July 22, 2007

Alinea [Chicago]

Alinea can best be described as a series of carefully orchestrated surprises for each of your five senses. While the 12-course tasting menu will set you back $135 ($200 with tip, tax, and a half glass of wine) and a good four hours, it is unlike any culinary experience I’ve had yet.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to experience Alinea is without expectations. Yes, you've read the hype and you've heard the buzz about molecular gastronomy--but you've never had bacon for a palate cleanser and you've never dreamed of adding soy sauce to your dessert. So when you hear adjectives such as good, orgasmic, or weird, you're really only hearing expletives that are void of meaning. Because unless you’ve been intimately acquainted with the likes of Homaro Cantu, Heston Blumenthal, Wylie Dufresne, or Ferran Adria, you will really have no baseline with which to compare Alinea to.

Our dinner began with a quartet of test tubes filled green orbs of lime. They were placed stealthily and silently at the center of our table, but before we could catch the punch line we were brought our first course.

Course 1: Artichoke - parmesan, red pepper, basil. The Artichoke primed our palates with each of the components shouting to be heard in an exceptionally clean composition. The flavor was a nod to Mediterranean/South Italian flavors.

Course 2: Surf Clam - nasturtium, cucumber, shallot. The single-bite Surf Clam (fennel for the vegetarians) refused to give our mouths a rest with the rainbow of flavors morphing with every flick of the tongue. The nasturtium flower, cucumber, and shallot melded with the clam and all went down like a slippery oyster. To finish, we sipped the grassy nasturtium flower soup that coated our throats all the way down.

Course 3: Monkfish - banana, onion, lime // Cauliflower. Our only other seafood dish was Monkfish (vegetarian Cauliflower), prepared in a mousse, tempura, and steamed with banana and lime sauces and garnished with an onion paper. Above all, this was a lesson in texture with the creamy mousse, crunchy tempura, and silky monkfish. The banana and lime sauces cooled the dish, while the onion paper dissolved swiftly in our mouths.

Course 4: Maitake - cherry, ham, toasted garlic. The Maitake course contrasted warm and cold in Chef Grant Achatz interpretation of an ice cream sundae. The cherry ice cream was similar to a firm meringue and the sprinkling of prosciutto powder took the place of peanuts and tasted like bacon bits.

Like any good lover, Achatz means only to give you a taste of what he's got in store for the rest of night. Our first four courses were merely child's play--dishes that were fathomable and gently teased us into oral foreplay. So just when we were starting to get bored...

Course 5: Apple - horseradish, celery. We were told to throw back the shots and to open our mouths wide to take in the entire ball at once. Once inside, there was a cytoplasmic explosion of apple juice. It was strangely pleasant and slightly erotic all at once. Paying careful attention to the progression, this first eruption was gentle, easing us into the experience. Once the liquid went down, we were left with the essence of horseradish but with only a hint of its heat.

The remainder of our savory courses paid homage to the regional cuisine with a Midwest-lean towards rich, protein heavy dishes. Course 6: Duck - mango, yogurt, pillow of lavender air // Turnip. The Duck (vegetarian Turnips) was prepared in a manner befitting of pork with duck rinds, duck bacon, and pulled duck. As with the other fruit sauces, the essence of mango really shone through and for added pizazz, the whole plate was set atop a pillow of lavender air, which diffused directly into our olfactory systems.

Course 7: Short Rib - Guiness, peanut, fried broccoli. The Short Rib (vegetarian Broccoli Stem) was one of the most visually interesting dishes, with a Guinness film layered over the dish, lending it a bitter finish to the dish that was offset by the lively punch of the pink peppercorns. We had difficulty constructing focused spoonfuls.

Course 8: Black Truffle - explosion, romaine, parmesan. Though it came sans meat, the Black Truffle ravioli was no less rich. Although benign looking, the pasta membrane actually housed a robust, truffle scented broth that exploded upon contact. The single ravioli captured the soul of an entire pasta dish and would have sated any craving for Italian, no matter how small or large.

