“Best Restaurant in Chicago” – Alinea (Chef Grant Achatz) Act 4/5 (Squab & Miro)

Restaurant: Alinea – Act 4/5
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 1 of 5
  • Alinea – Act 2 of 5
  • Alinea – Act 3 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:

See – Alinea Act 1/5

See – Alinea Act 2/5

See – Alinea Act 3/5

This is Alinea Act 4/5

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.

Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Bussola 2006 (Veneto, Italy) – This was a beautiful red wine. It was rich, juicy and ruby red in colour with a long finish and I could taste raisins and prunes. It was sweet and smooth with characteristics of port and it had some spice, but it wasn’t spicy. It just had luxurious characteristics and I simply loved it.

For the next course they brought out this irregular stainless steel vase filled with lavender salt. This is where the dirty silverware from my next course was placed in afterwards. I could smell it as soon as they walked in the room with it. It encouraged you to use your sense of smell as you ate the next course and it just made the wine taste that much more luxurious.

Note: The irregular shape of the vase resembles the bottle of gin in Joan Miró’s Still Life with Old Shoe painting. I know this sounds like a random comment right now, but you’ll see what I mean soon enough.

I know they used to serve a course on top of a lavender scented pillow and as you ate, the pillow would deflate to create “lavender air”. He has also done this with juniper before. I would have loved to experience the pillow, but now they serve it this way. It’s a similar idea, but the pillow just wouldn’t have logistically worked with how they presented this next course.

I appreciated the lavender at the time, but after further research I actually think this course would have been even better with scented juniper air. It would have played into the scent of gin (made from juniper), which was the bottle of liquor featured in Miró’s Still Life with Old Shoe painting. Again, I know this all sounds very random, but you’ll see what I mean.

Still Life with Old Shoe, 1937, by Joan Miró – Photo from moma.org

This dish was inspired by Chef Achatz’s visit to the Tate Modern in London during the Miró exhibition in 2011. It was his interpretation of Miró’s painting Still Life with Old Shoe. They did not give a photo of this painting at any point throughout the meal, but I did further research myself to better understand it.

Squabn/a (I can’t “rate” this. Read the whole post to understand why.)

  • Inspired by Miró
  • The table was sanitized before this course was presented.
  • The server comes out with utensils and randomly starts to place them in front of you.
  • Each person was given a different picture and there was no particular design.
  • Even if you asked they wouldn’t tell you what anything was or what order to eat them in. They said Chef Achatz prefers it this way.
  • You might not see the resemblance to the painting, but this course was so deep, meaningful and symbolic that I can’t “rate” it. It was pure art.
  • It’s 4am and I just spent hours researching on why Chef Achatz would use these ingredients. Holy crap. The guy is a freaking genius.
  • There are no actual articles explaining why he chose these ingredients (at least I didn’t see any), and most of the articles I found were just about how the course tasted. And honestly, that’s only a fraction of what this dish is really about.
  • Originally I was going to approach it the same way and talk about how it tasted and its textures, like I usually would, but this had so much more significance.
  • When I was at the restaurant I totally did not get it. I mean it tasted fine, but I didn’t truly understand what he was doing.
  • I kept thinking it was a bit odd to just eat one ingredient at a time instead of everything together. I wanted to enjoy the dish as a whole, but that was the point… it was a whole.
  • The idea was that each utensil was in its own category, but collectively they made one dish, or one painting. I kind of got this idea then, but I really get the idea now… or at least I think I do.

I have to go back to this painting. Again there was no photo of it given with dinner at any point, so I’m doing this on my own.

I felt like I was in Art History 101 all over again. I was playing detective and I literally got chills and goosebumps as I discovered why he chose the ingredients he did. This is all based on my interpretation of his art, but I feel like I truly understand what he was doing. Of course I can’t get into Chef Achatz’s artistic mind so I could be totally wrong in my analysis, but art is always left to individual interpretation anyway. So even if I’m “wrong” so be it. I’m not a history buff, but I love learning.

You have to know about the original artist to understand this painting. Joan Miró was a Catalan painter known for his Surrealism art. Surrealist art was about letting go of rules and traditional ways of making art. I think this is possibly why Chef Achatz chose to showcase this course the way he did. It was non-traditional and random. It was a freedom of approach and thought, just like a true surrealist.

Still Life with Old Shoe was created in 1937 and I had to read an article from The Observer to understand it better. The year has significance because the Civil War was happening in Spain so Miró fled to Paris with his family to escape the bombing. This painting was somewhat of an answer or his feelings to the Civil War in Spain.

Miro said in an interview in The Observer “The composition is realistic because I was paralysed by the general feeling of terror and almost unable to paint at all… We are living through a terrible drama, everything happening in Spain is terrifying in a way you could never imagine. I feel very uprooted here and nostalgic for my country… I am pessimistic, I am tragically pessimistic.”

