Alinea

I had high expectations, very high even, when entering Alinea in the surroundings of Chicago old town.

Actually, to be honest, i booked this whole trip in the States just for going there (but don’t tell my wife please).

I also built all my other meals and flights based on this one at Alinea.

So what can i say after spending 5 hours there ? That i probably never experienced such a global performance before, ranking this meal immediately in my top 3, together with the Fat Duck and Noma. These places can’t be compared, and i’ll not try to do it. They have one thing in common : you come out there with a smile on your face and the feeling of an intense pleasure that will thrill you days and days after.

I succeeded to book a table 2 months earlier for this friday evening, around 9PM. Quite late but i secured my dinner knowing i was flying from NY a couple of hours ago and i didn’t want to take any risks.

Actually, all went perfectly well and we arrived there fresh and ready as never.

The entrance of Alinea is a little bit surprising. A dark house, a discrete entrance, a long hall with modern red lights, you do not see any door in this hall. Then when walking forward, an automated door opens on your left and you enter in the welcome hall.

On your left and also on the floor above : the dining rooms, on your right : the kitchen and an impressive number of people in action there.

We are seated in the small dining room on the left, at a nice and large square table for 2, nice intimacy, just 10 people in the same room, lovely.

A totally delicate and modern atmosphere. No plate, no fork or knives on the table, just a small towel and a glass of water. We are then warmly welcomed by one of the personnel member in charge of this room, they were 3, including an extraordinary sommelier.

And as from now on, we’ll just let us guide by the team, 25 fantastic dishes and wonderful small bites will be served in a perfect timing, paired with 13 different wines.

Here is the Tour Menu of October 31 :

Trout Roe, coconut, hyssop, passionfruit

Cocktail of Henriot Brut, Pineau des Charentes and Campari

We immediately started with an extremely good first dish. High quality of trout roes. I also enjoyed the cocktail, quite well balanced and not too strong.

Lemongrass, bigeye tuna, sesame, yuzu

This second course (bite) is amazing. Delicate tastes, the products are placed on a thin lemongrass leaf, a chirurgical work, also in the taste balance. Rich in mouth with no dominant player … fantastic.

Cauliflower, five coatings, three gels, apple

Venica Venica Tocai Friulanno « Ronco delle Cime », Collio 2007

I’m a fan of cauliflower. Ok, i know, sounds wierd, but i love cauliflower.. could eat that every day. So when appeared this dish with the vegetable in different textures, i was in heaven. Because the dish didn’t meet my tastes only, it was extremely well realized.

Chicken liver, bacon, caramelized onion, vin santo

Another great bite. Imagine how much time it takes to create this small bite, knowing how precise the tastes are. Stronger then on the previous dishes, it was really good and impressed me by the detail level of the realization.

Crabapple, foie gras, brown sugar sorrel

When i saw this sort of antenna with this small bite at the top, i asked me « how to eat that one ? ». Answer is simple : move your head forward, open your mouth around the bite and take it. Again, i was impressed by the accuracy of this small bite. Tastes were so subtiles, the presentation was so original and precise. I realize i was living one of my best experience ever. Of course, frustration can raise as these bites are a ‘one-shot’ tasting,  but because of their ephemere existence, it increased my personal pleasure of eating them.

Pear, olive oil, black pepper, eucalyptus

I loved the material, no standard plates here, most of the dishes/bites are served using very original containers. This bite was of the same level as the previous one : explosive, tasty and so subtile.

Cobia, tobacco, radish, cedarwood

Fonthill « Sea Air » Verdelho, McLaren Vale, Australia, 2006

That dish could be one of the dish of the evening. This white bowl arrived on table, topped, then the waiter took out the top and you discover this small bite, raw fish, while some smoke is coming out and parfuming the table. The bite itself was wonderful. I’ll remember for long the taste of the fish there.

