Thursday, October 20, 2011


So as Nina already wrote in the previous post, I was graced recently with a visit from two of my best friends here in Chicago. And what better way to celebrate their visit than to take them to the best restaurant in the US? (Well, when I mean "take," I mean - providing transportation. Driving car. Not buying them dinner. I earn a nice salary, and I love these girls, but well, a restaurant with a hefty reputation like this comes with an equally hefty bill. Kind of painful for only one wallet. They earn nice salaries too. They can buy their own meals. I'm a great friend! Everyone wants a friend like me!!)

Alinea is the obvious choice for a fancy, special occasion, once-in-a-lifetime (I hope to go back there again, so fine, once-every-few-years) meal. It recently was named the #1 restaurant in America (and in North America, as well), and #6 in the world. One of my favorite genres to read is culinary documentaries, and Alinea's chef, Grant Achatz, was featured prominently in two of my favorite books: Michael Ruhlman's Soul of a Chef and Reach of a Chef, so it was almost as if I knew him before I ate there! (Nah. Not really. He doesn't give a crap about me. But it's nice to pretend.)

Our story begins two months out at the beginning of August, which is when they opened reservations for the entire month of October. 21 busy signals later, I had a reservation for three lined up. Excellent. We fast forward to the beginning of October and we were in the car driving happily towards our much anticipated dinner. I got to show off my nifty backwards driving skills, as I overdrove the entrance and had to back up towards it (there is no sign, except for a small valet sign on the ground). The restaurant setup is rather non conventional. You walk through a closed in hallway, lit with red neon lights (it does make you wonder slightly if you are heading to dinner, or getting ready to get beamed up into a spaceship), and exit that into the restaurant proper. The glassed in kitchen is to your right, I think there were some dining rooms downstairs, and there were more upstairs, which is where we went. The restaurant reminds me of a modern styled house - there's several small dining rooms, connected by a hallway, and each dining rooms looks more like a living room than a dining room. There's a large island in each room, where the wait staff preps the food and does any last minute adjustments before serving. Speaking of the wait service, I was both amused and impressed. They were all dressed in smart black suits (all men, no women that I saw) and it felt like I was being served by the Secret Service. So, this is how it feels to be POTUS! :) For such a fancy-smanchy restaurant though, the waiters made you feel relaxed with some well timed quips about the food and the service - no pretentious snobbery here ("Wuld you like some GREEEAAAYYY POUPON?")

Okay, four paragraphs in, I suppose we should finally hit some food. :) I should note that they set down clean little cute white pillows to set our tableware on each time we had a dish that required utensils. I got spoiled real quick. ;) The next night at dinner, I was very sad when I had to set my fork down on my plate because I had no pillows.)

Note: All pictures stolen from Jenni, because my iPhone pictures were not great and hers were the easiest to steal from. :)

watermelon, kaffir lime, oxalis
This dish was bright and so prettily plated. I loved the watermelon consomme - so light and sweet and a nice opener to the meal.

west indies spices, pineapple, ginger
Our first interesting plating of the night. We picked up the vanilla bean from the - uh, cage like enclosure - and pulled the fried fish ball off the stick. We were told by the wait staff that "it looks big, but don't worry, it'll collapse in your mouth." Well, mine didn't - so I'm sure I looked super sophisticated chewing on my overly large ball of ... spicy banana-y goodness. (Yes, hamachi and pinapple combined to make me get bananas.)

At this time, they placed a single page of lettuce on a chopstick down on the table as decoration. (Well, three of them, for the three of us.)

Our next four courses came served a log. Now, how often do you get to eat off a log'? (Our waiter thought the same. Him to the table next to us: "I don't get to say this often, but can I take your log from you?") Each dish was a single bite of shellfish, served in it's own shell.

It looks puny, but it was great. That one tiny leaf gave you a lot of salty ocean flavor.

hitachino white ale, old bay
I don't remember anything about this besides a lot of foam. ;)

carrot, soy, daiko
I believe the waiter said this was reminiscent of XO sauce. It was very nice.

saffron, chorizo, orange
This was one of my favorites of the night. I could have eaten a giant dish of this.

shrimp, miso, togarashi
I will say that I took one for the team and broke my yuba stick, so nobody else had to feel bad about being messy or ruining food. This was very nice. I normally am not a big fan of miso, but I could barely taste it in the sauce. This reminded me of a fancy shrimp tempura.

mango, radish flower, juniper
Remember when I was talking about interesting plating? Here's one that didn't require utensils - or fingers. Nope, just pull it right off the (bouncing) wire with your mouth. This evoked a lot of giggles. I think we were all worried about stabbing ourselves in the back of the throat with the wire. And you don't look very pretty pulling it off the wire with your mouth. It was fun to figure out, though. (Again, when else are you going to get told to eat a dish with your mouth only?) I think I was giggling too much over figuring out how to eat this to remember what it tasted like, but I remember getting a strong blast from the juniper berry?.

pine, sumac, ramp
This is a gorgeous dish - it really looks like you're picking fresh mushrooms from the forest floor. Actually, it tasted like that too. It was a really nice, earthy, rich taste.