The items he chose for this painting were a 6 tined fork poking an apple, a bottle of gin which was wrapped in a brown paper bag that he found on the street (initial inspiration for the painting), half a loaf of bread, and an untied old shoe which was an Ode to Van Gogh. They were very boring objects and that was intentional. He was uninspired to paint and uninspired by the world’s events.

As I mentioned, this course “Squab” was Chef Achatz’s interpretation of Miró’s painting Still Life with Old Shoe, and this is my interpretation of his interpretationEven the colours of the ingredients he chose were similar to the ones used for the painting. There was so much more than meets the eye… and palate with this dish. It was probably the most creative dish I’ve ever eaten and I wouldn’t have thought so until trying to understand it on a deeper level. I saw his vision.

Lavender Noodle

  • I had no idea what this was when I ate it. I asked later and was told it was a lavender noodle.
  • It looked like an udon and it tasted like it was dressed in a sweet syrup, but I couldn’t taste the lavender.
  • The noodle was silky and the texture of egg whites.
  • I interpreted this as either the string that wraps the bottle of gin or the shoelace on the old shoe.
  • I thought it would be neat if this was made with gin.
  • That’s also why I wrote at the top that I wish the lavender air was juniper air to tie in that gin theme.
  • The lavender might just be his own style because he has been using this “lavender air” idea for years now.

Olive

  • It tasted like an olive. Go figure. I’m not sure what the herb was.
  • My guess is that this was supposed to be the 6 tinned fork piercing the apple in the painting.
  • I think the choice of an olive was supposed to refer back to the bottle of gin.
  • I was thinking gin martinis and how they’re served with olives, so I think that’s why he chose an olive.
  • Most forks are 4 tinned, but the 6 tinned fork enhanced the idea of the brutal deaths that were happening during the Civil War - I think at least.
  • Now that I know the painting, I’m actually very surprised Chef Achatz didn’t custom make 6 tinned forks especially for this course.
  • Most of his dishes did have custom made serving dishes, so it wouldn’t be crazy to think he would go to those lengths to showcase his art.

Pomegranate Jelly with Red Pepper

  • It tasted like red wine jelly infused with basil and that’s what I thought it was at first.
  • I must have spent at least a couple hours just researching the pomegranate.
  • I don’t really know why he chose it and it seemed the most random out of everything after my research.
  • According to Wikipedia (I know. Not the most scholarly source, but it gives me an idea) the pomegranate was introduced to Latin America and California by Spanish settlers.
  • I’m not sure if this was a tribute to Spain and Miró being a Catalan painter.
  • The pomegranate is very tart so it could have been playing on the idea of Miró’s sour perspective on the world at that time.
  • It could also just be because the apple in the painting sort of looks like a pomegranate.
  • Another article I found was from 2007 in iwpr.net and it was about pomegranate orchards being destroyed in Afghanistan.
  • This could be a really far stretch and maybe I’m looking way too into things, but perhaps it was to do with the US and Afghanistan war.
  • I really have no idea why he chose the pomegranate, and I refuse to believe it was because it complemented the squab. That answer would actually be considered way too simple in this case.
  • **Update – Follow Me Foodie reader Anita left a comment with her analysis on the significance of the pomegranate. Read her comment below. It’s fantastic.

Plum

  • It tasted like a plum.
  • But why did he choose a plum? I had to find out.
  • I spent quite some time researching the plum and I literally got chills discovering what I believe is “the answer”.
  • This is completely based on my interpretation.
  • Operation PLUM. It means nothing to most of us, but it’s actually a code word that was used during World War II, but the term never stuck.
  • Operation PLUM meant death.
  • Well then of course he would choose the plum! GENIUS.
  • During the Civil War lots of people were dying and Spain was being bombed.
  • I think this is probably why the plum on this spoon was round and looked like a cannonball.
  • It almost made me think of a food fight too and how one would catapult things off spoons.

Prune

  • I thought this was fig jam with Medjool dates.
  • It was a lot of jam or prune purée on a spoon.
  • At that moment it wasn’t really pleasant to eat so much purée by itself on a spoon. However, that’s not what it was about. I get it now.
  • A prune is a dried plum so the course showed the two textures of the plum.
  • I think it could have been the explosion of “the bomb”.
  • The fermentation of the plum before it becomes a prune could be implying the rotting of people during the Civil War.
  • It was almost like the death of the plum or the death of the people.
  • The apple in the paining also appears to be rotting, so it could be a play on that image too.

