review: retrospective… (alinea)

alinea BANNER

Nashville, Tennessee, 2004.  A ruddy-cheeked cherub came out of the kitchen after dinner to say hello.

He was just a kid.  I was just a kid. We both loved food.

He cooked. I ate.  We started talking.

Though our conversation drifted from here to there, it moored mostly around a new restaurant that was opening in Chicago the following spring. The restaurant was called alinea.

Had I heard about it?  Of course I had.

The kid told me that he had started a discussion dedicated to the restaurant on the online food forum, eGullet. I should join the forum and follow the fun, he urged.

Well, I didn’t get around to joining eGullet until nearly a year later, long after my first visit to alinea.  But when I did, I wasn’t surprised to discover that the kid had not only made it to alinea, but he was the very first person through the restaurant’s doors.  Many of you probably have figured out who that kid was.  It was Sean Brock.*

*     *     *

13th Course: Pineapple

*     *     *

I never really appreciated Pablo Picasso’s art until I saw his painting “Philip IV, after Velázquez” in the Museu Picasso in Barcelona.  A far cry from his immensely more influential Cubist art of his later life, Picasso’s early portrait of the Spanish king had the exact, classical style and hand of the Spanish master and court painter to King Philip IV, Diego Velázquez, one of my favorite painters. The likeness was astonishing.

If imitation is both the sincerest form of flattery and the lowest form of learning, then why was this painting so pivotal to my understanding of Picasso?

Picasso said, “… at 15, I painted like Velázquez, and it took me 80 years to paint like a child.”

That portrait pulled back the curtain on the breadth and depth of Picasso’s talent and helped frame for me his importance as an artist.  It made me realize that mastering the style of a master was merely a foundation, not the limit or destination of his artistic voice.  And without that foundation, his subsequent leaps would not have been as convincing or possible.

And the same could be said of “Pigeonneau a la Saint-Clair,” after Escoffier, for Grant Achatz, the executive chef of alinea.

Book-ended by perhaps two of Achatz’s most famous culinary Cubist creations, “Hot Potato” and “Black Truffle Explosion,” this classic French dish arrived at our table straight from the pages of Georges Auguste Escoffier’s definitive Le Guide Culinaire on gilded china.  It was just as asynchronous to Achatz’s repertoire as the painted king was to Picasso’s.**

It was  perfect.

10th Course: Pigeonneau a la Saint-Clair

I had taken the 26-course “Tour” at alinea in the summer of 2005, and then again the next year. I left both meals largely unimpressed.

Scripted. Impersonal. Gimmicky.  Smug, even.

Technically sound?  Flawless.

Delicious?  Most of it.

Nick Kokonas, the restaurant’s co-founder, encouraged me to return for the “Tasting,” a 12-course dinner with the occasional supplement or two.   I might like that experience better, he thought. He knew of others who preferred the shorter format, which focused on the Tour’s highlights.

But despite best intentions, I didn’t make it back to alinea before the restaurant telescoped the “Tour” and the “Tasting” into a single, 16-course menu.  This is what I had last month.

I didn’t need Pigeonneau a la Saint-Clair to prove the strength of Achatz’s culinary foundation. Buttery crust, tender pigeon breast, cloud-like quenelles of pigeon forcemeat, and a frothy soubise - all of it textbook, all of it unsurprising.  I know Achatz can cook.

But inclusion of this dish broke the Proscenium, inserting a weighty gastronomic aside: this is no longer a variety show, this is a purposefully curated collection of dishes, an exhibition, an anthology, a culinary retrospective.  Like the appearance of Mrs. Agnes B. Marshall’s cornets at Blumenthal’s table, Escoffier’s pigeon tartlet here was an important reference point for what preceded and followed it, nudging the experience closer to a thesis.  Not only does alinea’s tasting menu traverse a range of flavors, cultures, smells, textures, and chemical reactions, it now contemplates a sixth dimension: time.  It’s the type extracurricular examination that I hope to see expanded at Achatz’s upcoming Next Restaurant.

Of the three meals I’ve had at alinea, this latest one was, by far, the most delicious and compelling.

Here was our menu ($195, plus tax and tip).  To see all of the photos, CLICK HERE.  To see the individual dishes, click on the course titles below:

*    *    *

1st Course
Lemon
Luxardo bitter, Luxardo amaro, grapefruit.

Apple
Laird’s apple brandy, grenadine, thyme.

