Alinea (February 2012)

(Alinea exterior: taken from Yelp)

Chef Grant Achatz started Alinea in 2005. The restaurant has received 3 Michelin Stars in each edition of the Chicago Michelin Guide. It is located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood—roughly ½  mile from Charlie Trotter’s—and therefore is invariably borne out of the geographic and conceptual climate of Charlie Trotter’s. Both restaurants do not have any prominent signage, and with each there is a contrast between the relatively anonymous exterior and the originality of the experience offered within.

Arriving 15 minutes early for our 6:15 reservation, we checked in our umbrellas with the hostess and were led to our table upstairs. Shortly thereafter, we were introduced to the captain and selected still water. Interestingly, there were no female members of the wait staff. There is no menu option since everyone is served the same 20 course menu. Prior to the beginning of the meal, we requested a signed copy of the menu and were told that Chef Achatz was at Next for the evening, but that if we provided our addresses they would be happy to mail us a signed menu. When the signed menu arrived in the mail, it included our allergy substitution—very thoughtful.

On the table sat a “centerpiece,” a giant clear crystalline structure with a purple liquid inside. This was the first of 3 different centerpieces that would rest atop the table during the meal, each incorporated into courses within the menu. The centerpieces were very distracting and force one to divide their attention between the course in front of them and the sculptural object also residing atop the table—similar to paintings by Pieter Bruegel or films by Orson Welles in which the image contains relevant material at the limits of the frame. I appreciated the way in which the centerpieces exposed the way in which one’s attention is typically hierarchically organized such that one primarily notices only the dish in front of them. Each of the them was also visually striking, promoting a sense of wonder not often manifested in restaurants and demonstrating the way in which the restaurant’s value is not only found in the food but through the intermodal atmosphere it constructs.

The first proper course was titled “char roe,” and consisted of char roe sitting in a pool of pumpkin curry and shaved coconut. The orange color of the roe rhymed with the pumpkin curry and both the bright color and briny intensity of the roe awakened the palate. Very shortly thereafter, we were presented with a log topped with seaweed, on which sat the next four courses.

The first of the tastes consisted of an oyster filled with a sugary leaf. The king crab was filled with passion fruit and heart of palm, the mussel was filled with chorizo and saffron, and the razor clam contained carrot, soy, and daikon. The quartet introduced how the menu structure places signature Alinea dishes  (e.g. hot potato, cold potato) alongside iconic flavors from other cuisines. It was interesting to discern how much the ‘Alinea classics’ borrowed from other cuisines,  and how foreign/ethnic flavors had been adjusted to fit within the Alinea menu.

After the quartet of seafood bites were cleared, a new centerpiece was delivered: a lava lamp housing a bubbling tan-colored liquid. It would rest on the table for the next two courses. The food runner prefaced its delivery by saying that they “could have burned down the kitchen with the lava lamp” but decided to serve it as part of the meal instead. I found the joke to be candid to the point that I impulsively questioned whether he was being sarcastic. I then asked him whether the joke was scripted, to which he assured us that it was not. I believe that the joke reflects the difficulty that the servers have in relating to the food (and the highly unusual vessels that contain it). It is undeniably difficult to relate to serving a lava lamp, but the profoundly unfunny joke threatened to frame the overall experience as silly. The servers’ difficulty in genuinely interacting with the cuisine suggests to me that Alinea should break from a traditional delivery system. The dilemma is similar to a filmmaker attempting to organize the relationship between the images and the soundtrack or a playwright or novelist’s quest to arrive at appropriate punctuation and chapters. In order to eliminate the dissonance between the server and the cuisine, I feel that the chef would ideally present the cuisine himself, establishing a transparent unity between the food item’s delivery and its conception. Knowing that it would be impossible for the chefs to also act as servers, I think that it would be most appropriate for the servers to assume an identity similar to a stagehand during a theatrical performance, acting as a serious, ‘invisible’ presence (while it wouldn’t be appropriate for Alinea to copy Moto, I found that the earpieces that the servers wear at Moto really solve this dilemma and integrate the servers with the kitchen and the cuisine). At any rate, for a restaurant that takes its name from a diacritical mark, I find it ironic that it does not seem to have assembled the appropriate “culinary punctuation.”

After the delivery of the lava lamp, we was instructed to consume the first centerpiece. They informed us that the purple liquid inside of the crystalline structure was in fact beet juice (similar to chilled borscht) contained within a test tube. While beet juice is appropriately “sophisticated,” much of the course’s value rested both in the synaesthetic effect of “tasting color” and the sculptural quality of the crystalline centerpiece that housed it, which established a novel rupture between the dish and its natural referent.

Following the borscht, we were given a long pointed needle, on top of which rested an amalgamation of wooly pig, squid, fennel, and orange. The constituent flavors integrated nicely, but (similar to the beet juice) the affectivity of the course depended on its unusual serving vessel. The sharp needle structure attached a piercing quality that may not have resonated had the course been served on a plate. In a meal subsumed with the interplay between various sensory perceptions, I actually found this course utilized a haptic dimension quite unusual to fine-dining restaurants.

