May 5, 2021
Dinner at Alinea – May 2021
Dining at Chef Grant Achatz’s Alinea restaurant in Chicago has been on my bucket list for many years. This year 3 friends joined me to dine at this highly acclaimed restaurant. Alinea is one of only 14 restaurants in the entire US that has 3 Michelin Stars, and since 2015 Alinea has consistently been ranked among the top 50 best restaurants in the world .
Several years ago I was planning a trip to Chicago and 3 months ahead of time I tried to get a reservation at Alinea…no luck, you had to book 6 months out to get a reservation. This year because of COVID they were closed down like most restaurants in the US. So when they began reopening I was able to book with as little as a 2 week notice. The only hitch was that in April you could only book for 4 people…not 1, not 2, it had to be 4. This is probably in order to maximize their seating capacity since during restrictions capacity was at 25% or 50%. So I contacted a bunch of friends until I had 4, then I grabbed it.
Because of their high demand, they also have the luxury of charging you upfront at the time of booking. No refunds, but you can transfer your reservation to someone else. Most restaurant owners would love to be able to set these conditions! But it makes sense for an establishment that is in such high demand. There is no reason why they should tolerate a “no show” reservation. They are in high enough demand that they can set the rules, and I was happy to comply. The final price was $315 including 20% service charge and tax. Then I added the first tier wine pairing plus a couple of whiskeys…$255 w/ tax and gratuity.
The menu lists 8 courses, but some had multiple sub-courses, so if you count the number of dishes used for the progression of dinner, then there are 16 individual courses.
This post simply documents my experience…it is not a critique (who would critique Grant Achatz?!)
Course 1 –
Picholine, Gold, Blood
Laurent-Peppier, “Cuvée Rosé,” Champagne, France NV
Bay scallops, picholine olives, grapefruit, onion (shallots?). The sauce had a fabulous opalescent sheen to it and had a consistency which coated everything, as opposed to a sauce which is poured over everything but then the sauce settles. This sauce encompassed, almost suspended, all the components. And the wine was a perfect match, enhancing the dish, refreshing the palate.
Course 2 –
Arctic Char, Maple Syrup, Fish Sauce
Smoked Char Roe, Carrot, Smoke
Domaine Galévan, Grenache Blanc Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Southern Rhone, France 2018
This was a very cool presentation because the first part was presented on the top of the glass, and then the second part was contained in the bottom of the glass, perfectly suspended there until you flipped the glass over.
Top: Sous vide Arctic Char, seared half way on top edge but still rare on the bottom, topped with a thin layer of a brûlée-like crust of maple syrup laced with the umami essence of fish sauce.
Bottom: Lightly smoked Arctic Char roe, mildly sweet carrot pudding, charred oak barrel tea turned into a gelatin to suspend all these ingredients.
Course 3 –
Alaskan King Crab, Mantou
Maryland Blue Crab, William Deas’
Jo Landron, “Le Fief Du Breil,” Muscadet Sèvre Et Maine, Loire Valley, France 2009 et Magnum
The Left Crab dish: King Crab over a Mantou Steamed Bun.
The Right Crab dish: Blue Crab Bisque which was intensified in flavor by using crab roe in the infusion. The flavor of the bisque was so wonderfully rich and full it evoked a face-splitting smile on my face…I wanted more! This recipe apparently is inspired by She Crab Soup by William Deas.
Course 4 –
Challerhocker, Périgord Black Truffle, Mustard
Russian Cabbage Soup
Brussels Sprout, Bacon, Beet
Trimbach, “Reserve,” Pinot Gris, Alsace, France 2016
This was a multi-course dish with several stunning interactions with the front of the house team. First, the Russian dolls were placed in front of us, each of us had a different crafted doll. Beside that, a bowl of chilled bright red beet puree laced w/ brussels sprout leaves and edible flowers. We were told to leave the beet dish until last.
We were first told to open the Russian doll. Inside was a very flavorful 2 oz shot glass of chilled cabbage soup (with a backbone flavor of chicken stock) laced with an oil on top.
