Yes. Alinea. While thinking on how to deliver this post it was clear there would be no way to do the restaurant justice by attempting to decipher every ingredient and cooking method used in each dish. Instead I will let the pictures do the talking. I’ll give an overview of what ingredients stood out for me and my overall impressions of each course. Without further ado, I give you Hungry Hungry Hinden at Alinea.
Jill snagged last minute tickets to celebrate my 30th birthday. Yeah, it was 5 months ago, but this is the first time we were able to obtain a table. After all, Chef Grant Achatz’s Alinea (1723 N. Halsted Ave.) is one of the best restaurants in America and the World. With so little time to both let it sink in and get excitedly anxious about the event, it was suddenly upon us.
We enjoyed a cocktail at Boka before hand where they graciously served us a little amuse. “A Taste of Boka” included a fresh single oyster, soba noodles, caviar and some fresh herbs. Super fresh and a great way to awaken the palate. Boka’s bartenders are some of the best the city has to offer. Their wine list is top notch and their cocktail selection is classic yet done with care and an exquisite attention to detail.
We enjoyed our 30 minutes at Boka and strolled next door to the main event. We were greeted outside where we checked in with the maitre d’. He explained that for the summer time we would be enjoying a couple sips of fresh lemonade before we entered the restaurant.
As we stepped into the hallway foyer, we were engulfed in almost complete darkness with only a faint ocean blue light shining acoss the wall. Immediately to our left was a large bowl filled with water. Floating inside were small fishbowl style glasses with our lemonade. There was the faint aroma of fresh sea breeze as well as the sound of wind chimes in the distance. Awesome.
We enjoyed our couple sips as we walked down the corridor. As we neared the end, automatic doors that were invisible before suddenly opened revealing the main entry way of the dining room. We placed our glasses in the basket provided at the entrance and were greeted warmly, “Welcome. We have your table right this way.” We had arrived.
We were seated in the dining room to the left of the entry way at a banquette/chair table. Jill sat in the banquette which had the best view of the kitchen in the house. We were right beside the window at the front of the restaurant which was perfect as it provided gorgeous natural light through the off white colored drapes.
The room was sparse and there was no music playing. A couple large abstract paintings decorated the wall but that was it. Very clean, nothing much to distract you from the focus of the meal – the food. The oversized wooden black table was completely bare besides a single beautifully folded white napkin.
Tim, our host for the evening, approached our table and welcomed us. He explained we would be enjoying a 15 course menu. Everything would be a surprise as they would provide us with a take home menu at the end of the meal. No allergies in this party so we were on our way. For this meal we opted to skip the wine pairing. I know. I’m a huge wine geek. BUT, I’m still frugal, and I wanted to be clear headed for this meal, plus even these wines may not be worth it for my (at times) snobbish wine palate. Anywhoo…..
Before a moment had passed, our water had been poured and the first course was on the table. Steelhead fish roe with a coconut gelee, a sweetish carrot flan, curry and fresh yuzu. The dish was beautiful to look at, a lively dish full of different textures and flavors. The carrot and vibrant coconut pieces were extremely pronounced in flavor.
The coconut was perfectly tender and the flan was creamy and unctuous. The yuzu gave the plate great acidity and a nice sweet touch. Oh my god. What a great way to start off this epic meal.
One of the coolest presented courses (yet every presentation was bad-ass) was the seafood foursome. Arriving at our table were two damp recovered pieces of driftwood draped in fresh seaweed. The fresh aquatic aromas that filled the table brought smiles to our faces. So COOL!!! The essence of the ocean was before us. I was immediately swept away to New England, sitting on the beach, enjoying a sunset over the sea. No joke.
First was a single oyster leaf. The only non-seafood item on the log was literally that; an oyster leaf from the shores of Scotland that tastes just like an oyster. It was dipped in a light mignonette and served inside an oyster shell for aesthetic impact. You placed the leaf in your mouth and by the second crispy chew you were taken over with the essence of fresh oyster. I mean, it tasted JUST like a friggin’ oyster with a delicious shallot and sherry mignonette sauce. So unique and such a forward thinking idea. Who needs actual seafood to enjoy the fresh flavors of seafood?
The king crab was shredded and mixed with passion fruit, heart of palm and all spice. It was placed inside a crab claw which was used as the serving utensil. The crab had a rich and creamy element that I couldn’t identify. But the sweetness of passion fruit played well with the crab as well as the savory all spice touch that was sensed at the back end of the bite. Very nice and fun to eat.
The third element was lobster. Again, served in its claw, the lobster wasn’t the unique element presented here, though. Instead, a carrot and chamomile foam was dolloped atop the lobster which was super intense and lively in flavor. Very aromatic, incredibly floral and just tasty, the sweet lobster found a perfect pairing with the flower you often find in tea. Two times already carrot has showed its face in the first few courses.
The last item on the log was a razor clam that had been lightly charred over coals served in the shell with shiso, soy and some lightly chopped daikon. I also sensed some mustard seeds that were crunchy and addes a nice textural change from the clam. This was awesome. As it was the only cooked element offered it stood out and the char gave off an excellent aroma when you opened up the shell to reveal the meat. They cleared the logs which left a couple puddles of water on the table. Another server immediately swept in and wiped up the residual moisture.
