As we headed for the unassuming front door of Alinea, my friends worried that it might not live up to their expectations. After all, there had been so much press, so many people talking about it. Were there any surprises left? Would they be disappointed? I just smiled and encouraged them to notice the fanciful, diminishing hallway and automatic door, the view into the kitchen from the entryway, and the spare but stunning décor. I figured I didn’t have to convince them. Alinea would do that for me.
I’ve been a fan of Achatz’s cooking for some time. I fell in love with his culinary inventions when he was at Trio. This would be only my second trip to Alinea, but I knew from the first visit that Achatz was just getting better. Granted, Alinea’s food is not for everyone, just as not everyone can imagine a destination that justifies a 12-hour plane ride. But these friends were open to new experiences, so I had no doubt this would be love.
We were asked if we wanted the wine pairings for our 12-course dinner. The restaurant’s success at pairing remarkable wines that go perfectly with even the oddest courses is almost as astonishing as the food, but I was driving this time, so I feared I’d have to pass. I was overjoyed to learn that you can have a “petite pairing,” with half pours of each of the wines.
The first pour was a combination of Pineau des Charentes with champagne, sort of Alinea’s answer to Kir royale. When we showed interest in the wine, our wine steward was only too happy to give us history, background, and a sample of the Pineau des Charentes before the champagne was added. (The friendly, knowledgeable, eager-to-share staff is definitely one of the joys of this establishment.) The champagne kicked off a memorable string of wines that included a full-bodied chardonnay, a Grüner Veltliner, a big Spanish red that was redolent of leather and tobacco, and a couple of off-the-chart dessert wines (in particular, the Tokaji Aszu and Schilfwein).
But enough about the wine—because as good as it was, we were there for the food. The first course was a bite-size pastry puff filled with liquid sour cream, smoked fish roe, and cucumber. It came perched on a small porcelain pedestal, which we were instructed to grab by the stem and just toss back the puff, like a glass of wine. It was astounding, warm and cold, with lots of contrasting flavors and textures (smooth, crunchy, liquid, popping bubbles of fish roe). We were off to a great start.
The bowl that was set before us next was clearly created for an unusual presentation. There was a deep notch in one side of the rim that held a fork in place above the liquid in the bowl below. On the fork was a combination of grilled octopus, smoked papaya, and shiso. Fabulous combination of textures and flavors. The bowl held toasted soy milk, which was warm and sweet and, though not as astonishing in flavor as the octopus combo, it was a nice chaser.
Bread was brought out at this point—house-made caramelized Nueske ham rolls served with organic cows milk butter and goat milk butter. Mmm.
I began to run out of superlatives with the next course—it was surprising, amazing, delicious. A puddle of chanterelle purée held a group of little “packages,” each of which exploded with flavor: spinach with Dijon mustard, apricot leather with curry, and something with egg yolks that was beyond description, but where the incredible, velvety texture almost won out over flavor.
What looked like a big marble in a shot glass was now placed before us. As it turned out, the big marble was a delicate sphere of butter and horseradish that was filled with reduced granny smith apple juice. The “marble” was sitting in a bath of celery juice. We were again told to consume this in one bite, as if we were doing a shot. The sphere collapsed in our mouths, releasing the sweet-tart contents. The apple/celery flavors were comfortably familiar, but with the horseradish giving it a surprising bite. This was a major “wow.”
We then moved into the “main course” section of the tasting menu. First up was monkfish: a poached loin, a chilled, mouse-like quenelle, and marvelously crunchy, crisped tail. This was served with lime, banana, and onion paper. A palate cleanser of frozen yuzu followed, tasting like a chewy, icy lemon drop. Next there was duck. This was the “pillow course,” the course that would be enhanced by a fragrance-filled linen pillow beneath the plate. The fragrance was juniper, which was echoed by one of the three duck preparations. There was confit, juniper-cured, and seared duck breast served with mango puree, turnip, and duck cracklings. This was actually as close to being a let down for me as anything this good could be, and its only because it was hard for me not to compare it to the supremely, celestially good squab dish I’d had on my previous visit. But I couldn’t actually complain, as it was still mighty good.
