Touring Chicago One Bite at a Time - Day 3: Alinea
Day 3: Alinea
This was it. The restaurant we planned all our other activities around. This was the first time that the thought of eating at any place was somewhat daunting. How to approach such a highly touted establishment? When anything is deemed “the best” of any group, let alone one as prodigious and competitive as restaurants, how can one not feel an awkward cocktail of emotion: One part excitement of things to come, two parts of trepidation over any chance of disappointment, and a dash of comprehension that you may eat tonight better than you – and many others – have eaten in their entire lives. All right, I might be taking this too seriously. It is only a meal, right? Besides, tastes are all objective, and so what if some publications pronounce that this or any other restaurant is the best place to have a meal. But to me, it was so much more than something to eat. It was an experience, a chance to explore not a cuisine but an individual and his philosophy - an individual with the culinary and artistic ability to conjure up genuine emotion and memories.
In all honesty, I could write about all 22 courses. However, I realize that to do so would be exhausting to both read and write. Instead I decided to comment on our agreed upon top four courses. Though, great food is only great food; but great service and atmosphere is what places Alinea atop many lists. Like most restaurants in the city, the space is longer than it is wide. As you enter through the indistinctive front black doors, you are immediately hit with a sense of entering Achatz’s world. A hallway, only lit by a faint red glow, extends away from you and gets narrower the farther you go down. As I walked down the corridor, I felt as though I were in a dream, trying to take in my surroundings. I became so lost in the oddity of it all that the sliding open of an automatic door startled me out of my trance. Through the doors appeared the dining room to the left, stairs in front of me, and the kitchen, a sea of white in a choreographed whirl of preparation, to my right. We were met by the hostess and seated immediately on the lower level. Initially, I was taken by how much talking was going around us. For some reason, I expected the dining room to be eerily quiet, but every table could be heard giggling at what was placed in front of them or trying to decipher an ingredient. I found this to create a welcoming environment, but both my Dad and I attempted to enter tunnel vision so as to avoid any ruined surprises.
Our server approached us and briefly explained the menu layout for us – 22 courses, my Dad’s wine pairing would equate to around five glasses of wine, and I would be getting all three homemade sodas (If I recall correctly, basil and orange, thyme and cherry, and a lemon soda that tasted like a great Sierra Mist). Also, we would be served several breads throughout the evening with an amazingly milky tasting goat’s milk butter and Wisconsin cows’ milk butter with Hawaiian black lava salt. The breads were a bacon challah, a lemon-thyme bread, and a traditional, albeit buttery and delicious, dinner roll, each paired with a desired course. Other than that, we were at the mercy of the kitchen. Though, before I delve into the food, I would like to comment on the service. The short version of the service for our full 3-hour tour would be: Impeccable. Not only was each server (we had several throughout the evening) pleasant and very forthcoming, but also each one was extremely knowledgeable on everything we ate and drank. Throughout the course of the meal, I had several questions about preparation and ingredients, and each time, without hesitation, we were told the ingredient and its origin, how Grant prepares it in the kitchen, and, yes, even how I too could prepare something similar to it in my own home. The cognitive ability of the wait staff was truly remarkable and made the night a learning experience for both the tongue and the mind.
The first course I would like to hit upon is the dish entitled Pork Belly with iceberg, cucumber, and Thai distillation. What was placed in front of us was a square, white plate with a shot glass about a third full of a clear liquid. This glass was placed in the upper left corner of the plate. Two iceberg lettuce cups with a piece of pork belly in between them rested at the center of the plate. To the left of the lettuce cups was a dot of chili sauce, which we were told to mix into the rest of the dish to our desired spiciness. However, we were first told to drink the clear shot. Wow. Such a myriad of flavors in a small amount of liquid. The flavors of Thailand washed over my mouth – a faint sweetness of lemon grass countered by a tinge of what could have been peppers. Following the shot, we cut into the lettuce cups. The one thing about Alinea that one must keep in mind while dining is that everything is not as it seems. Even though we were told what the focus of the dish was, there was no doubt that secrets were kept from us and had us guessing throughout the meal. The lettuce was crisp and light, and the pork belly tender and immensely porky given the small amount, but it was the accompanying (“secret”) ingredients that made this dish memorable. Every flavor of Thai food was present – a surprising sweetness from what I believe to be coconut and the unmistakable herbiness of Thai basil permeated the dish, and offered a counter balance to the spicy tang of the chili sauce. Overall, the success of this dish rested in its familiarity in Thai flavors that were heightened by the shocking strength of their authority, as no flavor was lost amongst any of the others.
