Those who know me will realize that I very rarely visit the same restaurant twice and save for a little breakfast spot in Hollywood the concept of visiting someplace three times is unheard of – unheard of until my most recent trip to Chicago when I once again willingly played the reservation game for nearly an hour to land a reservation at the best restaurant on this side of the Atlantic, Alinea. While perhaps a bit muted in light the recent successes and hype surrounding Next and The Aviary it goes without saying that Alinea remains Chef Achatz’s number one priority and with my sister and her friend visiting town for the SOFA art exhibit and a tour of Crucial Design studio it seemed only appropriate that they too should experience the magic happening at 1723 North Halsted and as such reservations were made for three persons at 6:30pm during our first day in town.
Without going into substantial details regarding my previous experiences at Alinea (they’re here in the blog to those who are interested) I’ll simply say that on the whole my first two visits were every bit as good as I’d hoped and although the second visit was slightly less magical than the first I had no reason to suspect that my third visit would be anything less than stunning Sure the two menus (tour and tasting) have since been condensed into one somewhat shorter experience while the average duration of the meal was slightly decreased to accommodate two seatings per night, but considering the fact that only three previously experienced items remained on the menu from nearly 18 months prior expectations were high for all and without belaboring issues such as our welcome, service, seating, and course presentations (all peerless) I will simply jump to what matters most – the food.
Having declined wine as we had plans for Aviary and The Office following our meal the night began shortly after seating and a welcome from our captain when the pumpkin centerpiece was lifted revealing the carved base to hold three service pieces supporting “Pumpkin, Curry, Sage, Coconut” a rich and creamy pumpkin cake with savory notes and the texture of pumpkin pie topped with coconut cream, bergamot flowers, and chili. Rich, satisfying, and impressively nuanced without being the least bit spicy – a perfect opening volley readying the palate for what was next.
For the second course of the night a large piece of driftwood draped with Pacific kelp would arrive to the table carrying a quartet of bites (each detailed as an individual selection on our 21 item menu.) With instructions provided to consume them in a specific order this “petit plateau of shellfish” would begin with a bite that was actually not seafood at all titled “Oyster Leaf, mignonette” featuring a locally grown import of the Scottish leaf topped lightly with shallot mignonette and tasting precisely like an oyster without any of the creaminess but plenty of brine.
Moving next to the proper sea creatures the trio would consist of “Lobster, Queen Anne’s Lace, huitlacoche, meyer lemon” topped with roasted tomatillo – a tasty claw with sweet, sour, earth, and acid all in nice balance, “Mussel, saffron, chorizo, oregano” – a briny bite well balanced by the spice of the pork and sweetness provided by orange juice, and finally “Razor Clam, carrot, soy, daikon” – the best bite of the quartet with the meaty bivalve first fried on the hibachi and then re-inserted in its shell and joined by savory xo sauce, crisp cucumber, and a delicate ginger/carrot tapioca; by far the most exquisite use of razor clam ever to grace my tongue.
With pace quite excellent and the room now full the next item to arrive at our table was a sealed vacuum pot similar to a coffee siphon and filled with a multitude of leaves and spices. With the burner lit we were instructed “don’t touch – this is for later” and left to watch the contraption bubble and brew for a few moments before our next course, the Alinea classic “Yuba, shrimp, miso, togarashi” would arrive. Having already experienced this dish twice I listened as the server again described the preparation of the fried soymilk skin wrapped in a gulf prawn and topped with sesame seeds, chives, pickled onions, orange taffy, and a “Japanese spice blend” before being dipped in miso mayo and with a “bon appetite” I once again took a bite and instantly remembered exactly why this dish has remained on the menu for so long; sweet, savory, crispy, creamy, and just a little bit of spice…the sort of dish that never becomes less compelling (even if it is the ‘worst’ of Alinea’s three ever-present signatures in my humble opinion.)
With the vacuum pot now beginning to percolate and generate pressure forcing the liquid contents into the upper bulb our captain would again return with a dish that didn’t particularly wow my sister, but a dish whose concept alone left me in awe. Describing the dish as being based on the fact that so many places try to make tofu taste like other things, “Scallop acting like agedashi tofu” was presented as Alinea’s take on making something the texture of tofu, in this case a scallop puree with soymilk and grapeseed oil steamed and seared to a nearly custard consistency and topped with carrot, radish, and shiso prior to being ladled with spoonfuls of broth from the vacuum laden with notes seaweed, chili, bonito, and garlic. A clever dish with a distinctly Asian spin I guess the texture may not be for everyone, but for myself this was chawanmushi at its best, sweet and smooth with just a bit of brine and plenty of umami.
