Alinea: Part One (the starters)
Expect several posts about dinner at Alinea last weekend. I need to get all the pictures up and I’ve got to figure out how exactly to describe such a unique dining experience. (Due to limitations on Tumblr, I can only post 10 pics at a time…so we’ll start here.)
The word alinea refers to the copy editor’s symbol for a new paragraph or new train of thought.
Our reservations were for 6 pm on Friday evening. I came prepared with both my iPhone (with Hipstamatic Foodie pak) and my work DSLR (with low light settings). Dork much? Yes, but I don’t care. I knew I’d want to share photos of the food with everyone, but mostly I knew I’d want to be able to look back and remember the evening. The pictures turned out OK, not great. I was trying to snap a quick pic and then enjoy each moment. (I also brought Chef Grant Achatz’s book “Life on the Line” in the hopes that he’d sign it for me. Sadly…and this is the only disappointment of the evening…he wasn’t in the kitchen that night. I guess that means I’ll have to go back.)
A little history first…I read Chef Achatz’s memoir a few years back and was fascinated with his story of becoming a chef and battling mouth cancer at the pinnacle of his career. His love of food and invention was apparent from reading his book. Three Michelin stars, multiple James Beard awards, and seven years running on the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants (currently at number 7). He’s interested in creating and invoking memories with food. And many of the serving vessels were created to his specifications to elevate the diner’s experience.
Back to the evening. Michelle and I arrived at a nondescript building in Lincoln Park and upon entering walked down a narrow, blue-lit hallway. About halfway down a sliding door opened and we were greeted my multiple servers. They took our coats, led us to a glass wall where we could watch the kitchen staff at work, and handed us an interesting hot chocolate with marshmallows that had a smokey spruce/pine flavor. A great start to a cold Chicago evening.
The kitchen was spotless and practically silent. It was like watching a well-rehearsed ballet. Every member of the kitchen staff had his or her own job, knew his place and performed wordlessly — except when they chanted out numbers in unison in response to the expeditor.
We were seated in the downstairs dining room that has five tables. There are several more dining rooms upstairs and we never went to peek up there to see what they looked like. All very similar I assume. Each dining room has a team: a captain, a head waiter, a sommelier, and numerous other wait staff. Our team were all adorable, if not a little nervous (we later found out our captain had only be in that role for a short time).
We prepaid for our “tickets” when we made the reservations. But upon arrival the captain went over our wine options. Michelle and I both opted for the standard pairing of 9 pours (they told us it would equal a little over 3 1/2 glasses of wine) to accompany the 17-course tasting menu. The sommelier (cute, young, mumbly, but really knew his wines) would bring our tasting out and explain the wine, where it was from, how it was made, and what the significance was. It was interesting, but I have to admit, I paid less attention to the hows and whys and more attention to the taste.
The head waiter (darling, very shaky hands, but very friendly and fun), the captain, or one of the other servers were always on hand to bring out our food with great explanations on how to eat it to best enjoy it. Our glasses were cleared on silver platters. We were never waiting long for anything. It was all timed down to the littlest detail.
OK…so let’s get down to the food:
1. Hot chocoate (abinao, smoke, spruce)…warm and delicious and tasted like pine trees. (Sorry no picture. I was too excited to pull my camera out in the hallway.)
2. Butternut (muscovado, finger lime, West Indies)…these two ice sculptures were set on our table when we arrived and we were told more would come later…then they brought out two glass straws filled with the butternut puree and the other ingredients (can’t remember what they all were) and we were told to set it inside the liquid in the ice sculpture and suck it all down in one sip. It was slightly sweet and a very cool presentation. The wine pairing with this was a cocktail of L. Aubry Brut with dry vermouth, vin santo, and amaro.
The next five courses were all brought out together and paired with a cold sake called Ginga Shizuku “Divine Droplets” Junmai Daiginjo-shu, Hokkaido-ken. Yeah, I don’t know, but it tasted great and went well with the seafood.
3. Scallop (mirin, bonito)…raw sliced scallops were brought out marinating and we were instructed to cook them for 10 seconds on one side on the hot lava rock (there were lots of rocks used for heating/cooking throughout the course of the evening). So good! Although I kind of dropped one of my slices in the sand under the hot rock so I had a little sand in my mouth. Ha.) This was my favorite of the seafood courses.
4. Shrimp Head (togarashi, pincage)…basically a deep fried shrimp head served with a sauce made out of the innards of the shrimp head and tomato. Michelle was skeptical on this one….but it was great. Crispy, not overly fishy, and just plain cool.
5. Ehu (white soy, ginger)…basically a Hawaiian short-tailed red snapper tartare. The small round vessel was placed in our icy orchid centerpiece to chill while we were enjoying the other parts of this course. It tasted good. But wasn’t the star of this round.
6. Onaga (lemongrass, star anise)…another Hawaiian red snapper, this time long-tailed…it was brought to the table raw on a lemongrass skewer and we were instructed to drop it into a broth of lemongrass and herbs and let it poach in there while we ate the other courses. It was light and delicate in flavor. I love lemongrass, so this was very tasty.
7. Pineapple (slush, shot)…this was basically a palette cleanser and I didn’t really understand it. I think maybe it sat on the table too long. It had some sort of frozen powdered component with pineapple chunks that melted together. (No picture.)
8. Halibut (mole, avocado, escabeche)…beautiful and DELICIOUS. It tasted like Mexico…like a really, really, really amazing fish taco. And it was a nice three-bite size (the portions were great). The fish was perfectly cooked, the micro cilantro and radishes on top with so cute, and I especially appreciated the cubes of mezcal gelee on the side. Yum.
The halibut was served with FX Pichler “Urgestein Terrassen” Gruner Veltliner Smaragd, Wachau 2011. Basically, it was a white. Haaaa.
Next up: Alinea: Part 2 (the savories) and Alinea: Part 3 (the desserts)