Sunday 6 November 2011

Alinea, Chicago

So here it is. The meal that I had been waiting for for months. The meal that was significant enough to convince my father to fly from Australia to meet me. He says he came because he missed me but I know better.

I had first heard of Grant Achatz and Alinea in late 2008. I was browsing for new cookbooks to buy and stumbled across his cookbook. His name and reputation had not yet made it to Australia in the way that Chefs Keller or Ripert had, but I was intrigued. The pictures looked amazing and, although I was certain there wouldn’t be much in the book for the home cook, I knew it needed to be on my bookcase.

Fast forward to 2011 and I had decided that my backpacking holiday needed to be an “eat your way around the world” holiday instead. I had already selected the restaurants I must eat at but one final review of San Pellegrino’s Best Restaurants List reminded me that Alinea was a glaring omission. It had three Michelin stars, four stars from the NY times, had won the James Beard award. It was Gourmet magazine's Best Restaurant and had numerous other accolades.

So the day the reservation line opened for September, I was on the phone. I was actually in the middle of seeing La Traviata in Verona when I got through to Chicago on my cell phone (not a cheap proposition). I tried to secure an almost-impossible-to-get reservation. I believe I told the reservationist that “I’ll take anything you have at any time” and the date was set. September 29. I needed to be in Chicago on that date at all costs. My entire US trip was built around this reservation. The cruise had to fit in, my plans to tour the North East were trimmed back and Texas was dropped completely.

In preparation for my meal, I had also read Chef Achatz’s newest book, Life, on the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death and Redefining the Way we Eat; a gut-wrenching (literally) yet enthralling read. The first part of the book chronicles Chef’s life and early career up to the opening of Alinea. It is a brutally honest insight into the culinary world and how to get a restaurant off the ground. The second part of the book is a horrifying read about Chef’s battle with Stage IV cancer of the tongue, the doctor’s advice to cut out his tongue and his battle for survival. You couldn’t help but be moved by his story and my desire to eat his food increased greatly.

As the reservation date approached, I started to have doubts. I had begun to experience “fine dining fatigue”. Too many once in a lifetime meals were had in Europe and New York and I started to long for something simple or home cooked. After being uncomfortably full after my nine course meal at Per Se, the thought of a 25 course meal at Alinea was daunting. Added to that was Anthony Bourdain’s less-than-flattering review of Alinea where he stated he found it "lethally self-serious, usually pointless, silly, annoying, and generally joyless... a misery from beginning to end" and I too worried that I would hate it.

The reality however, was that Alinea will be remembered by me as the best restaurant experience of my life. Whilst I enjoyed the food as much as I did at Asador Etxebarri, the quality of service, sense of wonder and enjoyable dinner company (my Dad) made the meal a truly memorable experience. With El Bulli’s closing, I believe Alinea is the restaurant destined to take its place as best in the world and the one reservation you must simply get in your lifetime.

From the moment you enter the restaurant, you know you are in for something special. After entering an austere corridor from the street, sliding doors right out of Star Trek open to the restaurant’s hive of activity. To your right you have a clear view of the kitchen and to your left is the dining space and in front, the staff standing poised to greet you in front of the floating staircase.

The restaurant’s interior was modern and sleek without looking like it would date. The tables were made of heavy wood and bare. As I recall from his book, Chef Achatz says restaurants often have white tablecloths to hide the fact that the tables are cheap; which is generally true. How often have you been to a nice restaurant, only to have the waiter jam a coaster under one leg because the table’s rocking?

So to the food… they say a picture is worth a thousand words. In this instance, however, neither words nor pictures will be enough; you simply must try it for yourself.

Steelhead Roe: watermelon, kaffir lime, oxalis

Ginga Shizuku “Divine Droplets” Junmai Daignjo-shu, Hokkaido-ken

The first mouthful of food signaled that I needn’t have had any doubts; tonight was going to be splendid. The watermelon consommĂ© was cool and refreshing and the trout roe, which was sitting atop watermelon mousse, popped with flavour. The dish was light but with an abundance of flavour.

Hamachi: West Indies spices, pineapple ginger

The presentation was highly inventive (although almost nigh impossible to take a decent photo as a result). The vanilla bean was used as a skewer and handle that you used to eat the fritter in one bite (as advised). The scent of vanilla imparted on the fish but did not overpower it and the taste of the spices and ginger combined nicely with the pineapple. A very difficult taste to describe so I’ll settle on “delicious”.