For the next course we received not only a bowl but also a story and when it was all said and done “Brook trout reflections of Steve Stallard” would prove to be the second best dish I have ever had at Alinea. Named as an ode to Chef Achatz’s friend who normally provides his whole harvest of Brook Trout roe to Alinea this dish opted to pair the roe with the entirety of the fish – head, spine, tail, fillets, and fins – in a glass bowl along with Michigan maple syrup, pecans, wild puffed rice, nasturtium flowers, and white beans both whole and pureed. Again complicated in a way that very few can achieve with such finesse this was the sort of dish where each bite presented an entirely different experience – some intense and briny while others were creamy and sweet with the best for myself being half of the maple syrup bubble paired with a dollop of roe, a bit of the bean puree, and the crispy fish head in a single spoonful.
Described as a “fall classic” at Alinea, “Pheasant, apple, shallot, burning leaves” would arrive next via the squid and like both my previous experiences with items presented in such a manner the tempura battered sous-vide breast was paired rather simply – in this case with shallot and apple cider – before being speared and served on a burning aromatic in the form of burning leaves. A single bite and entirely delicious another part of the fun of this course was being the first table in our room to enjoy it as we had the chance to relive it thrice more as other tables were served the smoldering foliage.
With the crystal chalice and classic cutlery arriving next I knew it was time for the classic preparation of the evening but throwing us a curve ball this was not the Escoffier classic of past menus but instead a rustic dish served family style that Chef Achatz had experienced during a trip to Sicily. Entitled “Swordfish, caponata, mint, panella” and served with a spicy red wine labeled Tenuta della Terre Nere Etna Rosso 2008 this dish would feature a sweet and spicy caponata made with fried eggplant, caper, olive, pine nuts, and tomato alongside garlic mint wrapped swordfish, crispy chickpea crackers, and a light garlic mint pesto. Large in portion and bold in flavor each item of the trio was nicely prepared, but without a doubt the caponata was the star of the show, particularly when enjoyed along with a bite of the fish and a pinch of the provided sea salt.
With the largest savory of the evening having again proven the kitchen’s ability to perform beyond the realm of “modernist cuisine” the next dish would be the smallest savory of the evening – a single bite and my first experience with the antenna service piece entitled “Woolly Pig, fennel, orange, squid.” Surprisingly simple and precisely as described with the fennel served both cooked and raw this was actually my first taste of wooly pig and although mellowed by the citrus I quite liked the heavy degree of salinity provided by the 2 –year aged pig though I admittedly could taste none of the sea squid, a component seemingly used for texture only.
For the pillow course a dish entitled “Wild Mushrooms, pine, sumac, ramp” would arrive featuring Matisutake, Maitake, Chanterelle, and Hon Shimeji mushrooms in varying degrees of preparation mixed with pine cream, Sumac Breadcrumbs, pickled ramps, fried shallots, thyme, wild lettuce, and mushroom reduction. Slightly awkward as it always is eating off of a pillow the dish was presented with jokes about one of the servers frequently dumping this plate on guests (“just joking, just joking”) but once the pillow deflated a bit filling the air with the light essence of vaporized pine this course would prove to be my second favorite of the evening, a flawless “woodsy” amalgam that trumped even the much raved “Walk in the Forest” at Next the following day.
For the next course another classic would arrive in the form “Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter.” As good as ever and a favorite of everyone at the table there really is not much more I can say about this dish – it is simply breathtaking and one of those signature bites that all gourmands should experience at least once.
With a trio of purple flags arriving just before wooly pig the next course would be the night’s wrap, another favorite of everyone at the table and in this iteration “Venison, red cabbage, mustard, paprika” would deliver huckleberry roasted venison to be placed inside the red cabbage flag and topped with bell pepper salad, pearl onion, mustard bacon vinaigrette, potato custard with Hungarian paprika, and pilsner beer jelly. Described as “Alinea’s take on Hungarian goulash” I will simply say that coming from a Hungarian background this was most certainly not the goulash my grandmother made, but rather a sweet, savory, and smoky wrap that ranks amongst the best uses of venison, mustard, and pilsner beer that I have ever experienced.
