Alinea – Transcendental

In one way this is an outdated post as our meal at Alinea was in May 2008 but given the astonishing pace of Grant Achatz putting out new dishes it doesn’t matter to write it now or a couple of weeks after the actual meal. The style of cooking has not changed since (as Laurent’s fine review of his end of October meal showed) and my admiration of this all-encompassing experience is greater than ever – especially as I am now a proud owner of the Alinea book.

Chicago has been on our culinary landscape for quite some time but it took us till then to actually be there. A group of five, four days of non-stop eating – that was a fun trip full of ideas and inspirations. We started off with the classic Charlie Trotter’s which turned out to be a rather soulless experience, no single plate clicked. Disappointing!

Alinea was next on a nice Sunday evening – compared to other restaurants from the outside it is unspectacular – only the numbers of the street address show that there might be something behind:

Alinea

Alinea

Walking in is the first surprise as the hallway seems to be much larger than I actually is because you can’t go as far as your view goes. At Alinea it is different and nothing seems as it actually is. You then make a left after the carpet ends, go through an automatic door and there you are, in one of top three avantgarde restaurants in the world (along with Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal;-)) Our party of five was seated upstairs at a very nice and spacious table. I have to say that I didn’t remember much of the ambiance – it was very reduced, modern, but not too cold, almost ruminant.

The Hallway to Heaven

The Hallway to Heaven

It was clear from the beginning that we would go for the tour menu consisting of 27 courses. What a shock in the planning process when their reservation confirmation stated that we would do the smaller tasting menu. Well, it was late seating and I immediately thought that we could not do the tour anymore. With high pulse I immediately picked up the phone and tried to clarify. And, yes, we could also do the tour if we would want to I was told by a very professional lady. Thanks – good karma upfront.

alinea-tour-may2008

Our Tour

After a short view on the wine list we decided to place our well-drinking in the hands of our sommelier Justin Leone – and he did choose and present the wines in an outstanding way. He made this evening even more special as he explained dishes, told some stories here and there and jus made us feel comfortable – thanks, Justin!

We started off with LEMONGRASS – oyster, sesame, yuzu accompanied by the “house cocktail” of Roederer with Sauternes, Farigoule liquer, and vermouth. What could be more representative of Grant’s “cooking” than this – an unusual presentation with the lemongrass serving as the plate, perfection to every detail and a wonderful fresh combination of textures and flavours. No single element did stand out, very harmonious.

Lemongrass, oyster, sesame, yuzu

LEMONGRASS

STEELHEAD ROE – coconut, lime, vanilla fragrance was the second of some sort of amuse – but one must clearly abide with traditional menu set-up. Due the lime caramel wrapping this was crispy first and then released coconut and the acidic roe all slightly flavoured by vanilla. Very good!

Steelhead Roe

STEELHEAD ROE

The last of the ‘snacks’: YUBA shrimp, miso, togarashi. Again a presentation which is beautiful in itself and which I had never seen before. This is Grant’s take on crostini the Japanese way. Yuba is a Japanese specialty made of the skin of soy milk – very hard to make and a showpiece of the technical mastery of the Alinea kitchen. The yuba stick is then garnished with raw shrimp, orange zests and togarashi (Japanese 7-spices consisting of red chilli peppers, black pepper, sesame seeds among others) – then heated until the shrimp is cooked and served with a miso mayonnaise. Excellent!

Yuba

YUBA

Then, a first real course: WHITE ASPARAGUS – licorice vinegar, honey, meyer lemon. Coming from Germany we had quite some white asparagus courses in our lives but this was unisono by far the best one. Conceptually a difference to the small bites before as this dish had a protagonist, a key ingredient to stand out. This had it all – textural, flavourful contrasts and, most importantly, it tasted amazing. Outstanding (a “bomb” as one of my fellow diners tends to say if one dish is really really good)!

WHITE ASPARAGUS

WHITE ASPARAGUS

A soup – well, some sort of: SPRING GARLIC – parsley, lemon, chicken. With the latter three elements on the spoon it is straightforward what to eat first. The bowl of very aromatic and intense (but only slightly flavoured by garlic) soup provided a solid basis. More on the traditional side and very good.

