Like some others, I always have a running list of restaurants locally that I’m eager to try out, but rarely do I have an irrepressible desire to travel to dine someplace. There are exceptions — El Bulli for the scientific innovation, L’Arpege for exulting vegetables to their highest form, St John for quite the opposite reason — but domestically only one restaurant has piqued my curiosity in recent years.
Alinea, in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, was the brain- and palate-child of chef Grant Achatz, a young maverick who had trained with the likes of Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter, and by all accounts had taken that training and run with it to new culinary heights. For years I’d ignored the urge to go for one simple reason: It’s in Chicago, and we are in San Francisco. Helluva commute.
One Monday in July I called and left a message requesting a reservation. The restaurant isn’t open on Mondays, and so no one was there to take my call, but being forgetful as I am, I decided it was better to call and get it out of the way. Later that same morning, a press release hit the wires that young chef Achatz, age 33, had been diagnosed with stage-four squamous cell cancer of the mouth.
Still, the next day I received a call from a reservationist at Alinea, who quietly and politely offered seating options for the full 24-course tasting tour at 5 pm, or the shorter 12-course tasting menu at 9 pm. My inner glutton cried out for the 24-course groaner, but reason prevailed. After all, we would be on Pacific time, and a 9 pm seating was ideal for our needs. Besides, 24 courses, however small, is just too much.
Knowing what I did about the restaurant, I was not gravely concerned about Chef Achatz’s not being in the kitchen. Food of this caliber and requiring such technical finesse is not made by one person alone, but by a well-trained team of artisans. I remained confident that Achatz’s deft hand would remain present even in absentia.
In the cab en route to the restaurant, my excitement and anxiety grew. I felt jittery; butterflies fluttered in my stomach. We were about to consummate one of my greatest culinary wishes, a dining experience I sprung on my unwitting husband, who didn’t know that we were going to this restaurant (or, for that matter, what it was) until 48 hours before. Would it live up to my expectations? Would it thrill and inspire DPaul as much as I hoped?
As we arrived at the restaurant, walking down a corridor ambiently lit in lavender, I was taken with a sense of serenity. Entering through the main door, we were met not by a host station and a bustling restaurant, but a lone man in a dark suit, standing there as if he were waiting for us all night. To our right we had a clear view into the kitchen. There were no clattering pans, flames flaring up from cooktops, harried cooks racing about. Each of the cooks were going about his or her business with methodical calm.
We were led upstairs and seated at a table large enough to seat six (ahem, by San Francisco standards). The deceptively large space was broken up into sections that lent a sense of intimacy and, yes, serenity. There were only five tables in our room; an adjacent room was similar, and there were other rooms as well.
And so it began. We gave ourselves over to our skilled army of waitstaff and the sommelier. We opted for the wine pairings, which is not only recommended but an obvious good idea. Who would have the hubris to think they could select a single bottle of wine to pair with what was about to come? We gladly accepted the assistance.
Chef Achatz has earned a reputation as a mad scientist chef for his use of high-tech equipment, custom-designed service pieces and otherworldly presentations. Rather, I think he’s more of an inner child chef, playing with his (and, by extension, our) food to come up with creative, whimsical and sometimes outright silly presentations that simply never failed to delight.
What’s more is that though the presentations were astonishing, the flavors were every bit as strong. Almost every ingredient seemed to be distilled to its purest essence and delivered in its most intensified form. Not every dish knocked it out of the park, but surely every one was at least a solid hit.
It is a sensual experience. Obviously his dishes delight the eyes and the palate, but there is a tactile element, and an almost over-the-top attention to olfactory stimulation. The only sense that was not overtly courted was hearing; though I suppose the novelty of being in a quiet restaurant was in itself a sensory experience.
I was also struck by how many dishes conveyed a sense of place. While Chef Achatz’s presentations are rooted firmly in Japanese kaiseki, the flavors we tasted roamed the earth. We tasted the mountains of Italy, urban English comfort food, the moodiness of the Pacific Northwest and straight-up Midwestern bravado.
I also appreciated the rhythms expressed in the menu. Certain ingredients, like truffle, were used more than once to develop resonance between non-consecutive dishes. And then there was the key lime. Well.
Oh, and at the end they present you with a printed menu to remind you of everything you’ve just experienced. What a souvenir!
And so, without further ado, I present a blow-by-blow of our exceptional (count it, 15-course) meal at Alinea.
Tasting menu, September 22, 2007
All images from Alinea’s site; none are exact representations of our dishes, but approximations for illustrative purposes only. Not all dishes we had have approximate images on the site. You’ll have to use your imagination.
SURF CLAM, nasturtium, cucumber, shallot
Paul Laurent Brut Champagne with Lillet and Aquavit
server set a giant contact lens in front of each of us. We were each
handed an egg-like bowl straddled by a fork upon which rested a piece
of clam. We were instructed to take the fork, eat the clam, rest the fork on the "monocle" and then drink
the brilliant green soup in the bowl — but not to set the bowl down
beforehand, lest it overturn. High-maintenance food, yes, but it forced
you to pay attention!
