Tour Menu at Alinea: I finished it. Suck my…stick of sugar cane?

1 Jun

When my sister decided to go to school at Northwestern this year, I knew I’d be visiting her–if not to see her lovely self, at least for the food.  So, on my second journey to Evanston/Chicago, I decided I could not pass up the opportunity to eat at Alinea, no matter how outside my budget it was, no matter how far in advance I would have to make the reservation.

It turns out I was prepared: I planned a day to visit my sister–in the end of May.  I planned this journey in February/March, so I had ample time to call ahead and make my booking.  And I got just what I wanted: a Friday at 5:45 reservation on May 28th.  I mentally wrote off the expensive venture as a birthday present to myself; my real birthday would be two days after my meal.

A few months later, when I had started to gear up for my exciting journey, my dad decided to surprise me: he called Alinea, added my sister to my “party of one,” and told me he’d take care of it.  WHAT?!  I was so surprised, that I could only sit, stunned and confused, when he told me the news.  For so long, I had dined in gourmet and high-end establishments solo; none of my family members chose to spend their big bucks on  food outings.  So, when I knew my sister would be experiencing the Alinea Tour with me, I was stoked.

We took the bus into Chicago last night and just made it to the restaurant on time; rush hour traffic was working against us.  However, upon entering the sneaky doors, we were relieved and excited:

outside Alinea. There's no sign!

Upon sitting down, we anticipated what was to come.  I was starving; I had barely eaten all day in preparation, and Madison was hungry, since she also abstained from lunch after I warned her of the 25 courses to come.  After the servers greeted us and got us water, we started our adventure, scratching the surface of our experience with our first course:

English peas:

english peas

Like the opening riff of a great rock song, the English peas course brought exciting flavors together and pumped up our excitement for the rest of the show.  There was a frozen pea mousse, encapsulated sherry, burrata cheese, and small sprinklings of honey powder.  The small glass of deliciousness was magical; it had a fresh, clean pea taste and sweet nuances abounded.

Our next course was a one-bite tempura shad roe with bacon, shallot, and mustard, skewered on a branch of bay leaves.  This course was a delicious explosion of savory flavors, and we had fun sticking our noses into the fragrant bay leaf plumes that were sticking out of the tasty little tempura bomb.

shad roe and bacon tempura on a bay leaf branch!

Continuing the “on a stick” theme, our next course was a stick of yuba, or tofu skin, wrapped with shrimp and placed into a small vessel of red miso emulsion.  Next to the yuba stick was a small stick of sugar cane soaked in shrimp flavor with some chiles and some mint.  I enjoyed the yuba stick, especially because the red miso sauce was so umami-ful and delicious.  The sugar cane seemed a little weird, though, because we were asked to chew on it and then spit it out.  The flavor was good, but not particularly knock-out, and I felt strange spitting food back out.

Next, we were presented with cordial glasses of distilled thai flavors to prime our palates for the next course.  The flavors were all there, but it didn’t really blow our minds.  So you can make a clear consomme by clarifying with gelatin or whatever.  We get it.  But was there really a reason to prime our palates with thai flavors, given the fact that the previous course had thai flair?

The next course was really great.  When we initially sat at the table, a server had put down a sort of flag by each of our places.  The flag seemed to be some sort of rice paper with herbs in it, and he had assured us that it would become a part of our meal later.  Well, on course six, the time had come.  One server brought us trays with many condiments on them, and then he asked us to remove the trays and set them in the center of the table, revealing a wooden tray underneath with metal ornamentation in the middle.  He then asked us to take  out the metal pieces and cross them to form a stand in the middle of the tray.

Following our little building session, the server removed the flags from their “poles” and draped them over the stands we had made.  OK…and then he put a scoop of pork belly in each rice paper “hammock.”  Yay!  He then told us that we were free to make our own spring roll, choosing any or all of the condiments on our trays: marigold and mint leaves, curried mango slices, cucumber, red pepper sauce, another kind of basil seed sauce, cashews, lime, and black Hawaiian salt.  I loved this course, especially because the flavors were all so lively and complimented the delicious pork belly very well.  I could have eaten another, but I knew I had yet a long road to travel.

make your own spring roll!

