Posted: Mon Aug 15, 2011 3:15 am Post subject: Dining Out: Chicago 2011 Part 7 - Alinea
Our reservation for Alinea (booked over two months out and acquired by luck) was what dictated the timing of our trip to Chicago in 2011. We were planning on visiting the Windy City a full month earlier, but couldn't get a reservation at this world famous center of avante garde cuisine until June 22nd at 9:15pm. We planned the rest of the trip around this meal with approximately equal days before and after to ensure that we wouldn't feel rushed or overwhelmed with settling in or packing up. The meal was an unforgettable experience and yet felt lacking. Much of the experience at Alinea relies on surprise, so only read on if you don't mind some spoilers!
We grabbed a cab from our hotel on Michigan Avenue to Alinea, but when I told the driver we were going to Alinea, he didn't know where it was. I provided him with the address (1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, Illinois) and cross streets and off we went. When we got close, I kept my eyes open for any clues to where the restaurant might be. I had heard there wasn't a sign for the restaurant, so I was looking for house numbers or a valet or something else that would give me an indication of where the restaurant was. About half a block away, I spotted it - a podium/taxi stand outside a plain gray door. As we got closer, I saw the podium actually had a sign that said "Alinea", so the restaurant does have a sign. I attempted to tell the cab driver we were at the location already, but he kept going. About half a block later, I managed to get him to stop, I paid him, and we walked back to the restaurant.
Upon entering the grey metal door, we entered a red corridor bathed in red light. The left wall was continuous and smooth, but the right wall was broken into sections and each section was angled slightly inward as you came down the corridor giving it the appearance of both extreme length and a work of modern art. (It was so red, my camera failed to take pictures of it properly.) When we reached a point about 3/4ths of the way down the corridor, an automatic door slid open on the left allowing us to enter the restaurant.
Inside was the receiving area (more of a large hallway than a proper room) where a female staff member greeted us with either a "hello" or "good evening" (can't remember which) while servers and staff hustled through the hallway. Given the unusual entrance, we weren't sure what to do at this point, and I stood there taking in the scene (where the reservation desk was, the computer, the stairs behind the area, the servers coming down from the kitchen on the right of the hall to the left). She then said, "You can step in." in a strangely curt fashion. We complied with her command, entered, and stood in the middle of the hall. After providing my name, a server led us to our table upstairs.
The tables at Alinea are fairly large (ours was about three feet by three feet or a little larger), wood, black, and unadorned with tablecloth, decorations, or utensils. After being seated, a rolled up white cloth napkin embroidered with a fancy looking pilcrow (the paragraph symbol: ¶) was set before us. I asked about the symbol and was informed that it was a variant of the pilcrow called the alinea. The restaurant was named after this symbol which in Latin means "off the line". I suppose this meaning could work on a couple different levels: it could be a pun because we're there to eat food which comes "off the line" (line being restaurant slang for the area in the kitchen where the food is cooked) or it could be a reference to a new beginning (as in a new paragraph or thought).
Before each course, two pillows are set on the table (position varies depending on the course) with the appropriate silverware.
Before our first course arrived, I asked if a copy of the menu would be available for me to use to take notes on. We were informed that a menu would be made available to us at the end of the meal as a souvenir. They brought me a sheet of paper imprinted with the Alinea logo which I used for note taking. Just a few courses into the meal, I realized that much of the experience at Alinea is made interesting and exciting because the participant doesn't know what's coming next. Surprise is a huge factor in many of their dishes - they cover up portions of the course, hide things in tubes, cover ingredients with another ingredient, or have something that looks like one food that tastes like another food. As I mentioned earlier, if you plan on eating at Alinea and want to preserve the complete experience, it's probably best if you don't read anymore of this review.
Steelhead Roe · watermelon, kaffir lime, cucumber flower. This dish had steelhead trout roe served over a watermelon mousse with nasturtium, cucumber flower, and watermelon consomme. I found this dish to be pleasing - sweet, light and flavorful with bursts of saltiness.}?>
Hamachi · west indies spices, banana, ginger. A fried ball of banana and hamachi was served on a vanilla bean. I really liked this course because of the interplay of savory hamachi, sweet banana, spicy ginger, and saltiness (from pineapple salt). There was some uneven salting because although mine was a bit mild on the salt, Tina's was overly salted.