The next course was the first of a series of one bites. Presented on a weighted needle-thin metal skewer elevated at a 45 degree angle is a single baby charred octopus with fennel, and orange and pig. Wooly pig was beautiful to look at and a “hands-free” course to say the least.
Leaning forward you plucked the food off the skewer. It easily released itself – the bite was whimsical. Smoky, tender meat of both the octopus and pig coupled with the Meyer lemon, tangerine sensation we experienced from the orange and fennel.
Remarkable textures and flavors presented in this single piece of art. This is one of the restaurant’s static dishes.
The next course arrived to our table and immediately I was taken away with its stunning beauty. It was without a doubt one of the most visually beautiful plates of food I’ve ever seen. Wow.
The combination of bright saturated colors burst from the bowl. The transparent bowl was the ideal vessel for a dish of this caliber. So stunning, we both didn’t even want to eat it. But we were glad we did of course.
Perfect tiny tomatoes, macerated watermelon, chili peppers and extremely fragrant basil were accompanied by other peppers, dehydrated onion and other herbs. Every ingredient played on the next with spot on balance. The herbaceous tomatoes coupled with the extra sweet and pronounced watermelon were contrasted with some surprising heat from the chili peppers.
Oh my goodness, this was the essence of summer in a bowl. Every bite was different than the next depending on what combination of ingredients made it onto your spoon. And yes, a spoon was the ideal utensil for this dish. So delicate but in your face flavor profiles. Superb.
The following course was corn. Featured in several different forms, this course was inspired by the paintings hanging on the walls of each dining room. Abstract art was the muse for the chef responsible for this edible work of art.
There was a sweet corn silk, sour cherry reduction, and huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on corn – also known as corn smut – consumed by the Aztecs and today is considered a delicacy in Mexico.
While it was Jill’s least memorable course, I enjoyed the texture of the sweet corn silk and the slight funk in the smut. Her complaint, which was valid, was that the tart sweetness of the sour cherry overpowered the rest of the dish.
Our next course arrived in a clear bowl that resembled those crazy egg chairs. You remember those – probably better than I. The vessel contained Otoro, the fattiest tuna I’ve tasted, served simply raw. It came topped with white grains of rice and a baton of Thai banana. Everything was covered with a Kaffir lime foam and a sprinkle of sea salt.
In this case Jill preferred the dish more than myself. Again, it was absolutely stunning and extremely fresh and delicious. The pure essence of raw fish, zesty lime, and almost refreshing yet still creamy banana.
One of our favorite dishes of the evening was served on hot rocks. Burn Morels were quite possibly the best bites of mushroom I have ever put in my mouth. They were tender, savory, earthy, a little sweet. The ‘shrooms provided texture yet still melted in your mouth. They tasted like the best sensation of raw earth EVER – so good.
Ramps, asparagus and smoked date were laid across the rocks with other accompaniments including a perfectly soft poached quail egg – absolutely ridiculous. Some of the best bites of the night took place during this course.
Hot Potato Cold. One of Chef Achatz’s signature dishes that remains a “staple” on their menus is the most time sensitive dish, the server explains. So much, in fact, that he remains at the table while you eat it. Served in a small wax dish is an uber rich and creamy cold potato soup made thick with dairy fat and heavy sweet cream. Perched over the soup suspended on a needle is a perfect hot sphere of potato that’s been poached in butter. Atop that is a single slice of black truffle, beneath a baton of chive and two small cubes of Parmesan butter. You remove the needle and allow the ingredients to fall into the soup. You consume.
Heaven. In all my years, this was one of the best bites of food ever. The essence of savory umami. The potato was creamy and buttery in the best way, the truffle was tender and not at all overpowering. The soup was perfect. I mean, perfect potato soup. Just the right temperature. In fact, the balance of temperatures was so much in harmony, that the phenomenal flavors are (almost) overshadowed! But they’re not. I would return for this dish alone. Really.
How do you top a dish like that? Well, I suppose you can serve three different cuts of lamb all cooked sous vide with 60 – Yup, sixty different garnishes made with 86 different ingredients – none repeating. We were highly anticipating this course. I mean really? All the questions that go through your mind…the plating, the prep, the insanity to create a dish this interactive and labor intensive. Only at Alinea. It was absolutely the coolest dish TO EAT that I will ever experience. I mean, where else can you encounter a culinary episode of this grandeur.
The flavors of each garnish were intense. Some we didn’t love and I think that’s the point. The strong black licorice and mint were overwhelming but still fun to try.
I know, mint and lamb is a classic combo, but this was just too much. But THAT is why the dish was so cool. Jill didn’t enjoy the rosemary chalk but I did.
There was undoubtedly something for everyone on that glass platter. People (including us) often ask if the servers can name all the garnishes. The simple answer comes after a chuckle, “No.”
