Wednesday, October 1, 2008

An Evening at Alinea

Last weekend, Hubband and I took a trip to Chicago for food and football. He is a longtime Bears fan, and has always wanted to watch a game at Soldier Field. 
We started planning this trip more than 6 months ago, and I can't really remember what came first, the food or the football. Did we talk about Alinea first, and decide to go to a game while we were in Chicago, or was it the other way around? I actually think it may have been food first. We originally read about Alinea in some magazine article detailing the cruel irony of Chef Grant Achatz's battle with tongue cancer, as well as his innovative molecular-gastronomy cuisine. Eventually we heard more and more about the restaurant, (on the list of Top 50 restaurants in the world, James Beard Award winner) and decided we should go at some point, and then this trip came into being. We knew we wanted to go in late September to catch a Bears game before it became too cold (I get cold very easily, and tend to shiver in a very conspicuous and uncontrollable fashion) and Hubband called in June to find out when the reservation books for September would be open. He was told to call July 1st, 10 am central time, to try for a booking for last weekend. He called July 1st at about 10:04 am, and an 8:45pm booking was all they had left. Needless to say, we were stoked about getting it. 
We got into Chicago around 2 on Friday, went to our hotel, took a little nap as it was going to be a late night, freshened up, and got a cab to the restaurant. Happily, we were aware in advance that there is really not much of a sign for the restaurant, which is accessed through a set on nondescript matte black doors in a brick building. The door was opened for us, and we found ourselves looking down a very interesting hallway. The left wall was normal and painted grey, but the right-hand wall was painted white, softly lit with pink, and was an undulating shape that gradually brought the hall to a narrow dead end. As we slowly walked, and gawked, an automatic stainless steel set of doors inset in the left hand wall opened, and we were inside. We were a few minutes early, so we gladly chose some seats near the kitchen in which to wait. I, of course, peeked as much as possible without making a fool of myself. (Hopefully.) I think my favorite part of the kitchen was the wall on which Chef's sketches of each course were taped. Those rough sketches, done with a Sharpie marker, were translated into some of the most whimsical, elegant, and thought-provoking food I've ever experienced. 
Within just a few minutes, we were led up a lovely stainless steel and glass staircase to a softly lit room decorated in shades of black and pale green. We sat at a large table of black wood, on a black velvet banquette that was very comfortable, as you would hope to find in a restaurant where your meal may take 4-5 hours. 
There are only two dinner choices at Alinea: a 12-course tasting or a 24-course tour. About 70% of their guests do the 12-course, and if you would like the 24, you are asked to notify them when you make the reservation. I'm sure you can guess which one we went with. We also decided to do the wine pairing with the meal, which Chef had added a few things to, so in the end, we had 26 courses, 11 wines, and 5 types of bread. 
I couldn't resist bringing a camera, but I also couldn't find the courage to bring the big SLR (which I should have, someone at another table had one, AND a tabletop tripod!) so it was back to the old point-and-shoot. I also didn't want to use any flash. I apologize for any dim photos, as well as any that are less than crystal clear. The room, as I mentioned earlier, was softly lit; bright enough to enjoy what you are eating and be totally comfortable, but not perfect for photos. A photo of each course, with explanation, can be found by clicking on the flickr icon that's now in the left sidebar and navigating to the Alinea set. 
Some of my favorites:
Course #2: Aromatic eating utensil-lemongrass. Topped with a tiny, briny Kumamoto oyster, chive, seaweed, yuzu, and sesame. A one-bite wonder. 
Course #4: Cauliflower with multiple coatings, 3 gels, and apple soup. Divine. I could eat this every day, and be completely happy.
Course #5: Yuba bean curd, fried, wrapped with tender butterflied shrimp and a tiny bit of citrus peel and chive, sprinkled with sesame, and accented with a miso dipping sauce. FANTASTIC. I loved this course. Crunchy and salty, with sweet tender shrimp and a hint of spice in the sauce, it was just perfect. These should be served everywhere, in giant baskets like breadsticks. 
Course #9: Beef, Beer, and Peanuts. Braised beef short rib under a translucent sheet of Guinness beer, with broccoli puree, fried broccoli, shaved broccoli stalks, fried peanuts, mustard, and pink peppercorn. So good. Hubband really enjoyed this course. It may sound like an awful lot of broccoli, but no preparation of it was overpowering. The peanuts added great textural contrast.  
Course #17: Wagyu beef over maitake mushrooms and smoked dates, drizzled with Blis extra-aged sherry vinegar, finished with fennel pollen. So nice. Tender, buttery beef, paired with the earthy, powerful mushrooms and sweet dates, it was soft and luxurious. 

Every course was precisely thought out, and each presented us with something to think and talk about. Although some courses were not necessarily to our taste (pine ice cream!) we enjoyed the experience and the conversation that they stimulated. Our 26-course meal took about 4 hours, and I can't find praise high enough for the food, the service, or the company. It seemed every detail in this restaurant was given the same attention as the food. Even the air-conditioning vents were covered with diffusers, so no chair was in the path of a cold breeze. (If you recall the earlier note about my uncontrollable shivering tendencies, you understand why I notice these things.)

(My one quibble? The coffee. This was an expensive meal, as I'm sure many of you already know. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of the guests who go there, and if someone is paying that much for a meal, I think coffee after dinner should be included or complimentary, not $6.00.)

1 comment:

Tim said...

that place is amazing, everything about it was incredible