This course (as well as many others) was literally a single bite. Thomas Keller is famous for saying (concerning the law of diminishing returns), "The initial bite is fabulous. The second bite is great. But by the third bite - with many more to come - the flavors begin to deaden, and the diner loses interest." I do believe this is true to a certain extent, but when something tastes fabulous (like this hamachi dish), I really, really want a second bite. When there is no second bite and my brain just keeps craving the taste of the flavors one more time, it starts to become a little frustrating. By the end of the meal, I experienced this feeling of unfulfilled desire so many times that I would describe my dinner at Alinea as one of the most uniquely unsatisfying meals I have ever had. The second bite is IMPORTANT.
Oyster Leaf · mignonette. Scallop - hitachino weizen, old bay. Razor Clam - carrot, soy, daikon. The next three courses came at the same time. So that stronger flavors would not precede more subtle ones, we were advised to eat them in this order: oyster leaf, scallop, and then razor clam. The oyster leaf was served on an oyster half shell, but, in actuality, has nothing to do with oysters. It is actually the leaf from a specific type of bluebell plant. Astonishingly, the leaf tasted both briny and sweet in the same way that an oyster does.
The scallop was buttery with light hints of beer (from the foam).
The razor clam was next.
We removed the top shells to reveal a sweet and savory dish made with razor clam and root vegetable flavors.
Yuba · shrimp, miso, togarashi. Next was an interesting construction made of fried soy beancurd skin with a shrimp wrapped around the bottom half and dipped in sesame and chives. A pool of miso mayonnaise was provided but it was more for looks than dipping as you couldn't get more than a tiny bit on the end of the stick between bites. I felt that the concept was novel and I enjoyed my first bite which had the most shrimp and mayonnaise. Subsequent bites didn't work as well because the fried taste of the beancurd skin (which seems to soak up oil like a sponge) overwhelmed the rest of the flavors.
English Pea · olive oil, chamomile, green apple. This course is actually a three part dish served in a clever bowl with parts that lift away to reveal the next part.
The first portion was a warm pea soup that we both found to have a wonderful pea flavor and was very good overall (it just fell just short of excellent due to being a tad over salted).
When we finished our soup, the top part of the vessel was lifted away to reveal a nested bowl containing freeze dried peas with a pea meringue. I wasn't a big fan of the vegetal flavors of this pea preparation. I like it when the vegetal taste of peas is balanced with their natural sweetness. Here, I felt the sweetness was missing and the remaining taste was too strong for me to enjoy.
The final part of the dish was revealed when the bowl was lifted away. A fine puree of peas was frozen and served with a green apple sorbet with solid Greek yogurt. Three different sour notes piled on top of each other. I didn't enjoy it, and Tina chose not to finish it. Intellectually, I'm quite impressed that such a wide array of flavors was set before us and yet they were all distinctly English pea. However, my taste buds didn't like the flavors of any except the most traditional preparation.
Mackerel · mango, celery, juniper. This bite was skewered on a long thin wire which kept bobbing around. This was the best photograph I could get of it. The mackerel had a lot of flavor to it hitting all at once but dissipating rapidly for me. The flavors came and went so fast that I didn't really have time to acknowledge them or fully enjoy them. It's like having a really fine wine and not getting the chance to allow it to linger in the mouth to taste all of it. I continued to chew the bite of mackerel hoping to release more flavor but tasted only the slight sourness of the fish. Finally, I swallowed... wishing there was a second bite so I could truly appreciate the dish.
Wild Mushrooms · pine, sumac, ramp. I loved this dish of morels and hon shimeji mushrooms. Both were perfectly cooked so no bitterness remained but the texture was still intact and had not gone mushy. The earthy, nuttiness of the mushrooms was balanced by the lightly acidic pickled ramps and reinforced by the delicate pine nuts and pine cream. The server never mentioned the inclusion of sumac in the dish. I only found out when I read the menu that was provided at the end of the meal. Having never had sumac (it's used in only a few cuisines), I would have been interested in seeing if I could associate a flavor with that spice. All I can say is that it was masterfully used in this dish.
At this point, they brought us two bright orange flags which they set against the wall and called "table decorations". The server then added the phrase "for now... something else later" after an ominous pause.
