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[CHI] Alinea – Grant Achatz – Reviews & Discussion (Part 2)


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Today is Alinea's first birthday. Happy birthday to Alinea! Congratulations to ChefG, Nick and the staff! I wish I could be there to participate in the birthday celebrations.

Cheers to Alinea's First Anniversary. Thanks to all at Alinea who've helped change and refine our ideas about food and Fine Dining.

Edited by gmi3804 (log)
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Hey all:

Thanks for posting the link to the story that I wrote in Wired.

ChefG was gracious enough to give me a chance to spend a couple of days and evenings in the kitchen, and there's a lot that didn't make it into the story. I'm happy to answer any questions that anyone might have about the story, or other things that I saw at Alinea.

And happy anniversary to everyone at Alinea!

Mark McClusky

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I went with a party of three to Alinea last night. We spent about 5 hours there and are very glad we went. I've read much of this thread but apologize if I am repeating anything that has already been covered or responded to.

Our menu was "the best of the best"---the chef's favorites from the first year they've been open. My favorite dishes were the savory ones, especially those that featured "main course" type ingredients like kobe beef, squab, and bison (which I've never had before; it was excellent, very tender). I also liked the courses that used some kind of aromatic element to enhance the dish. I always thought that sounded silly when I read about it---that scented air should be considered an ingredient in a dish? But I have to say, it worked and made me feel pampered in an odd way. We had three courses with some kind of non-food aroma involved. One of them was a bite sized portion of lamb on a skewer that was completely hidden by a pile of baked eucalyptus leaves that released scent before you discovered what was on the end of the skewer. Another course was a seafood custard that included a piece of tubot and various shellfish, served in a small dish set into a shallow bowl full of hyacinth petals; as they served the plates, the waiters poured hot water over the hyacinth petals to create a "vapor." This dish is pictured upthread. My favorite of the scent-enhanced dishes began with a snow white pillow being placed in front of each diner. A very faint spicy smell was apparent. When the plate of food was placed on the pillow, the scent (which turned out to be lavender) was fully released. The food in question was a plate including a delicious piece of charred ham, baby snap beas (kind of like snap bea sprouts), and tofu that I would never have known was tofu--more creamy.

It was really interesting discovering each new course. We did not have the wine pairings, fearing that would be just too much wine, but instead ordered one bottle of white and one of red for the three of us to share. That was actually more wine than would have been ideal for me--with all those couses to taste I wanted to stay alert! Many portions were petite. The very last course, called "Peanut with five other flavors," actually was just five peanuts, each one dipped in or accented by a different flavor: celery, grape, fudge, banana, and one I'm forgetting. This was served on a device built for the restaurant, a base with five removable thin skewers (they call them pins); you pull off a pin, pop the peanut in your mouth, and put the pin on a plate provided for the purpose. We also loved the very first course, which was a tiny bowl of cold potato soup fresh Positioned over the soup was a skewer/pin holding a small hot fingerling potato, a tiny cube of parmesan, a tinier cube of butter, and a slice of black truffle. We were instructed to pull the skewer out so the separate ingredients fell into the soup, then drink it all in one sip. It was ambrosia, possibly the best thing in the whole meal in terms of flavor (though I also loved the squab with watermelon, foie gras and licorice, as well as the bison with pistachio nuts). My least favorite elements of the meal were some of the sweet tastes--for example, vanilla pudding as one of the fillings in the 5 part heart of palm dish. We also had a dessert of "pliable" chocolate, and it seemed to me that whatever was done to make the chocolate moldable had diluted the taste, so that there wasn't enough contrast between the soft chocolate and the accompanying avocado mousse. I loved the sponge cake combination, with vanilla foam and bits of dried cherry. A rather amazing course was an orb of liquid pear that had been coated with a curried butter shell. This was served in a tiny glass with celery liquid. We were instructed to down it all at once and warned that the curry "ball" was bigger than it looked, so we should open our mouths extra wide, then close our lips quickly. All good advice!

I do have a complaint. The air conditioner kept coming on throughout the evening and the vents blew directly on our table (we were seated next to the white curtain near the top of the stairs). When I mentioned this to our waiter, he offered to bring me a pashmina, which I accepted. It's nice that they have them available, but should the temperature in the restaurant be so iffy that they have to provide them? It's not like I was wearing a skimpy top; I had on a short sleeved sweater. Eventually I changed seats with my husband, since he didn't seem to be getting hit with the air to the same degree. After I moved, a waiter commented that he had noticed it was freezing near my seat. They didn't offer to move our wine glasses or anything else that would reflect they felt we'd been inconvenienced--seems like a service lapse to me. In other instances, the waitstaff was attentive. When our guest left one dessert dish unfinished because it had a strong root beer/sassafras taste she didn't care for, they insisted on bringing her an extra course with different flavors, even though she said she didn't want it. And she did like the new course: it was passion fruit mousse. The quick substitution reminded me of the adjustments the kitchen is prepared to make when diners have dietary restrictions or preferences. At a table for two near us, one person was having a vegetarian menu. A number of our courses included nuts, so I'm sure alternatives are readily available for those courses too.