Celery, pork belly, shiso, sudachi

Michel Chapoutier Hermitage blanc « Chante Alouette », Rhône, 2003

This dish is suggested on the same approach as the previous one (without smoke). It was maybe the only dish (from the 25 we got) that was a level below, good, no more.

Halibut, chamomile, shellfish, fennel

This one is one of the higlight of the meal. A new dish created recently by Grant Achatz. It was simply extraordinary. A mix of delicate tastes, great products and clever textures.

Lamb, saffron, poppy seed, pistachio

Andrea Franchetti Passopisciaro, Sicily, 2006

We are keeping the same quality and pleasure level with this lamb course. The saffran and pistachio are giving this dish a great dimension, strong tastes but not brutal. Even here, Grant Achatz manages to keep tastes so well balanced and even bring finesse and subtility thanks to the seeds. I loved it.

The same dish once the glass (with an empty bottom) is removed.

Rabbit, prune, shallot, burning leaves

We felt this one arriving from far, before it reached our table… because of the smell of burning leaves parfuming our room. A finger food bite, totally original and more important : tasty as hell. Wow wow wow, no words to express our feelings here (again).

Concord grape, yogurt, mint long pepper

This small bite was an explosion of tastes. And i really appreciated the intelligence of switching here with a fresher bite. Great.

Transarency of raspberry, rose petal, yogurt

This one is « just for fun » but was tasty as expected. And now, here comes THE moment of the meal for me when, while i was eating the raspberry dish (… and playing with the inox coil) arrive these 2 square red « flags »… nothing else than Kobe beef, almost frozen. The waiter putted that on the corner of our table and moved to the next dish… Interesting…

Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter

H. Billot brut rosé, Ambonnay

I remember i was loosing my words when trying to describe the feelings i had eating this dish. Cold potato soup, hot one topped by a truffle leave. It was amazing. And i really enjoyed the pairing with the rosé champagne. Not convinced at the beginning but i must say it worked well. Generally speaking, all the wines suggested here in the pairing menu were cleverly choosen. I clearly enjoyed the wine itself but also the moment where for each wine the sommelier came to us and explained in a very detailed way why they had choosen this wine.

Yuba, shrimp, miso, togarashi

Guess what ? This shrimp course was very good. Finger food again. But always in a way that you feel the product behind some apparent modernity, and always in a way that tastes are putted forward. Brilliant.

And while we are moving from dishes to dishes, our 2 little red flags are still there, the meat rising the dining room temperature.

Alaskan king crab, popcorn, butter, curry

Chéreau-carré Muscadet « Comte Leloup de Chasseloir, Ceps Centenaires », Loire, 2002

What a dish here !  Quite rich tastes, the butter is well present but not too much, a great quality of king crab, i enjoyed not only the visual but also the generosity of the plate. And again, look at the details, the textures, it looks so clean, so obvious, …

Wagyu beef, maitake, smoked date, Blis elixir

Drouhin-Laroze « Clos de Vougeot » Grand Cru, Côte de Nuits, 2002

And here we are. 30 minutes after they brought us the 2 meat pieces at our table, we are now served this wagyu beef course. Under the meat slice, some mushrooms. The waiter indeed picked the meat slice and topped the mushroom with it. The meat remains raw and works as a ‘carpaccio’ except it has been warmed during 30 minutes in the room and slightly cooked by the warm of mushrooms and sauce. I must say i don’t like mushrooms a lot (except truffles🙂 ) but in this case, i could eat everything and was totally thrilled by the beef. Amazing. And looking back to this course preparation, i was again impressed by their anticipation, the timing where all this happen. Fantastic.

Black truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan

I was looking for my second breath, trying to find a way to come down to earth when this black truffle explosion course arrived. Geez, i couldn’t go down, i stayed in heaven. The picture doesn’t reflect the power and quality of this small bite but i can tell you that i’m still thinking today to this sequence of dishes i’ll never forget.

