This blog post was written by both Susanna and John. In paragraphs where we speak in individual voices, we have preceded them with (John) or (Suz).
Two Christmases ago, right in the thick of our obsession with Top Chef, John was given the book Alinea, from the restaurant of the same name. Alinea (pronounced ah-LIN-ee-ah) is the brainchild of chef Grant Achatz, who is one of the best-known practicioners of what used to be called “molecular gastronomy” (though we’ve heard it’s no longer cool to call it that) — others are Wylie DuFresne and Ferran AdriÃ , whose restaurant El Bulli in Spain is open only eight months a year, with reservations made on a lottery system (8,000 spots for a reported 300,000 people who want to eat there).
Molecular gastronomy is really a misnomer because it only describes one aspect of the cuisine, which includes the use of various chemicals (molecules) to modify textures in food. To apply modern chemicals and techniques to food preparation is something that would be a cardinal sin in most traditional high cuisine.
The real essence of molecular gastronomy is not just the use of chemicals, but is the idea that cooking can be done without any limits at all. It borrows from the best of traditional methods, while applying new ideas, techniques, and technology to make new tastes, textures, and sensations part of the eating experience.
It is food without limits.
We planned our trip to Chicago, and Alinea, to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary. As it turns out, Alinea also is 5 this year – it opened in May of 2005.
Alinea offers two menus — a tasting menu (wimps!) and a Chef’s Tour. We of course chose the Tour. The Tour is 23 courses, and we chose the wine pairing with 12 different wines (including a champagne cocktail to start– yum!). We were there for five full hours, from 7:30 to 12:30, and the kitchen was still bustling when we left.
The black wooden tables were bare of linens except for white napkins; the light was not too dim; the windows were covered. Once we were inside, we had no sense of time passing, which added to the experience of the meal since it has a neverending quality to it (not only because there are so many courses, but because it moves in taste from savory to sweet to savory to sweet again, so until the final dish it seems as if it could go on and on).
The restaurant seats roughly 60 people — upstairs there are 10 tables, and downstairs there are 5. We were downstairs, at a four-top between two two-tops. There was plenty of room, which was nice because over the course of five hours, Susanna got up five times and John got up three. (Needless to say, it was a very nice restroom!) Otherwise, the decor was simple and comfortable.
The service — we had five people serving in our room, including a head waiter and a sommelier. These two were funny, informal, and of course informative. They swept up the table between every course and gave us specific instructions about how each dish was meant to be eaten — literally, whether to eat it in one bite, or how to remove it from its serving dish. We asked a lot of questions about the food, wine, preparation, serve-ware, and the staff was happy to answer and always well-informed.
Since the food is so unusual, both in recipe and in presentation, the serving dishes are often made uniquely for each dish. For example: a piece of bacon hanging from a wire strung like a bow, or a three-part sphere that breaks apart so you can eat the dish in parts. One dish was served on a charred fire log, and another was served on a pillow filled with earl grey infused air, which slowly released as the plate deflated the pillow beneath it.
To sum up: All in all, the service and plating of the food was as interesting and compelling as the taste of the food itself. Unlike many restraurants of this caliber/price range, the service and ambience was relaxed and informal — much more our style, needless to say.
A Note on the Photos
(John) When we made reservations, we confirmed that photography was allowed, so I was determined to photograph each of the courses.
At first, I felt awkward and self-conscious each time I reached for the camera (which I just left sitting on the table as we ate, ready to shoot). After all, here we were paying for a fancy meal — jackets were required for men — how could I have the nerve to whip out, and leave out, the camera?
As the night wore on, I became less and less concerned. The informality of the service put me at ease, and it was clear everyone else there was having as much of an adventure as we were, and probably wished they had done the same.
I shot the food using a Canon T1i/500D with a friend’s prime 50mm lens, shot at ISO 3200. This allowed me to shoot freehand, but the long focal length of the lens (equivalent to a 70mm on my digital sensor) meant I had to occasionally stand up to get the full dish in frame, and sometimes I didn’t do a great job with it. Overall, though, a lot of the shots came out well.
57:25pm We arrived a little early for our 7:30 reservations.
There was no exterior signage; only the address was displayed on the building. When we got out of the cab, there was a maitre’d waiting to direct us to the front door. Upon entering, we were led down a long, dark hallway at the end of which was essentially a bright pink art installation — the hallway diminished in width as we walked, and at the end, a side door opened to reveal the foyer of the restaurant itself, and another maitre’d welcomed us in.
7:40pm The evening began in earnest. After discussing our wine options (we went for the full pairing, 12 wines in total — though not 12 full glasses, of course), our first arrived, a sparkling wine cocktail - Cocktail of L/Aubry Brut with Lillet, St. Germain and Hollerblutensirup.
