Tuesday, July 6, 2010


I realized that I will never catch up on the two month absence that I took surrounding finals and the ensuing winding down period, so I'm just going to do one (major) highlight and then move on to present day.

You might be thinking something like, "Brian, you eat a whole bunch of awesome food all the time, what one thing could you have possibly eaten in the last two months that could possibly warrant the only retroactive post?"  Ponder not, for the highlight was the fine dining Mecca of America (I say the world), Alinea.  As if it needed an introduction, Alinea is located at 1723 N. Halsted and its website is alinea-restaurant.com.  Obviously I had us opt for the longer and more opulent of the two menus.  Were we up for the challenge of 26 courses over 5.5 hours?  Only time would tell.

We were seated in the upstairs dining room on the far left.  The very first thing they brought out were centerpieces that looked like flags.  They informed us, cryptically, that they would come into play later.

The first real course after the mystery centerpiece was described as English Pea, Iberico ham, sherry, and honeydew.  It was served in a drinking glass and basically consisted of peas of different textures and temperatures (ranging from deeply frozen (like in liquid nitrogen) to room temperature).  The peas were served whole, in a puree, and frozen so they shattered when you took a bite.  The ham, honeydew, and basil were made into a gelee and served atop the whole dish, and the sherry was spherified, so it popped in your mouth.  I thought this dish was a brilliant opening course.  I really enjoy cold things to start meals, so this was already starting pretty highly.  The saltiness of the ham gel brought out the natural sweetness of the peas and the honeydew added a different type of sweetness.  If I was coming up with the dish, I probably would have stopped there, but the Alinea people threw one extra twist in there with the sherry which added some nuttiness and acid to the dish.  Overall, I loved it and was primed for the remaining 25 courses.  As always, the opening "wine" was a champagne cocktail consisting of Szigeti "Cuvee Prestige" with elderflower, Peychaud's, and some chili pepper.  I thought the sparkling-ness of the cocktail cut through the thickness and sweetness of the pea puree.  The next four dishes used this same cocktail.  I also don't have pictures of them since I remembered that Chef Achatz isn't a particularly huge fan of people taking pictures in the restaurant, so we tried to do it as quickly and discreetly as possible.

The next course was described as Lobster, lychee, gruyere cheese, and vanilla fragrance.  This dish had butter poached lobster that was rolled in gruyere and lychee and impaled on a vanilla bean.  They then dipped the lobster mixture in tempura batter and deep fried it onto the vanilla bean.  When served, you pick up the vanilla bean and eat the fried puff off of the end of the bean.  I thought there must have been some mistake since it was only the second course and already my mind was blown, but apparently that was the order they meant to serve it in.  The sweetness and sea flavor of the lobster was curious (in a good way) with the vanilla.  The cheese added some saltiness and creaminess that I never would have thought of and the lychee added just a hit of acidity to round the whole thing out.  Mike asked the waiter if he could just bring 24 more of these since he was sure that it couldn't be topped.

The next two courses were served at the same time.  The first one I had enjoyed before the last time I was at Alinea.  It was Yuba, shrimp, miso, togarashi.  Basically, they roll up some yuba, which is the skin that renders ontop when you boil soy milk and deep fry it so it ends up looking like a cinnamon stick.  Then they twist a shrimp around it and cook it onto it so it stays on.  They garnish it with seseame seeds and orange and serve it in an inkwell full of miso mayonaisse.  You will probably get tired of hearing this, but it is an amazing dish and I am definitely glad they kept this one on the menu.

The other course was called Chao Tom, sugar cane, shrimp, mint.  Apparently Chao Tom is a Thai dish involving sugar cane and shrimp.  In typical Alinea fashion, they pushed it to the extreme.  Here they took some compressed sugar cane and infused it with a heavily reduced shrimp stock and garnished it with some mint.  I described it as shrimp gum since you cannot swallow the sugar can, you merely chew it until it loses the flavor.  It wasn't the best course of the night, but it was surely interesting.  I never imagined it could be food (maybe because it really isn't), but that is part of the magic of Alinea.