There was a very small child at the restaurant, sitting on her mother's lap. She didn't cause any problems, but I was surprised to see that this was allowed.

What I will remember is the beautiful, interesting, delicious food.

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A couple of other thoughts: the ginger table art present in the early descriptions of the restaurant was not there last night. Others have commented on the comfortable chairs. I sat for most of the evening on a banquette, provided with several plump cushions. I was encouraged to go ahead and sit on top of one of the cushions if I felt my seat was too low, but I was comfortable using the cushion to support my back--otherwise I would have felt too far from the table. When I changed seats because of the air conditioning issue described above, I got a chance to sit in one of the chairs: I actually preferred the banquette with the back support of the pillow.

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A couple of other thoughts:  the ginger table art present in the early descriptions of the restaurant was not there last night. 

Thanks for sharing your impressions. What was the table centerpiece?

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Finally got around to sorting out all my photos. I dined there April 20th and heres what I ate:

course1.jpg

Hot potato, Cold Potato: This was a lovely dish. A chunk of hot potato suspended over a cold potato soup with black truffle. Your meant to pull out the pin and have everything drop into the soup and then eat it like an oyster. The contrast in textures and temperatures is really not possible without this unique serving piece and it was a real demonstration of creativity.

course2.jpg

Radish with a Pine nut puree: I don't remember too much about this one. It was decent but not spectacular.

course3.jpg

Salsify, parsley, salmon and steelhead roe: Inexplicably, this tasted almost exactly like Burger Rings to me. I have no idea why since none of the ingredients even remotely resemble whats in a burger ring but there you go.

course4.jpg

Lobster with Heart of palm and yuzu: This was pretty good. The lobster was sweet and paired will with the yuzu. Heart of palm was rather tasteless.

course5.jpg

Mussel with Chamomile and cucumber: I honestly remember nothing about this dish.

course6.jpg

Skate with brown butter, haricot vert and banana: inexplicably listed as being paired with capers, the skate wing was tender and the brown butter powder was interesting if a little harsh on the palate. It tended to overpower the other two powders and I didn't really see how the haricots or the bananas added to this dish. Would love to know how they powderised the butter though.

course7.jpg

Pear with Celery & curry: Wow... this was one of my favourite dishes of the night. Pear juice was encased inside a tiny shell, I don't know how... if anybody knows, please tell me. You take a shot and the shell unexpectedly bursts in your mouth providing a rush of flavour. Phenomonal dish.

course8.jpg

Australian lamb with eucalyptus leaves and akudjura: I swear the waiter said it was a fava bean puree but the menu says akudjara. Maybe it's because I'm from Australia but I found the lamb underwhelming in flavour. The eucalyptus was a nice touch but I didn't think it lifts the dish to a whole new level or anything.

course9.jpg

Bison, gruyere, pumpernickel & ramps: The bison was nice and tender but again, mild in flavour. The ramps paired well with it. I think thats brown butter powder again in the corner but I'm not sure.

course10.jpg

Sweet Potato & bourbon on a cinnamon stick: This was really fun. Your meant to grab the cinnamon stick and pull the food off the end. Very well executed and clean flavours.

course11.jpg

Verjus sorbet and foam with lemon thyme and beet: To be honest, I didn't taste any thyme or beet, it just seemed like a rather conventional palate cleanser, the foam was underwhelming.

course12.jpg

Granola in a rosewater envelope: This was my least favourite dish of the night. It was far too dry and sucked all the moisture out of my mouth and made it hard to chew and swallow. On top of that, it just tasted like your standard, supermarket granola. Nothing special. I also think the serving device was rather contrived (although apparently I was the first person to think of taking the thing apart and eating it from the stick rather than plucking it off like most people did).

course13.jpg

Frozen Yogurt with juniper and mango: Mmm... this one was quite nice. The texture of the yogurt was very interesting and the flavours were clear and well executed.

course14.jpg

Yuba with prawn and a miso & orange sauce: The prawn was nice but rather boring in flavour, the miso paste was really good and the presentation was cute, but I didn't think it fundamentally added much to the dish.

