31 August 2010

L2O, Chicago - Restaurant Review

Sadly, all good things must come to an end and, after three blissful weeks in the magnificent city of Chicago that included, among others, meals at Alinea, Moto, and Topolobampo, it was time to leave. For our final blowout dinner we headed to Lincoln Park to chef Laurent Gras's exciting restaurant, L2O.

Frenchman Gras opened L2O in 2008 and brought with him an impressive résumé, having worked with culinary legends such as Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, and Alain Senderens, who between them have accumulated an astonishing 27 Michelin stars. The restaurant's name is a twist on the chemical formula for water and, as this might suggest, the focus here is on seafood. In particular, chef Gras focuses on preparing seafood with strong influences from Japan, and this extends to adopting the Japanese trait of an almost obsessive attention to detail.

The restaurant is rather incongruously located in the dated and stuffy Belden-Stratford Hotel. A modern looking wooden door leads off the main lobby into the restaurant. Contrary to the rest of the hotel, the inside of the restaurant is an exercise in sleek and modern interior design, and is a truly stunning dining room. Quiet, soothing music is piped over the speakers. Such is Gras's attention to detail that he worked with Buddha Bar NYC resident DJ, Timka, to provide a soundtrack for L2O that reflects the changing seasons. He even commissioned Riedel to custom-make water glasses that are just the right shade of blue.

Mrs. Nibbler and I were warmly greeted and seated at a quiet corner table. We sat side-by-side, giving us a perfect vantage over the beautiful dining room. Before seeing the menus, the first amuse bouche arrived to ease us into the evening. This was a succulent lobe of lobster, I can't quite remember how it was prepared, but suffice it to say that it was delicious.

L2O offers three menus: a seasonal 12-course tasting menu; a 10-course tasting menu that incorporates luxury ingredients such as foie gras, lobster, and caviar; and a 4-course prix fixe menu (L2O also has Tatami rooms for private dining that offer Kaiseki-style menus). Given that we had spent the last three weeks eating our way round Chicago, Mrs. Nibbler and I were starting to feel a bit like foie gras geese. So, we opted for the smaller four-course à la carte menu, which is just as well as this turned out to be nine courses.
Amuse Bouche 1: Lobster
After we ordered, the second amuse bouche arrived. This was a lightly set olive oil custard with an espelette pepper emulsion. It was light and creamy, with a mild chilli twang to it. Both amuse bouches were a really fantastic way to start the meal.
Amuse Bouche 2: Olive Oil Custard with Espelette Emulsion
At this point I should also mention the bread. Bread is taken very seriously at L2O and is baked once before the dinner service and again halfway through. Mrs. Nibbler and I selected some excellent pain de campagne and a Yukon Gold potato and garlic bread (although sadly none of their famed rosemary croissants were available that night). Both were moist in the middle with wonderfully crispy crusts. These were served with salted butter made in-house from grass-fed cows' cream, which had a deliciously full, almost cheesy flavour.
Pain de Campagne, and Yukon Gold Potato and Garlic bread
For her first course, Mrs. Nibbler opted for the cryptically titled "Eighteen Flavours of Summer". As its name suggests this is a seasonal dish and it was an extraordinary presentation of different preparations of summer fruits and vegetable. It included an avocado and jalapeno sorbet, radishes, asparagus with asparagus sorbet, a tomato sorbet, beetroot, and watermelon. This was such a spectacular dish, vibrant in colour and bursting with fresh summer flavours.
Eighteen Flavours of Summer
For my first course I also had a visually spectacular dish of tuna with tomatoes, hibiscus, and foie gras 'snow'. Tuna sashimi had been cut into neat cubes, each topped with a slightly smaller cube of a tomato and hibiscus jelly. Accompanying this were some pearls of olive oil gel and flakes of frozen foie gras. When I saw this dish on the menu I knew I had to try it, as it was such an unusual combination of flavours. It worked fantastically well and I loved the way the foie gras snow just melted and dissolved on your tongue. Visually, this dish also had such a satisfying sense of geometry and order to it.
Tuna, Tomato, Hibiscus, Foie Gras Snow
For her second course, Mrs. Nibbler opted for a dish of octopus. Octopus is first peeled and frozen to tenderise it and then cooked slowly in olive oil. It is served with a coconut sauce and freeze-dried soy sauce powder. This was a delicious dish, the tender, but meaty, octopus combined well with the soft, silky coconut sauce. Although a somewhat unconventional combination of ingredients, it was really very good. In fact, it reminded me of a similar dish by Ferran Adrià that I had at La Alqueria in the El Bulli Hotel a few years ago; there, squid ravioli was filled with coconut milk and it too worked very well indeed.
Octopus, Coconut, Olive oil
For my second course I had grilled prawns served with pappardelle pasta in a rich and creamy tomato and saffron sauce. This was garnished with small discs of courgette and tempura-style courgette flowers. This was a fairly heavy dish but I enjoyed it immensely, the pasta in particular was stunning - paper thin and toothsome. The dish was, however, not without fault; the prawns had been over salted and the courgette flower tempura was a little oily - I remember the tempura I had in Japan being impossibly crisp and almost grease-less.
Prawn, Saffron, Pappardelle, Zucchini blossom, Tomato
For my main course I chose a very decadent version of surf and turf - wagyu beef and lobster served with potatoes, mushrooms and a truffle and foie gras emulsion. I had originally wanted to order the kampachi with yuzu and caviar (with a whopping $75 supplement) but this was already sold out, even though we were dining at 7:30pm. I should have trusted my instinct and gone for another fish dish as the wagyu, although perfectly cooked, was not as tender as I have had in the past, and a couple of the potatoes needed to have been cooked for longer. The lobster however was divine and it paired beautifully with the intoxicating and impossibly rich foie gras and truffle sauce.
Rangers Valley Wagyu Beef, Lobster, Foie Gras-Truffle Emulsion, Potato, Mushroom
Since our arrival in Chicago, Mrs. Nibbler had had a craving for lobster that she had not yet managed to itch. So naturally for her main course she chose lobster (tail and claw) that was poached in butter and served with a thermidor sauce, squares of a peach jelly and purslane. This was a stunning mix of flavours; the sweet lobster meat was offset by the slightly sour purslane and the acidity of the peach, while the creamy sauce provided a perfect bridge to bring everything together.
Lobster, Sauce Thermidor, Peach, Purslane
Before dessert, we were served a small palate cleanser of a meyer lemon frozen marshmallow. It had a cold, silky consistency and was very light and refreshing. Just perfect.

