Travelblog - Percyn : 2 days in Chicago
Posted 25 February 2007 - 02:56 PM
My original reservation was for 9:30pm on a Thursday. Since I flew into Chicago early
that morning, it meant that it would be a 20 hr day, not ideal for the 23 course Tour menu, especially if I wanted to include the wine pairings. But luckily, I got a call from the restaurant early afternoon indicating that they could seat me earlier, in fact I could show up anytime that evening, as they were not looking to turn that table. So I ended up taking a 10 min cab ride from my hotel on lakeshore drive to Alinea (make you have their address as not all cabbies will know the restaurant) and arrive at 7:30pm.
As you may know, the outside out the restaurant is quite plain and the indication of Alinea was on the valet parking sign. You enter through a non discreet doorway which can best be described as what looks like a side entrance through which deliveries are made. Then you enter a long corridor and you expect the entrance to be at the end of it, but it is in fact 2/3rds of the way on the left. All these "faux entrances" reminded me of per se a la fake door, but also gives the diner a glimpse of what is to come...an overhaul of their perceptions of food in their "traditional" preparations.
Many of the dishes are served on specialized utensils, specially designed for it as thoroughly documented on eGullet. Going into this dinner I was somewhat apprehensive as to whether Alinea got its fame because of good tasting food or clever food related gimmicks. It is my pleasure to assure you that the taste of the dish is not compromised for novelty. In fact the taste of many dishes was heightened, though not all dishes were stars in my mind.
Making the best of my luck in being able to secure an earlier reservation, I decided to go for the larger tour menu and what the heck, add in the wine pairings as well. For those interested, you could order 1/2 bottles or even some wines by the glass if I recall correctly, which in retrospect would have been better, as I was unable to consume more than 1/2 the pour for most of the 13(?) wines, even though I would have enjoyed many of them if I had been less full. A word of caution for the frugal gourmet...the wine pairing is $135(?) and price is not prominent during a quick glance of the menu.
For those contemplating the shorter tasting menu, a quick comparison of the shorter Tasting and Tour menu show that they share many of the dishes which I would consider highlights of the meal. In fact, there was a bacon course on the Tasting menu that I would have loved to see make its way over to the Tour menu.
The kitchen and front of the house worked very well together, adjusting to the pace of the diners seamlessly. The wait staff and kitchen runners were informative and well versed, especially the young waiter/sommelier who attended to my wine needs with a splash of history accompanied.
So on to the meal...
Before the Amuse was brought out, a twig of rosemary was placed in a special holder on the edge of the table and the aperitif was poured.
Amuse Bouch - Croquette smoked steelhead roe, sour cream liquid, candied endive. - I was instructed to pop the entire thing in my mouth, which was good as a bit would have exploded the sour cream all over. Many flavors unfold as the croquette melts in your mouth and before the creamy texture of the sour cream coats your tongue.
Chartogne-Taillet "Cuvee Ste-Anne" Brut with Pineau des Charentes.
Octopus salad - Shiso flowers, papaya, toasted soy, soy dressing artisanal - The texture of the octopus was good but not spectacular. However, the star of this dish was the delicate red wine(?) and shiso broth on the bottom, which one is instructed to sip after eating the octopus on the fork and then placing the self balancing bowl on the black mahogany table.
Chanterelle with carrot, curry and ham - This was one of my favorites and I am horrified to say that the picture did not turn out well. I believe it was presented as a parfait, and the sleeve removed at the table, allowing the ingredients to ooze out. The chanterelle puree was as creamy as whipped peanut butter, the perfectly cooked carrot pieces dipped in sherry vinegar, the spinach ball in dijon mustard and the proscuitto and apricot leather gave this dish a sweet and salty dimension.
Quinta so Alqueve Fernao Pires, Ribatejo, Portugal 2005
Apple, horseradish, celery - I was instructed to eat this in one bite and cautioned that the ball looked smaller than it really is...sort of like looking at it in the side view mirror of a car. When you bite into this, you are surprised with a chilled splash of apple juice and contrary to my expectations, the horseradish was mildly flavored and did not overpower this dish. I don't recall the celery doing much other than perhaps adding another dimension.