The clam was unbelievably tender and
mild. The nasturtium puree in the bowl was the essence of green —
refreshing and silky and vegetal. Our bubbly aperitif offered dryness
and tingle to highlight the flavors. Pure refreshment, and a delightful
AYU, watermelon, kombu, coriander
Fukucho "Moon on the Water" Junmai Ginjo Sake, Hiroshima Prefecture
is also known as sweetfish, and the flesh of the fish is soft, mild and
in fact a little sweet. Our server explained that often it can have a
mild watermelon flavor, which is why the chef paired it with that. I
loved the crisp-fried spine and skin, creating a pleasant contrast to
the soft flesh. But the highlight here was the sake; floral and
feminine, it tasted like the culinary equivalent of white silk under
the light of a full moon.
CONCORD GRAPE, sassafrass, fennel juice
first of the true "one-bite wonders" that pepper the meal, this came as
a mysterious white globe in a glass of day-glo green liquid. As you
tilt your head back to take it all in, you have to open up a little
wider than you expect, and are rewarded with an explosive flood of
concord grape juice when the sassafrass globe bursts as you close your
mouth. It’s complex, cool and all at once unexpected. But though I
remember the fennel flavor and the waxy, almost white-chocolate-like
texture of the globe, it somehow didn’t taste like concord grape.
Surprising, since I consider that a very strong flavor.
TOMATO, plum, sherry vinegar, hardwood smoke
Sommerhauser Oispiel Silvaner Kabinett, A. Steinmann, Franken 2005
cleared a bit of space in front of us, servers laid down a wide, white
pillow, then upon that a white plate. The pillow was full of hardwood
smoke, and delicately perforated so that occasional wafts of smoke
would rise up as we put pressure on our plate to eat. On the plate were
a smattering of diminutive, sushi-like preparations of tomato — raw,
sun-dried, roasted, pureed — along with a few other ingredients. Our
server explained that they were meant to be eaten in combination.
Overall good, the presentation was the most memorable part here, though
on occasion the smoke overpowered for me, and definitely obliterated
LOBSTER, sunchoke, orange, hyacinth vapor
Weinbach Pinot Gris "Cuvée Saint Catherine", Alsace 2005
of a small bowl protruded a long, steel pick, on the tip of which was a
miniscule gelatinous cube topped with fennel blossom. Below, hunks of
luscious lobster meat in a buttery broth with wedges of clementine.
Around, a wider bowl held hyacinth blossoms, over which the server
poured hot water. We were instructed to eat the cube of pâte de fruit
of orange to prepare our palate before eating the lobster.
OK, you know how I feel about orange,
but this was an exceptional use of it. The pâte de fruit was intense,
to be sure, and more than about a milligram of it would have been too
much for me, but it did in fact do a spectacular job of cleansing the
palate in preparation. We were told the lobster was poached in butter,
but I think (as with the surf clam and the upcoming short ribs) it must
have been cooked sous vide to achieve an amazingly buttery texture. The
floral steam was a playful touch; and the wine stood dutifully by, like
a loyal wife.
SHORT RIB, Guinness, peanut, fried broccoli
Franco Martinetti Monferrato Rosso "Sul Bric", Piemonte 1999
beer and nuts — music to any Midwesterner’s ears. I loved this dish. A
modest pile of gorgeously braised beef shortribs (again, sous vide?), a
dollop of broccoli puree and a smaller of (I think) mayonnaise lurked
under a perfect square of gel made from Guinness beer. Sprinkled over
were roasted peanuts, pink peppercorns and fried broccoli florets. The
presentation was ultra-mod, but the flavors were pure home.
Spectacular. The wine pairing was another standout, a peculiar
barbera-cabernet blend that offered the bright and funky flavors of its
Italian roots, but the depth and structure of a great French wine. This
is a wine I will seek out.
BLACK TRUFFLE explosion, romaine, parmesan
one-bite wonder: One perfect raviolo on a Chinese soup spoon. The
second it lands on your tongue, your mouth is flooded with intensely
truffled broth. I was instantly transported to Umbria, when we were
there in the autumn of 1999. It brought back imagery so crystal clear
it almost made me weep.
I can only assume this was made as an Italian-inflected version of the Chinese xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings, where the dumplings are filled with frozen broth, which then thaws when cooked. Stunning and delicious.
KUROGE WAGYU, matsutake, cedar branch aroma
Château Petit-Village, Pomerol 2000
in the middle of the menu, the most savory and probably my favorite
dish of the night. A small bowl, the well of which was obscured with
cedar branches, a single steel pick protruding. Pulling the pick
straight up revealed a gorgeous block of wagyu beef topped with
matsutake mushroom, lofted by a waft of woodsy perfume. It was the
fasted trip from Italy to Washington state ever. The meat richly
crunched between my teeth, accentuated by the tendon-like mushroom.
