Someone wrote that haute cuisine is the new conceptual art; in some cases that means food that cannot be appreciated because it’s trying-too-hard to be complicated but doesn’t deliver on the simple request people have of food: serve me something I like to eat. But in other cases, food can be prepared so perfectly it is ethereal, transcending being “food” and “meal” and venturing into the realm of art. 7 years ago that was “The Fat Duck” for me; last week, it was Alinea in Chicago.
When I was planning for my trip to New York/Chicago, I knew Alinea was my top choice for restaurants because apart from its 3 michelin stars and a ranking of 15 this year (7 last year) on San Pelligrino’s Top Restaurants of the World, it keeps topping “restaurants to visit” and being billed/voted as the “best restaurant in USA”. But like all the restaurants that occupy the highest echelons of these lists, they are notoriously difficult to book. To get a booking requires foresight and persistence. Alinea operates a completely different system to any other restaurant I’ve been. Like a trip to the theatre, you buy (and prepay) for tickets to Alinea. Tickets sell out quickly whenever they become available, so follow them on Twitter to stay informed of when tickets become available and for last minute cancellations that free up spaces. When I got my hands on two tickets for a 5:45 pm seating on a Monday, it was like I won the lottery! My boyfriend on the other hand wasn’t too thrilled with the “pay now, eat later” system, but eventually we saw the logic of it, more on that later.
We arrived at Alinea to be greeted by someone at the door with a clipboard and an ear piece. Two other guests were just going through the door and we waited our turn. We were informed that our first course awaited us in the hallway. As the door opened, light shone into a dimly lit hallway-- a garden path with hanging flasks and branches of flowers suspended from the ceiling. Once the door closed, it was so dark I wasn’t sure where to look for the course, which ended up being cotton candy nestled in flowers on the wall. The hallway may have been short, but in those 10 steps between the entrance and the door to the dining room, it transposed us into the fun culinary world of Grant Achatz.
We sat down on a massive table and Oliver speculated that we needed such a big table because of the dishes that would be served, he was right. There were 2 glass vases with flowers in it that would serve as a serving platform in the third course. We were not given a menu (like Eleven Madison Park) which served to heighten the suspense.
Second amuse bouche was served on a spoon and it could be the most beautifully constructed “course on a spoon” I’ve seen. I usually roll my eyes a little when a course comes out on a spoon, normally a jelly that’s lack lustre and a menu filler, but not this one. The first thing I notice is the underside of the spoon that had crispy little bits stuck to it. On top there were green, yellow, pink gems that made the course look like jewellery. Both texture (mixture of crunchy and sticky) and taste (substantial for a spoon) were amazing.
Next up was an impressive medley of 7 components made of big and small glass containers each containing different goodies and a hot stone. After our server had finished setting all the glassware down, there was an impressive wall of glass from my left to right. On the left there was a tall glass with ginger, lemon grass and star anise, onto which our server poured a broth and I’m instructed to dunk a skewer of fish into it. Next up is the fried prawn head perched on the lip of the glass, with a very Asian sauce smeared in the inside. It was so good I ran a finger to mop up all the sauce. Then there’s the prawn sashimi on ice and scallops cooked on the hot stone. One of my favourites was the jar sealed with a leaf. Untie the string and a strong smokey smell drifts up. Inside was a piece of fish, lightly charred with a robust flavour. After that we had a palate cleanser—pineapple bits with ice shavings. We were so carried away that we had forgotten about the bowl of tartare that was floating in the flower vase.
The next three dishes were all perfectly executed. Smoked rabbit with salad was slightly acidic; the octopus dish was refreshing (a first for me in fine dining) and when the cheeks came out (so tender), I started thinking this may be the best meal I’ve had. Hot potato, cold potato with truffle was next, a simple concoction, seemingly suspended in mid air, it was humble but divine.
Then came the duck, quite possibly the best dish I’ve ever had in a fine dining restaurant, or ever. 5 ways of duck (foie gras, duck breast and duck confit plus 2 others) were served with a plate that was described as ?????? on the menu. There were 58 different ingredients on the plate and we were encouraged to pick and choose the ingredients that appealed to us. There were nuts, herbs, jellies, purees, freeze dried bits, berries, olives, fruit peels etc etc So instead of having one course, we had a dozen little courses by pairing different ingredients with the duck. You just couldn’t get enough of this dish, there was always more you could experiment.
What followed was a ravioli and we were instructed to devour it in one mouthful, otherwise “there would be a huge mess”. Upon biting into it, a soup of truffle bursted in my mouth. For a truffle lover, it was a little moment of heaven. Then we were served a palate cleanser of different ginger from Hawaii.
Two balloons floated towards our table, “the balloon and the string is edible, but don’t swallow the needle!” We took turns filming eachother holding the balloon with two hands and bringing it to our face then sucking it all in. It was apple flavoured and sticky and filled with helium. We giggled as we spoke with Mickey Mouse voices. Next up was strawberries and cream, more conventional than the last, but refreshing and light. Then we slurped raspberry fizz through a glass straw.
The time had come for the finale; our servers stripped our table of its white linen and replaced it with a grey rubber film. The crockery and cutlery were set down one by one, slowly, building up the suspense. Then Grant Achatz himself appears, holding a brown bowl and positioning it in the middle of the table. He pours a liquid into the bowl and mist rises. A spoon is picked up and Chef Achatz starts painting, the table has become his canvas and he fills it with flamboyant strokes and deliberate dots of red and yellow sauce. This mesmerizing spectacle ended when Chef Achatz suddenly picks up the brown dome and smashing it against the table, revealing it’s contents—cotton candy, waffles and freeze dried bits (cream maybe?) and the brown bits are chocolate. We pick up our spoons and we devour the masterpiece, theatrics aside, flavour and texture were impeccable.
I loved Alinea; it was original, exciting, artistic and beautiful. Service was speedy (the whole meal took under 2 hours) which meant we still had the rest of the night to explore Chicago. The fact that we had paid for the meal beforehand also meant that the evening didn’t end with a big fat bill that sometimes sours the experience a little. Alinea may have slipped from 7 to 15 on San Pelligrino’s list, but Grant Achatz won “Chefs’ Choice Award” and he deserves it.