Last night Erin and I had dinner at Alinea, a gift from Erin to me for completing (or near enough to it) culinary school. Additionally, when we decided that we would be moving from Chicago, Alinea topped our list of restaurants to eat at before we left.
In all honesty I went in to the dinner with no expectations, other than to not go home hungry. Without cheapening the experience, this is dinner after all, no matter how it’s dressed up, and ultimately the food must taste good and be nourishing. Without meeting these two criteria, a meal, no matter how avant garde or cool you might think it to be, is not really good.
After all, would an architect build a house with no roof? Fine, a composer might (and has I believe) “compose” sixty minutes of silence or an artist might just hang an empty piece of canvas on a wall, but people honest to themselves and to truth see these shams for what they are – crocks of shit.
So does the food at Alinea taste good? Yes. Was it filling and nourishing? Yes.
Getting to the point, our dinner at Alinea was the best I’ve ever had and sets a new benchmark of excellence for me to judge future restaurants (or dining ‘experiences’) by – in terms of service, creativity, ambience, comfort, and enjoyment.
Some may be wondering if the meal was worth the hefty price tag. Let me say that I would rather srap and save money for however long it took to dine at Alinea rather than eat bullshit meals at McDonald’s or some other crappy fast food joint.
On to the actual food.
We were served 27 courses, though many of these were served in trios.
To start we were given three courses to pair with our champagne cocktail, each of which were served on an aromatic utensil. These ‘utensils’ were a piece of lemongrass that served as a spoon containing oyster, sesame and yuzu; a vanilla bean that had a coconut gelee with lime speared onto it; and yuba which was entirely edible that contained shrimp, miso and togarashi.
The next course was presented on a pillow that released lavender aroma, with the plate consisting of fava beans, banana and pecorino.
Yet another play on aroma was with a branch of California bay that speared a piece of king crab with suachi (a very rare citrus fruit in Japan) and heart of palm.
After the king crab the infamous “antenna” was brought out which was holding honeydew with ham, pine and mastic on it. The antenna is a hands free device, and I have to say it was strange to eat without the use of my hands. I’ll remember this course more for that experience than for the bite itself.
There was a presentation of ice fish that was pretty clever and was brought out on a thin and long rectangular plate with a stripe of a horseradish sauce that held the small fish which were fried along with a nearly countless amount of garnishes. I ate mine from left to right while Erin ate hers from right to left. Only the middle of the dish did we have the same experience.
The next presentation was another trio – one of the more memorable being a tartar type thing of cobia with hazelnut and lemon which was presented on a burning/smoking piece of cedar. It was interesting to eat with your hands for this one. Also brought out was a “powder” which contained chicken skin, truffle, corn and thyme and a beatiful little cube that had a green almond in the center with four garnishes – one on each corner – with each representing sweet, hot, sour and salty.
Our next dish was a short rib with Guinness, peanut and fried broccoli. The Guiness was somehow made into a transparent sheet that was layed over the dish in a square and was amazingly delicious. The wine pairing for this course deserves some special attention as well – it was a Paolo Sea Montefalco Riserva “Pipparello” from Umbria, 2003.
Next up was one of Alinea’s most famous dishes – hot potato/cold potato – which is presented in a small bowl of paraffin wax. The idea here is that the soup is cold and the garnishes which you drop into the soup when you pull the pin out are hot, thus you experience both hot and cold at the same time.
Around this point I was starting to feel pretty full, and the next course didn’t really help that – it was a small piece of lamb loin that was served with perfectly cooked and seasoned potato and various presentations of pistachio (toasted, braised and another one I can’t remember). The seasonings for this dish were bakeshop spices such as allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg.
At this point I was pretty much stuffed and we were only at the mid-point of the meal.
Fortunately, the next several courses were single bites. The wine brought out to pair with these was a Schlossbockelhelmer Feisenberg Riesling Spatlese, and deserves special attention because it sort of brought my stomach back to life. Each of these single bites were refreshing as well, working more as a sorbet might to reinvigorate and bring you back to life after some pretty heavy courses. They were a piece of pork belly served with smoked paprika, polenta and pickled vegetables; a shot of rhubarb, ginger and basil; and a transparency of raspberry, rose petal and yogurt. The transparency was fun and pretty messy to eat.
The next was one of Erin’s favorites, because she was kind of cold. We were brought out a small bowl that we were asked to hold (and which was warm). Atop this bowl sat a small fork containing a single bite (I think of parsley, lemon and chicken) and in the bowl was a spring garlic soup that was delicious and that you just drank right out of the bowl. It became apparent on this course just how seasoned some of these dishes are, so that all you could really handle is a single bite or two and the soup was no exception.
Next up was lobster with peas and ramps with a nage. This was presented in a bowl that sat in a larger bowl containing mint leaves which released its vapor when hot water was poured into it.
The second of Alinea’s famous dishes was brought out next – the black truffle explosion. Another one bite. I remember it exploded on the left side of my mouth. They could have brought out twenty of these and it wouldn’t have been enough.
The next course represented the end of the savory part of our meal and was a pretty challenging dish. We could tell that the staff wasn’t necessarily sold on it, especially when they were telling how hard a time they had with pairing a wine to it (they ended up pairing it with a cognac instead of a wine). The course itself was duck confit that was contained inside of what appeared to be a chocolate bar (and was not sweet at all). Also on the dish were pickled blueberries and hazelnut. More problematic than the dish was that the table right behind us were on the lobster dish with the mint vapor. The mint vapor wafted over to us and created a strange (and mildly unpleasurable) experience with the chocolate.
Onto dessert, which featured another trio of single bites: a “ball” that was like something from Willy Wonka that we were told not to bite into it because it would present different layers of flavor as it melted in our mouths (the layers were violet, nicoise olive and strawberry); a slice of bacon hanging from a piece of wire garnished with butterscotch, apple and thyme; and a dry shot of pineapple, rum, cilantro and some sort of a chili.
Next, our centerpiece of honeycomb came into action, as it was drizzled over a plate containing sorrel ice cream, fennel (in crumble of short bread) and poppy seeds in the form of a sauce.
Our last “big” course was a pretty interesting one that had several versions of chocolate on it, each containing something different that oozed out onto the plate when broken into – egg yolk, grapefruit. There was also liquid smoke on the plate – apparently they smoke ice cubes, melt them and thicken the water to make little gelatinous dots on the plate. It was wierd but not unpleasurable.
The last dish was a single shot that contained something that appeared to be granola, but when poured into our mouths, became salted caramel. It was a surprising transformation.
So there you go. We left stuffed – I’ve read accounts of people who left hungry, and I have no idea how. It took us just about four hours to make our way through the entire meal, but at no point did time feel like it was dragging, and never were we uncomfortable (except for Erin who got cold at one point and was brought a pashmina).
For the people who argue that they wouldn’t spend this kind of money to eat something that they don’t consider to be food, I recommend you open your minds up a bit. This is food at the highest level, taken at times to places that may be uncomfortable (like eating without your hands), but ultimately worth it.