“Best Restaurant in Chicago” – Alinea (Chef Grant Achatz) Act 1/5

Restaurant: Alinea – Act 1/5
Cuisine: Modern American/International
Last visited: June 16, 2012
Location: Chicago, IL (Lincoln Park)
Address: 1723 N Halsted Street
Transit: Halsted & Willow
Where I stayed: Hyatt Regency Chicago (Taxi recommended)
Price Range: $50+ ($210 Tasting Menu + $150 optional wine pairing)

1Poor 2OK 3Good 4Very good 5Excellent 6FMF Must Try!

Food: 6
Service: 6
Ambiance: 5
Overall: 6
Additional comments:

  • Chef/Owner Grant Achatz
  • 3 Michelin Star
  • Mobil Five Star Award
  • AAA Five Diamond Award
  • #7 on World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2012
  • #6 on World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2011
  • “2nd Best Restaurant in US” (World’s 50 Best)
  • #1 on 40 Top Chicago Restaurants Ever (Chicago Mag)
  • Best Chef (James Beard 2008 & 2012)
  • Multiple award winning
  • “Best” fine dining in Chicago
  • Opened 2005
  • 64 seats
  • Reservations required (2 months in advance)
  • Standard 18 course tasting menu only ($210)
  • Optional wine pairings (+$150)
  • 18% auto gratuity
  • 3-4+ hours dining experience
  • Other restaurants: Next, Aviary (bar)
  • Sun, Sat 5-9:30pm
  • Mon-Tue Closed
  • Wed-Fri 5:30-9:30pm
  • Alinea – Act 2 of 5
  • Alinea – Act 3 of 5
  • Alinea – Act 4 of 5
  • Alinea – Act 5 of 6
  • Alinea – Act 6 of 6
  • Alinea – Grand Finale/Encore

**Recommendations: Tasting menu (only option) with wine pairings. Wine pairings are optional… but do it. If you have his recipe book, the things I would say you should really consider making is the famous “Hot Potato” and “Black Truffle Explosion”. They really are as good as you’ve heard or seen.

It’s arguably an alpha world city famous for its arts.

From performing arts (The Lookingglass Theatre Company – Photo by Sean Williams)…

… to architectural art.

From comedians… (The Second City – Photo by Kristen Barker)

to classics. (Chicago at Broadway in Chicago – Photo by sdparadatemporal.blogspot.ca)

From “no-name” street performers…

… to world renowned chefs.

This is a city full of influential artists of every type.

And this is the Mother post of Follow Me Foodie to Chicago. Welcome to Alinea.

If this picture makes your knees weak, or gives you butterflies, or simply makes you feel like you are floating on clouds… then picture perfect. These are just some of the feelings I had before and after my dinner at Alinea. It was an unforgettable 6 hours (dinner here usually takes 3-4 hours, but I took 6) that I captured, savoured and documented every minute of.

You know those moments in life you can’t stop thinking about? The ones that make you feel so good and so happy that you go to bed dreaming about them and wake up thinking about them? It’s the times when you’re walking alone and you suddenly smile or smirk just thinking about that moment. This is usually followed by pursing your lips so you don’t feel like an idiot laughing by yourself. But in this case I just let it out because I wanted to relive those beautiful moments. I wanted to relive the joy and taste the food from this legendary dinner all over again. It was a moment I cherished and one that’s best shared.

Those tingly and giddy feelings have won me over for the last few weeks and I feel like I’m on a cloud I can’t come down from. It was a once in a lifetime experience that I hope to have happen more than once in my lifetime. This is Alinea.

If the name Alinea or Grant Achatz draws a blank stare I almost want to pull a “What?! You don’t know what Alinea is?! Or what?! You don’t know who Grant Achatz is?!”, but I won’t… although I kind of just did. (Sh*t Foodies Say). To sum it up, a visit to Alinea is likely on every food lovers “Must Dine Before I Die” list. It’s a 3 Michelin Star that was #7 on the World’s Top 50 Best Restaurants 2012 and it has more accolades and prestigious awards than I know of. It was basically my main reason for coming to Chicago and I made it my last meal. (Actually a Chicago style hot dog at the airport was, but let’s pretend this was).