I think I was in love with our next course.  I almost never eat crab at home, since we don’t live in a place with readily accessible fresh crab.  So, when we had a crab trio, I was excited to taste such delicious crab flavors.  Our server presented us with a ceramic orb, on top of which rested a white, opulent ball of crab panna cotta.  On top of it was rhubarb gel, lilac, and some form of fennel.  Inside the crab panna cotta was a buttermilk ice cream, and below it was a sage element–either gel or something more frozen.  I loved the silkiness of the crab panna cotta: it was smooth and rich, and the crab was such a pure flavor!  The rhubarb gel on top was tart and delicious.

love at first bite: crab panna cotta

When we finished the crab panna cotta, our server lifted the top of the ceramic orb off, revealing three small bites with the same flavors presented in the top of the orb.  This section also contained avocado covered with chopped, toasted almond, which was very good.  Of the three parts of the dish, the middle layer was my least favorite, but it was still very tasty.

blurry, but you can see the three different elements

Finally, our server lifted away the middle layer of the orb to reveal the last of the crab dishes: a hot, creamy crab ‘bisque’ of sorts, with fennel, a piece of king crab, encapsulated star anise (YUM!), and cipollini onion.  This was a rich and beautifully velvety composition of the flavors Chef Achatz chose for the dish as a whole, and the burst of star  anise was unique and exciting.  What a dish.

the encapsulated star anise was a flavor bomb!

Next, we were presented small, round bowls with a skewer of octopus cooked in red wine across the top. The bowls were round.  We were not allowed to put them on the table.  After eating the octopus, we were instructed to drink the fava bean soup in the bowl beneath, and it was delicious.  The only thing I wondered was whether there is a way to remove the starchiness from the soup that comes from the fava bean.  That aside, the dish was very good, and the service was excellent: a restaurant must be extremely confident in its servers’ timeliness to serve a dish that guests are not allowed to put down.  Slow service could mean a guest would have to hold the bowl forever; however, the top notch service at Alinea meant we only had to drink the soup before the servers swooped in and took care of our bowls in a timely manner.

The next course was a brilliant celebration of a great farm: Elysian Fields Farm, from which many chefs get their lamb.  This dish celebrated the farm as a whole.  There was sous vide lamb on a rosemary skewer.  There was deep fried lamb fat (amazing.)  There was goat milk pudding, squares of delicious polenta, and a pool of a sort of popcorn creme anglaise.  A delicious lamb jus also graced the dish.  I believe there was a blackberry element as well.  Everything went together so well–I’m sure Elysian Fields Farm would be proud to be celebrated in such a beautiful dish.

little lamby making mommy and daddy proud as star of the plate!

I was very excited when our server came to our table with the next small dish: hot potato, cold potato.  This dish is basically a cold potato soup with a hot potato and a beautiful slice of black truffle on top.  When you remove the pin suspending the potato and truffle over the soup, the elements canon-ball into the soup, creating the most delicious combination.  I liked the flavors and variations on temperature.  I really liked that my sister, a self-announced truffle hater, loved this course!  Success!  Yay!

Madison, happy to have eaten A WHOLE SLICE OF TRUFFLE!

We were fooled by the next course: it was sweet…had we already made it to dessert?  Not!  “Haha,” I could hear the kichen saying; this foray into the sweet was only a tease–we would soon return to savory.  But it was a delicious tease:

Three courses came out together, a sort of circus of flavors, presented in various creative forms.  The malt, which we were instructed to eat first, was a reflection of the flavors in beer: malt ice cream, beer foam, and oat crumbles all played extremely well together.  But blueberry foam?  Where did that come from?  It was delicious, no doubt, but in the grand scheme of the dish, I didn’t see the relevance.  It wasn’t that it clashed flavor-wise, but it was a very powerful flavor that perhaps outshined the other elements.  I enjoyed the buttery/ oaty/ malty combo, but perhaps the blueberry foam could have been a hops-flavored foam?  Or a barley-flavored foam?  …

L to R: bacon, beer flavors, banana-nutella

The next “act” in the little circus layed out before us was a small bite called, simply, “banana-nutella.”  It was sweet, it had a melt-in-the mouth sensation, and it was well balanced.  A hint of salt rounded it out nicely.

