Monday, April 18, 2011

Alinea - A Truly Memorable Experience (Chicago, IL)


I think for most people, vacations are meant for relaxation and to check out the local attractions, while food planning might be secondary at best. However, for me, finding the right restaurants always comes first, and everything else can take shape once I get there. As for my meal at Alinea, this was my sole reason to be in Chicago. Though, I'd learn later on, Chicago has some awesome sights and sounds, and a ton of great food to boot.

I was asked by Bonnibella if I would be interested in joining her in Chicago and to dine at Alinea. I couldn't possibly say yes, right? I mean, a trip to Chicago just for food? After thinking it over, it really wasn't such a crazy idea. Alinea was THE restaurant for me to try in the United States, plus I was in dire need of a vacation, so Hellz to the Yes, I was down.

Entrance to the dining room of Alinea

An unique entrance. It's my pathway to "The Tour." The Tour is the now extinct 26 course tasting menu Alinea once offered. I was lucky enough to try it on its last month being offered on the menu. While I normally don't do the wine pairing offered, I've heard great things about the pairing here, so I added that to my tasting menu. I'll note the wine pairing during the courses below.

Table Ornament

Is this a table ornament? I will soon find out.

English Pea
English Pea
1. English Pea - iberico, sherry, honeydew
(Paired with Szigeti "Cuvee Prestige" with Qhilika, elderflower, and Peychaud's)

It was cold, sweet, savory, meaty, and creamy all in one bite. What a great start!

2. Lobster - lychee, gruyere, vanilla fragrance

Think of this as a high class lobster tempura. I loved the creaminess of the gruyere cheese and the vanilla accent from the vanilla bean.

3. Yuba - shrimp, miso, togarashi

Fried shrimp and tofu skin (yuba), it reminded me the most of something you'll see at dim sum, but much more refined, of course. The sauce of miso and the Japanese 7 spice (togarashi) added a nice zip to the course.

Chao Tom
4. Chao Tom - sugar cane, shrimp, mint

The next course was simply a piece of sugar cane, infused with the flavors of Vietnam and Thailand. The word simply probably was used too loosely by me as I was amazed they were able to get so much complex flavors out of one piece of sugar cane. You had to chew it, take in the flavors, and spit it out in a napkin provided.

5. Distillation - of Thai flavors

This glass wasn't part of my wine pairing. It was the next course. The "shot" of clear liquid had quite a multitude of flavors used in Thai cuisine. Lemongrass, peppers, etc. I've seen the course on other blogs, but it was still surprising once I had it for myself.

Pork Belly
Pork Belly
Pork Belly
6. Pork Belly - curry cucumber, lime
(Paired with Abbazia di Novacella Kerner, Valle Isarco, Alto Adige 2008)

Remember that "table ornament" from earlier? Well, that was actually rice paper for wrapping the piping hot pork belly served tableside. The toppings included things like basil seeds, onions, lime, hot sauce, cashews, and a few other things. This course was slightly messy as it's more of a DIY course, but I loved every bite of it. Of course, a wet towel was provided post course. I loved this course!

King Crab
7. King Crab - rhubarb, lilac, fennel
(Paired with Paul Blanck Pinot Gris "Classique," Alsace 2008)

I was a bit confused at first with this course was served on such a large oval looking bowl. In addition, the top was ice cold, while the bottom was steaming hot. Something must be up.....

King Crab
7a. Crab Gelatin

First, we were presented with a refreshing and delicious crab gelatin. The flavors and texture were both on point. The flavors of the basil on the bottom was quite nice.

King Crab
7b. King Crab, avocado, rhubarb

The server revealed the next layer, a nice piece of king crab meat, fried avocado to give it a creamy component, and finally, rhubarb for a tart flavor. The flavors worked quite well. Delicious.

King Crab
7c. King Crab Brulee

The final course was revealed and it was my favorite of the trio. It was a crab dumpling in a brulee form. Served piping hot. The only regret was that I didn't get a bigger bowl of this stuff. It was probably one of my favorite, if not THE favorite course of the night.

8. Octopus - red wine, lavender, fava bean

Tender octopus, great flavors, no complaints from me. And a big thanks for the server who I used as a hand model.

9. Lamb - reflection of elysian fields farm
(Paired with Larkin Wines "Jack Larkin" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2005)

I wish I had a better shot of this dish, my fault. What Chef Achatz was trying to do was to imitate the actual Elysian Fields Farm. The green was to represent the grass, the sauce on the bottom was meant to represent the river and so on. In terms of the flavors of the lamb, it was fantastic. It was a great touch to have all parts of the lamb used, creating a fantastic dish, covering the flavors and the looks.

