exceptional meals at top restaurant, but this one takes the cake on ingenuity and playfulness. It was by far the most fun dining experience I've had to date. But Achatz didn't just wow us with his presentation tricks. His food is impressive. Everything was spot on and well executed. I loved his insight to pair seemingly odd-matched ingredients together. I love how he lets you play with your food. The portions and pairings were perfectly sized where you didn't leave trashed, hungry or wanting to barf. Everything was well thought out from how the ingredients of each dish enhance each other, to the choice of utensils and design of the menu. It truly is a once in a lifetime experience.

Hits: dishes from conception to execution
Misses: reservations get snapped up quickly
Rating: *****

1723 N Halsted
Chicago IL 60614
(312) 867-0110


Anonymous said...

Always a real treat to read through Alinea posts! If I lived in Chicago, I'd make a standing reservation to eat there once every two months! At $195/person, $100 a month doesn't sound bad for a recurring blow your mind experience :P

weezermonkey said...

OMG x infinity.

A dream.

Kung Food Panda said...

I'm always happy to read another Alinea post. It just makes me want to go back there, ASAP!

Gastronomer said...

Alinea is such a special place! I visited back in 2007 and dare I say, the place has gotten even more exciting. I am most intrigued by the final course. Edible art. Awesome.

12345 said...

Great post. Going back in a few weeks, these pics are making me hungry.

bagnatic said...

this is such a crazy amazing looking dinner. alas, a plane ride to this meal seems rather out of reach for me :'( i shall live vicariously through your post and other lucky alinea eaters.