I’ve been putting this off for too long. The thing is, I’m afraid once I write it all down, I”ll be all the way done with Alinea, and then I’ll have to go upstairs into the bathroom and try to slit my wrist, but do it horizontally, because all I really want is attention and a third trip to Chicago. But, lest I forget the subtle nuance of all the glorious food I consumed, I am going to do this now. Tearfully. Joyfully. Nostalgically. Hungrily.
Alinea is the main reason we ended up in Chicago. The scheme started taking place while I was drinking tea after my first dinner at the restaurant. You see, that’s the thing about food that good. By the time the last course has found your belly, before you’ve even left, you begin trying to think of ways/reasons to return. It’s really kind of sad, actually, because it ruins those last few minutes at the restaurant. It’s like sending your last child off to college, except for that Alinea probably won’t call me asking for money or try to move back into its old bedroom over the summer.
I wanted to share the experience with other people. I wanted to be a culinary missionary. I wanted to eat the food again. So immediately I wanted to take my little brother there. He’s the foodiest of my family members (aside from me, obviously), and also a damned good time. He worked at Whole Foods for a brief time this summer, learning about all sorts of edibles, and then ate a pig heart with his football buddies (grrrrroooooossssss) so I knew he’d be game to try anything and everything presented. Additionally, with him commissioning into the marines, I don’t know when I’ll next get to run around an unsuspecting village with him, so this was an important trip.
And run around we did. After we got home from Hot Doug’s, we got dressed in our finery and headed out. Chris tried to take a couple of pictures of Erik and me for our mother, but they turned out as they always do: and then, on a “re-do” we came up with A couple were walking their baby, so I asked them to take a group picture of us before we trotted away from the house.
With that success under our belt, it was time to complete the 3 minute journey from the house to the restaurant. I wore my J-41 walking sandals with a BCBG dress. I don’t think anyone thought “hey, those don’t go together.” That’s the beauty of walking sandals. I can put several miles on those babies, and they just look like black strappy sandals with a teensy bit of heel, perfect for a dress. WIN.
The front of Alinea looks like nothing. It’s gray and there aren’t any signs, but they don’t need them. As my brother pointed out, President Obama could show up at the door there and they’d be like “you has reservation?” and he’d be like “no, I’m the freaking president” and they’d say “sorry, we’re booked.” That’s the way it played out in our heads, anyway. We went through the door to the magic red hallway with the fiber optic lights at the end. When we had just about reached the end of the hallway, and Erik was looking kind of baffled at where he was supposed to go, the door on the left slid open and revealed Perky Hostess. She led us immediately to our table. That’s one of the perks of a place so refined that it takes a very limited number of guests per evening. There’s never any waiting, and it makes you feel like they’ve been hovering around your table, just super-excited for you to arrive and make their night, nay, their week, with your glistening presence. My chair was pulled out, after a round of non-verbal duck, duck, goose as to who would sit where.
Sommelier came over almost immediately to give us the wine menu. Erik found a $7000 bottle of wine in there, and we all giggled a little bit. Until I reach 50, I probably won’t spend an entire, I don’t know, cosmetic surgical procedure’s worth of money on a bottle of wine. Someday, though. Someday. When the guy came back, he treated us to a speech in which he used the words “that’s where we focus our energies” like, six or seven times. Yeah, guy. I don’t care where you’re focusing your energies, but I can personally guarantee that there is a LOT of energy going into my food preparation, and that’s why I’m here. Wine is just a really attractive piece of arm candy for the rich, seductive meal. We agreed to the full pairing, because the wine at Alinea really does enhance the meal something fierce. It doubles the price tag, but adds so much depth of experience that it’s unwise to turn it down.
Sommelier seemed to approve of our decision and minced off in a cloud of insincere deference. It’s fine, though. I was shocked at the airs that accompanied Sommelier last time, but this time I was old hat, and expected it. I just laughed it off and kept my excitement for the meal very, very high. When he returned with our champagne cocktails, I forgave him immediately. I do love champagne cocktails. This one was a mixture of brut, aquavit, and curacao. What is aquavit? Good question. I’ve heard the term flung left and right, but never knew what it was, and was never near enough a computer to Google it when I heard it. Last time I was very intimidated by the waitstaff. They were lovely, but I felt out of my league, like I was being granted a favor by being served. This time? I had worked a job that required me to haul heavy weights around at 6 a.m., just to save up the money for the experience. I deserved to be there. I was not afraid. So I totally balled-up and asked Sommelier WTF aquavit was. It’s a grain alcohol flavored with herbs and spices, including caraway, which is straight from hell. I didn’t detect any caraway in my cocktail, and drank it happily.
