My threesome with Chef Achatz


I promised you a recap of Alinea, and not one to be a big fat liar, I am now going to deliver. What I will say is this: if you are ever in the position of choosing between a brand new laptop computer and an equally priced dinner at Alinea, you should ALWAYS choose the dinner at Alinea. Because laptops are known to be chewy, and while Steve Jobs creates much more user-friendly interfaces, Grant Achatz is a fucking genius. And I say that with all the love in my yuppie heart–for both of them.

I could be a pretentious butthead and go on and on using my SAT words about how much I loved dinner, about the interplay between the different flavors (the dill positively FROLICKED amongst tenacious flavors of squid ink and the subtle linger of a single cantaloupe teardrop, fresh in its own summer dew), but it’s difficult to kick one’s own ass without knee discomfort, so I’ll be pretty pedestrian about it. Plus, then everyone will kind of get what I experienced.

I’ve had a lot of people say “That’s really cool, Kristie. But I don’t think my palate could appreciate it as well as yours.” Actually, even the gentlemen who accompanied us to the dinner said that, and he was STUNNED by how able he was to appreciate it. What it does, and I truly believe this, is INSTANTLY grant even the most food-dunce-ish among us the power to taste the full texture, aroma, depth, playfulness and genuine emotion of each dish. Thus every palate is educated, pleased, and stunned by the meal. A full year in culinary school wasn’t able to make me eat a piece of scallop, but I ate the bejeebus out of them at Alinea. Best. Experience. Ever. Like the birth of a child, only I left with my lady bits intact, and the only stains on my shirt were from drool, not lactation.

So, without further inanity, here is my night at the restaurant:

First, Chris and I walked past the restaurant during the day. It goes out of its way to pretend not to be one of the top rated restaurants in the US. It’s a solid gray building, smaller than its neighbors, and has absolutely zero markings of any kind, save the address number. Sure, it’s a little bit cocky, but I like cocky.

We were super lucky to be staying with an awesome guy named Kevin Simpson. He’s the head of pulmonology at Loyola med school, I believe. Or something that sounds too important to be as cool as he is. His house was absurd, his hosting skills even better, and he went with us to Alinea, which made it even that much more enjoyable. It’s fun to watch non-foodies eat amazing food and become insta-foodies before your eyes. Anyway, the three of us walked into the restaurant at 6 pm for our reservation. His house is two blocks away, so it was uber-convenient. I eat at 6 because if I eat any later, my body spontaneously digests itself. I’ll never be the “dinner reservation at 8 pm” girl. I’m okay with that.

When we walked in the door, there was a dark, red-lit hallway that seemed to get progressively smaller as we walked along, Willie Wonka-style. Then, all of a sudden to our left, a door magically slid open, revealing the restaurant and an emotionless but sweet hostess who was impeccably dressed, had lovely hair, and was pretty and thin, but just the right amount so as not to be prettier or thinner than the women who came to the restaurant to eat. Nice touch, Achatz.

We were seated, and took in the restaurant for a moment. It’s very clean-cut, with a few modern lines and a few classically elegant touches. There were waitstaff milling around obsequiously, outnumbering us in the dining room. One came up and placed a black bulb on our table, asked us if we knew what it was, and when we didn’t replied, “Good. I’d have worried otherwise.” Then the sommelier stopped by, got us to agree to the wine pairings (which we’d predetermined we do anyway), and left. He was a TOTAL wank. The only person of the night who really stood out against the backdrop that was meant to highlight only the food and the experience. Even his weasely little voice overpronounced French and Italian words to the point of sounding, and I think this is the correct word, snivelly. Or snide. An “sn” word, for sure. But whatever, the wine was fantastic, and it was the first time I’d ever had a wine pairing that really made the meal taste more like itself, if that makes sense.

The first course came, and it was the one I’d gotten myself most psyched for when reading reviews. It’s described as “Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter.” That’s how the menu is written; as just a list of the flavors you’ll experience in the dish. And this one is meant to be taken like a shot. It was this buttery rich potato “soup,” and when you pulled the pin, a ball of potato, a chive slice, a leek piece *I think*, a magical slab of black truffle and something else all fell into the liquid, and it went down in a shot. It was incredible, all thick and rich and face-smackingly-earthy from the truffle. Oh, and served with a Bruno Paillard ‘Premiere Cuvee’ Brut Rose, Reims. Clearly, I’m just writing the wine as it’s written on my souvenir menu, and I know what none of those words mean, except “brut” and “rose.”

Then they brought a bread course. There was a bread pairing with every dish, as well as a wine pairing. I liked that, even though they were less memorable than the food, obviously.This was a biscuit served with both sweet butter topped with lava salt and plain goat butter (goat products always taste like tin cans and goat fur to me).