At this point of the meal, the lava lamp centerpiece was activated. We were presented with a large white bowl filled with a sous-vided fillet of tilefish (the tilefish was an allergy substitution for our scallop allergy). The server removed the top of the lava lamp and poured the liquid into the bowl. The broth consisted of dashi, an Asian stock consisting of kelp and bonito. With this course, Chef Achatz attempted to take seafood and render it similar in consistency to tofu. I admired the dish conceptually but was also not fond of the marshmallow consistency, which had basically drained the fish of its flavor.

Following the tilefish, we were presented with the meal’s lone family-style offering, a whole daurade served with an olive taponade, an eggplant caponata, and crispy puffed bread. Additionally, it was paired with a pear and apple soda. This course was influenced by Achatz’s travels along the Mediterranean. However, he does not casually reference a foreign cuisine; by serving the fish with its traditional accompaniments and in the grand scale with which it is enjoyed in Greece, Achatz acknowledges the way in which the dish is socially constituted in its native culture. It was another example of how the meal’s structure is  filled with courses associated with a number of different cuisines; much of its value stemmed from the contextual interplay between dishes that Achatz had conceived and time-honored dishes associated with various cultures.

After consuming the entire daurade, we then received a brief delay, after which we were brought a signature Alinea dish: Pheasant, apple, shallot, burning leaves. The burning leaves are tied to a stem that acts as the skewer, on the bottom of which rest an amalgamation of pheasant, apple, and shallot. This course utilized the earthy scent of the smoke, although we both found the smoke to overwhelm the pheasant and deprive it of its flavor. After the Greek family-style course, this “dish” represented a return to dishes that classic Achatz creations.

The following course represented another Alinea signature through its serving vessel: titled “Wild Mushrooms, juniper, pine, shallot,” the plate rested atop a juniper-scented pillow that deflated while we ate, releasing its pungent scent. Mushrooms are among my favorite foods and the dish featured a few different varieties: hen of the woods, hon shimeji, and black trumpet. However, I found that the taste of the mushrooms was overwhelmed by the juniper scent, producing dissonance rather than a dynamically supportive relationship.

At this point the third centerpiece arrived, a duo of purple flags. I suppose that a joke could have been made about the flags representing a gastronomic ‘coat of arms,’ but thankfully the server resisted such ‘humor.’ Continuing with Alinea’s most famous preparations, we were next presented with “Hot Potato, Cold Potato.” Described by the runner as their “most time-sensitive dish,” we were then instructed to slide the pin, which let the black truffle and potato drop into a buttery sauce. Anticipating a complex interplay between hot and cold temperatures, my expectation was not met as I found the cold potato to overwhelm the lukewarm sauce. However, I likely would have enjoyed the dish more if the title had not created the expectation for a strong temperature contrast.

Finally, the centerpiece was utilized, and the server informed us that the flags were in fact red cabbage. We were then instructed to assemble the flags’ handles to form a tent, on which I would fashion my own wrap. A plate was then presented containing the wrap’s ingredients: venison, paprika, mustard, and beer sauce—a Hungarian Ghoulash. Using red cabbage as the basis for a wrap would be overwhelming for many palates (and my companion found it overly intense) but I love sour flavors—“acidic” is a good characterization of both my palate and my soul. This dish represented yet another example of the way in which the originality of Alinea lies not just in the flavor combinations but more so, in the contexts in which they are employed.

The following course represented Alinea’s most famous dish, the “Black Truffle Explosion”: a single raviolo filled with liquefied black truffle and truffle oil, with a slice of romaine and parmesan on top. It is served resting atop a spoon in Alinea’s famous “anti-plate,” a shallow bowl without a bottom. This single bite contains a full 509 calories (almost as many as a Big Mac). We were instructed to consume it in one bite so as to avoid a mess. Eating it in one bite also maximizes its impact and promotes a sense of awe as to how such an intense flavor can be contained within a single bite. While raving about its rich earthiness with the server, we were informed that the dish dated back to Achatz’s pre-Alinea experience at Trio. We even had a second helping, although no manner how many times it is eaten it represents a combination of being both ephemeral and eminently memorable.

After round two of the Black Truffle Explosion was cleared, the table was sprayed and wiped with black tea perfume. While the black tea scent no doubt was chosen to compliment the upcoming dish, I believe that it was the olfactory equivalent of a palate cleanser—necessary after the pungency of the course that had just ended. A series of spoons was then placed on the table, each containing a bite’s worth of a single ingredient. The course is titled “Squab: Inspired by Miro,” and when viewed overhead references a painting by Miro that incorporated melting spoons. While the reference to a famous painter could be construed as name-dropping, I felt that this capability was averted by the way in which it adopted the ideology of Miro’s aesthetic. His abstract compositions are largely defined by an overwhelming contingency and the lack of a central object, and this course similarly forced the diner to forge their own sequence of consumption. We began with the squab and then proceeded to the fig, foie gras, celery root, picholine olive, duck fat with vinegar, lavender noodle and yellow plum.

