Saturday, October 06, 2007

Alinea: A Perfect Blend of Classic Technique and Molecular Gastronomy

The whole reason for our 24 hour trip to Chicago was to eat at Alinea. We've been hearing about and reading about Chef Grant Achatz and Alinea for a couple of years now, but we never have any reason to be in Chicago so we decided to make a weekend trip out of it. Alinea was all it's cracked up to be and more. The place is beautifully modern, serene and warm all at the same time. When you walk in the big, black door you are funneled into a long hallway that gets smaller as you progress. It sort of feels like you are entering a very modern fun house. At the end of the fun-house hallway, motion sensitive doors open into the restaurant. Before you is a fairly massive glass staircase which you follow up to the main seating area. Once there, the muted walls are peppered with simple, brush-stroke. The dark tables are lacking tablecloths, but don't seems stark and behind a long black velvet banquette in the dining room in which we were sitting was a beautiful lighting/art piece with large tubular opaque glass lights and large tubular vases filled with some sort of produce that looked like small or orange tomatillos and branches. Once food hits your table you are in awe of the specifically designed serving pieces and utensils, made by a local artist for the specific dishes.

The service was pretty close to impeccable, although they are using the team-of-waiters approach that Alexis isn't particularly fond of. All of the waitstaff that we spoke to were very knowledgable about the food and were very nice, yet not at all intrusive. The only 2 flaws, and we're really searching here. 1) Alexis asked for a piece of paper and never got it. Although, to their credit, she did whip out her own piece of paper to take notes on right after she asked for one. 2) We asked the sommeiller to suggest some reasonably priced wines. That means cheap, without wanting to say cheap. However the sommeiller kept suggesting wines in the $100 range despite the fact that the wine list contained a good selection of wines in the $35-$65 range.

The food was amazing, as we hoped it would be. Although there were many interesting molecular gastronomy style techniques used, the food rarely felt gimmicky. There were plenty of flavor combinations we'd never thought of, but which were totally delicious. The food was refined and sophisticated, while playful and whimsical at times. There are 2 options at Alinea, the 12 course tasting menu and the 24 course "tour". Since we flew out to Chicago specifically for this meal, we did the tour. Although 24 courses seems like a lot, many were a single bite and the meal was spread out over 4 hours. We really enjoyed almost all of the savory courses, although we weren't too into the desserts. However, that says nothing about the food, we just aren't really into sweets. One of the things we found quite incredible is that a lot of the dishes, even if only a single bite, contained many, many ingredients, yet nothing was overpowering and all of the ingredients felt necessary. The only thing we found a bit lacking was the temperature of some of the dishes. Because the bites were so small, by the time some of the dishes were in front of us, they were on the cooler side of warm. The "tour" was $195 per person, and well worth the incredible experience and delicious food.

We were asked by the staff to refrain from using the flashes on our cameras so we had to work hard for these pictures in the low-light environment of the restaurant. The pictures, for the most part, are ok, but keep in mind we were working under difficult lighting conditions.

Our Off-Center Piece
This was made by shoving a lime in some clear rubber tubing and then using a blow-torch to shape the tubing around the lime. Playful and fun.

On the fork is Thai poached duck tenderloin with lemon pudding and red Thai chili and a bunch of other ingredients we didn't get down. It was followed with a few sips of butternut squash soup. As a first bite, this dish really opened up in your mouth once chewed. The soup was very smooth and thick and quite tasty. Giao found it a tad sweet for his tastes.

Brook Trout
This little roll of fish was steamed in lime zest and served with black and white sesame pudding, Japanese barley, tamari macerated watermelon, crispy trout skin, combu and corinader pickled watermelon skin. The dipping sauce was sesame oil and a puree of something we can no longer remember. The flavors in this dish were wonderful, although we found it a bit difficult to get all of the ingredients into a single bite. The combu (seaweed) was wonderfully complex in flavor.

The yellow butter was a cow's milk butter churned on-site and topped with black salt. The white butter was goat's milk butter, something we'd never had before. It was subtle and gamey all at the same time.

