Alinea: Another Peek

October 01 2008 - 3:12 PM

Alinea has made a name for itself in the Chicago food scene for mixing food and science.   For starters you actually order over the telephone when you make reservations–they offered the twelve-course chef’s tasting menu  for $145 or the twenty-six course tour for $225.    Its Lincoln Park address is very discreet, and if it weren’t for the valet parking men we would miss the front entrance.  Opening the doors you walk down this long, dark hallway highlighted in red, and once you get to the end a pair of automatic double doors opens in front of you, just as you ask yourself how to get in.  The actual entrance is a bit cramped, in spite of the long hallway, and I found myself dodging people serving food.   The host was able to find my reservation, and he reiterated our request that my wife didn’t care for shrimp and olives.

We went for the twelve-course tasting menu, and we decided to also
go with wine pairings , which was worthwhile, as, like the dishes, it
creates an element of surprise.  Wine pairings expose you to new wines,
and the wines will (hopefully) pair better than the food.  In addition
some of the wines by the bottle were marked up roughly three times
retail price–two times is ridiculous enough, but three times is
terrible.  Wine prices in general at restaurants are ridiculous, but
it’s somewhat easier to justify pairings just because when you’re in a
restaurant like this you want to let the sommeliers show their stripes
as much as the chefs.

For our first entree we started out with salmon roe on a vanilla
bean with a solidified sugar serving as the binder for the cilantro,
coconut, and lime.  It was paired with a cocktail of Roederer Brut with
Roussane, Spiced Mead, and Curacao.  With champagne dominating the
flavor the Roussane stood out more, but the spicy mead was subtle and
almost non-detectable until we got to the end of the glass.  You had to
be diligently concentrating on the flavors in order to pick them out.

Our second entree was a deconstructed caprese salad, consisting of
gelatinous olive oil and balsamic vinegar, chilled mozzarella foam, and
a basil sorbet.  There were heirloom tomatoes, as well as cubes of
tomato bread powder.   Deconstructed dishes can sometimes be more
gimmicky than tasty, but this one was well-executed and very flavorful
It was served with a Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko "Santinori", a
refreshing Greek wine that paired well with the "salad".

Next, we had cauliflower coated Gruyere cheese squares in an apple
soup (with cream I believe), also impressive and delectable.  It was
paired with a Tocai Fruliano, a nice middle-of-the road northern
Italian white (2007 Ronco delle Cime), though maybe not something I’d
go out of the way to buy.

This was followed by deconstructed popcorn (actually liquidized),
served with a ball of butter (where you had to take your fork to poke
the membrane) and curried lobster.  The popcorn’s taste was fantastic,
and the lobster/butter/curry combination was dynamite.  The wine
pairing, a French dry Muscadet (Chareau-Carre Muscadet "Comte Leloup de
Chasseloir, Ceps Centenaires" 2003) from the Loire Valley in the
northwest regions of France.  This was my first time trying Muscadet,
an orange colored wine, and its unique bottling ("sur lie") meaning it
is bottled when the yeast was not drained from the vat, giving it a
unique flavor and complexity.  This technique is also used in champagne
and sparkling wine, although Muscadet is not a sparkler.

The wagyu beef, served to us earlier , having been in liquid
nitrogen and attached to chopsticks, was next draped over maitake
mushrooms and dates with blis elixir (aged sherry vinegar with maple
syrup).    The entire dish literally melted in my mouth and created an
explosion of flavor.   It was paired with nice food-friendly Littorai
"Savoy Vineyard" Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley in California. 

Lamb came afterward, served with tiny Peruvian potatoes that are
maybe a 1/4-inch long, long strings of fried potatoes that stood up on
the plate, as well as sunflowers and spice.  The lamb, while tender and
succulent, was a tad too salty for me (and I love salty foods).  The
pairing, a 2004 Cims de Porrera "Classic" Priorat was fantastic, a
truly wonderful Carinena and Garnacha blend with berry flavors, spice,
and the right amount of oak.  I would run out and buy this bottle if it
were available, for sure.

Duck followed, in a delicious mole with a cube of foie gras–maybe
the best foie gras I have ever had.  It was surrounded by warm chiles,
almonds, and various seeds to provide aroma for the dish.  The pairing
was a rich and complex 30-year Palo Cortado sherry called Bodegas
Tradicion.  Being a sherry fan I was very happy to have it served to me
and would be more than happy to serve it to friends.

Next was a waxy membrane of concord grapes containing yogurt, mint,
and hot peppers, where you put the ball in your mouth to let it pop.
A  watermelon slice hanging on a single long rod was placed on our
table thereafter, and it was seasoned with coriander, soy sauce
(tamari) and bonito (fish flakes).

We saw a hanging piece of sugared bacon in what is now our tenth
course, shellacked with butterscotch, apple, and thyme.   The servers
next came out with a pillow filled with smoke, which was to prepare for
our next course of a small bowl of pumpkin and Gruyere along with blis
maple syrup (sherry vinegar mixed syrup), It was served with a very
rich, viscous South African port-style wine called Klein Constantia
"Vin de Constance".   The maker also has enough grace to not call it a
Port (just like it’s not Champagne if it doesn’t come from the
Champagne region).

Our final course was bits of chocolate served with dried bits of
olives, figs, and a pine (not pine nuts) ice cream., and the closest
thing I could describe it as was like a Greek retsina wine, but only in
an ice cream form.    The beverage pairing was memorable, with it being
a Christina Drouin "Coeur de Lion" Pommeau de Normandie, which is a
bright red apple liqueur.  The best way I could describe it is a cross
between calvados (a French apple brandy) and perhaps an unfermented
apple cider, only with a more pungent flavor. Its strong taste was not
to everyone’s liking (my wife hated it),  but I thought it paired
beautifully with the dish.  Once our plates were taken away we were
given a shot glass of tiny bits of dried caramel with salt that melted
in our mouths for the finale.

In sum, having been to Moto two years ago, it seemed worthwhile to
make a comparison of Moto to Alinea, and we found it hard to compare.
My conclusion is that Moto’s presentation is much more dramatic,
whereas Alinea tends to focus more on flavors and is less chemistry
class.  Alinea, in my opinion, does a fine job deconstructing things
(and more so than some other restaurants that I’ve visited recently).
  Service overall was relatively good for its price point (as to be
expected of course), although there were some long, awkward periods of
no service in the beginning, and all servers could answer all the
questions I asked them.  Even the people taking away the food could
answer the questions.   

Alinea isn’t for everyone, and I believe it does deserve a lot of
the recognition it has received.   It caters to a very small percentage
of the dining public, but there would be a large percentage of the
population with means who would not like it.   To which I say, "Go to
Gibson’s", order a pricey bottle of California Cab, and tell me about
their steak.  I’m dying to hear.


1723 North Halsted