course15.jpg

Asparagus with "egg drops" and lemon foam: This dish was very clever. The chef took egg yolks and used an eye dropper to drop them into clarified butter. The resulting texture was very interesting, almost like a rice. However, they seemed a tad overcooked to me, I don't know if thats an inevitable outcome of the process or not.

course16.jpg

Bass with vanilla, artichoke and a pillow of orange air: The air seemed to work far better than the eucalyptus from the previous one. The bass was tender and robust in flavour and the elements general seemed to play off each other successfully. I guess it was technically an accomplished dish but I wasn't feeling anything for it.

course17.jpg

Kobe^H^H^H^HWagyu beef with cucumber, lime rocks and soy sayce reduction: This was another not-so-great dish. The soy sauce reduction was far too salty and obliterated any of the delicate flavours of this dish. And the Wagyu was ridiculously stingy, 5 cubes maybe 1/4" in size, barely a mouthful and not enough to actually get any of the rich, smooth mouthfeel that makes Wagyu worthwhile. By the time I had gotted to the 3rd piece of Wagyu, it was already cooling from the cold cucumber layed on top and the fat congealing into a generally not so appetising mess.

course18.jpg

Foie gras with blueberry soda: On the other hand, this was fantastic. The foie gras was rich and meaty and the soda cut through the richness wonderfully. The serving vessel was gimmicky but effective.

course19.jpg

Squab with strawberry, sorrel & pepper cubes: Wow... this was phenomenal. The squab was perfectly cooked with crispy skin and tasted pure and meaty. The sauce paired with it was fantastic and all the elements just fell into place.

course20.jpg

Sable with jasmine, plantain and toffee: I honestly can't remember much about this dish. I rememebr being underwhelmed with the little bean of ice-cream or whatever it was.

course21.jpg

Argan oil with white chocolate and sumac: I thought the anti-plate it was presented on was a bit gimmicky. Sure, it was effective but the servers seemed to hype it up a bit. The sumac was an unexpected but not unpleasant note. The argan oil was interesting but I don't know if I would willingly go out and seek it ever again.

course22.jpg

Choclate with a coconut ice cream, honey emulsion and thai basil jelly: The chocolate was a bit too intense for what I was looking for at that time of night. Having played around with chocolate a bit, it's incredibly easy to fall into the trap of making desserts which try and pack huge wallops of chocolate flavour into a single bite. Which is fine in its way but not the be all and end all of chocolate desserts IMHO. The honey emulsion was fantastic, absolutely amazing. The basil, OTOH, seemed rather out of place and I just can't see the pairing between basil and chocolate.

course23.jpg

Coffee with mint, passionfruit and buckwheat: The coffee log was very clever. You break it open to reveal an intense, minty liquid inside that works very well. The buckwheat has a gritty sort of texture which I'm ambivilant about. I can see how it can work in a dessert but I found it unpleasant.

course24.jpg

Peanuts served 5 ways: Celery, Grape jelly, and 3 others. Interesting I guess if your an american and these are food memories for you. For me, it was just a bunch of random flavours that were neither here nor there.

Overall, I would say I found the experience great but not phenomenal. I've discovered that I'm really not a big fan of the huge, elaborate, multi-course tasting menu idea. 8 - 10 I can handle. 24 is just too much. By about the 15th course, I was just crying out for a big chunk of FOOD I could dig into. All the frou frou on the plate doesn't impress me much. It just strikes me as a bunch of wasted effort if it doesn't really add much to the actual taste of the food. I guess, in theory, I like Thomas Kellers idea of each plate of food leaving the diner wanting just one bite more... but sometimes, I just want to revel in the too-muchness of food, I want to have that one more bite.

The majority of the dishes were well executed and certainly pretty without any major flaws, but they seemed lacking in soul... or magic. There were a few truly outstanding ones: Hot potato, Pear & Celery, Sweet potato, egg drops, squab and coffee. There were a few real stinkers: the granola and the kobe. I certainly have no complaints about the meal and it was well worth the money but I think once is enough for me for a long time.

PS: I am a guy.

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Pear with Celery & curry: Wow... this was one of my favourite dishes of the night. Pear juice was encased inside a tiny shell, I don't know how... if anybody knows, please tell me. You take a shot and the shell unexpectedly bursts in your mouth providing a rush of flavour. Phenomonal dish.

We had this in our anniversary "best of the best" meal two nights ago, and we asked the waiter how it was made. As best I remember, he said that the pear juice is frozen in a mold, unmolded and shaped a bit, then coated with a curry-butter emulsion that hardens around the cold orb. At room temperature the pear juice melts but the butter remains firm enough to form a shell. Note that this relatively fragile ball is served in a protective glass and you knock it back without ever touching it.

