Today you're getting a treat! A very very special treat from our eating duo (Jonathan and Grace) in Chicago. This guest post that features the pictures from Alinea's tasting menu! The man who's behind the genius at Alinea is Grant Achatz. He recently won the Beard award for Best Chef in the United States 2008. Enjoy the post!
In 2003, Grace and I traveled to Evanston to dine at Trio for her birthday. We had heard the restaurant was worth the short trip from Chicago, but knew little else about the restaurant. The meal that followed could be described as transformative. I had some great meals before, but this meal would show me just how food could go. One dish in particular was unforgettable. The dish was a butter-poached lobster with rosemary. But there was no rosemary in the dish. Instead, the plate sat on a bed of rosemary and hot water was poured onto the herbs filling the air with an evergreen perfume. For me, it was the first time a chef had purposefully exploited my sense of smell over taste, and I liked it.
A few months later, that chef set out on his own, and Grace and I were hot to try his new restaurant, Alinea. In the spring of 2005, we ate at Grant Achatz's shiny new restaurant and it did not disappoint; so we vowed to go back. But four years passed, and in that time so much was written about the restaurant and its chef.
Then last week, occasion and opportunity coincided and we were back at Alinea. We arrived five minutes before our reservation and happily waited for our table. As we were waiting outside of the open and expansive kitchen, one of the hosts asked if we'd like to go inside to take a look. Trying not to be overly eager we ever so nonchalantly nodded. We were quickly ushered into the corner of the kitchen by the staff next to the stairwell to the second floor. The kitchen was divided by two long tables. At the far table, Grant was leaning over some plates amongst a cluster of chefs. After finishing his task, he looked up and saw us in the corner; he walked over to greet us. Four years – I had been waiting for this for four years. You'd think I would have imagined what I would say to him; maybe run it through my mind a few times. But no, instead something incomprehensible came spewing out of my mouth. I think it included the words - love, food and man – but I'm not sure in what order. In the end, he smiled and said we should enjoy our meal. And we did.
Tasting notes, 24 courses:
The first course was steelhead roe with the flavor of traditional garnishes, but untraditionally. The dish was fresh, briny and creamy and had me ready for more.
Grace gets the wine pairing and aquavit comes with the first course. I try a sip; it tastes like turpentine with caraway, anise and coriander. No wine pairing for me, but they offer a flight of house-made sodas. The cherry and thyme soda came out first and was amazing. The citrus soda and spice soda to follow were also nice, but the cherry thyme was extra fine.
The second course was a foie gras course with daikon and shiso. The dish was again light and smooth.
Up next was a pork belly dish served in a lettuce cup. The flavors were Asian-inspired with a dot of sriracha-like sauce and milky Thai flavored pork belly.
The green almond with juniper gin and lime was the one course I could have done without. The four corners supposedly had four taste elements, but I could only taste bitter.
The next two dishes were paired. They both contained crab, peas and duck. Again there were hints of Chinese flavors with the duck. The dishes used the same elements, but seemed worlds apart. The soft shell crab was warm and crisp; and matched well with the thin layers of pea purée. The blue crab was cool, meaty and refreshing.
Sporadically through the meal, different breads were served. Two of the best were the cabbage pear cookie and the soft chewy dinner roll.
The seventh course was one that I had read about – the black truffle explosion. The truffle tea within the pasta burst in the mouth like a gusher for adults. Amazing.
The eighth course was a change up, or rather a throwback. Instead of making a new dish, Achatz is perfecting an old one. Pigeonneau a la St Clair is a classic dish straight out of the Escoffier1. On top of the throwback cuisine, the food was served on vintage china.
Courses nine through eleven came out together in an array of unique serving styles. The bacon hanging from a stainless steel bow was sweet and savory. The sweet potato was skewered by a smoking cinnamon stick. The mustard bite had a metal pick. The sweet potato was the most memorable (though the bacon was close) as the crispy crust with the hints of brown sugar pushed the taste over the top.
The hot potato came next. It's another course I've heard about. The hot potato topped with a truffle was suspended over a cold potato soup. The paraffin wax bowl was made to keep the hot and cold elements apart until the last second. Note - pulling the pin too quickly causes a grenade-like splatter.
The next course was a twirled stick of yuba with a shrimp coiled around it. The yuba was crisp and the miso and togarashi lent a peppery sweetness. I wish I had a few more sticks.
The white asparagus came in a vertical cylinder before they released the contents into the bowl. The dish was sweet like spring. *giggling like a Japanese actress on Iron Chef*
The next dish with mussels and scallops was again slightly sweetened by honeydew. But most interesting were the "lilac pillows." They felt like a lilac-scented soft silky tofu.
Hanging off an antenna was a small bite of grape, a small roll of lamb, ash and frisee.
The seventeenth course had been building on our table for a while. At some point, the wait staff placed a vase on the table. We had watched as ice formed around the outside. When the Wagyu beef arrived, liquid was poured into the vase and out poured the smell of a grill. The beef was soft and buttery without being overly oily as it sometimes can be. Along with the beef was a packet of powder filled with the flavors of A-1 steak sauce.
Course eighteen was served quickly. It looked like a small packet of cocaine - white powder in a small clear packet. The runner said not to ask questions and to pop it in our mouth. Bag and all, we ate it and tasted lemon soda.
Courses 19 – 21 came together. The raspberry candy came on a rolling rocker. In the tube was a yoghurty pudding. To eat it we sucked on the tube.
The rhubarb and goat's milk cheesecake was served on a pillow of lavender air. There were bites of onion in the dish that made this an interesting sweet and savory mix.
The twenty-third course was a frozen chocolate pudding that looked like a Chinese rock sculpture. The blueberry pearls and maple syrup looked and tasted spectacular.
The final bite was a pound cake served on a vanilla bean. The cake was a little tart with strawberry and lemon.
Overall, the meal was a great experience with some memorable and unique moments. But I expected that of the food. What surprised us this time was the overall dining experience. The staff was a perfect mix of friendly but professional. Everyone from Achatz, our two servers/sommelier to the runners were great.
1 - I checked the Escoffier for myself. From page 410-411:
-Supremes de Pigeonneaux Saint Clair
-Prepare a Mousseline forcemeat from the legs of the young pigeons; mold into Quenelles the size of small olives and poach them.
-Place the breasts of the pigeons still attached to the carcase on a bed of finely sliced and blanched onions spread on the bottom of a shallow pan; add some butter, cover with the lid and Poele them keeping them underdone. Remove the breasts then add a little thin Veloute to the onions; pass this through a sieve and add the prepared Quenelles to this Soubise. Remove the breasts from the carcase and trim them after discarding the skin.
-Place a pyramid of flap mushrooms sautéed in butter in the center of a baked flan case; arrange the Supremes on this pyramid, coat them with the Soubise and surround with the Quenelles. Border the inside edge of the flan case with a cordon of meat glaze.
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