The next four “courses” were presented together, perched on a log covered in seaweed. From my seat, I had a clear view of three other tables that were all a couple of courses ahead of us. Whereas Dad had a view of myself and a wall. Periodically, my mouth would gape open and I would start shaking my head in disbelief watching the procession of future courses pass by and this one certainly evoked a strong reaction. The waiter advised the suggested order to eat the items and advised all should be consumed in one bite.

Oyster leaf: mignonette

Found off the coast of Scotland, the leaf tastes overwhelmingly of the sea, and oysters in particular: weird but yummy.

Taylor Bay Scallop: hitachino, white ale, old bay

The single scallop was served with two types of beer and old bay seasoning; the scallop retained its sweet taste and the beers gave a nice contrast.

Top Neck Clam: carrot, soy, daikon

Asian flavours combined to give this tiny little clam a good boost of flavour. I’ve never really liked clams but now can’t wait to try to recreate this dish at home.

Mussel: saffron, chorizo, orange

Josef Letiz, “Rudescheimer Berg Schlossberg-Alte Reben” Riesling, Rheingau 2009

I don’t really care for mussels either but this was my favourite of the four offerings; the seasonings matched perfectly and worked well to slightly overpower the “fishy” taste of the mussel that I usually find too strong.

Yuba: shrimp, miso, togarashi

Yuba is tofu skin that was cooked almost like a breadstick. Wrapped around it was prawn, sesame and green onion flavoured with togarashi spices. It was sitting in a miso and orange(?) dipping sauce.

Mackerel: mango, radish flower, juniper

The presentation of this course was definitely inventive. Suspended on a fine wire was a piece of mackerel sitting atop a roll of mango with radish flower. The weirdest part of this course is that it was suggested that it be eaten “without using your hands”. The flower had a real punch of flavour that helped to cut through the oiliness of the mackerel.

Wild mushrooms: pine, sumac, ramp

Lignier Michelot Morey-Saint Denis “Faconieres” 2006

I enjoyed this dish but Dad absolutely loved it! It had a strong “earthy” taste but the creaminess underneath muted any overpowering elements.

Hot Potato: cold potato, black truffle, butter

This was absolutely amazing and I longed for more. I wanted the waiters to go back into the kitchen and bring me a pitcher of this! Suspended above a cold potato soup was a pin loaded with a ball of hot potato, a slice of black truffle, cubes of butter and parmesan and a slice of chive. As you pulled the pin, these elements dropped into the soup and the whole bowl was then to be eaten in one go. The truffle flavour was strong and robust (no skimping here), the potato ball was perfectly cooked and the contrast of temperatures and textures was just sensational – a party in my mouth!

Agneau: sauce choron, pomme de terre noisette

Cedar Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2007

The only course on the menu not designed by Chef Achatz, this dish was taken from an old Escoffier cookbook. The lamb rounds were sitting on a small crouton and topped with artichoke, asparagus and served with sauce choron (béarnaise without tarragon and chervil but with added tomato puree).The tiny balls of potato were so cute and delicate and another idea that I will be incorporating into my repertoire.

Short Rib: olive, fermented garlic, blackberry

Costers del Slurana “Clos de l’Obac” Priiorat 2005

A few courses into our meal, our waiter brought over to our table a centerpiece that consisted of two red “flags” held up on individual mini flagpoles. He said “these may be for later, or maybe not…..”.

For this course we were presented with a glass plate of smoked salt, blackberry, roast onion, black garlic, turnip, olive, cherry, tomato vinaigrette and salsify with tobacco gel.

We were then instructed to lift up the glass plate to reveal the metal puzzle underneath and to assemble it. The waiter than retrieved our flags and advised that they were actually made from tomato pasta and would serve as the base for a short rib “wrap”.

The waiter placed a portion of beef into our pasta and we loaded the rest, folded it and ate it with our hands. The dish was somewhat messy to assemble and very messy to eat but it was a welcome and fun change and I enjoyed the interactive element.

Black Truffle: explosion, romaine, parmesan

I believe this is the only dish that Chef Achatz brought over from his previous restaurant, Trio. I now understand why; this dish should never be removed from the menu. It was perfection on a plate, or spoon in this case. Similar to Chinese xiao long bao in the sense that it is small dumpling filled with a hot soup, this incarnation is a pasta type dough filled with liquid black truffle and then topped with romaine and parmesan. The waiter advised that it should be eaten in one bite and to “be careful because it will explode”. And explode it did. With just a tiny bit of pressure, the pasta burst open and the truffle juice filled the mouth. It was inventive, full of flavour and presented beautifully. A homerun for Chef Achatz!

