I went to Alinea and all I got were these crappy photos (and an unbelievable meal)!
Please believe me, Grant, when I say I'm sorry, really and truly and sorry.
You and your team created a wonderful meal -- scratch that, an otherworldly dining experience -- and I went and fucked it all up by taking several dozen of the worst photographs you'll ever see. I'm not talking just a little bad, like, say, the kind of problem that can kind be remedied with some judicious tweaking of the shutter speed or f-stop. No, I took a very good digital SLR camera and your extraordinary food (a combination that should lead to something closer to this), and ended up with photos that look like they were taken by a blind man using a cell phone.
"So don't use the photos," you say (oh wait, that's my wife), "paint a picture with words."
Screw that. A lot of suffering and anxiety went into these photo montages, mainly because I'm a careless idiot. When we got into the cab after our meal at Alinea, I started a conversation with our driver, Driss, a thoughtful MBA student originally from Morocco. Maybe it was the fourteen half-glasses of wine that accompanied our tasting menu, or just the thrill of a good conversation, but I left our new camera in the cab. As if that weren't bad enough, I didn't notice it was missing until the next morning, when we were checking out of the hotel to catch our flight to Toronto.
Luckily, I remembered enough of my conversation with Driss -- including the school at which he'd just completed his MBA, but not his cab company or his last name -- to put on my sleuthing cap and track him down. After a couple of long-distance hours on the phone with many people and several days of anxiety, Driss called to say he had my camera and was eager to return it. Alimentary, my dear readers. All it took then was more than a week of misplaced courier tracking numbers, and some extensions on Rachel's photography class assignments. Three weeks later, the camera was in our hands.
So, yes, my little photo montage is the food photography equivalent of a macaroni picture, but, it's my pastiche of crap. Besides, I'm a writer. (Ooooh, I've always wanted to say that).
As many of you may know, Alinea was recently named the best restaurant in the United States by no less an authority than Gourmet magazine. Our visit, it should be noted, occurred long before the rankings were published. Now, as I see it, this means two very important things:
- I don't follow trends, I set them. I'm a trendsetter.
- I must be one lazy bastard to have only now gotten around to writing this review. I plead guilty, but ask you to be lenient in light of ongoing renovations to our new house.
So, does Alinea live up to the hype?
Yes it does. Emphatically so.
I've eaten two restaurant meals in my life that blew me away, and Alinea is one of them (for those of you who are wondering, Susur is the other). It's hard to describe such an extraordinary restaurant experience, because there are so many factors -- some beyond the restaurant's control -- that contribute to it. The two most important factors in the restaurant's control are the quality of the food and the service. Now, I'm not going to tell you that I loved each of the twenty-plus courses I ate at Alinea, but most were exceptional, and a couple are on my shortlist of all-time favourite dishes.
Service is a different ballgame entirely. The finest restaurants have servers who are polite without acting stiff, knowledgeable without seeming pompous, and attentive without being fawning. That's a very fine line to walk, and those who can walk it are a rare breed of professional. The two best servers I've ever met are the servers I had at Susur and Alinea, and they exemplified the traits I just described. They do not come by their skills cheaply, either. Our server at Alinea, for example, has a resume that includes stops at a number of landmark restaurants, including Restaurante Arzak, if I remember correctly.
But enough about service. Let's talk more about the food. My general impression of the savoury dishes at Alinea is that they are perhaps the finest I've ever had the pleasure to eat. Looking back at my notes, I've come to realize that the various meat dishes -- bison, beef, squab -- are the best preparations of each of those meats I've tried. If it weren't for the lambchops at Babbo, I'd add Alinea's lamb dish to that list as well. They are all superlative.
Achatz spent several years learning under Thomas Keller, and he seems devoted to the master's belief that dishes should be small, often no more than a bite or two, not that large portions are a wise option during a twenty-four-course epic. He's also created some really unusual and innovative ways of presenting food using specially designed dishes and utensils such as pins and pillows. Although we were a little wary of all this innovation coming at the expense of flavour, these presentations were polished and subtle enough that the food itself was the main focus. We would gasp and chuckle admiringly as each beautiful dish appeared, but most importantly of all, it was delicious.
Now for a breakdown of some of the more memorable individual dishes from a very memorable dinner:
Hot potato, cold potato -- Our first encounter with Alinea's unconventional dishware. This dish is a clamshell-shaped and -sized bowl filled with a rich chilled potato soup. A stylized pin, inserted into the bowl, skewers a small cube of parmesan, a small cube of butter, a two centimetre piece of chive, and, at its tip, a thin slice of summer truffle perched atop a small piece of hot potato. Before eating, the diner "pulls the pin," so to speak, mixing the parmesan, chive, potato, and truffle into the cold soup. Inventive, original, and very delicious.
Pineapple with sesame oil, soy, and bonito -- Made using the cold griddle, I believe, this is a coin-sized disc of pineapple sorbet, coated in bonito flakes, and topped with a drop of soy reduction. Served on yet another convention-defying "dish," the disc is placed on the tongue using a stylized pin where it then melts, releasing a series of flavours. The first flavours are those of the soy and the briny bonito. These tastes slowly blend and eventually give way to cool pineapple.
Salsify with parsley, smoked salmon, and steelhead roe -- This elegant dish was bold. An over-the-top-rich smoked salmon cream and salty, smoky steelhead roe are the perfect accompaniment to rings of fried salsify.
Crab with peas, yuzu, and lavender -- Early summer on a plate. A delicate ribbon of pea puree draped over a succulent piece of crab meat. The peas, in particular, taste wonderful -- that unmistakable sweet summery hit, but the yuzu ties the flavours together wonderfully with pronounced citrus notes.