Hot Potato
10. Hot Potato - cold potato, black truffle, butter

The hot potato, cold potato dish has become one of Chef Achatz's staple dishes during the tasting at Alinea. The server told us this was a time sensitive dish, so with the pull of the pin, the butter, truffle, and the hot potato were dropped into the cold potato "soup" in the wax bowl. The temperature contrast of the potatoes was perfect. You'd get a slight burn from the hot potato, while the cold potato broth covers that heat pretty quickly. The added butter and truffle added a nice buttery and woodsy flavor to the dish. It's definitely one of my favorites of the evening.

11. Malt - english toffee, bourbon country stout, blueberry
(Paired with Vinhos Barbeito/Rare Wine Co. "Charleston Sercial" Reserve Madeira)

When presented with this dish, I was thinking the kitchen had made a mistake. Are we on our dessert courses already? Maybe this was an Intermission to the next set of savories, but the combination of textures and flavors of this was quite nice.

12. Bacon - butterscotch, apple, thyme

Another one of Chef Achatz's staples, the bacon on wires. Now, can anything go wrong with bacon? I don't think so!

13. Nutella - bread banana, chocolate

This one tastes like nutella with a hint of banana. I liked the texture, but overall, it wasn't one of my favorites.

14. Corn - crunchy, sweet, salty

This one was a one biter. I could use a bag of this stuff.

Surf Clam
15. Surf Clam - celery, tabasco, oyster cracker
(Paired with L. Aubry Fils Brut, Jouy-Les-Reims)

We were told this was Chef Achatz's deconstruction of the classic New England Clam Chowder. Though, it's presented with the "sand," "water," and other components of a beach. The flavors were striking eerie of a bowl of clam chowder, and everything on the clam shell were edible.

Oxalis Pod
Oxalis Pod
16. Oxalis Pod - whipped sorrel, honey, salt

Next, another one biter. Here we have whipped sorrel, which is actually a bit fruity and tart, combined with the sweet and salty flavors from the honey and salt. It's definitely an interesting combination.

17. Salad - ranch dressing, soup, powdered
(Paired with Nicodemi Trebbiano d'Abruzzo, Italy 2008)

Next up, salad. Probably not the most exciting dish since it was mainly vegetables and powered ranch dressing, until......the bottom of the dish revealed a slightly chilled, though rich and creamy soup. It's the perfect combination of soup and salad. I was surprised the ranch soup actually tasted this good.

18. Sardine - horseradish, pepper cress, tomato

Look Ma, no hands! As you can tell from the pictures, this was a hands free course. It was definitely a fun and tasty course, though I had to make sure I don't stab myself with the contraption.

19. Squab - charred strawberries, lettuce, birch log
(Paired with Domaine des Remizieres Hermitage "Cuvee Emilie," N. Rhone 2004)

First, I loved the way it's presented. We were served the squab on a heated birch log, which gave off a great scent while I was consuming the dish. The overall taste, looks, was truly wonderful. I wish my pictures were better, as that was one delicious cooked piece of squab! This was definitely was one of my favorites.

Black Truffle
Black Truffle
20. Black Truffle - explosion, romaine, parmean

Can I say, OMG? Wow! The bottom of this dish was hollow, and we were instructed to take this down in one bite as well. The liquefied truffle center was truly something. I can see why this is one of Chef Achatz's signature dishes. I hope this dish remained on the menu for my hopeful return to Alinea.

21. Tournedo - a la persane
(Paired with Anima Negra "An," Mallorca, Spain 2004)

As what the name states, this piece of steak was from  the leanest part of the tenderloin. In this case, the tenderloin was from an Australian Wagyu beef. This was our last savory course of the evening and what a way to end it with some wagyu beef.

Lemon Soda
22. Lemon Soda - one bite

I likened this course to be more of a subtle version of Pop Rocks. It was tart and bubbly, a perfect palate cleanser.

23. Transparency - of raspberry, yogurt
(Paired with Elio Perrone "Bigaro," Piemonte 2009)

One thing I've yet mentioned was my wine pairing throughout this meal. The wine selections by our Sommelier (who was from South Pasadena and worked previously at French Laundry) was wonderful, but this pairing in particular was my favorite of the night. The sparkling rose was fruity and delicious, which meshed well with this course. In fact, it was too pretty to be eaten at first. It was definitely aesthetically pleasing.

Bubble Gum
24. Bubble Gum - long pepper, hibiscus, creme fraiche

This definitely tasted like bubble gum. I don't know the combination of hibiscus, tapioca, creme fraiche, and long pepper could produce such a flavor, but it worked!

