This was my second meal at Alinea, after a most impressive display of modern cooking four years ago. What was good to see was the degree to which the menu has evolved and how many new dishes had been introduced rather than the kitchen just tweaking existing recipes; the contrast with the Fat Duck, where the menu virtually never changes, was striking. Mike Bagale is now the executive chef at Alinea and was running the show tonight in chef/patron Grant Achatz’s absence.
The meal began with a sphere of chilled peach juice and champagne encased in white chocolate, garnished with basil and sea salt. This was a refreshing start to the meal (18/20). This was followed by several nibbles brought together: a "tea sandwich" with horseradish and lemon butter, lilac custard with violas, lemon pudding, a saffron gelee, roasted sunchoke with sunflower, fennel purée and clam salad. Below this in the base of the bowl was shaved fennel, cucumber, horseradish, lemon, and chilled clam broth seasoned with lemon and sea salt. The clams were surprisingly tender, the fennel coming through well (18/20).
Next was smoked steelhead roe with jalepeno gelee, chamomile bubbles, English pea puree, olive oil snow, honeydew sorbet and a chamomile aroma. This was excellent, the fish and peas complemented nicely by the hint of spice and balancing sorbet (20/20).
This was followed by a dish called "Graffiti". Black truffle meringue were accompanied by roasted and glazed baby carrots, fava bean salad with truffle vinaigrette, asparagus puree, Madeira creme fraiche, pea tendrils, arugula flowers and carrot vinaigrette “spray paint:” The dish elements worked well together, the Tasmanian truffles bringing their distinctive aroma to enhance the good quality vegetables (18/20).
Next, grilled lily flowers came with pickled jackfruit, fried banana blossoms, green papaya, yellow hyssop flowers, oxalis flowers, aji amarillo and yellow tomato vinaigrette. This worked nicely with the sweetness of the papaya balanced by the vinaigrette (18/20).
This was followed by a superb dish of octopus with green cardamom tapioca butter, grilled Tunisian octopus, fried chickpeas, chickpea meringue and crispy tapioca noodle with fermented lemon pudding. Octopus is very difficult to do well, but here it was tender and its flavour very well balanced by the earthy flavour of the chickpeas (20/20).
Thus was followed by a complex dish based around confit of aubergine. This came with banana puree, fried mustard seeds, roasted cocoa nibs, a choice of ginger, fresno slice, red onion, julienne lime, salad of cilantro, mint, rah dang, a broth of roasted aubergine, ginger, garlic, Darjeeling tea, shallots, coriander, cardamom, fenugreek and brown sugar. As can be seen there were a lot of elements; I was not sure about the banana, but the spices went well with the aubergine (16/20).
Next was crab with green curry custard, crab roe custard, lime segment, candied ginger, coriander flower. The crab had excellent flavour and its sweetness was nicely balanced by the acidity of the lime, the ginger adding an enjoyable extra flavour note. This came with tamarind and coconut milk caramel, nam prik, tamarind pudding and caviar limes. The final element was a Siam sunray cocktail with "Frozen Chewy” kaffir lime, vodka, lime juice, chili, lemongrass, mint and coconut (19/20).
Percebes (goose barnacles) came glazed in a pudding of smoked percebes brine. This was accompanied by tororo kombu, smoked foie gras “butter”, roasted tororo kombu and garnished with a fried ice fish cracker. (18/20). The next dish was a smoked hamachi fillet, pickled haricot bean, grilled shishito pepper and yuzu zest providing refreshing acidity (19/20).
Caramelized pork belly came with blackened parsnip, miso and carrot puree, a soft sheet of Shoyu soy, pickled kombu noodle, crispy black trumpet noodle, black garlic and roasted seaweed puree. The richness of the pork was nicely balanced by the earthiness of the carrot and the Asian flavours (18/20).
Chilled black truffle soup came with Parmesan, butter, chive, hot potato confit in butter and black truffle, the humble potato nicely lifted by the richness of the Parmesan and glorious scent of truffle. Combining hot and cold in a dish is a very difficult thing to pull off, but this worked (19/20).
White asparagus puree came with caramelized bone marrow, roasted morel mushrooms, black truffle puree, sherry thyme foam, and garnished with shaved Australian black truffle. The morels were lovely and their earthy flavour went very well with the asparagus, the dish lifted into luxurious territory by the truffle (20/20).
Rabbit was next: a crisp carrot “bark” was accompanied by rabbit jus, pickled ramps, rabbit loin, rabbit belly, rabbit liver, crispy ramp roots, sassafras pudding, sorrel powder, oxalis leaves, and elixer vinegar. The meat had excellent flavour in its various forms, and the hint of vinegar nicely balanced the richness of the jus (19/20).
A signature dish here was next: black truffle with ravioli of black truffle stock reduction, burr monte of black truffle, Parmesan shavings, black truffle and romaine lettuce. This was gloriously rich, a celebration of truffle, a dish of great flavour intensity (20/20).
This was followed by a cheesecake with matcha, freeze-dried blueberry powder, strawberry powder, hibiscus pate de fruit, strawberry butter cream, blueberry puree, lemon pudding, raspberry "transparency" and vanilla meringue. The contrasting textures were very effective, the visual presentation dramatic, the flavour combining surprisingly well (18/20). A final savoury element was a sheet of crisp bacon presented on a little wire frame with butterscotch and thyme, and very good it was too.
A little theatre appeared next in the form of a balloon made of green apple taffy inflated with helium, with dehydrated green apple string. I have never eaten a balloon before but this certainly tasted good and added a real sense of fun to the meal.
This was followed by the famous dessert "painted" on to the table by the chefs. A whole series of elements were built up one by one on an underlying sheet to protect the table. There was frozen coconut sorbet, a reduction of rum and vanilla, mango puree, allspice pudding, caramelized banana nougat, kaffir lime candy, golden pineapple powder, sour cherry sphere, lychee sugar, passionfruit gelee and a chocolate tuile, This was not just a theatrical tour de force: the individual elements were excellent and worked together very effectively, the overall effect refreshing and a dramatic end to the meal (20/20).
The service was superb throughout the evening, the staff engaging and friendly. The bill for food and wine wine came to $571 (£366) per person, though if you ordered more modestly on the wine front then a typical bill might be £250 per head. As can be seen, the cooking here is nothing if not complex, and in less talented hands could easily be a disorganized mess. What is impressive about Alinea is how the complicated dishes with their numerous elements all somehow come together and work harmoniously, the many components of each dish thoughtfully chosen. This is modernist cooking at its best, where innovation does not come at the expense of flavour and enjoyment.