Squab: inspired by Miro

Lorentz “Altenberg de Bergheim” Pinot Gris, Alsace 2004

This course made full use of the fine wooden tables at Alinea. Inspired by Miro, the waiter would artistically place forks on our table each topped with a different ingredient. There was no suggested ordered to eat each fork so I went from least interesting to most interesting. I can’t recall all the items but there was squab, foie, fried pasta and roasted eggplant among the offerings. I found the presentation fun and the items on each fork all seemed to fit with an autumn theme. However, because each ingredient was eaten separately, you weren’t able to enjoy any combined flavours.

Octopus: eggplant, coriander, red wine

The Rare Wine Co. “Charleston Sercial Reserve” Madeira

Nestled atop a Vidalia onion soup was a fork topped with baby octopus, a cube of eggplant seasoned with coriander and red wine. The fork was eaten first and then washed down with the soup. The octopus was tender and the soup was smooth and delicious enough to be a course on its own.

Snow: yuzu

Alinea’s version of a palate cleanser: a frozen yuzu snow cone. I love palate cleansers because it usually means one thing: desserts are coming!

Peach: jasmine, basil, balsamic

Disznoko 5 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszu 2005

A cheese course of sorts, this was one of the prettiest plates of the evening. There were cubes of ricotta, peach, jasmine, basil puree, tomato and balsamic. It was reminiscent of a modern-Caprese salad. I loved experimenting with the different combination of squares to create different tastes with each mouthful.

Lemongrass: dragonfruit, thai basil, finger lime

A shooter arrived with an invisible stopper. We were advised to suck on one end and the edible “plug” will come loose allowing us to down the shooter in one go. Dad had no trouble but it took me a lot of effort to get the plug out. Once successful, the taste of South East Asia burst onto my palate. It was cleansing, refreshing and tasted like summer.

Dark Chocolate: pumpkin pie, ligonberry, stout

Domaine Madeloc “Robert Pages” Banyuls NV

Having a view of the other tables, I saw this course being plated and was very excited that it was finally our turn. I had also seen that Chef Achatz was in the house and was serving the dessert tableside himself for most tables. I had my fingers crossed all night that he would come to our table when it was our turn and my wish paid off.

The waiters arrived at our table and rolled out a rubber(?) tablecloth for us and then brought over some small bowls, a sphere of dark chocolate and a mug of what I believe was liquid nitrogen.

Then Chef Achatz arrived. He poured the nitrogen into the chocolate sphere and then started to “plate” the dessert directly onto the table. First was ligonberry, then pumpkin, then stout. Finally, he picked up the chocolate and smashed it onto the table.

Once exploded, it revealed the various fillings including nougat, fruit rollups, gingerbread, candy floss, cookies and popcorn. Armed with forks, we fossicked in the pile of dessert getting giddy every time we came across something new. It tasted like Thanksgiving and I loved it. The presentation was fun and we both had huge grins from ear to ear.

After the meal, Dad and I toured the kitchen and were able to meet with Chef Achatz. I was so thrilled to meet him. I really didn’t expect to see him working the line given that he has just opened a new restaurant, Next. To not only see him, but have him personally serve our dessert and show us the kitchen was a wonderful experience for foodies like Dad and I.

The word “Alinea” means ¶, which is used to define a new paragraph or train of though. The name is perfect. Alinea is a restaurant unlike any other. The quality of the food and service is unmatched but it is the spirit of inventiveness and playfulness that really won me over. Compared with my meal at Philippe Rochat that was suffocatingly stuffy, Alinea was fun.

I thank/blame my father 100% for my love/obsession for food. Some of my earliest memories are sitting on the kitchen counter fitting in the space underneath the overhead cabinets and watching him cook and offering to “help”. We trade recipes and cookbooks, critique cooking shows and when we travel, it ends up being a food tour, sometimes at the expense of sightseeing. For me, this was the food highlight not only of this trip but my life and I was so pleased that I could share this meal with my Dad. It was a perfect evening from start to end and will forever be remembered as one of the great moments of my life.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to hear about your good experience at Avec which is known to be one of the best food eateries of Chicago.And yeah I am happy to know that you got a good friend there in Chicago too.


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