So being the delinquent poster that I am, I am going to place my New York posts on hold to post about my recent trip to Chicago. Long weekends don't exist at school; instead we have something called Fall Break, where we get 2 days off of the regular week for a combination of a 4 day break including the weekend.
Now what to do during an awkward break of 4 days? Hm, Alinea is in Chicago. Hence, in September I book (non-refundable) tickets to Chicago. I call into Alinea to discover that all days are booked to the max for Oct 5 weekend. Up until the day before I leave, I am in the predicament of being waitlisted for the one restaurant I really want to try. But on the fateful Thursday around 2 pm, I receive the delightful phone call that seats opened up at 5:30 for the next day. I thought I was on cloud 9, until crankiness set in that night when I sleep a total of 15 minutes to catch my 5:45 am flight.
Before we arrive in the dining room, we walk through a space agey corridor. We are then greeted by automatic sliding doors, into which I do not crash, unlike my very graceful entrance into per se. The dining room is elegant and minimalist, with neutral colors. I am then given the news that we are able to order the 24 course tour, which isn't always available unless you plan it in advance. Pretty sweet news.
Duck - pumpkin, banana, Thai flavors
From the first course, I would learn this would be a very interactive meal. We are given half-sphere bulbs, which has a little nook for a fork. Atop of the fork is duck tenderloin, pinenuts, basil seeds, and cilantro. Amazing. Each individual ingredient is easily discernible, and comes into play at a different stage of the chewing process. We then finish off the bold flavors with a smooth, sweet butternut squash soup. The sweet aftertaste of the soup perfectly accompanies the savory and sharp Thai flavors of the duck.
Brook Trout - watermelon, kombu, coriander
In the second course, the trout was presented three ways: fried, steamed, and raw; the layered trout rests atop of a slice of watermelon. Accompaniments with the fish was Japanese seaweed, a sliver of pickled watermelon, and toasted rice. In the little adjacent puddle is sesame and cilantro. I wasn't too big a fan of this course. It was certainly an interesting contrast of textures - of course, the three separate preparations of the trout, along with the slippery and stringy seaweed, with the crunchy toasted rice, and the smooth coating of the oils. Flavorwise, there was just too much going on and not particularly logical to me either. The "cleansing" flavor of the watermelon was too much for the rather bland trout, and the sharp toasted rice was competing with the cilantro. Logistically speaking, it was also hard to taste everything in the same bite, unlike the duck course.
Tomato - plum, sherry vinegar, rosemary fragrance
Our tables are cleared, and we each receive a big pillow (I'm too surprised to remember to take a picture). After our plates are placed on top of the pillows, a fragrant rosemary scent starts permeating my nasal cavity. As these pillows deflate, our palates are prepped for the food we are about to eat. Deconstructionist! I like.
Admittedly, I'm still too surprised to really take in the descriptions of the food, so I'll do my best to describe. Tomatoes are cold smoked and pressed with sherry vinegar, and matched with many a different sauce. The red bulb you see there is really the only untouched tomato, which is sweet and incredibly juicy. The yellow cylinder is also a tomato, albeit hard and frozen with liquid nitrogen (I have no idea how else to describe it, please bear with me). The orange-brownish cube is quite chewy and tangy, and I think it's a semi-dried plum. Finally, the pink cloud thing is a frozen sorbet of something sweet. All I can say is many different elements, nothing tastes quite like a regular tomato, and my palate is surprised and tantalized.
The yellow butter is a Wisconsin cream churned in house, topped with lava salt. The white butter in the foreground is from Quebec, a soft, creamy texture with sweeter flavor.
Warm rosemary bread - so good
Sardine - black olive, sundried tomato, arugula
"Petite finger food," our server tells us. Crispy sardines are wrapped around black olive mousse, and topped with sundried tomato and arugula. The flavors of the tomato and arugula are not very pronounced, and dissolve quickly with the mousse, leaving the aftertaste of the sardines behind. Interesting texture contrast; I would very much like if all hors doeuvres tasted like this.
Sweetbread - cauliflower, burnt bread, toasted hay
This was the most "un-Alinea" dish of the night; just the fact that it was the most likely dish of the night I would find at any typical fine dining French restaurant. Tender sweetbreads are breaded and braised, and accompanied with fried dehydrated cauliflower, little mounds of buttery chestnut puree, and burnt bread pudding. I'm not quite sure what toasted hay is, so I will assume that the creamy, rather nondescript sauce is just that. The sweetbreads are well prepared, but the real standout here are the little puddles of burnt bread pudding. Smoky and salty, they do not resemble bread to me in any way, but they're deliciously addictive and a refreshing addition to this rather rich, creamy course.