At this point, I was offered bread service, optional due to the filling nature of the tour menu....but how could I resist. Their bread is ordered from an external bakery (forget the name) and is quite good. I tried the pumpernickel and wheat, which was presented with Danish cow's butter and a Goat's milk butter from Quebec.
Monkfish - banana, onion, lime - The monkfish was served 3 ways poached; fired; pureed. It was served with banana pudding and lime gelee. In the past, I have had fish wrapped in banana leaf and steamed, but I do not recall ever pairing banana with fish. An unexpected combination, but one that works...in fact I think Chef may be fond of this combination, as it appears again in a later dish. The extremely crispy fried monkfish were key to providing a textural element and salvaging this dish from having the same texture as that of cuisine served at the Shady Maple retirement home.
Vincent Dancer Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru "La Romanee" 2004
Duck - mango, yogurt, pillow of juniper air - Another star dish; a combination of traditional and nouvelle cuisine. Duck confit was a homage to its traditional preparation, while the duck breast had an unconventional presentation. The yogurt foam added a gentle tanginess and the crispy skin added a good textural component. The juniper air was only slight detectable...perhaps because I was tired or my ofactory senses were already pounded.
Truffle explosion - raviolo of truffle jus topped with black truffle - Again, you eat this in one single bite and have the warm truffle jus explode in your mouth. This was the second most truffly dish I have had, only second to the white truffle risotto at Per Se. The raviolo seemed to be a bit thick, but that could be to ensure that it did not prematurely explode over the guest or maybe it was to add a chewy textural element, but I could not help think about how the dish would have been with a thinner skinned raviolo.
Short Ribs, Guinness sheet, peanuts, fried broccoli - Another example of an ingenious dish. Yes, I have made short ribs with Guinness plenty of times, but never has the Guinness taken for form of a sheet. I need to find out how to do this. There was only a tiny bit of short ribs, which went well with the peanut butter pudding. However, I found the mustard and pink peppercorns to be a bit overpowering. For my taste, a bit less mustard sprinkled throughout would have been ideal.
Paolo Bea Montefaico Rosso Riserva "Pipparello", Umbria 2001. - Apparently, this wine is made my a dedicated farmer, who owns 20 hectares in Umbria, 5 of which are devoted to the wine. A bold wine, yet with a nice finish.
Frozen Yuzu - presented on a guitar pick. Not overpowering and a great palate cleanser with a bit of a chew...in a good way.
Chestnut puree w/Blis maple syrup - Ever used a push pin as a utensil? It is ideal for this dish with was a simple but power combination of antigriddled Chestnut puree and bourbon aged Blis maple syrup. I intent to try this dish at home...sans antigriddle.
Persimmon, brioche, mace gelee, grapefruit, ginger honey tea orb - The texture of the persimmon reminded me of custard apple (which I love) and the flavor of the brioche was simply decadent. You were instructed to pop the honey ginger tea half way through to act as a mini palate cleanser.
Marcel Deiss Gewurztraminer "Heimbourg", Alsace 2003
So by this point I am getting a bit tired...and we are only 1/2 way into the meal !!! So I start focusing on longevity, pacing myself...thinking of baseball .... just kidding.
Licorice Cake - muscivado sugar, orange, anise hyssop - You might have seen this alien looking item, served on an antenna on TV shows featuring Alinea and it was precisely this dish my preconceived notions had chalked up to the over-the-top, fru-fru-flavorless column. Boy was I wrong. It proved to pack a flavorful punch, with the licorice not being too overpowering and left me longing for another bite.
King Crab - vinegar, aromatics, rice, grapes of the sea - The crab was served on top of rice wine gelee. The "grapes of the sea" were actually kelp berries (they did actually pop when you bite them). An interesting take on sushi...I would have loved to see the expression on the face of a traditional sushi chef ;-) . I did find the crab a bit hard to cut and not as flavorful as other king crab I have had.
