February 27, 2012
1723 North Halsted Chicago, IL | www.alinea-restaurant.com
The allure of dining at a restaurant in the Michelin guide has been looming over my head for nearly a year. This desire increased with my move to Minneapolis, just a stone’s throw away from Chicago, a city full of Michelin rated restaurants. Then suddenly this past November, a friend of mine from back home was booking a trip up to Chicago in late February to visit a handful of restaurants, Michelin rated ones included. I took his trip as an opportunity to dine with someone who has great experience with this level of cuisine.
On the morning of my flight to Chicago, nature intervened. An ominous call from a 1-800 number rang through on my cell phone. Answering the call, my plans came to a screeching halt. My flight was cancelled due to a light snow shower in Chicago. Knowing that I was set to dine at Alinea later that night, I rushed to call the airline and book myself on the next flight possible. I was not ready to have my first Michelin experience (and a 3-star one at that) be ruined by a couple inches of snow!
After much frustration and worry, I was able to get on a flight off the standby list. I landed in Chicago, headed to the hotel, and prepared myself for the evening’s culinary exploration. Alinea, a 3-Michelin star rated restaurant, is headed by Chef Grant Achatz. Known for employing a variety of techniques and pushing into the world of molecular gastronomy, Alinea would afford me not only new experiences in flavor, but an eye-opening experience in modern food as a whole.
The restaurant resides within an unmarked, unassuming structure. My cab driver actually missed the building once (as did I). Walking down a red lit hallway leads you to the main entrance, where the kitchen is in view as you wait for the hostess to lead you to your table.
Having been seated and given a few minutes to investigate the centerpiece at the table, our servers approached and gave us a brief overview of the night to come. Alinea offers a set menu each night, currently priced at $210 per person, with the option for additional wine pairings. After asking about any allergies or restrictions, we were told about the potential “messiness” of the somewhat “interactive” menu to come. With the formalities all out of the way, all there was left to do was wait for the journey to begin.
A small, colorful, and vibrant first course arrives to our table. I pick up the slight scent of spice from the curry as I spoon the first bite. A delicate mixture of sweet richness hits my taste buds first, followed by the briny bursts of flavor from the char roe. An elegantly simple, yet beautiful start to the meal.
Visually stunning, the second course arrives. Explained to us as an “exploration of the sea”, this course features four bites of various flavors. The kelp emits the scent of the ocean to complete the effect of the course. The simplest, and yet most intriguing was an oyster shell filled with nothing more than a leaf. This leaf, aptly named an “oyster leaf”, naturally tastes exactly like an oyster. It’s an interesting approach to pre-conceived flavors. In my excitement to test its flavor, I had forgotten to snap a photo!
Succulent and sweet, the king crab portion of the second course was delicious and refreshing. The acidity of passionfruit and the flavors of allspice played well with the natural sweetness of the crab.
My favorite of the four items in the second course, the razor clam was prepared with great bold umami flavors. The saltiness of the clam against the contrast of shiso worked very well. Toasted coriander seeds lent a mild sense of earthiness to the flavor as well.
Clean, briny mussel flavor paired with the slight spiciness of chorizo. The saffron and oregano brought some additional flavor, without overshadowing the mussel’s natural taste. Flavors, scents, and visual presentation combined made this 2nd course a memorable one.
Presented on a thin, long skewer, our next course was to be a “hands free” experience. We plucked the tender, smokey morsel of squid and woolly pig straight off the skewer. The chewiness of the squid was an excellent textural element. The bright flavor of orange and fennel complimented the fatty, smokey flavor of the two proteins.
When this plate arrived, I immediately thought of tofu. The block of “tofu” in the center is actually scallop, disguised to be reminiscent of agedashi tofu. A flavorful dashi broth is poured into the bowl, giving not only additional savory flavors, but a strong appetizing scent.
At last the centerpiece comes into play! Given two long glass “straws”, we were instructed to drink the two columns of beet juice from the ice block. Standing up to make things easier, I drank up the ice cold flavors of beet and licorice. Somewhere between sweet and spicy, this course was not only fun and interactive, but flavorful.
Having read up on Alinea, I came into the meal knowing somewhat what to expect. Despite all that I had read, this next course was completely unexpected. Perhaps a rare presentation of family-style cuisine at Alinea, this dish was inspired by Chef Achatz trip to Sicily. The black sea bass was perfectly cooked, with that wonderful combination of tender flesh beneath crispy skin. The seasoning and freshness of the fish clearly spoke for itself. Alongside the fish, well prepared side dishes of caponata and panella. We enjoyed both sides very much, each lending a depth of flavor or texture to the course.
Now this course I did expect. In fact I had hoped to see it! A presentation of bold flavor and temperature differences, the dish is served in a little wax bowl. To eat it, you pick up the bowl and pull on the metal skewer, dropping the items on it into the cold soup. Designed to be a single bite, the hot/cold combination, flavors of truffle, creaminess of the soup, and fattiness of butter are incredibly delicious. This is without a doubt one of the most delicious bites I have ever had.
