“Best Restaurant in Chicago” – Alinea (Chef Grant Achatz) Act 3/5 – Lamb 86

Restaurant: Alinea – Act 3/5
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 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:

See – Alinea Act 1/5

See – Alinea Act 2/5

This is Alinea Act 3/5

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.

Château Ollieux Romanis Corbières ‘Atal Sia’ Boutenac 2008, France - I know. Don’t say it. I was too excited about the next dish and didn’t realize how bad this photo was. It’ll have to do. ‘Atal Sia’ means “Let It Be” and in this case it was implying “let it be [grapes]“. It was a medium bodied dark red blend with no oak and flavours of black fruit like plum and figs. It was a pretty standard red wine that goes with everything hence “let it be” and it worked with the lamb. I could see why they chose a less complex wine for this course because there was already so much going on with the food.

Watch the behind the scenes preparation for Lamb 86…

Lamb5.5/6 (Excellent!)

  • ……..?????……….!!!!!!!!!!!! (This was actually the description for this course.)
  • ;alsdnf’pans’dfpdfadasedf!!!!! I know! It was garnish galore!
  • They don’t give you a menu until the very end of dinner so I never knew what the next course was going to be unless I peeked at my neighbour table.
  • I saw the Lamb 86 video when Grant Achatz first tweeted it back in May, so when I saw them bring this out I was on the edge of my seat.
  • They called it “Lamb 60″ at the restaurant though, so I thought they were serving the simplified version of Lamb 86.
  • It turns out that the dish is composed of 86 individual components (eg: lemon and lemon zest counts as two ingredients), so that’s how they came up with 86 originally.
  • There are only 60 garnishes and condiments if you count them on the platter though.
  • The whole idea is supposed to be a guessing game so they don’t tell you what anything is.
  • When they first started serving this course they used to give an answer key to the ingredients at the end, but they stopped doing that now.
  • A few ingredients are seasonal and they changed a few of the garnishes from the original so I’ll assume that’s when they also stopped with the answer keys too.
  • I ended up going through every single garnish…

Guess

Answer

Mint gel

Mint

Saffron gel + saffron threads

Saffron

Deep fried capers

Capers

Meringue

Rose water meringue

Herb

Tarragon

Smokey black walnut confit

Walnut

Red onion jam

Red onion

Pickled eggplant

Eggplant

Toasted nutmeg

Clove

Deep fried crispy herb

Basil

Sun dried tomato salt

? (It used to be Cinnamon, but it was definitely some type of salt now)

Tomato

Tomato

Smoked sea salt + herbs

Smoke

Yuzu segment

Blood orange (I think they changed this to yuzu)

Mint liqueur gel

Fennel

Salted Trumpet mushroom

King Trumpet

Kaffir lime leaf chiffonade

Sorrel

Curry gel + saffron

Curry

Anise herb

Anise Hyssop

Moonshine that burns; super boozy

Rum

Semi dehydrated fig

Fig

Candied lemon + lemon zest

Lemon

Preserved cherry

Cherry

Toasted oats

Oats

Toasted bread crumbs

Caraway powder

Lemon aioli

? (It used to be Thyme, and it could have been a thyme aioli?)

Sweet chili + sweet chili gel

Red pepper

Texture of jellyfish, but not jellyfish; neutral in flavour

Heart of palm (Used to be an artichoke)

Fava bean (not starchy)

Fava bean

Pickled blueberries

Blueberry

Sweetened cream cheese gel + sweet crisp

Yogurt

Salted herb and truffle butter

Butter (Used to be Bay Laurel)

Black liquorice ‘caviar’

Black liquorice

Baby oregano

Oregano

Rosemary powder

Rosemary

Grilled garlic ramp + spice

Spring garlic

Black currant red wine jam

Red wine

Peach preserves

Peach

Pickled ginger

Ginger (Used to be asparagus)

Fresh honey comb

Honey

Candied rhubarb

Rhubarb

Spice cake + cloves + cinnamon

Coffee

Pickled cipollini or ramp?

Onion? (Use to be endive)

White bean purée + white bean

White bean

Brandy gel with bitters

Madeira

Pickled red onion purée + spices

Tamarind

Cheesy polenta crumbs

Cous cous

Maldon salt + cumin

Cumin

Micro cilantro

Cilantro

Red, yellow and pink minced beets

Beet

Toasted bread (crouton)

Brioche

Dandelion

Dill (flower)

Toasted unsalted slivered almonds

Almond

Carrot

Carrot

Pistachio paste

Pistachio

Sambuca gel

Sambuca

Dried apricot

Apricot

Kalamata and Green Olive tapenade

Olive

Blackberry

Blackberry

Parsley gel

Parsley

This was the lamb which was meant to be eaten with the 60 or 86 garnishes and condiments.

They poured a lamb demi glace or red wine lamb jus reduction on top. It was a very glossy, thick, rich and syrupy sauce and it was wonderfully savoury, sweet and a bit tangy and well reduced. The lamb was likely grass fed so it tasted slightly gamier.

