Friday, March 21, 2008

A Journey to Alinea

It’s been quite a while since I’ve put anything up here. I don’t have a working camera, or even one to borrow, so I haven’t been able to blog anything.

However, this past week I was up in Chicago, and had reservations for Alinea. For those of you who don’t know about Alinea, Gourmet Magazine ranked it in 2007 as the #1 restaurant in America. Seeing that I was going to be up in Chicago, I couldn’t pass up the chance to eat at this once in a lifetime place (hopefully twice when my wallet recovers). I made reservations for three, and my two good friends Babicz and Liz accompanied me that evening to the most extravagant and wonderful meal I’ve ever beheld.
The restaurant exterior is very humble, just a simple black building, with but one doorman waiting outside to let you in.

Not only was the food amazing, and dare I say revolutionary, but the architecture and ambiance, along with wonderful wait-staff and sommeliers, made the night unforgettable to say the least.
Although a coat is required for dinner, the dress was rather casual, and not at all snobbish.

While the wait-staff certainly could have been arrogant if they chose, they were wonderfully attentive and constantly cracked jokes with us, told little anecdotes, and seemed genuinely concerned that we were having a good time, and our needs were met (actually surpassed).

The only drawback is in my wallet. The total experience cost me about $300. That’s $195 for the tour, about $40 for the glasses of wines, some tax here and there, and about $50 for tip. It was totally worth the money, but my walled is indeed lighter than before.

Thanks to Liz’s camera and picture savvy prowess, I have a photo essay of the night’s 24-course tour.
Steelhead Roe

The first dish was brought out and looked somewhat like a bug on a stick. The waiter explained that a soft center of coconut was embellished with steelhead roe, and wrapped in a lime blanket. The whole thing was wrapped around a vanilla bean, which we used as our utensil, but not before the potent and wonderful sent of vanilla from the bean wafted into our senses. Babicz exclaimed upon eating it that she had never tasted so many distinct flavors in her mouth at once, and I have to agree.


I still have no idea what they were even talking about, however this dish was explained to be the skin of boiled down soymilk that was rolled and then fried. Around the crunchy yuba, spiraled a shrimp with garnishes of chive and orange zest, all nestled in a small dish with a miso mayonnaise.


To be consumed in a single bite, this chunk of king crab was wrapped in layers of passionfruit, zucchini, and hearts of palm, along with a dollop of pureed avocado.


Salsify is a root that is cooked, and has a taste that resembles oysters. Along with the crispy fried exteriors of the salsify, came smoked salmon mousse and smoked salmon poached in olive oil. The caper and dill sauce that decorated the plate was pungent and refreshing, while the dehydrated bell pepper and red onion provided bright flavors and good textural contrast between the soft salsify, mousse, and salmon.


This one came out on huge pillows that were filled with nutmeg smoke that seeped out as you ate and filled the nose with wonderful smells. In the center was the most perfectly smooth white bean puree topped with a crispy pancetta chip and Guinness foam. Arranged around the centerpiece were various assorted garnishes that we were encouraged to mix around with each other and the beans in different combinations. This was probably my favorite dish of the night, despite its seeming simplicity. All the flavors were wonderful, and I really enjoyed the freedom and fun to mix thing around on my plate and play with the flavors.


When the waiters brought this bowl out, we were told this would be a somewhat interactive course. A forkful of duck with “Thai” flavors was organized on a fork, which sat in a bowl of butternut squash soup with intense banana foam. The dish couldn’t be set down until the forkful of duck was taken, lest the bowl fall over from imbalance and spill rich soup in our laps.


The lamb was a very complicated dish with lots of flavors. In the middle the lamb was coated in a red wine reduction, and each corner of the plate focused on a differing flavor. Enoki mushrooms in one, buttery onions and crispies in another, the stickiest candied walnut ever with lentils, and a beet pierogi. And don’t let that red sauce smear in the middle fool you, it was like getting punched in the face with red bell peppers.

Hot Potato

This one is fairly well known, and for good reason. The dish is presented in a bowl with a pin that contains a ninja looking appendage. The pin is slid out of a wax cup containing a cold potato soup, which dunks the hot potato ball with the truffled ninja hat into the soup and the whole thing is taken like a shot.

Pork Belly

A wonderful combination of pork belly atop polenta with pickled vegetables under a blanket of smoked paprika, which the waiter described as a sort of “bbq sauce.” This was excellent.