Oh, and if you like spoilers, some guy online created a key or map for the garnishes if you wanna check it out. Here’s the link: http://alineaphile.com/2012/05/garnish-key-for-alinea-restaurants-lamb-86-recipe/
Phew. Exhausting. Okay, so this next single bite was in both of our minds the best bite of the night – I mean it this time. The famous black truffle explosion was up. A single raviolo was delicately filled with the most intense and delicious black truffle broth on earth. Served in their anti-plate with no bottom atop a single spoon, the delicacy is topped with a sliver of Parmesan, a shaving of romaine and some black Osetra caviar.
The term explosion is an understatement. The pasta erupts in your mouth like the best soup dumpling ever created. The flavors are insane. The temperature is perfect again. The mouth feel of the broth, Parmesan and just EVERYTHING combined was unreal. Absolutely unreal. We were both speechless. We didn’t even want to say anything should it ruin the moment. I’m done describing this dish. I half jokingly asked the server if they’ve ever been offered a monetary sum for another helping of that course. Again, the response was simple, “Hehe, uhuh.” Yup.
A crispy almost tempura style fried Anjou pear, brie cheese and onion were served in a unique vessel on the end of a burning stick of cinnamon. The aroma of the burning sweet spice filled the room. I might want to add at this time that we were the furthest along in our meal compared to others in the room. Meaning, we got to see all the courses FIRST which made our experience that much better. When we dined at NEXT, the table beside us was a couple courses ahead which was fine, but took the surprise element out of that meal.
The pear dish was very light and airy. A perfectly fried bit of creamy brie cheese and a few chunks (I think) of fresh Anjou pear with a little onion dissolved in the mouth in no time.
This was enjoyable, but the focus was more so the aromatic aspect of this course. Cool sure but maybe annoying to other tables? Oh well.
Ah, a palate cleanser. But unlike any other you’ve encountered. Five different kinds of ginger prepared five different ways were suspended on the end of some of their signature metal skewers.
The ginger were pleasant. Each a different intensity and a different dominant characteristic. One was smoked, one sweeter, one tangy, one pretty spicy. A really cool way to get your palate ready for the dessert courses. Yes, of course – courses in the plural.
The first of our three desserts was a blueberry, buttermilk and sorrel milkshake. The dish was a “loud” dish when it arrived to the table. There were vapors coming from the center of the dish where a small glass ball sat rattling with the fumes on the dish.
The server placed the dish down and requested we remove the balls. After we did such, he poured liquid nitrogen into the vessel which “created” the milkshake. The entire table was completely immersed in liquid nitrogen vapors. It was so cool – literally.
Around the rim were perfect blueberries and several cubes of a sugary macadamia coffee cake (I suppose). The shake was served with a metal straw which was fun to use as the NO2 smoke continued to emerge from the vessel throughout the duration of the course.
The second dessert course has to be the first food to be served suspended in the air – literally. A sour apple flavored “balloon” was presented to both of us. Weighted down with a large metal needle at the end of the candy string, we were instructed to kiss the balloon and inhale. As we did what a surprise to experience FLAVORED HELIUM.
Yup, inside the candy balloons was sour apple flavored helium. The server recommended we have a conversation shortly after consuming the balloons. What a fun and creative course. This is what you’d expect at Alinea. Not only was it fun, but the candy was tasty, as well as the helium! I mean, the flavor of the gas was extremely pungent. There was no doubt about it. Sour. Green. Apple.
Okay. The finale. We were lucky enough to dine there on an evening that Chef Achatz was in the house. So he was the one to present our final course. Our server requested we raise our water glasses while he skillfully placed a smooth silicone tablecloth over the entire space before us. With one swift motion all the elements of the next dish were placed on the table in unison. Not a moment later, Chef emerged form the kitchen. Jill’s eyes lit up as she saw him approach our table.
He didn’t speak a single word. He went right to work and placed a pretty large white globe in the center of the table into which he poured liquid nitrogen freezing whatever substance was inside. The table (for the second time this meal) was completely covered in liquid nitrogen vapors. Nice and cooling, it actually got you more in the mood for dessert somehow.
He placed different elements of the dish across the entire tabletop but with clear precision. Although it looked random, every ingredient was placed within reach of one of us and dispersed pretty evenly on either half as well. Different dried fruits, English peas, edible flowers, creams and such were laid all around.
It was surreal watching the Master Chef at work. Jill took a great video that I posted the other day on Facebook. You can also find it on the Hungry Hungry Hinden Facebook page.
The completion of the dish didn’t come until chef slowly picked up the white sphere and with force yet complete control, smashed it on the table top spilling out all its wonderful goodies. Trying to describe this course would be impossible so I’m not going to attempt the feat.
Best meal ever? Absolutely. Alinea lived up to every expectation and exceeded them without breaking a sweat. Service was personable, intuitive, natural and knowledgeable. The food were some of the best tasting thing I’ve placed inside my mouth. I mean, at least four courses are up there in the top fifteen things I’ve ever eaten – and a few top five.
Thank you to my wonderful girlfriend Jill for one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever received. It was perfect. Chef and Alinea staff – I cannot begin to say what a remarkable establishment you have. One day I will return. Til then. Happy eating.
Thank you for celebrating the 50th post with Hungry Hungry Hinden.