A.R. Lenoble "Rose Millesime" Brut, Damery 2000 - This wine was named after this rose bouquet instead of color and went well with the sushi.
Skate w/lemon, caper, brown butter powder - The skate was served on slices of banana (remember this combo from before?). The powder was interesting, but in my opinion a bit too salty and overpowering for such a delicately flavored fish.
Francois Villard "Terrasses du Palat" Condrieu, N. Rhone 2004
Pineapple bacon powder, black pepper - WOW. The smoky bacon flavor really came through as the pineapple candy melted away. Why don't they sell this in candy stores?!!?
Lamb, dates, mastic, rosemary aroma - This dish came out on a hot terra cotta brick heated to 400-500F, into which the rosemary was inserted. The heat not only seared the bottom of the lamb, but also released the essential oils of the rosemary. There were 3 pieces of lamb topped with 3 different toppings - mastic, dates macerated in sherry and shallots with red wine
Jean Royer Chateauneuf-du-Pape "Hommage a mon Pere", S. Rohne 2001
Hot potato, cold potato, truffle, butter, parmesan - Another great concept, well executed. What can I say other than I wish there was more !!
Venison in Granola, Cherry Sauce, Micro Sage - If one can encrust Venison in nut, why not granola? The flavor combination of the granola and parsnip puree seemed to bring out the slight sweetness of the venison while the granola added a unique texture. Venison granola bar for breakfast anyone?
Schiavenza Barolo, Serralunga d'Alba 2000 - Seem to young for a Barolo? Not this wine which was bold with a refined finish.
Foie Gras Mirangue - spicy cinnamon, apple pate de fruit - This dish was presented as a "gift" from the chef, which he was not charging for. As the meringue melted on your tongue, the foie gras fat just coats you palate and carries some of the apple flavor with it.
By this point the Tour is taking its toll. I have to focus and envision the finish line with every bite.
Orange, olive oil powder, almond - The almond and orange bar had a flavor reminisent of an orange popsicle, drapped in an almond blanket. There was also a bergamot pudding with basil, which was another first for me.
Oremus Tokaji Aszu "5 Puttonyos", Hungary 1999 - Ahhh...a perfect example of what every Tokaji aspires to be.
Cocunut, saffron, kiwi, corn - The star of this dish was a gelee made from corn husks, which had a flavor of corn combined with hay. The coconut dominant in this dish was pliable, sort of like the skin that sometimes forms on a can of coconut milk.
Boony Doon Viognier "Doux", Central Coast 2004 - This wine made from grapes harvest much later in the season and actually has hints of coconut.
Chocolate, Passion Fruit, Soy, Kaffir Lime - The Venezuelan chocolate had a texture of cream pressed out of a tube...in a good way. The kaffir lime sorbet a nice palate cleanser. However, the soy was too strong and just destroyed this dish for me. I tried to blend the ingredients together, as instructed, but this dish just did not work for me. Blame it on a 20 hr day or the fact that this was the knock-out punch for my already overworked palate. I just could not finish this dish. Its a tragedy that this dish had to be part of an otherwise almost flawless set of courses.
[i]Abbazia di Novacella Moscato Rosa "Prapositus", Alto Adige 2004
Caramel Tempura on Cinnamon stick w/orange rind - After the last dish, I needed something to redeem my belief in this newly found temple of gastronomy. Since this was (thankfully) the last bite of the evening, the responsibility lay squarely on its tiny shoulders and it did not disappoint. You pick it up by the cinnamon stick, pop it in your mouth and slide it off without biting. The tempura batter melts away allowing the caramel to ooze out and let the orange linger on....Hallelujah !!
In summary, Alinea is not a restaurant solely relying on gimmicks, they indeed do care about the flavors of the dish. The kitchen is powered by 16 professional, innovative chefs, headed by a very creative and passionate leader. A quick tour of the kitchen on the way out around 12:10am showed Chef Grant on his Mac either browsing eGullet or in search for his next dish.
