Friday, August 22, 2008

will fly for food.

At the end of July, Mr. Cupcake and I decided to throw caution to the wind and take a trip to Chicago for an indulgent meal at Alinea. It really wasn't as carefree as it sounds. You see, we had these reservations since May, but were on the fence as to whether or not we should go. With airline prices so high and a looming trip to Australia, we were planning to cancel. However, I found a pair of fairly reasonable tickets last minute, so we decided to say to hell with it, let's go.

You may be wondering what kind of restaurant would cause anyone to jump on a plane just for a meal. Alinea is a relatively young restaurant (opened in 2005), but is well known for its usage of molecular gastronomy. It was named the number one restaurant in America (2006) by Gourmet Magazine, ranked one of the top 50 restaurants in the world by the S.Pelligrino people, and earlier this year, Grant Achatz (owner and head chef) won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. I've been hearing about this place off and on for the last couple years, and while all the accolades are great, what's even more amazing is how Achatz overcame mouth cancer while at the height of his career.

OK, so enough back story. Now to the food. There are two options when ordering at Alinea: the 12 course tasting and the 24 course tour. We tried to get the tour, but it was booked and they put us on the waiting list. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be, and we had to settle for the tasting. Since this meal was almost a month ago, my memory is a bit hazy, so please bear with me.

King Crab - sudachi, avocado, bay branch

It's really hard to mess up anything that is deep fried. Seriously. It's the perfect way to start off a tasting menu because who is going to say, man, that deep fried crab sure tastes terrible. Not going to happen. This deep fried ball was attached to a bay branch that functioned more as a utensil. The batter was light, and it was filled with crab, avocado, and sudachi. The first thing Mr. Cupcake noted was the strong citrus flavor mixed in with the crab. Sure enough, sudachi is a Japanese citrus fruit.

The butter

I really love butter presentations. The shapes reminded me of scoops of sorbet or ice cream, similar to what I've had at other fancy pants restaurants. The butter on the left was a cows milk butter with black Hawaiian salt. The butter on the right was a very mild goat's milk butter. I definitely preferred the cow's milk.

After most courses, a guy would come around and serve us bread. Each serving of bread was different. Being the carb lover that I am, I looked forward to seeing what would be served next.

Tomato - basil, mozzarella, olive oil

This was a modified caprese salad. The large white log in the background was a foamy buffalo mozzarella dipped in liquid nitrogen (I think). There was also dehydrated tomatoes, basil sorbet, a cube of jellified concentrated vinegar of some sort (sherry perhaps? I don't remember), and two spheres of tomato water. It was definitely an experience because the familiar flavors were there but presented in a unique way. Being that I love tomatoes, my favorite part was the concentrated, powdery tomato. I also adore buffalo mozzarella, but this was foreign to me. My taste buds recognized the flavor, but my brain was telling me that this doesn't add up. This course was a perfect example of what molecular gastronomy is for those who are curious.

Bigeye Tuna - artichoke, garlic, bottarga

The most memorable components of this course were the freshness of the tuna and the crispy strands of garlic. I especially liked the garlic strands. They were lightly fried tendrils infused with garlic. The truth of the matter is, I like anything that is crispy. I'm sort of like my cat. He likes crispy things too... tortilla chips, plastic, etc. The crispy just adds that extra layer of texture that makes everything in the world OK.

Wagyu Beef (Part 1)

The server came out Wagyu beef dipped in liquid nitrogen held together by chopsticks. We were instructed to not touch the beef as it was frozen solid and could shatter. We were to appreciate it as a center piece for the time being. Now, this is where Mr. Cupcake decided that this was gimmicky. I on the other hand decided that there had to be reason for dipping the beef in liquid nitrogen. Perhaps it made the beef slightly more tender. Something, right? We continued to ponder why they would do this. To be continued...

Lobster - peas, spring onion, mint vapor

Up next was a lobster foam soup that contained several large pieces of lobster. I don't always love lobster, but something about the warm foamy soup made it work for me . My favorite part was the green mass in the middle. Inside the thin, delicate casing was liquefied English peas. When I plopped the mass into my mouth, it burst open and was all kinds of delicious. It reminded me of a non fried version of the pea croquette at Manresa.

Short Rib - Guinness, peanut, fried broccoli
This course was Mr. Cupcake's favorite course up until the very end. There were a lot of things going on in this dish, but unfortunately, I can't remember most them. I do remember that the short ribs were incredibly tender and overall it was incredibly delicious. The other notable aspect about this dish was the Guinness. Guinness you ask? Well, you see the light brown film that covers the dish? That's Guinness, you know the beer. It provided a sweetness that I wouldn't have expected. This is pretty much the only time I can recall where I enjoyed the flavor of Guinness.

Wagyu Beef (part 2)

Curious what happened to our Wagyu beef center piece? Well, basically we watched it melt into limp slices of beef over a few courses. It was soft, and ready for the next course.

Wagyu Beef (part 3) - maitake, smoked date, Blis Elixir

Our server came out with plates of maitake mushrooms and a smoked date. He then took the beef and laid it on top. Another guy came around and drizzled the plate with Blis Elixir. Blis Elixir is a special sherry vinegar from Spain (?). This dish was as tasty as they get. The beef just melted in the mouth while the mushrooms and date complimented the entire dish. It was lovely.

Mr. Cupcake asked our server if the liquid nitrogen served any real purpose, and he told us it was so we could watch the evolution of frozen beef to not. It turned out that Mr. Cupcake was correct.

