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Lenski

[CHI] Alinea – Grant Achatz – Reviews & Discussion (Part 3)

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I too am very glad that I ignored previous discussions of the Chocolate dessert. Prior to this course I felt that this was the best in 3 previous meals at Alinea. They were all fabulous and I keep wondering how it can get better, but it does. I was beyond shocked and pretty much speechless when chef Achatz showed up to create it. When the server initially said that the 'chef' would be by, I was thinking he couldn't possibly mean 'The Chef'.

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Sam Sifton's description today in the NYT of the menu at Alinea was pretty funny, especially the dessert. Maybe you can save $100 if you BYOB: bring your own bubblegum. Needless to say, I'm positive that I will never be in a position--or have the inclination--to spend $877 on dinner for two. The last time I had burning leaves, tubes, foam and bubblegum together was probably when my family's old television exploded the October I turned ten.

And of course I'm thoroughly unqualified to discuss Alinea, never having been within 1000 miles of it. I'm sure it's delicious.

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The stars are well deserved. I can't say I'm surprised.


nunc est bibendum...

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I really liked the lecture he did with Nathan Mayhrvold at the New York Public Library. It can also be found as a podcast on iTunes. A nice discussion on the technical and logistical end of food innovation.

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On a couple of recent visits (one pre, one post, Michelin 3-star award), I was able to experience some of the more playful (read: off-menu) dishes that I have ever had in any fine dining establishment.

Special Guests

About a month ago, five of us were dining at the rear, long rectangular table (number 41), when about half way through, we had a pheasant dropped off at our table.

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It had been de-feathered, but still had its head and tail feathers attached to the body. It laid on snow and evergreen branches, all of which sat on top of a silver serving tray. Note that some of the branches burning and gave off a wonderful aroma.

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Nothing was said by the front of the house (FOH) staff, instead, we sat there for a while pondering what would come next. Were we to pick at it, sans utensils, like Ron's meal up-thread?

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Until this young man came along. Jeremy, a runner, who opens up by welcoming us and telling us that this pheasant had come from Indiana, and was just killed no more than 48 hours ago. Jeremy also tells us that this was made possible by he and his dog, who were hunting just the other day. The following day, Jeremy brings the pheasant to the restaurant, as a present to the Chef. Grant, thanks him, and tells him he knows just what to do with it.

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As Jeremy is talking, the other FOH staff clear the pheasant from the table. They bring in a copper-claded (I'm guessing a 5 quart) sauté pan. It was a cassoulet of the pheasant. As Jeremy starts to walk off, we were so amazed with this story, that we hoped that he would be able to try some of the cassoulet (if he hasn't already).

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The FOH staff starts to bring in the support items; bread, herbs, spices, garnishes, utensils, plates, etc. In addition, they have us make extra room on the table for another surprise. The surprise was a chair, and Jeremy. Chef Achatz also thought that it would be a great idea for Jeremy to join us. Now our table is seating six.

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We are then informed, that since this has been set up as family style, that we should serve ourselves. We decided to give that honor to the eldest at the table, me.

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While I was dishing out the cassoulet, everyone was enjoying a very nice bottle of Château Prieuré-Lichine Margaux. The cassoulet was dense. Not only did it have the pheasant (in all forms), but it also had sausage, pork belly (and maybe other meat products further in). It was very rich and tasty. This dish allowed us multiple servings, and we thankfully took advantage of it. I could come to Alinea just for this dish.

The Alinea Forest

On a different visit to Alinea, we had the opportunity to try another off-menu item. This one also came midway through our meal, and was code named either "cheese and crackers" or "angelica branch."

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It starts with us finishing a dish at one of the round tables in front room of the restaurant (the 20s). The FOH staff asks us to move to another table, with no explanation. We then walk to one of the tables in the middle room (the 30s), where on the table are branches, leaves, burning candles, and dinner ware.

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The FOH gives us a very brief description on the dish (if we can still call it that), and no real instruction on how to approach eating it. So we treat like a cheese and cracker buffet table. We see something that looks like a cracker, and something that looks like cheese, and you can guess what happens next.

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We sat at the table for almost 30 minutes as we nibbled on what was in front of us. During that time, Chef Achatz was observing (from afar) us interact with the Angelica Branch. It was quite an experience to forage around for food in a restaurant. In the end there were still more cheese and crackers left on branches.

For me, the Alinea experience (I can't call it dinner/meal anymore, because it is more than just the food), just keeps on getting more interesting. Grant is true to the definition of the name of the restaurant. He does not need to re-tool, re-conceptualize the restaurant. By definition and nature it just keeps progressing. I am glad that they got their well deserved Michelin 3-star rating. I am glad they continue to push boundaries. But most of all, I am glad to be able to experience it.

