Alinea: Chicago, IL
Experience Date: 24 November 2013
We’re Weekend Cooking (or eating, as usual in my case) with Beth Fish Reads again!
If the menu looks more like an unintelligible work by a modern poet than it does something to select food from, that’s because it essentially is. Alinea is the only three Michelin Star restaurant (out of three stars) in Chicago. Though there are twenty four other one and two star restaurants in the city, Alinea holds the distinction of not only being the only three star Michelin restaurant in Chicago, it has been maintaining that sort of excellence for many years.
There is no ala carte at Alinea and reservations are done in a non-traditional way. Instead of making reservations you buy ‘tickets’ (well in advance). You pay online, upfront and there are no refunds (think of it as buying tickets to a concert). The ‘tickets’ can be transferred, but only through Alinea’s website. (Note: there are no physical tickets.) My only problem with this method is that tickets can only be reserved in multiples of two. I would have liked to go with my husband and sister, but we didn’t have a fourth. Too bad for my husband.
Back to the menu. When you enter Alinea you are putting yourself in the chef’s hands. A menu is posted on their website, but it’s not necessarily representative of what you will be served when you get there. They do take in dietary restrictions and the waitstaff and kitchen are very sensitive and accommodating to that.
Okay! The meal! Naturally, we chose to get the wine pairing.
Burning Oak : pumpkin, birch
Champagne Jean Lallement Verzenay – Grand Cru Brut NV
So, this was almost an amuse-bouche, just a bite, but it was still delightful. Light breading on the outside and inside there were flavors of pumpkin (but not overwhelmingly so) and cream. I hate that this picture came out so badly because it was presented and eaten directly off of a stick from an oak tree – complete with leaves still on it.
Char Roe: matsutake, apple, mustard
There was a wafer topped with the roe and matsutake mushroom. Underneath the wafer was a mustard ‘sauce’ (for lack of a better word.) I really enjoyed this course. The roe was just the perfect amount of savory and you could feel the ‘bubbles’ popping in your mouth, a sure sign that the roe you are consuming is fresh. The wafer and mustard puree gave for the perfect amount of balance with the texture.
Scallop: citrus aroma, fourteen textures
Hexamer ‘Meddersheimer Rheingrafenberg-Hochsgewachs’ Riesling Nahe 2001 (White)
This was definitely the most spectacularly dramatic dish of the evening. The dish arrived with the clam shell that you see above closed and the mist (caused by dry ice). When you open up the clam shell you see your course inside of it. Additionally, the dry ice is used to kick up aromas from the lemon grass that surrounds the clam shell. The first think that I thought I smelled: Bath and Bodyworks Lemon Verbena.
The fourteen textures are pretty evident here, though too many of them seemed to be chewy for my taste. I would have liked more crunch.
Dungeness Crab: squash blossom, cardamom, saffron
Giovanna Madonia ‘Neblina’ Albana Secco, Romagna 2011
First. You should know that everything on this plate was edible. That’s up to and including the leaf and the fluff. The two mounds of orange are the dungeness crab and a cauliflower puree. The white spots that you see on the plate are salt! infused with lavender.
I really enjoyed this course, the crab and cauliflower were reminiscent of the savoriness of foie gras. The fluff tasted like cotton candy.
Binchotan: tokyo inspiration
Takatenjin Junmai Daiginjo-shu ‘Soul of the Sensei’ Don Shuzo, Shizuoka-ken and Hitachino Nest White Ale, Kiuchi Brewery
There were four bites in this course. The fire was strictly for effect, we didn’t have to grill anything. Closest to the fire you’re seeing a piece of sushi grade tuna (raw) it was just the right amount of balance with texture and taste. It was not overly fishy, which was good because it might have overpowered the other flavors being offered.
Behind that was a piece of beef that was grilled to perfection and it completely melted in my mouth.
The next cube that you see is pork-belly which was delectable, and finally on the end you see a shrimp head. The waiter informed us just to pop the whole thing in our mouths. I’ll admit that I was a little hesitant, I grew up in the south and was always a little repulsed by sucking crawfish heads. In the end, however, I decided to trust the chef and popped that whole shrimpy-head into my mouth at once. It was an excellent contrast in texture, being crunchy, from the other three items on the plate.
This was definitely one of my favorite courses.
There were two beverages paired with this offering, a sake, which is a traditional Japanese rice wine, and a Japanese craft beer. I found the beer to be refreshing and it paired nicely. I don’t like sake, I never have, and while I tried it I learned that it still isn’t my cup of tea. (Or glass of wine.)
Veal Cheeks: lapsang souchong, pine, blackberry
Faugeres Domine Leon Barral 2010
Inspired by traditional Chinese barbecue, is what the waiter told us about this course. The veal sat on a bed of forbidden rice and a blackberry reduction topped with a pine froth and a rice cracker. The veal was excellent and the blackberries gave just the right amount of sweetness to enhance how savory the rest of they ingredients were.
The wine was interesting here. It had heavy overtones of well… manure. The sommelier warned us of this, though I think he had a fancy French word that roughly translated to ‘barnyard’. Honestly, I think I would have picked out the smell anywhere though.
Hot Potato: cold potato, black truffle, butter
Okay, what you’re looking at in this picture is a hand-crafted wax bowl filled with hot potato soup, suspended over it with a pin is a piece of cold (but cooked) potato topped with truffles. The waiter informed us that this was a ‘time sensitive’ dish. It rather reminded me of chugging an Irish Car Bomb. (For the uninitiated: 3/4 pint of Guinness, drop a shot of Irish whiskey and Bailey’s in it and chug. Ah, youth.)
