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August 23, 2010

Return to Alinea

Dominic Armato

Whenever we make a trip back to Chicago, my ladylove and I try to make it a habit to head out for one night of fine dining. There's too much fabulous downscale stuff to do more than that, but the once-a-trip shot at the uppermost end of the spectrum always feels about right. This past trip, having already crossed everything off the fine dining must-try list, we decided it was time to head back to Alinea.

Alinea's had a heck of a run since we first visited, back in the early days of Skillet Doux. At the time, Alinea was barely a year old, but there had been so much excitement surrounding its opening that I still felt like I was behind the curve. Of course, it turned out that the early accolades paled in comparison to the avalanche of international attention the restaurant has garnered since, and if it doesn't pull down three stars when Michelin releases its first Chicago guide in a few months, it'll be widely considered a snub.

All of which is to say, what's there to add? Few restaurants have had so many posts and pieces and columns devoted to them over the past few years. MG no longer needs to be explained or justified (at this point, either you think it's valuable or you don't). And Achatz himself is getting ready to move on, with two rather exciting-sounding projects in the works. He sold me on his vision for Alinea four years ago and the only thing I hoped for on this pass was more of the same flavor, excitement and wonder I experienced the first time around. And thankfully, that's exactly what I got. My only regret is that circumstances prevented me from writing about it for a month and a half. I hope you'll forgive me if I'm a little soft on detail at times. 27 courses, many of them multi-parters, is a lot to remember, even the next day.

CocktailsDominic Armato

Cocktails were a welcome way to start the meal, especially since they were almost assuredly a glimpse into Achatz' forthcoming cocktail bar, Aviary. I don't know that the cocktails we received answered any questions, other than to confirm that Achatz isn't going to be bound by convention. But there's nothing unexpected about that. The first was the most drink-like, a hollowed-out passionfruit containing a helping of its pulp and seeds, mixed with a blend of premium rums. As it often the case with Achatz, the flavors were incredibly intense, as though the potency of an entire tropical drink had been compressed into a half a shot. I exaggerate, but not much. This was some bold stuff. Up next, a pisco sour, transmogrified Achatz-style. The pisco, lemon and cane juice were whipped and frozen into a chewy little puff, playing on the egg white component by giving it an almost meringue-like texture and appearance. Moving down the line... a cucumber gimlet? A carefully carved cube of cucumber had been completely infused with gin, topped with a Lilliputian sprig of mint, and into a tiny hollow carved into the top, a drop of rose water. The gin infusion almost seemed to add density and chew to the cucumber, making this a mouthful both in terms of texture and flavor. I'm sure somebody more cocktail-savvy can help me with the second from the rear, which I would've guesses as an Old Fashioned by the bourbon-soaked cherry, except for the cap of vermouth foam. And finally, a truncated kumquat, brimming with rye whiskey and bitters and topped with the most poetic little twist of orange (also kumquat?) you've ever seen. The common theme in all five was first that they were cocktails in edible form, reworked to be a physical, chewable part of the menu rather than a liquid lead-in. Second, I was struck by how enormously potent they were, their flavors reduced and distilled down to pack as much of a wallop as possible into a tiny little bite. It makes me even more curious about what Aviary has in store.

English PeaDominic Armato

ENGLISH PEA - iberico, sherry, honeydew
The first taste of what would ordinarily be considered the menu itself (though the cocktails were individually listed) was one that would not be topped for the rest of the evening. It's a spring salad, of course, thankfully still offered in the summertime, that takes simple flavors and through convoluted manipulations makes them explode in completely unexpected fashion. It started with the peas themselves which, as far as I could tell, were handled in a few different ways. The base of the salad was a cold, creamy, fluffy pea puree that was bordering on frozen and far more airy and light than the term "pea puree" might bring to mind. Think light, fluffy clouds of intense pea flavor accented with fresh pea tendrils and freeze-dried whole peas for textural contrast. Olive oil was in there somewhere, even if I'm at a loss to figure out how, precisely. Iberico ham was powdered and sprinkled over the top, and little spheres of honeydew melon, further touched with a bit of honey (I think), added a fresh and clean sweetness. The punch that put it over the top was the inclusion of tiny sherry vinegar pearls, which would pop and provide a little hit of acidity to cut through the peas whenever you'd hit one. This dish was so incredibly delightful, exploding with flavors and textures in all kinds of pleasurably unexpected ways. It was a beautiful example of how edgy techniques have something to add to the conversation. You never could have tasted anything like this before the advent of MG, and no matter how much a curmudgeonly traditionalist might grumble, the culinary world is better for it. I challenge any MG detractor to sample this dish and tell me that it isn't a pure, beautiful expression of peas, regardless of the technique used to achieve it. Ordinarily I'd worry that a dish this fabulous would set up the rest of the menu for failure, but with Achatz, I felt confident this would not be the case.