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Wow. Thanks for the writeup, yellow truffle. The pheasant in snow on evergreen branches is genius. I can't even imagine the aromatic delights that must have brought. And eating out of that forest looks like it was just fun as hell.

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Just got back from vacation in Chicago and my fourth visit to Alinea (first for my gf). As always it was a marvelous experience but wanted to comment on a few components of my most recent experience.

First, this was my first time being seated downstairs. While the room is pleasant and doesn't affect the experience there's just something about it that seemed less....."impressive or nice". Perhaps it just feels a little more constrained or that you know you are sharing the floor with entryway and kitchen. Upstairs has a much more separate feel and will be sure to humbly request a seat there for future visits.

second, this is the first time I have been since they've done away with the option of a tour or tasting menu. I don't mind that there is no longer a choice of menu, as I'd prefer to do the tour regardles, especially being with a first timer, but it seems the menu is being streamlined and shortened to be a merger of both tour and tasting. I can understand how this makes sense business-wise in that it improves flow of customers through the night and speeds up service, but I couldn't help but feel like this time was shorter than my previous visits. Not necessarily "rushed", but not as indulgent and excessive. For example, my last two tours were 25-27 courses with some courses having multiple parts over 4+ hours while this menu was only 21 courses (3-3.5 hours) and the first 3 courses were single bites brought out all at once. These three bites were announced as being a sample from chef Achatz' new bar/restaurant venture featuring alcoholic bites. While they were interesting and nice, I did not find them as impressive as some of the other opening courses in the past and would have preferred these "solid cocktails" to have been paired alongside another dish like a cocktail pairing. Maybe it just speaks of my love for alinea that I want my meals there to never end :)

third, I would like to comment on a new dish I had not had before or seen mentioned here but was one of our favorites of the night. It was a dish consisting of Halibut along with around 8-9 other flavor components including gelee, noodle, crunchy puffs, and poweders and foam. However, everything on the plate was beige to white with the idea being to throw off your senses. My gf and I were instructed to try and guess the many flavors now that achatz had chopped and screwed with their colors and textures. this was a fun game and am proud to say we did quite well getting close to 80% correct. However, I was said when I heard neighboring tables receiving this dish and were not invited to the guessing game but heard waiters mentioning the dishes components. Just as feedback I think all customers should benefit from this intriguing guessing game of a dish. Great fun.

All in all it was still the best dining/restaurant experience I can imagine. I continue to envy all you close enough to Chicago who are able to visit more than once a year or so.

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Ate at Alinea night before last.

WOW! Incredible meal!

Yes, some theater. And some novelty. But mostly, just incredibly refined, precisely-prepared tastes and textures.

I worried that with all the refinement/new techniques/funky molecules there would be some loss of "soul" to the meal. But absolutely not, to me and my wife. The soul was evident through the precision and innovation -- it was abundantly clear that the only way this food could have been imagined, refined, and executed was with a ton of love.

A few particularly smart aspects:

1. Aroma was part of the meal but did not ever bleed over from other tables. I liked that. (other menus, e.g. fall with burning oak leaves, might not work so well in this way).

2. The inclusion of an Escoffier retro course, complete with old-school tableware, was a wonderful way to remind the diner that great food is great food and is timeless and that Achatz fits right in with greats like Escoffier.

3. Many courses, but just the right amount of food.

4. Loved Chef Achatz himself plating the last course on the table. Literally.

About a month ago my wife and I ate at Per Se and Le Bernadin. Fantastic meals (the latter better than the former).

But for both us, Alinea bests them both.


Chip Wilmot

Lack of wit can be a virtue

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Dining has scene has been relatively quiet in the past several years at the US. Alinea was possibly one of the few places that made a loud arrival with positive impacts since per se. I’m not a big fan of molecular gastronomy, but I thought Grant Achatz’ avant-garde cooking did a fantastic job of constructing dishes out of the unexpected and taking the form and food’s presentation to new levels

Food (and wine) - 94/100

Nearly everybody that I knew recommending to have a “Tour” at Alinea and that’s what I had for my dinner back in late spring 2009. There were about 24 courses in total, ranging from small dishes to only bites/refreshers. It’s normal that you would have some high and a few misses.

