I recently had the best meal I have had in my life so far. When I say this, I am only comparing it to meals at restaurants I walked into knowing no one, with a reservation I obtained myself. So included in my comparison are places like The Fountain, Charlie Trotter's, and Per Se. Excluded are places like Morimoto, Cru, and Gramercy Tavern that I feel I can evaluate honestly but, having developed strong relationships with them all, through regular visits, feel I may see a level of service even beyond their already amazing standards which makes it unfair for me to compare them to new places.
I first heard of chef Grant Achatz when he was at Trio, and decided I had to try his food some day. After he opened Alinea he would pop up quite a bit in articles about what I call "the new food," the chefs that fall into Ferran Adrià's school of experimental cuisine.
The pitfall with any new creative process is that for every ingénue there is a hack turning out technical approximations of the art but missing the soul. Getting to El Bulli in Rossas, Spain has long been a quest of mine but as far as its American counterparts are concerned, their chefs seemed to emulate the surreal aspects of Adria's cuisine, rather then the obsession with flavor people who have been to El Bulli attribute to Ferran. That is, except for Grant.
When people talk about Grant they speak of skill, precision, and wonderful experiences, as well as pillows of aroma and bacon on trapezes. So, looking for an opportunity for a nice meal with Bestfriend prior to his bachelor weekend, I decided it was to Alinea we would go.
The myth is that there is an umpteen month wait for reservations, but I called on a Wednesday afternoon, explained I was Bestfriend's best-man and would be flying into Chicago the following day and that, if we could, we would like to have dinner for two the following night, time of seating not being a concern. Christopher, the Matrie d' saw no problem with the two of us dining at 8:00 pm.
There is a tradition among fine restaurants, especially those in Chicago, of being located inside townhouses that in no way stick out significantly from the other edifices on the block. We walked past Alinea twice before deciding it had to be that nondescript brown brick building with the warm glow across the street. Once through the front door, though, the design aspects became quite unique. You enter into a gray hallway that diminishes as you proceed, ending in a short space with a sculpture comprised of a bunch of blunted steel needles in rows. About halfway down the hallway, a pocketed door opens on your left and you are in front of the host's stand, which is tucked under the staircase. To your left is the downstairs dining room, where larger parties are sat, and to your right is the wide-open kitchen. In the center of the very sleek, sensible kitchen stands a young man who looks more like an old boy. This is when it first occurs to you the guy who is probably the next, best American chef, is twenty-nine years old.
The staff is very proud to be working with a system of unique elements, that will be new to your dining experience and they take the time to point out to you aspects that are distinct to Alinea. What makes these speaches so unfeigned is that each detail is explained as a choice of the chef, with an explication of some of his logic behind it. When silverware is presented it is put on a small platform in the middle of the table. The stand is topped with a rectangle of white linen. The server goes on to explain that the aesthetic of the big black wooden tables was preferred to linen but the functionality of linen also makes sense so the chef designed this simple solution. Armed with this information you see the logic of the approach without experiencing any of the instinctive resistance that the thought of something being different just for the sake of being different inspires.
The menu consists of three options: One, Two, and Tour. Tour is everything, 26 courses on the night I went, and it never occurred to me to dig deeper into what the other choices were.
We opted to have Joe Catterson, the sommelier, choose our beverages per course. Before flying, Robert Bohr, the manager of Cru, said Joe was absolutely to be trusted, and I trust Robert absolutely. After agreeing to select our beverage pairings, Joe also suggested we wait till after dinner to see our menu, thus removing any preconceptions it might inspire. We agreed, and we were on our way.
I have attached the menu and you can refer to it for any clarifications. The wines are listed as well. What I find compelling, and what a lot of my food geek friends like to argue against (though not from experience), are those aspects of Grant's preparation beyond those accepted as standard at this point in the evolution in cuisine, that I believe to be better than what I have seen so far.
The wines were some very interesting choices from all over the world. Not enough people are using Lillet; and Movia makes great wines in Slovenia that your average wine guy is afraid to commit to because it is just too much work to explain that the vineyard is only 30km from Italy. Joe's selections favored whites and light-bodied reds, which made absolute sense with the food.
The Olive Oil was seared. Grant has what I visualize as a cold-plate as opposed to hot. It holds some incredibly low temperature like negative billion degrees or something. No matter what it actually is, what results when you drop some olive oil on it is solid olive oil. This is served on what resembles an acupuncture needle with a little black pepper and Parmigiano. The second it touches your tongue it liquefies so what is now in your mouth is the unctuous feeling of olive oil, black pepper and Parmigiano. So far, the next best way I have seen this done (bread to soak up olive oil, which changes the purity of those flavors) is a far distant second to this.
Maitake is a soup that comes stacked in a cylinder, giving you a chance to observe and comprehend the layers before the waiters make a whoosh sound as they pull the cylinder up and the soup spreads and mixes in to the bowl to become one thing, the soup.
Dover Sole always comes with butter and capers. Grant dries the butter to a powder and adds banana as a counterpoint. Rather then have a sole made to taste like butter and capers; you can taste the sole, or the sole with butter, or the sole with capers and butter, or banana, each combination working to enhance your appreciation of the fish itself.
Pomegranate is a pomegranate gel with a small square of Explorateur, a tiny slice of a Thai chili, and a micro mint leaf. Of course the taste is fantastic. Pungent cheeses, sweet fruit, nip of capsicum, cooling effect of mint. Grant stacks them and serves them on a two-foot needle counterbalanced on the table. You are asked to eat the "dish" with no utensils and no hands, so you must move your open face towards the needle. As you approach and consider this daring move on your part and his, you can't help but think about what your about to eat, and I am attracted to things that make me think about my food.
Lamb is served in a bowl that is placed on a pillow filled with smoke from burnt star anise. The weight of the bowl causes the air to leak out of the pillow so as you eat, the closer you are to the bowl, and the more the aroma of anise affects you. With your head over the bowl, the lamb tastes like anise, while the anise flavors lessen if you sit back in your chair.
Those are my five best examples. Everything on the menu has something special about it, and it all is great. The only two down-notes for me were Blackberry and Quince. The Blackberry because the tobacco, although it tasted interesting, did not necessarily taste good, and the flavor lingered through the next four courses and the Quince because it tasted trite and like cumin.
If you have the opportunity and the roughly $450 it will cost for the food and wines, go. No one on this continent is being more creative with ingredients and presentation. At its base, Alinea is serving very fine food that tastes great and, in its execution, is stimulating to all of your senses (even your sense of fear as you stare down at that needle).