Served in the rounded hand bowl “Pork Belly, eggplant, coriander, long pepper” would arrive next showcasing a tender piece of supple belly, roasted eggplant, and coriander on the fork with Vidalia Onion bisque and long pepper foam to be sipped in the base. Savory and tasty but probably my least favorite course of the night the highlight of this dish for myself was actually the intensely sweet and spicy bisque while my sister, sister not a fan of pork belly (“meat Jello”,) stated that her vegetarian version was “really good.”
For the next savory course Chef Achatz would find inspiration in a London housed painting by Miro for a tabletop arrangement appropriately titled “Squab inspired by Miro.” Beginning first by spraying and polishing the table with black tea this course was presented with nine forks and spoons arranged ‘as random as possible’ and containing “Squab, Foie Gras…and the rest is for you to figure out” as two large vessels spewed forth a light lavender aroma that washed over the table and permeated the air. With no specific instructions on how to eat this save for placing the used utensils in the silver vessels the next six minutes would prove an adventurous blind tasting of squab, foie gras, celery root with pumpernickel, Picholine olive, lavender noodle, duck fat with blis vinegar, yellow plum, and fig – all but the noodle and duck fat being guessed spot on by our trio and all in all a great bit of fun.
With the previous course being an exercise in whimsy the last classic of the evening would arrive as our final savory and for the third time “Black Truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan” would simply prove to be the best piece of pasta I have ever consumed; an assessment shared by both my companions and like hot potato/cold potato a dish that should be experienced by anyone truly interested in fine dining; a classic every bit on par with Oysters and Pearls or the L’Arpege Egg and a bite that if it was offered as a bite at Aviary I would gladly pay $10+ for over and over again.
Moving to desserts our palate cleanser would see the “transparencies” of past meals replaced by a liquid nitrogen chilled rolling pedestal entitled “Snow, yuzu.” Instructed to scrape and not lick this veritable snow cone the flavors were the very essence of yuzu, sweet but tart, and my sister compared it favorably to the frozen lemonades one would buy at the zoo or an amusement park, a childhood (and adulthood) favorite of hers.
For our nineteenth menu item of the night a geographic landscape would be presented as servers joked “you know how chef loves his squares” and with a color palate of whites, greens, and soft yellows “Anjou Pear, Jasmine, Basil, Balsamic” was described. Featuring gels, foams, papers, dehydrations, gelees, nougats, ice creams, and marshmallows of the aforementioned ingredients along with balsamic, almonds, and crème fraiche this complicated presentation would prove largely to be quite similar to a caprese salad with pears replacing tomatoes and bite by bite the plate provided at least fifty different experiences depending on your choice of ingredients; my favorite being the balsamic gelee, frozen basil, sous vide pear, and a touch of cubed crème fraiche.
Nearing the end and replacing the bubblegum I’d experienced twice in the past “Lemongrass, dragonfruit, thai basil, finger lime” would arrive in the long glass tube and with instructions to suck on the close end of the tube the admixture would rocket back into my mouth first with flavors of sweet and minty then followed by notes of cilantro and lime. Chuckling as I watched the expression on Nate and Erika’s faces this delivery mechanism really never gets old though overall I think I preferred the bubblegum flavor of the past slightly more.
For the final presentation of the evening the silpat would arrive first followed shortly thereafter by two large chocolate colored vessels, a quartet of small bowls, a steaming pot of liquid nitrogen, and finally by Chef Achatz with apron surprisingly stained and face appearing slightly sullen and stern without speaking a word (a trend we noted with each of the other tabletop presentations in the room as well.) Beginning first by placing the two vessels at the center of the table and filling each with an ample amount of liquid nitrogen Chef Achatz next proceeded to drizzle the table with reductions of Lingonberry Syrup, Citrus and butternut squash reduction, and Goose Island Caramel Stout before dusting the entirety of the table with edible citrus marigold flowers and subsequently lifting each of the vessels and dropping them to the table where they shattered releasing contents that can best be described as the result of breaking open a child’s Halloween basket or perhaps a piñata. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0Q_-sZIEXY
With chocolate notes predominating some bites while flavors of the squash, berries, and stout punctuated others this enormous dessert went slowly – easily over the course of twenty to thirty minutes as we playfully explored its contents; everything from cotton candy and fruit roll-ups to cookies and candies such as house made twizzlers and corn nuts. With bites of brioche, balls of butterscotch, and crumbles tasting both like gingerbread and kettle corn rounding out the experience all I can say is that was a dessert as well suited for a child’s dream as it was for fine dining and as we finished the final spoonfuls our server stopped by with a look of surprise stating “wow, impressive, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone clean the table quite so well.”