LobsterDominic Armato

LOBSTER - lychee, gruyere, vanilla fragrance
The format of our next course was one familiar to me -- tempura-fried theme ingredient skewered on something aromatic and resting in a spidery metallic contraption. Last time, it was sweet potato with bourbon on a cinnamon stick. This time, lobster and cheese, taking us from fresh and light straight to rich and luxurious. Lobster, gruyere and a bit of lychee were all rolled together into a sort of tempura lump, which was stuck on the end of a vanilla bean and fried. It was a wonderful and somewhat unconventional flavor pairing, and as is often the case with Achatz, the tempura angle was indicative of an attention to texture as well as flavor. Using the vanilla bean is not only amusing from a presentation standpoint, but it's also practical, maintaining a light aroma and preventing the vanilla from overwhelming the dish as can sometimes happen with savories. At heart, however, this was still simply lobster and cheese. And delicious.

YubaDominic Armato

YUBA - shrimp, miso, togarashi
Our next course was one of only two that were on our menu four years ago, but I was thrilled to have it again. Not because I loved it last time -- I didn't -- but because this time around, it fulfilled the potential I felt it had last time. Yuba is a byproduct of tofu production, a thick skin that forms on top of soy milk as it's boiled. Here, it's fashioned into a stick, around which is wrapped a shrimp that's rolled in sesame, togarashi and... chive, I think? The stick sits in a creamy miso sauce (mayonnaise-based?), and the serving vessel is such that you can continue dipping as you work your way through the skewer. Last time, it didn't work for me. The yuba had a chewy consistency that didn't feel right, and the sauce lacked a cleanliness that I thought would have helped it. This time around? No such issues. The yuba was impossibly crisp, the sauce was intense and clean, and the dish was absolutely delightful. I loved that something I'd considered a weak point of the previous menu was fully redeemed on the second pass.

Chao TomDominic Armato

CHAO TOM - sugar cane, shrimp, mint
Judging from the next few dishes, Achatz has been spending some time on Argyle. The first, a tiny bite that looks big only because of the framing. This stick of sugar cane couldn't have been more than an inch and a half long, and the moment I saw it, I knew exactly what he'd done. Chao Tom, for those not up on their Vietnamese, is a chunky paste made from shrimp, pork fat, shallots, garlic, palm sugar, fish sauce and sometimes assorted other seasonings, that's then formed around the end of a stick of sugarcane (kind of like an elongated lollipop) and grilled. Typically, you remove the grilled shrimp paste from the sugar cane and wrap it in lettuce leaves with fresh herbs. And if you're like me, you can gnaw on the sugarcane afterwards. What Achatz did here was to turn the dish inside out. He infused the sugarcane with a Vietnamese-flavored shrimp stock, and topped it with little bits of some of the appropriate flavors -- garlic, peanut, mint, chili pepper. In the process, he took one of my favorite parts of the dish -- gnawing on the sugarcane afterwards and sucking out the sweet juice -- and effectively turned that into the dish itself. You pop the entire thing in your mouth, chew and suck on the sugarcane for a while until all of the flavors had been extracted, and then spit it out like chewing gum into the carefully folded napkin provided just for that purpose. Purists may be offended, and it's not a substitute for the traditional dish, but it's a fun way to enjoy familiar flavors and I dug it.

DistillationDominic Armato

DISTILLATION - of thai flavors
No, I didn't accidentally paste in a photo of my water glass. That small amount of clear liquid in the bottom of a cordial glass is the dish, and appearances couldn't be more deceiving. It's a Thai dish, though even further divorced from its traditional roots than the previous course. More accurately, it's a combination of common Thai flavors, distilled down to their very aromatic essence. Each sip is a bracing punch, absolutely exploding with pungent aromatics. I got ginger, garlic, cilantro, chiles... I'm sure there's more. But what made it compelling was that it's all of those familiar aromatics, completely divorced from the usual accompanying flavors. In truth, I'd call it more fascinating than delicious. But to have those components stripped out and isolated like this allows you to really focus in on them and taste them in a way you never have before. As a way to kind of awaken your senses and tune you into the flavors of a Thai meal, I loved it. I might have loved it more if it had been, say, the precursor to an actual Thai meal. An overture, of sorts. But even as presented, it was really quite something.