Black truffle - explosion, romaine, parmesan
A little truffle-topped ravioli arrives on a spoon, delicate balancing on an "anti-plate," a plate with only a rim and no base. The ravioli is filled with a rich and earthy truffle broth, which literally explodes in your mouth (hence the "explosion"), like a Chinese soup dumpling. Once you swallow the broth, you are left with a wonderfully al dente pasta with a truffle shaving and a shaving of pungent parmesan. Hands down, this was one of my favorite courses of the night.
Blackberry - tobacco, smoked salt, mint blossom
Rather medicinal looking implements arrive, carrying a cylinder of tobacco cream and a half blackberry with a mint leaf. The tobacco cream tasted of a very, very light sweet cigarette, so subtle that it was immediately overpowered by the tart blackberry. Probably one of my least favorite of the night, simply because of failed execution.
Rhubarb - goat milk, beet, long peppercorn
Seven preparations of one of my favorite fruits: rhubarb.
We are instructed first to knock back this shooter of fresh rhubarb juice and a beet bulb. The ball immediately explodes in your mouth, and is a nice earthy addition to the rhubarb.
(1) a dried rhubarb film: immensely sticky, and had the taste and texture of a fruit leather.
(2) fresh rhubarb: very sour, but refreshingly crunchy.
(3) rhubarb mousse with grapefruit: very ethereal but nondescript cloud of rhubarb, but nicely complimented by the citrus. I wasn't sure why the bay leaf was stripped of all aroma.
(4) gelled goat milk cube with a slice of rhubarb: a nondescript goat milk jello. This did nothing for me in terms of flavor, but was nice to have a gelatinous flavor contrast.
(5) rhubarb sorbet on shortbread: delicious sorbet, intense and tart; our server noted that this is an audience favorite.
(6) rhubarb gelee with matcha foam: eaten shooter style like an oyster; I was not too fond of this, primarily because the sweetness of the gelee was too much for the subtlety of the matcha. I wished that the natural bitterness could be allowed to shine.
Huckleberry - frozen and chewy, lemon, parsley
We are instructed to pop this liquid nitrogen frozen huckleberry in our mouths, and my tongue goes numb. It is damn cold. As it rapidly melts, the tartness of the huckleberry comes out, and is intensified by the lemon custard. As the piece becomes warm and sticky, almost like the texture of a chewy fruit candy, the parsley flowers start to be detectable. Amazing play on temperatures. I really do wonder how chef Achatz can "time" flavors like that.
Pineapple - bacon powder, black pepper
Freeze dried tomato and bacon is wrapped in a sheath of pineapple, which almost immediately melts away as it touches your tongue. The tartness of the pineapple perfectly brings out the smoky bacon, and I am fond of this though I don't particularly like bacon. I swear, they should sell these as candy in packs of 12.
Apple cider - walnut milk, cinnamon, vegetable ash
Apple cider is encrusted by cinnamon and floats in a sea of walnut milk. We are instructed to open our mouths wide, as true to form, the ball of cider is quite large indeed. It bursts almost immediately in our mouths, and combines with the light walnut milk. Somehow this combination had the soothing sensation of aloe as I swallowed it.
Brook trout roe - corn, Blis maple syrup
Trout roe rests in a maple syrup gel, in a butter corn-emulsion. The roe is subtly fishy, which goes surprisingly well with the smoky syrup. I wasn't too fond of the corn emulsion, which was too heavy and sweet to go with the maple syrup roe pack.
Lobster - parsnip, orange, hyacinth vapor
Right as the course is set down, our server pours hot water into the plate of orange peels and hyacinth, which really prepares our palates with the floral, citrus aroma. We are then instructed to eat a pungent little cube of citrus gelatin that is on the pin.
Chunks of butter poached lobster rests in a rich buttery cream. My lobster came a tad overdone and was tougher than desired, and the orange slices/jicama cubes did little to offset the richness of the cream. I did enjoy the lobster chip, however.
Honeydew - Blis sherry vinegar, mint
This was a course with an interesting history. The vinegar, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, is not merely aged 15 years. The guy who bought this aged vinegar decided to age it 8 more months in barrels that used to hold maple syrup. But, it turns out those barrels originally held bourbon, and so this vinegar has picked up the flavors of both. That vinegar is then placed inside a sliver of honeydew, which is enveloped by a mint gelatin. The flavors came together very well, each ingredient remaining discernible.
Hot potato - cold potato, black truffle, butter
An Alinea classic. A pin holds (from bottom) a cube of parmesan, butter, chive, and a literally hot potato, topped with a black truffle shaving. As you remove the pin from the wax bowl, all the ingredients fall into a cold potato soup.
This course is very aptly named "hot potato, cold potato," as you really do feel the temperature difference in the hot piece of potato and the chilled soup. It really is quite delicious too, since in my mind, truffle + cheese = ambrosia.
Why is there a bowl of cedar in my face?