To clarify, explosions were a recurring theme throughout the night and refer to the sensation of having liquid-filled capsule burst in your mouth. Sometimes this happened without casualty and other times we got a surprising surge to the back of our throats.

Course 9: Lamb - peas, consomme, morels. Lastly came the Lamb, which was clarified into a consommé gelee and flecked with peas, lamb bits, and morels. The warm element came from a tender morsel of lamb, which sublimated on our tongues. The freeze dried peas added textural contrast while the mint, yogurt, and curry puddings allowed you to play with the flavor. Doesn't the grass-green sauce remind you of Fruit by the Foot?

Course 10: Honeydew - Blis sherry vinegar, mint // Bacon - butterscotch, apple, thyme. Our prayers were answered when an interlude came announcing the arrival of dessert. While the vegetarians got a Honeydew jelly to cleanse their palates, we were served dehydrated Bacon. With the OC Fair currently in tow, it was a stone’s throw away from a caramel apple. Served on a rocking apparatus, it was highly whimsical and an inventive way to bridge the salty to sweet transition.

Four desserts followed, with Course 11: Guava - avocado, brie, key lime juice kicking off the showcase. Like any good speech, the gimmick finally came full circle, as the limes were squeezed in their tubes and onto our plate. Building a cheese course into the avocado and brie semifreddo and brie lozenge rounded out our tasting. The meringue-like guava ice cream went beautifully with the guava soda. And to prepare us for heavier desserts, we ended with the brown sugar explosion, which was sweeter and tasted like grass jelly.

Course 12: Licorice Cake - muscovado, sugar, orange, anise was another uniquely Alinea presentation and had to be enjoyed hands-free. The crystalline sugarcicles made it difficult to navigate the cake into our mouths, though we were rewarded by a great sense of accomplishment for having completed our mission.

Course 13: Chocolate - passionfruit, lemongrass, soy. I loved the presentation of this dish, which was the black-tie formal with its crystal lemongrass ice, deep chocolate ganache, gold dusted soy-sauce marshmallows, and soy sauce gems. Everything gleamed with the sheen of jewels and the flavors, no less rich. The soy sauce was potent and though it complemented the chocolate, I couldn't get over its humbleness.

Our last and final dish was Course 14: Caramel - meyer lemon, cinnamon perfume. I will never understand how you tempura a viscous caramel and lemon, but the taste of churro reminded me of home. How many licks do you think it take to get to a center of a caramel tempura ball the size of a golf-ball? Alinea's answer is one.

Oh and did I mention the bread pairings? Four breads (coriander, honey rye, herb scone, ) with cow's milk butter churned in-house with Hawaiian black sea salt and a goat's milk butter from Quebec.

As a whole:
  • The menu was very well rounded and representative of all the major food groups.
  • The progression was extremely thoughtful, moving from light to heavy, sweet to savory, and familiar to unusual.
  • Service was attentive and quirky with each of our servers bringing their own style into the mix. Some had a fond appreciation for food, others joked, and some were almost stern.
  • Temperature was a new dimension of a tasting menu that I hadn't before encountered
  • Playful dish compositions, meticulous preparation, though some flavors are going to be more inviting to your palate than others
The staff read our minds (or eavesdropped on our conversation) and asked us if we wanted to see the kitchen at the stroke of midnight when our meal ended. The kitchen was starting to wind down, which gave Chef Chad a chance to explain to us the wax molds he was working on. No sign of Grant Achatz, but Chad was good enough eye candy for me.

In closing, Alinea is not about what you do or don’t like. It is about the appreciation of an unnamed sensation, a flavor that leaves you at a loss for words, and a culinary innovation that is only beginning to take flight in the United States. It is the technology of the early adopter and the beta version of a cuisine that is not yet commercially viable.

Some art forms are more accessible to the intellect--others, just need to be studied to be appreciated. Alinea 100 - Introduction to Molecular Gastronomy, check.

My schedule for the coming years:
Period 1 - Moto 101.
Period 2 - minibar 102.
Period 3 - WD-50 103.
- Recess -
Period 5 - Fat Duck 104.
Period 6 - El Bulli 105.

1723 N Halsted St
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 867-0110

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