Pork BellyDominic Armato

PORK BELLY - curry, cucumber, lime
The pork belly dish was one of the more unique (and complex) presentations that I'd like to demonstrate a little better, except for the fact that my camera chose the absolute worst possible night to act up on me. One of the components, the rice wrapper, was actually the first thing to hit our table for the evening, hanging from chopsticks supported by small metal braces, like edible flags flapping in the breeze (except, of course, for the lack of a breeze). A complex (if beautiful) serving piece brought an abundance of accompaniments, as well as two inset metal pieces that fit together like a puzzle to form a stand for the wrapper. Pork belly confit was spooned directly from a hot pan into the wrappers, and we were left to top it with peanuts, ginger, dried shrimp, shallot, coconut, lime and more, before wrapping and eating it. It's messy. And it's a long way from the sort of light, clean flavors that typify the cuisine that inspires it. But it's undeniably delicious. All of the accompanying aromatics and acids are necessary, because the pork belly is impossibly rich and succulent. Where the distillation thrills on an intellectual level, the pork appeals to your basest, animal desires. It's a big ol' fatty, rich and juicy flavor bomb.

King Crab Dominic Armato

KING CRAB - rhubarb, lilac, fennel
This should be a triptych, but the only problem with my camera here was the brain operating it. Or not operating it. Somehow, I completely forgot to take a picture of stage three of the king crab dish. It's a three-stager, you see, though three tiers is more accurate. The first pass arrives atop a large white sphere the size of a big melon, with an indentation in the top. It's a chilled crab and buttermilk panna cotta that plays a little bit like tofu, light and refreshing and accented with rhubarb gelée, chervil jus and an assortment of stunningly beautiful garnishes that are probably gilding the lily a bit, but who cares... it's something to behold. The top half of the sphere then lifts away, to reveal a shallow bowl seated around the equator. Here, it's crab and rhubarb round two, this time room temperature. Morsels of pure crab are done as something of a composed salad, with sliced pickled rhubarb, mung bean sprouts, almond, and... well, things are getting a little fuzzy here. Once completed, the shallow bowl is removed to leave behind the base of the dish, a steamy marriage of crab, braised fennel and rhubarb scented with star anise, that's rich and caramelized, creamy and piping hot. As with any such progression, the whole thing falls apart if one of the three doesn't hit, but they all did, deliciously so, in very different ways. Ingredients taste different at different temperatures, and the character of both the crab and rhubarb played off each other differently on each tier. On top, when cold, the crab is at its sweetest and the rhubarb at its most tart and acidic. And as they warm up, the crab's more seafoody characteristics come out, while the sweetness of the rhubarb comes more to the fore. Three compelling takes on an unconventional pairing, each completely different because of the temperatures involved. I've said it before, but when Achatz plays, he does so with thought and purpose.

OctopusDominic Armato

OCTOPUS - red wine, lavender, fava bean
Restaurants where this could this be one of the more conventional courses offered are few and far between. On the fork, a small octopus tendril, simmered until perfectly tender in red wine. On the fork alongside the octopus is a dollop of red wine pudding, an orange segment and a sprinkle of red chile flake. The fork sits atop a small cup that contains a thin and foamy fava bean puree, which acts almost as a cooling (though it's served warm) chaser to a deliciously acidic and spicy bite of octopus. Here, the combinations of flavors wasn't the least bit unusual, but like so many Achatz dishes, this one was a matter of timing, allowing you to first get the bright and spicy flavors before giving you the creamy, vegetal antidote to calm them down and round them out.

LambDominic Armato

LAMB - reflection of elysian fields farm
It's a farm on a plate. Which probably doesn't sound so appetizing, except that this is Elysian Fields Farm and Achatz is, of course, trying to create something with the flavors of their yield. Rare lamb is skewered on a stalk of spruce (for sniffin', not for eatin'), and a tiny fried nugget to the side is a bit of pure lamb fat. The beast is accompanied by all manner of crops with which it shared the farm. On one side, granola and oats with blackberries give it kind of a crunchy, rustic feel, and they're wrapped in a sort of scallion "grass." Elysian Farms grows corn as well, so there's a small helping of polenta and a puddle of smooth and creamy corn chowder that's also topped with a pile of freeze-dried powdered "popcorn." It's a dish that works on two levels. It's fabulously tasty, which is easy when you're creating a plate full of things that grow together (though rarely done so well). That it also works on a conceptual level, as a reflection of the lamb's life on the farm, is a little bonus. It's downright pastoral.