This lamb and the sauce tasted almost the same as the Duo of Lamb I’ve had from Chef Hamid at Diva at the Met. They used different cuts of the lamb, but the execution was close. Both chefs are inspired by Chef Thomas Keller’s recipes, so it could be why this dish shared similar flavour profiles.

Lamb Tenderloin – This was sous vide.

Lamb Belly – Lamb belly doesn’t get as much love as pork belly which seems almost impossible to get off the menu nowadays. Lamb belly is being used in parts of the States, but it hasn’t become popular in Vancouver yet and it’s still relatively underused.

This one was rolled up and extremely fatty, and although fat is flavour, sometimes it can be a bit much. I prefer more of a meat ratio, but this was still undeniably tender and obviously moist and almost creamy. The whole thing melted in my mouth and it wasn’t chewy, but still a bit gelatinous. The edges were slightly crispy and it was some combination of braised, sous vide and pan fried.

Lamb Shank – It’s a more familiar part of the lamb – the leg.

Garnish Key for Alinea Restaurant’s Lamb 86 

Mint Red
Onion
Smoke Anise
Hyssop
   Caraway
Powder
  Yogurt Red
Wine
Onion (?) Cilantro  Pistachio
Saffron Eggplant Blood
Orange
Rum   Thyme (?)   Butter Peach   White
Bean
Beet  Sambuca
Capers Clove Fennel Fig      Red
Pepper
  Black
Licorice
Ginger Madeira Brioche   Apricot
Meringue  Basil King
Trumpet
Lemon Heart of palm  Oregano Honey Tamarind    Dill     Olive
Tarragon  Salt (?) Sorrel Cherry      Fava
Bean
Rosemary  Rhubarb   Cous
Cous
Almond Blackberry
Walnut Tomato Curry Oats   Blueberry   Spring
Garlic
  Coffee   Cumin Carrot   Parsley

It was a very playful dish and the colours were so well thought out. It was fun to dip and dabble in all the sauces, purées, gels, and garnishes. It was that sense of discovery he brought with every dish that made the whole experience so entertaining. It challenged the palate and the best part was that it encouraged people to try things they might normally not have.

I like to try everything so I didn’t have an issue, but I know there are many people who don’t try things unless they know what it is. Or they don’t try it because they think they don’t like it (I admit I still do that with Chinese red bean soup).

A good rule of “foodie thumb” is keep trying it until you do like it. It’s hard, but it’s the only way to learn to like something and develop a palate for it.

The only items I wasn’t so keen on were probably the very highly concentrated liqueur gels. They were just really strong, boozy and bitter and I found them more palatable with the lamb, but it wasn’t really for me.

Another logistical challenge with this course was that by the time I tried each garnish my lamb had cooled down. I would have preferred getting the lamb after I had time to try everything. Luckily we knew that would happen so we ended up trying a bite of the lamb when it was hot before trying all the garnishes.

The ingredients ranged from au natural to completely transformed from its original state or texture. The concept of presenting 60 different garnishes and condiments isn’t really hard to recreate, but the time to make the gels, purées and powders is a labour intensive process. It also requires a good variety, no repeats, unique textures and colour contrast as well as consideration for ingredients that can be premade and served room temperature. It was a well thought out line up of garnishes.

I actually discovered a few unique flavour combinations I would have never really thought of before. I think that was the most rewarding part of this course. Obviously there wasn’t enough lamb to try every combination of flavours, but it was a fun game.

The pistachio and dried apricot were just one of the combinations I really enjoyed with the lamb, but even the coffee cake which tasted like a spice cake worked really well too. The saffron gel with a touch of the rose water meringue was also a nice Middle Eastern combination of flavours for the lamb. I just loved being able to experience lamb with so many ingredients from different cultures. It was a sophisticated way to play with food.

A funny story, well not funny at first, but when Lamb 86 arrived at the table my friend accidentally knocked the brioche off the platter onto the floor. My eyeballs nearly popped out of their sockets from shock or having a minor heart attack. I almost killed took her fork away. There was definitely a loud gasp from all of us followed by my hands on my cheeks to hold down the heat. There was a “what did you just do?” followed by a “you pick that up!”… and perhaps even a “you’re paying for dinner” (that last one wasn’t from me). As we were frantically searching for it on the floor the server came around with his fancy pocket tweezers to pick it up. He was about to head back to the kitchen to toss it out and we stopped him as soon as he turned his back…

Me: Put it down.
Server: Why?
Me: Just put it down.
Server: But it dropped on the floor.
Me: I don’t care, just put it down.
Server: I already got you another one on its way.
Me: *Sigh of relief*
Server: It’s just toasted brioche.
Me: Oh my gosh thank you so much!!!

… and in 2 seconds I got a new toasted brioche… and 10 minutes later my blush went away.

 Intermission

See – Alinea Act 1/5

See – Alinea Act 2/5

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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