My favorite dishes are actually more on the traditional style surprisingly: Achatz’ “re-produced” Escoffier’s recipe of pigeon a la Saint-Clair with a perfectly cooked squab and good side dishes such as mash of caramelized onions. Another outstanding dish was the tender and buttery wagyu beef, interestingly served with A-1 in powder form. For the “advance dishes” that I like were: the classic black truffle explosion of pasta shell and a well-integrated yuba (dried tofu skin). The dessert was also good – for me the chocolate served with blueberry and maple is the best. There were also dishes showing in contrast of texture and temperature by using similar ingredients (a pair of crab items served hot and cold). Some dishes that I was not too keen were – pork belly (too soft) and white asparagus with arugula.

The wine pairing here was supposedly good too – many said nearly as good as L’Astrance’s wine pairing. I only had 5 glasses of tasting size. The Bruno Paillard brut rose was rather disappointing (paired with yuba and hot/cold potato); whereas the ’03 Andrew Will Syrah (matched well with the beef) and ’08 Elio Perrone Piedmont (dessert wine) were nice. The food here, in general, is good though not really hitting a high mark – just very consistent (94/100 – 2 ½*).

Service (and ambiance) - 92/10

The service is more on the formal side but excellent (more genial waiters will be preferable). However, there are really lots of dishes needed to be delivered, so they constantly changed the silverwares as well as cleaned the table. Hence, it’s understandable if they were unable to interact more often with the guests. The restaurant design’s is chic, minimalist and a bit futuristic. Diners walked into the entrance until the end of the tunnel; there’s a black door on your left. Black, grey and some white are the most dominant color. The ambiance is comfortable with shoulder-high chairs and relatively spacious table.

I left the place not really feeling full, but well-pleased. Additionally, I was filled with curiosity on what other dishes they will make in the future. I suppose it will be some kind of “El Bulli” in which the menu constantly evolves – the only certain thing is that the menu will keep changing. I gave this place 93.5 (2 ½*) for the overall experience – among top 3 or 5 as the best restaurants in the States. I don’t really opposing Michelin for giving its highest honor here, after all Jean-Luc Naret said that they had to ‘sell’ the books too by giving at least 1 3-star restaurant in nearly each city they’re reviewing

Pictures - Alinea Spring 09

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After many years of talk, we finally made it to Alinea for our tenth wedding anniversary tonight. After a problematic dinner at Topolobampo on Friday night, we anxiously got in a cab to head to a meal we had perhaps overly hyped.

First, with respect to Topolobampo, a restaurant that we have been to a couple of times and have loved, I sincerely hope it was an offnight. The guacamole and maragaritas were excellent, as always. However, we were very dissapointed in the quality of the rest of the meal. This is uncharacteristic of Mr. Bayless' cooking that I have had before so I chalk it up to a bad night in a very crowded place.

Now, on to Alinea. As noted, my fear was we had built our expectations up to a level that could not be satisfied. I am pleased to report that our high expectations were met at every turn. We arrived five minutes early and were promptly seated. We were worried as the room had a hushed tone and both wait staff and customers seemed to be very cautious. However, as the meal began, eveyone warmed up and the staff, while attentive and discreet, were also humerous and charming. They made light of any spills (or spherification explosions in my case) and while noting that no one had ever had a Buffalo Trace burbon sphere explode over their shirt before at Alinea, handed me a Shout Stain Remover napkin artfully arranged on a white plate.

Bottom line is that this meal was fun. It was delicious and serious food, but it was fun. For several dishes, my wife and I were actually laughing. Laughing at how good the food was and laughing at what it reminded us of. The Yuba and Shrimp dish reminded me of the $2.00 fried egg rolls we get at our local Vietnamese Restaurant in Dallas. Obviously, we were dealing with a more sophisticated product, but (as I say when we go to the Vietnamese Restaurant), I could eat a dozen of these. They were delicious in both a familiar and unfamiliar way -- this was a fun theme that ran throughout our 2 hour and 30 minute dinner.

For a brief run down on the dishes and wines, here is the menu:

First Wine -- Cocktail of Pierre Gimonnet Brut wiht chrysanthemum liquer and bitters.

Steelhead Roe, dijon, rutabaga, grapefruit - A great starter with rutabaga custard type discs. There was also a black liquorice caviar in the dish.

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Yuba, Shrimp, Miso, Togarashi - As noted, I loved this dish. While my comparrison does not do it justice, the yuba and shrimp were like a great, delicate egg roll. The sauce with miso was unbeliveable.

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Next was three courses in one -- Oyster Leaf, Scallop, Razor Clam. The leaf (a la El Bulli) was simply served in an oyster shell with salt and a light mignonette. It tasted exactly like a great oyster. The scallop had a wheat beer foam and was very good, but not as great as the leaf. The Razor Clam was in its shell with many Asian flavors. All of these were good fun with both the leaf and razor clam truly standing out as master dishes.