Hot PotatoDominic Armato

HOT POTATO - cold potato, black truffle, butter
For those who have followed Alinea at all, this is a dish that needs no introduction. It's arguably the restaurant's most iconic dish, and is the only other I'd sampled before. This is also the dish that gave rise to the little (blown out of proportion) kerfuffle regarding Achatz' opinion of people who photograph their food. What he was trying to say is that you can reach a point where it intrudes upon the experience... when three minutes of photography turns Hot Potato, Cold Potato into Warm Potato, Warm Potato. I took about ten seconds. For those who might have missed it, that's a shallow paraffin dish holding a cold potato vichyssoise (as if there's any other kind). At the end of the pin is a chunk of hot potato, topped with a sliver of black truffle and joined by cubes of parmesan cheese and butter. You remove the pin, dropping the hot potato into the cold potato, and slurp it down like you would an oyster on the half shell. The result is a truly classic flavor profile that's made new by the stark temperature contrast of the ingredients.

MaltNutellaBaconDominic Armato

MALT - english toffee, night stalker stout, blueberry
NUTELLA - bread, banana, chocolate
BACON - butterscotch, apple, thyme
Though called out individually on the menu, the next three courses were served together, and are presented as such. This trio was something of a sweet respite to break up the savory portion of the menu. The first is one that's mostly slipped out of memory, though I recall enjoying it. Like the English pea salad, it was a symphony of textures utilizing malt, blueberry, toffee and stout, but it didn't make the same impression upon me that the salad did. The Nutella was quite memorable, even if it wasn't one of my favorites of the night. Dry is operational word, as all of the ingredients seemed like they had been freeze-dried (I use the term as a means of trying to explain the texture, not as an actual guess at the process involved, about which I'm completely clueless), powdered and compressed into a small brick that kind of crumbled when you bit into before slowly rehydrating and melting away. Appropriately for Nutella and banana, it sticks to the roof of your mouth. More novelty than revelatory, I nonetheless enjoyed it. The final dish of the trio was one I was quite tickled to receive, as it was a signature Alinea presentation that we didn't receive on the first pass. It was a thin, meticulously trimmed strip of bacon suspended from a wire. It had been dehydrated or some such so that it almost resembled fruit leather both in terms of texture and translucence. And along the same vein, it was wrapped with a thin strip of apple leather and drizzled with butterscotch and a few flecks of fresh thyme. As a famous Alinea presentation, the novelty was lost on me, but the flavors were impeachable.

CornDominic Armato

CORN - crunchy, sweet, salty
Our next course, one-biter though it may have been, was chock full of novelty and another of the night's favorites for me. This unassuming little nugget was packed with so much flavor, and possessed of such a unique, compelling texture that I absolutely hated to stop at just one. It was an incredible bite, very pure, clean corn flavor slathered with butter, sweetened with a touch of honey and salted. But it was cold. And the texture was like nothing I've had. I hesitate to call it crisp, though that was certainly a part of it. It was almost like a moist, succulent crispness, as some initial resistance gave way to a melty smoothness, like pea-sized bits of butter with a lightly crisped shell. I don't like to pester the staff with questions, but this was one where I simply couldn't help myself. Turns out the kernels are first freeze-dried and then poached in butter, which made perfect sense to me. A killer bite, a completely new and compelling experience, and one of my favorites of the night.

Surf ClamDominic Armato

SURF CLAM - celery, tabasco, oyster cracker
Avert your eyes, New Englanders. It's clam chowder, Alinea-style. You'll be forgiven for regarding this with the same ire usually reserved for certain pinstriped baseball teams, but you know what? As deconstructions go, this was pretty outstanding. The base was a clam custard, rich and creamy and viscous -- the last of which I'd ordinarily consider a bad thing, but clearly the normal rules weren't at play here. Working left to right there were crumbled oyster crackers, brunoise of celery and bacon with celery leaves, tiny little explosive pearls of Tabasco sauce, bay gelée and thyme foam. All deconstruction brings the ingredients into focus. With good deconstructions, those ingredients still work together. It isn't really clam chowder, but it's striking presentation of the same flavors, sacrilicious though it may be.

