Friday, April 15, 2011

Alinea (part 1)

As I mentioned before, I went to Chicago last weekend. D had a business trip there all week, and my brother lives in Chicago, so I booked a bunch of restaurant reservations and hopped on a free flight (using United miles to get there and American miles to come back). My brother's girlfriend lives in Cincinnati, so she drove down for the weekend to hang out with us too.

Last time I visited, the four of us went to Moto. This time, we splurged even more and went to Alinea.

I'm going to do my best to do a full recap of the meal, but I don't have access to the phone that we used to do voice recording (yes, we taped the waiters' descriptions) so I may have a few gaps...

We were seated upstairs, at what looked like the best table in the house. It was gigantic; there were four of us but I think the table could have seated eight. The upstairs area was divided into three or four smaller rooms; we were in the most interior room, and were seated against the back wall facing out, so we could easily watch the waitstaff as they served other tables. Halfway through the meal we spotted Grant Achatz at some other tables, and we started to get excited about our prospects of meeting him.

The tables were set without tablecloths, so all the silverware was placed on little pillows:

Soon after we were seated, a waiter came by to ask us about food allergies and constraints. We didn't have many requests, so pretty soon we were served our first course. It was described as steelhead roe with dijon, rutabaga, and grapefruit:

There was also some kind of quinoa-like grain in the rutabaga puree, and some shavings of radish, both of which added texture. At the time we thought it was pretty tasty, but it was soon blown away by the next dish.

The base of this dish was formed out of yuba (tofu skin) and cooked milk. It was wrapped in shrimp, and sprinkled with black and white sesame, miso, and togarashi. This was one of my top three savory dishes of the evening.

Next we were served three courses together. The first was called "oyster leaf", but the waiter assured us that no oysters were used to make the dish. Apparently the leaf itself, which has to be specially imported from Europe, naturally tastes like oyster. (It really did.)

The second shellfish course was a scallop cooked with Hitachino Weizen (a Japanese beer) and Old Bay seasoning. I was afraid the Old Bay would overwhelm but it was surprisingly subtle. I liked this one the best of the three.

Finally, there was a razor clam, accompanied by carrot, soy, and daikon. We were instructed to eat this all in one bite, like a shooter. The sauce smelled a little like hoisin, and was similarly salty, but went well with the veggies.

I had a bit of trouble photographing this one. The waiters handed the bowls directly to each of us, and we were told not to put them down, as the bottoms were not flat. On top of the fork was a preparation of urchin in bits of vanilla jello, and then inside the bowl there was a foam of mint and watercress. The urchin was fine but I didn't like the foam part at all; I would say this was one of only two dishes that I did not enjoy that evening.

This was one of the most fun dishes to eat. The waiter explained that although everything looked white, only half of the ingredients were normally white; the other half were normally dark (e.g. coffee, black pepper), but had been processed to remove the color. We basically spent the whole time trying to identify the ingredients as we ate. There was a custard-like substance which was halibut-flavored, something that looked like coleslaw but turned out definitely not to be a vegetable; it was more like chicharrones, and parsnip made into a little fruit rollup-like shape. There were other bits that tasted like sesame, lemon, cream, vanilla, and more. Amazing.

At this point the waiters brought out what looked like a set of flags. They told us that they were merely for decoration "for now".

Also very mysterious was this rabbit parfait. We were told to enjoy the food but "not to move the porcelain". The rabbit flavor was infused into a mousse, which was served with crunchy shredded rabbit belly and squash, a piece of squash paper that was quite tasty, pumpkin seeds, and tiny sage leaves.

After we finished the parfait, the waiters returned to take the top off of the servingware. Inside was a rabbit "rilette" which I liked very much. The rabbit was served two ways; as a bit of fried rilette and in a piece of blood sausage. There were dabs of apple butter and squash puree, lots of black trumpet mushrooms, and a hint of cinnamon.

There were little slits in the dishware, so we suspected yet another course, and indeed the waiters returned one more time to unveil a rich rabbit consomme, flavored with cinnamon and sage, and kept warm with a hot rock.

The others didn't think this wild mushroom dish was that impressive, but I love mushrooms, so I enjoyed it very much. The mushrooms were served with pine, sumac, and ramps, and had lots of textures; spongy, crunchy, powdery, creamy, and foamy.

This was my favorite savory dish of the night. The waiter called it "hot potato, cold potato" and it literally consisted of a piece of hot potato, along with black truffle, butter, and cheese, on a tiny pin, which was suspended above a broth of cold potato in a tiny wax bowl. We were instructed to pull out the pin (releasing the ingredients) and then shoot the bowl immediately; this ensured that we would get both the hot and cold sensations, in addition to the flavors.

We finally discovered what the "flags" were for when the waiters brought out wooden planks that had metal bits inside. We were taught how to assemble the metal parts into a rack of sorts, and then told to place the "tomato and fermented black garlic pasta" on top. The waiters then served us some delicious shortrib, and we were further instructed to add all of the other ingredients, before eating it all together as a roll. This was our "3D food experience" of the night.

The condiments were (starting from the left): sea salt, blackberry, grilled onion, black garlic, pickled turnip, nicoise olive, and cherry. On the spoon was a distilled tobacco gelee, in the middle, a ribbon of turnip, and on the glass, a tomato cream sauce.

Halfway through the meal, my favorites were the yuba shrimp skewer and the hot/cold potato dish, but I had also been quite impressed with the study in white and the 3D shortrib pasta. To be continued!

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