At some level, I cannot even try to describe the experience that I had at Alinea. Everything came together perfectly: the food, the ambiance, the mystery. It really was like re-discovering why I enjoy food: because of the pure, simple pleasure it brings. From the simplest hole in the wall Mexican taco place, to the temples of haute cuisine, customers at these places are united by the simplest human desire and need: to eat.
I will do my best to describe the experience, but I will not be able to do so to my full satisfaction. Really, the details can only emerge face to face, and only be truly appreciated by someone who was also there. The details of the food, I fear, will be lacking as well: more often than not, I could merely grin and sputter at my companion as I tried to rave about a particular course.
The understated entrance to Alinea, in a chic neighborhood in Chicago.
My companion and I. We were giddy with anticipation, and had been so all day.
Upon arrival, they set this mysterious black...thing on the table. At Alinea, the experience is what is important. The food is the centerpiece of that, certainly, but everyone and everything contribute to the incredible time you have there. The mystery of this black thing is one such example (you will see for what it was used later).
As the waiter explained when I first sat down, there are no table clothes. Instead, little pillows are placed in the center, and new silverware is provided for each course. I would anticipate the next course eagerly, trying to guess what it was from observation of other groups dishes and the silverware provided.
That was the first dish: Char Roe: parsnip, licorice, ginger.
At the beginning, no menu is provided for the 12 course tasting menu. Instead, with a theatrical air, it is presented and described with poetic mystery to you by the waiter. This one was not as explicity described, and honestly, I was not thrilled. The licorice and giner interacted bautifully with the roe, which had been flown in overnight and removed from the fish ON THE SITE. It was a delicious dish, and even though it was not my favorite of the evening, it highlighted the chef's ability to try new and wonderful flavor combinations that will inspire me to try new things with food.
I should also mention: the bread was incredible. We had two types of butter. The one on the right is a cow butter with fleur de sel, and the one on the left was a goat butter. The goat had just the slightest tinge of "goatiness", and was my favorite.
The first type of bread, I think it was fennell. They were all amazing, and I can still taste them. The center was chewy, the outside crisp and the fennel shone through, while not upstaging the simple wheat flavor.
The second course, and one of the larger ones. Cauliflower with five coating, three gels and cider.
Essentially, this dish was served, and then a "cider", which was more similar to a cream of apple soup, was poured into the dish, rehydrating small pieces of dehydrated cauliflower.
The cubes above are cauliflower cream coated with one of 5 things: I can remember cumin, salt, onion..that is about it. There were three "gels": vanilla, nutmeg and horeseradish. Each one was a completely new and different flavor sensation. The coatings fell off into the soup, which gave it a rich and complex flavor, transcening that of a mere "apple soup".
Here is a picture of the cauliflower after I had taken a slice out of each one, dredged it in the soup, and eaten it lovingly.
Close up of the cauliflower. In the left is the vanilla gel.
At this point, the black volcano had started to frost mysteriously....
The next bread course: this one was once again savory, and my favorite of the night, It had some very light spiciness, almost like a curry powder, and it was shaped like a cinammon roll. Very good.
At this point, the waiter came bearing jamon serrano (pata negra) that had been frozen in liquid notrogen. This was the prime jamon serrano from Spain, made from pigs that ate only acorns. It would gradually thaw, and be used in the 5th course. In the mean time, it served as a beautiful accent to the table, with its ruby red meat contrasting beautifully against the black of the table.
The third course, and my "Dorothy" course (I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore). It was atlantic cod: chamomile, shellfish and celery. Essentially, that yellow sheet was a gelatin sheet of chamomile, draped over a perfectly tender and immensely flavorful filet of atlantic cod, which was on top of a celery and cod puree. Above the sheet, were pieces of shellfish that had been dehydrated and "popped"; those are the little orange things.
The next course was served with this toast. It was, by far, the most amazin toasted bread I have ever tasted. It was slightly sweet, and just thick enough that it had a toasted exterior with a moist and delicious interior.
This dish was called lobster: popconr, butter, curry. All I can really tell you is that it was delicious. I remember every detail vividly, but I don't think I could actually tell you what was in it.
On the bottom of this portion of the lobster dish were three types of corn: popcorn, dehydrated kernells and regular "creamed" corn. There was a nice big chunk of lobster, as well as some other stuff which escapes me now. The effect overall, however, was quite amazing. The butter, curry and lobster all worked together collaboratively, yielding new taste combinations that I had never considered. The courses will definitely influence how I view complementary flavors.
That beautiful orange cube was a cube of some of the most concentrated and delicious mango essence I have ever had. Behind it is a yellow "blog" of curry. The creamy colored strip running underneath it was a kind of butter flavored cream, that unified the entire dish.
That agressively yellow ball at the front is a ball of clarified butter. You pierce it with your fork, and the butter pools in the bottom. Needless to say, it was delicious with the lobster. The toast also provided a nice foil, both in flavor and texture.
A shot of the dish. I did the right side first, then the left, then the middle.
After I "popped" the clarified butter. That is a chunk of lobster to the left.
The bread for the next course: a dried cherry "scone"- it was quite small, and was sort of a cross between a cracker and a scone. It was, of course, delicious.
