Chicago Eats — Part II
Last week, ICE President Rick Smilow returned from Chicago for the second time this year. Always having a keen eye out for culinary trends, he reported back to DICED on some of the most notable restaurants, chefs, and meals he encountered. In Part I, he discussed some memorable meals and places. Part II of his report is devoted to one memorable meal at the famed Alinea.
I have had some great meals in my life, but rarely have they been on a Sunday night. Perhaps because that is the night I am most likely to cook at home. If we do go out, it’s probably to someplace familiar, not adventuresome or ambitious. On top of that, it is often the norm in the restaurant business that “the A team” has Sunday night off and is away from the kitchen. But on Sunday, August 8, I had one of the best meals of my life at Alinea. Located at 1723 N. Halstead in Chicago, Alinea is the creation of Chef-Patron Grant Achatz. Open since 2005, the restaurant has earned many of the culinary world’s highest honors. It won the 2010 James Beard Award for Outstanding Service and is on San Pellegrino’s list as the top dining establishment in America, having overtaken Per Se in the 2010 listings. This past spring, Chicago magazine even named Alinea, “the most significant restaurant in Chicago’s history.”
By way of cuisine and labels, Alinea is considered a “progressive American” restaurant. A leading location to experience molecular gastronomy, it is perhaps our closest incarnation to Spain’s legendary gastronomic mecca, El Bullì. Until recently, Alinea offered only two menu options, a 12- or 24- course tasting menu. The new scheme has one option, an 18-course tasting menu, priced at $185 before wine. The accompanying slideshow (for captions, click on the photos) showcases many of the dishes our foursome was served during this memorable night. What the pictures cannot capture is how wonderful everything tasted. In this kitchen, molecular gastronomy and innovative techniques serve to enhance flavors. The pictures also do not fully capture the uniqueness of the presentation of so many dishes, and the interactive aspects of the meal. I actually expected more shock value; odd combinations or ingredients that would be transformed through the magic of science. However, our dining experience was better than that.
I cannot go into detail about every course, but one that combined unique ingredients, presentation and interactivity was served around number 15 or 16. As shown, it was a glass cylinder packed with layers of tapioca pearls, hibiscus and crème fraîche. The instruction was simply, “Put your mouth to the end of the tube and suck inward.” I’m not sure if the inspiration was NASA or Cheech and Chong, but it was a fun tasting moment. I had also expected the beverage pairings with this 18-course extravaganza to include small servings of a range of beverages, such as wine, craft beer or sake. However, and probably best for the stomach, it was all wine. Pourings included wines from Portugal, Alsace, Italy, Australia, Spain and Napa Valley.
On a personal note, the only thing I would have changed were the wines served at the end of the meal. For me, they were too sweet, combined with the already sweet dessert courses. Once you have eaten at Alinea, you may be tempted to try to recreate some of the dishes at home. Though it would be difficult, your efforts would be aided by Chef Achatz’s cookbook, Alinea and their website, Alinea-Mosaic. If you want to go to Alinea, you will have to make your reservation far in advance. This is firstly because, after winning these awards, food lovers from around the world are flocking there. Secondly, they have only 20 tables, and the restaurant is only open for dinner five nights a week, Wednesday to Sunday. Alinea’s General Manager told me that they turn the tables one and a half times each evening. They cannot do more since dinner lasts three and a half hours! So I estimate that they can only take 150 reservations a week (5 x 20 x 1.5 = 150). So that’s why you’ll have to call at least two months in advance!