Hot Potato · cold potato, black truffle, butter. The next dish was served in a small round wax bowl about an inch and a half in diameter. A needle was inserted from the side and skewered on it was something I couldn't see covered by a sliver of black truffle. My camera, on its table top tripod, takes pictures at a lower elevation than I normally sit (it is about chest high). From my vantage point, this literally looked like a black truffle slice hovering over a white foamy cream (with a tiny cube of what looked like butter skewered on the edge). The server declined to tell us anything about the dish except how to eat it: pull the pin, allow the mystery contents to drop into the foamy liquid, and shoot it. So, that's what we did. I pulled the pin out and something larger than I expected dropped into the bowl (I almost dropped it as it wobbled in my hand). I poured the contents into my mouth and had one of the most pleasant experiences of the evening. The majority of the mouthful was a delicious chilled potato soup, but in the middle of that was a perfectly textured warm potato ball that enhanced the flavor of the soup by warming just that little bit up in the mouth. The difference in textures was also playful and delightful. The whole interaction of flavors in the mouth was very, very cool. The flavor was of intense essence of potatoes both in the soup and the potato ball. Amazing.
For the next course they brought us a glass plate set on a wood board with a metallic design inlaid in the middle. On this plate were several different items most of which I do not remember. The menu says olives, fermented garlic, and blackberry. I believe the sauce on the left was some sort of tomato sauce, but I don't know what the white cubes are or the circle in the middle.
Short Rib · olive, fermented garlic, blackberry. They then lifted the glass plate off the wood board and had us remove the metal pieces from the board. We hooked them together to form a stand. They then draped the orange flags on our table over the stands to reveal that they were tomato pasta squares and would serve as a wrapper for short ribs which they brought to the side of the table. We were to spoon the short rib into the middle of our pasta square and add whatever toppings we desired, pull up the edges of the pasta like a sack, and eat it. The pasta was tender, but more importantly very sturdy. (I was afraid it would break, and I would make a mess.) The short ribs were phenomenally prepared and the toppings were interesting and worked really well with the rib. This was probably the most satisfying of courses we ate with three or four delicious bites.
Black Truffle · explosion, romaine, parmesan. For this dish, we were told to place the whole ravioli in our mouths and be sure not to open our mouths as we bit down on it. I inserted the ravioli, bit down, and much to my dismay found the ravioli burst on the opposite end from what I had hoped and expected. Instead of the contents flowing into the center of my mouth, I found it squirting towards the region between my teeth and my lips. I tried to keep it all inside my mouth, but a few drops dribbled out. The flavor was awesome: liquid concentrated black truffles - there's no mistaking it and there might not be a better way to enjoy the flavor. I only wish I could have a do over.
Agneau · sauce choron, pomme de terre noisette. For this course, the silverware and plating was traditional instead of contemporary. Chef Achatz (by all accounts in the media) has been obsessed with Escoffier and is reviving many of the recipes from Le Guide Culinaire at his new restaurant, Next. This course was inspired by a few (short) recipes from Escoffier. I say "inspired" because Escoffier's recipes are so short and lacking concrete instructions that the same recipe in the hands of two different chefs could yield very different results. In Chef Achatz and his able kitchen's hands, the sauce choron (recipe 90 - bearnaise sauce finished with tomato paste), pomme de terre noisette (recipe 4218 - potatoes cut into balls the size of hazelnuts and fried in butter), and the lamb served on a crispy crouton, topped with artichoke filled with sauce and an asparagus tip (closest I could manage to find was recipe 2866 - lamb cutlets shallow fried in butter, served with croutons fried in clarified butter, artichoke bottoms willed with a puree of foie gras and sauce allemande and truffles) were excellent. The sauces were strongly flavored and matched well with the lamb and sweet artichoke. The crunchy crouton complimented the tenderness of the lamb wonderfully.
Octopus · eggplant, coriander, red wine. This dish was presented in a small bowl without a flat base. Until the fork with the food was removed, it would not sit on the table, so the server graciously held the bowl as still as he could while I tried to quickly take a picture. Unfortunately, it was still a little blurry, but you get the idea what it looks like. A small cube of charred eggplant sits on the fork with a little bit of octopus and coriander microgreens. The bite was flavorful.
