Once upon a time I picked up a copy of the Alinea cookbook. It was big and bold and beautiful...and above all else, inspiring. At the time, there was very little information on this sort of hyper-modern cuisine and it served almost as a textbook for me. I still reference it often for ratios, flavor pairings, techniques, etc.. Needless to say, this book had a big impact on the way I think about food. Ive also become very...let say aware (obsessed) with the restaurant and I have closely followed its menu changes, developments, etc.. Like just about everyone on this planet, I have a great deal of respect for Chef Grant Achatz and admire the way he is always trying to outdo himself and seemingly never at the expense of the food (unlike many other contemporary chefs). Its all about the food with Chef Achatz.
Anyway, the meal I had at Alinea had kind of a profound impact on me, as it has on many people. That being said, I took nearly two months to do this write up because I needed time to reflect on it. Ive discussed it with many friends, mentors, chefs, etc.. and ultimately - while the meal was inspiring in some ways - even encouraging to a young chef - it wasn't what I wanted it to be. I left feeling depressed. Nearly every course was excellent but...the 'magic' wasn't there for me. Was this because I followed this restaurant so closely that there were no surprises for me? Was it because I held it in such high regard that my expectations were simply impossible to meet? I don't know.
So a few things before diving in - since so much time has passed, and my notes are MIA, things will be short and to the point. Also, there is a no flash policy at Alinea, which is totally OK by me - but the lighting at my table wasn't exactly friendly so the photos are a bit MEH. I used the HDR feature in some of the photos as it adds a bit of overexposure to lighten the photos. Otherwise, as always, the photos are untouched. There were also courses that I did not photograph. Some were because I forgot, some were because they literally placed in my hand and I had to eat them immediately. Seeing as how this restaurant is #7 in the world - a quick google search will probably turn up pictures of any course.
So my first THREE courses were edible cocktails. No pictures. 1 - Lemon, luxardo bitter, luxardo amaro, grapefruit. 2 - Apple, laird's apply brandy, grenadine, thyme. 3 - Squash, cynar, carpano antica, flor de cana 7 year. All three were one bite and they were all nice. Favorite was the squash one which had a pleasing foie like texture.
Golden Trout Roe, dijon, rutabaga, grapefruit, mustard seed. This was not the best start to the meal. Some bites were good. Lots of bites were extremely bitter. Unbalanced and ultimately unenjoyable. Pairing: Cocktail of Pierre Peters Brut with Chrysanthemum liqueur and bitters. This was nice but really just tasted like a glass of Brut to me.
Shrimp in three parts, gumbo flavors. The three parts were 'something' dusted legs (gumbo..flavor?), pudding filled head, tail with..stuff. This made up for the previous course. The legs were crispy and flavorful...would make a GREAT bar snack. The head with pudding was nice, though not as good as the legs. And the tail..was essentially the best piece of shrimp I've ever had. Pairing: Emmerich Knoll Kellerberg Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria 2007. A late harvest Riesling...dry.
Halibut, black flavors - black pepper, vanilla, lemon, coffee. Parsnip. - Fun to see these black elements served in a completely white dish. Overall very nice. The standout was how awesome the coffee flavor worked with Halibut. Pairing: Testamatta Cicala del Giglio Toscana 2009.
Rabbit parfait, rillette, consomme. Enlarge the professional photo for a good map of everything. This was probably the second best dish of the night. Everything was REALLY good. Pairing: Vinyes de Coster Igneus Mas Priorat Spain 2007.
Hot Potato Cold Potato (black truffle, butter). This is one of Chef Achatz most recognized dishes. The server who delivered it hovered as he instructed me how to eat it, not leaving until I did. No biggy, but thats why there is no photo. Google image of hot potato cold potato turned up 4 million results. Dish was good. Nice contrast of temperatures. Flavors were strong and well balanced (maybe a little salty).
Short Rib, olive, red wine, blackberry...other stuff. This was the spring roll course where my table's centerpiece (a flag of sorts) became the wrap for a...roll. I never really thought much of this course, reading about it online for a while. Seemed a bit hokey to me. But it turned out to be really flavorful. I put a bit of all of the garnishes in the roll. The short ribs were awesome. Looks like a lot of stuff to wrap up but it wound up being about 2 bites (as most of the dishes at Alinea were). Pairing: Quinta de Vicosa Alentajo, Portugal 2005.
Smoked Hamachi, west indies spices, banana, ginger. Served on bay laurel. All I remember was the weird tingling sensation after eating...like after eating sour patch kids. Weird.
Canard a la Cussy. The Escoffier course. This was my favorite of the night, and got me SUPER excited about Next's opening Escoffier menu. As much as I doubt I'll make it into Next while this menu is being served...I really hope I get to try it! So good. Duck breast, duck confit, foie, cockscomb, red wine reduction. This course really made me wish I brought my copy of Escoffier to Chicago with me. Pairing: Maison Tardieu-Laurent Vieilles Vignes, Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2004
Venison, cherry, cocoa nib, eucalyptus. Good but forgettable. The eucalyptus was VERY fragrant and nice.
Black truffle explosion. This is probably Chef Achat's most famous creation. It is a black truffle stock that is encapsulated then used as the filling for a ravioli, which is garnished with romaine and parmesan. People unanimously love this dish...and while it was great...it was over so quickly it was hard to..savor. The impression wasn't lasting? Its hard to say what I'm trying to say but...well yeah. It was good.
Foie gras, macadamia, birch, orange. I had to think a bit about this one to remember it. It was served in a bowl with a round bottom so I couldn't set it down to take a picture. I remember the macadamia soup/broth to be the standout...it was really really good.
Yuzu snow. I understand the cleansing of the palate thing but this was a total throwaway.
Sweet potato, charred cedar, burbon, pecan. What this boils down to for me was sweet potato pie. Flavors of thanksgiving dessert. I don't know. While the whole thing was a bit sweet, it was really good. The burnt cedar added a smell that really transported me to fall/winter dinners/desserts at my aunts house in rural Connecticut. I've had lots of dishes at different restaurants that try to use aromatics or other tricks to add another element to dishes to try and help recall memories with foods...and this was by far the most successful one I have come across. It really hit the mark, and consequently was the most memorable dish of the evening. Pairing: Nittnaus Riesling Beerenauslese, Burgenland, Austria 2002. VERY sweet wine.
Lemongrass, dragonfruit, finger lime, cucumber. Okay...too sweet though.
These three were served at the same time. They were 18: Bacon, butterscotch, apple, thyme. 19: Nutella, bread, banana, chocolate. 20: Pineapple, ham, freeze dried cherry, clove. All three of these were throwaways for me. I guess if I had to pick one, the bacon was the best of the three. Pairing: AE Dor Pineau Francois 1, Pineau de Charentes
Chocoalte, blueberry, honey, peanut. This was the plated on the table by the chef course. It sucked. The mousse was the best part. Everything else was out of balance...too sweet...weird flavors..whatever. This course broke my heart. One of the reasons I so greatly admire Chef Achatz is that he seems to always take good food over theatrics. This course was all theatrics. I would much rather have something thoughtful put together in the kitchen than have a shell of a dessert plated in some spectacle at/on my table. I was really disappointed with this. Pairing: Toro Albala Don PX Gran Reserva, Montilla-Moriles, Spain 1982
So in the end...there were highs and lows of the meal. I guess more highs than lows...but really the meal as a whole lacked the pizazz I was expecting/hoping for. Even with the good..everything was so microscopic...so short lived..that it lacked the lasting impact needed.