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Second Wine was Emmerich Knoll "Kellerberg" Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria 2004

Urchin, Green Garlic, Vanilla, Mint -- This was a classic Alinea presentation with the urchin encased in a gel of vanilla. Spices, etc. were placed on this gel cube and it was served over a bowl of brothy liquid with foam. The urchin and gel was fantastic with the liquid/foam in the bowl providing a nice contrast.

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Next Wine was Niepoort "Redoma Branco", Douro 2009

Rabbit, Parfait, Rillette, Consomme -- This dish was served in the Alinea three part bowl with the parfait on top. The parfait was a mouse with fried sweet potatoes and apple and cinnamon flavors. This was a dish that cause both of us to laugh out loud and it may be, together with the Foie Gras and Apple dish at Arzak, one of the single greatest bites of food I have ever had. My wife felt the same way.

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This was followed by the Rillette which was great with similar flavors, and the consomme, which had a hot stone to keep it warm and a cinnamon stick which added nice spice to a perfect rabbit broth.

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More to come, but I am going to break off the post here. I appologize for the quality of the photos, but we were trying to not be over the top with our photo taking.

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Continuing on:

Venison, cherry, cocoa nib, eucalyptus -- This was another Alinea classic using eucalyptus as a frangrant background for a small cube of perfectly cooked venison that was accompanied by the other spices. Interstingly, the vennison was room temperature.

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Fourth Wine - Domaine des Lambrays ' Clos de Lambrays' Morey-St. Dennis 2006

Wild Mushrooms, Pine, Sumac, Ramp -- I have said it before on here, I am a strange person who is not a big mushroom fan. I cleaned my plate on this and did not cringe. My wife who likes mushrooms thought it was great. There were Morrels (huge) and a tiny beautiful white mushroom. It was a striking presentation and great flavors.

I appear to be having technical difficulties so I am going to break again.

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Lets see if I can get the Mushroom dish picture up.

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Next was the classic Hot Potato Cold Potato which has been written about enough on here. I will note it was a great contrast of temperatures and a fun dish.

Fifth Wine - Costers del Siurana " Clos de L'OBAC", Priorat 2004

Short Rib, olive, red wine, blackberry - This dish used the past flags that had been set on the table earlier in the meal. The pasta flags were flavored with tomatoe and black garlic. The servers brought out a complex plate, to be assembled that consisted of a top plate of garnishes (olives, blackberries, smoked cream, cherries, salt, a vinnegrette, pearl onion, black garlic and others). You put the pasta on a cradle made out of braces contained in the plates and the server added braised short rib. You then added the garnishes and wrapped it up like a taco and ate the dish. Fun, and flavorful. This was a really neat presentation.

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I will try to finish my post tomorrow.

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I will try to wrap this up in a final post. Following the great Short Rib dish, we had one of the classic fried dishes wiht multiple components.

Hamachi, West Indies spices, Banana, Ginger

This was a fried cube of Hamachi with the other ingredients served on a vanilla bean skewer. The dish was rich, hot and texturally perfect. It was slighlty salty to me, but not overly so. The batter was great, light and crispy.

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The next wine pairing was Behrens & Hitchcock "Kenefick Ranch Cuvee' Napa 2000

Prior to this dish, antique crystal glasses had been brought out with beautiful engraving of birds. The dish was the now well known ode to classic French food.

Agneau, Sauce Choron, Pomme de Terre Noisette -- This was served on antique china and presented in an elegant "old school" fashion. The lamb was not our favorite component of the night, a little thickly cut and difficult to deal with. However, the sauce and the rest of the accompanyments were outstanding. The tiny pearls of pottato in the lamb stock were incredible. It was a dish that was very successful in reminding us of the history and context of a meal like Alinea.

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Black Truffle explositon, Romaine, Parmesan -- Another classic dish that does not need a description.

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As a transition to desert the next course was an ice dish served in a unique and new serving dish. Unfortunately, due to either the amount of wine or the change in light, most of the desert pictures did not come out.

Snow, Yuzu -- This was a clay cone shapped dish with a metal insert in the middle of the cone that had been frozen in liquid nitrogen. A yuzu ice was frozen around this insert. It was light, fine textured and a great palette cleanser.