Sensational, house-made, smoked paprika-flavored rolls were offered to go with the short ribs. This course was among the most visually stunning of the presentations, with an arrangement of incredibly tender, flavorful beef, fried broccoli purée, pink peppercorns, and whole-grain mustard artfully arranged and held in place by a square sheet of Guinness “cellophane.” Amazing.
The next course was the only thing that was similar to something I’d had previously: hot potato/cold potato. I dreamed about this for weeks after I had it the first time. This was slightly modified, because nothing rests here, but it was still a gladsome thing. A small paraffin bowl arrives with a large needle piercing one side. In the bowl is intensely rich, creamy, cold potato soup and on the needle are a hot piece of potato, a chunk of Parmesan cheese, and a generous slice of black truffle. You are instructed to pull the needle out, which drops all the goodies into the chilled soup, and then you toss it back like you’re eating a raw oyster. I’m pretty certain they’ll be serving this in heaven.
The next course had a bit of a set-up. First, we were brought chopsticks, which were rested on a small metal bar that had a sprig of rosemary stuck in it. We heard the sizzling before the hot bricks (400 degrees, we were told) reached the table. The rosemary was taken out of the metal bar and stuck in the hot brick, releasing a heady burst of fragrance. On each brick there were three pieces of medium rare lamb, one piece topped with mastic cream, one with date purée, and one with braised red cabbage.
I was pleased when the next course turned out to be the bacon on a trapeze. I’d read about this presentation device, and here it was before me, both whimsical and high-tech. Suspended from the stainless steel “trapeze” was a piece of cooked, dehydrated bacon with butterscotch, apple leather, and thyme. Fabulous.
Now it was time to begin the dessert courses. First out was an orange sorbet with olive oil ice cream with Thai basil, dehydrated olive oil with vanilla, and dried olive gel drizzle. This was infinitely better than you might imagine from the description. A frozen licorice cake with orange rind and licorice-flavored spun sugar, served bobbing at the end of a long piece of wire, was simply amazing—gigantic flavor bursting in your mouth. Next up was a Venezuelan chocolate ganache served with passionfruit gelée, horchata pudding, kaffir lime ice, toasted soy sauce marshmallow, and candied kumquat rind. This pushed the envelope just a little too far for my dining companions, but I loved the sweet/salty/tart combination.
The final dessert item was another one-bite wonder: liquid caramel and Meyer lemon zest in tempura batter, fried, and served on the end of a cinnamon stick. Yow.
As the coffee was poured, the question was raised, “Is this really the best restaurant in the United States?” The perhaps obvious point was made that, if you wanted a steak or Chinese food, you certainly wouldn’t rate this tops. And of course there is the issue of the experience, expectations, and preferences of the diners. I acknowledged this, referring back to our diverging opinion on the chocolate dessert. However, I felt that no argument could really be made against Alinea’s top spot, though the question haunted me after we had parted company.
In the early days of my career, when Jean Banchet was the name on all lips and Le Français was the world famous restaurant that was drawing people to the Chicago area, I would save all year for an annual opportunity to indulge in the sublime. Though Alinea is definitely not French, there are many commonalities that for me help define what made and makes these places the best. Passion and vision ruled the kitchen. Quality of ingredients was paramount. The envelope was pushed on a regular basis. Flavors were immense and complex. Combinations could be intriguing. Dining involved your mind as much as your palate, with a theater of food that was as dazzling as the tastes were gorgeous. The focus was on delighting in the food. And the chefs were and are artists of rare talent and skill. No matter how much one had heard, the experience always exceeded expectations. So do I think Alinea is the best restaurant in the United States? For the sheer joy of discovery, the fun of surprise, the daring of almost always successful experimentation, the wit of presentations, the intensity and brilliance of flavor, I think it is unsurpassed. Or to state it more simply, you bet!
1723 North Halsted
Chicago Illinois 60614
Originally published in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine.
Copyright ©2011 Cynthia Clampitt