SPRING GARLIC

SPRING GARLIC

Stunning and fascinating: ICE FISH – shellfish, horseradish, parsley. People reading my blog might recognise this as it has become my header’s pic. Here, Grant is appealing to our visual perception. Horseradish and fish is a common pairing and he goes beyond the ordinary and fries the ice fish, accompanies it with a horseradish cream based on shellfish stock, various crispy and dried elements (potato, garlic, parsley, onions, cornichons among others), shellfish marinated with lime and a green asparagus coulis. Needless to say that textures played a role in this dish. Taste was not that important in this – we perceived it more as an intellectual and visual stimulus to the diner. What does it resemble? Looks quite like an underwater picture with some coral reef elements. A stroke of a genius!

Ice Fish

ICE FISH

After that intensity some grounding was required: GREEN ALMOND – sweet, hot, sour, salt. The name almost tells the story – basis is a cucumber jelly garnished with an almond in the middle, sea salt, sugar, cayenne pepper and citric acid in each corner. Excellent palate activator!

Green Almond

SHORT RIB – Guiness, sesame, fried broccoli was next. This was simply delicious and perfectly balanced in every aspect the diner might think of. Again, Grant plays with all textures from crisp to soft to gelatinous. Bitter Guiness and short rib worked extremely well and yielded a carefully balanced dish. Excellent to outstanding.

Short Rib

SHORT RIB

Hard to call a preparation a signature dish at Alinea but this one clearly deserves the name: HOT POTATO – cold potato, black truffle, butter. Debuting in October 2006 it is a immensely clever showpiece how custom service-ware can make all the difference. The key here is the difference in temperature and the trick is to keep the temperatures separate until the diner finally brings them together. The paraffin wax bowl is custom made by the brigade in the kitchen – what an effort! This dish is brilliant – one takes the cold soup in the hand, removes the pin and lets hot potato, butter, chive, truffle and parmesan bond with the soup and then the pleasure begins.

Hot Potato

HOT POTATO - cold potato

To me that was the end of part one of the meal as the following courses were rather small and a step-by-step digression into more sweetness before a second part of savory courses – this is deliberately so to somehow “break the monotony of the savory to sweet progression” (to quote from the Alinea book, p. 45) and to prevent diners from feeling full at the end of the meal. The hypothesis behind that is that people are “probably fatigued from the repetition of flavour profiles”. I will come back to this later…

Next up was CARROT – smoked paprika, orange which was a slightly hot and sweet shot and worked a bit like a palate cleanser. PORK BELLY – smoked paprika, polenta, pickled vegetables was the second of first group of three transitory courses (hm…) – the pairing with Riesling from Dönnhoff was amazing – so the wines deserves a place on the picture. The ‘balls’ are carrot and cucumber served on a piece of pork belly coated with a kind of smoked paprika caramel. Excellent btw. The trio concluded with CHICKEN SKIN truffle, corn thyme which was maybe the weakest part of the menu (but, hey, on what level do we talk?).

Pork Belly

PORK BELLY

A second trio followed: MANGO – soy, foie gras. This was a nice way to circumvent the ban on foie in Chicago – they just brought the piece and labelled it as “a gift from the chef” and it turned out that someone is allowed to give away but not to have it on the menu. Still makes me smile;-) RHUBARB – ginger, basil was again a shot – this time more on the sweet side. TRANSPARENCY of raspberry, rose petal and yogurt is a true visual stimulus when it swings left and right carried by another custom-made service-piece. In his book Grant tells the story that he was inspired by the rose smell of outstanding raspberries a producer brought him one day. The use of spray-dried yogurt powder, he goes on, is a bow to the middle east and the US…

Transparency of Rasperry

TRANSPARENCY

Before the second part of the menu began we somehow witnessed a happening as the service staff brought nitrogen-frozen pieces of some meat carried by wooden chopsticks and just let them stand on our table without much comment. So, the menu is not only playing with our senses in presentation and degustation but also impacts the mind as the diner is immediately in-midst of speculation of how and when this should be eaten. Amazing!

Wagyu - still frozen

FROZEN SOMETHING

Back to the savory courses of the second part of the meal: FAVA BEANS – lavender, banana, pecorino was one of the stars of the night. Seemingly simple but incredibly good – perfect harmony, strong and intense flavours. Absolutely outstanding! This was served in a small glass cylinder and then a waiter relieved it gradually by moving the cylinder upwards – so one can watch how the different pieces fall into place and in a way, each plate is unique. Hot fava been puree, banana ice cream and a crunchy ‘tarte’ of percorino – and, the plate rested on a pillow gradually releasing lavender perfume which made the experience complete. Perfect!

