Chef/patron Grant Achatz previously worked for four years (finishing as sous chef) at The French Laundry before making head chef at Trio in Illinois in 2001 before opening Alinea (which means "new beginning") in 2005. Achatz is a very modern chef, with his style of food making plenty of use of the latest kitchen innovations.
Alinea is situated in an unprepossessing grey town house in the north of Chicago. As you enter the premises you appear in an eerily lit corridor, as if walking into a science fiction set. As you walk down the corridor a door silently slides open on your left, and you enter the dining room. The kitchen is in open view as you enter, the dining area itself split, with the larger area upstairs. The tables are of black wood, with no tablecloth, the room having cream walls with various piece of modern art hanging; the grey carpet (rather than hard floor) means that noise levels are reasonable.
There was no menu choice, just a 25 course tasting menu (though if you let them know in advance they will adjust as needed to avoid food allergies), priced at $195. This is very reasonable by the standards of 3 star Michelin restaurants, and a cost for the whole menu that would barely buy you a main course at, say, Ambroise in Paris. The wine list was also fairly priced. Example wines included Donnhoff Spatlese Felsenturmchen Schlossbockelheimer 2006 at $95 for a wine that retails at $49, Trimbach Cuvee Frederich Emile 2002 at $95 for a wine you can buy for $49, Palmaz Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 at $200 for a wine that will set you back $93 retail, and Ramonet Batard Montrachet 2006 at $335 for a wine you can find in the shops for $241. The list’s modest mark-ups continue as you scale up the list, with for example Coche Dury Coton Charlemagne 1992 at $2,500 for a wine that will set you back $2,819 to buy in the shops i.e. this was actually below the retail price. We drank the Trimbach Cuvee Frederich Emile 2002 and Kistler McCrea Vineyard 2006, followed by Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon 2005.
Our meal began with steelhead trout roe, sauce of cured grapefruit and spices, Dijon mustard, swede, slices of radish and black liquorice, the dish decorated with nasturtium flowers. This was delicious, the combination of acidity from the grapefruit balancing the richness of the roe, the radish adding a different taste note, the spices carefully controlled; the overall balance of flavors was very precise (19/20).
Next was yuba (soy milk skin) that had been fried into sticks, with shrimp wrapped around the stick, with pickled onion, togarashi (Japanese chilli) powder, orange taffy, white and black sesame seeds. This was fashioned into roughly the shape of a quill pen, with the "ink well" in which it rested containing miso mayonnaise. This was a stunning dish, wittily presented but above all with very high quality prawn, well balanced spices, the miso mayonnaise working very well with the prawn, the yuba giving a firm texture contrast, the chilli lifting the dish but not dominating. Top of the range cooking (20/20).
Next a series of four elements appeared together, each in separate dishes. An oyster leaf (a leaf from the Hebrides that really does taste of oyster) was presented in a little white bowl, alongside scallop with foam, a razor clam served in its shell, and crab done in two ways resting on a hollowed out crab shell. The scallop with Hitachino wheat beer foam was the least convincing element, the scallop itself not having the plump sweetness of the very finest scallops. The razor clam was charred and served with tapioca pearls, finished with daikon radish and cucumber salad, slightly spicy and tasting lovely. Jonah crab with nori was lovely, the crab very fresh and having excellent flavour; beside it was delicate soft shell crab wrapped in a sorrel leaf, with the stem of sorrel holding the dish together like a pin (for me the crab and razor clam were 20/20 level, the scallop barely 17/20).
Next, served on a fork, was sea urchin with vanilla, green garlic and mint, a little wasabi foam, wild garlic soup and sea grapes (seaweed), This was a pleasant dish, the garlic and wasabi a nice balance for the richness of the sea urchin (18/20). This was followed by veal sweetbreads with fennel confit, lemon and chilli, the sweetbreads carefully cooked, the lemon providing balancing acidity (18/20).
Next was a little piece of theatre. A white dish was brought at the top of which was a hot pea puree with pea shoots. Once this was eaten the plate was removed to reveal underneath dried pea meringue, pea skin crisps camomile pudding and distillation of grape jelly, Like a Russian doll, the dish opened out to reveal underneath this a frozen pea puree, cultured goat milk and Granny Smith apple sorbet. This was a clever dish, really showing off the flavour of the peas in a range of styles and textures; more importantly, it tasted great (20/20).
After this we moved to seafood, hamachi (a fish in the jack family) served as tempura, inside which was banana, ginger gel, pineapple salt (dehydrated pineapple suffused with salt) as seasoning, a vanilla pod used as a spear to pick up the tempura; this was a very enjoyable dish, the tempura light and the seasoning carefully judged, though I am not personally sure about the banana (18/20).
