My meal at Alinea
Preface: I have been privileged to grow up in a household who loves great food. My mother owned a restaurant for about 15 years and knows how to execute very well home-style food. Needless to say when I went over to a friends house for dinner it was never the same as a kid and I was able to easily see just how much talent my Mom had. I never really got into cooking until I lived on my own during college and then it was all about what kind of crazy concoctions we could make with whatever was in the pantry. When my wife and I purchased our first home was when I really started to take cooking seriously as well collecting knives.
Alinea: Fast-forward two years now and my passion for cooking and great food/restaurants has increased quite a bit. In fact I was able to turn my wife, who previously had been a VERY picky eater into someone willing to take a chance at a tasting menu as well as an avid food blog reader and fan girl of chefs. That started with dinner at Salty's back in February for Valentine's. Scott showed us an amazing time, which we will never forget. Our time at Salty’s was so impressive that I went back to spend a day with him in the kitchen learning everything I could in that small amount of time.
We then dined two nights in a row at Stella in New Orleans during our vacation. The restaurant is owned by Chef Scott Boswell and was an absolutely perfect experience. Next we went to Grant Achatz' Next, which impressed us even more with not only their concept but also the quality of the food and service. We had the opportunity to visit Next again and we were just as impressed as the first time, which is a sign of a great restaurant for me. The natural progression was to try Grant's original restaurant, which was of course, Alinea.
The building is very non-descript with the only way of knowing that it is Alinea is by the Valet sign on the sidewalk. Walking down the very contemporary and interestingly lit hallway was almost disorienting. Entering the lobby of the restaurant we were greeted by the GM Craig and a hostess. We were promptly seated in the first floor dining room, which had a total of five tables. Décor was contemporary relaxed I guess is what I would call it. There was no music playing, as they want their patrons to focus on conversation throughout the meal. I found the lack of music to be a bit of a bore at times.
The staff looked like they were cut out of a J.Crew advertisement and were very articulate when it came to describing the dishes, although a bit too formal for our taste. The table had no covering and was simply a dark wood slab with two white pillows in the middle for whatever, if any silverware were needed for each course. I chose to partake in the wine tasting, which I will not get into the nuance in pairings because frankly I do not have the experience. I know what I like and I typically enjoy wine, spirits or craft beers with my nice meals. What I will say about the wine tasting is that Alinea is very frugal with their pours. The time at Next when we did a wine pairing, the servers more often than not left the bottle on the table so you could re-pour if needed, which was great. Alinea would allow no such savagery.
The first course was Steelhead Roe w/ Dijon, rutabaga and grapefruit. This was a very mild in flavor first course, which set the stage for the artistic plating we would have all night long. Flavor wise it was very subtle, which was good for the start.
Second course was one of our favorites and consisted of Yuba or tofu skin, wrapped and fried into a stick with shrimp, miso and togarashi with a sauce. This was a fun dish to eat and also packed plenty of flavor with the added sauce.
Third, fourth and fifth courses were presented at the same time. We had an Oyster Leaf with mignonette, Scallop with hitachino weizen and old bay, and a Razor Clam with carrot, soy and daikon. To be honest I thought the leaf was ridiculous to be a course all its’ own. Yes it tasted someone like a raw oyster but once again, it was a leaf with seasoning on it. The Scallop was pure heaven with its flavored foam and sweet scallop hidden beneath.
Sixth course was a single bite course that really let us down. The presentation is a bit gimmicky but that really did not bother me as much as it bothered my wife. My gripe with the Mackerel marinated in sake and then paired with mango, celery and juniper was the fact that it didn’t pop with flavor when we ate it. My opinion for single bites is that they should really stand out with flavor, like a firework exploding, it should be a show stopper leaving you wanting more.
