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3-day Trip Report (Schwa, Alinea, Grace)

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  1. Schwa

    For full-photos, please see: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com...

    Rating: 18.5/20

    Memory: The buzz of really loud hip-hop, doing shots with the chef, butter poached lobster, marinated cuttlefish, antelope loin, Chimay Brulee, Root beer float, honeycomb brittle

    A restaurant I remember with great fondness. Here is fine dining with all the pretense stripped out. The front of house is the back of house, with chefs serving you – and they’re always knowledgeable about every dish that they serve. Chefs Joshua and Michael were really friendly, and made me feel at home. The pulsating rap made each table anonymous, in their own drunken revels – this place is BYOB. I enjoyed the casual fine-dining vibe here, carpeted floors and clawed chairs always make me feel a bit uncomfortable and stiff.

    Set in a corner of Ashland Avenue that’s almost industrial wasteland, it’s easy to walk past Schwa. The “dining room”, if you want to call it that, is an orange-lit space that’s maybe 80 square meters in area. I knew all of this before I came to Schwa – the only criterion I would use to call my meal a success would be the food they would serve. From the packed dining room (and Schwa is notoriously difficult to get a reservation at), I would say a lot of diners agree – creature comforts are secondary to the food. And what a meal I had.

    A tip for getting a reservation: I called around 1pm. Most people claim they have success from 12-4pm. The key is, if the dial-tone goes straight to the message that “the mailbox hasn’t been set-up” instead of ringing about 5 times first, that means someone is on the line. Spam your calls then.

    ____________

    1. A Night at the Movies (4.25/5

    )

    Sour Cherry Dot (Sourpatch Kid); Pizza Cotton Candy; Inside-Out Nacho; Popcorn Soda

    Recreation of a typical movie experience in America – nachos, pizza, gummies, and popcorn, except deconstructed – and remade. Tells of their playful nature. Flavors were remarkably accurate. Gummy was indistinguishable from the real thing, candy floss (another movie food) was well-seasoned with pizza flavor, soda tasted of that buttery popcorn taste, and the nachos were good.

    2. Butternut squash + cantaloupe jelly; Peanut Leaf; Curry Puree + Chocolate Nibs; Gooseberry as Palate Cleanser (4/5)

    This was a more experimental dish. I remember the jelly having great flavour, which I originally thought was due to curry, but Josh said it was squash and cantaloupe. I have on my tasting notes “fruity taste of christmas pudding” somewhere on this dish.

    3. (Extra Course) Quail egg ravioli with parmesan shaved black truffle (4.75/5)

    A schwa signature, this was served with no spoons. Picking it up with my fingers and downing it in one bite, a rich and luxuriant cream sauce was really delicious. I can see why this is an ever-green on the menu. It says as much about Schwa as it does about me, that I had no qualms greedily tipping the small bowl over my lips to get every lick of that sauce.

    4. Chestnut agnolotti with 3 types of consomme (sweet potato; iberico ham; persimmon) gelatinized into cubes; crispy prosciutto; shaved chestnut (3.5/5)

    Agnolotti means little purses in Italian – and they held sweet chestnut puree. I was not the greatest fan of this dish, since I felt this was one of the rare times the flavor combinations were slightly off – the sweetness of chestnut + other two types of sweet gelatin cubes marginally overpowered the ham preparation.

    5. Carbonated pears with Ossetra caviar, white chocolate foam, basil chips in the style of kale chips (4.25/5)

    Carbonated pear balls? Why not indeed! It was an odd combination, caviar and carbonated pear, but the white chocolate harmonised the dish with its fat content; and the textural contrast of basil crisps balanced it. But the combination wasn’t as enlightening as the following two dishes.

    6. Butter poached lobster; lavender bubbles; soy skin “yuba” tuile, oyster mushrooms, orange segments, with earl grey foam; and our best approximation of crumpets – which is actually olive oil cake (5/5)

    The conventional pairing of lobster would be with a citrus/mango sauce to provide fruity contrast. But I believe Schwa has provided a playbook to elevating those flavors. The secret is earl grey tea gel, which has the herbal taste that really triangulates between the rich chewiness of lobster and a baseline sweet fruit flavor. A dish of genius.

    7. Marinated cuttlefish, finger lime, a slab of apple ice, sunchoke + lemongrass panna cotta, herbal broth with many herbs (incl. cucumber and fennel) (5/5)

    This dish worked on at least two different ways. At the centerpiece is the thumb-sized hard slab of apple-ice. First, it brought out the smooth cucumber and fennel taste from the salty, pungent and oily herbal broth. Second, the cut, marinated cuttlefish and finger lime was seasoned in a way to remind me of Thai papaya salad, Here apple ice was a sucking lozenge, its cool hard sweet apple flavor cutting through the Thai-papaya-style seasoning. Another great dish.

    8. Thanksgiving Dinner (4.5/5)

    Sweetbreads crusted and fried, with stuffing puree, mustard grains, foie gras + sweetbread gravy, and mock cranberry sauce (actually pomegranate)

    Pleasant, the sweetbreads were expertly (diced and) fried. The foie gras +sweetbread sauce had a nutty taste like peanut. I may have had a greater reaction to this dish if I had had more experience eating Thanksgiving dinners.

    9. Antelope loin, shot down by a sniper, with trail mix crust, pickled pistachio, dried cherry leather and sauce (4.5/5)

    The first time I’ve had antelope ever, I think. Michael explained that it was shot from a helicopter by a sniper in Broken Arrow Reserve in Texas 2 days ago. Due to the vigor of the antelope, if it is shot from any closer, the stressed out antelope would presumably attempt to flee, and in its stressed death would go into rigor immediately, making the meat completely unpalatable, hard and dry. This meat was served rare, and what a cut of meat – it was so soft, that it was pliable to the butterknife I was cutting it with (the kitchen gave us a butterknife for that reason presumably). The rest of the accompaniments were secondary – besides being a passable trail mix. I guess I had my first taste of ultra-high-density fast-twitch-reaction-fibre meat!