Chef Achatz worked under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry for four years before opening Alinea. Being trained by arguably one of the best chefs is only part of what makes Alinea world class. Chef Achatz was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer on his tongue in 2007 and during treatment he lost his sense of taste. Therefore at one point everything he cooked was reliant on memory, sight, sound, smell, feel and help from his supporting staff. He is now cancer-free and has regained his sense of taste, but that life changing experience has made him even stronger. It’s an emotional story that has translated to what Alinea is now, and it gives a better understanding of his culinary vision for it.

What Chef Achatz does is avant garde style New American or Modern American cuisine. He uses global and local ingredients and experimental cooking techniques. It’s typically referred to as “molecular gastronomy”, but that term is often misused and methods abused. Experimental cooking is a modernist way of cooking. It embraces cooking as an art form that is led by science, and just like any song and dance this craft stems from passion, and is rehearsed in a timely and technical manner.

At Alinea, it is not just about the food but the complete dining experience. I was living in this heavenly moment that felt created especially for me. I didn’t care that all the other tables were getting the same 18 course tasting menu (only option), I felt like the experience was mine. I didn’t notice anything else and I was enchanted and fascinated by what was in front of me.

I’ve seen his recipe book, watched his videos and gushed about his culinary brilliance with many chefs and food snob friends and now I finally experienced it. I had an idea of what to expect and I was still in awe. Every bite I took I didn’t want to let go and every flavour in my mouth was near impossible to describe… even for me. It was just so beyond what I know. It left me enough to feel satisfied, but also so much more to be curious about.

As “modern” as the menu is, the way I experienced it was as if I was a child. It was eating the food of the future, yet I felt like I was the one going back in time. He creates a sense of discovery with every dish and I have no doubt he is inspired by his life experiences and kids. The dishes are sophisticatedly playful and every dish is made with a plethora of ingredients, but the way they came across is not confusing.

He encourages you to create your own flavours and to be inquisitive. He stimulates all your senses and reminds you to value them while enjoying your food. His vision keeps me interested and entertained and it is sensory overload in the most tasteful way. He brings out emotions while creating memories that I remember by touch, sight, sound, feel, smell and of course taste.

Chicago is known for its performing arts and I consider Alinea one of the venues. It’s not listed under “Performing Arts”, but it is a culinary production. I was invited to play along in his dream which is a playground full of fresh ideas and new beginnings. This is the craft of a truly talented and passionate artist who is driving the modernist side of the culinary world. There are other chefs doing similar things, but each one has their own voice. The impact, influence and inspiration Chef Achatz has on many chefs of today is the mark of a culinary legend.

 On the table:

The name Alinea is the Latin name for the pilcrow (), a typographic symbol that is used to start a new paragraph. In Old English it would be used to start a new idea and that’s the guiding philosophy and the character of the restaurant, literally and figuratively.

Gimonnet Brut with St. Germain and Esterházy Beerenauslese – It started off with a champagne cocktail that was so soft and smooth with honey and floral notes. St. Germain (France) is an elderflower liqueur and it was my first time trying it with champagne. This also had elderflower syrup bitters to enhance the fragrant aspect without being perfume like. The Pierre Gimonnet apparently lacks a finish, but its floral and citrus notes played well with the St. Germain. The richness of the Esterházy Beerenauslese (Austria) just rounded out all the flavours and it was a perfect way to start the meal.

Steelhead Roe5/6 (Excellent)

