You eat 17 courses at Alinea in Chicago, each with its own nuances and surprises, and when you reach dessert, you're simultaneously sad to know your meal has come to and end, and still ready for one last surprise. You get two. A delicious dessert, "Chocolate," artfully plated, on most nights by chef Grant Achatz himself. "I think that coming out to the table for dessert enhances the experience as well, not because I think I’m better at it than my sous chef or anyone else, but because people get a kick out of it," he noted in a recent interview. Blueberry, honey, and peanut are listed on the menu, but something about it just reminds you of a fresh, light Reese's Peanut Butter Cup in the best possible way. And for these reasons this dish made my list of most memorable meals of 2011.Read More
It's not everyday you come across an Escoffier dish at a restaurant, but having one at chef Grant Achatz's restaurant, Alinea, kind of makes sense. Not because you feel like the chef has anything to prove about demonstrating technique, but because hey, the truly great artists didn't just start out by going free-form, they actually learned classic technique and knew how to draw first. Here, with "Agneau," an Elysian Fields lamb loin was served on croutons with asparagus tips, artichoke hearts, chorron sauce (like a béarnaise but with tomato purée), and Yukon Gold potatoes. If this is part of what inspired Next's Paris 1906 menu, the folks who got to sample the full tasting truly were lucky. And for these reasons this dish made my list of most memorable meals of 2011.Read More
Chef Grant Achatz's Black Truffle Explosion was the dish he served to Henry Adaniya when trying out for the job of chef of the Evanston, Ill., restaurant Trio, where he really started to make his name. It was a dish Achatz was inspired to create at the French Laundry, while watching the staff butcher remove chilled sous vide bags filled with duck confit from the refrigerator, seeing the gelled stock melt in his warm hands while removing the duck, and noticing a fellow chef making agnolotti from an egg yolk-laden pasta dough using a recipe handed to Thomas Keller by a Piedmontese grandmother. Needless to say, Achatz got the job.
After being discontinued for a while, the dish found its way to Alinea, where Achatz's partner Nick Kokonas noted, "If he didn't make it at Alinea, someone would shoot him. Probably me." In order to make the raviolo, they buy a mountain of black truffles at the end of the year and make a stock. "Last year we had three huge stockpots going at once," Achatz explained in his Alinea cookbook, "The kitchen smelled incredible." The Black Truffle Explosion is just what you'd imagine from its name, a truffle broth soup dumpling (topped with Parmesan and romaine) — the kind of dish that you savor judiciously, the kind of dish that the folks with more money at the other table order another round of. It really is one of the best bites of food I ate all year. And for these reasons this dish made my list of most memorable meals of 2011.
From the red hallway entrance and the open kitchen where you can watch chef Grant Achatz in his kitchen, its cooks operating with quiet precision, to the course after course of playfulness and delight, the tasting menu at Alinea in Chicago is all that you've heard, all that you're hoping for, and more. It's hard to choose one dish to represent a whole meal, so following are four of the 18 served.
The dish that offered most in terms of both flavor and texture was English Pea (olive oil, chamomile, and green apple) — three layers in an orb with two removable parts. On top was a pea purée, with skinned peas and pea shoots dressed with lemon. Smooth, fresh, and garden beautiful. Underneath was a layer of freeze-dried peas, pea meringue, grape jelly, and olive oil jelly. Cool, smooth, sweet, and savory. Then under that there's Parmesan cream, apple sorbet, and a cold pea soup. Tangy, salty, sweet, and creamy. A central ingredient, three ways, all delicious. And for these reasons this dish made my list of most memorable meals of 2011.
As a longtime subscriber to Gourmet magazine before it went the way of the vinyl LP, I almost cancelled my subscription in 2008 when it declared the best restaurant in the country was not in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or even New Orleans, but of all places Chicago. Of course Chef Grant Achatz trained at the elbow of the master, Thomas "French Laundry/Per Se" Keller. I had even thought that Eric Ziebold of Washington, D.C.'s CityZen had already surpassed the teacher, but didn't think it could happen again so soon. So, I had to check out Alinea.
My dining companion was my wife. The changing expressions on her face throughout the meal may be better testimony to the dinner than any food photos. Horror gave way to disgust, to sheer pleasure, to outright giggling, and back to annoyance. The frozen edible solid "cocktails" were the amuse-bouches (in case you've never eaten your Manhattan before). We soon discovered that in the mind of Achatz, the entire meal is intended to amuse.
The first dish was British-inspired which, like the cocktails, involved very frozen English peas with Iberico, burrata and solid spheres of sherry. The dish invoked spring, the British countryside and a still frozen box of Jolly Green Giant peas. The lobster tempura with lychee, Gruyère and ginger suspended on a vanilla bean was genius. Heirloom tomatoes resting atop the grass perfumed "whoopee cushion" as Anthony Bourdain described the pillow intended to stimulate the olfactory senses into thinking "meadow" was nevertheless wonderful with its "powdered" condiments.
The distillation of Thai flavors was little more than a shot glass of lemongrass and fish sauce though the waiter wouldn't admit it until after my wife gagged. The pork belly DIY spring rolls put a smile quickly back on her face after assembling a puzzle-like herb-infused rice paper flag waving from the chopsticks that were inexplicably serving as the centerpiece of the table.
Crab three ways was as delicious as the ovoid vessel that held it, was creative. Crab mousse followed by crab sashimi, followed by a warm crab, as the bowl was disassembled with the temperature variation heightening the experience. A deconstructed Vietnamese chao tom followed — a shrimp wrapped yuba with a miso dipping sauce — a Vietnamese flashback.
Lamb tartare and saddle with corn transported us to the Elysian Fields which also happened to be the name of the Pennsylvania farm where the lamb had been born and bred. Hot potato, cold potato was another dinnerware interactive play. Pull the pin like a hand grenade to dunk the clown-like, little round hot potato with its comical black truffle hat into the cold potato soup underneath.
A butterscotch coated slice of bacon came on its own mini-trapeze. I needed at least ten more strips. A truffle stuffed ravioli "explosion" needs no further explanation. Tournedo à la persane, an homage to Escoffier complete with 19th century glass- and flatware was marvelously marbled with fat from the wagyu. The trio of sweet dishes, a solid lemon soda shot, raspberry "transparency" that looked like cellophane, and a bubble gum tapioca cream shake in a long glass tube were all eyebrow-raising.
For dessert, solid Earl Grey tea followed by frozen chocolate mousse, menthol and coconut served on the table without any dishes, on a latex condom-like tablecloth, and then mashed together in a Jackson Pollock inspired pattern.
Was Alinea the greatest restaurant I've ever dined at? Hardly. Most memorable? Absolutely.Read More