    10. (Cheese Course) Yeast ice cream, fermented huckleberry watermelon jelly, with Chimay cheese “brulee” (5/5)

    Amazing. Chimay cheese below was treated with a creme brulee crust above (how did they do it?), and the funky taste of good bread came from the yeast ice cream. Ostensibly a cheese course, this was a great tribute to beer. Rounded. Completely unique. I miss it already.

    11. Root Beer Float (5/5)

    Parsnip icecream with butterscotch shavings, to be dumped in a root beer float

    Another amazingly balanced dish. The clean taste of parsnip was an inspired choice to be dumped into root beer – and a whole spoon of butterscotch. I wish I had had a whole mug of this!

    12. Honey Sorbet, yuzu gelee, bee pollen, honeycomb brittle (4.75/5)

    I am haunted by the taste of that honeycomb brittle. Salty, sweet, with a lightly burnt taste. The thought occurs to me that if I came to Schwa every month for dessert, I would be a very happy man. The desserts have been absolutely outstanding, zany and off-the-wall, while remaining perfectly balanced and very pleasant.

    13. (Extra Course) A crystal of cold air, then “lemongrass + ginger + ?” snow, and a bit of pee (yellow sauce incl. rutabaga) (4/5)

    A common sight in the winter months everywhere is yellow snow (I.e. dog piss) I am glad to report this tasted considerably better than that! This was more of an effect dish – the crystal once popped in the mouth became menthol, and a rush of cold air killed my taste buds, and then shoving saucy snow into my mouth heightened the menthol taste. One of the oldest effects known to me (menthol + cold == more cold), this was evocative of the harsh Chicago winter I was about to step out into shortly.

    2 Replies
    1. re: singaporediner

      Thanks for the report and tips on Schwa! I've wanted to go for quite some time but didn't want to put in the effort it takes to get a reservation. Ended up calling around 1:30 a few days ago and got someone on the second ring my first try. Now we just have to cross our fingers they don't cancel as we are making an 8 hour round trip drive with an overnight stay specifically for our reservation, ha.

      1. re: pepsican

        Congrats pepsican! I hope you will have a great meal there like I did. The chefs will also appreciate off-beat beers and scotches there if you bring some for them :P

        Look forward to hearing about how it goes.

    2. Alinea

      For full photos, please see: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com...

      Rating: 16.5/20

      I had waited for two years to dine at Alinea. In 2012 I was denied the opportunity when Alinea suspended taking reservations for two months while they got their new ticketing system set up. In 2013, I had set-up a virtual assistant to watch over Alinea cancellations for the one Wednesday I was back in Chicago (I did my math, about 75% of the time, a Wednesday 2-top or 4-top would be released), but it didn’t happen.

      But for my birthday, I managed to snag a 2-top for Friday way in advance. But perhaps I shouldn’t have bothered. What a disappointment. Firstly, the legendary meals lasting 4 hours, with 23 course extravaganzas are long over. Alinea’s hey-day, it seems from browsing food posts on Chowhound and blogs, was 2005-2011. Alinea has streamlined down to 13 courses. (14 if you count the birthday surprise). But a by-product is that meals last about 2 hours, maybe 2.5 hours tops. Considering that I had been royally entertained at Schwa for 3.5 hours the night before at half the cost of Alinea’s top-of-the-line price ($340 per pax), I felt I was just one more diner in a conveyor belt fine-dining experience. You come, and for two hours, are mildly entertained by a parade of Harry Potter dishes. Then you leave and another couple comes take your place. Encapsulating what I felt was the scene before me. A couple from Pittsburgh (Alinea neophytes, like me) had flown in, and taken the wine pairing (probably at 530pm). They were out by 730pm making gushing noises, and at 8pm another identical couple (Alinea neophytes, once again), had flown in, and taken their place at the same table. Quelle horreur! The thought occurred to me: what if this table was turned over three times a night, with 3 identikit mid-30s couples taking their seats again and again? Was this the theatre of the absurd, the Myth of Sisyphus incarnate? Certainly our servers, in serving the same tricks to the four occupied tables on the first floor, seemed to be afflicted by a peculiar type of whimsy without fun.

      Secondly, the tables are too close together, strengthening the nagging suspicion that Alinea is now in the pack-in-the-plebs stage of its existence. It doesn’t matter when there’s loud music like Schwa, but in a hushed gastronomic temple vibe like Alinea, the tables can be too uncomfortably close for conversation. (It reminded me of another bad offender, Restaurant Andre in Singapore.) It didn’t afflict our table, but that’s because we were fairly experienced diners – but Alinea has a duty to its neophyte diners too. The two tables to my left were clearly special occasion tables, and they were uncomfortable with the table distance for their whole two hours, and spoke in hushed whispers. I felt for them – more personal space should have been given.

      Thirdly, and most importantly, the flavours were too safe. Peruvian food is fine, but if I wanted to eat straight up Peruvian I would go to a Peruvian restaurant. Duck with 60 pairings? I once made the terrible mistake in Prague of seasoning my own steak tartare, which came out a tasteless mingy meat-mash, instead of being a delicious glob of myoglobin. From that fiasco, I learnt that the genius of the chef is in his proportioning the dish just right. So proportioning the seasonings to my own duck came across to me as a gimmick. A orange-sweetbread in the style of Panda Express was simply awful. Deconstructed Indian food remained deconstructed and never came together. The highs were a rambutan and finger-lime (what is it with finger-limes and Chicago? I’ve had them twice in a row, and nowhere else) jelly dish, and the signature hot potato cold potato. But they were few and far between. I came to Alinea because I heard that Grant Achatz was that rarest of chefs, someone who combined the molecular wizardry of Harry Potter food, with a sensitive understanding of flavor combinations. But rare glimpses aside (the rambutan dish), the tastes were big and one-dimensional, rarely emphasising interplay of two or god-forbid, three ingredients. In short, it felt like I was served merely Harry Potter food.

      If Alinea continues turning out meals of this quality, it is hard to see how it can maintain three Michelin stars on merit for much longer.

