I’m a list making kinda person – I have a “to-do” list, multiple “to buy” lists, and, of course, a “to eat” list. After disappointingly scraping “El Bulli” off of the top of my “must eat before I die” list, another molecular-gastronomy-esque restaurant “Alinea,” took its place. And never had I thought I would get to try out my recent number one restaurant so quickly!
After realizing that I’ll be in Chicago for a couple of days on my 3-weeks long trip to the States, I booked Alinea months in advance. Due to how hard it is to land a table at this restaurant (they are completely booked until December as of yesterday,) Alinea imposes a hefty no-show fee of 100 dollars per head. The restaurant was also corteous enough to call to confirm a couple of times prior to the actual dining date, gearing up my excitement even more!
The young Chef Grant Achatz is the creative master-mind behind he three Michelin Star Alinea, and is one of the world’s leaders in molecular gastronomy. He was recently an inductee to the “Who’s who” of James Beard Foundation in 2012, and won “Best Chef” in 2008. I think what had, intitially, drawn me to Alinea the most was the creative process behind the food. Not only do they have an unbelievably large team of chefs, in order to create each amazing dishes and a performance-like service, they also collaborate with a team of sculptors, architechts, engineers, and polyscientists!
So fast forwarded a couple of months, I found myself standing in front of an unassuming grey-brick-lined entry way with a small sign saying Alinea on it. As I walked into the restaurant, I immediately noticed the large and busy open kitchen filled with the largest team of chefs I’ve seen in a restaurant on my right and I was led to my table in the small room on the left.
Alinea does not have a formal ordering process since the 18-course menu is the only thing on offer; though they do cater towards your dietary restrictions, such as my aversion to all marine animals. (Yes, not just seafood.) Another choice that we had to make was whether or not we wanted to do the wine pairing which will be small tastings of 10 different wines in total, accumulating to around 4 glasses. There is also a reserve option.
I am not good at explaing flavors, and at Alinea, this weakness of mine was amplified ten-folds. During the meal I laughed, I gasped, I went silent, I pondered, I smiled – all these emotions were running through my body as a direct result to the most sensational array of tastes I’ve ever experienced. And I did not use that word experience lightly because every single dish at Alinea was an experience. Not only was I eating with my mouth, I was savoring with my eyes. The table top design here is genius, and there’s a performance element to every dish. I could go on and on about it but I rather let the pictures do the talking.
The restaurant does not have a bar, only wines and some beers.
So my dad who’s not a wine guy went for this Seaweed beer called “Kelpie,”
“Steelhead Roe” with carrot, coconut, and curry
2nd – 5th courses – “Heart of Palm,” “Oyster Leaf,” “Leek,” and “Daikon”
(Second wine – Georg Breur “Terra Montosa Riesling” Rheingau 2009)
Oyster leaf with carrot and camomile, heart of palm with passionfruit, and allspice, leek with saffron, choizo, and oregano, and cabbage some sort of sweet pearls on top
What a way to impress us, Alinea! I made it an effort not to read reviews of the actual dishes before I went to Alinea to keep the element of surprise, and that decision sure served me well since the last thing I had on my mind was to get my second course on a seaweed mountain. Although my course had less of a “under the sea” feeling, being seafood-less, they still kept the shellfish element to it by instructing me to approach my dish as if the vegetables containing the food were the shells, which should be discarded.
Normal version – “King Crab,” “Lobster,” “Mussel,” and “Top Neck Clam”
6th course – “Wooly Pig” – organo, fresh papaya, and fennel with hungarian wooley ham
(the seafood version comes with a grilled squid)
This course was a handsfree course, we’re instructed to just bite onto it
Our waiter delivers this coffee siphon, which was the type readily used in the 1800s, at our table prior to the previous course. As we enjoyed our wooley pig, the vacuum sucks the clear liquid inside the siphon up and down, turning it into an amber color. We later learned that this would be the dash (japanese broth) for our next course. Since Dashi contains dried fish, they had a separate broth made in the kitchen for me even though I told them I wasn’t allergic! And that’s called attention to details, my friends.
7th course – “Tofu” – acting like agedashi tofu
(Bodegas Godeval ‘Vina Godeval’ Valdeorras 2010)
This course is actually another seafood course, so instead of getting a scalp mousse made into agadashi tofu (japanese fried tofu served in broth,) I got a real agadashi tofu with bonito-less dashi brewed a la minute in a glass vacuum carafe, daikon, carrot, nasturtium, which was a bit of a bummer since I had a taste of my mom’s scallop and it was heavenly.
7th course – “SCALLOP,” – acting like agedashi tofu
Scallop mousse fried like agedashi tofu, with dashi brewed a la minute in a glass vacuum carafe, daikon, carrot, nasturtium.
The rest of the dashi is served in a sake cup for us to sip on or add into the tofu.
8th course – “Banana” – Thai banana, sea salt, and kaffir lime
(Chehalem ‘3 Vineyards’ Pinot Gris, Willamette 2010)
Although it’s inspired by Thai cuisine, I didn’t like this one. The seafood version of this course has toro in it also.