FAVA BEANS

FAVA BEANS

Another small bite in the very sense of the word was next: HONEYDEW – Benton’s ham, pine, mastic. Easy to eat – just bite without hands!

HONEYDEW

The following dish was most classic in some way as it resembled a sort of lobster bisque: LOBSTER – peas, ramps, mint vapor. In itself absolutely delicious the appealing ‘gimmick’ was that the bowl rested in another bowl of mint leaves which was then awaken to mint tea by poring in water. A little later they brought a side bite which was exactly the same flavour as in the soup.

LOBSTER

LOBSTER

As we still wondered what to do with the now unfrozen (and already identified) wagyu we were once more stunned: WAGYU BEEF black truffle, potato, Blis Elixir was made by placing the ultra-thin wagyu sheet on top of a hot potato wrapped with truffle and garnishing it with Blis Elixir. Doing so the wagyu seemingly melted away and was warmed. Delicious, yes, clever, yes, ingenious, definitely!

Wagyu Beef

WAGYU BEEF

Another signature back from the Trio days was served next: BLACK TRUFFLE explosion, romaine, parmesan. Be sure to read in the Alinea book about the process of perfecting it. As easy as it seems it is not in preparing. What intensity, what taste explosion (explosion dans la bouche!!).

BLACK TRUFFLE explosion

BLACK TRUFFLE explosion

So, what is the main? There was no real main and Grant continued with squab as a first kind of dessert course. The dish of the night: SQUAB – chocolate, blueberry, spring onion. This was really a hybrid containing both savory and sweet elements. The squab was warm and coated by dark and not to sweet chocolate. I am still wondering how he did that. Especially the accord with the blueberry worked astonishingly well and the spring onion brought back some savory intensity. Big chapeau – a masterpiece.

SQUAB

SQUAB

Two small, well, pre-desserts were next before a first main dessert was brought out: PERSIMMON – carrot, red curry, spice strip. Very good.

PARSIMMON

PARSIMMON

Then DRY SHOT – pineapple, rum, cilantro: another unconventional eating experience as one has to eat the dry shot like a shot in one gulp.

DRY SHOT

DRY SHOT

A last big dessert: CHOCOLATE – egg, pomelo, smoke. Again a visual and tasty masterpiece – however, at this point we were kind of full and could not enjoy it that much any more. So if one has to point out one tiny tiny negative point it is this. And, I suspect, it was not the repetition of flavours but simply the amount of food as some portions were quite big.

CHOCOLATE

CHOCOLATE

This feast for all senses concluded with SWEET POTATO – bourbon, tempura, cinnamon intense. The cinnamon stick was lit and let us ‘float’ into the night…

SWEET POTATO

SWEET POTATO

WHAT AN EXPERIENCE! Even after several months the suspense, surprise and satisfaction is still very present. Grant Achatz, only 34, is a true culinary genius in a very distinct and different way. The menu we enjoyed was a showcase for his quest of creating something unique which for me was an almost transcendental experience – creativity beyond the obvious, technical mastery and perfect delivery – it had both soul and dedication to the utmost detail.

GRANT ACHATZ

GRANT ACHATZ

I can only bow to Grant and his whole team – thanks for making this possible!

It’s all said – I have run out of superlatives – and I can’t wait to go back. This restaurant could be the reason to relocate to Chicago!

Comments

comments

9 thoughts on “Alinea – Transcendental

  1. Wow, Ingo. What a review of a dinner beyond so much of experience. I love it when enthusiasm is expressed out loud. And I see where your top photo is from 😉
    Next time I get a chance to go to the US I have to fly via Chicago!
    Thank you fir sharing!

