Five states, three days. Day 18, 19 and 20.

Five states, three days. Day 18, 19 and 20.

Our final full day in Chicago, so what is there to do for a couple that has seen all the sights? We lounge around eating leftover stuffed pizza and watch countless episodes of Bar Rescue, where Jon Taffer, a raging bar expert fixes up bars and restaurants across the US. Very entertaining. We relax, knowing that by the end of the night we will be eating at one of the best restaurants in the country, and the world.

Alinea. The number fifteen restaurant in San Pellegrino’s Worlds best 50. Words cannot describe how excited I am, and of course, Josh is bouncing off walls. We dress up in our finest, Josh even tucks his shirt and grabs a tie. As we arrive we are greeted by the doorman and told to enter. Instantly the smell of freshly mowed lawn hits my nose, where is this coming from? I didn’t see a park in the taxi ride here. I look down, we are actually walking on grass as we head down the hall, I now know that this restaurant is original and cannot wait for dinner.

Alinea is unbelievable. From the decor, the food, service, wine and even the bathrooms, I can understand why it is ranked the way it is. I could spend all night telling you about it but I know Josh would do it more justice, so if you are interested head on over to Alinea’s review. The night comes to an end and we slip comfortably into our food coma.

image

The next day arrives and its time to say goodbye to Chicago. We have absolutely loved our time here and can understand why so many people love it and why so many choose to stay. Time to pick up our rental car, this time it’s a nifty ford focus (dad would be proud) complete with GPS and sunroof. There is something on my bucket list that I can finally cross off, that’s right, I stick my body through the roof and cheer!

image

We drive. From Illinois, through Indiana and then arrive in Ohio. Even though this drive is long, the scenery is much better than LA to Vegas. Trees, grass, even some flowers at one stage, it’s beautiful and makes the travel so much quicker. We stop at a rest area plaza for some Burger King and head back onto the highway. Traffic is stopped up ahead. The scenery is looking just a little toomfamiliar for us. This is Walking Dead country now.  We feel as though we are in a scene from the show, cars stopped on a freeway, tall trees on either side and barns off in the distance. We lock the doors. Scan the roads. Thank god traffic is moving again! Cleveland is off in the distance. We sleep well tonight because there are still two states to cross tomorrow.

Rain wakes us up this morning and we decide to push on. Before long we stop for fuel, for the car and for ourselves. Waffle House! Yeah that sounds exciting so we walk in. This is old school diner at its best, red booths and bar stools, black and white tiles on the floor and friendly faces behind the counter. For Josh it’s a Texas toast with Philly cheese steak and for me, a cheese, bacon and egg wrap. We both decide to add a hash brown. “What would you like it scattered with?”…. “I’m sorry what??…” So here in Ohio you can add anything to an authentic hash brown, I go simple and say cheese but Josh is the adventurous type. He chooses sausage gravy, a gelatinous, peppery gravy cooked with sausage fat and onions.

imageimage

image

We now drive through Pennsylvania, after watching a tv show called Amish Mafia all I want to do is find some Amish people and visit an Amish village, or at least catch a small glimpse. Josh pushes his foot down on the accelerator, at that moment I know we are not stopping until we reach Niagara Falls, New York. And there it is, we see Niagara river as we cross the bridge. As we drive closer to the hotel, the water turns white, fast rapids sweep past us as we turn off towards Seneca Hotel and Casino. We’re saving the falls for tomorrow.

image

This hotel is amazing, Indian artwork and decorations, friendly faces and the bright lights of poker machines everywhere. We lose a quick twenty bucks and head to shop. And there’s no where I’d rather go than Walmart. Imagine the best store in the world and then times that by 100, add a lot of bulk items, a pharmacy, electronic store and plant nursery and you have reached Walmart. We shop for an hour, get a trolley full of groceries, make up and other wonderful things for fifty dollars, did I mention everything was like two bucks, and head home to veg out, eat two minute noodles and twizzlers.

image

Tomorrow we journey to the largest waterfall in the world.