Warm Focaccia Roll
Different small breads were served intermittently throughout the meal and were more like a part of the meal, composed, than a side or an afterthought.

This delightful dish was an homage to the tomato. The dish was served on a "rosemary pillow": a pillow filled with rosemary scent upon which the dish was placed, slowly releasing the rosemary aroma as you ate. The dish was composed of cherry tomatoes, hazelnut pudding, frozen plum vinegarette, sherry vinegar balls, and a tangy cheese, among other things.

This playful finger food consisted of a crispy fried sardine surrounding a nicoise olive mousse and topped with microgreens. This was a wonderfully inventive use of a sardine and was a fun food to pop in your mouth.

Orange Chicory Rye Bread
Earthy and very tasty with the goat's milk butter.

This was Alexis' favorite dish of the night. The sweetbreads were creamy and warm on the inside and super-crunchy on the outside. The sweetbreads were accompanied by carmelized, dehydrated cauliflower, which was full of flavor, chestnut puree, burnt bread puree and a toasted hay sauce. We didn't really taste the hay flavor, but this dish was just so amazing, on every level, from flavor to texture.

Black Truffle
This single ravioli was filled with a black truffle broth that exploded in your mouth and topped with a slice of black truffle and a shaving of parmasan. This was similar to a Chinese soup dumpling in execution and the black truffle flavor was pure and intense.

This tiny bite was a plump, ripe blackberry on top of a tabacco custard, with a tiny mint leaf. The tabacco aroma was sweet and intense, like a pack of unsmoked cigarettes, but the custard tasted just of subtle sweetness.

The next 3 pictures are of a single dish that was 7 preparations of rhubarb:

This was a shooter of rhubarb juice with warm beet ball. You are first hit with the tartness of the rhubarb and then a ball (gelatinous on the outside, liquid on the inside) of warm beet goodness explodes in your mouth. Delicious.

Crispy Film of Rhubarb (sort of like a fruit roll up)
Poached Rhubarb (tart and surprisingly crunchy)
Rhubarb Mousse with Grapefruit Granule Served on a Bay Leaf (the fruit flavors melded well, but we couldn't really taste the bay leaf)

Rhubarb with Gelled Goat Milk and Lavendar (this one fell a bit flat as the gelled milk was fairly flavorless)
Frozen Rhubarb Struesel (a bit sweet and cakey)
Rhubarb Gelee with Matcha Green Tea Foam (quite tasty--the bitterness of the tea offset the sweetness of the gelee)

Frozen huckleberry with lemon pudding. The flavor of this super-frozen, truly beautiful bite was not particularly innovative, but the texture was unlike anything we'd ever had. We popped the whole thing in our mouths in it went from rock-solid frozen to ooey-gooey in a matter of moments.

Freeze dried pineapple with bacon wrapped in a sheet of pineapple. The sheet of pineapple stuck to our teeth, but this single, tiny bite was a highlight of the meal. It was warm and smoky and tart and sweet and just very, very good.

Apple Cider
This shooter was a cinnamon encrusted ball filled with apple cider, in a pool of walnut milk, finished with salt and vegetable ash. This tasted exactly as described and was very interesting.

Brook Trout Roe
The roe was encased in a maple syrup packet and sat in a sweet corn and butter foam, studded with sweet corn. This dish was really wonderful. Who knew that sweet and fishy flavors could come together so brilliantly in a non-Asian dish?

Lobster (above and below)
This dish was another complete sensory experience. The outer bowl was filled with orange peel and hyacinth and hot water was poured into the bowl to release the orange and hyacinth aromas into the air while you are eating the delicious lobster pudding with parsnip puree and chunks of perfect butter-poached lobster. It was topped off with a lobster chip. The dish was playful, decadent and beautifully plated.

This single bite was more like a palate cleanser than a course, and it wasn't our favorite. The flavors of honeydew, mint and sherry vinegar were interestingly paired with a jiggly, jello-like texture.