10th course – “Hot potato” – cold potato, black truffle, and butter served in a bowl made out of hot wax mold by hand –
In order to eat this cute little dish, I had to pull the little metal stick to release the elements of the dish in the the truffle sauce. I was instructed that this dish should be eaten in one bite, and boy, wasn’t that one AMAZINGLY DELICIOUS I THOUGHT I WAS GONNA CRY bite. It’s definitely one of the best bite I’ve had my whole life. It was so well balanced, aromatic, playful. Up until that moment, Per Se’s Truffled egg had always been my favorite restaurant dish, now I’m not so sure.
11th course – “Lamb” – ………???……………!!!!!!!!! (I’m not going crazy, this is exactly how it’s written in the menu)
(Chateau Ollieux Romanis ‘Atal Sia’, Corbieres 2008)
This dish was, by far, one of the most playful and inventive dishes I’ve had in my life. Not only did my jaw dropped when a colorful plate filled with 60 different little nibbles was placed on my desk, my brain also experienced a jolt of excitement when I was told how to attack this dish. Basically we were served three types of lamb made from the belly, tenderloin, and shank – cooked 3 ways. The waiter suggested us to try 2-3 combinations per each type of lamb and just have fun with it. He also threw it out there that if I picked 3 accompaniments per a piece of lamb, there could be more than 40,000 different combinations!
I don’t remember how many combinations I tried and didn’t exactly cried from the deliciousness of the little bites (some of the alcoholic gels were actually overwhelming.) But each piece of lamb was perfectly cooked and sinfully delicious. And I had so much fun trying everything.
12th course – “Black Truffle” – explosion, romaine, parmesan
And an explosion it was since I actually managed to spill some soup on myself from not closing my mouth completely before biting. It’s like a soup-heavey xiao long bao with romaine, parmesan, and truffle broth. I thought it was a little heavy on the salt, but overall enjoyable.
13th course – “Squab” – inspired by Miro
(Valpolicella Classico Superiore ‘TB’ Bussola, Veneto 2006)
Another fun, performance course that started off with the waiters disinfecting our table and laying down each mouthful spoon by spoon on the table. I believe on the spoons were seared foie gras, duck breast,lavender noodle, beet jelly, strawberry, a vinaigrette of duck fat,etc. This course was inspired by a painting by the famous artist, Joan Miro, that the Chef had seen at the Tate Modern, London, which contains a spoon.
The spoons are discarded into the lavender scented pot which perfumed the whole table as the course was served.
14th course – “Anjou Pear” – onion, brie, and smoking cinnamon
(The Rare Wine Co. ‘Boston Bual’ special reserve Madeira)
This course was a sweet tempura of brie, caramelized onion, pea, served on a burning cinnamon stick. My mom loved it, I thought it was a little too sweet and heavy.
15th course – “Ginger” -five other flavors
As a Thai person I really enjoyed this nice little course since ginger is eaten to help with digestion in our culture. Each small bite has a different taste. I don’t remember which is which but I know one is white ginger, one has a cell of a grapefruit on it, and one is induced with galangal while another is actually turmeric.
16th course – “Blueberry” – buttermilk, sorrel, macadamia
(Saracco Moscato d’Asti, Piedmont 2011)
Well, who doesn’tt love a liquid nitrogen dish! Here, the waiter is poring a hot citrus tea into the center of my mom’s dish to form a slushy which tasted like a salted lemonade. On the side of the dish were all these deconstructed elements that tasted a little bit like a milder blueberry cheesecake.
17th course – “Balloon” – helium and green apple taffy
We were told of 2 ways of attacking this time-sensitive, edible balloon which were 1) to suck in the helium and enjoy the funny helium voice or 2) to be boring and use the pin to poke a hole to release the air….
of course we went with the fun way!
I had no idea that my parents never tried sucking in helium before! They, literally, laughed till they were teary-eyed as soon as my dad said “hello” is a whacky Donald Duck voice.
18th course – “White Chocolate” – strawberry, english pea, lemon, pansies
Our last course started off with the waiters asking us to lift up our wine glasses in order for them to lay down a table cloth. Afterwards a bunch of dishes were placed on our table and they left us anticipating on what’s yet to come.
A couple minutes later a young chef, whom I later learned was Matt Chasseur, Alinea’s Sous Chef, came to our table and started his performance. It was like watching a magician, or to be honest, as he sprinkled a bunch of powder and pansies from mid air onto our table, the only image I had on my mind was Mickey Mouse from the old cartoon “Fantasia” (Does anyone know what I’m talking about?)
The last act of his performance was two large white chocolate eggs, that he ever-so-abruptly broke in the middle of our table. As the chef immediately left us, pacing back to his busy kitchen, we were left sitting there wondering how to go about eating this beautiful mess on our table – the waiters just told us to dig in! And dig in we did. I could not recall all the components, and I also thought the “show” was the best part of this course. Despite not caring much for the taste (I’m a comforting chocolate cake, bread pudding kinda-gal,) I still can not get over how clever this whole dish was.