Wednesday, July 22, 2009
alinea, chicago, july 18 (part 1)
in the past i have gone to awkward pains to not rank a restaurant or meal as the best i have had. i've done posts like this for almost 60 restaurants over the past five years, and i have never said that "this is the best restaurant i have been too." certainly, at the time, it could have been true. several times. and it almost hurt me to not say it after the french laundry, but i couldn't stop dollar-cost averaging that experience, even as good as it was.
and on top of that unofficial policy, i was initially less than interested in alinea for a number of reasons. it made me roll my eyes that a restaurant was being called the best in chicago -- and maybe the best in the country -- before it opened. and i wasn't sure i bought into the whole science project as dinner concept, whatever tags you may or may not want to attach to that style.
that said, i went. and having gone, i have trouble foreseeing ever having a better meal. it was mind bending in its quality and presentation.
i thought that the style would overwhelm the substance. there is a lot of attention paid to new tools and processes, and things i have heard about other practitioners made me wonder if it was too stunt food-y. but i was amazed at how each of the courses -- 24 of them, yes, 24 -- were as familiar as they were surprising. there might have been a texture or a temperature that you didn't expect, but at the end of the course, the carrot tasted like carrot. and if a trick was played on your mind on the way to you eating the carrot, what is the harm in that? and, it was kind of fun to ultimately be surprised that the carrot tasted like a carrot. there is no reason that should surprise you. and that is part of the fun.
the evening started with us getting there a little early. and since our reservation was for the same time it opens, that meant we stood outside the restaurant for about 20 minutes. that gave us a chance to take photos ... in front of the completely nondescript building across from the steppenwolf theater in lincoln park. seriously, a townhouse with an all-black facade, and until they put out the sandwich board for valet parking, there was nothing suggesting you were standing in front of the restaurant that gourmet magazine says is the best in the country.
a few minutes before 5, the door opens, and you are led down a hallway that looks as if it is getting smaller and smaller, and when you get to a point that it looks like you are at a dead end, a door wooshes open and unveils the entrance to the dining areas. we were taken upstairs to a round table in the front room, and upon sitting, jeremy said that this must be how it works when the trilateral commission sits down to determine the fate of the world. he's probably right.
there was no menu-looking to be done. there are only two choices: regular menu, which is about 12 courses, or the tour, which is 24. we had told them when we made the reservation that we were doing the tour, so it was just a matter of waiting for the good to start coming.
before it did, though, our waiter placed an oblong black vase at the center of the table (pictured above). there was nothing in it -- or at least, coming out of it -- and the only explanation was that it "was for later."
and then there was a small pillow placed in front of each of us. this was where our silverware would be placed before each course. at least, before courses that required silverware. more on that later.
a suggestion was made at the table that we not declare a favorite course. but for the purposes of this blog, and because the fact that there were 24 -- 24!! -- courses i am going to declare my top 10 dishes in a future post. i invite becky, jeremy, alan and mr. rittner to weigh in with their own faves in the comments. or anyone else who has been, i guess.
i have photos of everything. some of the photos are better than others. since there are so many, i made them small. click on anything you want to see bigger.
the naming convention for dishes at alinea is fairly stark. the name of the dish is the main ingredient, followed by supporting ingredients. i'll list the name, then do my best to describe it as i saw it. or tasted it. or felt it. all of those things are reasonable, actually. i intended to take notes regarding the descriptions, but i had too much trouble concentrating when the dishes were presented, they were so visually arresting. so i am going to get stuff wrong and miss key things, i am sure. but here goes:
roes, traditional garnishes: one of the first molecular gastronomy tricks was taking some sort of liquid and making it look like caviar. so when we got this, i wasn't sure if it was real roe or if it was somehow refabricated into roe. whichever, it was a very nice, light bite to start. the roe was steelhead trout, if i remember correctly. and i think another. see, i should've taken notes.
pork belly, iceberg, cucumber, thai distillation: this was like the best lettuce wrap ever. i love pork belly, even though i sort of wish i didn't (i have some in the freezer that i plan to make momofuku pork buns with). the squares of iceberg lettuce (i love iceberg!) on top and bottom were compressed with cucumber. i presume that means they basically replaced the water in the lettuce with cucumber water. whatever, it was excellent. the little red dot on the plate is red pepper pudding. also, yum. the thai distillation was awesome. it was a totally clear shot of liquid, but it tasted like every flavor you associate with thai food. tremendous. no idea how you do that, but i suspect a centrifuge is involved. i wish it came in 2-liter bottles.
oxalis, juniper, gin, sugar: every time the waiter said "oxalis," i nodded and pretended i knew what that was. hold on while i go look it up ... ok, back now. i just went to wikipedia, and oxalis is definitely either an herb or potato. i'm going with herb for this presentation. the dish was tiny, sitting on what looked a bit like a guitar pick. it looked like a tiny ice cube with leaves sticking out the top. i kind of let the cold gel-cube melt on my tongue, and tasted the juniper and gin flavors, and the sweetness, then the leaves were kind of crunchy.
soft shell crab, carrot, five spice, duck: we were told that the next two dishes used the same flavor profiles in different ways. this one, they were hot and crunchy. the plate looked like a diorama mock-up of a set in a lsd movie. and i mean that in a totally good way.
picture yourself on a plate in chicago,
with hearts of palm tunnels and pea shoot umbrellas
that go so incredibly high
somebody serves you, you nibble quite slowly,
a dish with kaleidoscope eyes.
edible flowers of purple and green,
floating on seas of orange.
bite at the crab with its claws in the air,
and it's gone.
that would've been better if i had time to think about it. anyway. every part of this dish was good, and everytime you took a bit, the different proportions of the different elements made each bite taste like it was a whole different experience. and every one of them was awesome. here is the after picture of my dish, in case there was doubt.
blue crab, carrot, five spice, duck: this was part II of the crab/carrot/fivespice/duck experience, and i may have liked it even more. there were little gingery ice crystals on top, and carrot puree on the bottom, and everytime i got carrot and ginger, it made me happy. tho i was totally happy to start, so maybe that isn't the best indicator. anyway, loved it, too.
black truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan: i had just read about this dish not too long ago. and if i recall, what i read was that it was one of chef achatz signature dishes in his previous restaurant, and that he didn't want to bring old dishes to the new restaurant, but that customers said they had to have it, so he reluctantly brought it back. i'm not sure how much play it gets on the alinea menu, but i am so happy we got it, because it was a mouthful of awesome. it is a ravioli on a spoon. you are instructed to eat it in one bite, lest you wear it. the spoon is sitting on what looks like a bowl, but you are informed that what looks like a black bottom of the bowl is actually the table. it's just a ring supporting the spoon. so be careful. you put the ravioli in your mouth and bite ... and learn why it is called the black truffle explosion. i don't even love truffle, and this was one of the best things i have ever tasted. your mouth is just immediately filled with truffle-flavored liquid as you chew the pasta. spectacular.
pigeonneau, a la saint-clair: they brought out the fancy old etched wine glasses and we suspected we were about to get a riff on a classic. apparently, this is a dish developed by escoffier. a small puck of pastry is filled with a mushroom, a pearl onion, a piece of squab breast and two quenelles of foie. all in a remarkably rich sauce.
at this point we are told that it is roughly halftime, and that we will get a round of three "desserts," then basically start over with another meal.
(it was also at about this point that we looked at the vase on the table and noticed it seemed to be freezing from the bottom to about halfway up. we decided to remain calm.)
link to alinea, part 2
link to alinea, postscript