  • Coconut, curry, yuzu
  • It was Steelhead Washington salmon caviar with carrot gelée, curry yuzu emulsion, coconut pudding, young coconut shavings and micro cilantro.
  • It was the amuse bouche and I still remembered it at the end.
  • It was such a small bite, but there were so many flavours and each one was distinct and powerful.
  • It was almost a de-constructed coconut curry broth and the textures were silky, creamy, smooth and a bit crunchy from the coconut and carrot.
  • The juicy bursts of salmon caviar were the salty bites to this dish and the sweet and savoury balance was so unique.
  • It was coconut 2 ways and carrot 2 ways.
  • The coconut pudding was intense and those coconut oils were rich and coating my mouth with flavour and not grease.
  • Young coconuts have a softer flesh and jelly like meat and its texture just played into the carrot gelée.
  • The carrot gelée was transformed into slices of carrot and they tasted like they were made from carrots freshly picked on a farm that day.
  • The carrot was so natural in flavour and sweet and it went straight into the curry yuzu emulsion.
  • It was an Asian style of curry which tends to be sweeter and more fragrant than spicy.
  • I couldn’t taste any lemongrass, ginger or fish sauce so it wasn’t a traditional South East Asian curry.
  • It had the aromas of an Indian curry without being spicy or as heavily spiced.
  • There may have been carrot juice and it was likely thickened with coconut milk and it was more like a Chinese meets Japanese curry.
  • The spices were subtle but high quality and fresh and I felt like I was at an Indian spice market and I even got a hint of saffron.
  • The citrus yuzu gave the whole dish some acidity so it was sweet, tangy, and salty.
  • Each sauce and component was so labour intensive, but it was required to enhance and intensify the flavour of every ingredient.

Georg Breuer, ‘Terra Montosa’ Riesling, Rheingau 2009 (Germany) – This was one of my favourite pairings. It was a dry Riesling with a subtle smokiness and spice and there was a lemon forward acidity to it. It wasn’t that sweet at all and it was such a complementing match with the smoky and delicately spiced seafood.

Assorted Shellfish on Malaysian Driftwood

  • Whoa! I know! There were a few courses that came out with incredibly elaborate and dramatic forms of presentation and this was one of them.
  • The driftwood was covered with fresh kelp and he literally brought the South East Asian beaches and ocean to me.
  • There was an oyster leaf, king crab, lobster, and razor clam and each one was considered a course.

Oyster Leaf5/6 (Excellent)

  • Mignonette
  • The master of experimental cooking, Ferran Adrià, once served this at his 3 Michelin Star elBulli restaurant in Spain. Since then it has been a sought after ingredient at fine dining establishments.
  • I was told this one was from Ohio, but it originated in Europe in North-Scotland.
  • It’s an all natural leaf, but it tasted just like an oyster and it was basically a vegetarian oyster.
  • They grow wild by the coast so they have a naturally briny flavour that resembles oysters.
  • I would think it would taste like seaweed, but it was in fact the taste of oysters. It had those mineral flavours of an oyster.
  • The texture is a thick meaty spinach leaf and if you breathe in you can taste that raw oyster flavour gradually build and travel to your nose and head.
  • The mignonette was subtle, but the sprinkle of maldon salt and freshly cracked black pepper was all it needed.
  • I love raw oysters, but if you don’t like the slimy texture of them, than this would be a good introduction because you get a similar flavour without the texture.
  • It looked like it was on a Kusshi oyster shell and although it didn’t replace an actual oyster, being introduced to a new ingredient was more exciting.
  • If you’re in Vancouver and you want to try it, Chef Hamid Salimian offers them at Diva at the Met (his style is also similar to Grant Achatz – see my post here).

King Crab5.5/6 (Excellent!)

  • Passionfruit, heart of palm, allspice
  • This was my favourite of the 4.
  • It was an incredibly juicy piece of crab which is surprising since it’s not in season.
  • There were dollops of avocado which gave richness to the fragrant, sweet and acidic passionfruit and pineapple sauce.
  • There was a great balance of flavours and I could taste the passionfruit the most.
  • It was almost like a half dessert, but the crab flavour was not overpowered.
  • It was gentle yet bright in flavours and there was a bit of warm heat, but not spice which went great with the Riesling.

Lobster5/6 (Excellent)

  • Carrot, chamomile
  • This course can sometimes be a mussel instead, but I was lucky that he was featuring it with lobster this time.
  • The foam was properly made and held its shape and the bubbles just enhanced that whole ocean theme.
  • It was reminiscent of lobster bisque, but not as thick or creamy.
  • The foam was fragrant and the carrot was a sweet sauce underneath.
  • The carrot really enhanced the natural sweetness of the lobster meat and I think it was also made with lobster stock.
  • The lobster was juicy and tender and it was not the claw meat so it wasn’t mushy.
  • The sauces were good enough to make me want to eat the shell.