Along with the cocktail, the first edible adornment to our table arrived. We were informed this would be a part of our dinner later in the evening, these spring roll wrappers containing beautiful flowers and herbs, hanging like flags from wooden stands.
Steelhead Roe – plaintain, ginger, papaya
7:46pm The first of our 23 courses arrived. The roe was encased in “glass” made from nutmeg. The waiter instructed us to break the glass with the back of our spoon to break it up and give the dish texture. Delicious.
Yuba – shrimp, miso, togarashi
Tom – sugar cane, shrimp, mint
7:57pm The next two courses arrived as a pair. Yuba is dried soy curd. It was rolled and propped in an inkwell filled with a miso sauce. We were told not to be shy about double-dipping.
We were instructed to chew the bite of cane to extract the flavor, then discard the cane itself onto a towel.
Distillation of Thai Flavors
8:10pm This was essentially an non-alcoholic shot, served in a small glass. It looked exactly like a shot of vodka, but was rich and delicious–just the essence of Thai flavors without the food. Lemongrass and fish sauce dominated the mix, and it was clear we would be continuing our exploration into Thai flavors.
Pork Belly – curry, cucumber, lime
8:16pm This was our first of the few larger dishes, and the most interactive in terms of plating. First we were instructed to remove a glass lid from on top of a rectangular piece of wood. This glass displayed a variety of tiny condiments: cucumber spheres, banana slices dipped in curry, a lens filled with sesame-lime sauce, cashews, a red pepper sauce, cilantro, and a few others.
Then we were instructed to erect a little easel-like contraption out of two pieces of curved metal embedded in the wood mat. (This, John said, resembled an erector set, though Susanna didn’t know what that was.)
Finally, our table’s centerpieces fulfilled their destinies. Our waiter took each of them, using the stands they had been hung from when we arrived as chopsticks, and laid them upon the frames we had built.
He then spooned a small heap of coconut pork belly in the center of each wrap. We portioned the condiments as we wanted, and wrapped the pork — then, voila, a delicious mini-burrito. This was one of our favorite dishes.
The wine pairing that arrived with this course was Abbazia di Novacella Kerner, Valle Isarco Alto Adige 2008.
Octopus – green garbanzo, mint, dill
8:34pm This was served with a fork full of the octopus balanced over a round-bottomed bowl of garbanzo soup (yum yum yum) which we were told not to put down until the soup was finished. Once it was empty, the bowl would balance itself.
9Lobster – parfait, salad, soup
8:42pm This was a very elaborate plating. The dish arrived, a sphere topped a bowl inset on the top. Only the first part of the dish was visible — the parfait — and we were instructed to save the rest of the surprise for the waiter to reveal.
The foam-topped parfait was, indeed, sweet, weird, and yet still quite delicious.
13Once we finished the parfait, the waiter swooped in to reveal a lobster salad. He poured a lobster bisque over it, warming the salad and dripping below into the lower chamber.
Finally, after we finished the salad, he removed the final piece of the dish, revealing that the bisque had infused with a chai tea mixture that was waiting below. He strained each into glass for us.[
The parfait and salad were good — but the bisque was divine. Lobster chai bisque — again, not the most obvious pairing, but perfect.
The wine paired with this dish was Melville ‘Verna’s’ Estate Viognier, Santa Barbara County 2008 ((Suz) I want to buy some of this wine)
Duck - morels, English peas, chamomile
9:07pm The first English peas of the season in a sort of stew, along with duck three ways, including foie gras (a first for both of us). Paired with Bodegas Peique ‘Seleccion Familiar,’ Bierzo, Spain 2003.
Black Truffle – explosion, romaine, parmesean
9:21pm The Black Truffle Explosion is one of the dishes Alinea is famous for. It comes served on another unique dish — the table can be seen through a ring, on which sits one spoon, and one ravioli.
We were instructed to eat in one bite, since the explosion lives up to its name — and it did. This was one of Susanna’s favorites.
Kumquat – rye, peychaud’s, demerara
Bacon – butterscotch, apple, thyme
Burrata – honey granules, olive oil jam, black pepper
9:32pm Either we mixed up the order of this, or our server did, as a couple next to us later were instructed to eat it burrata-bacon-kumquat, as opposed to our kumquat-bacon-burrata arrangement.
The kumquat was intensely flavored, sour, and had a real whiskey kick. This was one of John’s favorites in thinking back; another surprise in a night already full of them.
This perfect bite of sweet bacon was served suspended on a wire balanced on a semi-circle. To eat it, we were told to hold the wire with one hand and pull the bacon down with the other.
The burrata was also an amazing single bite, the honey flavor lingering.