Jess and Josh

The first search for perfection. Dinner at Alinea.

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.

image

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.

image

image

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.

image

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.

image

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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!

image

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.

image

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.

image

image

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.

image

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.

image

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
Alinea
1723 N Halsted St Chicago, Illinois USA
 http://www.alinearestaurant.com

Now this is Napa Style. Dinner at Ad Hoc

Aside

Now this is Napa Style. Dinner @ Ad-hoc

The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s beacon restaurant, remains one of the hardest restaurants in the world to get reservations at. I mean Jess and I have reservations at Noma, Faviken, Mugaritz, Alinea, the list goes on and on but how the hell you get reservations at TFL. Clueless. So we settle for a peep through the hedges and loads of photos out the front.

Luckily for us The Napa Valley is like Thomas Keller’s house and he has several restaurants, and a bakery, for you to enjoy. We are in fact visiting all of them. Ad-hoc is an impromptu little place where the menu is so produce driven that it changes daily. Served family style, we settle in for a four course menu with a few cocktails. BUT THEN… Our waiter says “oh, we have some additions this evening.” Oh some additions? We love additions. Then he mentioned summer truffles. All the way from Alba. 25 dollars. Sir you have a deal! Then bone marrow is mentioned. I’m a chef. This guy knew when he said bone marrow that I was eating it. I mean bone marrow. Bring it on.

image

We open the evening with a salad of asparagus, hens eggs, frisée, and a piquillo pepper salsa. Jess and I are deep into a house made spiced vodka lemonade and a No sleep till…kind of like a whiskey, orange bitter concoction. The salad is just wonderful, the cooking here is refined and sophisticated. It takes a confident chef to send a simple dish of asparagus, lightly dressed with a lemon vinaigrette, and perfectly poached hens eggs. This is clever cooking. A light start, like a kiss on a warm summers evening.

image

image

 Main course is a mans dish. Meat. Roasted meat. Then I of course added mounds of white truffle and bone marrow. This is a seriously great dish. Ribeye cooked on the bone, sautéed chanterelles, carrots and Swiss chard. On the side, a risotto of corn with a Parmesan foam. Also covered in white truffle. The meat is cooked perfectly, the fat melts in the mouth and the meat has a delicious grassland note. The chefs here care about their produce. If it isn’t great tasting you just won’t see it on the menu at Ad-hoc.

image

image

The bone marrow is roasted and served with a caponata of sautéed eggplants and capers. It is everything that it should be, rich, oozing, fatty, white deliciousness. I can literally feel my arteries clogging. We haven’t even had cheese yet and I’m smearing marrow on bread like a Viking warrior. The stomach is starting to fill

image

Cheese is served as a dish of its own right. No crackers, no jarred quince paste. San Andreas, a sheeps milk cheese, aged for three months; served with shaved fennel, plums and candied pecan. Now I usually consider the pecan a waste of a nut but everything is better candied. The cheese has an almost pecorino note, it also reminds Jess a little of Parmesan. Firm yet creamy and utterly delicious.

image

Dessert is a throwback to everyone’s childhood. A sundae bar. There’s house made fudge sauce, caramel, cookie crumbs and brownie pieces. The sundae glasses are tall and frosty, filled with freshly churned vanilla bean ice cream.

image

Excuse me? Can I lick the glass please? Jess and I are up to our elbows in ice cream and giggling like we’re five years old. Are other tables looking? Who cares.

imageThis is the spirit of Ad-hoc, a place to take away the hunger pains. A place where food is the driving force of everything the talented staff do. This isn’t about formality or a waiters stiff upper lip. The staff are in jeans and laughing with diners. This entire place is warm, welcoming and not pretentious in any way. We loved everything we ate and will definitely be back.

Do yourself a favour and add (hoc) this one to your list.

Josh and Jess

 Ad Hoc
6476 Washington St Yountville, California USA
 http://www.adhocrestaurant.com