      ____________

      CHAR ROE: banana, ginger, passion fruit (3.5/5

      )

      Banana cream and passionfruit foam, with roe of char (similar to “ikura”, except ikura is roe of salmon). This was okay, primarily distinguished for the rocking bowl it was served in that thwarted a good picture of it for about 15 seconds.

      SCALLOP: citrus aroma, thirteen textures (3.5/5)

      Yuzu, lemon grass and lemon verbena formed the hazy citrus aroma. A very pretty pot and clam shell hid a carbonated ceviche sauce, with Maine diver scallop, and some onions. It was all told, simply Peruvian ceviche with Maine scallop. Not unpleasant, but unspectacular in substance. Maine scallop was more to be applauded for its bare fact of existence on our plates (this year’s Maine scallop catch has been low and some areas have prematurely ended their season by imposing moratoriums) than its taste, which lacked the sweetness of scallops I had recently in Momofuku Ko and Peru’s Maido and tasted more meaty than anything.

      LOBSTER: curry, earl grey, grapefruit (3.5/5)

      From Peru to India. A cumin and puffed rice ball; dehydrated yoghurt; curry and carrot puree sauces; grapefruit “caviar”. I, who sang the praises of Schwa the night before in tripling-up lobster, citrus and earl grey, am puzzled by the appearance of earl grey on the menu. I did not taste any earl grey anywhere. Anyway, the deconstructed Indian food dish never came together. I dislike deconstructed dishes which do not in some way proportion the food. Was I meant to mix it all up? But it was too big and there were so many ingredients. Was I to bite each ingredient individually? But where is the harmony?…

      A precursor to a future dish was also set down in front of us.

      EBI: celtuce, caramelized miso, yuzu (3.75/5)

      Most memorable for the clean taste of celtuce cubes (something like braised kai-lan, for Southeast Asian readers). Again, pleasant without being mindblowing. The precursor to the next dish was set on fire.

      WAGYU: parsnip, black trumpet, kombu (4.25/5)

      A5 wagyu is the highest grade of wagyu obtainable in the United States, it was precooked and for visual efffect roasted in a fire, along with roasted parsnip (tastes like carrot with the texture of ginseng) and a black trumpet puree, with a strip of (mushroom?) leather and (parsnip?) cream. This was not bad. The beef was a bit lukewarm, but I can’t complain given the long period where it was sitting in the fire, pretending to cook while actually cooling down.

      LILY BULB: rambutan, distillation of caviar lime (4.75/5)

      The first dish which I enjoyed for its sake alone, this was a palate cleansing dish after the rich wagyu. Slivers of lily bulb (bai he, an occasional ingredient in Cantonese cooking usually used for shrimp or vegetables), with shaved rambutan, and squeezed-out sacs (vesicles) of finger lime, and finger lime jelly, with a distilled syrup of finger lime and ginger. One advantage of using finger-lime, as I understand it, is that its vesicles or “citrus caviar” is easily squeezed out. This dish was vaguely Southeast Asian in provenance, combining the rambutan and lily bulb with the Australian finger lime. Very refreshing.

      SWEETBREADS: orange, ginko nut, mustard (2/5)

      “Done in the style of Panda Express” said my server. I would not consider that a compliment. Sweetbreads, fried in the style of Sino-American “orange chicken” (cornstarch, flour, egg), is sat in an orange sauce, with a gingko nut and carrot sauce around the plate. This was uncannily similar to Chinese take-out food. Perhaps this was the intention, but I came to Alinea specifically to eat something unique, not take-out Chinese, and I couldn’t help feeling that a course had been wasted on providing verisimilitude to something I normally take pains to avoid eating. I mean, sure, Alinea can probably make the greatest donner kebab in the world, complete with day-old spit grease, but that doesn’t mean I want to eat a donner kebab at Alinea…

      WOOD EAR: pig ear, allium, black garlic (4/5)

      Wood ear, or “mu er” in Chinese is a black fungus that has the texture of jellyfish – very similar to the European fungus jew’s ear. Here it was set with a deep fried pig’s ear (delicious, but can we have more than a single sliver?), and black garlic and onion sauces made savory with parmesan. What was interesting to this Chinese palate was the pig’s ear, which was really expertly fried. At this point of the meal, I sensed a disconnect – perhaps this sort of “world cuisine” could have been mindblowing to someone who had not been eating wood ear and pig’s ear since childhood. Perhaps the novelty of the rambutan dish would have been starker if I wasn’t intimately familiar with all ingredients. The ceviche dish I might have considered top class, if I hadn’t been to Peru the month before, and tried ceviche ten different ways. To this Southeast Asian Chinese diner, Alinea’s Chinese-inspired dishes were solid but not mindblowing. Similarly to a Peruvian traveller, that Peruvian dish would be merely solid.

      HOT POTATO: cold potato, black truffle, butter (4.75/5)

      This Alinea signature was luxuriantly rich, a hot sphere of Yukon potato topped with a slice of black truffle and butter and Parmesan cheese, into a cold truffle soup. A pin preserves the temperature of the individual ingredients, before being dropped into the soup. Time-sensitive, and every bit as good as people claim it to be.

      DUCK: ……..?????…………!!!!!!!!!!!!! (4/5)

      60 different garnishes for 5 different preparations of duck. I think there was roast, confit, foie gras with a graham cracker base. “Choose your own adventure” with the toppings, the servers advised. As I said above, the genius of the chef is in his proportioning the dish just right. So proportioning the seasonings to my own duck came across to me as a gimmick. All parts were well prepared, but this dish was clearly an effect dish, rather than a tribute to the vision and taste of a single chef.

      PISTACHIO: marscapone, strawberry, black walnut (4.25/5)

      A pleasant dish of pistachio gelato, marscapone, lemon gel sphere, Missouri-black-walnut chocolate cake, and dehydrated strawberry marshmallow. Good, solid.

