Sunday 20 April 2008

Alinea, Chicago

Alinea kitchen at work

Most reviews of Alinea point out very early on that it was acknowledged as being the best restaurant in America in 2006. Most diners at Alinea have never seen anything quite like this before. Most diners don't come here on their own!

So I rocked up to 1723 N. Halstead Street on my own and tried not to look too much of an idiot as I walked up to an unidentified door and pushed on it. Luckily I had got the number right and I walked in to a kaleidoscopic hallway with a medley of fibre optic, futuristic lights. Whislt being drawn in by the tractor beam some doors automatically slid open and I found myself inside the nerve centre of America's most cutting edge restaurant.

Alinea entrance

Having arrived 15 minutes early because the traffic wasn't as bad as I was expecting I was offereed the option of going away to the bar next door and coming back quarter of an hour later or sitting in a chair in the hallway and watching the action in the open kitchen. Being on my own I made the slightly awkward choice of sitting in the hallway gawping at the intense activity in the kitchen.

15 long minutes past before I was lead to my table, tucked away in the corner of a spacious dining room, next to the servers's cutlery and wine station. The benefit of this was that I always had something to look at whilst twiddling my thumbs between courses. I had decided not to bring a book or camera with me so I had a lot of time to people watch and contemplate.

Having decided to go for the 12 course tasting menu I turned down the attempt to upsell me on the wine matching option and allowed the sommelier to choose a lightly oaked American chardonay for me. He was a fantastic sommelier who kept me company when it seemed like I wanted to talk to somebody!

Rather than give you a blow by blow account of the food, I'm just going to describe the highlights and add some of my thoughts. The menu is just as shown below:

Steelhead Roe:

A lump of coconut and lime cream with a string of steelhead rowe arrived on the end of a vanilla looking like an old fashioned in pot and quil. A refreshing, intriguing start. And a sign of the brilliance that was to follow.

Spring Garlic:

A forkful with 3 jellies: parsley, lemon and chicken and a bowl of garlic soup. First eat the jellies and then let the warm garlic soup glide over you like an unexpected treat. Delicious. Has the flavour and depth of the best roast chicken. Incredibly smooth. And very clever.

Ice Fish:

One of my favourite things on the menu. It is fish and chips but deconstructed. Tiny slithers of fish are served with the component parts of tartare sauce scattered over the long thin plate. When they combine together in your mouth you are unexpectedly transported to the Godlen Hind on Marylebone Lane! Highly unusual. Great success.


Wow. So clever. With a fair amount of American fanfare a large bowl was placed front of me with a slightly smaller bowl inside. The outside bowl had a sprig of mint and spearmint jutting out of it. The inside bowl contained an instensely flavoured lobster and pea broth with a lobster foam. The server elaborately poured some boiling water into the outside bowl which caught hold of the mint sprigs and forced all of their refreshing vapours straight up my nostrils like a big, pleasant, hit of Morocco! Memories came flooding back of long afternoons walking around the Medina and causal breakfasts in our Riad. Then when I tasted the lobster broth I was in Rick Stein heaven! The chunks of lobster were soft and sweet. The liquid itself was deep and smooth. Much finer than a typical lobster broth and depth charged with something called ramps - apparently they are a type of leek that is native to the Chicago area. It was a work of genius. My only criticism was that the peas were hard and chewy. For some reason I felt compelled to tell the sommelier. But only because he asked. I was astonished when appeared back minutes later with the chef's appologies! Only in America. If Ramsay was down there he would have thrown me out there and then!

Wagyu Beef:

I have had wagyu beef before and was deeply disappointed. Not this time. Disappointment simply wasn't an option. Whilst I was waiting for my chicken and garlic soup, a gentleman all in black very earnestly put a bizarre looking frozen thing on my table and explained in great detail that it was a slice of wagyu beef frozen in liquid nitrogen and should be left to defrost at my table. Then when the time was right a scorching hot oblong plate arrived with a cube of potato on that looked as lonely as I must have done! It was wrapped in a very thing slice of black truffle. 2 waiters performed the ritual of folding the now defrosted wagyu beef over the top of the warm truffled potato and hot plate. The marbled meat gently let go of some of its fat and yielded to the warmth to take the chill off. A third waiter, the most senior of the now triumvirate ceremoniosly spooned some vinagerette over the beef and then crowned it with 2 thyme leaves. Wow. What a theatrical experience. A minute later it was all gone and I was sighing with approval. Delicious. The temperature of the raw wagyu beef meant that it simply melted in mouth and the truffle left my mouth feeling like it had just french kissed a whore house - in a good way! The thyme and vinagrette then cleaned away the delicious filth and left me wanting seconds!


Erm. Bit of a weird one. Out came a device looking like it had been used by the CIA as some sort of rendition initiation or as a brace for someone who had broken their neck. From the high wire dangled a slice of crispy bacon topped with an apple and butterscotch glaze designed to bring back memories of the bacon and wafles you had for breakfast - or so the waiter told me when I asked what the idea was. Very cool. Very photogenic. Very tasty. Nice story too.


Having no idea what persimmon was I soon discovered when I put the myriad component parts in my mouth that this was Hansel and Grettel on a plate. It was a deconstruced ginger bread cake. Very clever. Big round flavours.


Very hard to describe - but I'll have a go. Raw egg yoke in a sphere that oozes everywhere as soon as your curious spoon gets close. A chocolate shell surrounding a loose creamy centre that was delicious. And then a bunch of smokey salt spots drizzled around the plate. In addition a bit of dried orange peel added an architectural flourish. Fantastically rich feel in the mouth and stunning presentation.

