Address: 1723 North Halsted, Chicago, Illinois, 60614
Chef: Grant Achatz
A large, irregular block of ice rests on the table, a clear centrepiece slashed through with a bolt of dark red. For half the meal it sits there, melting slowly.
Some people may see this and assume it is simply decoration. They may think it a whimsical ornament to add some colour to the room. But they should know better, because this is Alinea. Nothing is just for decoration.
So when a waiter brings out a straw and directs me to drink the sweet and rich beet, hibiscus and liquorice juice, I am not surprised. Nor am I surprised when a vacuum coffee maker filled with aromatics is placed on the table to create a broth for a dish a few courses later.
In fact, throughout the whole meal the biggest shock was just how little surprised me.
One of the most celebrated restaurants on the planet, Alinea is Grant Achatz’s tribute to modernist cuisine, using many of the newer techniques that the term implies. There are gels and emulsions, plenty of sous vide cooking, and interesting flavour combinations.
But, as with most cuisine at the more avant garde end of the spectrum, they are less about the technique and more about re-examining the way we eat. Chef Achatz and his team play with ideas of texture, temperature, the way our minds combine flavours, and the idea of individual eating experiences.
Some of these experiments worked brilliantly. A scallop dish was a great textural experience, made to feel like agedashi tofu. This really evoked that Japanese classic, being incredibly soft with a lightly fried crust, yet with the sweetness of the scallop.
The breadth of flavours available in one family of ingredients was explored in a palate cleanser of ginger. Four tiny cubes of raw ginger and one of the turmeric are served unadorned on thin sticks. Eating them one at a time, with their hits of heat and similar flavours, the slight differences become prominent. It was a fascinating journey.
By far my favourite course, both in terms of concept and delivery, was a lamb dish that put the power in the diner’s hands and ensured everyone a unique experience. Each person was provided with three excellently cooked pieces of lamb; shoulder, rolled belly, and loin. Then, in the centre of the table, a large tile covered with sixty different accompaniments for lamb. From fresh blackberries to rosemary chalk, each was enough for a single bite. The idea was that you take all of the garnish, so that the others at the table couldn’t have the same dish as you.
While eating by myself made this concept a little less strong, the quality of the meat and the excitement of identifying each garnish made this such an enjoyable experience. Never have I taken such small bites, attempted to try them all. The description on the menu given at the end of the meal called this dish “LAMB………?????…………!!!!!!!!!!!!”. That is probably the best explanation.
Less successful was a dish of squab inspired my Miro. Rather than delivering a plate, here the waiters bring a series of spoons to arrange artfully on the table. On each spoon, a single ingredient. The idea is to eat them in quick succession, allowing the flavours to mingle and create a cohesive dish. Which is a great idea, except, for me, it just didn’t happen. Maybe I didn’t eat them quickly enough, but the flavours simply didn’t come together. I felt about this dish the way I feel about Miro’s art. It’s superficially beautiful to look at, but there’s just no real substance there.
Other dishes had less philosophy behind them, but remained a lot of fun. How could anyone not like something called “black truffle explosion”, a single ravioli filled to bursting point with a truffle consume. Putting the whole thing in your mouth it really does explode, coating your mouth with the soft, rich luxury of truffle. In place of a cheese course a battered pear, brie and onion dish was served impaled on a still burning cinnamon stick, adding the smokey spiced aroma to the sweet and salty combination of the food. These small, simple dishes gave great flavour.
But in general, for a place so lauded for creativity and modernity, everything was a little conventional. With the exception of a few dishes, I’d seen most of it before. Possibly I read too much, look at too many examples of what people are doing, but too often I was left unexcited by Alinea’s offerings.
A visit to the kitchen showed that everything was very exact. All the stoves were induction, and a waiter informed me that most of the cooking was done on those stoves or in water baths. Which was a pity, as one of the best tasting dishes involved a bite of wooly pig and squid given a smokiness by being cooked over a hibachi grill. But in general this very sterile kitchen gave a sense of coldness to some of the food.
Interestingly, at one of Chef Achatz’s other endeavours, experimental cocktail bar the Aviary, I found that sense of fun and excitement I had been hoping for at Alinea. Three tiki-based drinks are made with different methods of freezing giving refreshingly different alcoholic hits. A classic, the Rob Roy, is brought to the table in a plastic bag inflated with lavender air, cut open at the table to allow the aroma to accompany the drink. Even the snacks were exciting, like an extreme array of different sweet lollypops inspired by el Bulli. All the while I watched the systematic creation of these masterpieces of booze from my table near the “kitchen”. Like a child with piles of lollies, I wanted to try everything, and it was only end-of-the-holiday cost constraints that stopped me.
That’s sense of joy and wonder is what I wanted at Alinea, but just didn’t find it. It was still a highly enjoyable experience, helped along by brilliant paired wines and professional service from all the staff, especially from an infectiously enthusiastic sommelier who could have been the son of Yahoo Serious. But I just expected a little more.
When I reached the end of the meal a chef came out to present the final dessert, I was full of anticipation. I knew about this dessert, even previously borrowing the idea of plating directly on the table, and was expecting something big. But after the goodie-filled white chocolate orb was smashed onto the table I scraped my spoon through the components, and was a little disappointed. The flavours were great, but it needed something creamy to bring everything together.
My expectations were very high, and they weren’t met. Maybe I shouldn’t read so many spoilers.