Chicken Skin

The one dish that I really didn’t care for. I was expecting more of a fried chicken sort of texture, but the the chicken skin tasted mostly of corn meal.


Soy and mango combined to create a casing/shell, which was filled with foie gras. The mango shell provided an excellent contrast to the thick, rich and creamy interior. However, my one complaint was that the foie gras was too salty.

Caramel Corn

This was one of the neatest things we ate/drank all night. Out waiter asked us reminisce on cracker jacks while this was in front of us. Surprisingly, the liquefied caramel corn tasted EXACTLY like caramel popcorn. Most intriguing.


The cranberry on the plate was frozen with bitter orange compliments and a hint of chervil atop. Very cold and tart, it melted on the palette, creating almost a numbing sensation on the roof of my mouth. I can only hope they used liquid nitrogen in this preparation. Think high-tech sorbet.

Ice Fish

The serpentine fish dish was molded in the wake of a line of horseradish. While Babicz found the horseradish to be overwhelming, I (loving horseradish) also loved this dish. As it snaked across the plate, it dipped into pools of asparagus, lined with shellfish chips and garnished with parsley.

Apple Cider

The first of the truly bizarre/unique culinary sensations in our palate, a ball was presented in a shot class, filled with walnut milk. We were instructed to take the entire shot at once, and close our mouths immediately, lest we end up with the contents of our shot class all over ourselves. The small ball, upon light pressure, bursts in the mouth releasing heady apple liquid. The richness of the walnut milk went great with the clean apple cider afterwards.

Wagyu Beef

The famed “Kobe” or more politically correct (as we were informed) Wagyu beef, came buried in heated cedar, releasing an intense pine aroma. The cube of perfectly cooked beef was uncovered like treasure from under our steaming foliage to be devoured. Afterwards, the waiter casually added, “you didn’t finish your salad?”

Black Truffle

While the presentation was quaint and pretty, the black truffle in this ravioli was rather over powering. If you’ve never had truffle, this will certainly let you in on the secret as to its taste.


This was another fun and playful dish that combined sweetbreads with cauliflower. The fried cauliflowers adorning the various bits and pieces were conceivably they crunchiest things on the planet. The swimming pool in the middle was made of toasted hay (for horses?) and accompanied by “burnt sauce.” Now hay is rather strange, but burnt sauce? It was quite peculiar, because our waiters warned us that if we tried the black dots by themselves, they would simply taste like burnt (and they did). The magic was their combination with the other elements on the plate, creating complexities akin to toast, and caramelization.


This was one of the most fun dishes of the night. A moving ensemble, raspberry reduction was dusted with dehydrated yogurt powder, and adorned with rose petals. The crispy glass pieces moved back and forth on our table until we couldn’t resist any longer and stopped their pendulum motion to break them into millions of pieces.


Another deliciously fun course, which merged bacon with butterscotch, twisted apply twine, and thyme. These flavors all melt beautifully, and the trapeze afterwards was so much fun to tinker with.


One of the first “desert” or sweet courses, the center focused persimmon, and carrot, with a blob of ginger liquid. Off to the side was a curry with complimented the dish nicely, and cleansed the palate from the sweetness of the persimmon. This dish reminds me of a apple crisp with a persimmon spin. As for the ginger ball, once again, the delicate skin holding the liquid contents burst in mouth, gushing spicy ginger liquid all over the palate. The finishing kick here, was a sailboat looking winter spice “Listerine strip,” which we slipped off its mast and dissolved on the roof our mouth. I wish I could freshen my breath with these everyday.

Licorice Cake

A truly hands free dining experience, we were asked to lean forward and bite a licorice cake, with orange and hyssop, covered in muscovado spun sugar from a wire. The licorice flavor was deep but not overpowering, while the spun sugar cracked and crunched heavily in our jaws.


This had to be the messiest, and most playful dish all evening. We were persuaded to break the chocolate coated “cake,” which contained a liquefied brioche, and a chocolate covered egg yolk, into a pomelo pool and mix it up with gellified smoke. The flavors were peculiar, and unique. This dish was very original, and pushed the boundaries of what I would consider “desert.”


Finally, we ended the night with some coffee. Colloidal coffee, five ways that is. Each cube of gellied coffee was adorned with different flavors. First, saffron, followed by sassafras, Chinese almond, red chile, and some other I forgot. Maybe lavender? You decide. Or better yet, go to Alinea, and experience it yourself!