Oxalis PodDominic Armato

OXALIS POD - whipped sorrel, honey, salt
This is one that sent me scurrying to the internet upon returning home. Turns out I'd actually had oxalis pods before, as part of the squab dish on our first visit in 2006. Naturally, I didn't catch the name then, except that they'd been glazed with sugar and were exceptionally tart. Now that I've had them twice, I really need to pay closer attention next time they pass my lips so that I can describe their flavor more intelligently than "Ooo... sour." In any case, with this dish the crisp and tart oxalis pods sit atop a whipped meringue of sorts made with sorrel, honey, salt and lemon, which is light and sweet. Sweet sorrel meringue, sour oxalis pods. Sweet and sour, of the vegetal variety. I found it highly amusing to see the classic combination played out in the form of herbs and vegetables.

Salad Dominic Armato

SALAD - ranch dressing, soup, powdered
Next up, whimsy and nostalgia, but not without purpose. Ranch dressing isn't something to which I have a deep, emotional connection. But I recognize that for many, that's one of the quintessential flavors of childhood. And though it's been co-opted by the fast food and snack industries, deep down in its heart of hearts, ranch dressing has a light and fresh soul. So it was with Alinea's salad course, which might as well have been titled RANCH DRESSING, since that's clearly where the soul of the dish rests. A small platter arrived, perforations in the bottom, into which were stuck a little gardenful of miniature root vegetables, greens and herbs, almost completely untouched save for a dusting of dehydrated ranch dressing. How could you not get a chuckle out of that? But it gets better. Where was the moisture? Down below. After finishing the salad, the plate was removed to reveal a cool, creamy vichyssoise seasoned with all of the traditional ranch dressing flavors. But the concept, cute as it was, would have been meaningless if not for the genuine culinary purpose it brought to the dish. We often cluck our tongues at beautiful vegetables that have been buried in thick, creamy salad dressings, chiding others (or ourselves) about how they should be able to enjoy the natural flavors of the vegetables. Well, that's precisely what the powdered ranch dressing did, leaving that complementary flavor while taking the focus off the dressing and putting it back on the vegetables. Meanwhile, the soup took a classic set of flavors that's been used to culinarily bankrupt ends in recent years, and managed to put them in a context that allows us to rediscover the true beauty and elegance of a once homey dressing.

SardineDominic Armato

SARDINE - horseradish, pepper cress, tomato
What I remember here doesn't quite jibe with my menu, so I wonder if one of them is faulty (most likely: me). On the sardine and horseradish, we agree. But where the menu relays pepper cress and tomato, I recall caper, chili pepper and, perhaps, brioche or some similar bread element. Though I remember thinking the sardine was quite lovely, it could simply be that the dish didn't make a significant enough impression to burn its components into my brain. Or it could also be that I was too busy ensuring that the protruding bite at the end of a slender skewer, like one of those tiny boom microphones you see on podiums, would end up in my mouth rather than my eye. I must confess, on both occasions I've found this particular piece of Alinea service ware a touch... awkward. But I do remember that it was quite tasty, and even more notable, quite fiery. The chili flakes packed a wallop.

SquabDominic Armato

SQUAB - charred strawberries, lettuce, birch log
Achatz is known for both unconventional serving pieces and the creative introduction of aromas to his dishes, and I think this is one of my favorite examples thereof. The squab comes on half a birch log, that's been heated -- borderline charred -- to release its aroma. The squab itself is tender and delicious, undoubtedly sous vide, but its crisply rendered skin was also to be found elsewhere on the plate. Log. There were powdered strawberries, a number of fresh greens, powdered strawberries, a strawberry chip, a crunchy, crumbled pile of what I believe were hazelnuts. Though I didn't really get any char on the fresh strawberries (wilted seemed a more appropriate term), this was nonetheless a delicious dish, though if given the choice I'll select 2006's take on squab with strawberries.

Black TruffleDominic Armato

BLACK TRUFFLE - explosion, romaine, parmesan
How thrilled I am to have finally sampled this dish. If Achatz can be said to have one signature dish (he can't), the black truffle explosion is it. It's actually a holdover from his days at Trio that he resurrected because people wouldn't stop pestering him about it. When you hear so much about a dish, you somehow feel that your experience with a chef is incomplete until you've tried it. Now, I would caution against building it up in your head as The Most Amazing Dish Ever, because there's room for disappointment. But not much. This is a stellar dish no matter how you cut it, and it isn't hard to see why it's one of the creations that made Achatz' name. Think of it as the European version of xiao long bao. It's a raviolo, topped with a slice of black truffle, puree of romaine lettuce and a shaving of parmesan, and filled with pure, liquid truffle essence. Truffle juice, to be precise (basically, truffle stock). And butter. Like xiao long bao (at least the way I eat them, traditional or no), you pop the dumpling in your mouth and squeeze and warm liquid comes gushing out. Here, it's truffle rather than pork. And though I think I expected a more intense experience, I was delighted by the absolute purity of the flavor. If you've had only the miniscule touches of second-rate truffles that often accompany dishes at restaurant that don't want to charge an arm and a leg for them and aren't quite sure what part of the dish's flavor was truffle, this little dumpling will remove all doubt. Taste this, and you know what a truffle tastes like.