cold potato, black truffle, butter
We had to put down our cameras for this, as we received very specific instructions on how to eat this. Our waiter loomed over the table and basically refused to leave until we all followed his directions. There was a small wax bowl containing a creamy truffle soup, with a pin stuck through the bowl holding some potato and a truffle. We pulled the pin out of the bowl, dumping the potato into the soup, and then slurped everything out of the bowl in one bite. You received a blast of heat from one of the potato cubes, a polarizing effect from one of the other potato cubes, which was chilled, and thus you received the name of this dish, which was "hot potato cold potato." I remember reading in an article in which Chef Achatz talked about this dish and said he hated people spending too much time taking pictures of a dish, because by the time they were done, the temperature of the dish had changed and they ended up with "warm potato warm potato" instead. One of my favorites.

sauce choron, pomme de terre noisette
We received next a very unique plating set for the next course. Gold rimmed plates, beautifully edged silverware, and a lovely goblet with beautiful scrolling on it. They said that the dish was from Escoffier and I immediately thought that the dish had been stolen from NEXT, who just had their Escoffier menu (Next is Achatz's new restaurant, in which they serve themed menus for a couple of months only). I actually just looked up Next's Paris 1906 menu and this dish was not on their menu, but ... the plates look awfully familiar. ;) This was a standout for me. The lamb was cooked nicely and had great flavor, and they served a house made hibiscus soda with it that was very nice as well.

red cabbage, mustard, paprika
We finally got to use the lettuce leaf for this course! We were served the garnishes first, which was plated over the rest of the serving dish. The garnishes sat on a glass tray, which lifted up to reveal two steel hooks, which attached together to form a bowl of sorts for the lettuce leaf. The waiter spooned in some braised vension chunks, and then we could add garnishes from the glass tray, which included bell pepper slaw, pickled onions, garlic, sun dried tomatoes, and a potato custard cube.

explosion, romaine, parmesan
Looking at the next picture makes me sad because I want another one of these right now. This was a single black truffle ravioli that exploded in your mouth (to be eaten in one bite only, not two, or else ... kaboom). I normally don't care for truffle too much (I think it tends to be a bit on the bitter side for me), but this was so incredibly delicious.

inspired by Miro
Our next dish came to us as many spoons. There was one bite on each spoon, and the waiters attempted to arrange the spoons in a very artistic arrangement (yes, they cleaned the table before they did this. They said it was a green tea spritzer that they cleaned the table with.) We were told that the main flavors were squab and lavender, and all the flavors were chosen to match well with those two. I noticed foie gras, beet jelly, and olives on the spoons, as well as a piece of roasted squab and some lavender noodles and flowers.

eggplant, coriander, red wine
This was similar to "hot potato cold potato" in that we were instructed to eat this all in a single slurp. The eggplant soup was really rich, light, and delicious.

Snowcone on an .... industrial screw? This was from yuza juice. It was really tart and cleansing and I would have loved more. However, I think I left more on the table than actually hit my mouth.

jasmine, basil, balsamic
This was a really lovely composition of various dessert squares. The creme fraiche ice cream (the big white square) was my favorite on the plate.

dragonfruit, thai basil, finger lime
Yes, it is what it looks like - a test tube! It was blocked off with lime gel at one end, and we were told to lift this to our mouth, and then just ... suck. Hard. (Insert joke here ...) It was a cool juice with cilantro and some other herbs, with a piece of dragonfruit at the very end. We were all getting really full by now, and this was really light and refreshing.

pumpkin pie, lingonberry, stout
Our last course for dessert was a giant spectacle. They spread out a silicon? tablemat on the table and lined up an array of garnishes and sauces on the side. Then they brought out two chocolate balls and poured - what I think is liquid nitrogen - into it, to flash freeze the ball, creating a bunch of smoke on our table. We had two chefs (one per ball) to pour and drip sauces all around the silicon tablemat. When that was completed, they picked up the now frozen chocolate ball and dropped it onto the table, causing it to explode and break, releasing all of the little goodies inside. We were all too full to properly enjoy it, but it was a really eye catching presentation.

Their wine pairing was pretty expensive, but individual glasses were reasonably well priced. Nina knows more about wine than me, but she took two half glasses and said later than if she had known how cheap they were (I think they were $9 a glass), she would opted for one or two more, maybe.
We all went for their tea offerings. I had no choice, I was getting over a cold and my throat was dying, so hot tea was a welcome option. They offered honey and fresh squeezed lemon juice, and I greatly enjoyed it. (I think this might have also been $9 for a small pot. They kind of don't tell you prices ahead of time ... I guess they assume if you can afford a meal there, you can afford their drink prices. I found it to be quite reasonable for the venue, anyways.)
The service really is top notch. They have a lot of wait staff that seem to stand around doing nothing (I'm sure they have something to do do) and they keep an eye on your table. Jenni mentioned that the water seemed to be a bit warm. About ten seconds later, a guy dashed over to take away all of our glasses and replace them with new glasses and chilled water (note: not just refill the glasses, but replace!). Also, during the last dessert course, the exploding chocolate ball, a bit of the sauce got on Jenni's dress. Without us asking, one of the waiters stopped by and offered her their business card, telling us that they would be happy to pay for dry cleaning.

I thought this was a really wonderful experience - and yes, experience, not a meal. The staff here really goes all out to make sure all aspects of the night: service, decor, presentations, ambiance, and yes - food - are all constructed to be one of a kind. It's the priciest meal I've ever had, but it's a one of a kind special event, so I judged it worth the price. You wouldn't want to do it every night, or every month, even - maybe not even every year - but .... well, I really want another black truffle ravioli explosion now. Drool.

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