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Thanks midwesterner, I wondered how that shell was done, and also what substance makes the coating crispy. I wasn't as gaga for the flavor of the dish as others, but loved the idea, look and texture of that course.

I'll be back in Chicago this summer, guess its time to start saving up for a third visit with Achatz & co.

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We had a phenomenal meal at Alinea last night. The anniversary 'Tour' was a lot of fun and the atmosphere in the restaurant was even more festive than it usually is. I sensed that this was because most of the folks who were dining there last night were return visitors; friends of the house. But, I was incorrect. I'm told that there were a fair amount of first-timers in as well. On second thought, I figured that the mood was, more likely, simply a function of the occasion. Regulars (at least the ones with whom I chatted) were happy to be there celebrating Alinea's 1-year anniversary and first-timers, I'm guessing, were happy for the opportunity to finally try Alinea and experience a bunch of dishes that would probably not have been available otherwise.

I'm pretty much at the point where I find dish-by-dish recaps of Alinea meals to be useless. In fact, I believe that focusing there almost entirely misses the essence of what Alinea is and does. The Alinea experience is a cumulative and collaborative one; a soulful, complex and richly satisfying symphony. And while Chef G is certainly the composer and conductor, it is the passion, knowledge and dedication of each player which actually allows the Alinea experience to be properly communicated to the diner. Chef G's vision is intense and focused. And, he so inspires those around him that his vision is transmitted to the diner in resoundingly clear fashion. There isn't an Alinea employee I've encountered whose knowlege and enthusiasm isn't readily apparent.

Delicious, distinctive, imaginative and thought-provoking food are the main components of what makes a restaurant a destination. From the first course to the last, 'Tour' diners at Alinea embark on cohesive, meticulously-designed journeys. Courses progress in a manner which not only impact the diner on multiple sensory levels but also engage him emotionally. At the end of the Tour, even though you're sitting in the same chair in which you started your meal, you feel as if you've traveled.

Is Chef G alone in wanting to push the experiential envelope of fine dining? Certainly not. But Grant Achatz is an original. His voice is distinctive and his vision, while possibly comparable to that of others on a purely superficial level, literally changes the way we think about food into the way we feel about food. This culinary-emotional alchemy is so rare and so unique that, at least for me, it all but obliterates everything which came before it.

=R=

"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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We had a phenomenal meal at Alinea last night.  The anniversary 'Tour' was a lot of fun and the atmosphere in the restaurant was even more festive than it usually is.  I sensed that this was because most of the folks who were dining there last night were return visitors; friends of the house.  But, I was incorrect.  I'm told that there were a fair amount of first-timers in as well.  On second thought, I figured that the mood was, more likely, simply a function of the occasion.  Regulars (at least the ones with whom I chatted) were happy to be there celebrating Alinea's 1-year anniversary and first-timers, I'm guessing, were happy for the opportunity to finally try Alinea and experience a bunch of dishes that would probably not have been available otherwise.

I'm pretty much at the point where I find dish-by-dish recaps of Alinea meals to be useless.  In fact, I believe that focusing there almost entirely misses the essence of what Alinea is and does.  The Alinea experience is a cumulative and collaborative one; a soulful, complex and richly satisfying symphony.  And while Chef G is certainly the composer and conductor, it is the passion, knowledge and dedication of each player which actually allows the Alinea experience to be properly communicated to the diner.  Chef G's vision is intense and focused.  And, he so inspires those around him that his vision is transmitted to the diner in resoundingly clear fashion.  There isn't an Alinea employee I've encountered whose knowlege and enthusiasm isn't readily apparent.

Delicious, distinctive, imaginative and thought-provoking food are the main components of what makes a restaurant a destination.  From the first course to the last, 'Tour' diners at Alinea embark on cohesive, meticulously-designed journeys.  Courses progress in a manner which not only impact the diner on multiple sensory levels but also engage him emotionally.  At the end of the Tour, even though you're sitting in the same chair in which you started your meal, you feel as if you've traveled.

Is Chef G alone in wanting to push the experiential envelope of fine dining? Certainly not.  But Grant Achatz is an original.  His voice is distinctive and his vision, while possibly comparable to that of others on a purely superficial level, literally changes the way we think about food into the way we feel about food.  This culinary-emotional alchemy is so rare and so unique that, at least for me, it all but obliterates everything which came before it.