Following the squab dish, we were given the smallest course of the night, consisting of five bites of ginger, each attached to a needle. This presentation relied upon the contrast between the miniscule size of each of the bites and the intensity of the ginger flavor. While the ginger was certainly aggressive, the size of each bite was overly small to distinguish one taste from the other. Given its placement on the menu, I believe that the kitchen preyed on the diner’s expectation for a palate cleanser. However, while this course would ostensibly represent an intermission between the savory courses and the desserts, the ginger was way too intense to soothe the palate. While the taste was not especially pleasant, since much of the restaurant’s virtue lies in confounding expectations the course was not out of line with the narrative of the experience.

Representing the first dessert course, the next dish was entitled “Winter in New Hampshire,” a reference to the sous-chef’s childhood roots. It was presented on an elaborate bonsai-like structure, and replicated an archetypal winter scene. The snow was formed through peppermint and liquid nitrogen, and it was served with a series of bites, including a persimmon candy and a honey pate de fruit. Resting on top of a tree stump rested a sidecar of distilled chocolate. Knowing that the last of the dessert courses represented one of the largest courses of the meal, neither of us were expecting to receive such a large course at this point, although the iconicity of the spectacle justified its large size—it relied upon the cultural romance of peppermint as an embodiment of winter nostalgia. This course was a prime example of the way in which Alinea—similar to the Next Childhood Menu—endeavors to situate cultural iconicity within the realm of gastronomy.

For the second dessert course we were presented with torched cinnamon, which acted as a skewer. On top of the cinnamon ‘handle’ rested tempura battered Anju pear and brie cheese—a variation of a cheese course. Similar to a number of courses throughout the meal, I was overwhelmed by the intensity of the flavors, the ingenuity of the serving device, and the complex sensory interplay.

The penultimate course arrived in the form of a balloon. The food runner did look somewhat comical carrying a balloon, and this course was another instance in which I sensed a disjunction between the cuisine and the (otherwise very chic) person delivering it. The balloon was sour apple-flavored and dissolved rapidly; we were instructed to consume it quickly. The flavor profile was somewhat infantile and reminiscent of a childish taffy candy. It was an additional example in which the group of flavors would have been off-putting and even egregious within another context, but appropriate given the balloon structure’s coherence in a menu whereby each of the courses is largely distinguished by its sculptural materiality.

For the last of the meal’s roughly 20 courses, the sous chef emerged from the kitchen to prepare it tableside. Through its grand scope, this was a sort of parallel to the family-style daurade. One of the servers unrolled a mat on the table and then placed an enormous dark chocolate hollow egg on the table. Pollock-style, the sous chef then  splashed a series of syrups on the mat including a butternut squash reduction, Goose Island Caramel Stout, and lingonberry syrup. He then threw the egg onto the table where it smashed like a piñata, spilling its contents: we were able to discern a number of tastes, including a fruit roll up, cotton candy, pretzels, licorice, and a Butterfinger-like candy. The tableside presentation reflected a unity between conception and presentation that had been absent in the previous courses. Moreover, the shattering of the giant egg was playfully violent, and a shard of dark chocolate landed on my jacket. The abstract dimensions of the dessert exposed the way in which plates are typically orchestrated in the fixed dimensions of a plate structure.  It represented a dish that was highly organized yet without relying on a fixed center—an appropriate metaphor for the restaurant itself.

Following the meal, we requested a tour of the kitchen. It was larger than either Next or Charlie Trotter’s, and is famous for the fact that it is carpeted and for the absence of a large stove, which characterizes the avant-garde sensibility of the kitchen and distances the restaurant from the romance of the flame.

Alinea’s wide acclaim would suggest that its food is among the best tasting in the country. While this is no doubt true, the restaurant’s affective resonance results from destabilizing taste as the privileged sensory perception. The dishes rely upon the dynamic relationship between taste, image, sound, scent, and touch; the resultant heterogeneity constitutes an envelope structure: overwhelming, experiential, and environmental. The lack of medium specificity and global, socially democratic references characterize Alinea as a great example of a shift in gastronomy from the realm of upper-class servant culture to an interplay involving various culinary discourses. Certainly, a meal Alinea is not only singularly memorable but influences future dining experiences.

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4 thoughts on “Alinea (February 2012)

  1. Thanks, Andrew. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take any pictures as the lighting was too dark for my phone camera. As for the lack of female waitstaff, I’m also not sure why it is although from what I understand it’s been that way for quite some time.

  2. You got some cajones to call him out on the joke. But your observation is quite spot-on. I think Moto’s wait staffs are better at serving up their antics with a sense of pride and ownership.

    You’re right about the no woman situation. Given the size of the front of the house (minus the seating hostess, who was a woman when I visited), it almost seems intentional. The only other fine dining place I can think of that has this is the Armani restaurant in Manhattan, where it is clear that the restaurant is catering to primarily female clientelle. It doesn’t make as much sense for Alinea…

  3. Well, I should clarify that my question about the joke was made in good humor (though I was genuinely curious). I definitely agree with you that Moto’s wait staff does a great job of showing a sense of pride–probably because many of them are chefs themselves. Even with my reservations about the service, though, I still think Alinea offers an amazing dining experience.

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