I had my first meal at Alinea in 2009. But before I share my most recent at Alinea, I wanted to share my meal from two years ago based on some notes I have saved. The restaurant has evolved quite a bit since then and the comparison is interesting. I hope to post my most recent meal later this weekend.
Molecular gastronomy, or avant-garde cuisine, challenges the way diners interact with food. The meal becomes as much about the experience as it does about the flavor. The challenge is to create a unique and exciting experience without sacrificing the taste. Alinea was my first domestic experience with molecular gastronomy where the dishes were not only fun and exciting, but they tasted great, too.
Our menu, titled the “grand tour,” consisted of 24-courses each overlaid with grey orbs of varying opacity to indicate intensity, portion size and sweetness. The color of the orb indicated the dish’s intensity: darker meant more intense. The position of the orb indicated the dish’s sweetness: to the left meant savory, to the right meant sweet. The size of the orb represented the size of the plate: bigger orb, more food. We were given not a menu for the evening’s food, but a guide to help us with pace.
Roes, traditional garnishes - Glistening orange spheres of salmon roe paired with crème fraîche, lemon, and buttered brioche foam. The acidity of the lemon contrasted nicely against the buttery brioche foam, with the light oceanic flavor from the roe bringing everything together. This was a great start to a long meal.
Foie gras, daikon, shiso, yuzu – A spoonful of foie gras garnished with fennel and shiso sitting above a pool of peach juice and shiso foam. Our waiter instructed us to eat the foie then quickly drink the juice. Delicious.
Pork belly, iceberg, cucumber, thai distillation - Our waiter first handed us a glass of “thai distillation,” or distilled habanero chili. By distilling the chili we were left with all the sweetness of the pepper without the spice. It was strange to eat because my mouth anticipated the heat but it never came. Instead, the flavor was bright and refreshing. Then, our waiter instructed us to eat the pork belly crowned with iceberg lettuce, cucumber, banana, and basil seeds in a coconut sauce. I thought the iceberg was too watery and took away from the delicate flavors on the plate.
Green almond, juniper, gin, sugar - Each corner of the solidified gin was seasoned differently. It was hard to differentiate the flavors though since this was eaten in one bite. This was a boozy, sweet and sour snack to refresh our palate.
Soft shell crab, carrot, five spice, duck – Half a battered soft shell crab atop a carrot puree with duck confit and drops of spiced prune puree, hearts of palm, radish, and wild flowers. The spiced prune puree tasted similar to hoisin sauce. On the plate we also had a crumbly, dry sesame meatball with crisp peas and black sesame seeds. Though a bit sweet, this was one of my favorite dishes of the night.
Blue crab, carrot, five spice, duck – Continuing with the crab theme, a shot glass of thick pieces of blue crab with ginger ice, lychee, cinnamon foam, carrot, and shreds of duck. The dish contained many of the same ingredients as the previous dish except here, the berry-like sweetness of the lychee brought out different flavors. I’d never tasted sweet crab before; but I sure hope this wasn’t the last time.
Black truffle, explosion, romaine, Parmesan - A small ravioli filled with black truffle tea topped with a thin shred of Parmesan cheese and romaine lettuce. Our waiter told us to eat this in one bite, or else it might splash our neighbors. The ravioli “popped” in my mouth with the strong salty, meaty flavor of the truffle. This short and concentrated bite left me wanting more (a lot more).
By this point in the meal I realized that each dish had very detailed instructions on how to eat it. You really have to pay attention at Alinea, tuning out for one second can affect the outcome of the course.
Pigeonneau à la Saint-Clair – Wow. This was the dish that showed me what chef Achatz is capable of. A technically flawless, crispy, buttery, flaky tart carrying a fluffy quenelles of squab forcemeat, truffle jus, and thick medallions of mushroom. The dish came from Auguste Escoffier‘s 1903 cookbook, Le Guide Culinaire. In an avant-garde meal where everything feels like it’s from the future, it was refreshing to be served something from the past. Is this considered molecular gastronomy? Unclear, I think. This was undoubtedly my favorite dish of the night.
Frozen disc of dijon mustard, passionfruit sorbet, and allspice – A small palate cleanser, the subtle spice of mustard with the sweetness of the passionfruit.
Bacon, butterscotch, apple, thyme - A strip of bacon hanging from a tightrope wrapped with apple leather. Next to the bacon was a sweet potato with a cinnamon stick skewer. This was a course with a really strange and arbitrary presentation. It’s almost like Cirque du Soleil had some fun in the kitchen. The overall flavor was fairly sweet.
Hot potato, cold potato - This is a course that always stays on the menu at Alinea. And with good reason: it’s delicious. A skewered hot potato medallion crowned with black truffle hangs suspended over a cold potato soup. The heat of the potato activated the aroma of the black truffle. Our waiter instructed us to slide the skewer out of the bowl to combine the hot potato into the cold soup, and to eat it immediately. The result was a swirl of hot and cold temperatures dominated by the fragrance of truffle and the buttery taste of the potato soup. This was absolutely delicious.
