Do you have a life list? Mine’s not formally written down anywhere (self, get on that!), but I do have a mental list of things I want to do someday.
And I got to check off a long-standing item on our trip to Chicago last September. Dine at Alinea.
I first learned about the restaurant shortly after Neil and I got together over five years ago. I was still in my formative food-enthusiast years, and the passion of Chef Achatz combined with amazing innovations in molecular gastronomy really stuck with me.
So it was an incredible treat to finally dine there.
For those not familiar with Alinea it’s part gastronomic adventure, part theatrical experience, all totally delightful. The word “meal” doesn’t adequately capture it.
Walking into Alinea is reminiscent of that scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where the room is getting smaller as you go deeper inside. It sets the perfect stage for an evening where you should expect the unexpected, and nothing is quite as it seems.
At the beginning of the meal, two rice paper “flags” were set in the middle of the table. A centrepiece that would be used later in the meal (but how?).
We’d see them used five courses in, for the Pork belly: curry, cucumber, lime.
Part of the fun of a meal at Alinea is being “in on the joke” with your fellow diners, watching the faces of those who’ve already experienced one course giggle at your surprise, then doing the same with patrons who arrived after you did, as they experience an unexpected dish.
Everything is put together so thoughtfully, incorporating various senses, like sight as in the dish below, “Reflection of Elysian Farms” which is a landscape on a plate, reflecting the farm property using primarily lamb and corn preparations.
Texture was another popular tactic: shrimp two ways – one as a crisp fried stick of Yuba, the other using the same flavours on a piece of sugar cane, to be chewed and discarded once the flavour was gone like a stick of gum.
My absolute favourite, in terms of taste and smell, was the Pheasant. Skewered on a tiny oak branch with the leaves smouldering, it instantly took me to a warm house with a wood fire burning in the fall.
And one of the highlights: dessert, served on the table. A silicon sheet is rolled out, and one of the chefs actually comes out and creates an edible work of art in the centre of the table, baking on little custard rounds with a torch and splashing sauces and crumbles artfully around the centrepiece: a frozen, light-as-air mousse that gets softer and more decadent as it slowly warms to room temperature.
I tried to scan the souvenir copy of the menu we received after our meal, but my scanner is terrible, so I’ve reprinted our menu below.
None of the pictures I used are mine, I was more concerned with eating than snapping (and gave up trying to get cameraphone photos after about four courses), but you can get an impression of what we had by searching flickr for pictures of any of the dishes.
Alinea was hands down the most delicious and most unique meal I’ve ever had. If you’re into food, really into food, you should make a point of going. It’s one of the few food experiences I’ve had that totally lives up to the hype. I hope I’m fortunate enough to go back someday.
Menu: September 26, 2010
LEMON: don cesar pisco, cane juice, frozen and chewy
CUCUMBER: plymouth gin, rose, mint
CHERRY: buffalo trace, carpano antica, maraschino
STEELHEAD ROE: coconut, licorice, pineapple
YUBA: shrimp, miso, togarashi
CHAO TOM: sugar cane, shrimp, mint
TOMATOES: eight complimentary flavors
DISTILLATION of thai flavors
PORK BELLY: curry, cucumber, lime
KING CRAB: plum, lilac, fennel
PHEASANT: green grape, walnut, burning leaves
LAMB: reflection of elysian fields farm
HOT POTATO: cold potatao, black truffle, butter
TOURNEDO: a la persane
BLACK TRUFFLE: explosion, romaine, parmesan
BACON: butterscotch, apple, thyme
LEMON SODA: one bite
TRANSPARENCY: of raspberry, yogurt
BUBBLE GUM: long pepper, hibiscus, creme fraiche
EARL GREY: lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate
CHOCOLATE: apricot, honey, peanut