The second dish that stood out to us was the Pigeonneau a la Saint-Clair. Before the food arrived, however, the dish began with the presentation of authentic 100-year-old wine glasses and silverware. Next came the dish itself, a stark contrast to the normally modern food at Alinea. Pigeonneau a la Saint-Claire was a dish in the famous French chef Georges Auguste Escoffier’s book “Le Guide Gulinaire.” In the book, the chef offers thirty-four variations on how to prepare squab, and before us was number eighteen. Even more striking was the fact that Achatz prepared this dish using methods only available in the 1800’s – just as Escoffier would have prepared it. The dish itself was perhaps the most simple and traditional of the night both in terms of flavor and presentation, but that did not make it any less of a sensation. Everything in the dish was within a crisp tarte shell. Inside the tarte was an earthy truffle and onion base with a rare and gamey, but meltingly tender, piece of squab on top. Accompanying the squab were two ovals of foie gras and a roasted pearl onion. The dish looked and tasted like a traditional French course: Rich, decadent, and simple in flavor profiles. However, what made this dish one of my favorites was not in the flavor, but in the preparation. To me, this was Grant’s way of saying to all the naysayers of his style, “Stick this in your pipe and smoke it.” For a menu that always pushes forward, this step back in time truly showed the pure culinary talent of Achatz and his staff.
Contrasting the richness of the Pigeonneau a la Saint-Claire was the Tomato with fig, nicoise olive, and pine nuts. To begin with, a large stone bowl lined with steaming rocks and holding a tomato plant was placed at the center of the table. Immediately, I was struck by the garden smell. This was another dish that evoked a memory – one of picking fresh vegetables on a warm day. While the intoxicating aromas filled our table, a large plate was placed in front of each of us. On the plate were different colors of heirloom tomatoes, figs, crushed pine nuts, and various emulsions of the olive. To top it all off was a dusting of olive oil snow. The one word that best describes this dish is “organic.” Though I’m sure each item had its specific position on the plate, the placement of it all had a sense of organized chaos, like how, just in nature, everything seems to be randomly strewn, but it all makes sense. And, this organic feeling lent itself to the flavors as well. Allowing the diner to mix and match at his/her liking is a study in nature itself. You can dabble a piece of tomato in the olive emulsification and top it with the crunch of pine nuts. Or, you can pair a sweet date with a lush red tomato and top it with a dusting of subtle yet fruity olive oil snow. Like me, you may not have ever had any of these flavor combinations before, but for some reason, the moment you taste them, you know they go together. Altogether, the aroma, the smooth and crunch, the cold and warm, the sweet and savory – it all works. Just like in nature, everything has its place, and everything works together in a harmonious ecosystem of well-balanced freshness.
The final dish that my Dad said absolutely blew him away was our second to last one of the night. Our server cleared off our table of all dishes and glasses and covered the table with silicone tarp. Next, the server placed about 12 small dishes at the table. If this dish were to hearken back to any experience in my life, I would say my 11th grade chemistry class. Dishes, bowls, and plates of various sizes and containing various colored spheres, gels, and liquids lined the edge of our table. Then, coming from the kitchen, Chef Achatz made his way to our table. My leg rapidly tapped the ground like a giddy schoolgirl. The chef introduced himself and described the dish he was about to compose for us as Chocolate with blueberry, tobacco, and maple. Then, like a painter at his canvas, Achatz went to work. Splashing streaks of blueberry gelee and tobacco cream in royal blue and white arcs. Dotting the edges with wine poached blueberries. Gently placing globules of maple syrup around the center. And, to top it all off, a block of frozen chocolate mousse that gradually turned into a more mousse-like texture as it defrosted. The Chef, after looking satisfied with his work, nodded at its completion. I picked up my spoon, but where to begin? I started with the frozen mousse. After placing it in my mouth, I let it quickly defrost and coat my tongue with a velvety chocolate flavor. The amber colored spheres of maple syrup popped in my mouth and delivered all the sweet goodness of a light amber maple syrup without the cloyingly sweet after affects. Finally, the tobacco infused cream offered a sharpness in flavor that knocked the palate out of it’s sweet recluse and, when taken together with the rest of the dish, gave the dish a welcoming kick. Overall, a fun, creative, complex dessert that looked and tasted like a creation of a chef who loves what he does and has fun doing it.
In a sense, that is what Alinea is all about: Fun. Achatz, though quiet and a bit shy as he approached our table, is having fun in the kitchen. He has been quoted as saying that he denounces the term “molecular gastronomy,” and now I can finally see why. Whereas some chefs use emulsifications, infusions, and liquid nitrogen as the product of their cooking, Alinea uses it as a means to an experience. Like a good book, I’m sure I could come back years from now, have the exact same courses, and leave with a totally different perspective. As I sit here, a week after the meal, I can still taste the components of every dish. And this, I believe, is why Alinea is the best meal I have ever had in my life. In a strange paradox, Grant used (mostly) hypermodern techniques to evoke the most primitive of emotions. I left Alinea with more questions than answers, but also a new sense of what food can truly be.