Kuroge wagyu - matsutake, cedar branch aroma
At the end of a pin is a piece of hot wagyu and a matsutake mushroom. All I tasted was the seared wagyu, with its many layers of fat. I liked that it was seared to bring out the beefy goodness, but my piece was slightly overdone.
Junsai - bonito, soy, mirin
The chef sure loves the Asian influence. So what the heck is junsai, you ask? It's some sort of water plant that has skinny little gelatinous branches. That's paired with a savory dashi broth that sort of coats your palate, and makes the junsai feel even more slimy. A very interesting play on surprising textures here.
Lamb - in cubism
A piece of lamb tenderloin, topped with some herbs and mustard seeds, is beautifully presented with a palate of colorful sauces for you to discover on your own. Admittedly, I had no idea what most of the sauces were, but I will venture my guess: lemon, mustard, pomegranate, and God knows what. Such a creative and fun dish, I still think about those bold flavors. If only someone would send me some clues...
A wobbly piece of...
Transparency - of raspberry, rose petal, yogurt
A raspberry transparency of rose petals was dusted with yogurt. The transparency is tart and floral, and very thin and delicate. But I was actually most enamored by the clip, which features two thin sheets of metal, supported by a heavy connector base.
Foie gras - spicy cinnamon, apple pate de fruit
"A gift from the chef." Ingenious way to feed us foie gras, which is banned in Chicago. A cinnamon meringue surrounds a light foie gras paste. Initially, I wasn't too fond of this, but there was that delayed detection effect that really left the rich taste of foie gras in our mouths.
Guava - avocado, brie, key lime juice
I had failed to mention this, but our utensils lay on "pillows" in the center of our table. Sorta gimmicky with the whole pillow thing, but whatevs, whatevs.
At the beginning of the meal, we were given two centerpieces - a lime encased inside an elongated plastic tube, which I thought were pretty damn ugly. But I finally saw the utilitarian aspects of them when our server lifted them off the table and squeezed them out over the square block of green lime ice in the middle. There are several elements to this course, so I will do my best to describe, going clockwise from the ice:
(1) a semifreddo of avocado and brie: brie was very subtle, diluted tasting, and the avocado was quite creamy and sweet, though diluted as well. Overpowered by the moat of guava juice the block was swimming in.
(2) pine nuts and grape-nut-ish pieces lining the plate, along with a piece of brie: the brie tasted like a normal piece of brie, creamy and rich, which went well with the crunchy nuts.
(3) guava mousse: great tart guava flavor, yet ethereally light.
(4) ball of whiskey(?): what a surprise - I was expecting a ball of, perhaps, guava, but this was a shocking yet refreshing explosion of alcohol, among other great explosions of the night.
Licorice cake - muscavado sugar, orange, hyssop
This was yet another course where the eating implement played a key role; we were instructed to simply lean forward and bite off the piece. And so I did with caution, lest I wanted to be poked by the pin. A piece of licorice cake, orange confit, and what I'm assuming was hyssop is wrapped in a cotton candy web of muscavado sugar. The sugar melts immediately as you pull the piece of the pin, and your palate is coated with sugar as you take in the licorice, orange, and hyssop (I'm assuming). Interesting flavors, but not particularly tasty to me.
Chocolate - passionfruit, lemongrass, soy
I admit I usually do not consume brown tubular looking things, but this was very good. This was a semi-bitter dark chocolate ganache, which we were instructed to eat with the soy sauce (the bulbous looking things). I really enjoyed the combination of salty and bittersweet, and found the deep flavor of the dark soy sauce to be an unexpected but excellent compliment. The course never got too heavy, as the passionfruit tubes added a cleansing element to the bitter and salty chocolate. Creative take on the most overused, generic dessert ingredient: chocolate.
Pumpkin - brown sugar, pie dough, burning leaves
The final and 24th course came with an erect branch of burning leaves. And yes they were quite burning - one of our branches started shedding, and we had burnt leaf confetti all over. But this really stimulated our olfactory senses, as it really smelled like a fresh fall day. In keeping with that theme, a piece of pumpkin pie is tempura battered and fried, and dusted with cinnamon. I thought this was merely ok, as the flavors weren't nearly as complex as the chocolate dessert. Great fall flavors, but I was much more enamored by the burning leaves than the actual pie.
What an amazing meal. The gastronomic experience lasted over four hours, and never once was I bored by what we were served. Since we didn't see a menu, we were left guessing what was next, as well as conjecturing about what we just ate (I was so engrossed in looking at the dish I became rather hard at hearing and remembering what the server was saying). While I wasn't too huge a fan of some dishes (licorice cake, tobacco cream), some others (potato, duck, truffle) more than made up for the entire experience. I am sure that most of you know by now that Chef Grant Achatz is battling cancer - I wish him the best of luck; the world is fortunate to have him.
1723 N Halstead
Chicago, Il 60614