Last and perhaps most amusing was the bacon on a sort of tight-wire with butterscotch, apple, and thyme.  We love caramelized bacon, so this was a welcome element of the meal.  I enjoyed plucking the bacon off its quasi-swingset to savor the butterscotch sauce squiggled onto its lower half.  I liked the melting quality the bacon had, but I wondered if it could have been more crisp.  Nonetheless, the course was fun and tasty.

woohoo! I'm bacon! On a swing!

As I mentioned before, in reality, we were back to savory after those sweet-ish dishes.  Haha!

Our next bite was actually a slap in the face.  Not literally: afterall, the service at Alinea was just awarded by the James Beard Foundation as best in the country.  The servers would not slap us–literally.  But, instead of enjoying the kitchen’s take on the Sazerac cocktail, a small cylinder of kumquat with rye gel, peychaud’s bitters, and demerera, we were forced to consume a non-alcoholic version, made with coca cola.

Now, I may be underage (in the USA, a beef about which I won’t rant right now), but I doubt that a half-teaspoon of rye would affect me in the least.  I understand a restaurant’s liability when serving drinks to minors, but really?  I found being refused the original dish offensive.  And I don’t want to sound bitter, but coca cola and kumquats are not a match made in heaven.

Moving on, though, we rallied from that microscopic-in-size but great-in-adversity blow.  Our next course was a take on clam chowder!

Growing up vacationing on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, I am a huge fan of New England style clam chowder.  Its richness, its brininess, and the nostalgia it holds for me make it an ideal food.  At Alinea, it came served on a large clamshell.  The creamy bisque was spot-on, and it was garnished with tobasco “caviar,” brunoise clam, bacon, potato, celery, and thyme foam.  The most honest addition, however, may have been the crumbled oyster crackers on the leftmost side of the shell.  They were just plain old oyster crackers, but I wouldn’t have my chowder any other way.  The tobasco caviar was the most exciting addition to the dish, because it added a fresh, zesty pop.

On the other hand, I really felt that the kitchen failed the chowder by using raw celery in the mix of garnishes.  The potato was cooked.  Obviously.  The clam, too was cooked.  Duh.  And the bacon was cooked to crispy perfection.  So why was the celery raw?  It was not refreshing but crunchy and awkward.  Although everything else was great, the dish could be improved if the celery was sous-vide to aromatic and soft perfection.  Cooked celery is both flavorful and delicious, so I feel cooking it until just tender would have done the celery more justice.  I’m not trying to sound snobby, but although it’s nitpicky, it’s true.

clam chowdah

The next bite was a sort of palate-cleanser, I guess; it was more aromatic and perfumy than substantive in taste.  Our servers presented us with a small, rectangular rice-milk jelly surrounding a green almond.  It was garnished with some wasabi powder and yuzu.  We thought this course was interesting, but perhaps it was not our favorite.  Maybe if it had been stickier, like a Turkish delight, with the same flavors of yuzu, wasabi, and rice milk, I would have liked it better.

We were getting full, so when we saw that our next course was vegetables, we were kind of happy.  The “salad” was a small, beautiful assortment of vegetables and herbs.  We each had a carrot, a radish, some dill, and maybe a marigold.  The whole thing was dusted in ranch powder.  Hmm…I didn’t know.  Did I like it?  I think I would have rather had the plain vegetables.  They were beautiful little things, but with the ranch powder, they looked like they’d been sprayed in pesticides and tasted dry but sour.  Ranch dressing is a bit sour, but it’s also lube for the vegetables.  If it’s a powder, you lose the lube effect, and then where are you in life?

beautiful vegetables; the DDT is actually ranch powder

When the vegetable plate was removed a bowl of soup underneath was revealed.  It was a ranch flavored vichyssoise soup.  It had a great mouthfeel–more velvety than a dressing–but it tasted exactly like ranch dressing.  My sister, Madison, accurately commented, “it’s just like Homer Simpson’s ranch hose fantasy.”  It was exactly that–just not in a hose.  The soup was good, but I would have preferred the ranch dressing to STAY IN THE HIDDEN VALLEY.  I THINK THERE’S A REASON YOU’RE HIDDEN.

I know it sounds like I’m complaining a lot, but our meal was literally all up hill from here!  I loved the rest of our meal with a passion.  Our next course was a hands-free one: sardine on toast with horseradish and tomato.  I loved having a canape presented on a long wire right in front of my mouth, and the fishy sardine flavor with spicy horseradish and tomato was great.