Snow · yuzu. This course separated our savory courses from our desserts. The fine, powdery deposition (frost) was very light and had an ephemeral quality. It was a fun and effective palate cleanser.
Strawberry · jasmine, basil, balsamic. This was one of Tina's favorite courses. Strawberries were the main theme taking the shape of cubes (cut strawberries, gelees) and squares (leathers). Cubes of basil flavored jelly and jasmine scented sauce enhanced the strawberry flavor and sensation. Aside from the final course of the evening, this dessert was the largest course we had (in terms of number of bites).
Lemongrass · dragonfruit, cilantro, cucumber. We had to suck the liquid contents out of this tube which was capped on both ends by a clear jelly. It was hard to judge just how hard to suck before the plug comes out, and, when it did, we had to be ready to receive the entire tube's worth of liquid. It was light and refreshing. Tina found it quite awkward.
Chocolate · blueberry, honey, peanut. The final course of the evening is treated as a grand finale. Over the course of several minutes, the table is prepared. A large sheet of gray silicone is draped over the table and smoothed, small bowl after small bowl of what looks like nougats, sauces, cookie crumbs, and herbs are set neatly on the side of the table by servers. Then a chef arrives and begins to paint. The artistry that occurred during the five minutes he was working at the table is best seen in video form below.
At one point (around the 2:33 mark), I noticed that the chocolate sauce was forming rectangular drops on the table instead of round ones. I asked how this was accomplished and the chef responded with, "It's actually difficult to explain, it's like trying to explain a math equation. You don't want to hear it, trust me." No... actually, I really do. When I persisted, he said it had to do with the temperature and viscosity of the chocolate. I'm still not sure how it works, but I now suspect that it is mainly a function of the way the silicone mat is manufactured with some liquids flowing differently when they are at different temperatures. As far as I could tell, this isn't addressed in the Alinea cookbook.
Armed with only a spoon each, we ate as much of the chocolate dessert as we could. As the frozen chocolate mousse melted, it became more and more difficult to spoon it up. Even though we wanted to eat as much of it as possible (we weren't full from the meal), there's only so much you can pick up using a spoon on a rigid flat surface. The flavors were okay, nothing spectacular. I was extremely disappointed in both the texture and flavor of the creme brulee (it was very loose and tasted weak and strangely tangy lacking the rich eggy flavor and velvety texture that makes creme brulee so decadent).
After our silicone table covering was folded up and taken away, they provided us with copies of the menu and the bill ($428 for two before tax and tip without alcohol; we don't usually order alcohol at expensive meals because we find that after the first few courses we are unable to identify flavors or recall the taste memory later). The menu, like the food served at the restaurant, is a functional work of art. The fuzzy circles dividing the main ingredient from the supporting ingredients on each line show the size and nature of each course. The larger the circle, the larger the portion. Circles placed further left designate more savory dishes, while sweeter dishes have circles positioned to the right.
I asked if it was possible to visit the kitchens, and they said they would take us back there once we were ready.
Alinea's kitchen is different than most other kitchens I've been in. The rows of stainless steel working surfaces dominate the room (during service, water baths, induction burners, and other apparatus are out and in use) making the central working area very flexible. The floor is covered with carpeted rugs instead of rubber mats as if in defiance of Murphy's Law (the corrollary involving drips and spills). There is no massive oven or salamander taking over the view of the room.
Overall, our experience at Alinea was more interesting and intellectual than satisfying. We left in a state short of content, requiring us to eat whatever we could find in our hotel room when we returned. This was the first time we had ever eaten fine dining and left semi-hungry. (I've had friends complain about going to a fancy restaurant to eat dinner and leaving hungry, but it hasn't happened to me before this meal.) In general, I'm not able to appreciate modern art in the same way that other people might. I can see that something is artistic and appreciate it on a certain level, but I don't feel a strong emotional response or satisfaction in viewing art. When I eat, I'm more focused on flavor and texture - the essential components of how food tastes - and that is where I derive most of the pleasure from eating a meal. Many of the dishes at Alinea did have excellent flavor, but many also felt as if how the food tasted played a secondary part to the artistic nature of the meal (both in terms of the visual as well as the performance art - surprise and tabletop art creation). I'm glad I experienced it, but I can't say I was particularly fond of this meal.