Tournedo Dominic Armato

TOURNEDO - à la persane
Wahey, something's afoot with our final savory course! The tease starts when the flatware is set out. It's pointedly un-Alinea-like, and the accompanying glass is at least as frilly, with endlessly spiraling etched patterns. It looks old, old school, and I immediately start to wonder if this will be something of a preview of Next, Achatz' forthcoming restaurant that promises to serve menus inspired not just by culinary traditions, but by very specific places and times. A fascinating idea that's worthy of its own post and which we won't pursue further in the here and now. But clearly, we're being teased, and when the plate hits the table you find yourself wondering... what's the catch? The catch is that there is no catch. As we were plainly informed by the gentleman who served this course, the kitchen likes to demonstrate every now and again that they aren't just nerdy chefs of science who know emulsifiers and aerators and antigriddles, but who would be lost in a traditional kitchen. Many (if not most) of them are classically trained, or at least well-versed in the techniques thereof, and this dish was described to us as a bit of, "Hey, we can do that too!" What you see here, Tournedo à la Persane, is straight out of Escoffier. Literally. Well, almost. Though Escoffier didn't predate Fanny Farmer by much, he published this particular item well before the type of detailed, measurable, step-by-step recipes that she pioneered and to which we're now accustomed were commonplace. No, Escoffier's recipes, intended for professionals who were classically trained and didn't need someone to fill in the (gaping) holes, were wonderfully brief and even more wonderfully vague, so there's a little room for interpretation. But the basic elements as he suggested in "Le Guide Culinaire" are fully intact, from the beef itself to the peppers stuffed with rice to the grilled tomatoes to the fried bananas to the sauce Chateaubriand. But it's jasmine rice, cooked to a texture that resembles creamy risotto. The beef is first done sous vide, before getting a quick sear prior to service. And one gets the sense that it's a touch lighter and cleaner than Escoffier intended. But still, this is a classic (if uncommon) dish, and very delicious. My only complaint is that it seemed an unnecessary detour. As far as I'm concerned, the chefs and cooks of Alinea have nothing to prove, and I hate to see them pander to their critics in such a fashion.

Lemon SodaTransparencyDominic Armato

LEMON SODA - one bite
TRANSPARENCY - of raspberry, yogurt
And with that, the savory courses were history, and we were into dessert, kicking it off with a pair of simple and light courses. Again, delivered together, posted together. Eating the lemon soda almost felt a little clandestine, a small packet containing a white powder that was to be dropped onto your tongue and dissolved. And it was lemon soda, from the flavor to the effervescence to, I'm told, the artificial sweetener. A fun little start. The transparency appeared to be little more than a glorified fruit roll-up, though taking it to the next level with superior ingredients strikes me as an entirely worthy endeavor. And it differed in other ways too, first in that it was light and crispy, and second in that it had a hint of yogurt flavor. Another fun little treat.

Bubble GumDominic Armato

BUBBLE GUM - long pepper, hibiscus, crème fraîche
The bubble gum course was practically giggle-inspiring for any number of reasons. There's a certain playful ridiculousness to the form, a dessert in gel form intended to be sucked out of an open ended tube that, when filled, is more than a little reminiscent of a cigarette. An homage to bubble gum cigarettes, perhaps? In any case, there are three primary components. The first, on the left, is a hibiscus gel. In the middle, crème fraîche. And on the far end, the main attraction, tapioca bubbles in a gel made with Bubble Yum stock. You read that right. The kitchen at Alinea stocks Bubble Yum. You know what? It's delightful and fun, though it immediately brings to mind two possible disaster scenarios, both of which must have already occurred. First, it's a lot of gel in there. In terms of scale, the tube is less like a cigarette and more like a test tube. And you're meant to quickly suck the entire thing into your mouth. It was a lot for me, and I take some pretty substantial bites. I've no doubt this has ended up in a windpipe or two, which you'd think would result in its sudden expulsion in the other direction. Second, there's the aforementioned giggle factor. Ever laughed just as you were about to take a bite out of something covered with powdered sugar? Now imagine instead that your lips are pressed to the end of a miniature blowgun loaded with a sticky dessert. I'd actually kind of like to be in the dining room when that one happens. Just... you know... uprange.

