as a foodie, people often ask me for restaurant recommendations, and they are always surprised when i have an incredibly hard time giving them an answer. the truth is, i rarely eat out. while i love eating, i love it even more when it comes after i've done the cooking. when i do eat out, it's either the cheap asian eats/hole in the wall burrito joints or fine, fine dining. i figure the in-between stuff, i can do at home, so it's hard for me to justify paying $40+ for a meal that i can make at home and will enjoy even more because i cooked it in my own kitchen. lately though even the pleasure in fine, fine dining has worn off. although i can't prepare it at home, i know that the same thing can be found on the menus of over a dozen restaurants in the city. the "seen it, eaten it" mentality has become all too common. while i hate feeing so jaded about food, it has been awhile since i felt surprised or delighted by a dish. but then a three day weekend in chicago changed all of that.
ever since alinea won gourmet's top honor in 2006 as number one restaurant of the year, i have been trying to find a reason to get to chicago to understand what all the buzz is about. finally last year, i decided that i couldn't wait any longer so tim's "christmas gift" was for a long weekend in chicago for the both of us (though he quickly figured out that this was more a christmas gift for me).
from the moment we entered the restaurant at nine on friday, may 9th, i knew this would be an extraordinary dining experience. as you walk by 1723 north halstead, you wouldn't know that one of the best restaurants in the world is housed inside this non-descript two-story brick building in chicago's lincoln park neighborhood. the entrance leads you into a blank hallway that ends in two glass doors that slide open automatically as you approach. as you step through, one of the dining areas is to your left and an open kitchen to your right. as i stood outside of alinea's kitchen, i found myself forgetting that i was at a restaurant. missing was the calamity of most restaurant kitchens; instead chefs were calmly at work on their culinary science and art projects.
as we were led to our table on the second floor, we were introduced to our 27 course tour menu. while alinea offers a shorter tasting menu, i wanted the full grant achatz experience. it was after all a meal that i had been looking forward to for over two years. in the four hours that followed, tim and i were introduced to surprise after surprise. as each dish was brought out by our army of servers, we were offered an in depth explanation of all the components on our plates. i would finish it, and ask the servers to come back and give the explanation again after i had a chance to taste and understand the dish.
there were new ingredients, new takes on old ingredients and new methods of cooking that i had never seen or tried, but what made alinea stand out from all the fine dining restaurants i've tried lately was every dish had so many dimensions to it. there were edible artistic concepts. there were chances to play with your food: pins to pull out, "apples" to bob for, shots to take. dishes were not only explained for what was in them but then how to eat them. there were dishes that played with your senses: mint vapor, vanilla bean and lemongrass "skewers." we say wagyu beef that had been dipped into liquid nitrogen re-evolve at our table. we took a shot of basil juice with a ginger truffle that had a rhubarb explosion inside. we saw what guinness beer would look like when turned into a gelatin sheet. and while i have to admit that not every flavor combination worked for me. squab is great as squab; encased in a block of dark chocolate pudding = not as great. fava beans, bananas and pecorino are all great on their own; as a parfait = not as great. but despite a few misses, alinea made me remember why food is so amazing again. beyond its ability to nurture and love, food can also be so many other things: fun, lively and sometimes just downright crazy.
thank you alinea for allowing me to remember that.
photos (from left to right, top to bottom):
1) short rib with guinness, peanut & fried broccoli (paired with paolo bea montefalco riserva "pipparello," umbria 2003)
2) oyster, sesame and yuzu pudding served on a lemongrass stalk (paired with a cocktail of louis roederer brut with sauternes, farigoule liqueur, and vermouth)
3) squab with chocolate and blueberry, hazelnut cereal with trio of sauces (paired with mino calo "quarantale" salento rosso, puglia 1998)
4) shrimp woven with yuba, togarashi and a miso emulsion dipping sauce
5) the alinea kitchen
6) green almond in a cucumber jelly with sweet, hot, sour and salty tastes on the four corners
7) wagyu beef with black truffle, potato and blis elixir (paired with prince florent de merode pommard "clos de la platiere" 2003)
8) transparency of raspberry, rose petal and yogurt