Once again Chef Achatz gives us a course that engages more than the sense of taste. As the weight of the plate sinks into the aromatic pillow, very woodsy scents begin to fill the air. Intended to give you the experience of being in the woods where the course’s mushrooms can be found, I thought that the aromatic pillow was a unique and interesting way to expand the experience of the dish. On the plate, deliciously earthy flavors are paired with the slight sweetness of shallots and the bite of juniper.
These red flags were placed upon our table prior to our 8th course of mushrooms. It was explained that these would be used for a later course, which turned out to be the next one featuring venison.
A plate of frosted glass arrives with a variety of little “condiments” for our venison course. We are instructed to move the frosted glass layer off to the side to reveal the wood layer underneath.
Moving the top layer of frosted glass reveals two metal pieces, which we fit together to form a stand. The server places the flags of red cabbage on the stand and proceeds to fill them with pieces of braised venison.
After the venison is spooned into the cabbage wrap, we then filled it with the condiments. Warned that this might be a messy course, I decided to avoid all the mess by simply putting the entire wrap into my mouth at once. Chewing through the layers of flavors and experiencing the deliciousness of the various elements was well worth the preparation of the course. The tender pieces of venison are perfectly cooked. All the condiments come together, bite after bite, introducing new hints of flavor to you as you chew. This course was one of my favorites of the night, not only for its great flavor but also for the interactive nature of it.
Another recurring and popular dish in Alinea’s repertoire, the black truffle “explosion” lives up to the name. The flavor of truffle explodes forth from the pasta as you bite into it. The sharp flavor of parmesan gives a nice contrast to the richness of the black truffle.
One of the more playful courses of the night, this plating of various single bites was inspired by a painting by Miró. While the squab and foie gras (white cube) are identified by the server, the remainder of the forks and spoons remain a mystery to the diner until the end of the course, where you can inquire about the various elements. There is no particular order for the parts to be eaten. It’s a fun exploration of various flavors and textures. As you might expect, the foie gras and the squab were certainly the stars of the course in terms of flavor.
The cheese course of the meal is served on a stick of smoking cinnamon, which gives an aromatic element. The sweetness of the Anjou pear and onion pairs well with the salty flavor of the brie. The crispy outer shell of the dish was a smart texture contrast to the creamy and soft texture of both the pear and cheese.
These five small bites of ginger act as the palate cleansing course leading us from the savory to the sweet part of the meal. The gingers were all very fresh and bright in flavor.
In this course Chef Achatz flexes his creative muscles once more with a stunning presentation. Served atop a bed of river rocks frozen with liquid nitrogen, the peppermint “snow” was exactly that. Light, fluffy, and very cold, the peppermint snow accompanied each bite of the various fruits on top. Perhaps a little more focused on presentation than flavor, I thought that the peppermint snow in this course was a bit too overpowering to the other elements. I did very much enjoy the distilled hot chocolate, which was clear as water but had all the flavors of hot chocolate.
A truly surprising presentation of green apple candy. The thin film of candy is filled with helium and attached to a weight so that it doesn’t just float away! I was a bit wary of eating this balloon, worried that it would pop and get all over my suit. Luckily the candy is quite sticky and when popped doesn’t spread out too far. I didn’t get any “helium voice” although I did try to inhale as much of the released helium as I could!
After finishing off the balloon course, the servers come to our table and remove everything. A large silicon sheet is rolled out on the table and a chocolate bombe along with various sauces are placed at the edge.
A chef approaches our table and moves the chocolate bombe to the center. Into the bombe he pours liquid nitrogen to freeze the components within.
The chef then begins to spoon various colored sauces across the table. As he simply spoons the sauces out into little puddles, they begin to magically spread out and form near perfect squares on their own. I have no clue how this is accomplished, but it is very interesting to watch.
After the sauces are all down on the table, the chef picks up the chocolate bombe and drops it on the table. The delicate chocolate shell shatters and spread the contents of the bombe all around.
Very creative, beautifully presented, interactive, and delicious – This dessert course, the closing note to our meal, exemplifies everything that I had come to expect from Alinea. As I ate the various elements of the dish, I kept discovering new pieces and flavors. The sauces provided additional layers of sweet and tart to the entire dessert. This course was a fitting end to our meal, and to my first Michelin experience.
And so, after three hours of course after meticulous course, my Alinea experience ended. Did this meal live up to my expectations of a Michelin rated restaurant? It most certainly did. Across 16 courses, Chef Achatz displayed an amazing attention to detail in all aspects of the dining experience, engaging nearly all of the senses. The success of the myriad of techniques used displayed a deft understanding of the balance between form and flavor. Not only did I leave Alinea feeling satisfied that I had had a delicious meal, but I felt that I had a complete dining experience. The interactive and playful nature of some of the courses kept me engaged with not just taste, but also with approaching the meal as a complete and entire experience in modern cuisine.
While I hope that my experience at Alinea is just the start of my journey into the highest levels of haute cuisine, I will always remember this experience for everything that it was: Delicious, playful, intricate, interactive, and fun.
1723 N Halsted St
Chicago, IL 60614
*** 3 Michelin stars
Tagged with: Alinea • Chicago • Fusion • Illinois • Michelin Star • Tasting Menu