If I lost my hands to dry gangrene caused by ergot, Alinea would still feed me.

A highlight of our meal was the next course, which we ate off a log.  Sous vide squab breast, strawberries, olives, eucalyptus, and onions were all delicious, and the sensory experience was only hightened by the aroma of the warm birch log below.  We were  amazed by the beautiful presentation.  I am a huge sqaub fan, and warm strawberries are also my thing.  Hence, combining the two and slapping ’em on a log was a big win for the Achatz team.

squab on a log!

Our next course, presented on a spoon rested in a bottomless bowl, was the TRUFFLE EXPLOSION.  Essentially, this course is a little raviolo with a liquid truffle interior.  It looks so innocent…a naked little raviolo…and then you bite down, and…nom nom nom!  All the truffle filling floods your mouth.  I even choked on mine a litte, but it was worth it (yes, I know how grossly sexual this sounds, but hey, there’s no other way to describe the truffle explosion).

Next, our server set our table in an old school French fashion, complete with gorgeous classic silverware and ornate goblets with bird designs.  What is all this?, I wondered.  She was  setting the stage for our tournedo a la persane, a classic dish from Escoffier.  A perfectly medium-rare wagyu fillet with caramelized banana and a stuffed pepper sat before us.  And what a velvety fillet that was.  Delicious!  A carnivore’s deight!

I was unsure of what the banana and rice-and-cheese-stuffed pepper were doing on the plate.  It was like the beef was a third wheel on their date.  I could see a Cuban flare with the combination of rice and peppers and banana, but beef?  How about pork?  I liked the banana/pepper couple together, but I thought that the rich, gorgeous beef should have gone to prom solo.  Sorry, Escoffier.

Now, we were really done with our savory dishes.  Time for dessert!  My sister was glad; she has a major sweet tooth.  But I warned her; she is a girl inexperienced in long tastings: the sweet stuff will kill you.  I love desserts too, but I know that jones-ing feeling that creeps up during dessert courses.  That feeling like adult-onset-diabetes may be my fate.  The I need water but can’t fit it in my stomach feeling.  Now equally aware of our fate, we soldiered forward.

Like the previous circus, a new trio of courses came out before us, just as beautiful and exciting.  “Put this packet on your tongue.” Said our server, pointing to a small, triangle of mysterious substance.  “Oh,” I said.  “We’re being rufied.”  Our server laughed and jokingly affirmed, as we placed the lemon-soda powder-filled packets on our tongues.  When the outer membrane dissolved, sour sweetness filled our mouths.  Yum!  It was fun and delicious, even if I would never accept such a “candy” in a dark alley.

Next, we ate a raspberry transparency embeded with rose petals.  It was both fruity and aromatic, and I was excieted as I nibbled through it.  I was also curious about the long, clear plastic tube that lay on a napkin on a dish in front of us.  What was it?

Our server told us to suck out of the straw in one slurping motion.  She comforted us, saying everyone in the restaurant makes the awkward slurping sound at that course and that there was really only a tablespoon of contents in the tube despite its large look.  We could do it!  We sucked out the tricolored stuff, making a loud farting noise.  We laughed at the noise as well as at the fun flavors in the tube.  A layer of creme fraiche, a layer of bubblegum flavored stuff, and tapioca.  One of the layers was hibiscus flavor, and all of them went together great.  The bubblegum flavor was a bit of nostalgia I appreciated.

bubblegum=fart noise, but delicious!

The next was maybe my favorite dessert course: Earl Grey, lemon, rose, and caramelized white chocolate.  A pillow of Earl Grey scent was placed on our table before us, and then our plate was placed atop.  As the plate sank down, the Earl Grey scent enveloped me.  I ate the earl grey sables, rose jelly, caramelized white chocolate, and lemon curd in a peaceful state of mind as I smelled the delicious tea scent coming from the pillow!  Talk about a sensory experience.

it just smelled so damn good!

Our next course should have been the last, but since the kitchen new it was my birthday, they sent out a little “cake” course.  A ball of chocolate stood alone on each of our plates, and then the servers poured a warm vanilla sauce over top until the sphere melted.  Inside was ice cream and some cake!  I loved eating the hot vanilla sauce with the melting chocolate, ice cream, and cake.  What’s better than hot fudge?  Hot vanilla just may be.

