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A Grand Slam at Alinea

Posted: Nov 29, 2006 2:39pm ET

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?

Dr M Vinciguerra
Port Washington, NY —  November 30, 2006 9:12am ET
WOW !!
Eric Knoll
Indianapolis, IN —  November 30, 2006 1:21pm ET
I just yesterday made reservations for both Alinea and Trotter's over a weekend in Jan. to celebrate our wedding aniversary. The hostess at Alinea suggested the 12 course since this will be our first time. After reading your account I can hardly wait and may have to change to the 23 course menu. We have also had incredible meals at Aruns and Tru in the past. Unfortunately we only get to Chicago, sans children, once or twice a year and as you mentioned Moto is on my list also. Enjoyed your vanity project last year.
Chum Lee
Mendocino, CA —  November 30, 2006 1:35pm ET
Gotta admit, I've never listened to your music, but your writing is so eloquent and interesting that I'm going to order a BNL cd today from Amazon. Which would you recommend to start my collection, Steven, and why?
Steven Page
November 30, 2006 5:13pm ET
Eric: We had also originally signed on for the 12-course, but were easily persuaded to do the full tour. If you have the time, it's certainly worth it! Have you been to Charlie Trotter's before? I have been there a couple of times, and it's always a fantastic experience. Have a great trip!
Steven Page
November 30, 2006 5:18pm ET
Chum: Our latest album, Barenaked Ladies Are Me is something we're all really proud of. It's a double album, but the full version is only available online right now (at bnlmusic.com, iTunes, or eMusic). That's the version I'd recommend most. At this moment, only the first half is available on CD; the second half comes out in February.Historically, though, my favourite collection of songs is on 2000's Maroon album. Thanks for asking - hope you enjoy the music.
Christine Blumer
Chicago —  December 1, 2006 12:22am ET
Thanks for the report! Folks here in the Windy City are incredibly proud of our culinary scene, but it makes it all the more sweet when someone as world-traveled as your gang think so too. Next time you're in town, try out one of our wine bars. Its an embarrassment of riches. I'm convinced we have more wine bars per capita than any other US city. And one more foodie tip for anyone traveling to Chicago - for lunch you gotta visit Hot Dougs. Ok, I'm not kidding. Its a hot dog joint on the surface, but its owned by an amazing Kendall College grad who makes incredible gourmet sausages in-house and outrageous toppings. Its only open 11-4 mon-sat and cash only. you'll wait in line, even on a weekday, but its soooo worth it. Last visit I had a smoked duck sausage infused with cognac and cranberries topped with a dijon mustard sauce and goat cheese. AND if you're clever, you'll find a most delicious "illegal" topping on the list most days too. Enjoy!
Patrick Obrien
Hartford, CT —  December 1, 2006 3:40pm ET
Steven - thanks for the great post! I see that you're in Hartford on the 12th and I'm going to pick up tickets to the show. E-mail me at ctobriens@sbcglobal.net if you want a good recommendation for dining. I've got a mini-vertical of Shafer Hillside that I'd love to open with the band.
Patrick Dorsey
Chicago —  December 1, 2006 10:59pm ET
Yes, Hot Doug's is quite the find, as is Arun's. But skip Moto. Please, please skip Moto. I have not been to WD-50 but the description could serve Moto as well, where the food serves to show off the science -- in contrast to Alinea, where the science shows off the food. (And to top it off, Moto's wine pairings were uniformly off when I visited.)The place to try for an excellent multicourse prix fixe meal is Tru, which is sadly underrated. It's the best meal in Chicago for my money. Not as flashy as Alinea, without the "name" chef at Trotter's -- but that's what makes it work. Also, a wine list with some excellent sub-$50 choices, which warms my heart.
Derrick Mancini
Chicago, IL —  December 2, 2006 12:06pm ET
Thanks for the comments on Alinea, Steven, you convinced us to give it a whirl. We especially like CT for anniversary dinners. And thanks for the new album, we love BNL!
John C Winkelmann
Cincinnai —  December 3, 2006 4:13pm ET
Steven: When you are next in Chicago, make time to go to Topolobampo. I've been to most of the wonderful, high end restaurants in Chi-town. Topolobampo is really up there - in terms of being interesting and GOOD! Decent wine program as well. Cheers.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  December 3, 2006 10:54pm ET
...and to think that I had pizza for dinner last night, a bologna sandwich for lunch and homemade bean soup today. Can I eat vicariously through you next time you dine out?
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  December 5, 2006 2:57am ET
Like Achatz I make mad food
Okay, I don't make food
But if I did it'd have a orange ball, floating in orange water

AMAZING sounding meal!!
Steven Page
December 5, 2006 11:16am ET
Karl: funny, I had pizza last night too! I'll trade you your bean soup for the industrial meat loaf they served for dinner at our last gig!! But eating out - that's another story! I will try to keep you abreast of my adventures.

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