The first search for perfection. Dinner at Alinea.
Tonight Jess and I visit one of the most renowned restaurants in the world. Number fifteen on the San Pellegrinno top 50 list and a place that is a constant inspiration for chefs around the globe. Jess and I are eating at Alinea.
Chef Grant Achatz, a visionary chef opened Alinea after his success at previous restaurant Trio and has since then been a driving force in modernist cuisine and one of the most credited chefs of our age. Three Michelin stars, a host of accolades worldwide and of course, a team of seriously trained chefs. Tonight this is where Jess and I will dine, and I am so excited I’m about to burst. Now for all you foodies out there wanting to dine at Alinea be aware that this is not your ordinary restaurant. For starters you will not make a reservation. Instead you’ll have to get online and buy tickets. Yes, tickets. A great idea for hospitality, pre purchased tickets means a no show is no loss to the restaurant. Genius.
So we are off, tickets in hand, I am skipping up the street. This is such a food dream of mine and I can’t believe that we are actually here. We’re greeted at the door by Conrad, a seriously friendly gentleman who says to me “so chef, take a look around the kitchen.” Well I just about faint. The chefs are working away, the anti griddle is over in the corner, a helium bottle rests on the perfectly polished stainless steel, mise en place is neat, organised and controlled. After some quick hellos and dragging me away from the prep we are seated and the show begins.
And boy does it begin. Jessica and I had no idea what we were in for, I mean yes I have read the Alinea cookbook cover to cover probably a thousand times but never did I think I would be sitting in the restaurant of my dreams. We open with a dish of osetra caviar, served in the classic Russian style. Achatz plays on textures here with a gel of blini and pickled onion. The caviar pops in sweet subtlety and the gel liquifies upon taste. We go for the wine match tonight and this dish pairs wonderfully with a 99 Blanc de Blancs Brut. A crisp yet aged champagne which kind of took me to an aged cheese kind of place. Lovely.
The next dish arrives with plumes of nitrogen smoke billowing all over the table. The scent of ginger and lemongrass fills the air. Scallop served with citrus aroma and fourteen Asian textures. The scallop has been lightly cured and there are too many Asian flavours for me to name. It is a seemingly light dish to begin with, but once the flavours really kick in it becomes both bold and sweet. A German Riesling to match. Wonderful.
Now throughout our entire dining experience thus far there has been a jar filled with tomatoes in a patch of grass buried in the centre of our table. It was only Jess’ foresight that kept me from cracking the jar before I was supposed to. Our next course celebrates everything that is the tomato. Paired with cana de cabra, a kind of molten goats cheese, cucumber soufflé and cantaloupe foam. This dish is textural, the goats cheese is runny and soft, the tomato flesh is almost gelatinous and the soufflé is heavenly light.
Plates are cleared and the next delight arrives. Dungeness crab, squash blossom, cardamom and saffron. The light oceanic crab makes a tickling match for sweet squash, or pumpkin to us Aussies. The saffron appears in the form of a gel draped ornately over a pumpkin custard. The blossom is a crisp shard. Achatz is a master of complimentary flavours that may seem unusual at first. The cardamom note here is an example of this, kind of like a low spice hum just in the background.
Another thing Achatz is great at is theatre. Dining at Alinea is about providing a unique experience for everyone. The next course is a piece of art simply called Binchotan, Tokyo inspiration. Binchotan being the name of a Japanese charcoal that burns for a very long period of time. Here it is served table side, completely on fire with a feast of goodies for us to try, there’s seared tuna, wagyu beef, pork belly and a crisp prawn head filled with togarashi, a Japanese spice. These little bites tasted fantastic and the look as the dish arrived, incredible. This was a highlight course for me, beauty, delicious, art. It was paired with an interesting Japanese beer from the Kiuchi brewery. It matched the food wonderfully, a kind of hop driven semi sweet drop.
Veal cheeks next, but not as you have eaten them before, here they are paired with lapsang souchong, pine and blackberry. The tea is very earth driven, along with the pine. The cheeks are unctuous and oozey and melt upon eating. The blackberry adds a touch of acidity which only makes the veal cheeks seem more sweet. A dish driven by complexity I could have eaten a portion 5 times the size.
Our next dish marked a slight break in our proceedings. This is the only dish I have actually seen in the Alinea book, unfortunately it is the only dish we didn’t get a photo of. It is known as hot potato, cold potato. Served with black truffle and butter. A perfect sphere of warm Yukon gold potato is dropped into a soup of cold potato, laden with black truffle. A quick bite but an utterly flavourful one. The warmth of the potato contrasted against the cold soup shocks your palate into truly tasting. I’m not even close to ready for this to end bring on the next course.
And here it is. A serious, serious concept. Duck ………?????…….!!!!!!! That is all that is on the menu. This coded message is actually a dish of a whole duck served in many forms. Oh and did I mention there is over 60 garnishes for us to pair with. I dive in, foie gras with apricot, confit leg with vanilla bean, fried breast with horseradish, rillette with chocolate and mouselline with beetroot. Jess does the same, only picks her own flavours. Each works brilliantly with duck. 60 flavours and not one of them clash, jar or taste a little funny. And trust me, we tried them all. The chefs here are providing something truly unique. Each diner will experience something of their own choice. Each flavour will be there own. I thought this dish was a masterpiece, not only in cooking all the duck parts perfectly but having the knowledge of 60 components to enjoy with it. Wow.