While we enjoyed the cabbage soup, a complicated, spotlessly clean hand slicing machine was wheeled to the end of the table. A server held a warm head of cabbage which had been sous vide in bacon fat, roasted, charred, and then smoked, which he then put onto the machine and sliced into thin linguini-like “noodles”. These were then turned with a fork to form a small bundle of cabbage noodles and place in separate dishes.
The dishes were placed in front of each of us and another member of the server team approached with a small pitcher and poured a creamy sauce of the Challerhocker cheese over the noodles. As the bottom of the pitcher was reached, a sauce of Périgord Black Truffles began pouring out, creating a black lacey effect over the white Challerhocker sauce. The flavors and textures of this dish were mesmerizing.
Lastly, we were invited to finish the dish with the chilled beet puree laced with edible flowers & brussels sprout leaves. This dish cleansed the palate of the creamy cheese sauce, the lightly smoked cabbage, and the Périgord Black Truffles, opening us up for the next dish.
Course 5 –
Cauliflower, Cheese, Black Curry
Kistler, “Les Noisetiers,” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California 2019
This course featured a perfectly steamed cauliflower stem pressed into fresh cheese curds dressed with a cauliflower purée, black lentil and black sesame curry with garum masala. The black “crisp” was thin and crunchy, acting as a cracker for the curds.
Course 6 –
7X Ranch Beef, Oyster Mushroom, Oyster Leaf
Beef Oyster, Oyster, Mignonette
Emilio Moro, “Malleolus,” Tempranillo, Ribera del Duero, Spain 2017
According to Chef Grant’s Instagram page, this dish was inspired by British Steak and Oyster Pie. Left side of plate: Seared 7X Ranch Wagyu Beef. Right side of plate: oyster custard, onion, oyster mushrooms and oyster leaf tart. Hand-crafted onion ring on top. Center: Guinness-Worcestershire sauce.
In the oyster shell: poached “beef oysters” and mignonette.
Course 7 –
Venison, Poi, Pineapple
Venison, Kukui Nut, Seaweed
Haupia, “Spam”, Allium
Coconut, Black Bread, Banana Chutney
Turley, “Presenti Vineyard,” Zinfandel, Paso Robles, California 2019
This was another multi-dish course. At the beginning of the course, before anything was set before us, the ring of black rocks was placed on the table and set on fire. We were told that it would have meaning later in the dining experience.
The first dish consisted of Venison, Poi, and Pineapple. The venison chop was paired with Poi which is a Hawaiian dish made from the fermented root of the taro which has been baked and pounded to a paste. Next to both of these was a Pineapple “Lei” decorated w/ edible flower petals.
On the yellow plate was the Haupia, “Spam”, Allium dish. Haupia is a Hawaiian coconut pudding, Chef Grant topped this with his version of spam and garnished it with Allium which can be any of a variety flowering plants including onion, garlic, scallion, shallot, leek, and chives. (sorry, didn’t catch which one he used).
In the clear bowl in the back was the Venison, Kukui Nut, Seaweed dish. Unfortunately I don’t have a good description for this dish (should have used a voice recorder!). As a note, Kukui nuts have a flavor similar to Brazil nuts.
Coconut, Black Bread, Banana Chutney At this point, the ring of fire had burned low. A waiter took a pair of tongs and extracted 4 cleverly hidden (hiding in plain sight) black “rocks” from the ring of black rocks. But these 4 were actually a Black bread made with black sesame seeds. They were place on plates along with a coconut pudding and banana chutney (under the violet petal).
Course 8 –
Meyer Lemon, Blueberry, Viola
Bodegas lLs Bermejos, Malvasia “Naturalmente Dulce” Canary Islands, Spain NV
For the finale one of the sous chefs came out, put 4 triangular shaped plastic sheets on the table, and decorated each of them for the dessert course. This is now a classic for Alinea and I teased her (the sous chef) that it is an iconic thing and they could probably never stop doing it. Then I asked how they were selected to go to the guest’s tables to paint this course. Did they take turns…draw straws…assigned to do it…want to do it or hate to do it (most cooks don’t like the spot light in front of guests). She demurred from an honest reply and said something professional instead.