Next wine pairing -- Nittanus "Premium" Beerenauslese, Burgenland, Austria NV

Sweet Potato, Cedar, Burbon, Pecan -- This dish was served on burned cedar platters that had a great charcoal smell. The sweet potato was in the form of a custard. The Burbon was spherified in spheres around the plate. Covering the top was a cayenne cotton candy. This was an incredible dish and one of my favorites from the night, even though I completey ruptured one of the spheres all over my shirt.

Lemongrass, Dragonfruit, Finger Lime, Cucumber -- This was the tube presentation with a plastic tube filled with liquid and the other ingredients. We were instructed to ingest from one end in a complete gulp. The liquid was delicious, but the various ingredients were a little tough to deal with. It was a great flavor combination, but not our favorite of the night.

Finally, a white silicon table cloth was brought out for the table plating of the final desert. The final wine was perhaps the greatest of the night -- Toro Albala "Don PX" Gran Reserva, Montilla - Moriles, Spain 1982.

Chocolate, Blueberry, Honey, Peanut -- As many know, this dish is plated on the table. I was worried that it would be more of a gimmick than a great desert. I actually could not have been more wrong. The precision of the plating and the art that went into it were fascinating. Sauces were plated with precision by the chef (not Achatz tongight) with minimal but education explanation. The design was great, but more importantly, the dish was outstanding and watching our table and the others around it, this brought it all back home. Everyone had fun while eating this dish. You could not help it.

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At the end of this meal (following a wonderful coffee and great staff service getting a cab) we were both left to compare it to our only two other dining experiences that come close (Arzak and Mugaritz). First, one has to ask was the meal worth it -- cost of travel to Chicago, Hotel, and the price of the meal. The answer to this is unequivocally yes. I go back to the concept of fun. We had a blast. I think it some ways it was an adult foodie Disneyland (in the best way). While an unbelievably refined meal, the staff was loose, the food had many fantastical components and at the end of the meal we noted how many times we were laughing and having fun throughout. I would return as often as I could afford and arrange it. Still, in my mind, Arzak remains on top. Perhaps, because it was our first really outstanding dining experience, and partly because it was slighlty more casual and of course it was in Spain. However, I cannot say enough about how great the night was and hope to make it back to Alinea sometime soon.

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Just wondering how hard it is to get into Alinea these days. I'm going on a US holiday and will be in Chicago in early August. I already have a booking at Moto, and would love to hit up Alinea as well. Should I have tried to book earlier?


James.

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When I went to Chicago last September, I booked my reservations for Alinea as early as June. It seems to be a safe bet to reserve at least three months in advance for most sought-after restaurants.

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I believe their current policy only allows for booking two months in advance. If you call at 10 AM on the day two months before your visit you should have a very good chance at a table...not necessarily a prime Friday/Saturday time slot, but definitely something. You may have to deal with a busy signal for a few minutes, but eventually you'll get through.


True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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I called two months in advance and got a Saturday night reservation.

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I believe their current policy only allows for booking two months in advance. If you call at 10 AM on the day two months before your visit you should have a very good chance at a table...not necessarily a prime Friday/Saturday time slot, but definitely something. You may have to deal with a busy signal for a few minutes, but eventually you'll get through.

Thanks. I tried calling them at 10am and you are correct, it's a 2 month policy. I managed to get straight through as well. Wish I could do that at The Fat Duck.


James.

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Okay, so it's not quite a 2 month policy, The bookings for the entire month of August open up on June 1. Anyway, I'm in. I really can't wait.


James.

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Hi all! Been lurking for a while but was finally inspired to register because I couldn't find a complete answer to my question in this thread (at least with recent information).

In about a week and a half, my best friend and I will be making the drive from Michigan to Chicago for a dinner at Alinea. We've been looking forward to this for months, and specifically booked our reservation for the end of august so we could see Chef Achatz's take on our favorite late-summer produce.

Our issue is that we are both 25 years old, and quite frankly a meal of this caliber/price is quite an expense for both of us. We really are interested in wine pairings for their effect with the food, but financially, purchasing two pairings is simply out of the question. Has anybody successfully ordered a split pairing recently? And would you have any information on the current price? I'm considering trying to contact the sommelier or wine director during the week before our reservation to inquire as to a more suitable beverage option for our price level, to both spare us the embarrassment of trying to explain in the restaurant (and having service staff thinking they're going to get shorted on a tip by some amateurs - which we would never do), and sparing wine staff the trouble of putting something together last minute. Perhaps more experienced diners could advise me to the propriety of such a phone call?

Thanks so much in advance, I've been gleaning from this community for years and I'm excited to finally start participating!

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I'm pretty sure you can split wine pairings, I've read it somewhere.

I dine here on Sunday, so excited.


James.

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