Razor Clam4/6 (Very good)

  • Shiso, soy, daikon
  • It was a hibachi grilled razor clam, glazed with XO Sauce, fried coriander, carrot, ginger, cucumber, daikon, tapioca pearls and micro shiso leaves.
  • I usually only get razor clams when I’m in Asia so I was so happy to be reunited.
  • I’m a bit biased because I’m Asian, so I’m quite familiar with XO sauce and have a certain expectation from it since it’s close to my culture.
  • XO sauce is a highly prized Chinese hot sauce made from dried shrimps or dried scallops. It’s considered a delicacy and a higher quality one uses all dried scallops.
  • This XO sauce was made with unagi (eel) sauce so it was more Japanese, but it tasted Chinese too with the soy sauce.
  • It was very sweet and very salty with a slight seafood flavour from perhaps added oyster sauce, which would be Chinese.
  • Unagi sauce and oyster sauce are very potent and salty so a little goes a long way.
  • There was a nice spicy heat, but generally there was a lot of sauce for the small clam, so I wouldn’t have minded a bit less.
  • I thought the clam would be glazed and then grilled, but the XO sauce was poured on top again so it kind of masked the razor clam.
  • I loved the texture of crispy whole coriander and chewy tapioca pearls, but I almost forgot about the clam which showcased more in texture than flavour.
  • The tapioca pearls which are traditionally used in Chinese desserts are neutral in flavour, so they were used more for their chewy texture.

The next course required some preparation and waiting, but good things come to those who wait. They came out with a siphon coffee maker (or coffee vacuum brewer) filled with ingredients I’ll explain later. This technique was a cooking tip from Ferran Adrià and I’ve tried it once at EBO Restaurant too – see my post here.

Woolly Pig – 4/6 (Very good)

  • Fennel, orange squid
  • They bring you the Woolly Pig course while you wait for the siphon cooking experiment to complete.
  • It was a Mangalitsa pork or Hungarian ham with grilled baby squid, semi-dehydrated navel orange and fennel.
  • It comes out dangling on a radio antenna attached to a glowing light bulb and the point is to eat it right off the antenna without using your hands.
  • I’m not sure if the antenna is supposed to stimulate your tongue, but the no hands and whole idea seemed a bit erotic.
  • It reminded me of bobbing for apples, but the grown up version.

  • It was a single bite and the ingredients just slid off like a kebab.
  • The star of the show was the ham although I couldn’t see it.
  • The squid was chewy and undeniably smoky and super charred and infused with smokiness throughout.
  • I could smell the smokiness and they must have smoked it for hours.
  • The Woolly Pig is an extremely fatty ham and I think its flavour was infused into the squid because I couldn’t taste any actual ham.
  • The fennel was pickled and the orange gave a juicy burst of citrus to contrast the deep smoky aromas that were almost bitter.
  • The fennel, orange, celery and dill were great aromatics to cut the richness of the ham too.
  • I thought the shellfish went well with the Riesling, but this was even better with it.
  • The course reminded me of the Braised Octopus, Saffron Tapioca Crackers I had at Fraîche Restaurant.

Bodegas Godeval ‘Viña Godeval’ Valderorras 2010 (Spain) – It was a light white Spanish wine with citrus notes like lemon, lime and grapefruit and it had a long finish. It’s known to have a mineral characteristic which was apparent. It was also in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines in 2011.

Back to the siphon coffee maker. It was filled with ingredients including soy powder, dashi powder, bonito (fish) flakes, kombu (seaweed), chilli, wasabi, fresh ginger, fresh yuzu, green onion and perhaps some other aromatic ingredients, spices and herbs.

The bottom chamber sits under a gas flame and when the water is heated it transforms into vapour and gases expand which forces the liquid to rise upwards into the aromatics. The water stays up there as long as the bottom chamber is still hot and when the heat is turned off the liquid will dispense back into the bottom chamber where it came from. And voila, you have a 15 minute instant dashi!

