29 August 2010

Alinea, Chicago - Restaurant Review

(For a review of my most recent visit to Alinea in June 2011 see here)


An airless August evening in Chicago and the oppressive humidity envelops me like a thick blanket, smothering all thought and energy as I zip uptown in a stuffy cab. We arrive at our destination, still listless from the heat; an unmarked door opens to reveal a mysterious corridor bathed in soft, fuchsia light. The passageway appears to shrink as you walk down it, and I feel like Alice having just eaten the magic cake marked "Eat Me". Down the rabbit hole we go! At the end of the corridor a door silently slides open. "Curiouser and curiouser" I feel like blurting out as we set foot inside. Welcome to the world of Alinea.

From the moment I knew I'd be travelling to Chicago I knew there was one, and only one, restaurant I simply had to make the pilgrimage to. That restaurant was Alinea, recently voted the seventh best restaurant in the world and the best in the USA in the 2010 San Pellegrino awards. Michelin will be publishing their guide to Chicago later this year and Alinea has been hotly tipped to receive the full complement of three stars. (Update 16.11.2010: To no one's great surprise, Alinea did indeed win three stars in Michelin's inaugural guide to Chicago.)

Now for a warning: this is quite a long review but, for me, it's the only way I could even attempt to do my dinner at Alinea any justice. So, pour yourself a glass of something nice and join me in marvelling at one of the most exciting restaurants on the planet.

Alinea is the creation of head chef and co-owner, Grant Achatz and, since it opened in 2005, it has taken the culinary world's breath away by the sheer inventiveness and flavours of its molecular gastronomy-based cooking. The story of Chef Achatz is indeed a remarkable one. After graduating from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, Achatz went to work under the tutelage of Thomas Keller at his legendary Californian restaurant, The French Laundry. There, Achatz honed his craft and rose to the rank of sous chef. In 2001, he travelled east and arrived in Chicago to run the now defunct Trio restaurant in Evanston, which over the ensuing three years would gain a rare five Mobil (now Forbes) stars, one of only thirteen in the US at the time. In 2005 Achatz went solo and Alinea was born. Since then the restaurant has been at the bleeding edge of culinary invention and it has garnered worldwide acclaim. The story doesn't end there though. In 2007 Achatz was diagnosed with stage 4 (there is no stage 5) cancer of the tongue and risked losing arguably a chef's only asset: his sense of taste. Faced with a choice of losing his tongue, Achatz said no to conventional medicine and opted instead for an alternative treatment. Now, thankfully, he is cancer-free, but the episode is testament to Achatz's philosophy of cooking in that he is not afraid to hurl convention aside and challenge traditional approaches.

Alinea is a relatively small restaurant with 20 tables serving about 80 covers a night. The interior is calm and muted, almost boring even, and is hued in shades of grey, tan, and black with a mix of bold and conservative artwork adorning the walls. It serves as a very pleasant and neutral dining room, and the intent is clear: at Alinea the theatrics come from the food. We were shown to our table upstairs in a quiet corner of the restaurant. There is only one menu offered at Alinea, which is a 20-course tasting menu. Until very recently, the restaurant had offered the choice of 12- or 26-course tasting menus but the intention was always to streamline these and offer just one menu, which the restaurant implemented at the start of August 2010.

After we were seated the waiter placed what seemed like an attractive decorative centrepiece on the table. It consisted of three intricate flags suspended from wooden sticks that were held in place by a metal stand. We were instructed not to touch them as they were to play a part later on in the meal.