Venison, potato, sunflower, sweet spice

Cims de Porrera « Classic », Priorat, 2004

This (magnificent) next course was of a very good level… probably i would have found this course on-site excellent in other circumstances. But after the kobe beef and black truffle explosion, it’s difficult for the next dish to exist. This one is doing well and when thinking back to this meal, i must admit it was even … excellent.

Bacon, butterscotch, apple, thyme

Grant Achatz likes to play, and this small bite coming from space can testify it. On one thing bacon slice are « sticked » more things you can imagine. I wondered how they do that. These guys are in permanent research for accuracy and performance. Crazy. Oops : on top of that, it was tasty….

Strawberry, violet, niçoise, oliver

At this stage of the meal, you almost don’t know where you are (we received the printed menu after the meal). One thing is sure : you know that you are living something unique, watching and tasting a unique food performance.

Dry shot, pineapple, rum, cilantro

On the road to the desserts, this small paper pocket with some fruity powder : finger food again. Good.

Pumpkin, gruyere, Blis maple syrup, smoke

Klein Constantia « Vin de Constance », Constantia, South Africa, 2004

What to say… on a white pillow placed in front of you, the waiter brings the first dessert. Of course, the weight of the plate has en effect on the pillow and some smoke and parfume is coming out from the pillow itself. What a show. Funny ? … yes. But is the dish itsfelf at the level of the visual show ?

Answer is : definitely yes. There was a perfect match between the tastes and the wine. The smoke doesn’t only bring fun but also a great parfume playing with all your senses. And again, what a generosity in the plate : large portions, even for this 23rd course …

Oh, of course, at the end, the pillow is totally flat…. no time for a little nap.

Chocolate, fig, olive, pine

Christian Drouin « Coeur de Lion », Pommeau de Normandie, France

In some restaurants, you end your meal with some light and fresh desserts, not here. Strong tastes, huge work on the textures (the performance is there to the end). I enjoyed it but not as the pumpkin dessert.

Dry Caramel, salt

Last small bite : some dry salty caramel. Funny indeed but also tasty. A nice end.

What i’ll remember from this experience is 2 things : 1/ the pleasure i got eating all these dishes, each one being different from the previous and next one. You don’t know what to expect, you’re always surprised by something : a taste, a texture, a smoke, the plate visual itself, … 2/ the performance. Being able to deliver 25 courses like this in a perfect timing (i didn’t insist on that but the timing between the courses was perfect) is a great performance. Performance also in the detail level in each dish : there is a considerable amount of work for each single bite there. And there was no failure. Not even a small one.

Some comments on the service : lovely, professional, passionate and with a great sense of humor, what we really appreciated. They gave us 2 black enveloppes with a printed copy of the menu inside and explained us that the size of the circles beside each dish indicates the size of the dish (main, small, bite…). Genious…

So, at the end of this meal, words are unecessary. At least to me. My single remaining objective was to meet and thank Grant Achatz, the 27 years old chef. My wife and the welcome hostess aranged it and while we were almost out, he came to us and kindly greeted us. I congratulated him for this extraordinay meal and was given his book, signed by him as souvenir. Lovely.

Outside Alinea at this hour of the day (2 am), we were quickly brought back to reality : Halloween night, crowded streets, people shouting and fighting for a taxi. War time (almost).  But nothing could hurt or break our happyness. We did it and will never forget it. We’ll even try to redo it in the future. Hopefully.

Laurent V

13 commentaires

  1. Nice Site layout for your blog. I am looking forward to reading more from you.

    Tom Humes

  2. WOW ! This looks impressive. The style seems to be somewhere in between El Bulli, El Poblet and Fat Duck. And again very nice pics you took!
    Greets,

    Alex

  3. Glad you liked it -there has been some development since my last visit in May – can’t wait to go back. It is so much different than any of the restaurant mentioned by Alex, an experience which is almost transcendental…

    BTW, not only the size of the bubbles but also the position indicates something – the more left the more sour the more right the more sweet… It’s really a graphical tour…

