28 July 2011

Alinea, Chicago (Revisited) - Restaurant Review

They say that time flies as you get older. Walking down Alinea's famous doorway, bathed in an eerie fuchsia glow, I had an overwhelming sense of being here only yesterday. In actual fact, it has been almost a year since I last ate at Alinea. That the experience should still be so fresh in my mind is unsurprising given that on that sweltering summer night in Chicago last year I enjoyed one of the most incredible meals of my life.

Nevertheless, in the ensuing months since I last ate at Alinea, head chef and co-owner Grant Achatz's world has been a whirlwind of activity, bringing with it deserved achievements as well as a great deal of change. In November 2010 Alinea was awarded the rare accolade of three Michelin stars in the tyre maker's inaugural guide to Chicago, instantly transforming the restaurant into a must-visit destination for food lovers across the world.

The following March, Achatz and Alinea co-owner Nick Kokonas released a fascinating memoir charting the incredible story of Alinea, as well as Achatz's battle with cancer. Then in April, the restaurant climbed one place in the San Pellegrino ranking of the world's best restaurants and now occupies the number 6 slot, the highest American entrant.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, in April 2011 Achatz and Kokonas also opened Next (see my review here), their second restaurant venture, which is also joined by Aviary, a cutting-edge cocktail bar. Located in Chicago's rapidly gentrifying meatpacking district, Next has quickly become one of the hottest restaurants in town. In charge of the day-to-day running of Next is Dave Beran, former chef de cuisine at Alinea.

So, with the loss of such a high-profile member of the Alinea team and a head chef who is now dividing his efforts between two restaurants, I was keen to see how this latest experience would compare to the last. Would the food reach the same dizzy heights of perfection as last time? Would I still be "genuinely moved by the whole experience"?
The drama begins as soon as you open the door to the unremarkable grey building in Chicago's affluent Lincoln Park neighbourhood. The walk down a corridor that appears to go nowhere is interrupted by a door to your left silently gliding open. Before you know it, you're almost in the kitchen, where a small army of identically clad chefs are studiously labouring over plates of food. Tweezers in hand, faces calmed in total concentration, they could be neurosurgeons or watchmakers engrossed in their work.

We're shown to our seats in the upstairs part of the dining room and survey the elegantly understated room. The other thing I immediately notice is how quiet it is in here. I'm not usually a fan of music being played in restaurants, but I think here was a clear case where some background noise was desperately needed. Granted we had an early (6:30pm) dinner sitting and a couple of tables in our section were yet to be filled, but the atmosphere felt more library than restaurant. And that's the way it stayed for much of the meal; a parade of dark Zegna-suited waiters placing plate after plate of the most beautiful looking food in front of us, their reverential decorum doing little to make us feel at ease.

The menu choice at Alinea is easy as there is no choice. Instead you can sit back and submit to a tasting menu of around 20 or so dishes. The tasting menu comes in at $210 per person and a menu of matching wines starts at around the $150 mark.

To begin, steelhead (trout) roe is encircled by a strip of watermelon jelée and topped with a pretty cucumber blossom, and oxalis leaves. Into the bowl was poured a chilled cucumber consommé with (I think) kaffir lime. This was a very clean, light and refreshing start – the roe was not at all fishy and each pearl released a pleasing salty tang as it burst in the mouth.
Next was another familiar looking dish from last time. This time hamachi (yellowtail fish), banana, ginger and West Indian spices had been deep fried in tempura batter. Inserted into it was a vanilla pod "handle" designed to infuse the dish with its scent rather than to be eaten. This was a great mix of sweet and savoury; at any one moment your mind was quite uncertain as to whether this dish was trying to be a starter or a dessert. The smell of warm gentle spices was wonderful, and the whole thing was delicious.
The next three courses arrived in one go. We started with a solitary oyster leaf presented in a shell over some crushed ice. It's dressed with a touch of mignonette sauce and sea salt. The effect is remarkable; it tastes exactly like an oyster, although I suspect I would probably have preferred the real thing.

Next was a scallop topped with Japanese wheat beer (Hitachino Nest) foam as well as spring onion, and "old bay", an old school powdered seafood seasoning. This was a good, if unspectacular, dish – the sweet fresh scallop went really well with the slight bitterness of the beer.

The last of the three small bites was razor clam served with soy, daikon, carrot, coriander and tapioca pearls. This was by far the best of the bunch; the perfectly cooked razor clams having a nice gentle spicy kick to it.
Then, a classic Alinea dish from last time – a solitary stick of fried yuba (soy milk skin) around which was wrapped a sweet 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. This was a great dish – the crunchy yuba juxtaposed nicely by the soft, creamy mayonnaise.
This was followed by a warm purée of English peas, which was garnished with pea shoots. The purée was good, but a little one dimensional in taste, having more than a passing resemblance to the baby food we used to feed the Nibbler girls.