The wine pairing took a turn to a sweet port,Vinhos Barbeito/Rare Wine Co. ‘Charleston Sercial’ Reserve Madiera ((Suz) I want to buy some of this wine).
Foie Gras – pear, white wine, allspice
9:43pm Another daring combination of flavors and senses. We were instructed to break up the crisp pear into the soft foie gras below. Wine – Reinhold Haart ‘Piesporter Goldtropfchen’ Riesling Auslese, Mosel 2002 (excellent).
Sturgeon – potato, leek, smoke
9:58pm Sturgeon three ways, paired with _Avanthia Godello, Valderras, Spain 2008
Shad Roe – shallot, mustard, bay aroma
10:12pm A roe tempura of sorts, served in yet another custom piece of serve ware.
Filet de Boeuf – godard
10:20pm This was an “antique concept dish”, an homage to Auguste Escoffier, a giant of French cooking, and is, or is based on, his recipe.
In the center was wagyu tenderloin, orbited by bites of mushroom, truffle, tongue, and cockscomb. It was all served on antique ornate gold-rimmed China, with etched crystal stemware. The wine was Domaine Saint Martin Fixin-Hervelets Ler Cru, Cote de Nuits 2005
Hot Potato – cold potato, black truffle, butter
10:32pm The different elements of this dish were arranged on a pin, which was laced through a small saucer made out of wax. When we pulled the pin from the saucer, the ingredients dropped into the bowl, and we drank the whole dish from the bowl itself, in one drink.
Venison – fireplace log, pumpernickel, licorice
10:45pm A platter of venison and vegetables, salad, gels, and a sauce served on a freshly charred white bitch log, set upon a bed of salt. By this time, we still boggled at the ingenuity, but we were becoming full and it was harder to appreciate the construction of flavors.
This fatigue is one reason Achatz varies the tour as the night goes on, from savory to sweet, from intense to mild, and from large to small.
The wine pairing was _Cesari ‘Ripasso Bosan’ Valpolicella Superior_e, Veneto 2006
Lemon Soda – one bite
11:01pm Fittingly, the smallest dish of the night arrived, beginning our trek into dessert. The clear packets contained a white power. When the packet dissolved on a wet tongue, the power released a powerful, refreshing, sour lemon flavour.
Bubble Gum – long pepper, hibiscus, creme fraiche
Transparency – of raspberry, yogurt
11:02pm The next two dishes arrived as a pair. The bubble gum was served in an open-ended cylinder, from which were instructed to suck it in as one bite. It did, indeed, taste just like bubble gum, with a slightly lingering soft gummy texture. The transparency was light and delicous.
The wine was Elio Perrone ‘Bigaro,’ Piedmonte 2009.
Earl Grey – lemon, pine but, carmelized white chocolate
1411:14pm – This dish was served using a pillow, as we had read about in the Alinea cookbook. The essence of earl grey was vaporized into a pillow, upon which the dish of lemony white chocolate goodness was put. The idea was that as you ate, the essence of earl grey would leak from pinholes in the pillow and infuse the air with earl grey.
Unfortunately, the scent was extremely mild, and we didn’t feel it added much to the dish. Also, we were eating quite slowly by now, so the pillow leaked completely long before we were able to finish.
The wine was De Bartole ‘Noble One,’ New South Wales, Australia 2006.
Chocolate – coconut, menthol, hyssop
11:37pm We had seen the grand finale on an adjacent table earlier in our meal, so we knew something special was coming. It was unique among the dishes in being constructed at the table, by a chef, rather than served premade from the kitchen.
The server first asked us to hold onto our single remaining drink. Upon the now empty table, he rolled out a silicone tablecloth. They brought out a number of bowls with various ingredients and toppings.
(John) When our chef approached, I saw it was Chef Achatz himself. However, I left Susanna oblivious to this as I was mortified, and certain, I would mispronounce his name.
He began by spooning pools of droplets of white sauce around the table, then put down two open cylinders on each end of the arrangement. Into this he poured some liquid chocolate.
He then placed a loaf of deeply cold frozen chocolate mousse in the center of this all, and the shattered it, filling the table with the cold nitrogen gas. Upon the ruins he placed garnish, then removed the cylinders.
The chocolate inside had cooled enough to keep their perfect disc shaped. Over the next ten minutes, both our spoons and the heat of the room slowly destroyed his art.
Delicious and beautiful.
12:15pm After finishing our meal, the maitre’d invited us to stand in the corner of the kitchen and watch the bustle, and then Chef Achatz came out to shake hands and make small talk. We left thoroughly satisfied with the whole experience.
When we began the meal, we had expected it would be a once in a lifetime event. However, as the night progressed we began to discuss upcoming events we could use as an excuse to return.