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 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 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 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.
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.
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.