In one way this is an outdated post as our meal at Alinea was in May 2008 but given the astonishing pace of Grant Achatz putting out new dishes it doesn’t matter to write it now or a couple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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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)!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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?).
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…
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!
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!!).
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.
Two small, well, pre-desserts were next before a first main dessert was brought out: PERSIMMON – carrot, red curry, spice strip. Very good.
Then DRY SHOT – pineapple, rum, cilantro: another unconventional eating experience as one has to eat the dry shot like a shot in one gulp.
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.
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…
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.
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!