Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Chicago: Alinea - The Tasting

It's been a over a month since I dined at Alinea but every time I look at the Alinea cookbook or blog posts from other diners, it brings me back to that eventful night of suspense, awe and genuine playfulness. When was the last time you got to "play" with your food? Or watched over something in amazement with your "mouth hanging open". For once I came to a place where the cost didn't dictate my expectation of the meal (such as, "this better be a great meal because I spent x amount, blah blah blah"). I came here without knowing what to expect, how I would feel about the food, or even how I would finish all of the courses. I now present to you, "The Tasting".

This is the final installment of a three part series on my Alinea dining experience. The series started with "Arriving at Alinea", followed by Table 33 and now ending with my thoughts about my meal. Disclaimer: I will NOT give you a play-by-play description of each dish that was served and how it was prepared. There are so many food bloggers out there that can do a better job at describing the food. Besides, it's not my style. I'm a researcher, not a food critic. I do recommend two blogs that have excellent descriptions and food photography (Alinea at Home and KevinEats). I will be referring to these blogs throughout this post.

Ok, let's get started. Here is the menu. The size of the bubbles indicate the size of the portions, the color of the bubble refers to the intensity of the dish, and the further away the bubbles are from the edge of the left side of the paper, the sweeter the dish (Source: KevinEats). I opted for the 12 course tasting menu which ended up being 16 courses. You have the option to select a 12 course Tasting or 24 course Tour. Keep in mind, your menu will differ from another diner. Each course is catered to your specific dietary needs and the Chef will dictate what will be served. Foodie Advice: Eat alone, have an open mind.

What about the Wine Pairing? Options: No, I'm allergic or Yes, bring on the alcohol!

Best Option: Yes, I'm driving, please reduce my pairings to smaller portions. You must do the wine pairing. I can't express this enough. The pairing is roughly 1/3 of the cost of the meal but you can ask for smaller pairings for a prorated price and still get the full dining experience.

Before the tasting begins, you will be asked a final time for food allergies or basically what you don't want to eat. For example, if you can't eat watermelons because it makes your throat itchy or you can't see yourself eating Bambi (aka venison), put it on the list. No one is going to judge you unless you have some OCD food disorder (aka "picky eater") then you need to stay home. Seriously! I'm just setting up expectations.

Through out the meal, I've noticed there were more than one server attending each table. There was always someone on-hand to answer your questions or even chit chat with you if you are dining alone. I didn't feel so bad dining alone because I ended up getting the "mat plate". The idea: Chefs would come out to the dining room and plate the courses right in front of the guests (from Pulling Back the Kitchen Curtain, Grant Achatz). Here is a link to a video describing the "mat plate" concept. This was the coolest thing I've ever seen. It was the best seat you can ever have to watch the chef plate your course in front of you. Foodie Advice: If you have a D90, you should definitely bring it to the restaurant.

Course descriptions with wine pairing:

Course #1: Roes - traditional garnishes
Wine Pairing: Cocktail of Henriot Brut with Charteuse, Akvavit, and Orange Curacao

Course #2: Foie Gras - daikon, shiso, yuzo

Course #3: Pork Belly - iceberg, cucumber, thai distillation
Wine Pairing: Abbazia di Novacella Kerner Valle Isarco, Alto Adige 2007

Course #4: Green Almond - juniper gin, lime

Course #5: White Asparagus - arugula, white peper honey
Wine Pairing: Tentaka 'Silent Stream' Junmal Daiginjo Sake, Tochigi, Japan

Course #6: Lilac - scallop, shellfish, honeydew
Wine Pairing: Albert Mann 'Vieilles Vignes' Auxerrois, Alsace 2006

Course #7: Soft Shell Crab - carrot, five spice, duck
Wine Pairing: Gustave Lorentz Grand Cru Pinot Gris 'Altenberg de Bergheim' Alsace 2004
*Note: This is the 'mat plate' course.