For our first course we were served a light summer salad. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, as I would learn, at Alinea nothing is simple. Frozen, aerated pea purée and freeze dried peas were combined with Iberico ham powder and gel, honeydew spheres, Amontillado sherry encapsulations, basil leaves, frozen olive oil jam, and burrata and honey granules. It was a revelation - the cool sweetness of the peas melded perfectly with the other flavours. Each bite was different, never the same flavour combination twice. Wow, what a way to wake up the taste buds. Just sensational!
English Pea, Iberico, Sherry, Honeydew
From the stratospheric heights of the opening volley, we lowered altitude a touch with an excellent tempura-style nugget of lobster, lychee and Gruyère cheese. This had been pierced with a vanilla pod and was suspended in a strange metal wire contraption. The vanilla acted as a handle and infused a subtle hint of vanilla to the dish. It was an unusual combination of flavours but it worked remarkably well.
Lobster, Lychee, Gruyère, Vanilla fragrance
For the next course, the waiter placed air-filled pillows on the table. We were told that the next dish would be placed on these pillows. Sure enough, a square plate was then perched precariously on the pillow. On the plate were the single best examples of heirloom tomatoes I have ever tasted. They were accompanied by things like olive oil purée, chilled pine nuts, caramelised onion, red pepper, burrata, basil, balsamic tapenade, and Parmesan powder. It turns out that the pillows were filled with the aroma of fresh-cut grass and, as you eat, the pillow slowly deflates to release that sensual aroma which is so evocative of the long, balmy summer days of childhood. The scent of grass and the flavour of the tomatoes created such a heady, intoxicating mix - the quintessence of summer on a plate. This was one of my favourite dishes of the evening, and the thought flashed through my mind that maybe life as vegetarian wouldn't have to be such a bad option.
Tomatoes, Pillow of fresh-cut grass aroma
Next we were served a solitary stick of fried yuba (soy milk skin) around which was wrapped an impossibly fresh, barely cooked prawn, candied orange peel, and chives, along with a dusting of togarashi powder (a Japanese chilli powder) and a sprinkling of black and white sesame seeds. The yuba stick had been dipped into a small bowl of miso mayonnaise, like a feathered quill in an ink pot. Another wonderful dish - the crunchy yuba juxtaposed nicely by the soft, creamy mayonnaise. A riot of fresh and clean flavours.
Yuba, Shrimp, Miso, Togarashi
The next two dishes were in preparation for the Thai spring rolls coming up. The first of these dishes was based on the popular Vietnamese dish, Chạo tôm. It consisted of a small block of sugar cane that has been soaked and glazed in a reduction of shrimp stock, coriander, ginger and lemongrass. This is then garnished with a thin slice of garlic, julienne of shallot, lime, mint, coriander, Thai chilli, and peanuts. The idea with this dish is to chew the woody sugar cane to extract all the flavours and then try and elegantly spit the remaining pulp out into napkins provided for this purpose. This was a delightful and complex one-bite dish, and the myriad of flavours combined beautifully. It was indicative of the lengths the restaurant will go to, just to provide one perfect bite of food. As a child I used to chew on raw sugar cane as a treat and this dish brought those memories flooding back.
Chạo Tôm, Sugar cane, Shrimp, Mint
Then we were presented with a wine glass that contained a small amount of a clear, innocuous looking liquid. I swilled the liquid around and took a sniff. Immediately I was hit with the familiar fragrant aromas of lemongrass, chilli, galangal, and nam pla. It was a distillation of Thai flavours. For the techie among you it is made using a rotary evaporator, which works in the same way as the Liebig condensers I used in my school chemistry classes. The liquid is distilled under vacuum at low temperature, which preserves the delicate aromatic compounds. This results in a condensed liquid that has a pure clarity of flavour to it. There was the taste of chilli, but no chilli heat, and nam pla, but no saltiness. Remarkable.
Distillation of Thai flavours
The next course would utilise the decorative 'flags' that had been placed on our table at the start of the meal. The waiter placed a glass tray in front of us that contained small, precise mounds of black salt, cucumber, fried garlic slices, mango dipped in curry powder, lime, coconut, red onion, chilli paste, cashews, herb flowers, and basil seed vinaigrette. We were then instructed to lift the glass tray and place it on the table in front of us. This revealed a wooden board that housed two strange looking metal implements. We were to arrange these metal implements to create a stand on which we would build our spring rolls. The 'flags' tuned out to be sheets of flower-pressed rice paper and we each placed the sheet onto the stand, which was then filled with some creamy black cod (this dish is also done with pork belly). We were then free to add whatever toppings we liked (I used all of them of course) to create our masterpiece. It was both theatrical and delicious - bursting with fresh, lively flavours, a really fun course.
Toppings for the spring roll
Black cod, Curry, Cucumber, Lime - assembling the dish
Black cod, Curry, Cucumber, Lime - the finished product