Even a great Pomerol could only barely make its presence known against
HOT POTATO cold potato, black truffle, butter
perfect example of Chef Achatz’s custom dishware, this one-bite wonder
suspended a hot hunk of potato over a chilled, truffled potato soup
(ours didn’t have the disc of truffle on top, but rather the truffles
integrated into the soup below). When you pull the pick from the dish,
the elements drop into the soup, and you drink it down like an oyster.
Hot and cold, creamy and firm, earthy and buttery. Potatoes will never
be the same to me.
LAMB, peas, consommé, porcini
Clarendon Hills "Hickinbotham" Grenache, S. Australia 2004
Lamb. Peas. Mint. Curry. I didn’t grow up in England, but I know an English person
or two, and in my few travels there were always struck by these
flavors. Peas and mint are synergistic. Likewise mint and lamb. And
lamb and curry. And curry and peas. It’s culinary math, gorgeously
executed. Yet, like the beef and beer dish, I suspect any Englishman
would weep for the simple flavors of home presented here.
TRANSPARENCY of raspberry, rose petal, yogurt
sugary crisp is bound between two metallic discs; the server carefully
sets askew so it bobbled and weaves when he lets go. Playful! Fun!
Dessert is happening!
I loved the pseudo binder-clip thingy,
and the sugary crisp burst with raspberry flavor; the rose petals were
pretty but not overly present on the palate. But this one crunchy,
bright and sweet-tart bite gloriously announced the advent of dessert.
Of course, this brought on mixed feelings for me. Dessert, yay! Aw,
dessert already? Of course, the sensation of fullness loomed on the
horizon. But still. Already?
GUAVA, avocado, brie, key lime juice
La Spinetta Moscato d’Asti "Bricco Quaglia", Piemonte 2006
the tomato dish, this was a quirky Dr Seuss-ian combination of shapes
and textures and colors meant to combine into something more. The
two-tone avocado-coconut semifreddo played nicely with the brightly
acidic guava puree and foam. It was at this point that the two key
limes half-encased in shrink-wrap that had been set on our table from
the beginning "for decoration" were ceremoniously pierced and juiced
over our dish. Brilliant table magic.
I loved the moscato here —
one I’ve had before. Just barely effervescent and far from overly
sweet, it played exceptionally well with the tartness and richness of
HUCKLEBERRY, frozen and chewy, lemon, parsley
cookery at its pinnacle. Achatz uses an "anti-grill", a wide griddle
that freezes on contact rather than heating. Much like a semifreddo,
this custardy confection takes on a chewy texture (just as they say);
pure genius. DPaul didn’t love the herbal flavor that the parsley gave,
which I understood; in fact, I thought it might have been cilantro,
which would have been a killer for him for sure.
CHOCOLATE, passionfruit, lemongrass, soy
Abbazia di Novacella Moscato Rosa "Praepostitus", Alto Adige 2006
dessert without chocolate? This was undeniably the most Seussian
presentation of the night, with Pla-Doh-esque squiggles of
chile-infused chocolate and passionfruit gel; counterpoints came in the
form of a lemongrass sorbet and an intensely salty shoyu (and, perhaps,
salted plum?) paste. Aspirational and utterly over the top, I had mixed
feelings about this one, but appreciated it for its playful nature.
And then there was the wine. Moscato rosa, brilliant ruby and redolent with the aroma of rose petals. Well. Well. Well.
CARAMEL, meyer lemon, cinnamon perfume
I wasn’t expecting another dessert. They had taken our coffee/tea
orders before the chocolate course, my stomach was bursting and I had
long lost count of the dishes. But lo, here came one last treat — a
fritter-like wad clinging to the end of a rustic cinnamon stick.
Delicious, to be sure, but rich and a pure knockout at the end. If I
wrote the description of this dessert, though, it might have read,
CINNAMON fritter, period. Was there lemon? Beats me.
finished his meal with a single espresso, I with a wee pot of white
peony tea. We rested and smiled, savored the cumulative flavors we had
just experienced, began digesting both literally and figratively all
that we had just taken in. The meal lasted about two-and-a-half hours,
less than I expected, yet we never felt rushed. Each course was
expertly prepared and presented, and we had the opportunity to properly
experience and ingest each course before facing a new sensory
Not since French Laundry
have we had a meal that utterly turns our dining barometer on its ear;
and to be frank, though French Laundry is, or was at the time, a
pinnacle of culinary excellence, Alinea deconstructed our every
expectation of what dining is without ever relying too handily on the
crutch of obvious richness. At the end of the meal, I didn’t feel like
I had just ingested a stick of butter, or excessive amounts of caviar
or foie gras (come to think of it, exactly none of the above — hey!).
No, Alinea performed a different kind of alchemy. We were served
deliciousness in its purely distilled form, recomposed and formatted in
an aesthetically pleasing way.
The bar has been raised.
1723 N Halsted, Chicago IL