#8: Blue Crab - carrot, five spice, duck

Course #9: Black Truffle - explosion, romaine, parmesan

Course #10: Wagyu Beef - powered A1, potato, chips
Wine Pairing: K Vintners 'Milbrandt' Syrah, Wahluke Slope, Washington 2006

Courses #11, 12, 13:
Bacon - butterscotch, apple, thyme
Yogurt - pomegranate, cassia
Bubble Gum - long pepper hibiscus, creme fraiche

Course #14: Rhubarb - goat milk, onion, lavender air
Wine Pairing: Elio Perrone 'Bigaro' Piedmont, Italy 2008

Course #15: Chocolate - blueberry tobacco, maple
Wine Pairing: Smith-Woodhouse 1994 Vintage Port

Course #16: Sweet Potato - bourbon, brown sugar smoldering cinnamon

I must admit, I failed at taking pictures of each course but my camera battery died at course #7. Another excuse to pay Alinea another visit. Drop by Alinea at Home and KevinEats to get a full play-by-play description of each dish.

Here are my highlights of the entire evening:
  • The table centerpiece, a black vase, was later used in Course #10 and kept me amused the whole time. Apparently it was filled with dry ice because every few minutes I can see the outside of the vase crystalize.
  • The sommelier attending to me always had an interesting story/description about each wine pairing. This guy knew his stuff! I forgot his name but you can't miss him. He's the guy with the curly/teased hair in the shape of an afro (not sure if his hair looks like this every night). I wish I got his name because I would love to have him as my permanent sommelier every time I come to Alinea. Top notch, such a nice guy.
  • Chef de Cuisine, Dave Beran held down the fort while Chef Grant Achatz was away. Was I disappointed that 'the' chef was not in the house? Not one bit. Everything turned out great and I came home amazed. Maybe next time I'll get to explore the kitchen
  • Did I mention the wine pairings were killer? Sure was awesome. I thought I couldn't drive back to the hotel which was 30 minutes away. Foodie Advice: Take a cab!
  • Between savory courses, I was served several types of bread accompanied by two butters (light goat's milk and creamy cow's milk topped with Hawaiian Black Lava Salt). All of the bread varieties were delish.
  • If I had to pick my best courses based on taste and "playfulness" it would be:
  1. Course #7: Soft Shell Crab - "Mat plate"
  2. Course #14: Rhubarb - "Lavender infused pillow"
  3. Course #10: Wagyu Beef - "Cloud of aromatic vapor"
  4. Course #9: Black Truffle - "One bite wonder from a bottomless dish"
  5. Course #11, 12, 13: Bacon/Yogurt/Bubble Gum - "Take a shot, suck on a glass tube and tear off hanging bacon"
  6. Course #16: Sweet Potato - "Fire-burning cinnamon stick"
  7. Course #8: Blue Crab - "Blue crab ice cream"
  8. Course #15: Chocolate - "Liquid spheres"
  • I was happy to take home a signed copy of the Alinea cookbook. See detailed post here.
  • The service overall was top notch. I was even afraid to leave a water mark on the bathroom counter since it was perfect. When I left the restaurant, I didn't have to wait for my car since it was already there when I got out.

Alinea has secured it's place as one of the best restaurants in the world. Grant's innovative approach to American Contemporary cuisine will continue to evolve and I look forward to seeing Alinea move up in the ranks of elBulli and The Fat Duck. I can best describe my Alinea experience as "Cirque du Soleil on food steroids".

1723 North Halsted
Chicago, Illinois 60614


phi-style said...

your post has made me even more excited for my meal this Sunday. thanks for the tip re. the signed cookbook!

bouche said...

Wow! Nice food blog. Just my style. We're going to chicago tomorrow with only one meal planned at Topolobampo. Alinea looks AMAZING! I'm going to refer to your blog for our trip to Vegas. Last year we ate at Joel Robuchon's as well. Both L'Atelier and Joel Robuchon's.

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