For our next course, the waiter placed an egg shaped bowl on the table and we were warned not to touch the bottom as it was piping hot. Perched on top of the egg bowl was a cold king crab and buttermilk parfait, garnished with rhubarb jelly, chervil juice, fennel, and lilac flowers. When we had finished, the waiter arrived to take away our plates, or so I thought. Instead, he lifted off the top of the egg bowl to reveal another plate beneath. This plate contained a salad of king crab, sliced fennel, pickled rhubarb and mung bean sprouts. Finally, once we had eaten this, the final layer of the Russian doll was revealed. The bottom of the bowl contained a hot, rich gratin of king crab with rhubarb, fennel, cippolini onions, and a star anise encapsulation. I loved this dish. I loved the way the same flavours of crab, rhubarb and fennel intensified as the dish progressed.
King crab, Rhubarb, Lilac, Fennel (part 1)
King crab, Rhubarb, Lilac, Fennel (part 2)
King crab, Rhubarb, Lilac, Fennel (part 3)
The next course was an Alinea classic entitled "Hot Potato, Cold Potato". We were presented with a small wax bowl containing a cold potato soup. Skewered onto a pin that had been driven through the side of the bowl was a small cube of Parmesan, a cube of butter, a piece of chive, and a ball of hot Yukon Gold potato that had been covered with a disc of black truffle. We pulled the pin out of the bowl allowing the ingredients on it to drop into the soup. We then gulped the whole thing down as you would an oyster. To call this a soup would be like calling a Bentley a car. It was so sensual - rich, buttery and silky smooth, with a really pleasant contrast of temperatures.
Hot potato, Cold potato, Black truffle, Butter
On to the main meat entrées now. The first dish we were served was cryptically titled "Lamb: Reflection of Elysian Fields Farm". All the lamb used at Alinea comes from the evocatively named Elysian Fields Farm in Waynesburg, PA. This hugely complex dish is a homage to Elysian Fields Farm, and every element is somehow connected to the life the lambs lead on the farm. Saddle of lamb is cooked en sous vide until meltingly tender, and then it is skewered onto a spruce twig. The lamb is served with breaded, fried cubes of intensely-flavoured rendered lamb fat; polenta made from powdered cornmeal cooked en sous vide; lamb stock foam; popcorn soup; a gravel of popcorn, freeze-dried corn and powdered lamb fat; green onion 'grass' made from a dried purée of green onions and chives; a savoury granola of seeds and nuts; dots of goat milk pudding; and nitrogen-frozen blackberry jam. It was as incredible a plate of food as I've ever had and is such a showcase for the rarefied level of the cooking at Alinea.
Lamb: Reflection of Elysian Fields farm
The next course was another signature Alinea dish and it was a real show-stopper, one of the many highlights of the evening. A single ravioli topped with black truffle, Parmesan, and romaine was presented to us on a spoon placed in a small bottomless bowl. We were instructed to eat it in one go. We bit into the translucent ravioli, which released a burst of the most intense, warm truffle broth. We were stunned into silence. It was just divine. Apparently this dish was conceived when Chef Achatz was at the French Laundry and it was a highlight of the menu at Trio (in fact he prepared this dish for the job interview there). Such was its popularity there that Achatz brought it to Alinea. The truffle broth is made from a stock of fresh black truffles (I gather up to 10lbs of truffles are used in the stockpot at a time) and butter. I still have warm, fuzzy dreams about this dish.
Black truffle explosion, Romaine, Parmesan
The second main entrée was a beautiful dish of squab pigeon and strawberries served on a birch log. Squab breast is cooked en sous vide until rare and is served with the crispy fried squab skin. Accompanying this is strawberry powder, charred strawberries, frisée, upland cress, strawberry leather, crunchy fried hazelnuts, eucalyptus jam, nicoise olives, and pickled wild leeks. The birch log had been heated under a salamander so that as you ate you could smell the warm scent of birch sap. It was a dish symbolic of regrowth, the green leaves seemingly bursting forth from charred embers.
Squab, Charred strawberries, Lettuce, Birch log
For our final meat entrée we went back in time. It started with some antique cutlery and an ornately decorated cut crystal goblet being placed on our table. The goblet was filled with a hibiscus soda, which was slightly astringent and very refreshing, preparing our palettes for what was to come.
Hibiscus soda
The final entrée was Tournedos à la Persane, a 100-year-old recipe taken straight from Escoffier's seminal book, Le Guide Culinaire. If we weren't already impressed with the Alinea chefs' range of culinary skills, they now show off their seemingly endless repertoire with this most classic of classic dishes. Australian wagyu fillet is cooked slowly (again en sous vide) until rare and then quickly seared. It is served with a lightly charred marinated tomato, a fried banana slice, Anaheim pepper stuffed with a creamy risotto-like jasmine rice, Chateaubriand sauce, and garnished with tarragon and thyme leaves. It was a masterful execution of a classic dish, although for me it was the most 'ordinary' dish of the night and a little incongruous. The Alinea chefs don't need to convince us of their talents and should stick to what they do best, which is stunning diners with their imaginative and unique brand of cooking.
Tournedo à la Persane