=R=

Ronnie, I feel the same way about everything but what I highlighted above. Maybe because I don't get to eat there as often as I would like , I always enjoy reading about and especially seeing the courses currently being served.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Doc, I always read the recaps that folks post and I always enjoy the images (and the effort folks put forth to capture them) but whether someone enjoys a particular course or not is becoming moot for me. Still, because Alinea's menu changes so frequently, I'm always interested in reading about the specifics.

At our table last night, there were 6 of us and we rarely had a consensus about any of the individual courses. Yet, at the end of the meal we were all completely blown away by our overall experiences. This is usually how my trips to (at?) Alinea have played out. When you're served 22+ courses, obviously some will shine more than others. In light of that, course-by-course evaluations have lost a great deal of their significance for me.

=R=

"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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Doc, I always read the recaps that folks post and I always enjoy the images (and the effort folks put forth to capture them) but whether someone enjoys a particular course or not is becoming moot for me.  Still, because Alinea's menu changes so frequently, I'm always interested in reading about the specifics.

At our table last night, there were 6 of us and we rarely had a consensus about any of the individual courses.  Yet, at the end of the meal we were all completely blown away by our overall experiences.  This is usually how my trips to (at?) Alinea have played out.  When you're served 22+ courses, obviously some will shine more than others.  In light of that, course-by-course evaluations have lost a great deal of their significance for me.

=R=

Gotcha. This makes sense to me, although I am always curious as to why some people have the reactions they do.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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...although I am always curious as to why some people have the reactions they do.

... so you're a mind "doc!" :laugh:

u.e.

:laugh: That was an option I considered in Medical school and still find fascinating. What I actually meant though was not so much the psychological reasons people have the reactions they do, but their explanations. You are a good case in point as we have agreed on some things and had different reactions to others. I don't believe either is right or wrong, but having an idea as to why a particular dish elicited the response it did helps me gauge the extent to which I can relate to the comments.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Yup doc, I'm on board with you on this point. I too enjoy reading how others react differently to the exact same thing I've eaten. I think it's so fascinating how something as minor as an addition/omission of certain ingredients illicit different levels of like/dislikes in different people.

u.e.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

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Perhaps it's because I won't be able to dine at Alinea anytime soon that I really enjoy reading the course-by-course descriptions especially when the diner offers very clear descriptions of their reactions to each dish, such as Shalmanese did. This thread offers a nice mix of specifics, philosophy and theory. I would be loathe to lose any of these elements as I find all of it interesting.

"Eat it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." TMJ Jr. R.I.P.

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Perhaps it's because I won't be able to dine at Alinea anytime soon that I really enjoy reading the course-by-course descriptions especially when the diner offers very clear descriptions of their reactions to each dish, such as Shalmanese did. This thread offers a nice mix of specifics, philosophy and theory. I would be loathe to lose any of these elements as I find all of it interesting.

Completely understood. And just to be clear, I too want these types of posts to continue and I'm speaking on a strictly personal basis (not as the forum host) when I say that they have less resonance for me than they used to. In no way am I suggesting that the folks who make them cease to do so.

That said, there comes a point, especially when it comes to subjective descriptions of a restaurant's cuisine -- especially one like Alinea -- when there is no substitute for experiencing it first hand. In the case of Alinea, I'm lucky that I live in the Chicago area and have access without having to travel, etc.

Josh's comment about the "different strokes" angle (directly above this post) reinforces my point somewhat. At the end of the day, subjective taste is a very difficult thing to analyze. Sometimes you either like something or you don't. One never has to have a "good reason" for their opinion. I'd be shocked if everyone who dined at Alinea (or anywhere else) liked it equally. Happily, thankfully, the world doesn't work that way. :smile:

=R=

"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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At the end of our meal a few days ago, one of our servers asked us specifically which dishes had been our favorites.  So the staff doesn't seem to mind a dish by dish critique.

Again, even I don't mind a dish-by-dish critique. In fact, I enjoy reading them very much. It's just that I have no interest in writing one because I really don't think about my meals at Alinea in those terms. I tend to remember my experiences there more on the whole.

But, given the nature of the meal, it would be impossible not to think about which dishes were favorites, etc. And with 20+ courses, it's hard not to have favorites. I think it's part of the experience of dining at Alinea -- stopping somewhere along the way and asking your companions "ok, what have been your favorite courses, so far?"

Midwesterner, was this your first visit to Alinea? If so, I'd be curious to know why you made your first visit during anniversary week. Was it because it offered a chance to try some othewise retired dishes from the first year? Some other reason? Coincidence?

=R=

"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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This may be a "different strokes" kind of thing.  I had the kobe beef on my last visit and it quickly became one of my all-time Alinea favorites.

Could you go into a bit about why? How did you find the sauce?

PS: I am a guy.

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