The fifth course was a shot called Distillation of Thai flavors.  I believe it was lemongrass, fish sauce, and tamarind.  They evaporated much of the water out of each of the elements so they were left with a powerfully flavored shot.  They told us that it was to prepare our palates for the following course.  The shot was essentially like drinking pad thai, and I love pad thai.  I was curious what we were preparing ourselves for, but I was excited nonetheless.

Finally on the sixth course, we found out what the centerpieces were for.  They brought out a wooden plank that had two metal stands that they assembled at the table.  The waiter took the flag portion of the centerpiece and draped it over the metal stand.  He then spooned some braised pork belly onto the centerpiece.  Another waiter brought each of us a tray with various accoutrements to assemble our own dish.  Apparently this was Alinea's take on a Thai spring roll and the accompanying tray was full of things that would go with the pork belly such as limes, garlic, radishes, etc.  This was Mike and Michelle's favorite savory course of the evening.  I have to admit that it was a bold move to have people eating with their hands at such an amazing place, but I loved it and it was very fun.  It was served with a 2008 Abbazia di Novacella Kerner, Valle Isarco, Alto Adige.

The seventh course was described as King Crab, rhubarb,  lilac, fennel.  It was probably the most surprising course of the night as it was actually three different preparations.  It moved from a cold preparation to a hot one and it was served in an "apple bowl" whereby it was a layered bowl and each layer contained a different preparation.  I'm just going to copy the description from the Alinea Mosaic forum since it had way too much going on to remember.  As the course progresses, we move from cold to hot and increase richness from top to bottom. Each level contains different combinations of crab and rhubarb. In the top section, we mix the crab meat with minced shallots and make a dressing with sour cream and lime juice. We make a rhubarb pudding by pureeing rhubarb cooked in its own juice, red wine vinegar and sugar. While the dressing is rich, acid from the sour cream and lime juice give it a cleansing quality. Chervil juice, lightly set with gelatin adds a clean herbaceous note. Ginger candy adds sharpness. Additional acidity comes from lemon that we aerate with a siphon canister. We top it with a quenelle of buttermilk-jasmine sorbet to add a light spring-floral note.  In the middle is the crab salad. We introduce the rich element of avocado coated with crushed fried almonds. It is placed in between two pieces of crab meat dressed in lemon-ginger vinaigrette. We garnish with braised mustard seeds dressed in mustard vinaigrette, compressed rhubarb slices, shaved fennel salad, fennel fronds, slices of green fennel top, a square of red pepper, chervil pluches and mung bean sprouts.  The bottom section is the richest, served hot. It is crab, rhubarb and cippolini onion glacage. Inside is glazed fennel, sweet and sour onion, and rhubarb braised in red wine, red wine vinegar and sugar. We make the glacage by slowly cooking fennel, shallot, garlic, and leek in butter and deglaze with vermouth. We add a heavy cream flavored with fennel, star anise and black peppercorns. We reduce the mixture until its thick and add a little whipped cream. We coat the components and brown it lightly under the salamander. Over the top we sprinkle pink peppercorn skin, diced preserved lemon and star anise powder.  As you can plainly see, this dish is out of control.  My favorite was the bottom course, but it all mixed so well together that it is hard to imagine them out of context.  The King Crab was served with my favorite wine of the night, a Josmeyer Pinot Gris "Brand" Grand Cru, Alsace 2005.  It was like drinking cantaloupe and candy.

The eighth course was Octopus, red wine, lavender, fava bean.  This was served in the "palm bowl."  In this service piece, the solid part of the course is assembled on a spoon which fits into a notch on the bowl, and in the bowl is a soup of some sort.  Here, the octopus was marinated in red wine and served with lavender (on the fork), and in the bowl was a fava bean soup.  I did not particularly care for how chewy the octopus was, but the grilled flavor on it was nice and the fava bean soup was tasty.

The ninth course was probably my favorite savory course.  It was called Lamb, reflections of Elysian Fields Farm.  Alinea gets some of the best lamb in the world from Elysian Fields Farm in Pennsylvania and this was their tribute to the farm.  The lamb was cooked to a perfect medium-rare and skewered on a rosemary sprig.  It was joined by fried lamb fat, polenta, a meaty lamb flavored puff of some sort.  In short, it was simple (as far as Alinea goes), but spectacular.  The flavors came together perfectly.  If I was a lamb and was going to be eaten, this is how I would want to be served.  This was served with a 2005 Araujo Estate "Altagracia" Cabernet Sauvignon.  I'm pretty sure this was my favorite red wine of the evening.

