Sunday, October 22, 2006

Alinea

Alinea. I've been dreaming of eating at Alinea ever since it opened. I was fortunate enough to eat at Trio twice while Chef Grant Achatz was the chef there, and I followed all the details posted on eGullet about the much-anticipated opening of his own restaurant. Achatz is one of the leaders of the molecular gastronomy movement in the US and his cuisine combines unsual ingredients with wacky serving utensils and a sense of whimsy and fun. But he never puts style above substance - all of the food tastes good, which is why Alinea was recently named Best Restaurant in the US by Gourmet magazine. And all of this is delivered in a refined environment with excellent service.

You have just two choices - the 12 course Tasting, or the Tour at around 24 courses, although the exact number varies. We opted for the Tour and split the "upgraded" wine pairing. A friend of mine is fond of saying that meals like this are more ride than meal, and at 24 courses and 13 wines, Alinea certainly fit the bill. But what a ride it is.

Our upgraded wine pairing paid off right from the start, with a lovely rose champagne (Nicolas Feuillate Brut Rose "Palmes d'Or" Epernay 1997) for the first two courses.

Hot Potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter
A wax bowl is filled with a cold potato soup. A pin pierces the bowl, a piece of parmesan reggianno, a cube of butter, and a chunk of hot potato. You pull the pin to drop the ingredients into the soup, then slurp it all back. This allows for an excellent contrast of flavors and temperatures. I loved the way the black truffle lingers on the palate long after that single bite (and slurp) is gone.

King Crab, vinegar, aromatics
This was beautiful to look at - the crab encased in a crystal clear gelee of rice wine vinegar. The sushi rice was perfectly seasoned, and there were a bunch of little garnishes - ginger, black pepper, microlemongrass, saffron, etc. The rice vinegar gelee managed to be vinegary without being overly sour. Very nice.

Trout Roe, cucumber, coconut, bonito
Wine:
Naiades Verdejo, Rueda, Spain 2004
This was a great combination - beautful trout roe from Michigan, creamy coconut pudding and avocado puree, a sheet of lime rock, a drizzle of cilantro juice, and a sprinkle of bonita powder, all topped off by a cucumber foam. Light, refreshing, perfectly in harmony. And the wine pairing was a hint of great things to come - it was a perfect match, with hints of cucumber and lime to echo the food.

(A note on the wines - all of them were excellent, but I didn't take notes so I won't have much to say about them. A wine pairing is really the only way to go with a meal like this, with such a huge range of flavors.)

Akayagara, radish, coriander, poppyseed
No picture for this one - it was served in a round bottom bowl, so we ran short of hands. A fork topped with the akayagara (a type of fish) fit into a slot atop the specially made bowl, and the poppyseed milk was in the bottom. You eat the fish on the fork, then follow it with the milk. Tasty.

Matsutake, mango, peanut, yuzu glass
Wine:
Pra Soave Classico, "Monte Grande," Veneto 2003
Matsutake mushrooms from Oregon were served three ways here - pureed, diced and sauteed, and dehydrated. As with many of the items on the menu, there were a ton of other ingredients - mung bean edamame, mint juice, mango peanut crumbs, soy nage, yuzu "glass" - but it managed to come together somehow. As the pictures show, this is served in what appears to be a tall glass but is actually a tube, which the server removes at the table. This wasn't one of my favorites, but my tablemate liked it a lot.

Rabbit, cider, roasted garlic, smell of burning leaves
We liked to call this one the "pot" dish. Who knew that burning oak leaves smell just like pot? A glass containing smoke was carefully placed over the food, and then lifted up at the table. Grant Achatz is well known for these dishes that use various aromas to put you in a particular frame of mind. In this case, we found that we could also taste the smoke in the dish. With cider gelee and garlic puree, black pepper and thyme, this was a perfect seasonal dish, and it was served with a cup of lovely rabbit consomme instead of a wine pairing.

Peach, smoked paprika, carrot
Peach juice is captured inside a hollow shell of cocoa butter, carrot juice and smoked paprika. once in your mouth, the fragile shell breaks and the liquid rushes out, so our server made a point of warning us to be sure our mouths were closed lest we soak the person on the other side of the table... Interesting, although I wasn't tremendously fond of the way the cold cocoa butter felt in my mouth.

Kobe Short Rib, beets, cranberry, campari
Wine: Cabanon Bonarda "Boisee," Oitrepo Pavse, Italy 2003
Even though it's not mentioned in the description, this was as much about fennel as beets. There was shaved fennel, fennel puree, and fennel fronds. The beet side included the beet-campari sheet covering the short ribs, a single golden beet, and an interesting dehydrated beet ribbon. I was already starting to get full, so I took a short course on this one, trying a bit of everything, but not finishing it. Good, and a very dramatic plate.

Black Truffle, explosion, romaine, parmesan
The Black Truffle Explosion is the closest thing to a signature dish as Grant Achatz has. It was on the menu at Trio nearly his entire tenure there, but was mostly retired once he moved to Alinea. Grant is a constant innovator, and once a dish goes off the menu, it's usually gone forever. However, with the recent uptick in business due to the Gourmet accolades, he's started adding some classics back on to the menu to free up some time for experimentation for the future. (There's an interesting interview with Achatz about this at Hungry Magazine.)

