Saturday, August 23, 2008

ALINEA, Chicago, IL

POST #50!!!

It's fitting that on our 50th post of our blog, we remember one of the most spectacular culinary experiences we've ever had. Of all the highly rated restaurants in Chicago, we chose Alinea because we expected a truly unique dining experience. Chef/Owner Grant Achatz, a former sous chef for Thomas Keller at French Laundry, is known for his creative flavor combinations and unique plating techniques. At Alinea, his work has been described as a hypermodern and emotional approach to dining. You'll find words like "study" and "tribute" and "deconstructed" to describe a unique take on some traditional dishes.

However they are described, each of the 15 (yes, FIFTEEN) courses below was itself an event to be remembered. Confident in their extraordinary work, the folks at Alinea left us with the menu you see here (with each course listed with our chosen wine pairings) as a souvenir of our 2.5 hour dinner. The significance of the circles is two-fold: The larger the circle, the larger the portion of that particular course; and circles placed further left indicate a sweeter course, while those leaning right represent savory dishes. Click on the menu for a closer look. Also be sure to read our titles and descriptions of the dishes in detail, as it’s impossible to grasp all of the interesting ingredients just by the photo alone. PS - flash photography wasn’t allowed, so we apologize for the quality of some of these photos.

steelhead roe, smoked salmon gelee, peeled grape,
encapsulated celery juice, lemon foam
This first dish delivered more memorable textures than flavors, which, in retrospect, was likely intended. The chilled, peeled grapes melted in our mouths, the roe literally popped with each bite, and the encapsulated celery juice exploded. The lemon foam and gelee, instead, provided a coating of flavor.

tomato water gelee, frozen mozzarella foam, basil sorbet,
dehydrated tomato, tomato breadcrumbs, olive oil vinaigrette
The classic caprese salad flavors were instantly recognizable, but once again, it was the unique textures (and in this case, temperatures) that made it a stand-out dish. The highlights were the flavorful dehydrated tomato and basil sorbet, which provided a nice contrast to the frozen mozzarella foam.

Red mullet, artichoke cube dusted in dehydrated provincial vegetables,
crispy garlic, bottarga (cured fish roe), arugula puree,
dehydrated olive oil, egg yolk

The creamy, rich artichoke cube was the highlight of this dish, although the delicate red mullet and accompanying Mediterranean flavors also melded together nicely.

Alaskan king crab, popcorn puree, self-encapsulated butter,
baby corn dusted in curry, mango puree, chanterelle,
white cheddar, crispy onion

This course featured three small creations each with two common elements: crab and butter. The close up of our favorite shows the ready-to-burst self-encapsulated butter on the left (a popular technique at Alinea) along with crab, popcorn puree, chanterelle, and corn. What you don't see is the curry flavor which was the real highlight.

Japanese Wagyu ribeye, maitake mushroom, smoked medjool date puree,
Blis Elixir (aged Sherry vinaigrette with Wagyu beef fat)

Early in the meal, the two slices of Wagyu beef above were placed on our table as an “edible centerpiece”. Initially, due to the fact that they were chilled with liquid nitrogen, it was a challenge to figure out what this surprise really was. When the meat finally thawed, each sliver was draped over a delicious maitake mushroom, which was further flavored by the sweet date puree and an amazingly potent Wagyu beef fat vinaigrette. Understandably, this was one of our favorite dishes of the night.

shoestring potato nest, trio of potatoes, sunflower seed puree,
sweet spice gastrique, braised sunflower seeds, petals

Although the lamb was cooked and seasoned perfectly, what really made this dish unique was the use of pureed and braised sunflower seeds. The nuttiness and creaminess of the seeds went very well with the sweet-spiced lamb. The colorful potatoes, petals, and vertical nest added a nice visual element.

cold potato, potato and truffle soup, black truffle, Parmigiano-Reggiano, chive
Our instructions were these: Grasp the pin from beneath the bowl and pull until the potato, truffle and its companions fall into the mini-soup. Then, enjoy the shot of flavor all at once. The truffle easily dominated the collection of flavors, followed by the creaminess provided by the cheese and potatoes.

Black truffle ravioli, white truffle, romaine, parmesan
A simpler mechanism than the previous course, this dish was prepared for consumption on its own spoon, ready to explode in one's mouth. Two explosions of truffle flavors in a row - the sign of a spectacuar restaurant.

foie gras, mole, tortilla foam, raisin custard, salsa verde,
nuts and seeds dusted with powdered foie gras fat

One of the highlights of the night, this dish was an utter explosion of flavors and textures. It is truly impossible to describe – just read the description and try and imagine each component of the dish, all blending together on your to tongue in glorious harmony. An absolute sensory culinary experience.

liquid rhubarb, ginger, basil
Our server thankfully advised us to consume the whole thing in one shot and keep our mouth closed to avoid any excess liquid rhubarb dribbling down our chin as it burst. With the addition of basil and ginger, this was an extremely potent dish.

applewood smoked, butterscotch, apple, thyme
We’re all for interesting plating, but this was a bit extreme. Sure, it was cool to have bacon suspended in the air, but we would rather have 2 pieces of the yummy bacon on a plate rather than 1 on a fancy metal contraption. If it was meant to be artsy or symbolical, it was definitely lost on us.

fresh coriander, lime, tamari, bonito, wasabi

No restaurant is 100% perfect and this was definitely Alinea’s weakest link. Watermelon, cilantro, bonito, and wasabi? It just didn’t work for us. It was also suspended in the air on a metal skewer, which although visually fun, did nothing to make it taste better.

sorrel ice cream, frozen Greek yogurt, creamed whipped honey,
chamomile pudding, fennel shortbread and poppy seed crumbs
This confused us. Even now, months later, we still can’t decide how we feel about the flavors. We’ve never had a dish centered around sorrel before, so we aren’t sure what it’s supposed to taste like. There definitely were some good flavors, such as the creamed whipped honey, fennel shortbread, and chamomile pudding – but if we took a bite without all of the sweeter elements, it was a tad bitter.

toasted wheat soaked in milk, almond ice cream,
apricot and chervil purees, caramel sauce, toasted almonds
Spying the words "whole wheat" associated with a dessert on this menu was certainly discouraging. It implies healthy, bland, dry - everything a dessert should NOT be. Then arrives this creative bowl full of creamy flavor. Two servings each would have been welcomed.

custard, cherry, thyme, wrapped in cashew sugar, Tahitian vanilla fragrance

Apparently Alinea’s version of a petit four was this bite - a fragrant Tahitian vanilla been coated with custard and cherries, all wrapped in a blanket of hardened cashew sugar. It was good, but didn’t come close to the above dessert.

As we were leaving, we were also presented with a goodie bag of lemon Madelines for breakfast the next day, thereby extending our fantastic meal. Alinea certainly was the most creative and interesting meal we have experienced to date (and the most expensive), but totally worth it.

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