My God, Chicago, how do you do it? So many fantastic restaurants, how do you get to them all? It’s not like my gall bladder could handle Charlie Trotter’s one night, and Alinea the next. I think the only solution would be to move to the Windy City, or at least make monthly visits just to sample the amazing, cutting-edge cuisine.
The other night, we found the antidote to our Omaha debacle in a 23-course (yes, 23!) feast for the senses at Alinea, complete with 13 amazing wine pairings. Although they do request that gentlemen wear jackets, we arrived prepared, and were relieved that no other rules, like, say, compulsory Groucho noses and glasses, were imposed on us. The server asked if we’d like the 12-course tasting menu, or the 23-course Grand Tour. As it was unlikely for us to be back any time soon, we all jumped at the Grand Tour, which would turn out to be the ride of our lives.
I’m usually deeply skeptical about cuisine that seems overtly "intellectual." Funny enough, I’m the kind of guy who rails against the growing anti-intellectual culture we live in, but when it comes to food, I always crave tradition over creativity. I like to think that I have an adventurous palate, and I have no real food aversions, but I normally prefer the earthiness of any ethnicity's traditional cookery to beautiful, but over-thought pieces of food-art. In essence, when it comes to food, give me soul over brains any time. (Unless the brains are deep-fried or in a terrine!)
Last year, the band had a disappointing, joyless meal at WD-50, Wylie Dufresne’s New York bastion of molecular gastronomy, and like Café de Paris in Omaha, Kevin had made the reservation. Thus, it was with some trepidation that I accepted his invitation to Alinea--was Kevin really ready for his third strike? Rest assured, Kev’s still at bat, as the meal was mind-blowingly memorable.
Alinea is the brainchild of 32-year-old chef Grant Achatz, and has been hyped as one of the best restaurants in the world. It’s perhaps best known for the custom-designed serving implements on which the high-concept food is presented. But those contraptions (like a tiny acupuncture needle suspending a hot potato and shaved truffle above a chilled potato soup--pull the needle out of the side of the bowl and, with a small splash … Voilà! Hot potato/cold potato!) only make the dining experience more fun.
The wine service, presided over by the friendly and knowledgeable Scott Noorman during our visit, was top-notch, with wine matches that not only introduced us to new varietals and regions--such as a Bianchetta Genovese from Liguria, and a Bonarda from Lombardy--but actually made the food taste even better. Scott poured us a Verdejo by Bodegas Naia that had us all swooning. Tried with the medai (a Japanese butterfish) with radish, coriander and poppy-seed milk, it was transcendent.
North American wines were oddly missing from the selections poured on our visit, but each wine was chosen with care. From the lesser-known regions of Italy and Spain, they ranged to higher-profile producers like F.X. Pichler and Müller-Catoir, and heavy hitters like Jaboulet’s surprisingly mature 1998 Hermitage La Chapelle and Château de Beaucastel’s rich, meaty 2000 Châteauneuf.
The meal lasted six (!) hours, and wound its way from savory to sweet, back to savory, and then to sweet again, all in wonderful little bites. My personal highlight was, as weird as it sounds, a shot glass in which sat an orange ball, floating in orange water. The ball was made of cocoa butter (think of a rich white chocolate) and smoked paprika, filled with carrot water. Popped into my mouth whole, the ball exploded, releasing the essence of smoky orange and carrot. Inexplicably great and surprising. I burst into spontaneous applause and, tearing up, I whispered, "This might be the best thing I’ve ever eaten."
Other dishes worked less well as food, but wonderfully as theater, like the tiny cylinder of rabbit loin under glass. The glass is filled with the smoke from burning oak leaves. When the glass is lifted, swirls of smoke fill the room. Dramatic and romantically autumnal but, in the end, the rabbit was less than delicious, and the smoky taste rather acrid. Another dish featured lady apple surrounded by daubs of pastes, one each of cheddar (pleasant), olive oil (delicious, fascinating) and eucalyptus (think Vicks VapoRub). Odd experiments like these are completely forgivable when couched between such moments of inspiration as Achatz’s White Truffle Explosion, pineapple with bacon powder and black pepper, and bites of lamb sizzling on a hot rock.
Kevin, with two strikes, had the bases loaded, and hit a grand slam with Alinea. He was carried through the rainy streets of Lincoln Park on our shoulders, and we pledged to return to Alinea next time we visit Chicago--but then how will we make time to try Moto as well?