      BALLOON: helium, green apple (5/5)

      Hehehe. Finally, an effect dish that is so one-of-a-kind it makes the experience of dining at Alinea worth it! Another Alinea signature – the green apple balloon is filled with Helium and brought to diners anchored to a pin. Diners bring their mouths to the balloon, and gently… kiss it, sucking out the helium and making funny noises. It’s a riot. Also very messy.

      Making of Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGMCmb...

      MILK CHOCOLATE: pâte sucrée, violet, hazelnut (3.25/5

      )

      Another Alinea signature technique: a dessert is plated on a whole table, covered with a silicon mat. A chef plates it in two minutes. The milk chocolate and frozen milk had a bit of a sour tinge that didn’t appeal to me, though the pate sucrees (very similar to kueh bangkit or Bengawan Solo’s nut pastries, for Southeast Asian readers) was the best part of the dish. Notes on visual effects: The squares come from micro-protrusions in the silicon tablecloth, which the violet syrup would settle into a square if it’s the right viscosity. The colour change of certain squares to blue uses a natural pH indicator, the squares of which are added citric acid, I think.

      ____________

      After I returned, I logged onto Chowhound, and through the mass of reviews, I noticed a trend among the sentiments of repeat Alinea diners in the last year: they too concurred that Alinea had been losing a bit of its sparkle:

      "Sadly you might have noticed a trend there. My first four Alinea dinners remain among my several meals ever but recently I had a fairly disappointing experience. My meal lasted barely over two hours (prior meals were nearly four), service not as attentive or friendly as with prior visits. Also some amateur mistakes were made, such as we were twice asked if we needed a cab, both times said “no” and as we were leaving were informed our cab was waiting (not something you expect from a three Michelin star venue regarded as one of the world’s best). While some of the courses were memorable and phenomenal (loved the scallop course and the corn dessert) and a couple other quite good, a majority of the menu was no different (or only tweaked) from my last visit nearly a year back (and a few unchanged from my first meal there – including a rather boring, uninspired ginger course that is fine once but weak as a repeat and ridiculous the fifth time).

      Chef Achatz has been spending less time in house (turning a lot of the creative and executive duties to Chef Bagale), they lost some wonderful front of house staff and Achatz/Kokonas seem as though they have placed expansion of their brand and maximizing profits ahead of customer satisfaction and trying to continue having Alinea evolve and improve. To an extent they seem to be coasting on their reputation and past success (which can only carry you for so long). While I hope this is just a hiccup in Alinea’s lifespan and Achatz and company rise to the challenge and opt to make another push towards Alinea becoming the world’s best restaurant (they certainly have the talent), unfortunately Alinea may be past her prime and Grace very well could become widely regarded as Chicago’s top venue in the not too distant future.

      I found my last dining experience at Alinea to be a very poor value – especially if you have dined there within eighteen months and are expecting a significantly different menu rather than a watered down version of what you previously consumed with a handful of new courses interspersed. Several fine dining venues just in Chicago now have better service (Grace and Boka really shine in this area), most undergo significant menu changes seasonally (Grace, Moto, Boka, El Ideas, Sixteen, Elizabeth for example) and Grace and Goosefoot have IMHO better tasting food (with others such as Moto, El Ideas, Schwa, L2O, Boka and Elizabeth serving nearly as good cuisine). All of these venues are less money (some considerably so) and aside from Elizabeth do not require the hassle of non-refundable tickets (and Elizabeth does have some flexibility with regards to tickets sales if a conflict arises).

      Alinea is certainly no longer the United States’ best restaurant and unless improvements are made it is no longer head and shoulders above other top tier venues in Chicago." – user Gonzo70 at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9283...

      I hope that this ultimately disappointing visit to Alinea is a hiccup, and the Alinea that stood head-over-shoulders over all other restaurants in Chicago will return. Until then, it is doubtful I will revisit any time soon.

      Memory: Lily Bulb with Rambutan, Hot Potato Cold Potato, Green Apple Balloon

      12 Replies
      1. re: singaporediner

        Thanks for posting your opinions. FWIW, I had a repeat-visit dinner at Alinea this past December, and I thought it was one of the two or three best dinners in my entire life (for great-tasting food as well as exciting presentations), even better than my earlier visits. Virtually every one of the 13 courses was outstanding, including some (but not all) of the ones you mentioned. Our dinner was relaxed in pace, not rushed but we never felt that we waited too long for any course, and it lasted four and a half hours of pure bliss. Our table was not particularly close to any other tables. And Chef Achatz was not only in the house, but prepared our chocolate dessert at/on the table himself (and FWIW I'm not known to them so this was not a special favor in any way). So while you're certainly welcome to your opinion, my experience there was in direct contradiction to most of what you have stated.

        1. re: nsxtasy

          Thanks for sharing nsxtasy! I admit, my expectations going into Alinea were sky-high due to my two-year wait to eat there, and so I was more easily disappointed. We were also in and out of there in 2h20 mins (on a Friday night), and the courses came pretty fast.

          Can I ask if you had the last seating? Because that sounds to me like that's the best seating to go time-wise.

          1. re: singaporediner

            Our party of 6 had tickets for a 6:30 pm seating on a Sunday, and we finished dinner just before 11:00.

            1. re: nsxtasy

              That probably was a significant factor. Six tops in general take significantly longer than two tops, but also Alinea does not turn the six tops so they have no need to bring out courses quickly to be ready for the next seating. My first four meals at Alinea (all two tops but one) last 3.5 to 4.0 hours, but my last meal (two top) was barely over 2.0 hours. While I did not feel rushed, it was more a meal than a dining experience.

              I think what is clear is Alinea is no longer consistently a mind blowing experience - especially when factoring in value. Alinea used to be such a memorable dining experience from start to finish for the vast majority of patrons. Currently while some still leave feeling wowed, a significant number leave disappointed.

              Among my friends who have dined there during the past several months about half feel Alinea is as good as ever and half feel there has been a noticeable decline (and those that feel it is as good as ever are people who have VIP status so receive extra courses and superior service than normal).