For dessert, Mrs. Nibbler had the "chocolate surprise", which was presented as a rectangular box of chocolate with perfect 90-degree angles. I wish I had taken a picture of the inside of the chocolate box as it was filled with a multitude of sweet goodness that included caramelised almonds rolled in cocoa butter, milk chocolate mousse, dark toffee, and caramelised almond mousse with a touch of Murray salt. The small blob of chocolate sauce was garnished with gold leaf, giving this dish a rich and opulent feel. It was delicious.
Chocolate Surprise: Guanaja, Praline, Almond
I had a similar dish for dessert, but here I was presented with a Valrhona Manjari chocolate egg that had a remarkable velvet texture to it. The egg was filled with an impossibly airy salted caramel mousse and was served with a malt 'snow' and a caramel foam with a just a hint of coffee. This was also a spectacular dessert, both in taste and presentation.
Caramel, Manjari, Malt Snow, Hint of Coffee
We rounded off dinner with some delicious Intelligentsia espresso coffee and some petit fours of apricot macaroons with saffron, and passion fruit and ginger marshmallows. I love macaroons and L2O's versions are as perfect as the ones I buy from Ladurée, although there was perhaps a bit too much saffron in this one for my liking, overwhelming the flavour of apricot and leaving a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Petit Fours: Apricot Macaroon with Saffron, Passion Fruit and Ginger Marshmallow
Although a relatively new addition to the high-end of the Chicago dining scene, L2O has already made its mark, and is more than a welcome addition to the already excellent list of restaurants in Chi-town. Chef Gras serves beautiful, light, and inventive food. He seems to have such knowledge and mastery of the raw ingredients that go into a dish, having an almost instinctive feel for how to combine flavours. The service at L2O was without fault and it hummed along like a well-oiled Michelin-starred machine. I enjoyed a monumentally good dinner here, but it wasn't without a couple of small, niggling faults. I feel there's much more to come from Gras, the sheer precision of his Japanese-influenced cooking combined with his impressive classical experience in some of the world's best restaurants should lead him to greater things indeed. Watch this space.

UPDATE 16.11.2010: Well if you did watch this space, you will have seen that L2O was awarded Michelin's highest complement of three stars in their inaugural guide to Chicago (the only other recipient of three stars in the city was the sublime Alinea – see my reviews here and here). In a bizarre twist though, it was announced that Laurent Gras left L2O suddenly at the beginning of November 2010, ostensibly for a temporary leave of absence. No motive was given, other than the generic "for personal reasons," and it is unclear whether Gras will return. I do hope we see him back in a kitchen in the not too distant future as his is a precocious talent for cooking. I'm not sure what this means for the three stars, as typically Michelin have a habit of removing stars when a chef leaves a restaurant. So again, we watch this space!

UPDATE 18.11.2010: As was my suspicion, Laurent Gras has indeed decided to part company with L2O, citing irreconcilable differences with owner Rich Melman. Gras plans to set up a new venture in NYC that will focus more on casual dining. L2O's Chef de Cuisine Francis Brennan, who worked with Gras for years and helped set up the restaurant, will take over the reigns. I wish him the best of luck, as never has the phrase "out of the frying pan, into the fire" been more appropriate.

UPDATE 10.11.2011: It was announced that Brennan would be leaving L2O to be replaced by Matthew Kirkley (28) who used to work under Brennan and Gras. Judging from this interview, it looks like Kirkley will be making some changes to the L2O menu.

UPDATE 15.11.2011: L2O was docked two stars in the 2012 edition of the Chicago Michelin guide following the departure of chef Laurent Gras just over a year ago. The restaurant now holds one star in the guide, leaving Alinea as the city's sole three-star restaurant.