When we toasted, Chris’s suit-sleeve knocked over his water, and before the water could even cross the table to my brother, several waitstaff materialized with towels and cloths. They had it mopped up before Chris could even realize his own embarrassment, and then tried to get my brother to give up his chair for a new one. The water hadn’t even touched it, but they were almost aggressive in their eagerness to replace his chair. Several times that night we saw chairs being whisked through the dining room through a back door into what is probably an incinerator for chairs that had witnessed terrible things.
Partway through our cocktails, we were presented with our first dish:
Osetra, traditional garnishes
I still cannot believe I ate this. I always swore I’d have naught to do with fish eggs, but there I was, blithely smacking away at a bowlful of caviar, surrounded by a yolky, creamy, dilly creme fraiche and topped with a cloud of bread foam. The creme fraiche was intense. It tasted like a hollandaise that had gone off its diet and started eating the fatty foods it felt like eating. It was almost too rich, but the traditional tang of creme fraiche managed to cut through and waken the senses. The bread foam was subtle (foamy?), but cool. And the roe? Not too bad. I think, had it been anything else in the world other than fish eggs, I would have thought the texture was the coolest thing ever. The little balls burst into your mouth when you press them against the roof of your mouth with your tongue. The liquid inside was briny and fresh, and the whole thing left a very clean statement on the tongue when it had been swallowed. I had a hard time making it through the entire bowl, but mostly just because each bite for me was a tenuous revelation. I won’t be socking away pennies to purchase my own Osetra stash anytime soon, but I enjoyed it. And I felt very glitterati drinking my Champagne and eating my caviar (in my walking sandals).
Next came an old friend, wearing a different hat:
Pork belly, iceberg, cucumber, thai distillation
The first time we had this, the distillation was in the form of a loose gel. This time, it was a perfectly clear, liquid shot. We were instructed to first down the shot (holy peppers! but without the heat), then to dig into the dish itself. I apologize for the grainy, crappy pictures. The one from last time is better. I think we were in a darker room this time, without the windows that allowed for a touch of lighting. Anyway, once the shot is downed and the mouth feels crisp and verdant with fresh pepper flavor, the fatty pork belly, crunchy toasted garlic, bright basil seeds, and old school iceberg (compressed so that all of the water in the iceberg has been replaced with cucumber juice–how cool is that??) are set free on the palate. It’s such a well-balanced dish, and the only criticism I have is that the “spicy” red dollop of pepper puree is actually devoid of any kind of heat. I’ve had more scoville units from a Girl Scouts Tagalong than I got from the red blob on my plate. Tastes spectacular, though. Honestly. And it’s one of the ones that feels like (with the exception of the distillation) you could put together at home. Sure, it wouldn’t be as perfect or well-executed, but the flavor profile is really what makes this dish sing, and the flavor profile is ultimately pretty accessible.
Our next bite, and I do mean bite, was this titchy, miniscule square of clear jelly with plants in it:
Oxalis, juniper, gin, sugar
After we got over the dollhouse scale of the dish, Erik and I felt a pang of hesitation. Juniper? Gin? Blech. Our mom drinks gin and tonics, and our dad whiskey, so gin and whiskey were our options when we were younger and wanted to steal our parents’ booze. Whiskey is a flavor that you get accustomed to–possibly even begin to enjoy. But gin? Gin is AWFUL. I picture Hitler and Saddam Hussein holding tumblers of gin and having a jolly evil time. Tonic is no better, with its chemical, toxic aftertaste. Ewewewewew. But back to the nugget in front of us… Oxalis is related to sorrel, and has a green flavor. The tiny adornment of sugar cube crystals on the corner add a sweet crunch, and the snap of the fresh oxalis is exciting on the tooth. The dish was small enough to sit on the little metal tab, but the mouth felt too small to contain the flavor.
Next came another sea-dweller. This was a repeat of last time as well, and it tasted…pretty much like last time.
Lilac, scallop, shellfish, honeydew
Our mom doesn’t eat fish. As a result, we’ve had very little exposure to it. I’ve tried to bully Erik into trying tuna, with some decent success, but neither of us were very familiar with the scallops, clams, and mussels up in this motha. I had to ask one of the lurking suits which animal the orange bits were, which the white squares were, and which the pinky-white squigglers were. He answered nicely. By this point, I had developed a very firm set of favorites among the staff. There was one in particular who had a sense of humor and would say funny and semi-sarcastic things when he presented the food. You couldn’t hear then unless you REALLY listened for it, but the comments were intelligent and subtle. Good stuff.