              What is clear is sales are WAY down of late. For example this Sunday there are 32 seats for sale on their website and that does not even count 1-2 tables they likely held back - so they are only about 50% sold out for an upcoming weekend evening. There are 36 seats on sale for this upcoming Wednesday and 24 for a week from tonight. Only Saturday nights are selling out in advance (and there are even a couple of these tables left for March).

              Alinea needs to step up their game; this is the first year they are in jeopardy of losing a star.

              1. re: Gonzo70

                I feel that Alinea is as good as ever and I do not have VIP status.

                1. re: nsxtasy

                  But the issue is consistency; many people leave Alinea of late feeling underwhelmed, feeling as though the value is poor and that the experience is not as good as it used to be. This used to be rare that people felt that way, but now it seems to be somewhat common. It does not mean that everybody who has dined there of late has a negative experience, just that it is occurring too frequently for a venue widely regarded as one of the world's best restaurants. Chef Achatz has been spending less time at Alinea of late; while Chef Bagale is extremely talented, IMHO he is not yet a 3 Michelin Star chef.

                  1. re: Gonzo70

                    I'm right with Gonzo70 on this. Our meal at Alinea was great but definitely not what I was expecting. Missteps in service, tables getting dishes we weren't given, rushed feel of everything, short menu, etc. It just seemed off. Still great, but a terrible value when compared to other restaurants in the city that have better food. Perhaps my expectations were too high.

        2. re: singaporediner

          As a longtime fan of modernist cooking techniques I was extremely excited to visit Alinea, and tried to get there for over three years. Just to put my overall mindset into context, in that three year interim I experienced modernist-slanted meals at a number of other restaurants, including WD-50, Fat Duck, and é.

          I finally dined at Alinea a week ago today, and prior to doing so read this review (among others). I hope that I was not too influenced by what I read, but my overall impression of Alinea is in line with yours: decent but not fantastic, and certainly not the best restaurant in Chicago. (On Saturday evening we dined at Sixteen, an experience which bested Alinea in virtually every aspect.)

          Compared to my other modernist experiences I found Alinea's offerings to be extra-gimmicky, unbalanced, and heavily weighted toward gelification. Virtually every dish was based around agar or carrageenan blocks or blobs, often with no clear benefit other than showing off how well things can be gelled.

          Our menu was similar to both yours and Ruth Reichl's (documented here: http://www.ruthreichl.com/2014/04/my-...).

          Gone was the duck with 60 pairings (which I actually really hoped to sample). In its place was a simpler dish which featured at the center of the table a steaming vase (from either dry ice or LN2O), which was supposed to give us the sensation of "vegetables hitting a hot wok." It did that, but a chilled scent evoking hot vegetables? That was the only memorable part of that particular dish.

          Another dish (see Reichl's post) had us searching through a bunch of twigs to find some vegetable jerky. This was playful and interesting for a moment, but not especially satisfying.

          My favorite dish of the evening was not one that you particularly enjoyed: The lobster with curry. I thought that the flavors were quite well developed, everything paired nicely, and it was one of the only things I sampled I wanted to try more of. Alas, the dish suffered due to a big blog of agar-gelled curry dead center on the plate. There was absolutely no reason for a wobbly texture there.

          Other memories:
          - The balloon was fun.
          - The Wagyu beef was mediocre at best. Someone in the kitchen forgot to wrap ours, and it burned in the fire. We were brought another piece, but I found it to be improperly cooked and rather tough for Wagyu.
          - Truffle explosion; that was a pretty good bite. (But I didn't crave another.)
          - Pistachio gelato, one of my favorite things in the world, was underwhelming. I'd had a serving of gelato at Eataly earlier in the day which was easily 10x better.
          - By the 16th course - dessert plated on the tabletop - we'd had only a few ounces of protein and I was still quite hungry. This has never happened to me before with a tasting menu! Luckily, the dessert, consisting of a gigantic disk of carrageenan-gelled pudding, was also quite filling. Unluckily, I've been messing with carrageenan-gelled puddings at home recently, and mine is a lot tastier. In any case, I left not hungry but also not very full. It was weird after so many courses.

          All in all I'm glad that I finally get to check Alinea off my list, but I'm not sure I experienced the Alinea that made me want to check Alinea off my list. I suspect that chef Achatz is, at this point, a lot more focused on Next, Aviary, and other newer pursuits. Alinea still has its three stars, but I think its shine is gone.

          1. re: davis_sq_pro

            Thanks for your report, I had also read Reichl's post and was curious about the vegetable jerky (which I also recently had a variation of at Atelier Crenn in SF, so it seems to be a thing).

            You say Alinea's offerings are "unbalanced". Which restaurant would you then say (out of all the Modernist restaurants you've tried) strikes the best balance? What is the ideal?

            1. re: singaporediner

              I think The Fat Duck was probably best of those I listed, followed by é. Balance, here, means being whimsical and playful with the food without it feeling gimmicky. And really using the techniques and/or technology to enhance something instead of just playing games for the sake of playing games.

              Example: At The Fat Duck one of the most memorable dishes we had was an ocean scene plated on glass. A foam on one side represented the sea, with sand on the other. The foam was salty and tasted vaguely (just enough) of seawater. The sand was also salty, with an excellent crunchy texture, and hidden therein were various pieces of seafood crudo. This dish strikes, for me, a perfect balance of modernist technique: playful, unique, and technique-driven, but also delicious and satisfying.

              Compare that with the salsify jerky at Alinea. The nest of twigs is a one-of-a-kind presentation (at least, for me). But the prize? A piece of vegetable jerky. It wasn't especially delicious; tasted like a dried root vegetable. Just an excuse to show off some technique.

              I go to upscale restaurants to enjoy a high quality meal. At a modernist restaurant I expect more emphasis on technique, but that doesn't mean that I don't still want to sample excellent food and walk away satisfied, vs. just having my mind blown by all of the "cool" stuff the chef can pull off.

              And that is why I said that Alinea is unbalanced. Lots of cool, but Chef Achatz seems to have forgotten that at the end of the day diners still want a great meal. Interestingly the ticket system very much reflects this attitude. Dinner isn't dinner anymore; it's a show. Thumb down.