UPDATE 13.11.2012: The restaurant was awarded its second Michelin star in the 2013 edition of the guide rouge.

Food:          9 / 10
Service:       9 / 10
Ambiance:   9 / 10

2300 N. Lincoln Park West
Chicago, IL 60614
Tel: +1 773-868-0002

L2o on Urbanspoon

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

Alinea on Urbanspoon

25 August 2010

The Publican, Chicago - Restaurant Review

Pork, seafood, and beer. What more does a guy need? Just one look at the menu of the Publican and I'm already won over. It's the sort of menu that brings a smile to any dedicated carnivore or piscivore, and features numerous tempting dishes such as ham chops in hay, potted rillettes, pork belly, oysters, and octopus.

The main man behind the Publican is Chef Paul Kahan who is most well known for his critically acclaimed Chicago restaurants, Blackbird and Avec. For his third incarnation, Kahan designed the Publican as a casual Belgian-style beer hall. The cavernous dining room is dominated by a huge u-shaped walnut table that seats around 100 diners in communal fashion. Towards the back is a semi-open kitchen buzzing with activity, and flanking along the wall is a bar lined with around a dozen beer taps. There are also smaller, cosy booths that seat four with waist-high barn door style gates. An array of luminous orbs hangs from the ceiling and huge porcine artwork adorns the walls. It's loud and raucous inside, and you sit cheek by jowl next to other diners, perfect for ogling the dishes others have ordered.

The communal nature of the place also extends to the menu, where dishes are arranged in order of size, with seafood listed on the left side and meat on the right. The idea is to pick two or three smaller plates and one or two larger dishes to share between two. And what a menu it is! Naturally, given the decor, the menu is very pork-heavy and the restaurant takes weekly deliveries of whole pigs from Becker Lane Organic Farm in Iowa, which are then butchered in-house. The problem here is that every dish is the sort of thing you actually want to eat. It's simple, hearty food that is devoid of foams or encapsulations, and choosing what to order can be a real challenge. The beer menu is also amazing, with well over 50 (mostly European) bottled beers, including the fantastic beer from Nøgne Ø in Norway (heia Norge!), and with 12 different beers on tap.

To start us off, Mrs. Nibbler and I ordered a plate of fresh radishes and some spicy pork rinds. The radishes hailed from Kinnikinnick Farm in Caledonia, Illinois. They were cool, crisp, and spicy and we ate them leaves and all (a trick we learnt at Noma) with a smear of plain butter and a sprinkling of sea salt.
Kinnikinnick Farm Radishes with Butter & Sea Salt
The spicy pork rinds arrived wrapped in brown paper in a pint glass. They were made from pigs reared on Slagel Farm in Fairbury, Illinois and had been dusted with an acidic and fiery espelette pepper powder. They were like no other pork rind I had ever tasted. Simply stunning. They were as light as popcorn, ethereal even, and just melted on your tongue. Between Mrs. Nibbler and me they stood no chance and were gone almost instantly.
Spicy Pork Rinds
Next, we shared a dish of pork cheeks that were served with shiso plums and aubergines. The pork cheeks were well-seasoned and full of flavour, and they were cooked to a melting softness rendering the knife redundant. The shisho plums provided just the right amount of acidity and sweetness to cut through the fatty porkiness, and the aubergines had a wonderful, mild smoky taste. I loved this dish dearly and was genuinely sad when it was gone.
Pork Cheeks, Shiso Plums & Marinated Aubergine
For our main course we shared some Provençal fish stew. A large pot of the steaming stew arrived with a ladle buried deep inside and Mrs. Nibbler and I took turns to serve each other. It was such a nice touch. The stew had been made with salt cod, prawns, clams, octopus, crab and potatoes and was served with some toasted bread and a garlicky aioli. It was divine, although a touch salty, but this can happen if the salt cod is not soaked for long enough. Unusually for a Provençal fish soup, this dish did not include saffron or tomatoes, which I was hoping it would as I love those flavours in a fish soup.
Provençal Fish Stew
Desserts are a very simple affair at the Publican, with just three options to choose from. We decided to try a simple white peach sorbet that was served with basil and blueberries. It was a perfect, light and refreshing end to a marvellous supper, although perhaps a touch too sweet for my taste (I like my sorbets to be on the acidic, rather than sweet side).

White Peach Sorbet with Basil and Blueberries
I left Publican that night sated and happy as a pig in the proverbial. The Publican is a truly wonderful place. It serves the sort of hearty and homely food that just makes you glad to be alive. So there it is, if you're lucky enough to live in Chi-town then just go there. Let me leave you with the delicious little homage that appears on the restaurant's card:

"Here’s to the Swine
That Animal Divine
who through Mud and Slime
Grit and Grime
Gorges over Time
Into Meats Sublime"

- the Publican

(UPDATE 10.11.2010: In Michelin's inaugural guide to Chicago, The Publican was awarded a Bib Gourmand, which signifies a restaurant offering "good food at moderate prices.")

Food:         8 / 10
Service:      7 / 10
Ambiance:  8 / 10
837 W. Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607
Tel: +1 312-733-9555

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