Seventh course was the redeemer for us and brought everything back into focus. English peas served about eight or nine different ways using a multi-tiered dish. The top layer held a small dollop of the best pea puree I have ever had the pleasure of dining on. Pea shoots sprung up out of the puree and a very thin sheet of dehydrated pea divided in the middle of the puree. The servers came by when we finished this dish to reveal a second level underneath the dome. This next layer had freeze-dried peas, the most wonderful tasting gel made of chamomile along with a pea infused crème fraiche in the middle. This was a play on textures with the softness of the crème versus the crispy/crunchiness of the peas. We loved every minute and every bite. Last but not least the server once again lifted the dish to reveal a third and final chamber, which had green pea ice-cream on the sides of the dish, frozen Greek yogurt in the center with a very thin slice of green apple. The pea ice cream really had a sorbet feel to it but it was silky smooth like ice cream.
Next we were presented with the eighth course, which had Hamachi, banana and ginger fried in tempura and attached to a vanilla bean. This was the first and only aromatic dish with the sweet scent of the vanilla bean wafting up our nostrils. This was the perfect single bite. We had the crispy texture of the tempura, the amazingly rich flavor of the hamachi paired with the sweetness of the banana and ginger. It popped with flavor and was easily able to stand out on its’ own.
The ninth course had three different types of exotic mushrooms, which the only name I can remember was morel. This dish had pine, sumac and ramps along with these wonderfully cooked mushrooms. Plating wise, this dish impressed me quite a bit. The dish was presented in the likeness of a small field with herbs and flowers shooting up like blades of grass in a meadow allowing us to forage for our own mushrooms. I very much enjoyed every bit of this dish.
I think we are halfway through so let us keep moving along. The tenth course was the very famous hot potato, cold potato, which I was unable to take a picture due to the time sensitivity of the dish. However, if you google the dish you can find countless pictures as well as videos of how the dish is eaten. Then was an excellent dish and I can easily see why it is always on the menu.
The eleventh course consisted of a pasta wrapper that was actually part of a decoration on the table that had been sitting there for the first ten courses. This was a cool surprise when the server took down what we thought was a orange flag and placed it on this special little metal next. He then placed the most amazing beef short ribs on the pasta and allowed us to add whatever toppings from the glass tray that we wanted to create what I would call a taco. Some of the topics were blackberry, fermented garlic, olive, tobacco gel, and salsify. This was not only a fun dish but also absolutely delicious.
For the twelfth course we were greeted with one of Grant’s most impressive and widely known dishes. Black truffle explosion is what it is called and essentially they make their own black truffle soup/broth and through some sort of wizardry they are able to make it gel at room temperature so that they can wrap it in the ravioli. Once boiled the gel becomes a liquid and literally explodes in our mouth when you bite down into it leaving nothing but the concentrated essence of black truffles on your tongue.
The next course I forgot to take a picture of but it was lamb loin with choron sauce, and pomme de terre noisette. Basically it was two quarter sized discs of lamb loin sitting on top of a quarter sized cut out of toasted brioche. This was then covered in sauce and resting next to the mini lamb tower were these small little balls, about the size of a juniper berry. The balls were actually Yukon gold potatoes, which was pretty neat. I was left wanting more but it was not a single bite dish, just a very small-portioned dish. I wanted to shout out, I need MOAARRRRR!!!!
Surviving the agony of the last dish we were presented with an interesting cup of green garlic soup and a fork of red wine braised octopus, eggplant, and coriander. Frankly the small bite on the fork was forgettable but the green garlic soup of down right delicious although once again my wife did not agree, which allowed me to get a second helping.
The transition from entrée to desert begins now with the fifteenth course. Now this was a special dished designed to hold in cold temperatures for a long time. The dish was named Yuzu Snow and was exactly that. We scraped the deliciously sour and citrus flavored snow, which cleansed our palettes and prepared us for what was coming next.
Strawberries three ways, was up next with elderflower, basis foam and gel and balsamic cubes. The plating was very artistic and the flavors were awesome to say the least. The white lumps in the middle of the plate were burrata cheese, which paired amazingly well with the strawberries and basil. This was in my mind a play on caprese salads.