The tenth course (yes, we are only a third of the way done) was my favorite "repeat" course as this is always on the menu.  If you go back to my Valentine's Day post, you can see my attempt at this dish.  It is a cold potato and black truffle soup in a wax bowl with a hot fried potato hanging above it on a pin draped with a shaved black truffle.  To eat, you remove the pin and drink the whole thing down like an oyster.  It is difficult to imagine a better single bite on earth.

The next three courses were served at the same time, sort of like an intermission (except you were still eating, so I guess it wasn't really an intermission).  They were 1.  Malt, english toffee, bourbon county stout, blueberry; 2. Bacon, butterscotch, apple, thyme; and 3.  Nutella, bread, banana, chocolate.  Of these, my favorite was the malt course.  It was ice cream, but it had some interesting salty and savory elements to it.  I have had the bacon dish before, which is served hanging on what looks like a bow.  I had pretty high hopes for the nutella course, which looked like a rock dusted in chocolate; however, when you would bring it to your mouth, you would inhale the chocolate and it would make you cough, which was unpleasant (even though the flavor was nice).  These were served with a Vinhos Barbeito/Rare Wine Co. sherry.

The next course was a play on clam chowder entitled Surf Clam, celery, tabasco, oyster, cracker.  The chowder portion was turned into a gel and it was topped with a perfect balance of all the other flavors, served inside of a large clam shell.  It was pretty much the best clam chowder I've ever had (and that is with all due respect to the now-defunct Seafood Shack in Florida).  It was served with a Krug "Grand Cuvee" Brut Champagne.  The toasty flavors of the champagne really went quite nicely with the creaminess of the "soup."

The next two courses were my least favorite of the night.  The first of these two was Green Almond, yuzu, wasabi, rice milk.  This course was a single green almond partially encased in gelled rice milk with dots of yuzu and wasabi on each corner.  I've had many one bite courses at Alinea that blew me away, but this one failed to evoke any particular response.  It wasn't like it was bad, but I expect pretty high things from Alinea.

The next course was definitely my least favorite of the night.  Whereas the above Green Almond course was one bite and just not particularly mind-blowing, I openly disliked this one.  It was called Salad, ranch dressing, soup, powdered.  The waiter told us that the chef gets the vegetables from a lady farmer up in Michigan and she drives them down each night before turning back to her farm.  It is a pretty cool story, but I just didn't like anything about the dish.  It was a variety of raw vegetables (carrot, radish, etc.) dusted with a powdered ranch dressing that you ate with your fingers (sort of like eating a healthy version of Cool Ranch Doritos, only if the Doritos tasted a little like mud).  After you finished eating the salad part, they lifted up the top half of the bowl to reveal a ranch dressing soup.  I'm unclear how this was any different from eating pure ranch dressing, but apparently it was.  Perhaps it's because I don't like salads generally, but this course was not good.  It was served with a Radikon 'Oslavje' Venezia-Giulia 2004.  I can't particularly remember this wine, but I think I liked it on its own, but not with the course itself.

I also wasn't a huge fan of the next course (Sardine, horseradish, arugula flower, tomato), but I can definitely appreciate what was being done with it.  As with most Americans, I have rarely, if ever, consumed a sardine, so the flavor is completely foreign to me (pun completely intended).  As such, Alinea serves a one bite portion of sardine skewered atop an antenna.  While you may not enjoy sardines, it is only one bite, so you do not really have a choice of whether you want to eat it or not.  I don't know if this turned me around on sardines, which are a very very strong flavor, but I'm glad I tried it.

The nineteenth course (yes, nineteen) was one that almost forced me to come here by myself about three weeks prior (Squab, charred strawberries, lettuce, birch log), so I'm glad it stayed on the menu for our meal.  Apparently the development of this dish came during the winter when they wanted to do something with a burnt log.  Along those same lines, they wanted to add a bunch of black elements to blend in with the log.  After having this, I was inspired to try to char my own strawberries, and I can tell you that it was certainly not an easy feat.  Anyway, the squab was perfectly cooked and slightly gamey, but the charred strawberries added a really interesting taste (I mean, who has had charred strawberries before?) that cut through the gaminess.  It was served with a 2004 Domaine Jamet Cote-Rotie fromt he Northern Rhone.