I had Mr. Cupcake take a picture of his plate just to show the difference in presentation since they did it in front of us. His picture is a little clearer too.

Hot Potato - cold potato, black truffle, butter

This was a soup playing with temperatures. The suspending stick contained a truffle, a potato, and small block of Parmesan cheese. I'm not sure what the second white block was. It might have been butter, but I don't remember. We then pulled the stick down so all the contents fell into the soup, and gulped it down. The potato on the stick and the potato soup were different temperatures (one hot, one cold), but I can't remember which was which. In any case, it was delicious, and I loved it. Mr. Cupcake on the other hand felt the chunks were too big and thus the textures took away from the experience.

As they took away the dish, our server asked us if we liked the Campbell's soup. Cute. :)

Duck - chocolate, blueberry, Thai pepper

OK, so they told me this was chocolate. That's really all I heard before I scarfed it down. I had cleared the plate before I realized I didn't take a picture.

It was basically a soft bar of chocolate that encased pieces of duck. The strange thing about this dish was it didn't taste very good with just those two components. However, there were other layers of flavor including white and green purees that represented the parts of a green onion. There was also blueberry and a hazelnut puree. Mixed together, the flavors completely changed the course and made it surprisingly good.
It wasn't just this dish either, as this held true in a lot of the courses. It's genius how the dynamic changes and the flavors suddenly worked well together.

Rhubarb, Watermelon, Bacon

This course was presented as a trio and all are described below.

Rhubarb - ginger, basil

This sphere was full of rhubarb juice. Our server told us a story about how this dish evolved, and told us that it was important that we keep our mouths closed when we eat it. Apparently, someone once bit down into it and the liquid shot across the room and landed on the person's date. Since then, they warn people to keep their mouths shut when eating. He wasn't kidding. The liquid literally explodes once the sphere is punctured, and I nearly dribbled all down the front of my dress. Fortunately, I managed to save myself and keep it in.

Bacon - butterscotch, apple, thyme

This was a play on the whole salty, sweet, while savory. It was a piece of bacon with a drizzle of butterscotch, pieces of apple, and thyme. I have read raves about this particular course, and when they presented it to the lady sitting next to us, I was pretty sure she was going to wet herself from excitement. I agree bacon makes pretty much everything taste better, and this was definitely tasty, but I just felt some of our other dishes thus far were more memorable.

Watermelon - fresh coriander, tamari, bonito

Of all the dishes we had that night, this is the only one that did not work for me. It basically tasted like watermelon and fish. I'm open to being enlightened, but this mouthful was anything but.


Sorrel - honey, fennel, poppy seeds

I honestly don't remember much about this dish other than the honey was fabulous when mixed with all the other components. I do remember trying to poke a piece of the plate because in the dim light it looked like part of the food. Imagine my surprise when my fork went clunk because I was trying to eat the plate.

Whole Wheat - almond, apricot, chervil

The whole wheat dish was easily the best dish of the entire night. There really wasn't anything too fancy about it. It was a wheat cake that looked like and had the consistency of a fluffy piece of wheat bread. Surrounding it was a scoop of almond ice cream, sliced almonds, caramel sauce, and an apricot sauce. There was apparently some chervil. The server presented the dish and then proceeded to pour something on it which I believe was a warm foamy milk. The whole dish was dreamy and I could have eaten 10 more. Mr. Cupcake and I were in agreement that this dish was perfection.

Chocolate - blueberry, hazelnut, Thai pepper

Remember the duck and chocolate dish that I failed to show you because I pretty much woofed it down before I remembered I was suppose to take a picture? Well, this is the dessert version of that dish sans duck. It was a shot glass filled with a freeze dried (?) version of the key elements. We were instructed to take it as a shot. The chocolate flavor was rich and we could taste the blueberry and hazelnut, but we didn't really get a good feel for the Thai pepper. It pretty much didn't exist. That's OK, because we had just experienced perfection, and it's really hard to go up against that.

Our total bill including meal, 2 glasses of wine, a glass of sparkling cider, and tip was $454.10. I'm not sure what the breakdown was because I never looked at the bill.

And that concludes our 12 courses at Alinea. It was a beautifully prepared meal... one that I won't forget for a long time. In the end, Mr. Cupcake and I were actually glad we didn't get the tour because over three hours, we were full. We also agreed we liked it more than our experience at the French Laundry. Why? It was the combination of interesting flavors and the fact that the staff was knowledgable while being pretty laid back. One of the things I really didn't like about the French Laundry was I felt like I was being watched the entire time. Don't get me wrong, some courses were like a revelation (and some weren't), but at the same time, I felt that having someone constantly watch me takes away from the experience. Then again, some people really love the attention in that they don't have ever ask for anything. Alinea's staff does a good job of making people feel welcome while still maintaining the flash of a top tier dining establishment.

So what does one do after a meal like that? We changed into our play clothes and headed off the Martini Park to meet up with my fabulous cousin, Julie!

Except, they wouldn't let us in the door. They were like, "we have a dress code". Apparently they didn't appreciate Mr. Cupcake's selection from his fine t-shirt collection (he reads tshirt blogs you know), or perhaps it was my mary jane crocs. Whatever the case, the doorman was a douche bag and I recommend staying away from this ├╝ber lame establishment.

No worries though. We ended up giving our money to an Irish pub that was next door to Pete Wentz's new hipster bar. Since we ate dinner at 5:15pm, we found ourselves hungry again come 11:30pm, so we did what any normal person would do:

We ordered cheezy tator tots with bacon and jalapenos. Yep, a perfect way to end an already decadent evening.