Earl GreyDominic Armato

EARL GREY - lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate
It really wasn't until the earl grey course that we received a full-fledged dessert, but it was a doozy. I must confess, I don't know half of what was going on here, but it was absolutely stellar. There were pine nuts and earl grey tea in a sort of dry, crumbled texture similar to the Nutella course, but not pressed into a block. There was fennel jam for sweetness and to pick up some of the more complex notes of the tea. The spheres of lemon curd were excruciatingly tart and lemony, and I mean that in a very, very good way. Those beige tendrils, the caramelized white chocolate (how does one do that, precisely?), had some bite and were at once sweet and nutty and rich. And the entire plate was set on top of a pillow that slowly released the scent of earl grey tea as you ate the dish. There was a lot going on, only flashes of which registered on a conscious level, but it really took me away for a moment. This was one of my favorite desserts in quite some time.

ChocolateDominic Armato

CHOCOLATE - coconut, menthol, hyssop
And if the final course didn't upstage the earl grey in terms of flavor, it certainly did in terms of drama. Since our last visit, I've been sort of intentionally avoiding reading anything about specific dishes at Alinea. I knew we'd return, and when we did I wanted to be able to approach it clean and experience the same kind of delight and surprise that I did the first time. There was one dish that snuck through my firewalls, and this was it, and it's kind of too bad. The chocolate course starts almost ominously, as everything is removed from your table and a thin grey silicone (or something like it) tablecloth is spread across it and perfectly smoothed. Then, a dozen or so dishes are lined up on the edge of the table, each containing a different component. What followed shortly thereafter was something I'd read about and expected. What I didn't expect was who would be doing it. Up strolls the man himself, Grant Achatz, and while I don't mean to make a huge deal of out of it, it's pretty freaking cool when the star of the show personally prepares your last course tableside. Or tabletop, as the case may be. You could call the tablecloth a canvas, because after a brief greeting (there are a lot of tables and he has a kitchen to tend to, after all), Achatz starts painting. He sets out glass tubes a couple of inches wide and pours in a thin chocolate pudding. He takes bowls of sauces, chocolate, coconut milk, menthol cream, and starts drizzling and brushing and smearing and streaking until a pattern starts to emerge. Rows of dots of liquid of increasing size go down in a circle, as physics would ordinarily dictate, but slowly reform themselves into squares, presumably due to some curious properties of the tablecloth. He scatters about small piles of crumbled chocolate cookie and nuggets of some manipulation of coconut that can only be described as rubbery. Crunchy sheets of crystalized menthol, semi-spheres of coconut mousse that hold their shape at room temperature and sprigs of anise hyssop are all that's left before the centerpiece arrives, a loaf of chocolate mousse that's been whipped to a light and airy consistency and then somehow frozen in that state. Set in the center of the table, it cracks and crumbles apart with a sharp strike from a spoon, spilling not only shards of frozen chocolate mousse but a wave of mist from what I assume was the liquid nitrogen used to freeze it. As the mist drifts across the table, Achatz removes the glass tubes leaving behind cylinders of chocolate pudding, still warm, that now maintain their shape. This Hollywood blockbuster of a dessert makes flambé look like something a couple of grade school kids threw together with a camcorder, and you're left dumbfounded, but with a spoon, since you'll be eating your dessert right off the table -- the entire table -- because it's completely covered. The flavor? Well, it's excellent, and if it's somewhat secondary to the show, it's no reflection on the food. The chocolate is rich, the coconut is powerful, the menthol is downright bracing, and the myriad textures combine in different ways with every bite, since there are so many elements to choose from as you mix and scoop and taste. It's quite a finish.