Having pre-arranged for a reservation at the Aviary following dinner we declined coffee with our desserts and with everyone satiated and my sister bordering on ‘full’ we requested the bill and thanked our servers before requesting a quick visit to the kitchen where we were handed a card to give to the doorman at Aviary in order to skip the line. Once again a stellar meal from beginning to end and equally enjoyable to the veteran and the first time visitor I will simply say that although I think we may have caught Chef Achatz himself on a rather ‘off’ night in regard to his mood the service, food, and experience at Alinea was still beyond reproach, a three hour opus that never fails to wow and a place that I will continue to visit whether solo, with friends, or with family just to see what they think of next.
With the car delivered by the valet and our golden ticket in hand it was with minimal effort that we found our way to Aviary and just as promised we arrived as expected guests and waltzed through the line as though we were somehow important (a strange feeling in the setting of a guy trying to bribe his way in the door by claiming to be a senator’s son) before being ushered inside. Greeted like old friends we were told that our table was ready and with a simple request we were additionally assured that “if something should open up in The Office we’ll take you right down” before being led all the way to the back, in the very heart of the action, where my sister and her friend took the couch while I occupied a comfortable chair that most certainly could have lulled me to sleep given the meal beforehand had the restaurant not been so loud.
Greeted next by our server, a slightly condescending fellow who opted to make assumptions that we’d never been to Aviary (or seen a menu) before we were first asked if we ‘understood’ how the menu worked and confirming that we did indeed he said “oh great” before running off only to return fifteen minutes later to take our order. Clearly overworked (and with his 18% tip already guaranteed) when the waiter finally did return he took our orders without further questioning or ado before heading back to the kitchen for yet another round of beverages while we sat chatting and trying to decide whether indoor sunglass wearers or the pumping techno were more disappointing.
With the lounge full and the lights dimmed even further as we sat it would be perhaps ten minutes before our beverages would arrive and at this point, as though replaced by an entirely different server, our waiter suddenly appeared bright, cheerful, and conversant as he described each of the cocktails in length beginning first with Maraschino, Barrel –Aged, Applewood, tequila, a stiff drink ordered by my sister because she thought it sounded “girly” but a drink that was in fact the most boozy of the night with sharp notes of tequila mingling with notes of smoke and sweet around an orb of ice carved to fit the glass.
Moving next to the more interesting selections, for myself and Nate we ordered the Cider, Cinnamon, White Verjus, Apple Brandy and Chartreuse, Pineapple, Blueberry, Honeydew, Mint respectively and with each came a lovely drink with a great degree of creativity. Beginning first with the hard cider served in the infuser bottle previously used for “Blueberry” the drink started out as merely a delicious golden cider but slowly progressed to a rosy herbal infusion with notes of cinnamon, rosemary, and pine beneath the sweet top notes – a perfect drink for those with a low tolerance as it encourages slow sipping and savoring. Moving next to the Chartreuse, cleverly served as three separate glasses in the box originally intended to contain the bottle this progression started with mild yellow chartreuse imbued with blueberry soda and a mint ice cube followed by green chartreuse laced with honeydew and a mint cube, and finally to an admixture of green and yellow blend with pineapple and yet another cube. With each tasty it was hard to call a “favorite,” but all things being equal I really enjoyed the sweetness of the yellow and blueberries never hurt anything.
Slowly sipping and progressively finding the “scene” to be less off-putting than when we first arrived it would be perhaps an hour after seating that the man from the door would approach us to ask if we would now like to “visit the office,” an offer we surely would not decline despite the time nearing 11:00pm and myself having been up since nearly 4:00am EST. Told that we could settle the tab upstairs while our seat was arranged downstairs we thanked our server and chuckled at the bill before paying and being escorted down the stairs to an unmarked room just next to the bathroom; a door opened with a key to reveal a dark room nearly 100% different than that above.