              1. re: davis_sq_pro

                >> Chef Achatz seems to have forgotten that at the end of the day diners still want a great meal.

                Sorry to hear that. Our dinner at Alinea a few months ago was the exact opposite, so I would come to the opposite conclusion. Every dish was amazingly delicious, as well as having a high-tech and/or whimsical presentation. Which is why it was the best dinner of my life, even better than my previous visit there a few years earlier. There was no vegetable jerky.

                And incidentally, I agree with your point completely, even though my opinion of my dinner at Alinea is different. IMHO any restaurant should be judged, first and foremost, on how delicious the food is. Other attributes, such as creative presentations (and the décor and service) may be fun and may be important, but what really matters the most is whether the food is delicious. In fact, I enjoy a restaurant much more if the food is truly delicious but not that unusual, than not that delicious but truly unusual.

          2. re: singaporediner

            Hi Kenneth, I'm staging a temporary return from my self-imposed exile to join this one conversation...

            I had the opportunity to dine at Alinea in June. Expectations were high. I came away rather disappointed. My feelings are documented in my blog, and I believe you know where to find it... I won't bother posting a link here.

            First of all, many dishes were simply too heavy handed and over-seasoned. When I need to reach out to my glass of wine and/or water to rinse out my tongue, there's a serious problem. My dining companion felt the same way. The "jerky" that you were curious about? I really didn't want to finish more than 1/5 of it because of how salty it was, but forced myself to eat it all.

            The kitchen is throwing together a bunch of ingredients but the flavors don't always actually work together.

            A bunch of ingredients are Chinese/Asian to me, and I had the same feeling as you did about wood ear et all. The "dragon's breath" that was spewing out ginger and scallion scents left me flabbergasted, as it's the most common of smells for Chinese dishes found in every Chinese restaurant. Why this deserved to be part of my dining experience at one of the temples of modernist cuisine is completely beyond me.

            I still appreciate the creativity from the kitchen, although this was my one and only meal here, so I have no idea of the kitchen is continuing to be creative and innovative. But the bottom line is that I wasn't blown-away, and when I dine at one of the top 10 from the supposed Worlds50Best, I expect to be blown away.

            Sigh...

          3. Grace

            For full photos, please go to my blog: http://kennethtiongeats.wordpress.com...

            Rating: 18.5/20

            I knew almost nothing about Grace when I stepped in. I only knew that in the year that they were open since December 2011, Grace has had a meteoric rise, garnering two Michelin stars immediately. This is the restaurant that Chicago expects to be its newest 3-star Michelin restaurant.

            Some people have called it “Chicago’s per se”. I think that is a mistake. The dissimilarities with per se are much more striking than the similarities. Firstly, the plating of food. The plating at per se is a style one might call classical, putting the main ingredients front and centre. The plating style at Grace eschews that to put the ingredients by the side; in two piles; even three dimensionally (see the Alaskan king crab). The plating has more in common with the chaos on view at Schwa. Secondly and more substantially on the flavours, make no mistake – Grace is exciting. Licorice, in particular, played a part in 4-5 dishes across the 18 we tried across both Flora and Fauna menus. It was not uncommon to have up to 15 different ingredients in one dish, as the kitchen strived for a very precise effect. Some touches, with the onion in the perigord truffle custard, were sensational and subtle. This paradox – baroque of taste and minimalist of plate – is what drives Grace forward.

            As a diner, you have a choice between two menus. The Flora and the Fauna menu. The Fauna has the better mains. The Flora has (slightly) better desserts. Beware though: if you’re accustomed to having meat in some measure on your menus, you will likely be dissatisfied with Flora mains, which are much more intellectual-exercise than delicious-plate (a problem I had with vegetarian Kajitsu in New York as well). Strangely, the Flora menu isn’t vegetarian by default, I guess some animal products still find its way into the sauces. Most people, faced with this conundrum, order different menus across the table, so that everyone can try a bit. All kinds of herbs find their way onto both menus, and many of them hail from Asia. A Indian tamarind named kokum, Vietnamese herbs, bold use of licorice: at times it almost seems as if each dish was constructed around a single herb (USUALLY EMPHASISED WITH ALL CAPS). My overall verdict on the menus: each menu features very strong dishes, but they tend to alternate (the 2nd dish on Fauna, the 5th dish on Flora). There is already a 3-star Michelin menu on the table, if we take the strongest dishes of both Flora and Fauna. The Fauna menu was the one served to me, and so apologies if my descriptions or recollections of the Flora menu are patchy.

            Grace’s dining room is a classy muted bronze in colour. No natural light seeps in, except a brightly-lit kitchen sealed it by glass at the very head of the room. It is the open-kitchen concept that is all the rage today. Both of us were seated facing the kitchen, the metaphor of dining as theatre made explicit. Grace certainly has all the trappings and food to merit a 3-star rating (if the best of both menus are combined). I would be surprised if it doesn’t make it within a couple of years.

            Notable Links:

            The Tribune’s special feature on the story behind Chef Curtis Duffy and Grace – http://graphics.chicagotribune.com/gr...