I wondered, going in, if I'd be less excited the second time around now that some of the novelty has worn off. And I was a little surprised to find that this wasn't at all the case. If anything, having seen firsthand just how surprising and delightful a meal at Alinea can be, I approached the second trip even more prepared to go along for the ride. There are a few things that struck me on this second trip. The first is that there seems to be an increasing emphasis on texture, and not just individual textures, but complex combinations of textures. Of course we all recognize that texture in food is important, but I think we often underestimate just how pleasurable exciting textures can be, and I love to see Achatz paying so much careful attention to this aspect of cooking. Second, I was practically dumbfounded by the consistent quality of the menu from start to finish. Of course there were courses that I enjoyed more than others, and some that will drop out of my memory before long, but in 2006 there were definitely a few dishes that I didn't especially enjoy, and a couple that I considered flat-out failures. It didn't bother me a bit. As I saw it, when you're eating 20+ courses of highly experimental cuisine, there are bound to be a few misses. But on this pass, there wasn't a single dish that I didn't enjoy. Not one. And I find that truly remarkable. Lastly, and this one's a little nebulous, but when we visited in 2006, more of the dishes seemed to be simple exercises, almost like proof of concept dishes. This time around, a great many dishes seemed to take on added complexity. And while I would never have described the techniques used for our first pass as gimmicky, many of those techniques seemed to be integrated in even more mature ways this time around, contributing to a larger picture rather than simply existing on their own. I marvel at the complexity of some of these dishes, and I marvel even more at the way that complexity is focused on achieving an end -- more importantly, a delicious end. Because otherwise this is simply a goofy experiment rather than a true culinary laboratory, which is what I believe it to be. I am, once again, thrilled to have been witness to it.

Alinea
www.alinea-restaurant.com
1723 N. Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60614
312-867-0110
Dinner Wednesday through Sunday

Comments

Bourbon, vermouth, cherry... it's a Manhattan.

Of course it is. Why the hell didn't that occur to me? Thanks,Cosmic Jester.

What a fantastic read! Many many thanks, Dom!

Caramelized white chocolate is actually really easy... white chocolate, broken up, on a sheet pan in a low oven (like 265) for about 45 minutes or until you get the color you want. The Ideas in Food folks do theirs in their pressure cooker, high pressure 30 minutes, but I haven't tried that way. Its good stuff.

Adoxograph... and that doesn't melt the chocolate? What's the melting point for white chocolate? Or, it's shaped after being caramelized, correct? The obvious is eluding me today for some reason.

Haven't had a chance to read the entire post yet. But, I have to say, the pictures are gorgeous. The food at Alinea is such a visual delight, it's like the food version of the Museum of Modern Art. Every time I see the Alinea book I'm tempted to pick it up, even though I know I'll never make anything from it, just to gaze at the pictures. Beautiful.

This was a delight to read! My husband and I experienced the late spring menu, which was similar to your meal. We still can't help but talk about that meal, though we're not nearly as eloquent in our descriptions. I'm still amazed at how utterly delicious that english pea puree and earl grey dessert were. And yes, we're anxiously awaiting the opening of Next/Aviary!

Hey Dom, yes it would be shaped after being caramelized... the caramelization process, since it is done at low temps, doesn't alter the cocoa butter so it can't harden again, it just affects the sugars. I think the folks at Valrhona figured this technique out first, you may find more info on their website. It makes an awesome mousse, too - Kathy

Oh, to not have food allergies. Or to have friends who were not either vegetarian, halal, or timid.

@ Independent George
Alinea is very accomodating to dietary restrictions. I know a vegan who had the 24 course menu; they made great substitutions and she didn't feel that she got short-changed at all. Same goes for food allergies, halal, kosher, etc. Timid... that's another problem.

Timid I wouldn't worry about. The flavors are all such that I can't imagine anybody not enjoying them. Plenty find the presentations and concepts weird, but it isn't like trying to drag somebody out for offal or some more challenging ethnic cuisines. There's nothing that I can imagine making anybody squeamish.

But then, I enjoy such things, so my view might be skewed.

Does it take an educated palate to really enjoy? It sounds like much of what they do is to play with a diner's expectations. What if you lack much of the frame of reference?

rab01... well, take the corn. Even if you don't understand how atypical it is to freeze-dry corn kernels and then poach them in butter, the result is just as novel and delicious to you.

Or with the Chao Tom, you may not recognize that this is a classic dish turned inside-out, but it's still a delicious combination of flavors delivered in a very unconventional format. There's an extra level you appreciate, but delicious food is still delicious food. It's like looking at a painting. You might have a heightened appreciation if you're an art nerd, but you don't have to be to find a painting pleasurable to look at.

And actually, something like the black truffle explosion might be even more enjoyable to a less experienced of knowledgeable diner. If you've never had or heard about xiao long bao, that dish must be absolutely astounding the first time you try it.

Incredible photography. I pointed my blog readers to you to get an idea of what my wife and I ate last night; my photos are shameful by comparison. You had about five more courses than we did, some of which I'm downright jealous of, but you captured the experience so much better. Your descriptions are so accurate and feel some of the same metaphors that we were discussing on our drive home.

Thanks for sharing.

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