After the duck I thought things couldn’t get any crazier. Boy I was wrong. Our waiters float around the room as people giggle at their courses, are amazed by flavours and enjoy their dining. This restaurant is the epitome of love what you do. The next course for us is one of Achatz’ signature dishes and something I have slaved over the Alinea cookbook making myself. Served in a custom designed antiplate The black truffle Explosion. A perfectly cooked ravioli served with wilted romaine lettuce and Parmesan. Our smiling waiter says “eat it all in one bite.” The ravioli goes in and BANG liquid black truffle explodes in my mouth, the ravioli is filled with a gelled truffle stock that on cooking melts and becomes a warm liquid centre. I loved this dish. Jess’ eyes bulged when the ravioli popped and we both laughed at how much fun it was.
The explosion marks the end of the savoury courses. We are served with a selection of five needles, each with something pierced into the end of it. It is in fact our palate cleanser. Ginger with five other flavours. Turmeric being one. The heat of the Hawaiian ginger made for a tangy palate cleanse but each flavour contributed to it well and left us both feeling refreshed. I’m also drinking a glass of The rare Wine Co. “Boston Bual” special reserve Madeira. A sweet nectar that coats the ginger on my palate beautifully.
We now sit here with balloons in our hands. Very sticky balloons. Our waiter tells us to give them a kiss and inhale. It is a green apple scented candy balloon on a crystallised apple string. We inhale then giggle as we finally realise what the helium was for. Other tales around us are in hysterics as grown adults are reduced to little kids again with squeaky voices. I sounded somewhat like a prepubescent teen as my voice broke in and out whilst speaking, Jessica of course was slightly more chipmunk. This is what food is about, having fun. Reminding us that we’re eating, it is not a serious affair, lets enjoy. This is the spirit at Alinea.
Once our fits of laughter subside and the balloon is devoured our first dessert arrives. Strawberry granola, a crispy, crunchy cluster of strawberries served with a goats cheese infused with sassafras, pine nut and long pepper. I was expecting sickly sweet strawberry but the goats cheese dragged this dish much closer towards the savoury side. The texture was lovely and paired well with my Hungarian Tokaji-Aszu. A sweet wine with strong fruit notes. I must admit that with all these wine matches I am beginning to get a little foggy. Jess has a nice glow as well!
Whilst we were chatting away we barely noticed our waiter putting two long test tubes smeared with pink in our table. It is in fact the straw for our next course. Raspberry, infused with rose. A soda bottle is presented before us filled with raspberry bubbles. We’re instructed to drink the bubbles through the straw, thus infusing it with the pink rose smear across the inside of the tube. This was a fun way to introduce a fairly simple dessert. However the flavour forms were complex, rose has of course a great floral character which matches the acidity of raspberry very well. It reminded me of drinking soda as a kid and having the bubbles fizz out the top of the bottle. Being able to insight memories is a fantastic talent of Achatz and Alinea and is employed throughout the experience in many forms.
Finally it seems as though we have come to an end. Our table is all but cleared. Then our waiter appears with a large silicone mat. Time for your dessert he says with an almost devilish grin. Out walks chef Enrique, one of the many talented chefs at Alinea. The mat is spread across our table and chef begins to plate our dessert. Directly onto the table in front of us. This is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. As a chef I think it’s so important to interact with your diners and here he was, standing in front of us showing us his art. It was very humbling. The dessert consists of milk chocolate, pâté sucree, violet and hazelnut. Chefs hand dips and swirls as he constructs his masterpiece in front of us. Not saying a word he tips his head ever so slightly towards us and vanishes back into his studio. Jess and I are stunned. This was like seeing Mozart or watching Picasso paint. It was possibly one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had whilst dining. Utterly incredible.
For all of our wonderful readers, you’re in for a treat because Jess was clever enough to film the entire thing! And here it is.
Upon tasting the dessert it is both rich yet delicate. Swirls of creme fraiche cut through buttery milk chocolate, floral violets accentuate hazelnuts earthiness. It’s as if the flavours themselves dip and swirl like the master chefs hand. In case you can’t tell Alinea has completely blown us both away. The dream comes to an end with Mexican coffee and a great chat with our waiters.
Now I must mention them, all of the waiters who served us that amazing evening. I am sorry that I did not get all of your names but it is hospitality workers like this who make our industry as fantastic as it is. Friendly, welcoming and there only to look after you. They also know how to have a great time, without ever losing their professionalism. Dining at Alinea has made Jess and I want to work so much harder at our dream to have a truly great restaurant like this.
Now if you have made it to the end of this review, well done. I think it has taken me as long to write as it did for us to eat at Alinea. We enjoyed every moment and it is credited to all of the Alinea staff. Get yourself here as soon as you can. This restaurant for us was a dream come true. The realisation that our journey on thetraveltotaste in search of perfection has really begun. What makes Alinea so special is it’s constant strive for perfection. Have we found what we were looking for already?
I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been before.
Josh and Jess
Dined 25th August 2013
1723 N Halsted St Chicago, Illinois USA