            ____________

            What we had:

            Amuse: “Log of Delights”
            Fauna #1: Chawanmushi: osetra caviar, yuzu, PURPLE SHISO
            Flora #1: Salsify: golden char roe, apple, OXALIS
            Fauna #2: Alaskan King Crab: kalamansi, cucumber, LEMON BALM
            Flora #2: Winter Vegetables: huckleberry, amaranth, TARRAGON
            Bread #1
            Fauna #3: Scallop: tamarind, smoke, FLAVORS OF LICORICE
            Flora #3: Beet: black garlic, apple, RED RIBBON SORREL
            Bread #2
            Fauna #4: Duck: sunflower, cranberry, MARJORAM
            Flora #4: Sweet Potato: picholine, grapefruit, YARROW
            Bread #3
            Fauna #5: Sweetbreads: ten grains, caperberry, SAGE
            Flora #5: Perigord Truffle: crème caramel, sherry, CHIVE
            Bread #4
            Fauna #6: Miyazaki Beef: romaine, peanut, VIETNAMESE HERBS
            Flora #6: Swiss Chard: red wine, elephant garlic, CHERVIL
            Fauna #7: Raspberry: lychee, kokum, NASTURTIUM
            Flora #7: Buddha’s Hand: passionfruit, brown butter, LEMON BALM
            Fauna #8: Pear: black sugar, licorice, LEMON VERBENA
            Flora #8: Medjool Date: chartreuse, honey, CELERY
            Fauna #9: Chocolate: pineapple, hazelnut, BANANA MINT
            Flora #9: Young Coconut: fennel, pistachio, BRONZE FENNEL
            Birthday Cake
            Mignardises
            ____________

            Amuse: “Log of Delights”

            Quinoa chips, a lemon cup of intensely-lemon-scented(incl. zest and all) cold risotto, candied pineapple, ham with the slight taste of ginseng.

            Fauna #1: Chawanmushi: osetra caviar, yuzu, PURPLE SHISO (4/5

            )

            Chewy “bubble tea” balls in a ham-flavored chawanmushi, with puffed rice, a sprig of seagrapes. Osetra caviar at the center.

            Flora #1: Salsify: golden char roe, apple, OXALIS (4.25/5)

            Fauna #2: Alaskan King Crab: kalamansi, cucumber, LEMON BALM (5/5)

            A tremendous dish. This dish alone was worth the entrance fee. King crab and small cubes of cucumber sit at the bottom of the bowl, with calamansi (a particularly tangy and acidic Southeast Asian lime) juice surrounding. A neutral sugar glass holds up the upper deck of ingredients, the including trout roe. To begin the dish, I smashed the upper deck into the lower deck with a spoon. It was all you could have asked from a dish, in both taste and effect. In the effects department: it had 3-dimensionality, interactivity (diner plays the chef), and time-sensitivity. In the taste department, the meaty flavor of king crab was contrasted the small neutral refreshing taste of cucumber, and the sourness of the lime, transformed by the dissolving sugar glass into a dessert-like thin calamansi sauce. The sugar glass was just the right thickness, not too sharp and easily dissolved in the mouth. This dish will haunt my dreams for a long time.

            Flora #2: Winter Vegetables: huckleberry, amaranth, TARRAGON (3.25/5)

            Bread #1: Whole Wheat Croissant, Herbed Butter and Butter

            Fauna #3: Scallop: tamarind, smoke, FLAVORS OF LICORICE (4.5/5)

            A whole Maine scallop from Desert Island, with licorice and anise hyssop purees. A coconut custard by the side.

            Flora #3: Beet: black garlic, apple, RED RIBBON SORREL (3.75/5)

            Bread #2: Red Onion and Black Olive Waffle

            Fauna #4: Duck: sunflower, cranberry, MARJORAM (4.75/5)

            A duck confit tortellini, with cranberry and an intensely flavored duck-consomme. This was a very complex dish, and everywhere I scooped with my spoon there was new bit of sweet solid stuff which I could not place. Tastes of lemongrass permeated the dish.

            Flora #4: Sweet Potato: picholine, grapefruit, YARROW (3.5/5)

            Bread #3: Rye baguette with sprinkled rye berries

            Fauna #5: Sweetbreads: ten grains, caperberry, SAGE (4.5/5)

            Perfectly fried sweetbreads, resting in a pile of multigrain, in a rich jus.

            Flora #5: Perigord Truffle: crème caramel, sherry, CHIVE (5/5)

            Another amazing dish of the night. Shaved truffle – still retaining all its crunch unlike some that can taste like cardboard – is put on top of a custard that has the taste of sherry, with caramelised chipolini onions. Little slices of brik (Turkish dough) scattered on top provide textural contrast. Superb. Decadent. Sherry, custard, and the texture of fresh truffle. Divine.

            Bread #4: Pretzel with black lava salt from Hawaii

            Fauna #6: Miyazaki Beef: romaine, peanut, VIETNAMESE HERBS (5/5)

            “The discovery of Miyazaki” is how this dish was described to me. Miyazaki is perhaps the best beef in Japan, outranking wagyu. A slice of raw dreamy Miyazaki beef on top of a rice cracker, perfectly rare-cooked Miyazaki beef. Tender and full of fat. With something like fermented turnip undearneath, and various fresh, taut, Vietnamese herbs that evoked some of the street food I had in Saigon. It was paired with a cup of tom yum broth. This had some of the best elements of Southeast Asian cooking: the Indochinese rice cracker, the Vietnamese herbs, the peanuts and tom yum evoking Thailand. Tremendous.

            I ate my Miyazaki beef using my rice cracker as a taco. Possibly the most expensive taco I’ve had to date.

            Flora #6: Swiss Chard: red wine, elephant garlic, CHERVIL (3.75/5)

            Fauna #7: Raspberry: lychee, kokum, NASTURTIUM (4.5/5)

            A dessert building on the Ispahan base (also see, Restaurant Andre’s version) – strawberry, raspberry, lychee. Strawberry sorbet, dehydrated raspberries, dehydrated lychee. The 4th and 5th wheels were a cylinder of earl grey (one of the trendy tastes in Chicago – I had it all three nights in a row at Schwa + Alinea + Grace) and kokum puree, from an Indian tamarind.

            Flora #7: Buddha’s Hand: passionfruit, brown butter, LEMON BALM (4.5/5)

            Fauna #8: Pear: black sugar, licorice, LEMON VERBENA (4.5/5)

            Another good dessert. A dome of (white chocolate?) covers licorice-tinged financiers, and Asian pear ice-cream. The licorice here was a star player, cutting through just pear and butter, and elevating the financiers.

            Flora #8: Medjool Date: chartreuse, honey, CELERY (3.75/5)

            I found this a bit one-dimensional, with the starchy sweetness of medjool date overpowering the other ingredients.