Have you been awaiting the finale, dear reader?  Well here it is.  A server cleared our table and put out The Mat.  I knew what was coming.  After setting out some condiments, the server said that “someone” would be up shortly to prepare the dessert.  Someone, huh?  I  might have heard of that someone somewhere.  Does his name start with Grant and end in Achatz?  Ding!

What next!? (As if I was unaware...)

Chef Grant Achatz walked calmly up to our table to prepare the amazing final course.  I wanted to propose to him, but he didn’t seem in the mood.  Too focused.  He began by saucing with coconut sauce.  Then, he poured equal amounts of chocolate sauce into two glass cylinders.  Coconut mousse/ meringue geode-type things went next.  Then piles of chocolate/menthol gravel.  Then, a steaming rectangle of frozen chocolate mousse, fresh out of the liquid nitrogen.  Sweet!  He crushed it up in the middle of our table and then finished the post-apocalyptic-looking dessert with some small anise hyssop greens, a sign that life could go on after our meal was over.

Removing the cylinders, Achatz showed a warm chocolate pudding had set before our eyes within a minute.  Wow!

I wanted to go in face-plant style, but they brought spoons.

It was amazing.  We scarfed it down like starving children at a birthday party.  The feeling afterwards was not a far cry from eating too much ice cream cake.  Ughh, we moaned, having eaten too much chocolate-y goodness.  Waterrrr.

Our experience at Alinea was epic.  Nothing short of epic.  If a few things here or there were a tad off, I couldn’t care less.  Let me give you a measure of how good it was:

I liked it Better Than Per Se.

I know.  I said it.  It sounds crazy, but the food was just as on, technically speaking, and a lot more creative with flavor combinations and presentations.  I would love to see Achatz and Keller duke it out Iron Chef style {I would be a judge, of course : ) }, but I truly believe Alinea was one of the most amazing fine dining experiences I have had in my short and underage life thus far.

Go to Alinea.  It is worth every penny.  I would spend lots of money to go back there.  Thank you to my wonderful father who, for some reason, thought I was worthy of a meal at Alinea for my birthday.  I must not be such a bad daughter to have warranted that experience!  Next time at Alinea, it’s you and me, Popsky.

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7 Responses to “Tour Menu at Alinea: I finished it. Suck my…stick of sugar cane?”

  1. holly June 1, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    Wow, that sounds amazing… !!

  2. Grant June 1, 2010 at 9:25 pm #

    I like the Thai distill….it’s about the essence, indentifying the 4 basic flavors that form
    Thai cuisine and tasting them in a medium that allows you to experience them together while recognizing each, which rarely happens in typical eating. That sets up the dish that follows, which all of the same flavors are present but are experienced in a completely different way.

    The courses are seperated by intent to be joined in the mind, to give perspective to both.

    Not a gelatin clarification, use a vac distiller…

    • getinmebelly June 1, 2010 at 11:17 pm #

      OK, it was ignorant of me to assume gelatin clarification. I don’t deny that the distill is an amazing way to synthesize flavors and portray them in a way that lets them shine in one vehicle. It is very intelligent. I just thought that after having some Thai flavors preceding the Thai pork dish, the distillation was perhaps redundant. However, kudos to you for creating something that could deliver the essence of Thai food in a single sip. And for the record, I absolutely loved the meal, and I hope you could tell from my post. It was truly transcendent–thank you for the experience.

  3. Alec July 26, 2010 at 5:11 am #

    I just went to Alinea tonight, although I could only afford the 12 course. I wish I had a Dad as generous as yours. I couldn’t remember what was in the dishes and didn’t take notes, so I used your blog as a reference. Thanks. And Alinea was one of the most amazing meals I have ever had. I am itching to try Per Se. I am going to be in New York soon so I better start the process of trying to get a reservation.

    • getinmebelly July 26, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

      Glad my post helped! Good luck getting a reservation at Per Se; it’s obviously a great place–not to be missed.

  4. Kat April 23, 2012 at 11:59 pm #

    I loved your review of Alinea’s…Oddly enough, stumbled upon it while Googling gangrene but soon found myself reading eagerly along, vicariously enjoying your every bite! I have no idea of your age at the time of this post, but from what I’ve read here, you are a very talented food critic…I hope to hear much more from you in the years to come.

    Sincerely,

    Katherine Parrick

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