Scallop6/6 (FMF Must Try!)

  • Acting like agedashi tofu
  • A bit of the dashi broth was poured into the dish, just like agedashi tofu would normally be served, and the rest was poured into teacups.
  • There were more garnishes than the main feature and the plate really showcased the knife skills of the garde manger.
  • The garnishes were celery, carrot, daikon, fresh yuzu, and cucumber, Nasturtium and fresh wasabi.
  • I’ve never had fresh yuzu before and it’s very difficult to find in North America let alone in the US.
  • Yuzu is an Asian fruit mainly used in Japanese cuisine and it’s a cross of a sour mandarin and a grapefruit.
  • Traditionally grated daikon would be served on top of the agedahsi tofu, but this was showcased in small pieces on the side.
  • The Nasturtium leaf comes from a plant and it tasted like watercress.
  • The intricate carving of the celery and precise cutting, wrapping and preparation for the raw vegetables were so delicate and dainty.
  • Each garnish was cut and presented differently and they were all aromatic components to making soup broths.
  • Some of the ingredients were the same ones used in the siphon maker and it was a deconstruction of the soup broth decorating the plate.
  • The scallop looked just like an agedashi tofu, but it was made from scallop mousseline.
  • It was a steamed scallop that was lightly coated in cornstarch (?) before being deep fried and the crust was so delicate and light.
  • The scallop mousseline was made with soy milk and grapeseed oil and likely other aromatics, or maybe even dashi.
  • The texture of the scallop was puffy like a marshmallow, but the inside was slippery smooth like egg whites or silky tofu.
  • I would have never guessed this was a scallop and it was a mind game I couldn’t get over.

**Dashi - 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)

  • This cup of tea was the remaining dashi stock.
  • I literally start salivating just thinking about it. This was the essence of umami.
  • Holy mother of… !! I literally took a sip and right away I was hit with flavour and I couldn’t swallow that sip! It was immediate and my salivary glands almost started right away.
  • If you ever go to a Japanese restaurant and you hit a savoury flavour in a dish that you just can’t put your finger on, that is most likely from dashi.
  • Dashi is a traditional Japanese seafood stock made from some combination of daikon, kombu (kelp), dried and smoked bonito (fish) flakes, or sardines.
  • It’s used to make most Japanese soups (udon broth, miso etc), sauces, tamago (Japanese omelet), and chawanmushi (Japanese egg custard – see one in my post here) as well as many other things.
  • Since a traditional dashi is a time consuming process, this one used instant dashi powder and soy powder.
  • The ingredients in the siphon had to be sliced pretty thinly since the soup doesn’t brew for that long.
  • The flavours don’t get extracted as intensely as they would if the soup was slowly cooked all day, however instant dashi is very powerful.
  • Instant dashi powder is highly concentrated and has more glutamate so that savoury umami flavour was more intense than a home made dashi.
  • Think of home made chicken broth and chicken bouillon powder, the powder never replaces the authentic taste of the real deal, but that powder is intense and loaded with savoury flavour.
  • This dashi soup was amazing and it was actually well infused with all the aromatics in the siphon. I was surprised!
  • I could taste the seaweed, a bit of brininess and it was salty and sweet with a bit of heat from the chilies and fresh wasabi.
  • The dashi powder having more glutamate created this texture which just coated my tongue and roof of my mouth like a soupy gel.
  • The texture and flavours of the soup were so thick that I felt like it was congealing to my tongue.
  • I kept thinking how fast it could turn into gel if I put it in the fridge.
  • The stock was almost like a sauce and it was so flavourful that I was literally sucking on my own taste buds even after it was done.
  • My taste buds just absorbed the soup like crazy.
  • The broth coated my whole mouth with a wonderful savoury and fragrant flavour that was simply divine.
  • The dashi soup was kick the table incredible, but the “agedashi tofu” and garnishes were the labour intensive parts of this dish.

 Intermission

See – Alinea Act 2/5

See – Alinea Act 3/5

See – Alinea Act 4/5

See – Alinea Act 5/6

See – Alinea Act 6/6

See – Alinea Grand Finale/Encore

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Alinea on Urbanspoon

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