  2. its great that you had such an incredible experience at alinea!
    i hate to be negative, because i understand there is a team there breaking their backs to produce what they do. regardless, heres my 2 cents…

    i recently dined in alinea at the end of a bit of a tour of restaurants. i was so disappointed it was shattering! i thought most of the dishes were excessive in amounts of ingredients, with little over all effect, or lingering sensation.
    ridiculously complicated construction – sort of like a parody of modern fine dining. some dishes, however, like the cauliflower, were so over seasoned they burned out my palate before i could finish them. some of the senior floor staff have a bit of an attitude and they have them dressed like they should be on the starship enterprise! even the powdered caramel finale was just a tapioca maltodextrin gimmick! flawlessly assembled, yes. finicky and unnecessary, absolutely! i ate in moto as well during the chicago leg and my friend ate in trotters. i enjoyed moto as an overall experience because there was such a lovely friendly feel to everything about the place.
    just previous to chicago, we flew to copenhagen to eat in paustian the first night then noma the second. i liked paustian a lot. nomas 12 course lunch changed everything for me. its up there, slightly ahead truth be told, with a lunch at the fat duck i was lucky enough to have. the balance, and most importantly, the focus and honesty in renes food is so mind blowing. it also feels HEALTHY, i truly believe that this is being neglected in restaurants everywhere! and how welcome you feel! EVERYTHING was effortless. in fact, i cant stop thinking or talking about it.

    man, i WISH, i loved my alinea experience like you did! it wasnt an off night either. i just dont understand his food. i dont even mind the cost of flying over and back – i was just so excited after drooling over the book!

    something Herve This said at a talk i went to a while ago rings true. what is it you are doing when you give someone food you have prepared? you are saying ‘i love you!’ amazing words from an amazing scientist.

    everyone in noma is aware of this.

    • Will be in CPH soon. As I wrote in another article, Grant’s food is polarising some like it some not… But most diners I know have loved it so far… So, try to undestand it… And, if the starship enterprise staff would have been wearing Zegna I would have watched it more often;-)
      How was Paustian in more detail?

  3. paustian was nice. i felt that it fell short in a couple of places. i might be wrong in my reasons, however . im used to cooking and seasoning things quite highly – but there seems to be a movement away from this – ive heard this is true of mugaritz too. and its definately the case in noma. what appears under seasoned on first bite, transforms before the actual dish is finished to clean, fluid, and delicate. so one dish seemed rather bland to me. i suppose maybe it needs to be approached with this in mind. although, to be honest – i think it was just bland! another dish was a total miss for me – veal marrow with celeriac and an unusual puree that tasted to me like pureed tootsie rolls! the service was good as you would expect.. the bread was absolutely amazing. probably the best bread ive ever had. youll LOVE it! we got a great pre dessert cleanser. it was a bite of frozen air served at – 196 degrees. similar to the fat ducks nitrogen palate cleanser but WAY more violent in its the abilty to send ‘smoke’ shooting 4 foot out of your nose. 5 mins of hysterical laughter followed.
    the room itself is interesting. maybe it can feel a little cold on first appearance. they have an amazing, heavily matured comte on display. i highly recommend it. savage! id say go to paustian before you go to noma. youll have one very nice, simple, but interesting meal and one life altering (i hope) one! and if all else fails theres great hot dogs available everywhere! btw its a great review you gave of alinea – very concise. getting the menu really helps because i really struggled to remember each dish. one thing i really enjoyed was a frozen taster that had 6 (i think) distinctive flavours that literally came one after the other. very charlie and the chocolate factory. inspiring actually – i wonder if he used various hydrocolloids to ensure that each flavour was released at a different time?

    • I’m doing both Paustian and noma but in reverse order so noma is first… Bo is clearly more “molecular” and can be a hit and miss as you have experienced it. But overall it is worth going as it is slightly different than the usual suspects of the new Danish cusine…

  4. Just a quick question for you. I will be visiting Chicago for few days soon and considering few restaurants: Alinea, Moto, Trotter, and TRU. I am sure you considered them as well. Why was Trotter a disappointing meal?

    • Trotter is an institution and do admire him for his achievements but he tries too hard to be modern in some way and fails dramatically. No single dish was remarkable although it got better i the course of the meal. Service was kind of automatic and soulless, the wine pairing with American wines was mediocre at best and quite expensive (a little less than the premium wine pairing). Overall this performance would be on the edge of getting one Michelin star here in Europe. Given roughly 500$ per person it was very disappointing. Have to add that my fellow diners unisono agree and were really experienced diners and chefs…

  5. Pingback: World’s Best Restaurants 2009 « High-End Food

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