I wish this restaurant was closer to where I lived so that I would visit it a couple times a year, though I am not sure I would exceed that frequency.
Posted 25 February 2007 - 03:17 PM
All I can say is WOW! Holy moley that's some beautiful food, and your descriptions are awesome. The wine choices are really interesting too.
Thanks for sharing Percy...
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol
Posted 25 February 2007 - 03:25 PM
I stepped out of my hotel off Michigan Ave and felt the strong -15F wind cut through the layers of clothing, assault my uncovered face and make my eyes water. After a brisk walk past the John Hancock center I entered the water tower mall to warm up. Upon entering the building, I spotted what first seemed like a coffee shop, but turned out to be Wow Bao....it was like seeing a mirage....tender pockets of hot steamy goodness was exactly what I needed.
$1.29 for a Bao seemed like a bargain, particularly when you are freezing. The Mongolian beef bao was still not ready, so I ordered the Thai curry and Kung Pao chicken ones.
The aromatic steam reminded me a of the steam shower awaiting me at home.
This is a shot of the Kung Pao bao. I don't consider myself to be a Bao aficionado, but these tasted pretty good...particularly on a cold day. I had never heard of Wow Bao before and wonder how this might do in other cities...I like the concept...
Continued on to Geno's East off Michigan Ave and got a sausage deep dish pizza which they had for a very economical $6.95 for lunch, which included soup or salad and a drink. The tomato basil soup was actually shockingly bad and tasted like dish water with a hint of spoiled basil. The pizza actually had sausage patties instead of crumbles and was delicious. Yes, very different than the thin crust pizzas I typically like, but still delicious and filling. The crust seemed to be made of semolina flour.
I ate 1/2 and packed the other 1/2 planning to give it to a homeless person I had previously seen in the vicinity. Unfortunately, by the time I returned, he had vanished and despite circling a few blocks I was unable to locate him, so I stashed the pizza box in a location I hoped others in need might find it.
I wanted up and down Michigan ave, people watching for a bit (Paris and New York have nothing on this city when it comes to people watching...at least on this particular day). Then I walked my way up State st towards Portillo's. On the way I passed the location of the now defunct favorite Indian restaurant I used to frequent in my college days... Bukhara, on State and La Salle. It is now occupied by a Italian Bistro / Pizzeria.
Portillo's - Claims to be where the Chicago dog originated, but they were established in 1963 and I thought the Chicago dog has a longer, richer history.
OK...so by now you know it is freezing, so I had to get some Chili. Turned out to be one of the best Chilis I had in a long time.
Ahhh... my old friend
Posted 25 February 2007 - 03:34 PM
The hotel had a good selection of tea, but I decided to go with the old favorite - Earl Grey
They had the typical Egg Salad, Tomato & Cucumber finger sandwiches and a unique one with shredded beef and fried onions.
Overall the experience was good and relaxing, though service would be improved and the most important part ... scone could benefit from an upgrade to the mini scone provided.
OK...gotta walk this off and prepare for my dinner at Avenues.
Edited by percyn, 25 February 2007 - 03:39 PM.
Posted 25 February 2007 - 04:51 PM
It's fairly well established that the Chicago-style hot dog originated with a Maxwell Street vending cart during the Depression. Jack Drexler, proprietor of Fluky's, claims the original cart belonged to his father, and few dispute this claim.
Portillo's - Claims to be where the Chicago dog originated, but they were established in 1963 and I thought the Chicago dog has a longer, richer history.
Posted 25 February 2007 - 04:56 PM
I don't think I can ever bring myself to appreciate deep dish pizza. It honestly doesn't look all that appetizing, but I suppose I've never had an exemplary version. Perhaps one day.
Your trip sounds great.
Posted 26 February 2007 - 08:07 AM
Posted 26 April 2007 - 03:48 AM
I came upon this while doing research for a trip this summer, and I need to read about the rest of your trip! (Avenues is on my shortlist for dinner, as are Schwa and Butter).
Posted 28 April 2007 - 06:26 AM