It’s been over a fortnight since we were in Chicago dining at Alinea, Grant Achatz’s cutting-edge restaurant and current 10th best restaurant in the world. Achatz cut his teeth in French Laundry, working up to sous chef before departing to be executive chef of Trio. In 2005 he set out on his own with Alinea which has steadily been building a reputation of being one of the top dining destinations in the world. Having heard so much of Achatz’s culinary prowess, we were naturally excited to finally experience it for ourselves.
We arrived at the restaurant on a Friday evening and were greeted by a doorman, guarding the unmarked entrance like a bouncer outside a club. He opened the looming grey metal doors and we found ourselves in a corridor leading to automatic doors which slid open to reveal diners to our left and the kitchen on our right. A flight of stairs directly in front led us to our seat upstairs in a quiet corner of the restaurant with two other tables (a party of six and another party of two).
The efficient (if somewhat formal) wait staff set to work sorting us out with water and wine – we chose to go with the sommelier’s wine program for the tasting menu (B’s tasting notes for the wines we sampled that evening can be found at the end of this post). Having been asked our preference of menu prior to our arrival (there was no question we would have anything but the longer of the two options) the 20 course meal began smoothly – with a champagne cocktail. Actually cocktail is a bit misleading, it’s really just Henriot Brut with a touch of akvavit, chartreuse and orange curacao. It was very subtle and akin to drinking a glass of champagne with citrusy notes.
To pair with the cocktail was Osetra Caviar served on whipped crème fraîche, gelée with distilled flavours of red onion, dill and capers, and a toasted brioche foam. The intention of the kitchen was to remove all textures from the traditional garnishes and let the caviar be the star. Unfortunately it actually did the opposite – the lack of texture resulted in all the elements melding into one so the caviar didn’t stand out as it should. The dish was also far too heavy on the dill which overpowered the delicate caviar, a milder herb such as chives (which in fact is the more common herb paired with caviar) would have been ideal.
Next was Pork Belly on steamed romaine lettuce, cucumber and its juice, avocado purée, coconut curry, tomato seeds, garlic chips and a spicy red bell pepper pudding. Served alongside was a clear shot of “thai distillation”, an essence of thai flavours including (from what we could tell) cucumber, fish sauce, lemongrass, galangal and lime. The pork was well-spiced and meltingly tender. The dish had a “bread pairing” of cilantro lime roll with goats milk and sweet cow butters which was ok but not really necessary.
After a palate cleanser of juniper berry and cucumber gelée with oxalis pod (yellow wood sorrel) came an exquisite plate of mussels, clams and scallops with floating lilac pillows, honeydew melon and celery, horseradish gelée and honeydew foam. The shellfish was perfectly cooked, the sweet scallops were lightly poached and almost raw, the cream light and enhanced by the fragrant honeydew. My idea of food heaven!
When we were done savouring the seafood our waiter cleared our plates and replaced our empty glass with a 1909 crystal chalice. The reason for the choice of glassware became apparent when our next course was placed in front of us – a classical dish of Pigeonneau à la Saint Clair, added to the menu to show Atchatz’s ability to serve a 100-year-old recipe along progressive dishes. The Squab, Foie Gras, shitake and red onion onion tart served with perigord black truffle and madeira sauce was executed superbly, the squab pink and the pastry flaky and buttery. How well the rich and rather substantial dish sat against the other modern, lighter offerings on the menu however is debatable.
The next course waiting to delight us was a Black Truffle explosion – a paper thin ravioli filled with parmesan and perigord truffle emulsion that bursts satisfyingly in the mouth. While we were still enjoying the divine little mouthful, a large platter of smouldering tomato vines atop hot rocks was placed in front of us.
This “tomato herb garden” was to envelope us with the smells of ripening tomatoes and prepare us for the next course – a Tomato and Fig salad with a sheet of nicoise, olives, fermented garlic and olive oil snow. Although I loved the creativity of the herb garden and the lovely aromas it surrounded us with, I did not like the dish that it paved the way for as much. The flavours didn’t come together for me and I found the olive oil snow odd in taste and texture, and the fermented garlic overwhelmingly salty.
The next dish was beautifully presented in a covered cake stand filled with cedar smoke which unfortunately they opened and whisked off so swiftly that I didn’t manage to capture on film. The trio of small bites included a Passionfruit Sorbet with Mustard Ice cream, smoky Dates and Molasses with Corn Cream and a strip of Bacon coated with Butterscotch. Pleasant but nothing mind-blowing.
The following course however was outstanding (apologies for the photo which does not do it justice!) – hot yukon gold potato topped with black truffle and cold potato soup. It was served in a custom made wax paraffin bowl and the hot potato sphere (together with a chive, butter cube and parmesan cube) was skewered on a tiny pin that stuck into the side of the bowl. We were told to pull on the pin, letting the items drop into the soup, then take it all down as a shot. The Gulf Mexico prawn (rolled with dried rolled yuba skin, white and black sesame, togarashi with miso sauce) that followed was not quite as successful – tasty but dry.
The kitchen was back on form with the next course of cured and confit Foie Gras, with fennel, pickled peach, shiso, peach juice and shiso foam. All taken in one bite it was a harmonious marriage of flavour and texture profiles.