    Great review – our’s will hopefully be finished soon…

    Cheers
    Ingo

  4. WAW!!!!! that sounds like heaven, and the pictures are perfect, really worth visiting, hope to do it one day , and then could die in peace:pp

  5. J’avais toujours été impressionné par l’extraordinaire cuisine de Grant Achatz, mais les photos ne donnent pas d’impressions… alors que la tous les sens se réveillent et le cuisinier que je suis comprend qu’il n’a encore rien vu… quelle inventivité si réfléchie ( à 27 ans, ce Chef est un ovni !). Merci Laurent , c’était un très grand moment (je vais relire plusieurs fois je pense), et le « coup » des bulles qui indiquent la taille des plats, waou… Pas facile pour l 2 o …

  6. > Tom : Thanks, next post is coming soon – maybe in French🙂

    > Alex : actually i couldn’t compare Alinea to any other restaurant i’ve been… so unique (but never been to el Poblet or el Bulli). Happy to read you enjoyed the pics.

    > Ingo : I’m learning something about the position of the bubbles ! Thanks for the tip. Looking forward to your review now !

    > Miss Gourmandise : Worth a visit indeed ! And you’re right, after such experience, you can (almost) die in peace – but i’ll wait for that, still so many places to visit🙂

    > Walter : Ravi que les émotions aient franchi l’écran. Pas facile en effet pour L2O, suspense…🙂

  7. Thank you, Laurent for this stunning review of your wonderful visit to Alinea. That’s 100% travelling for food!😉

  8. Mes tardives félicitations pour ce magnifique and « so magic » reportage…
    Toujours un plaisir de vous lire
    Cordialement

  9. beautiful

  10. Salut,
    J’envisage d’aller faire un tour a Chicago et ton petit reportage m’a vraiment donné envie d’aller gouter a la cuisine d’Alinéa. Cependant, deux questions: combient de temps faut-il réserver à l’avance pour un dîner le samedi ou le dimanche soir (si c’est comme a Per Se a NYC, je suis mal barré)? Et deuxieme question, tu as pris le menu Tour mais ça semble franchement too much pour moi en terme de nombre de plats. J’ai vu qu’il y avait une version « basique » avec en gros un plat sur deux (les memes). Est-ce que tu penses que c’est suffisant?
    Merci pour tes réponses (si on devait pas se tutoyer, pardonnez-moi), bonne continuation dans le joyeux monde de la gastronomie
    Mix

  11. > Trine : we can indeed call that travelling for food. I’m happy to know i’m not the only one🙂

    > Docadn : merci pour votre commentaire. Espérons que ce plaisir continue en 2009🙂

    > Aaron : Thanks !

    > Mix : il faut réserver 2 mois, jour pour jour. Système clair et équitable. N’ai eu aucune difficulté pour un samedi soir. Le menu Tour parait énorme mais ca reste largement faisable, ma moitié n’est pas une grande mangeuse mais je n’ai pour autant récupéré aucun de ces plats. Donc, non seulement pour la performance, mais aussi pour le plaisir de profiter pleinement de l’expérience, le grand Tour s’impose vu que c’est pas tous les jours qu’on y va.

  12. Malheureusement, 2 mois ça va pas être possible pour ce coup la… je viens de me rendre compte que lundi 19 est férié ici donc j’avais pas vraiment planifié à l’avance.
    En tout cas merci pour les infos. Tant que j’y suis, il y a un autre resto a Chicago que tu me conseillerais, hormis L20? Charlie Trotter’s, tu connais (apparemment je peux avoir une place pour 21h samedi en 8)?

  13. En fait je demandais pour le Grand Tour parce que je suis allé dans un resto de Boston (Clio) ou le menu de 15 plats a fait craquer mon ami à la fin des entrées, ce qui est un peu bête. Quant a moi (pourtant doté d’un solide appétit) je me suis forcé pour goûter à tout et j’ai du coup passé une mauvaise nuit. C’est un peu bête qu’une expérience comme ça finisse par ressembler à du gavage…


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