At this point what appeared to be pillows appeared, which smelt of pine. On each pillow a plate of morels was rested, with pine cream, a red wine reduction, powdered pine nut oil, sumac breadcrumbs, fried shallot rings, pickled spring onions (or ramps as they say in America), miner's lettuce and thyme-flavoured foam, with white beech mushrooms interspersed amongst the morels. I loved the clever combination of textures in this dish, whose mushrooms were also of high quality (20/20).
Next was a bowl of chilled potato soup flavoured with truffle, in a paraffin wax bowl, near the top of which was a hole through which was a pin; skewered on the pin was a cube of hot potato and a cube of Parmesan. This was a terrific dish, the potato flavour lovely, the cheese and truffles combining to make a rich and comforting dish (20/20). A pair of what appeared to be flags, left a little earlier on the table, now came into play. They were made from a flat sheet of pasta with tomato and garlic infused into the pasta. These accompanied braised short rib of beef, cooked for four hours. This was served with an array of garnishes: smoked salt, blackberries, fermented black garlic, tomato salt, pickled white asparagus, Nicoise salad, sour cherry with puffed wild rice on a spoon, distilled tobacco pudding, a ribbon of salsify, smoked paprika and an olive oil emulsion. Although there was an awful lot going on with this dish, the beef itself remained the star, very tender indeed, and the various garnishes all made sense (I personally could have skipped the tobacco). Elaborate cooking (19/20).
This was followed by a "black truffle explosion" dish. Liquid black truffle was lurking inside ravioli pasta, with Parmesan and romaine; this was another rich and delicious dish, the truffle flavour coming through really well (black truffles can be surprising tasteless at times, but not here) - a luxurious dish (20/20). Lamb loin was next, served with artichoke confit, asparagus taps, Yukon Gold potatoes garnished with chervil flowers, with an orange sauce and a dazzling crouton of rosemary, which had remarkable depth of rosemary flavour (19/20),
Venison was served with eucalyptus, cherry compote, cocoa nibs, venison stock flavoured with chocolate and gin; the meat had lovely, rich flavour and the sauce was skillfully made, the cherry adding a little acidity (19/20). This was followed by duck ("inspired by Miro"), which included seared foie gras, duck breast, celeriac and further garnishes: charred strawberries, beet gelee, lavender, a vinaigrette of duck fat, and sweet vinegar. The Miro reference is that the dish appeared as a series of mouthfuls, each on a fork, with the forks arranged in a criss-crossing pattern, presumably intended to be in the surreal style of painter Joan Miro. Perhaps more important than the inspiration of the presentation was that the duck was excellent in its various forms, going well with flavour such as the celeriac and sweet vinegar (19/20).
That was the last savoury dish; yuzu snow appeared next, an ice flower with yuzu juice sprayed on to it, which was refreshing (18/20). This was followed by sweet potato custard with cinnamon and maple, candy pecans, cubes of poached ale, wild sorrel, cotton candy and amber spheres of whisky; the sweet potato had remarkable flavour, the accompanying elements again working well together (20/20). On the side was a strip of bacon suspended from a wire, flavoured with butterscotch, apple and thyme.
Passion fruit and coconut smoothie was served in a passion fruit shell and was very refreshing (19/20). I enjoyed rather less a dish of watermelon wrapped in tomato with balsamic and olive; I was less sure this worked as a combination, good though the elements were (16/20). This was followed by a test tube dish with lime gel with a liquid of distilled lemongrass, coriander and amaranth, finger lime, dragon fruit and cucumber (18/20). There was Maldon salt with white truffle oil and honey granules, which was ultra-salty and for me did not really work.
The finale was suitable theatrical. The table was cleared and covered in a grey sheet. The dessert, to be shared by all of us, was then "painted" on to the grey palate by two chefs. Pickled blueberries came with Valrhona chocolate, peanut butter, hot milk chocolate, chocolate mousse that had been frozen in liquid nitrogen and was then cracked at the table, with honey, brown sugar and a milk custard caramelised with a blowtorch at the table; quite apart from the great sense of theatre, the elements themselves were delicious; I particularly liked the chocolate mousse - this was a rich and stylish end to a memorable meal (20/20).
The bill came to $360 per person, with plenty of good wine, which I think represented excellent value given the calibre of culinary talent on display here. Overall, although molecular gastronomy is not my preferred style of food, it is impossible not to admire the sheer talent on display here. The technical trickery here is done with intent, and the flavours are never forgotten amongst the wizardry; dishes have many elements, but they are logical and there to add a useful texture or flavour, and dishes were very carefully balanced. For me, Alinea compares favourably with El Bulli or the Fat Duck.
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