Hot Potato, Cold Potato
This may just be the most photographed of all of Chef Achatz' dishes and it was beautiful, although much smaller than I expected. To eat, you pull the pin out of the side, releasing a tiny hot potato, a slice of black truffle, a single section of chive and a tiny cube of parmasan into the chilled potato and truffle soup. The you eat it like an oyster out of the half shell. Inventive and delicious.

Heated cedar branches surround a single bite of perfect waygu with a yuzu pudding and a matsutake duxelles. We didn't really taste (or see) the duxelles, but this was the first time we've felt like we've had true waygu in it's fatty, delicious and melty grandeur.

We learned that junsai is a member of the water lily family and it is strangely slimy and crunchy at the same time. It was served in a very flavorful dashi shooter.

Smoked Paprika Croissant
This was a bit too heavy to be a croissant, but it was hot and tasty.

Lamb in Cubism (above and below)
This very tender, beautifully plated roll of lamb tenderloin and lamb strip loin suffered a bit from being served lukewarm (we assume unintentionally). It was served with a variety of sauces for your own personal mix and match: lemon, saffron, pinenut, date, eggplant, yogurt, mint, dijon and pomegranate. The lamb was topped with a variety of tiny condiments, like chili and mustard seed. This was a brilliant idea, but the lamb was served too cold and that sort of threw the dish off.

This was transparency of raspberry with rose petals and a dusting of dehydrated yogurt. It was served in a rolling metal clip. The rose perfumed the dish and it was fun and inventive.

Foie Gras
Gift from the Chef
As the sale of foie gras is banned in Chicago, this course was a "gift" from the chef, duly noted by our waiter. It was a crunchy cinnamon meringue surrounding foie gras and apple pate de fruit. Eaten in a single bite, the contrast of flavors and textures was amazing.

This was the first of the dessert courses and it was quite complicated. In the center is a semifreddo of brie and avocado, topped with a lime ice. This was where our "off centerpiece" came into play as the lime juice was squeezed over the lime ice. The puddles are guava soda, which was a bit too sweet for us. In the top left corner is a sugar-shelled piece of brie and around the edge of the plate are crispy bits of pine nut and whole wheat. There is also a guava mousse and another exploding liquid ball, this time, I think it was guava, although there really were a lot of components in this dish. It was not one of our favorites, although the flavors came together better than I would have expected had we simply read a list of ingredients.

Licorice Cake
This playful dish was served on a bouncing needle, making it very difficult to photograph. A piece of frozen licorice spice cake and orange confit were surrounded by spun sugar, creating a cotton candy effect. To eat it, you simply put your mouth around the entire bite. This was Alexis' least favorite dish, most likely because she is not fond of black licorice at all.

This dish was odd and visually unappealing. It was composed of a spicy chocolate ganache, orange confit, soy marshmallows, rice pudding and lemongrass ice. The lemongrass ice was very good, but the rest of the dish was just hard to eat as it resembled, to us, something we'd rather not think about while eating.

Frozen pumpkin pie puree was tempura battered, deep fried and dusted with a bit of cinnamon and sugar, then served on a branch with burning leaves. This was the best pumpkin pie ever and neither of us like pumpkin pie. The idea was interesting and it was executed perfectly. The only thing we would have changed would have been to omit the final sugar dusting, as we found it a bit too sweet.

Alinea Restaurant
1723 North Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60614

Food: 3
Decor: 3
Service: 2

Health Code Violations

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How remarkable that so many of your courses were different -- or even more amazingly just a little different -- than the ones we had perhaps a week or two before. It's nice to know they're always tinkering with their dishes and refining them and/or responding to seasonality. You know, I didn't even mention the breads in my post because, frankly, I didn't really like them all that much, although that goat cheese butter was phenomenal. I suppose we can forgive Chef Achatz the sin of not being a stellar bread baker, considering his other remarkable talents.

Kudos to you for enduring the 24-course tour. I intend to come back some time and try it myself.
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