Squab

  • It was sous vide and had little fat.
  • Squab is naturally quite lean and this was very tender and moist. It was a beautiful piece of squab.
  • It took me ages to figure out how he interpreted the old shoe in Miró’s painting.
  • None of the ingredients said “shoe” to me except maybe the lavender noodle which could have been the shoelace.
  • I kept thinking why wouldn’t he make a fruit leather to represent the shoe?
  • I did some further research on squab to figure out why the heck he would choose it.
  • Squab. It’s also referred to as pigeon and I knew this.
  • During the World War II pigeon meat was eaten when food was rationed in England. Ohhhh!! And now it all makes sense!
  • Rationing. What else was rationed in World War II? Shoes!
  • During WWII there was a serious shortage of rubber and leather and much of these materials were in demand for the military.
  • The squab was symbolic for the shoe! At least that is how I interpret it.
  • War pigeons also carried messages, so choosing squab as the “main” was indeed a very well thought out ingredient.
  • Again this is all based on my interpretation and I could be wrong, but it feels right.

Aged Sherry Vinegar with Duck Fat and Thyme

  • This was possibly my favourite bite and I was so surprised.
  • It looked like oil and balsamic vinegar, but I wrote “6/6″ next to it in my notebook.
  • It was after I realized that it was “Aged Sherry Vinegar with Duck Fat”. Oh duck fat… you make such a difference.
  • So why oil and vinegar?
  • I think it all goes back to WWII.
  • Cooking fats were rationed during the Civil War as to why he likely used duck fat.
  • Duck fat is an expensive cooking oil, so it was an interesting contrast to the theme of the painting, but this is still Alinea so it’s natural to expect high quality ingredients.
  • The duck fat also played into the squab or the foie gras custard featured later in this post.
  • Duck and squab actually taste very similar, but the squab has much more symbolic meaning to the painting.
  • As to why he chose sherry vinegar it could be because it’s from a Spanish province which is Miró’s home.
  • The idea of oil and vinegar not mixing crossed my mind as well, and that could show Miró’s mixed feelings at that time too… or I mean “thyme”… ha!

Pumpernickel 

  • It was crispy toasted pumpernickel breadcrumbs and I think a celery root ribbon.
  • This was obviously supposed to represent the loaf of bread in the painting.
  • The bread in the painting looks like rye and it looks dried out too.
  • Pumpernickel or rye bread is traditionally considered German war bread or peasant food.
  • It has a dark, nutty and almost bitter flavour and it was toasted to likely resemble the fires during the Civil War.
  • I interpreted the crumbs as being the ashes from the war and also to enhance the dry quality of the bread in the painting.
  • I researched for a while what significance celery root might have, but I honestly think it was there to hold the breadcrumbs in place.

Foie Gras Custard/Panna Cotta

  • It tasted like a very rich foie gras crème brûlée, but without the brûlée and instead a sprinkle of salt and pepper.
  • I could really taste the umami of the foie too, I loved it… but then again I love anything foie.
  • I’ve actually tried a Foie Gras Panna Cotta at Fraîche Restaurant before too.
  • I finished with this because it looked like dessert.
  • So why foie gras custard?
  • I tried breaking it down and I came up with “milk, eggs, and sugar”. The every day basics.
  • These 3 ingredients were also rationed during WWII and dessert was considered a luxury.
  • People had to be simple with the limited ingredients available.
  • I think this would have been neat as a pudding because pudding is a standard “war dessert”, but this is Alinea so it can’t be peasant food either.
  • A custard or pudding was an easy dessert to make during the war so I think he reinterpreted it here.
  • Dessert was a luxury then, but he just made it mean luxury in the context of today… with foie gras.

I appreciated this course so much more after trying to understand his vision for it. Without knowing the painting I don’t think many people would understand this dish… I know I didn’t at that moment. Since this was all based on my personal research and analysis I could be completely wrong, but only the artist knows the answer anyway.

I know Chef Achatz wanted all the flavours to kind of flow in together one after another to create one dish, and they did, but in a very deconstructed way. Since people had to be creative with flavours during the war due to limited ingredients, we as diners had to do the same thing here. I felt like I was being given the colours to paint my own picture and create my own flavours. It was beautiful.

As I mentioned, during the Civil War, Miró didn’t want to paint and the simplicity of these ingredients almost shows how Chef Achatz didn’t want to cook.

I must say it was very ironic at the same time. All these ingredients were supposed to represent rationed foods during WWII and we were enjoying them in some exquisite ways at a 3 Michelin Star restaurant. It was almost “war food” in the most glorified context.

I think this was the contrast though. To see beauty after a disaster. It was a new beginning. A new start. This is literally and figuratively the meaning of Alinea (¶).

I originally had 4 courses I wanted to feature in this post, but I didn’t expect to get so into this “Squab” course. Since I don’t want to take away from the meaning of this dish and tribute to Miró, I feel like it is deserving of its own post like Lamb 86 was. My 5 part series may possibly turn into a 6 part series now. It’s not according to plan, but in a way it kind of suits this “why follow the rules” surrealism themed art that I see from Chef Achatz. We’ll see…

 Intermission

See – Alinea Act 1/5

See – Alinea Act 2/5

See – Alinea Act 3/5

See – Alinea Act 5/6

See – Alinea Act 6/6

See – Alinea Grand Finale/Encore

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