Following this, we entered the homeward stretch with some pre-desserts. We started with a visually striking dish - a dehydrated slice of bacon suspended from a metal bow. One end of the bacon had been drizzled with butterscotch, around which was wrapped some strands of apple leather lace. It was finished off with a tiny sprig of thyme leaves. It was a good mix of saltiness and sweetness, with the apple providing a touch of acidity. A delicious way of getting our palettes ready for dessert proper.
Bacon, Butterscotch, Apple, Thyme
We also had a rather odd dish of a chocolate truffle made with Nutella, banana, and bread. There wasn't anything more to this dish at all, it tasted exactly like what you might make at home. Maybe I was missing something, but it was the weakest course of the evening.
Nutella, Bread, Banana, Chocolate
Next was a trio of small desserts. A razor thin transparency of tart raspberry and yoghurt was held in a small metal stand. Next to this was a hollow glass tube containing a hibiscus gel, vanilla crème fraîche, and tapioca pearls cooked in bubble gum stock. This was another one bite dish and you had to suck out the contents of the tube, which ensues in much hilarity as it makes the most vulgar, farting, rasping sound you could imagine. Finally, there was a tiny, perfect cucumber blossom that was served with whipped lemon mousse, mint, and Murray River salt - it was cool, sweet and refreshing.
Pre-desserts (In the middle: Bubble gum, Long pepper, Hibiscus, Crème fraîche)
Cucumber blossom, Whipped lemon, Mint, Murray River salt
Transparency of raspberry, Yoghurt
For our first dessert proper, we were served a dish that was inspired by the humble cup of tea. From something so simple, the Alinea chefs created yet another complex masterpiece. Crumbly, sable-like Earl Grey biscuits are served with lemon curd, pine nut custard, crystallised pine nuts, fennel jam, crystals of rose pâte de fruit, and garnished with 'noodles' of rose-flavoured white chocolate, dried tea leaves, and fresh thyme and lemon balm leaves. This was just unbelievably good. The fresh, acidic lemon curd provided a good balance with the rich sweetness of the other elements of the dish.
Early Grey, Lemon, Pine nut, Caramelised white chocolate
Fittingly, the final course was something very special indeed. It was pure culinary magic and fine art combined. The table was cleared, save for our glasses, and a thin grey silicon sheet was placed over it. Small bowls containing various ingredients were placed to one side. We waited. Soon Chef de Cuisine David Beran arrived and proceeded to create our dessert on the table before our very eyes. First, glass cylinders were placed on the table and filled with a warm liquid sauce of 68% chocolate from Valrhona. This was followed by pieces of firm coconut mousse and chewy coconut, which were scattered around the table. Thick coconut milk was then artfully spooned onto the table. Each blob somehow morphed into a square shape - like the best magic I have no idea how it is done. Then small mounds of a granulated chocolate and menthol 'soil' were sprinkled on the table, followed by great sweeping arcs of a menthol infused cream. Then some more drama as a nitrogen-frozen dark chocolate mousse (64% Valrhona) was placed in the centre and broken into shards, allowing an eerie mist to hover over the table that spilled over the sides like a slow motion waterfall. To finish, shards of crispy menthol and anise hyssop leaves were added. For the grand finale the glass cylinders were removed to reveal the liquid chocolate, which had by now mysteriously set into warm, barely set discs of chocolate pudding. The fat lady was well and truly hollering now. Crisp, cooling menthol combined wonderfully with the rich chocolate and unctuous coconut. This was simply the best and most creative dessert I have ever had. Genius.
Chocolate, Coconut, Menthol, Hyssop
We finished the meal with some fresh mint tea and were presented with that night's menu in a sleek black envelope. Even the menu itself is remarkable. Next to where each course is describe there is a circle. The size of the circle represents the relative size of the dish (i.e. the larger the course the larger the circle), and the further to the right the circle is, the sweeter the dish. So you're left with this beautiful visual representation of the progression of the meal. A really clever touch.

We paid $185 per person for the food alone, yet I can't help feeling that this was a bargain. The Alinea team produced probably the singular best meal I have ever experienced. It was just awe-inspiring. The front-of-house was impeccable too - the staff convey such warmth and enthusiasm for what they are achieving (similar to how I described the service at Noma in that sense) and the service was friendly without being too chummy, and efficient without being overbearing. Glasses seemed to refill themselves and new napkins would suddenly appear on returning from the loos. It was a theatrical tour de force and quite a thing to behold, a bit like staring, mesmerised at the inner workings of a Patek Philippe watch.

I'm still trying to come to terms with the meal I had at Alinea. It was pure culinary alchemy and I was genuinely moved by the whole experience. Maybe in the coming weeks and months I will be able to make more sense of it. But suffice it to say I feel a deep sense of gratitude to Chef Achatz and the Alinea team for allowing me to experience a meal of such exceptional beauty. Alinea truly is one of the great, great restaurants of this world.

Food:          10 / 10
Service:       10 / 10
Ambiance:   10 / 10

(For a review of my most recent visit to Alinea in June 2011 see here)

1723 North Halsted
Chicago, IL 60614
Tel: +1 312-867-0110

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