Once we had eaten this, the bowl the purée had been sitting in was removed to reveal another layer of peas underneath. This time we were presented with freeze dried peas, pea meringue, grape jelly, olive oil jelly and chamomile. This was a real show stopper; such a wonderful mix of flavours and textures – it was crunchy, soft, sweet, and savoury all in one go.

Finally a third layer was revealed to us, which consisted of frozen pea purée, green apple sorbet and Parmesan mousse. This was the least successful of the three pea variations; I felt the mix of flavours just clashed too much and it didn't work for me.

I liked the overall concept of this dish; it was a clever take on peas and had interesting flavours and textures. I also liked the way the dish progressed from warm to cold, the reverse of what we had experienced with this style of dish at our last visit. However, I'm not convinced by the execution, especially when I think back to the masterful 3-tiered king crab, rhubarb, lilac, and fennel dish we had last time.
Next came a rather fun dish. Mackerel that had been lightly cured in sake was skewered on a long thin wire along with some celery heart, mango, juniper and bergamot flowers; the whole contraption looking like some sort of insect's antenna on our table. We were instructed to eat this in one go without using our hands. Cue much hilarity as we tried to eat the gently bobbing mackerel. But, given the list of powerfully flavoured ingredients, I was expecting something much more punchy that it actually turned out to be; the flavours here being too mild and muddled.
The kitchen was back on form next with an exquisite dish of wild mushrooms (morels, maitake and white beech) that had been sautéed and were served with pine cream, pickled wild garlic, fried shallot rings, sumac breadcrumbs, thyme foam, powdered pine nut, lettuce, and a red wine reduction. This was a massively complex dish, but the mix of flavours and textures was just fantastic. The dense forest floor taste of the mushrooms was lifted by the tang of the sumac and pickled ramps as well as the fragrance of the thyme and pine. Simply divine! I've also seen this course served on a pillow filled with pine scented air that slowly escapes as you eat the dish.
This was followed by another Alinea classic: "Hot Potato, Cold Potato". It is probably one of three dishes that will always be on the menu. 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.

Time is of the essence in eating this so as to highlight the different temperatures – you don't want it to turn into "Warm Potato, Warm Potato". So we quickly 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. 
Throughout the meal so far, our table had been graced with a rather attractive pair of flags. It would turn out that these flags were made of pasta and were to be incorporated into the next course. The waiter placed a glass tray in front of us that contained small, precise mounds of smoked salt, blackberry, grilled onion, fermented garlic, pickled turnip, Niçoise olives, sour red cherry topped with puffed rice, a spoonful of tobacco gel, a curl of salsify and a small glass dish of tomato 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 our sheet of pasta was placed. The pasta was then filled with pieces of red wine-braised beef short rib. We were then free to add whatever toppings we liked (I used all of them of course), roll up the pasta like some sort of fajita, and then eat it. Although very busy in terms of flavours, the toppings played a supporting role to the real highlight of the dish: the meltingly tender beef. This course was both as delicious as it was theatrical.
Then came perhaps the dish that is singularly associated with Achatz: Black Truffle Explosion. I loved it last time and I couldn't wait to try it again. A single ravioli topped with black truffle, Parmesan, and romaine lettuce 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 black truffle broth. Stop ... pause ... BIG smile. It was just heavenly.

This was the dish that Achatz conceived when he was at the French Laundry and it was a highlight of the menu at Trio, his former workplace (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. It's still one of the best things I've ever eaten.
A feature of any meal at Alinea is a dish inspired by the great chef Escoffier. It is perhaps these dishes that inspired the inaugural Paris 1906 menu of Next Restaurant. For our historic foray, we were served lamb loin from Elysian Fields farm in Pennsylvania, which was served on croutons with asparagus tips, artichoke hearts, chorron sauce (like a béarnaise sauce with tomato purée added), and tiny immaculate balls of Yukon Gold potatoes. An elegantly cut crystal glass filled with a delicious carrot and pomegranate juice was also served with it, which was a nice touch for those not drinking wine with their meal.

This was a good dish and a masterful execution of a classic, but it was a little incongruous given the modern nature of the food we had been eating so far. I still stand by my comment from last time: the Alinea chefs don't need to prove they have mastered the classics, we don't need convincing of their talents and they should stick to what they do best, which is stunning diners with their imaginative and unique brand of cooking.
Next came one of the highlights of the meal. A fork containing red wine braised octopus, soft aubergine purée, chilli, mint, lime and coriander was balanced on a bowl of hot garlic soup with wasabi foam. The octopus was deliciously tender but still chewy enough to balance the soft smoky aubergine. The garlic soup chaser was wonderfully savoury and fragrant. Simply gorgeous.
On to the desserts next and we begin with a small palate cleanser of "Yuzu Snow". A thick metal bowl had been set into a ceramic conical base. The bowl had been cooled in liquid nitrogen and was covered with flakes of powdery soft yuzu ice crystals. We scraped out the refreshing "snow" with a spoon, under strict instructions not to lick the super-chilled metal bowl as our tongues would undoubtedly stick to it (surely one of the more embarrassing reasons to go to the ER).
Then came a hugely impressive dessert. This was a playful take on the classic Caprese salad. A plethora of gels, liquids and powders were beautiful on the plate, looking like an edible Mondrian painting. Here, cubes of strawberry, balsamic, and basil jellies were joined by fresh strawberries, burrata cheese, almond biscuits, crisp strawberry transparencies, basil gel, jasmine gel, basil sorbet, and elderflowers.