Next came the most questionable dish for me. Lilac, scallop, shellfish, honeydew.
I am proud to say I ate every bite, even though there were multitudes of shit I don’t eat floating around in a broth with some gooey squares of white and a single gellified square of clear that I couldn’t identify. And it wasn’t bad. It might have even been good. Lord how I detest seafood, but this had only the flavors of fresh honeydew melon, in this case it was tiny pearls of such, and the ocean. Clean, slightly salty, slightly floral, and sweeter than you’d think. I guess if you’re going to branch out into different realms of food (like the ocean) this is the place to do it. It was served with a Paolo Bea ‘Santa Chiara’ Bianco, Umbria, Italy 2005 (the clearly American sommelier insisted on pronouncing this as “OOMbreeaaaah”). The wine really brought out the melon. How’s that for analysis? I still wish I knew what the white goo was…

The next dish came and we were back in familiar culinary-dry-hump territory. This was the pork belly, iceberg, cucumber, thai distillation dish. It was REALLY cool. The clear gel on the spoon smelled like a freshly cut Thai pepper, was completely clear, and then tasted like the green, freshness of a chile without the heat. Crazy. Then the rest of the dish was perfectly balanced, with little dabs and dollops of different sauces and gels placed artfully around the main pieces of sweet and salty pork belly and crisp vegetables. There was zero spice, but the flavor was so cleanly Thai, like the world’s best egg roll bowl without the grease. Wow. It was served with an Abbazia di Novacella Kerner, Valle Isarco, Alto Adige 2007. I don’t remember that wine, but I’m sure it provided the taste-bud reach-around that was intended.

Next, the white asparagus, sorrel, white pepper, honey dish, which was texturally among the most interesting, and certainly packed a great flavor punch. The dish was initially brought to the table in a glass cylinder, at which point we ooohed, and then a waiter picked up the glass cylinder, causing the food to sploosh down on the plate, and we aahhhed. Good stuff. There were SO many components to this dish. The white pieces that look like packing peanuts were really cold, and had the flavor of white pepper with the consistency of astronaut ice cream. The liquid was perfectly executed, and tasted mostly like sorrel, but had pieces of perfectly crisp-tender white asparagus floating throughout. I love white asparagus. It looks like albino baby-weiner, but it’s so sweet and delicate. I imagine if you bit spring, it would taste like white asparagus. There was some powdered honey crystal throughout that brought out the sweetness of the asparagus, as well as added a caramelized crunch to the occasional bite. It was served with the Domaine de Noire Chinon Rose, Loire 2007. The wine tamed the sweetness of the honey, so it was a paddle-ball approach to sweet/savory that I really enjoyed. Oh, and the little bubble-tea-style pearls were sweet, too. That texture always makes me feel like a happy kid.

Next, they brought a dish so mind-boggling that I don’t really even know where to begin.
It’s going to sound bizarre, but it was an entire dish meant to play with the flavor of butter. Lobster, popcorn, butter, curry. It was a couple pieces of perfectly cooked lobster, pre-shelled because otherwise I might have had to not eat it, atop beds of corn, popcorn, a blanket of butter gel, and a sphere of liquid butter that burst when the fork tine hit it. And it all married together with a slight backdrop of curry, but mostly just tasted like a birthday party for butter. I don’t do lobster, either, and this was just so insanely delicious. It also was the dish in the group that made me think, “I bet potheads would really appreciate this dish.” It was served with a Chereau-Carre Muscadet ‘Comte Leloup de Chasseloir Ceps Centenaires’ Loire 2003 AND a Martelet de Cherisey Meursault-Blagny ler cru ‘La Genelotte’ Cote de Beaune 2000. That is so many words for just two glasses of wine, but they were great. One was almost buttery, and the other very acidic that cut right through the butter to clean your mouth in preparation for the next buttery barrage. Also, I should comment that this dish was salted perfectly. It stood out, somehow. None of the dishes were under- or over-salted, but this was just a shining example of salt used correctly.

They followed it immediately with a single-bite dish called black truffle, explosion, romaine, parmesan.It was a raviolo, served in a spoon that sat in a bottomless saucer, filled with a liquid that was more intensely truffled than a truffle itself, it seemed. It actually did explode in your mouth (hehe), and left you desperately trying not to swallow for fear that the liquid would go down your throat too fast and you wouldn’t be able to remember the flavor for the rest of your life. Life-changing, that bite. My favorite of the night. I don’t know about romaine or parmesan, but the truffle. Ach. This dish seemed to be the climax (and I almost did) of a crescendo of exciting dishes.

Then came a dish that was a touch “meh.” It was great, don’t get me wrong, but still “meh.” It was Waygu beef, powdered A-1, potato, chips. Basically a square of perfectly rare Waygu beef, and a square of creamy mashed potato crusted in potato chips and deep fried. Anywhere else this dish would have had me crying for lack of words, but it almost seemed wasted among the intricate lunacy of the rest of the dishes. I think it’d work better earlier in the night, maybe. Or any other night. That fried potato outside with cream potato inside was decadent in a way that’s hard to describe. The wine pairing for this dish was the La Sirena ‘Barrett Vineyard’ Syrah, Napa Valley 2004. I love red wine with a rare steak. Makes me feel like a classy vampiress.