Admitting my respect for Chef Achatz and his creativity from the very first time I heard of Alinea I have to say that for someone who largely does not drink alcohol or (ever) go out to bars my reasons for wanting to visit The Office were mostly to see what it was all about, say I’d been there, and to check out the food menu; I feel no shame in admitting that and neither should anyone else because it is a simple fact of human nature that exclusivity (especially for something of high quality) has a direct correlation with desirability and all things being equal The Office is about as ‘exclusive’ as it gets.
Dark and serene with oil paintings dotting the wall and only two servers plus a bartender working the room it was mere moments after entering The Office and plopping down on the softest leather couch I’ve ever found that we were greeted by our waitress, a cheerful young woman who welcomed us in a style more befitting Alinea than Aviary and presented us with menus for both food and beverages. Making small talk and apparently informed that we’d dined at Alinea earlier in the evening she informed us that she would be going for the first time on Sunday and inquiring about the menu she appeared as much a “fan” as an employee and leaving us to make our decisions I instantly felt much more comfortable in the relaxed confines and low light of The Office than I ever could have upstairs.
With menu prices earmarked to fit the experience we spent a few moments debating our choices before our server would arrive and after asking about the portion size of the foie gras (5oz and topped with black truffles) I debated the order to which our server mused that if I could eat that after a meal at Alinea she’d place my picture on the wall (a tempting offer that if she had such authority I’d have certainly taken her up on.) Deciding against such gluttony largely because no one else in the group enjoys foie (and because it gives me an obvious reason to return) we instead placed our orders for three drinks and a something equally gluttonous but vastly more sharable.
With time moving slow down in the office due to the low light, low noise level, and lack of windows we spent some more time chatting and browsing the works on the wall before our beverages would arrive, my sister again ordering the most punchy of the group in the form of Bourbon, Pecan, Cinnamon, Thyme, Lemon, Sparkling Cider served with a similarly carved ice ball to the drink upstairs. Intense and spicy with the pecan notes particularly lingering on the finish this would prove to be the sort of drink that benefitted by letting the ice melt just a bit as the flavors better separated out as the alcohol was diluted.
Moving next to Nate’s selection, the sweet but slightly-too-hopsy-for-my-palate “Kirsch, Cherry, Thai Long Peppercorn, Flemish Ale” would prove to be a favorite at the table but at the same time also a confirmation that no matter how good the preparation or ingredients I’m simply not a beer guy.
For my choice, the “Gin, Huckleberry, Averna, Clove, Angostura, Eggwhite, Black Pepper” would prove to be my favorite drink of the evening with the frothy eggwhite head providing a smooth foil to the black pepper while the admixture of alcohol, berries, and cloves shined beneath with an almost fruit-punch smoothness punctuated by unique herbal tones that I’m guessing derived from the Sicilian Averna.
Enjoying our beverages the grand finale of nearly 7 hours of Achatz would arrive in the form of the “Ice Cream Sundae for two” modified for three ($12.50/each.) Beginning first with the arrival of a nearly twenty-inch diameter crystal Lazy-Susan laden with gummy bears, crushed Oreos and chocolate toffee bars, maraschino cherries, salty peanuts, fresh bananas, and hand whipped cream and subsequently followed by three silver chalices with at least two cups of hand churned vanilla ice cream in each plus a porcelain pitcher of melted milk chocolate the whole experience was quite like being a kid at a sundae shop and just like said children the next half hour was spent with each of us dabbling with the various ingredients to form the “perfect” sundae. With the ice cream dense, smooth, creamy, and intensely vanilla I will simply note that while some may think $37.50 seems expensive I personally found the experience to be every bit worth it for both the quality and the quantity of the ingredients and considering the cost of “designer” ice cream these days I actually did not find the cost all that substantial at all.
Returning to find our ice cream bowls, the chocolate vessel, bananas, whipped cream, and cherries gone as we picked at the Oreos and Toffee our server noted that she was “impressed” (the second time I’d heard this after dessert that night) and asking us if there was anything else we’d like I joked that I was still pretty sure I could handle the foie gras to which she laughed and said she’d get the tab – a hand written bill sealed in wax with tax and tip again included – and with the bill paid we relaxed for a bit more before making our way to the door, the hour now just after midnight and all of us with smiles on our faces for a night we won’t soon forget.