Skate with caper, lemon, and brown butter powders -- A finger of achingly tender skate wing (my bet is that it was cooked sous-vide with a little butter) on a canvas of, well, powder. But these powders! The brown butter stole the show, in my opinion, but I was most surprised by the combination of skate and banana, which works very well.
Pear and celery curry -- A shot glass with a puddle of celery emulsion, and a giant curry-laced orb filled with juice and topped with a celery leaf. Open wide, because this sucker's big, and be forewarned that the pear will fly, so keep your mouth shut. Good, but not great. I found the taste of the celery emulsion and curry to be a little overpowering, so I had real trouble tasting the pear.
Lamb with akudjura, nicoise olive, eucalyptus veil -- Yet another Alinea pin, this time nestled in a bowl filled with a jungle of baked eucalyptus leaves. This pin holds a small cube of the tenderest, most perfectly cooked lamb you're likely to taste. Damn, I get giddy just thinking about this dish. The olive works perfectly with this dish, as does the little dab of fava bean puree smeared on the bottom of the lamb. In case you're wondering about the eucalyptus, yes, it works. By the time you eat the lamb, the eucalyptus perfume is just a pleasant reminder at the back of the throat.
Bison with gruyere, pumpernickel, ramps -- As good as the lamb was, this was better. More than just bison tenderly and perfectly braised, this dish is a mixture of tastes and textures that, even now, make my mouth water. Copiously. The pumpernickel adds a little crunch, the gruyere a little punch, and the powdered caramelized onion accompaniment just sends this dish over the top.
Sweet potato bourbon, cinnamon fragrance -- I have eaten the perfect Timbit, and this is it. This dish is a little nugget of sweet potato and bourbon greatness, spiked with a burning cinnamon stick. The cinnamon incense, sweet potato body, and bourbon punch are spectacular.
Menthol, angelica, lemon -- Marshmallow shaped mousse, gilded with menthol leaves and lemon zest. I remember lemony notes and that it was awesome, but that's about it.
Muskmelon, eggplant, orange blossom -- Served on the famed "anti-plate", the dish with no bottom, this is a cute play on a traditional palate cleanser. Subtle melon notes, an herbal hit. Delicate, light, and refreshing.
Yogurt, juniper, mango -- Served in the shape of a meringue, I think this may also be a product of the cold griddle, because the outside is crispy like meringue while the inside is creamy smooth. The mango flavour dominates, and I loved every bit of this dish.
Yuba, prawn, miso, orange -- A grown up Fun Dip, really. Prawn coiled around a crispy yuba stick, enjoyed with a beautifully spiced miso dip and brightened with subtle hints of orange. This dish is all about textures for me: meaty prawn, crispy yuba, and creamy miso.
Asparagus, egg yolk drops -- An asparagus tip, a cloud of asparagus foam, and a pile of egg yolk drops that are reminiscent of either Dippin' Dots or lentils, depending on your perspective. This was my least favourite dish of the evening. I think it may have been an attempt at deconstructed asparagus and hollandaise. Of course, I could just be talking out my ass.
Lobster puffed, and season with fennel pollen -- The prawn cracker goes upscale. This was a fun little crunchy bite. The anise flavour of the pollen was a nice accompaniment to the powerful lobster flavour of the puffed lobster itself.
Halibut, vanilla, artichoke, pillow of orange air -- Moist and redolent halibut resting on a pillow, which gently puffs scented air out as you enjoy the dish. One of the most notable dining innovations at Alinea, but the effect of the air were so subtle that it was almost unnoticeable.
Kobe beef, honeydew, cucumber, lime rocks -- Perhaps the best thing I've ever eaten, and I mean that sincerely. A mouthful of this dish, soy reduction and pink peppercorns included, is a trip to a very happy place. This dish is all about balancing flavours artfully: sweet and sour lime rocks, salty soy, spicy pink pepper, and whack-me-over-the-head umami Kobe beef. Damn! This dish left me beyond wanting more.
Foie gras, hibiscus, licorice, blueberry soda -- As I recall, this dish required us to eat a spoonful of foie gras mousse (which bore an uncanny resemblance, I might add, to extruded Play-Doh hair), and then guzzle down a delicious mouthful of blueberry soda. Not the best foie gras preparation I've ever tasted, but I'm glad we went to Chicago while I could still eat foie gras.
Squab, strawberry, sorrel, long bay peppercorn -- In my mind, I'm whimpering while I think how about just how good this dish was. It's almost enough to make me view pigeons as something other than a pest. Almost. Seriously, though, the beautifully medium-rare squab breast was fantastic, and the confited leg was even better. And who knew that strawberries went so well with squab?
Cream cheese, guava, black sesame, tamarind -- Ever have a dish that you think you should like but just can't? That's where I am with this dessert. I was pleasantly surprised by the lightness of the cream cheese custard, the creativity of the dish, and the way the ingredients work together, but I'm just not too thrilled with the final product.
Coffee, mint, buckwheat, passionfruit -- A frozen coffee cylinder filled with passionfruit liquid essence. The buckwheat ice cream is a little challenging: the flavour of a galette morphed into a frozen quenelle.
Chocolate, elderflower, umeboshi, green tea -- A fantastical helix of chocolate balancing sweet, rich, floral, and bitter.
If a dining experience can be both spectacular and comfortable, Alinea is it. Our visit to Chicago was our first, but I hope it's not the last. I'd like to look up Driss the thoughtful cab driver, eat more deep dish pizza, and just possibly visit Alinea again. Next time, though, I'm letting Rachel take care of the photography.