When Alinea calls you and tells you that they have a 5:45PM seating available, you scream at the top of your lungs, jump up and down on the sidewalk before calming yourself to say, “Yes, I’ll take it”.
As I was planning Foodcation 2010, I didn’t think there would be much of a chance of us dining at Alinea given the huge wait list, but I prepared myself nonetheless; I didn’t make concrete dinner plans for our first two nights in Chicago, just in case.
Our flight from Philly arrived in Chicago at 3:30PM and we checked into our hotel by 4:30PM. This meant that we only had 45 minutes to settle in, change and get ready for dinner! I was really stressed, but like I said, whatever it takes! The hotel concierge recommended that we take a taxi to Alinea since we would be dressed up for dinner, but we decided to take public transportation instead. I see no shame in taking the subway/bus while dressed up, although, I would NEVER do that in LA.
Alinea is located in a gray, nondescript building in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. If not for the valet parking sign outside, you would not know that this gray building with big windows houses one of the best restaurants in world.
Behind the big black doors is a fuchsia lit, narrow hallway. You begin walking down the hallway, entranced by the bright color, but all of a sudden, sliding doors open to your left and you are pulled back to reality. Welcome to Alinea.
Keep in mind, menus were given to us at the end of the meal, not the beginning. We were to interpret the dishes on our own, with all of our senses.
We started our journey with a manipulation of English Peas. The peas were blanched and pureed with cream and then freeze-dried and shaped into free-form shards. Accompanying the peas were powdered Iberico ham, honeydew spheres and drops of sherry vinegar. With each bite, we got a different combination – peas with ham, peas with honeydew, or all of the above. The peas proved to be a great canvas for the distinct flavors of the other ingredients. This was one of my favorite dishes overall.
Shrimp: Fermented Black Bean, Cinnamon Aroma
Yuba: Shrimp, Miso, Togarashi
Chao Tom: Sugar Cane, Shrimp, Mint
Distillation: of Thai Flavors
Next, we took a trip to Asia. Even without knowing what exactly was in each dish, you could recognize such Asian ingredients as miso, fish sauce and black bean.
Tomatoes: Pillows of Fresh Cut Grass Aroma
Our sense of smell was put to work during the heirloom tomatoes course. The plates were placed on top of deflatable pillows filled with the aroma of fresh cut grass. With the help of gravity, the aroma escaped from the pillows as we ate the tomatoes and for a few minutes, we were transported out of the restaurant and into a garden after springtime showers.
Pork Belly: Curry, Cucumber, Lime
The pork belly spring roll course gave us an opportunity to be “hands on”. After making our own stand with metal prongs, the servers placed a sheet of spring roll paper on the stand and topped it with delicious pork belly. What we wanted in our pork belly spring rolls was totally in our control; we had 11 different ingredients to choose from. Henry being adventurous, used everything. I, on the other hand, do not like cilantro or mint so I opted out of those items. This course was very refreshing and fun. I liked the idea that fine dining wasn’t limited to using proper silverware.
King Crab: Plum, Lilac, Fennel
The next course offered three variations of King Crab combined with three ingredients: plum, lilac and fennel. With each variation, the temperature of the dish and the level of richness increased. This was a great stepping stone to the more rich and savory courses of the meal.
Hot Potato: Cold Potato, Black Truffle, Butter
“Eat this right away” was what our server instructed us to do for the hot potato course. I kind of freaked out a little bit because I notoriously take forever to get the perfect shot, but this time I just had to let it go. We pulled the pin out, letting the hot potato/truffle/butter fall into the cold potato soup and knocked all of it back. Delicious. I can see why people rave about this course.
Lamb: Reflection of Elysian Fields Farm
The first of our meat courses was to be a reflection of Elysian Field Farms, Alinea’s long standing supplier of lamb. The lamb loin was cooked sous vide and skewered with a spruce branch to represent the trees on the farm. Served alongside the lamb were ingredients that represented the lamb’s diet (corn and oats) and surroundings (grass).
Black Truffle: Explosion, Romaine, Parmesan
In between the two meat courses was an explosion in your mouth, literally. A black truffle explosion, to be exact. I love truffles so this course was absolute heaven.
Tournedo: A la Persane
The second of the meat courses, referred to as an antique concept, was an interpretation of August Escoffier’s “Tournedos a la Persane” recipe. Notice how the beautiful china adds to the antique feel; Alinea is all about the details. This course brought us back to the basics: simple plating, great combination of flavors and textures. Perfect.
Bacon: Butterscotch, Apple, Thyme
So, how do you transition from savory to sweet? With a dehydrated slice of bacon dipped in butterscotch of course!
Lemon Soda: One Bite
Transparency: of Raspberry, Yogurt
Bubble Gum: Long Pepper, Hibiscus, Creme Fraiche
Our dessert courses began with a trio of fun dishes that were reminiscent of candy such as lemonheads (Lemon Soda not pictured), fruit roll-ups and bubble gum.
Earl Grey: Lemon, Pine Nut, Caramelized White Chocolate
A play on tea and cookies, the earl grey course was my favorite dessert. Loose tea leaves were finely ground and combined with crumbled shortbread dough. The innovation didn’t stop there, of course; the other elements of this dish really helped elevate it to a whole other level. The lemon curd spheres brought out the citrus component of earl grey while the white chocolate strands masked some of the bitterness.
Chocolate: Coconut, Menthol, Hyssop
Now for the dessert finale. I’ll let the video speak for itself. Excuse my “Oooohhs” and “Aaaahhhs” 😛
The perfect ending to this extraordinary meal would have been to meet Chef Grant Achatz. Unfortunately, the stars did not align as he was on vacation. The end of August seems to be a popular time for Chefs to take vacation. We did, however, get the opportunity to tour the kitchen. I guess we’ll just have to come back and dine again in order to meet the great Achatz 😉
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