The next dish was somewhat of a production, and rightly so:
Pigeonneau a la St Clair
First they brought out some ornate silverware and cordial goblets, then plates bedazzled with old patterns, then a glass of badass red wine, and finally this little gem. The idea was to present something from Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire in the middle of a very modern dinner. Escoffier is the original gangsta of chefs. His book is one of the first tomes of haute cuisine, and very ahead of its time in 1903, when it was originally published. It was cheeky to put this dish where they did, but thank GOD they did it. I have never, in all of my days, had a more sumptuous thing placed in front of me. I still have my favorites (truffle, haaaaiiiii), but this was mind-blowing. A crisp tart shell that flaked apart like it had no desire to be held together to begin with, but was firm enough to hold a thick mash of caramelized onions, truffle jus, slices of perfectly cooked squab, and a pair of expertly presented salsify (Ent-weiner) rounds. Hot damn, was that tart good. I will likely never prepare anything that tasted as good as that tart. And if I do, I will have to stop cooking altogether, lest I never make something that good again. The salsify was in place of the fois, which I don’t eat, and worked very well with the sweet onion puree. The flowery talk began on this dish, I believe. Our table began coming up with descriptors like “I want to take this tart back to my parents house and introduce it to my mom, all bashful like, and then take it up to my bedroom to study, but really we’ll be making out.” It’s because we ran out of traditional adjectives.
This next fella was my all-time favorite bite of food in the last meal (or ever, to that date). It also happens to be brilliantly photographed by accident on my part, and a nice surprise when I downloaded the pictures onto the computer:
Black truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan
A raviolo filled with black truffle stock and butter, topped with a dab of parmesan and romaine to dress it. This bite is still a wonder of the world. This time it seemed less life-changing. I don’t know if it’s because the stock was weaker or what, but it wasn’t the same as last time. I wouldn’t kick it out of bed, don’t get me wrong. It was still incredible. But it didn’t have the power to leap tall buildings in single bounds, either. I love truffles the same amount as I love Chris. He understands. Erik was pretty blown away by his first unadulterated bite of truffle flavor, and it was really fun to watch him fight the grin, lest the raviolo fluid try to escape through his teeth.
Our next dish was ENORMOUS. It was also very pretty and intricate:
Tomato, fig, nicoise olive, pine nuts
I didn’t really know what to make of this dish. There were bites that had star quality. The figs, for example, were perfect and sweet and tasted (somehow) just like a steak with fruit salsa. The two small tomato balls were bursting with sweetness and goodness. The olive blankets were interesting–sometimes good/sometimes overpowering. The olive oil ice cream was great, and the pine nut butter a work of genius. But somehow it just seemed like too much. I’ve only recently started to befriend the raw tomato, and this was a LOT of raw tomato, and a lot of nicoise olive, which doesn’t taste like the olives I use every day. It’s very strong and pungent and…everywhere. So I liked most bites, but not all, and Erik felt the same way. Chris ate his up like a kid with a sack of Sour Patch Kids, though, so to each his own.
Our next plating came out as a trifecta. First, they used a tiny offset spatula to place a little glass disk topped with a frozen circle of ice cream. The ice cream is a sweetly savory mustard ice cream, and it’s paired with passionfruit and allspice. I dug the hell out of that ice cream, letting it melt on my tongue and tell my tastebuds who was boss. Then the bacon trapeze from last time, which is dehydrated bacon wrapped in caramel, dried apple, and thyme. Good, but I always want this dish to be more assertive than it is. And finally this VERY cool presentation of a cake plate filled with smoking chips and little shotglasses, topped with a dome: The dome is lifted to reveal:
Dates, molasses, corn, smoke
A tiny spoon let us dig through the layers of the gooey parfait, bringing up pieces from the bottom. I was amazed by this dish. Chef Achatz and his crew always come out with great food, but periodically throughout the menu, they come up with this pairing that is just so much more than its ingredients. This was rich and dark and deep and savory, but also sweet and fresh and creamy. It tasted simultaneously like all of its ingredients and none of its ingredients. A whole new food had been invented with this pairing. I wish I had one right now. I wish it so badly. Maybe if I write a really nice letter to Chef he’ll put the recipe on Mosaic so I can try to wrap my brain around it a little better. Love. LOVE.
Okay, I need a break. I’m overstimulated and hungry, and I’m tired of sitting in my chair. I’ll post the second half of this meal tomorrow, including a picture of the wine pairings so you know what we were drinking (Peter, I’m catering to you). Sigh. I wish I lived in Chicago.