The Alaskan King Crab that followed wasn’t as good, with elements of lychee, carrot, ginger and duck it strangely tasted like Chinese barbecue pork (char siu) and none of the crab’s delicate sweetness was allowed to shine through.
Having made it through 14 courses, we came to the end of the savoury courses with a Wagyu Beef served with a potato custard coated in salt and vinegar potato crisps, powdered ‘A1’ (anchovy, raisin, tamarind and clove), salt and pepper. It was a fun take on steak and chips, enhanced by the “weber grill aromatic” (the smoke you see behind the dish). A plain roll was the second (and last) “bread pairing” of the meal – this pairing, like the other, was rather superfluous.
The desserts commenced with three small palate cleansers. A nice one bite lemon soda (a lime shell encasing lemon sherbet), a tube of Hibiscus jelly, Crème fraîche and Bubblegum tapioca and a Raspberry crispfilm (similar to a fruit roll-up). All light and fruity, they made a good introduction to the sweet courses.
A Goats Milk Cheesecake served on a large linen pillow filled with lavender air arrived next. As you eat the plate sinks, releasing wafts of lavender. The cheesecake, presented with onion cotton candy, rhubarb sorbet and and dried rhubarb, was pleasant and the lavender pillow was interesting but didn’t add much to it. Once we had finished that dessert the waiters cleared our plates as well as all our wine and water glasses. A large grey rubber sheet was placed like a tablecloth over our table – whatever that was to come next, we knew would be pretty spectacular.
We waited in anticipation and finally one of the pastry chefs approached our table armed with a collection of containers and began to literally create a work of art with the contents in front of us. A splash of tobacco infused cream, a scattering of pickled blueberries and freeze-dried milk chocolate, a few splodges of blueberry jelly, a drizzle of blueberry sauce, a sprinkling of of frosted walnuts and freeze-dried blueberries.
He talked us through each ingredient as he built his masterpiece, finishing with a few blobs of maple syrup spheres, a generous amount of malt ice cream and frozen chocolate mousse (that created a ethereal mist), and a final dusting of walnut crumbs and fresh thyme. When he was done it looked so pretty we didn’t know where to dig in.
Once we started though we could not stop, every spoonful was a revelation, from the glorious maple syrup spheres that explode with glee to the light-as-air frozen mousse that slowly changed to a denser mousse as it lay on the table. It was a real symphony of tastes and colours, engaging all the senses.
The meal should have ended there (with a bang), instead there was a final offering of frozen Strawberry pound cake with vanilla bean and powdered almond oil which although perfectly respectable was never going to compare to the fanfare that came before it. After coffees we were well-fed and ready for bed so the waiter called us a cab and led us downstairs for a tour of the kitchen while we wait. Not really so much a tour as a glance into the kitchen without actually stepping in, while having a rather awkward conversation with the disinterested manager. We were relieved when our taxi eventually arrived.
We had mixed feelings about Alinea – from the overly formal service to the, at times, underwhelming food, we couldn’t help but feel like we weren’t getting the best that Alinea has to offer. Don’t get me wrong, we thoroughly enjoyed the experience and Achatz is undeniably a real master of progressive cuisine, but having heard such rave reviews we had very high expectations which weren’t quite met with this visit to the restaurant.
B’s wine notes:
1. Abbazia di Novacella Kerner, Valle Isarco, Alto Adige 2007 – Unusual nose with elderflower notes but also varnish-type scents. Palate shows great balance, more elderflower, limes and a good acidity. Very food friendly wine.
2. Albert Mann ‘Vieilles Vignes’ Auxerrois, Alsace 2007 – Sweet floral bouquet with grapefruit and lemons coming through on the palate. Soft acidity and residual sugar notable on the finish.
3. Chateau Pape-Clement, Pessac-Leognan 2003 – Smells of violets and black fruit. Rounded and very soft tannins with good length and structure and more dark fruit. Much more approachable than expected and we enjoyed this.
4. Feudo Maccari ‘Saia’ Nero D’Avola, Sicily 2006 – Dark cherries and hints of smoke on the nose. Ripe fruit comes through on palate with faint coffee note. High acidity. Coming back to it ten minutes later, coffee element is more prominent together with cocoa, caramel and spice.
5. Bruno Paillard ‘Premiere Cuvee’ Brut Rose, Reims – Strawberry on nose and palate. Good acidity and medium length. Also get yeasty/biscuity secondary notes.
6. Couly-Dutheil ‘Les Chanteaux’ Chinon Blanc, Loire 2007 – Elderflower here again on the nose, but palate is very fresh and clean with a gentle greenness like mellow gooseberries. Elegant with a long finish.
7. Araujo ‘Eisele Vineyard’ Syrah, Napa Valley 2005 – Blackcurrant, deep nose. Black fruits on palate with prominent acidity and rounded tannins. Slight sourness initially which leaves it slightly imbalanced. Finish lingers with tobacco and herbaceous notes. Coming back to it ten minutes later, shows a more balanced and cohesive wine.
8. Elio Perrone ‘Bigaro’, Piedmont 2008 – Delicate strawberries, raspberries and guava comes through. Very light and refreshing yet fragrant. Finish that lingers. Found this very pleasant.
9. Smith-Woodhouse 1994 Vintage Port – Quite rich and voluptuous with some caramel and toffee flavours and a bit of spice. Very good finish.
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