Having bored you to death with my gushings about what I liked I'd better explain why I haven't reviewed each course. Essentially, whilst everything was really interesting to eat and experience, I didn't feel it was all perfect either in its execution or its conception.

Fava Beans was something you had to see to believe. But was bland to taste and I didn't understand the idea.

Hot Potato was a medley of hot and cold potato with what tasted like a mushroom soup. I got the feeling it was being clever for the sake of it and wasn't really going anywhere. Essentially like eating a punctuation mark.

Short ribs were oh so tender and tasty. But the combination of peanut butter and Guinness seems wrong. Maybe my palette is too basic. I took some time trying to work it out and decided it was like in MasterChef when Gregg and John tell the participant that what they've done would be great as two different dishes - but not on the same plate. Beef and peanut = satay beef. Great. Beef and Guinness = a classic. But all together tastes like a badly edited Wikipedia entry. Full of clever stuff. But unreliable and confusing.

Lamb was similarly complex. Again it may have been my stupidity but it was a collection of 4 or 5 dishes in one that baffled rather than delighted. Lamb with mint. Fine. Lamb with mushroom. Fine. Lamb with red wine. Fine. Lamb with red pepper reduction. Fine. Lamb with smoked walnut. Really interesting. All together on one plate? Weird. No wonder the menu listed this as "diverse embellishments"!

Rhubarb appeared in the form of a spherical shot with ginger and basil. It was stunningly refreshing and I am told is a parody of an American ice cream. But the waitress cleared away my glass whilst I was still eating it. Why? Just to be efficient? It's probably an American thing. But I found it incredibly rude.

Don't get me wrong. I loved the experience. It was fascinating and delicious. Having eaten at the Fat Duck and El Bulli I am lucky to be able to place this meal in context. El Bulli is insurparsable. And the Fat Duck probably is too. But this was good. It lacked consistency. Whereas there were themes and riffs running through the experience at the Fat Duck and El Bulli the menu at Alinea doesn't seem to have the same fluidity. Whereas El Bulli constantly surprises and plays the menu at Alinea is more expected in the flavour deparment and relies more on visual techniques. El Bulli pushed my culinary boundaries into places I had never been before. Alinea didn't. It was far safer. At times Alinea over-complicated to the extent that you don't get the idea.

I have been wanting to go to Alinea for around a year now and am delighted to have had the opportunity. It was a very special evening. Being alone gave me the chance to really think about each mouthful which is not really what eating is all about. And as a result, maybe I have been overly critical. The highlights such as the lobster and wagyu beef will stay with me for life and the bits that confused are just me being a snooty food snob.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely wonderful reading! I'm inspired and am going to experiment with flavors now.


marias23 said...

How cool! My sis (who's an interior deigner) has a project focused on a molecular gastronomy restaurant. We're going to make our way to Alinea too! I'm so excited about it after reading this :)

One Fat Chef said...

Alinea is on my list of *must eat*!

Anonymous said...

I do not think you were overly critical. My opinion of Alinea is much the same as yours. In fact, I probably took a harder line than you did, as I feel you pulled punches. The way your article reads, it seems that you decided you "should" like the place, so you subconsciously structured it to hit the low points with a rubber mallet instead of a tempered steel hammer.

In my opinion, Alinea was a severe let down considering all the pomp and circumstance they make out of their food. The place suffers from a dichotomy of identity, and as a result it does not effectively deliver.

If I'm looking for cutting-edge cuisine, the finest restaurant in the world is El Bulli - as you said, incomparable. The best way I can describe it is that at Alinea you are merely watching a symphony from the balcony. Sure, the view is great, and sure, the musicians are talented and coax beautiful music from their instruments... but at El Bulli you are on stage, sitting right in the middle as chaos ensues with the flipping of sheet music, the placesetting of instruments, and the flailing of an enthusiastic conductor. You not only are surrounded and consumed with the music, but there's another layer there beyond the music, and that subtext is something Alinea lacks.

I will likely take heat for this, but I feel that Grant Achatz gets a little bit of a pass due to his extraordinary story in beating mouth cancer. While I enjoyed my meal there, it was in no way deserving of all the hype and praise that is heaped upon it. I felt that he was always wanting to push the dishes farther than he did, but passed on doing so for some reason - a fear of failure, perhaps? Everything felt to me like it wanted to be more cutting edge than it actually was.

In the end, I don't regret eating there, but I would likely not go back, and I would not jump to recommend the place to other food lovers.

Some other restaurants that are head-and-shoulders above Alinea (for different reasons) are The French Laundry, and WD~50. I have not been to The Fat Duck, though I will be in the UK for a trip late next month that will hopefully give me an opportunity to try it.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Though I live in Chicago, I haven't yet had the privilege of trying out Alinea. I do hear many great things but would love to judge for myself. Thanks for the insight.

Browners said...

Thanks for all the comments:

Sid, Maria and Eat me Outta Here and Hillary - glad you liked the post and are keen to pay it a visit.

Matt - I agree wholeheartedly. I'm delighted you wrote this and it has made me think about this review and all the others that I have written too.

I was soft on Alinea - I really wanted to like it and I did. It's just that once you've eaten at El Bulli and the Fat Duck Alinea is never going to get close.

It has a big reputation that isn't quite justified.

In many ways this is less a condemnation of Alinea and more a glowing tribute to El Bulli. Feran Adria sets such a high standard that other chefs can only dream of. Inevitably they compared to him and don't come off well as a result.

Really keen to go to WD50 and the French Laundry. Just need to find an excuse and also a few pounds as well!

Really hope you all are enjoying the Paunch and come back soon!


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