Next came the “bacon swing” I’d been excited for. Please forgive the dark and horrible picture, as it starts to get REALLY grainy from hereon out. Because it got very dark in the restaurant, and they don’t allow camera flashes.Bacon, butterscotch, apple, thyme. I think I ate it too fast, as it didn’t seem to be as flavorful as I’d have liked. It was definitely a dessert bacon, if there is such at thing, and was important to the meal in that a) it looked cool, hanging from a swing from which I plucked it and ate it whole, and b) a segue from savory-ish dinner into dessert land. I love dessert land. I want a condo in dessert land.

They brought over a pair of desserts that were fun and fruity and kind of girl-bandy. First was yogurt, pomegranate, cassia.
Cassia is a little bit like tamarind, unless you get one of the ones that has a poisonous seed, in which case it’s a little bit like a prison-shank. This was a ball of crusty outside, filled with a liquid yogurt that popped when you took the shot, in a pomegranate liqui-gel of some kind. It was fun to eat, and tasted much like those little DanActive shots they sell for immune system support, even though Chris says that’s a sham and gets really upset about it. Whatever, they’re delectable. The other sister in this pair was a glass tube filled with the flavors of bubble gum, long pepper, hibiscus, and creme fraiche. Honestly, it tasted exactly like bubblegum jelly, and was meant to be sucked completely in one breath (again, hehe). I don’t mean trashy bad bubble gum, though. Gourmet delicious bubble gum. And again, texturally fun.

The snooty sommelier came back to give us an Elio Perrone ‘Bigaro’, Piedmont, Italy 2008. It was pink and tasted like tutti-frutti. The service team brought over a big pillow filled with lavender air, and then placed a plate of rhubarb, goat milk, onion on top.
The weight of the plate pushed the air out of the pillow, so lavender smell whooshed out with every bite. It was pretty neat. And the dessert was great. Again, items that are definitively savory or sweet were bitch-slapped in the opposite direction. The onion was caramelized in flavor but not in appearance, and the gummy sweetness really added to the dish. The cotton candy substance was tangy and fun to eat, and the rhubarb styrofoam was tart and perfect, like nature herself had handcrafted it as a part of the rhubarb plant. And the goat milk? I didn’t detect it. There was a sweet milky substance (hehehehe), but no tin can anywhere to be found. The wine was perfect to make the rhubarb taste fruity, kind of functioning as the strawberry foil to the rhubarb.

The next plate was a chocolate, prune, olive, pine dish, served with the Olivares Dulce Monastrell, Jumilla, Spain 2004. The wine? Tasted EXACTLY like liquid raisins. And the dessert was pretty bitchin’ as well. The chocolate lifted up like a blanket to reveal piles of goo and powder that tasted like the sweet cousins of olive and pine, with prune tying the whole thing together. The pine “soup” to the right of the dish was perfect, too. I used it as a sort of creme anglaise, scooping up some of the pine ice cream quenelle, the soup, the chocolate blanket and the bounty underneath with each bite. And I drank my raisin. This dish sounds totally repulsive, but it was again immaculately conceived.

The coffee and tea came, and those of us who were pleasantly buzzed from all the wine and sated from all the food thought this signaled the end of the meal.

I love the china they haveWe had lost count. They placed a single copper-nickel disk on the table, which was pretty heavy. Kevin asked the waiter if it was for the spoon, and the waiter laughed and said it wasn’t. So we had no idea what the hell was going on when they brought out the final dish–a ball of sweet potato and brown sugar formed around a center of bourbon, fried, and served on a giant stick of cinnamon that was actually on fire.
The scent of the smoldering cinnamon was crazy with the other flavors, tasting like sweet potato pie on a stick. And when they were done gang-raping the credit cards, they let me tour the kitchen.

I’d say I could die happy now, but I can’t. Because they have a 24-course tasting menu, and I WANT IT. Plus, we have a great place to stay in Chicago, only a couple of blocks away. So why not, right? Maybe next time I won’t pretend I’m allergic to all non-shell fish…

6 thoughts on “My threesome with Chef Achatz”

  1. You’re such a bumpkin it’s cute. We’re going in June, since I have a show in Chicago, and having the full 24 course tour. I am justifying it because it falls pretty close to our anniversary.

    See? I knew you could eat all the things you think you hate. It’s all in the mind.

  2. Wow…Now I feel horrible..I was in Chicago last year and could have eaten there and didn’t…ugh…now I have to go back and check it out…great review!

  3. The “dessert bacon” comment reminded of Vosges’ Bacon Bar. Did you try that when you went to Vosges? It’s awesome and made me realize I could be pretty content eating chocolate dipped bacon on a regulary basis.

    Sounds like you guys had a pretty cool experience!

  4. What an awesomely insightful and interesting review of Alinea, a restaurant I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time and one that would probably make me buy a plane ticket to Chicago just for the meal. You certainly have a way with words, I was in pain from laughter at the “rhubarb styrofoam” reference!

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