I'd had the black truffle explosion (BTE) once at Trio, and was excited to see it on our menu at Alinea. Inside the ravioli is the liquid essence of truffle, and it really does explode in your mouth. A little bit of parmesan and some wilted romaine lettuce gilded the rose. (To my tastes, the wilted romaine was a much better accompaniment than the broccoli puree I'd had a Trio, as it added a little bit of texture as well as good flavor.)

We liked it so much, my friend joked "I'll have another one of those, please" to our server. And about 5 minutes later...

Black Truffle, explosion, romaine, parmesan #2
The second BTE was even better than the first, presumably because it was an extra course, and thus it was hotter when it arrived.

Squab, huckleberry, sorrel, long peppercorn
Wine: Hermitage "Cuvee Emilie" Domaine des Remizieres, Rhone 2002
A plethora of squab presentation - leg, breast, crispy skin, some confit - with a huckleberry sauce and three fresh huckleberries, a long peppercorn custard (yum) and some micro sorel. Beautiful plate, this one. We noticed them bringing our plates in, then whisking them off again - a huckleberry had moved out of place and had to be adjusted before they could serve it. The wine for this course was fabulous - easily my favorite of the night.

Concord Grape, frozen and chewy
By now I was ready for a change of pace, and a few cold bites were just the thing. No picture again, as we found that the dishes served without a plate were really hard to get pictures of. (But there's one on the Alinea website, here.)In contrast to earlier and later courses that contain a laundry list of ingredients and garnishes, this was simply a lozenge of concord grape puree, frozen on the anti-griddle. It was intensely grapey, and the texture was really interesting.

Chestnut, blis maple syrup
Another little frozen bite, and this one I liked quite a bit. A sweetened frozen disk of chestnut puree, with a little divot to hold a pool of maple syrup that has been matured in bourbon casks, and a sprinkling of coarse sea salt to bring it all together.

Crabapple, cheddar, eucalyptus, olive oil
Wine: Pfeffingen Ungsteiner Herrenberg Scheurebe Spatlese, Pfalz 2003
Clearly the kitchen had had enough with simplicity, judging from this next course. Let's see if I can decipher the notes well enough to list all of the accompaniments to this tangy frozen crabapple mousse - tellicherry pepper tuille, crispy sage leaves, extra virgin olive oil jam (yes, jam), ecalyptus sauce, cheddar custard, sweet onion marmalade, and a cherry blossom. Phew! It was fun to taste all the garnishes alone, with the crabapple, and in varying combinations. The wine pairing for this one worked really well. The grape variety is a hybrid, and it had some of that foxiness that you get from hybrids, which meant it actually could stand up to a dish with eucalyptus in it! Not something you can say for a lot of wine.

(A note on the progression of courses: You'll have noticed that the last few dishes seemed rather dessert like, even though we're only in the middle of the meal. When Grant first started doing these extended tasting menus at Trio, he served them with all the desserts at the end. But he found that the meals were more enjoyable for people when they didn't have six or seven desserts in a row at the end, and that having some sweeter and lighter courses in the middle helped rejuvenate people for the last half of the menu. So the menu flows from roughly from savory to sweet twice over the course of the meal, with a similiar flow of wines white to red to dessert twice as well.)

Quince, prosciutto, orange, juniper
Grant has had a number of customized serving "dishes" created for the restaurant. One is a sort of antenna, where the food to be eaten is pierced on the end and eaten by the diner hands free. (See a picture of it here.) Kind of goofy, but fun. This dish was our antenna dish. Pierced on the end of the antenna was a roulade of pureed and dried quince and prosciutto. Other flavors included braised mustard seeds, bitter lemon, micro cilantro, juniper, and a honey glaze.

Shellfish, gooseberries, horseradish, celery ice
Wine: Raventos i blanc "Perfum de Vi Blanc" Penedes, Spain, 2004
I'm a celery fan, so this one worked really well for me. Celery leaves, and celery ice topped a shellfish sponge, and diced celery sat underneath it along with a pool of gooseberry coulis. A single meat each of crab and mussels garnished it all. Very nice.

Hamachi, buttermilk, blackberry, green peanuts
Wine: F.X. Pichler "Loibner Berg" Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria 2003
The hamachi was topped with a roasted peanut topping of some sort, and green peanuts were sprinkled underneath. It was garnished with blackberry sauce, some sort of buttermilk concoction, and tarragon leaves. This smelled great, and I wanted to like it more than I did - it was a fine dish, but the hamachi is a very fishy tasting fish, and that didn't work so well for my tastes.

Bacon, butterscotch, apple, thyme
Another of the odd serving methods. Hanging from a wire was a perfectly crispy strip of applewood smoked bacon, wrapped with chewy butterscotch and apple leather. You pull down on the bacon to pull it off the trapeze, and pop it into your mouth as a single tasty bite of salty sweet goodness. (No picture for the same reasons mentioned elsewhere, but you can see it here.)