This was the course prepared with the jamon serrano. The waiter came to the table with two plates, containing what looked like tubular potatoes over a creamy, reddish sauce. The waiter (Jason) then draped the jamon over the potato, and covered it with a smoked paprika and hazelnut oil.
The ham was fantastic. It just had such concentrated flavor that it oculd have carried any dish. However, it was perfectly complemented by the potatoes and sauce, called "salsify", which was like a cream de salsa- very good. Overall, this dish just "worked"- everything worked together in taste, texture and layering. You pierced through the ham, hit a potato with salsify, and put the result in your mouth. Wonderful.
You can see the beautiful ruby-red color of the ham. This course was called Iberico Ham: salsify, hazelnut, smoked paprika.
At the outset, I asked the waiter to pair a wine "with the course that will most benefit." He brought out a delicious, full bodied Provence red to pair with the next course. The wine was slightly sweet, ann, as you would expect, went perfectly.
I cannot stress enough how amazing the unity of effect was here. Everything, from the service, to the silverware, to the plates, to the food, worked exactly perfectly together, and elevated this dining experience to something more than the sum of its (very substantial) parts.
The black thing was finally used! Out came our dish of meat and potatoes (their title) and in the waiter poured...something..which billowed out in a grey cloud and filled our table with the scents of a steakhouse!
My meat and potatoes. A cube of the most succulent, tender beef I have ever had. In the background is a cube of potato, coated with onion.
Absolutely amazing, although it was not one of my favorites. While it was great, it was kind of boring. It didn't blaze new culinary territory for me.
Oh yeah: served with A1 sauce. Dehydrated. Very cute, and I sprinkled it onto the plate to go with the steak. Honestly, the meat was so good I didn't season it much at all.
Needless to say, my hearty red went extremely well with this course. Next time, I will get the full wine pairings. In an extra bit of value, the wine went with the next course, said my waiter. I, who am very much a novice with wine (I am 19; many people believe that at this age I haven't even developed enough taste-discernment to be able to fully appreciaite great wine) accepted this.
This was my favorite of the night: hot potato, cold potato. It is descibed on the menu as "Hot Potato: Cold potato, truffle, butter".
I knew I was in for a treat when the waiter told me to have my camera ready; the next course would be, as he said, "time sensitive." In short order a business-like waitress came, place the above in front of me, and said the following:
"This is time sensitive, to do it with me. Pick up the wax bowl in your left hand. Grasp the bottom of the skewer with your right hand. Pull out, so that the potato and butter fall into the truffle below. Take the entire thing as a shot, like an oyster"
I did so, following her instructions. The hot potato, on th skewer, dropped with the butter into the liquid, and I then threw it back like an oyster shot, channeling the vodka-drinking skills of my Russian ancestors.
It was amazin; a flavor explosion in my mouth. My eyes lit up, partly due tot he surge of adrenaline due to the frentic nature of the instructions. The hot, the cold, the cheesy, the truffle: all were actors in an amazing play being performed on my tongue. I swallowed regretfully.
You would think this course was served in that glass, right? Wrong!
After it arrived on the table, the waiter pulled the glass away with a flourish and this ice-creamy concotion poured out. It is titled "chestnut: quince, chocolate, baked potato." It contained those elements in a savory ice cream- the brown colored type was baked potato ice cream.
This was definitely the most experimental, and also my favorite. Everything just worked with the potato, and the different textures and temperatures were very interesting.
A "cookie" to go with our ice cream.
You can see the sweet potato, baked potato, fried potato, chocolate and quince in the ice cream.
Another "shot course." In the glass was a yogurt "truffle" with persimmon juice in the bottom. One simply slugs it back, and bites into the yogurt ball, which explodes in your mouth, mixing with the persimmon in a most satisfactory way. This marked the transition into the 3 desert courses.
The night was getting late, and our waiter asked us what breads we enjoyed most; the kitchen had extra.
I was really looking forward to this course- all night, I had been seeing pillows coming out and placed on people tables. I wanted to find out what was up.
Apparently, the pillow was filled with the scent of the persimmon spice cake (our next course) baking.
The cake then was placed on top of the "pillow" which started to deflate, so that it was flat as I took my last bite, oozing the scent of baking cake as I ate.
The persimmon spice cake was superb. Probably one of the dishes that I would love to make at home.
This next course was very interesting. To left, a variety of objects (nuts, olives, etc) had been covered with a chocolate blanket. The effect of this was that, every time you took a bite, you weren't sure what would end up in your mouth. The ice cream at the front was actually pine (as in tree) ice cream.
A close up of the chocolate and ice cream. You can see the bums under the chocolate.
After the ice cream had been demolished.
The final course: sweet potato tempeh that had been skewered on a long piece of cinammon bark. You picked it up by the burning end, and ate the tip. It was an amazing and magical ending to a superb meal.
I felt a little sad as I placed the still glowing cinammon stick on the plate; in many ways, it felt like the magic of the night had been extinguished. However, it will still always glow and smoke in my memory. Alinea utilizes every sensory facet of the eating experience, giving one tremendous recall. However, the magic, I feel, can never be fully articulated.
The waiter snagged one last picture of us- this was at 1:30 in the morning. We had been there since 10 PM-3 hours and 30 minutes of eating. I wish it could have been longer.