            Fauna #9: Chocolate: pineapple, hazelnut, BANANA MINT (4.25/5)

            A rooibos-infused goats-milk, strong tasting, into a traditional preparation of chocolate-hazelnut and pineapple.

            Flora #9: Young Coconut: fennel, pistachio, BRONZE FENNEL (5/5)

            Amazing, I remember – a cylinder of young coconut pairing with a tart cherry. A cylinder of coconut meringue and pistachio gelato were good, but all it needed was that sensational squiggle of coconut with a tart cherry.

            Mignardises
            Bonbons and apple “tartlets”.

            ____________

            Memory: Alaskan King Crab; Perigord Truffle Creme Caramel; Miyazaki Beef; Young Coconut

            1. Thanks for the detailed trip report; very informative and interesting read. Glad two out of three of the meals were mainly successes.

              1. A little late to reply, but outstanding report!

                I had been planning (way ahead) to go to Alinea in October, but the over $250 tab, without tax, tip or drinks, has put me off. Then I got interested in Grace, but see it is also a $200pp proposition (one paper put it at $800 for 2).

                Now my focus will be Schwa and Next (which will be doing the Tru retrospective theme - these themes (steakhouse, bocuse) seem to be less enthusiastically received than the "interpretation" themes (childhood, modern Chinese), but I need an experience under $150 - any others in the same league that require a similar amount of advance planning?

                8 Replies
                1. re: non sequitur

                  I am a big fan of El Ideas, http://elideas.com/, which is $145/person plus tax (9.25%) and 18% service charge. So, assuming your request was for "under $150" before tax and tip, it's in your price range.

                  Very creative food, warm and fun ambiance. BYOB, so you can save on wine too, assuming you imbibe. There are many reviews and discussions on El Ideas on this board, and also on the lthforum.com site, which is another virtual space where Chicago food enthusiasts converse.

                  1. re: non sequitur

                    There are three restaurants I know where you can have a lovely dinner from super-creative chefs for under $150 including tax/tip and moderate alcohol, with elegance comparable to that of far more expensive restaurants.

                    North Pond is my top pick. I've eaten there several times, and it just keeps getting better and better. My recent dinner there was my best restaurant meal of the year! I posted a very detailed review at www.chow.com/topics/976337#8953769 Chef Bruce Sherman, who won a James Beard award, is outstanding, and the current pastry chef is awesome. North Pond also offers its exquisite setting in the middle of the park, facing its namesake pond with the city skyline looming over the opposite shore. www.northpondrestaurant.com

                    Naha is also a great pick. The food, from James Beard winner Carrie Nahabedian, is consistently outstanding. And the service and atmosphere are similar to those super-expensive places, but like North Pond, you can dine there for under $150/pp inclusive. www.naha-chicago.com

                    My third pick is Acadia, but my experience there has been more mixed. I ate there once and ordered a la carte, and it was excellent. I ate there a second time and ordered the tasting menu, and I was disappointed; it just didn't have one "wow delicious" dish after another the way it did in my previous visit. It's very elegant. Note, it's on a somewhat deserted street on the near south side and there's no external signage; look for the valet parking stand. www.acadiachicago.com

                    There's no way you will meet your $150/pp limit at El Ideas, since it's well over that even before any alcohol (it's BYO, so there are savings on alcohol, but still, you'll be well in excess of $200/pp). Also, it's in a sketchy area away from downtown, so add on the cost of a long cab ride each way to the cost of your dinner. I know a lot of people like the food, but I found the food disappointing - okay, but with few of the "wow delicious" dishes. Unlike these other places, the tables are alongside an open kitchen and you'll watch the food being prepped and talk to the chefs; it can be fun and different but it's not an elegant upscale experience, in case that's what you're looking for.

                    1. re: non sequitur

                      It's possible to dine at Elizabeth for under $150. One of our finest and most creative chefs runs the place on a ticketing system.

                      1. re: non sequitur

                        >> I got interested in Grace, but see it is also a $200pp proposition (one paper put it at $800 for 2).

                        That sounds about right. Their website shows the tasting menu at a current price of $205. I ate there a year ago, and the bill came to $715 for 2, including moderate alcohol, tax, and tip. By comparison, recent dinners, including alcohol/tax/tip, have cost me $225 for two at Naha, $190 for two at North Pond, and $400 for two at Acadia (for the tasting menu). When I ate at Acadia a la carte, I had no alcohol and the total was $100 for one.

                        1. re: nsxtasy

                          Great responses. I'll look into all of them, but North Pond will be a focus.

                          Another (relatively) inexpensive place in need of early reservations seems to be "girl & the goat". [side note: over 2000 yelp reviews? Yike].

                          1. re: non sequitur

                            Girl & the Goat does indeed fill up their reservations book months in advance. It's a very different place from upscale restaurants like Naha, North Pond, and Acadia. It's crowded (not just full, but tables close together) and loud. They serve a small plates format. It's another place where some people like it but I've been disappointed by the food, particularly the desserts, which I thought were dreadful. If you're interested in a lively, casual, moderately-priced small plates place, I would instead recommend GT Fish & Oyster (emphasizing seafood), Sable (contemporary American), or Mercat a la Planxa (tapas). Or, if you're eating at an off hour (e.g. mid-afternoon) when you wouldn't have to worry about waiting, the Purple Pig, which doesn't accept reservations at all and has horrendous waits at popular mealtimes.

                            You don't have to make reservations months in advance at any of these places the way you do at G&TG, but it wouldn't hurt. Especially if it's for a weekend, you'll find that GT Fish and North Pond may both fill their reservations books several weeks out.

                            1. re: non sequitur

                              Yes, if you want to dine at GATG on a weekend, especially at a prime time. They begin accepting bookings six months in advance via phone, and only three months in advance over OpenTable.com. It's bustling, hip, delicious, and very popular.

                          2. re: non sequitur

                            Schwa and Goosefoot are my top choices! Just be aware that Schwa can cancel last minute but is tops in my pocketbook for value. Also, Senza in Lakeview is great as well.