So, being a rule follower, I pulled the pin and went for it! Perhaps I didn’t wait long enough for the temperatures of the two potatoes to even each other out but the soup burned my tongue a little and when I bit into the cold potato, it was almost unpleasantly cold. Still, truffles can fix almost anything and despite the temperature the tastes and textures were still superb.
Black Truffle: explosion, romaine, parmesan
This course was definitely the most fun and my sister swears that she had a religious experience during it. First, what you’re seeing is duck prepared in five different ways on the white plate. On the black platter in the middle you’re seeing an assortment of toppings and additional flavors. Crazy, right?
Then the waiter told us the rules. Each piece of duck was to be consumed in two bites, with each bite we were to choose one topping. No sharing. Also, he didn’t tell us what anything on the platter was, so it was a crazy discovery game. He also explained that there was no way that we could use all the toppings, so we were just to go for it!
Go for it we did and what a result! Greens, nuts, chocolate, even a marshmallow greeted me on my fork. There was simply no way to know what the next bite was going to taste like, but each of the toppings complemented the duck perfectly.
Then, when I ran out of duck, I cheated and had a little sampling of other toppings I was curious about. It was tons of fun.
Another one of my favorite courses. When looking at the menu online before we went I was trying to figure out what flavor exactly ‘explosion’ was. Allow me to enlighten you. Again, we received instructions from the waiter. We were to put the entire dumpling in our mouth and seal our lips tight before biting down, otherwise we could look forward to an unholy mess.
I managed to do this with grace and dignity, my sister squirted delicious black truffle broth everywhere. Inside the dumpling was some concoction made from black truffles the topping of parmesan and romaine filled out both the flavors and the textures. I would have appreciated more than one of these.
Ginger: five other flavors
The Rare Wine Co. ‘Boston Bual’ – Special Reserve Madeira
The waiter described this as a transitional course, which makes sense as ginger is often used to clear the palate. What was neat about this, other than the presentation, was that the ginger was flavored from savory to sweet (left to right) so that upon eating the last piece of ginger I had been transported from my black truffle explosion and I was ready for my green apple balloon.
Balloon: helium, green apple
The famous green apple helium balloon. Everything that you see, including the balloon and the string were edible. To eat the balloon the waiter instructed us to ‘kiss’ the balloon and suck in as much air as possible. Being a total nerd I had to ask, “Like a dementor’s kiss?” I think that’s the reason my sister has that look on her face, she was totally humiliated.
Anyway, we did as instructed and after I had inhaled the helium my first words (naturally) were, “Expecto Patronum!” and I totally sounded like a chipmunk. Again, my sister was totally humiliated, that made it even more fun.
The balloon itself was delicious and a little reminiscent of the flavor of the outer part of a green apple Blow-Pop.
Corn: white chocolate, honey, mango
Chateau La Haute Borie Monbazillac 2010
So again, everything on this plate is edible. The ‘nest’ is made of white chocolate and underneath it was frozen pieces of delightfully sweet corn and mango. The little tower protruding from the nest was made of corn-silk that was fried(?) and made deliciously edible. The corn-silk gave the dish texture that it otherwise might have lacked.
Again, I had a problem with competing temperatures on this. I don’t like my ice-cream cold so it’s unsurprising that I had a hard time with some of the frozen pieces in this dish.
Milk Chocolate: påte sucrée, violet, hazelnut
Maculan ‘Torcolato’ Breganze 2009
This was like hibachi – for dessert! The rest of the meal there was no table cloth, but after we finished our corn course the waitstaff came and rolled out this grey vinyl table cloth. A chef came from the kitchen (though not the chef) and proceeded to prepare this little lovely presentation for us.
In the center is milk chocolate on top of a traditional graham cracker crust, the chef brought out kind of a tiny, bottomless springform pan and shaped the cake right there on the table. On top of it is whipped cream and those cracker looking things are actually sheets of sweetened salt. (I know, it sounds like an oxymoron) The white swirls on the table are more sweet cream, the beige lumps are hazelnut whipped cream (very stiff) and the purple and pink spots are syrup from violets. The neat thing about the violet syrup was the darker spots were made first, the chef then stirred his concoction and then the liquid was magically more pink!
This was delicious and fun to eat right off the table, but way too much for the end of the meal. I don’t think we even managed half of it.
Alinea was definitely an experience to remember and I found it throughly enjoyable. However, it was not cheap. The bill for the two of us including the wine pairings was more than $1,000. The sting of this was taken out a little as I paid for the dinner months in advance ($596.70 for two) and so when we got the bill at the end of the night we only had to pay for the wine pairing. That being said, I would not recommend Alinea to the casual foodie. You can have a comparable experience somewhere like Tru for half the price.
I also was mildly put off by the lack of a cheese course. I understand that Alinea specializes in ‘New American’ dining, so the traditional French food customs aren’t necessarily expected or needed, but damn it, I like my cheese course! I also found the wine pairings to be rather unremarkable.
The food was incredibly fun to eat and equally delicious. The waitstaff was amazing, professional, and totally on top of things. It’s definitely going into the annals of ‘meals of my life’.
I’m glad that I did it once, but I probably won’t be back. Next time I make it to Chicago however, I would like to try out their sister bar The Aviary for the five-course cocktail menu.