Next I was presented with my birthday course, which arrived in the form of a chocolate sphere with which the server began to pour a warm heavy cream over the top, melting the exterior revealing the inside. Imagine tasting the best chocolate truffle ever and that is exactly what this dish was.
The second to last course was a lemongrass water shooter filled with dragon fruit, finger lime and cucumber. Each end of the glass tube was open with one end being sealed by dragon fruit and the other end sealed through a translucent gel. You pick up the glass tube with the dragon fruit away from you and suck, which releases the entire shooter into your mouth. This was very good with subtle flavors combining together to create a new fruit juice I have never had before.
Of course, the famous finale was the chocolate, blueberry, honey and peanut artwork made on the table. Not only the most visually impressive dish I have ever seen but also flavor wise it was a real treat. Another fun element is the fact that you and your fellow diners get to scoop through this artistic mess, combining the flavors and also, “playing with your food” like a child. This was the perfect end to the dinner and was without a doubt my favorite course.
Overall Impressions: When we left I was initially disappointed as I was comparing it to Next, which had a more relaxed atmosphere, a menu that was more up my alley and a far more generous wine pairing. Having let the experience sit with me for a few days I have come to a new viewpoint. The evolution of the dinner makes more sense to me starting with mild dishes, warming you up for the amazing middle courses such as the English Pea, Hamachi, Mushrooms, and Short Ribs etc etc. Yes, I still feel a few courses did not live up to the rest such as the Mackerel on the wire, or the Oyster leaf but overall it was a very cool and tasty experience. Will we go back? No, certainly not on my salary but it was an experience that I enjoyed immensely. I will tell you that our time at Alinea has made us appreciate Next even more so that what we did before. My wife and I will be going to every menu that comes out for Next as it is by far the best deal in fine dining available. Grant is a fascinating chef who has taken two unique and amazing concepts and executed them very well. Alinea for me is not the best restaurant in the U.S. but it is definitely up there. Now, when is the new Thailand menu coming out for Next?
Thanks for the write up. It is interesting that only a few of those dishes were on my menu. I know they change it up every quarter and often insert trial dishes into the mix that aren't the menu.
One thing I have noted is that the wine is often criticized at Alinea and there is sometimes no rhyme or reason to it. Some actually complain there is too much wine. If a small woman doesn't drink much and they have a large tasting menu, then they get loaded by the time the dinner is done.
For me, they often refilled my glass without asking, so my wife and I had plenty of wine. Also, some people complain that they serve bottles you can buy for $10 at the corner grocery. Maybe that has happened in the past, but I went back and checked the wines that were served with my menu and two-thirds of them were rated 90+ points by a wine journal or on cellartracker. I was quite impressed.
I definitely want to go to Next when I am in Chicago though.
Very cool... Grant Achatz ate at our restaurant and was very cool and down to earth when I spoke to him.
Nice recap of your meal....I just had a wonderful meal at NEXT(Paris 1906) and some outrageous cocktails at the Aviary...Unfortunately I did not have the good sense to document it as well as summary above
The Paris menu at Next was pretty much perfect and hitting up Aviary before or after the meal is a must. My wife had the cocktail called Blueberry and it was outrageously good.
Originally Posted by Line cooked
I remember when I was at Alinea, there was one dish, trout monseigneur, that they said was replicated exactly from Escoffier and they served it with vintage tableware and flatware. I know he has had other Escoffier dishes on his menu in the past too, but I would definitely love to try that 1906 menu out.
Really nice stuff. thanks for sharing your experience. :biggrin:
The lamb dish we had was our Escoffier dish of the night once again served with the vintage tableware and flatware. When the server placed the plates on the table I was like weird, am I at Next? :) It's nice to know how much influence one of the classics has had on Grant to not only serve several dishes at Alinea but also to be the topic of his very first menu at Next.
Originally Posted by mr drinky