Lamb, date, mastic, rosemary aroma
Wine: Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape, S. Rhone, 2000
Three pieces of lamb sat sizzling atop a 450 degree rock. The sprigs of rosemary that had been decorating our table were fitted into a hole in the stone to give just a hint of rosemary to the proceedings. (This brought my back to my first meal at Trio, where we had a dish with rosemary vapor, created by pouring boiling water over rosemary leaves.) The lamb was perfectly done, but then the rock gave it a really nice sear on the bottom - you had to be careful how you ate it, lest you burn your tonge. The three toppings where a mastic cream, a pickled date puree, and a red wine braised cabbage. Especially nice wine pairing for this one as well.

Bison, gruyere, pumpernickel, ramps
Wine: Bodega Mustiguillo "Quincha Corral," El Terrerazo, Spain, 2003
The presentation on this one is fascinating. Cubes of cold smoked North Dakota bison sit atop a ragu of plumped raisins with Worcestire sauce, and the whole thing is buried beneath a pile of dried gruyere and shreds of toasted pumpernickle bread, and garnished with pickled ramps. Surprisingly good.

Raspberry, goat milk, red pepper taffy, pistachio
Wine: Malvira Birbet (Brachetto), Langhe, Italy NV
Rasberries and red peppers... fascinating. Combined, we were told, because they were both red. Okay... But all in all I have to say it worked pretty well. Lots going on here - raspberries were filled and wrapped with a chewy red pepper taffy, and set upon lavender pudding and goat milk tapioca. Pistachio came in three forms - a puree, a tuile, and a brittle. And the whole thing was adorned with a blanket of raspberry sauce. It looks like it should be some sort of solid, the edges are so perfect. We asked and they let us in on the secret - the raspberry sauce is frozen on a sheet of acetate. The frozen strip is laid over the dessert, then the acetate is peeled away and the sauce allowed to melt. What a clever way to get a really dramatic presentation! The wine was a nice light and lightly sparkling red or rose, with a great nose of raspberries and roses.

Licorice Cake, spiced with hoja santa leaves
Wine: Tamellini Recioto di Soave "Vigna Marogne," Veneto 2000
Neither of us being licorice fans, we were a little worried about this one, but it was actually a very nice spice cake. Once you got to it, anyway, which involved peeling away parchment paper, then the hoja santa leaves that wrapped the cake. Accompaniments included a sweet potato cream, roasted something with licorice leather (we're 22 courses and 12 wines into the meal at this point, so you'll have to forgive the quality of my notes!), muscovado gelee, and oranges stewed in some sort of Mexican liqueur from the Yucatan.

Chocolate, bergamot, cassia, figs
Wine: De Bartoli "Bukkuram" Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, 2001
This was a little ridiculous, as course 23 out of 24. At least an ounce of dark chocolate, heated right to the dividing line between liquid and solid, set atop a sheet of dehydrated chocolate mousse, and served with a scoop of cassia bud ice cream and some stewed figs. A bergamot flavored black tea is poured into the bowl right at the table. We couldn't possible eat it all - I think I took one bite, just to say I had. I know that over-the-top death by chocolate desserts are popular, but this was totally overkill. I would have been much happier with a single spoonful of chocolate at this point in the meal.

Caramel, meyer lemon, cinnamon perfume
The final course was another that brought back fine memories of Trio meals. Then, it was crab and meyer lemon on a vanilla bean, this time it was chewy caramel, meyer lemon, and a cinnamon stick. Both crispy and satisfying bites, though.


I know some people have left Alinea hungry, but this was not one of those nights. After 4 1/2 hours of eating and drinking we were both stuffed to the gills, but happy and satisfied. We stopped in the kitchen to chat with Chef Achatz on our way out, and he was gracious and friendly. (I was pleased and surprised that he remembered me from my kitchen table meal there. But we were having so much fun we were a little rowdy, so I guess that made an impression...)

I was impressed with the evolution of his food from Trio to Alinea, and told him that - there's a level of maturity and polish that seems new. While there were certainly dishes I liked more than others, there weren't any clunkers anywhere on the menu, something I wasn't able to say after my trips to Trio, where I felt there were things that just didn't work. All in all, it just seemed very refined. Which, in some ways, made the experience a little less fun - the service was a little more formal, the atmosphere quieter and more reverent, somehow.

Anyway, it was a fabulous meal, and a fabulous evening. Service was fabulous too - doubly so when we realized the next day that I'd left my umbrella with the coat check at the restaurant, and someone from the staff took the time to deliver it to our hotel, since we weren't going to have an opportunity to be back that way.

Alinea
1723 N. Halsted
Chicago, IL 60614
312-867-0110

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Rowdy? Rowdy! We were *not* rowdy. Hmmph.

MKK

Tammy said...

You and I are clearly operating from different definitions of rowdy. :-)

I think we were appropriately rowdy. Perhaps I should call it enthusiastic instead...

DM said...

Oh man! I am so jealous. I'm dying to go to Alinea. And then yesterday, I found out that we know some folks in common. Lisa says hi :)

Mazenbloo said...

Wow! Just wow! That food looks AMAZING!