Yuba, shrimp, miso, togarashi - A stick of deep fried tofu skin with a helix of shrimp wrapped around. The shrimp was spiced with black and white sesame and chives. The miso paste at the base was quite sweet.
White asparagus, arugula, white pepper, honey – This dish was presented as a clear glass cylinder in the center of a white bowl filled with white asparagus, arugula, white pepper, and honey. Our waiter then lifted the glass which spilled the contained soup into the bowl. The freshness of the arugula puree was immediately apparent, it smelled like freshly cut herbs.
At some point during our meal, our waiter placed a conical vase on the table. We didn’t really pay much attention to it. But now, the waiter poured a warm liquid into the vase and a char-smelling smoke erupted covering our table with the smokey smell of the grill. This was a nostalgic course that transported us outside to a summer barbecue.
Wagyu beef, powdered A-1, potato, chips- A simple cube of wagyu beef with a crispy potato hash and A1-style herbs. The meat was extremely tender and juicy. The potato had a crispy shell but soft and moist interior, like a custard. With this dish Alinea tapped into an American nostalgia that I could understand and relate to in a way that would not have been possible at Spain’s El Bulli or Tokyo’s Tapas Molecular Bar. This was essential to my enjoyment of this course.
Lemon soda – A fizzy dissolving packet of lemon soda. The powder foamed in my mouth. The carbonation really removed all remnants of grease after the chunk of wagyu. The sour flavor made this fun to eat.
Bubble gum, long pepper, hibiscus, crème fraiche - A clear tube filled with hibiscus jelly, vanilla creme fraiche, and bubble gum-flavored tapioca. The other end of the glass was hollow so we were instructed to “suck out” the ingredients as if through a straw. The flavors were all pretty muted. I could have skipped this course.
Watermelon, lime, nasturtium - A cocoa butter ballooon sphere holding a shot of watermelon juice atop a nasturitum puree. The fresh grassy flavor of the nasturtium complimented the sweetness of the watermelon. The lime added a subtle acidic kick. This was pretty refreshing.
Transparency of raspberry, yogurt – A crispy, hard candy raspberry and yogurt flavored shell. This was prettier than it was tasty.
Rhubarb, cheesecake, onion, lavender air - Our waiter brought out a linen pillow filled with lavendar-scented air. On top of the pillow he placed a plate of rhubarb sorbet and goat-milk cheesecake. The weight of the plate caused the lavendar air to leave the pillow at a rate pretty consistent to the speed at which we ate the dish; it lasted about 5 minutes. Beneath the rhuburb sorbet were actually thin strips of onion. Somehow the sweetness of the onion actually enhanced the flavor of the rhubarb without adding that raw onion spicy burn. There was also a small cloud of cotton candy which was plain old fun to eat. This was a really creative dessert.
Chocolate, blueberry, tobacco, maple – Our waiter removed everything from the table and laid out a flexible waterproof tablecloth. Another waiter then brought over small ramekins of tobacco whipped cream, walnut shortbread, blueberry in four textures (pickled blueberries with red wine and port, blueberry jam), and spherified maple syrup. Chef Dave Beran then stepped out of the kitchen and began to “plate the table.” He explained that this dessert is designed to change the perception of how food is placed in front of us. Interestingly, all of the blueberries were the same flavor but because of the textural change some seemed more acidic, others more fruity and even drier. This was an incredible dessert where no two bites were the same. Wow.
Pound cake, strawberry, lemon, vanilla bean - A medallion of pound cake with strawberry and a stick of vanilla. The dish was shaped like a lollipop. The inclusion of this dish seemed pretty arbitrary.
I really enjoyed the meal.
My biggest complaint is that I wish it told more of a story. Most of the menu seemed like someone hit shuffle and mixed up the ordering of courses; there was little progression. There was also a lot of sugar which can become cloying after twenty four courses.
Also, the service felt a little uncomfortable. Everyone seemed nervous; the wait staff didn’t appear relaxed and welcoming in a way that put us at ease. The presentation of the dishes was too rehearsed. The minimalist decor in combination with the lack of music meant that anything above a half whisper could be heard by a neighboring table. This also meant that during service, tables that were a few dishes ahead of us had their dishes described not only for themselves but also for most of the room. By the time our plates came, we knew what we were getting. Part of the fun of molecular gastronomy is the surprise, and there could have been more of it.
I knew I would be returning the next time I was in Chicago. This experience challenged what type of food I consider to be molecular gastronomy. The squab chef Achatz served was straight out of Auguste Escoffier’s 1903 Le Guide Culinaire, cooked and served exactly as described in the famous book. Was this molecular gastronomy or avant-garde cuisine? Hard to tell; but it was my favorite course of the night. It was this course that inspired the creation of Next and its Paris 1906 menu.
At this point Alinea has become a truly iconic American restaurant, and Chef Achatz continues pushing forward with new flavors and concepts. I’m glad I returned in 2011, the food was even better.
To be continued …