The next course was one that I have had a couple times before, but it never fails to amaze me, the Black Truffle Explosion.  It is a single bite ravioli that is filled with an exploding black truffle ball.  As with my adventure to Tru with my brother and sister, you have to be 100% sure your mouth is fully closed when you bite into this or there will be black truffle juice everywhere (and not in your mouth, where you would want it).  It's one of the more perfect one bite courses of all time with its beautiful black truffle taste.

The final savory course was a "time travel" course meant to be reminiscent of early 1900s Paris.  It was called Tournedo a la persane.  It was a piece of wagyu beef that was cooked sous vide to a perfect medium rare, surrounded by tomatoes, peppers stuffed with rice, and bananas.  It may not have been my favorite savory course (which likely goes to the lamb), but it had some amazing flavors and I would love to eat it everyday.  It was served with a 2005 Anima Negra from Mallorca Spain.

Onto dessert!  The first "dessert" was Lemon Soda, one bite.  It was some lemon powder mixed with something to make it fizzy sealed inside of some rice paper.  Once it hit your tongue and the paper dissolved, you got an interesting fizzy sensation on your tongue with a nice hit of lemon.  It was probably more of a palate cleanser than anything, but it was fun, sort of like eating grown up Pop-Rocks.

The next palate cleanser was Transparency of raspberry and yogurt.  This is like a hardened raspberry fruit roll up (very glass-like) dusted with rose petals and yogurt powder.  You have to be extremely careful with this dish because if you pull on it too hard, raspberry powder will explode everywhere (I know from experience).  Once you get it in your mouth though, it has a sweet raspberry flavor that is heightened by the florality of the roses and then finally restrained by the slight tanginess of the yogurt.

The first of the real desserts was Bubble Gum, long pepper, hibiscus, creme fraiche.  The waiter brought a long test tube out and would not tell you what was in it (like they did for all the other courses).  Rather, they told you to suck it all down at once and try to discern the flavors from there.  Being a test tube shot expert thanks to my college days, this was no problem.  The first flavor was definitely bubble gum, but after that it was difficult to figure out.  However, what I did figure out was that it was a nearly perfect flavor combination.  They could have brought  me four of those for dessert and I would have been happy.

The next dessert was a play on a cup of tea (Earl Grey, lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate).  I don't particularly remember this dessert (because of what came next), but I remember I did like the caramelized white chocolate with the tea flavor.

Finally, at long last, we are at the end!  For the final course, they took all of our glasses off the table and spread a large grey mat across the table before reassembling our place settings and glasses.  The waiters brought in a dizzying array of bowls, pourers, glasses, and spoons and placed them on one end of the table.  Once they had completed this arrangement, they departed (like the calm before the storm).  Into the room walks the legendary Chef Grant Achatz.  Time stopped (possibly my heart too) as he approached the table to "perform" the final dessert.  His hands moved at blurring speed taking liquids and various gels out of their holders on the table he began spreading pools of sauce all over the mat (no plates for this course).  When he was nearly done, one of the waiters approached with what looked like a smoking loaf of stale bread and put it in the middle of the table.  Chef Achatz smashed it with a hammer and explained to us that it was chocolate mousse frozen in liquid nitrogen.  He then placed some menthol crystals in it and departed.  I was already pretty happy with this whole experience, but this took it to a whole new level.  Once I broke out of my shocked state I began eating the dish (Chocolate, coconut, menthol, hyssop).  There was too much going on for me to fully remember.  Besides the mousse, there were pools of hot mint chocolate gel, menthol sauce, coconut sauce, chewy coconut, piles of chocolate powder, and all other varieties of menthol and coconut in different temperatures and textures.  It was the singular best dessert I've ever eaten even discounting the fact that we were nearly touched by culinary God.  It's not an incredibly difficult flavor combination (chocolate, mint, coconut), but the variety of temperatures and textures is what made this dish as amazing as it was.  Every bite was something totally different, and it was a perfect way to end this amazing dinner.

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