This was such a stunning dessert; each bite seemed different, never the same combination of flavours twice. It was simply genius in conception and execution and was a joy to eat.
A little one-bite dish came next; this time a small glass tube filled with lemongrass and cucumber distillation had been sealed at one end with finger lime gel and at the other with dragon fruit. There was also some coriander, amaranth, sea salt and honey granules in there too. The idea was to suck the whole lot down like a shot, making an amusing raspberry sound in the process. A fun dish, but I found its flavours to be way too overpowering and unpleasantly medicinal.
The table was cleared and a precisely fitting grey silicon mat was placed on the table. A waiter placed small bowls of mystery ingredients on the table and we were instructed to wait.  I knew what was coming next, but I was very excited to see how the final dessert would differ to what we had last time.

After what seemed like a fairly lengthy pause, sous chef Matt Chasseur arrived to create the final masterpiece. We marvelled as we watched Matt meticulously and silently create the dessert before our eyes. Only a terse description of each of the components broke the silence.

First, a mystery pale liquid was poured into glass moulds. Then chocolate shortbread crumbs with peanut powder, some peanut butter nougat pieces, and wine-soaked blueberries were scattered over the table. Blueberry purée and thick milk & honey sauce looked like tadpoles swimming across a pond, while warm milk chocolate sauce magically morphed into squares on the silicon mat. Next, nitrogen-frozen milk chocolate mousse was shattered into pieces at the table and topped with shards of freeze-dried blueberry and micro mint leaves. Finally the moulds were removed to reveal the liquid had magically set into a honey-infused crème brûlée, which was finished with a brown sugar glaze.

This was surely the star dish of the meal, and it was great to end on such a high. I loved the presentation of this dessert last time and I loved it again now. It is perhaps one of the most dramatic ways to end your meal, and is a hoot to eat as you extravagantly swipe your spoon across the table (just make sure you don't drag your sleeves through the sauce as I did).
The total bill per person came to around $280, which included a ginger-citrus drink, water, coffee and service – pricey for Chicago, but in line with other 3 Michelin star restaurants. Finally, as a parting memento, we're presented with the evening's menu. A nice little touch is the pictorial representation of each dish. Along with a list of the headline flavours are circles whose size and position represent the size and degree of savouriness or sweetness of a dish – the larger the circle is, the larger the dish, the further to the right, the sweeter the dish. As this is printed on semi-transparent paper, it was fascinating to overlay this menu with the one we had from last year (yes I still have it, and yes, I know I'm sad) and compare the two. It was sort of like comparing the DNA of two siblings – very similar, but still uniquely different. However, the differences between my meals here wasn't just limited to the food.
With the food world's attention focused on Alinea's younger sister, Next, this is a perfect time for the flagship restaurant to show us why it's still the best on the continent. However, I left Alinea that night somewhat deflated. Looking back at the food we were served it should have been a monumentally epic meal, but something was missing.

Holding Alinea to its own lofty standards, this meal was overshadowed by the feelings of sheer awe and wonderment my dinner here 11 months ago had elicited in me. What had changed? Was it me? Was it the restaurant? I honestly don't know. I do know that 11 months ago I left this place thinking I had just experienced one of those rare moments of culinary perfection. Now, I wasn't so sure.

So does this mean standards at Alinea are slipping? No, far from it. Alinea is producing as close to flawless, technically perfect dishes as you can get. The food at Alinea will be some of the best you have every tasted. But like Pete Sampras or Michael Schumacher in their heyday, notching up yet another perfect volley or yet another grand prix victory, it was all a bit ... well ... sterile and, dare I say it, predictable.

I got little sense of Alinea's soul that night. I felt distracted, uncomfortable even by the overly stiff service, and I just couldn't connect with the dishes that were being placed in front of me. I waited for the culinary fireworks, which unfortunately were few and far between.

And then I realised that great food should be engaging, great food should be passionate, and, above all, great food should be fun. To this end, it's almost ironic that Alinea could do with taking a leaf out of Next's book and inject some much needed vitality and excitement into the whole dining experience. Here's hoping it's just a blip and that the magic will return to what has to be one of my favourite restaurants in the world.

Food:             9 / 10
Service:          8 / 10
Ambiance:      7 / 10

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