Earl Grey
Earl Grey
25. Earl Grey - lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate
(Paired with De Bortoli "Noble One," New South Wales, Australia 2006)

First, the course was served upon a pillow that was inflated with a vanilla scent which deflated during the course of the dessert while giving off a pleasant vanilla scent. The chocolate and lemon flavors surprisingly worked well together, but the best part of the dish was the varying textures on the plate.

26. Chocolate - coconut, menthol, hyssop
(Paired with Ferreira "Duque de Braganca," 20 year Tawny Port)

At this point, we've reached the last course of the meal. Our table was covered with a special (rubber material I believe) table cloth, and by our surprise, Chef Grant Achatz personally made our dessert tableside. You can check out the video shot by Bonnibella below:

First, we were definitely surprised to see him make this for us tableside since he didn't come out for any of the surrounding tables. Also, we were told this was meant to serve four people, so they knew we had some hearty appetite. Overall, I enjoyed the textures, flavors, temperature contrast of this dessert. I was slightly surprised with the liberal use of coconut milk and the menthol. The menthol and chocolate mix was reminded me of a strong version of an Andes chocolate bar.


Did we finish? Do you really have to ask?

So what do I really think of this meal? Now, I'm not one that believes in a life altering meal, but if I did, this would definitely be one of them. Alinea for me lived up to all the hype, to all the blog posts I've read over time, my main reason visiting Chicago, and then some. This was definitely a memorable meal. From the start, the food was excellent, and fun. The service was beyond exceptional (Thanks for the signed menus and the last dessert course BTW), the courses were well paced, the wine pairing was lovely (a must for anyone visiting Alinea), it was truly a great experience for me. Now, I'd never thought there would be a meal that's better than my experience at Urasawa, but if that was tops, then Alinea would easily be an 1a. for me. You may have guessed, but I'm already planning for a return trip to Chicago, and you can bet Alinea (along with Grant Achatz's newest ventures of Next and Aviary) will be atop my dining agenda. I can see why this is the #1 ranked restaurant in North America. Easily, it was the best meal for me in 2010.

Thanks again to my dining partner in crime, Bonnibella, and of course, for setting this experience up for me.

To end it post, I want to share this video of Alinea:

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


Pandalicious said...

wow, everything looks like art! awesome post!

Ravenous Couple said...

simply stunning.

Bonnibella said...

Finally!! Good write up. I love to read what you were experiencing at the same meal, and how different our pictures looked too. I definitely agree it was the best meal of 2010!

Too bad we didn't make Schwa or Avenues too.

I get to relive the meal when I read your post.

joanh said...

wow! so unique. awesome pics and post

H. C. said...

If there was ever a trip to schedule around a restaurant; Alinea in Chicago would be one of them.

KrisDub said...


weezermonkey said...

A fucking dream, my friend! Sigh.

Anna A. said...

Truly incredible! I hope one day to visit Alinea. Thanks for sharing your experience Danny (next time take me with you, ahem...)

Darin said...

Epic. Man, after eating at Alinea, what's "Next"?

Pun intended.

Gastronomer said...

Woot woot! I hope to dine at Alinea again next year when I visit a friend in Chicago. Squeeeeee!

So cool that the Chef made your dessert tableside :-)

Gaetano said...

Great job reporting and photographing this feast. There are remarkable flavor combinations with every bite! Does the tasty parade of dishes with surprises and inventions ever get old?

gourmetpigs said...

He came out for my dessert too but I had just read his blogpost about people taking photos of staff without permission so I refrained.

I see quite a few familiar dishes but definitely a lot of new ones :) Thinking about going back here but I may end up trying something new, like Schwa.

Kung Food Panda said...

Amy: It really was. A truly epic meal. If you make it out to Chicago, you really have to consider eating there.

Hong: Thanks!

Bonni: Thanks, I was reliving the meal while editing the pics, and writing about it. I definitely need to go back again, along with his 2 other projects. I'm bummed about Schwa and Avenues, but I guess there's always next time.

Joan: Thanks. It's truly amazing

HC: You got it correct sir! :)

Kristen: Haha, thanks!

Kung Food Panda said...

WM: Are you going to go there next time?

Anna: Haha, I'm going again next year!

Darin: I'll save that place for my NEXT trip! :)

Cathy: It was a great experience indeed!

Gaetano: Thanks. I don't think it'll ever get old.

Fiona: We definitely had some of the same dishes. I don't think I could pass up on Alinea when I'm in Chicago.

bagnatic said...

wow, chicago. this post gets me thinking danny....i LOVE your pics for this one. great job!

Pinoy Panda said...

I, one day, will definately dine at Alinea. The pictures look absolutely fantastic. I can just imagine the wonderful flavors of each of the dishes.

Kung Food Panda said...

Amy: Thanks sis! :)

Remil: Next year? :)