Squash
Cynar, Carpano Antica, Flor de Cana 7-year.

2nd Course
Golden Trout Roe
Coconut, licorice, pineapple.

3rd Course
Yuba
Shrimp, miso, togarashi.

Chao Tom
Sugar cane, shrimp, mint.

4th Course
Maitake
Root vegetables, chestnuts, autumn vapor.

5th Course
Apple
Horseradish, celery.

6th Course
Halibut
Black pepper, vanilla, lemon.

7th Course
Pheasant
Green grape, walnut, burning leaves.

8th Course
Short Rib

Olive, red wine, blackberry.

9th Course
Hot Potato
Cold potato, black truffle, butter.

10th Course
Pigeonneau a la Saint-Clair

Moulin d’Angludet, Margaux, 2005

11th Course
Black Truffle Explosion
Romaine, Parmesan.

12th Course
Lamb
Red cabbage, mastic, rosemary aroma.

13th Course
Pineapple
Ham, freeze-dried cherry.

Bacon
Butterscotch, apple, thyme.

Caramel Popcorn
Liquified.

14th Course
Earl Grey
Lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate.

15th Course
Bubble Gum

16th Course
Chocolate
Apricot, honey, peanut.

*    *    *

1st Course: Lemon

Notwithstanding some of the other outstanding dishes I had this time at alinea, the Pigeonneau a la Saint-Claire was my favorite by a fair country mile.  What does this say about the food at alinea?  What does this say about me?

I will not hide my affinity to the classic and the French.   I love them both.

But I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the greatness of a few of the other dishes, like the triplet of edible cocktails that arrived first.  “Squash,” “Apple,” and “Lemon,” I liked them most-to-least in that order, unsurprising given my preference for heavier, darker cocktails.  That molten nugget of squash was a boozy caramel bomb.

How great was “Halibut?”  A landscape in white, it was pretty great. Our server pointed out some of the more recognizable ingredients in the dish – halibut (incredibly delicate), sesame, and parsnip.  She left us to discover the rest on our own.  In one corner of the composition, I hit upon a mine of coffee, bitter and roasty.  In another, lemon, bright and cheerful.  And yet in another, vanilla, fragrant and round. It sounds like a train wreck of flavors, but it was more of an adventure.  I loved it.

Similarly, “Golden Trout Roe” brought together coconut, licorice, and pineapple. In one bite, it was a piña colada.  In another, coconut curry, though there was no curry in the dish.  Savory, sweet, bitter, and fruity – it shouldn’t have worked.  But it did immensely so.

Maitake” was a sheer pleasure.  The underlying bed of bacon-infused lentils was perhaps a bit too salty. But the jumble of autumn vegetables – squash, Brussels sprouts, and a swatch of sweet chestnut puree helped balance it all out.  Did the forest of dried leaves and hay surrounding the bowl help me revisit my childhood memories of a hayride?  Not really.  The hot water poured around the leafy moat did little to activate the smell.

And so alinea still relies needlessly on showmanship, some of which I find a distracting.

Was that marijuana we smelled?  The overwhelming aroma came and went throughout our meal, this one strangely more bitter than cloyingly sweet.  No, it was the smell of singed oak leaves on a branch, skewers for nuggets of fried Pheasant wrapped with grapes and walnuts.  I suspect the pheasant would have tasted just as good, the grapes just as sweet without the smoky assault.

I still don’t understand the significance of the “anti-plate,” a glorified spoon holder that now bears Achatz’s famous “Black Truffle Explosion,” the xiao long bao of Perigord (which, along with a “Hot Potato,” was unnecessarily salty).  Nor do I think much of the iconic “swine on a swing,” a wafer-crisp rasher of bacon with butterscotch, caramel, and thyme.  It’s delicious, yes. But without the wiry contraption, would it be so great?

And the Lamb trio was pretty forgettable. If there was some deeper discourse beyond the spectacle and sound of sizzling meat on a 700F+ surface, I failed to grasp it.

I have to admit, eating off a deflating pillow has never been as user-friendly as it was on this trip.  Perhaps that’s because, unlike the previous pillow plates I’ve had, the “Earl Grey” composition – a vanilla-rich dessert  – required no cutting.  This time, the plate was much more stable, the eating much less rocky. (At my first meal, it was ham on a pillow of lavender air; at the second meal, it was duck on a pillow of mace air.)

And, I will eat my prejudiced criticisms and concede that the now-famous table-side “Chocolate” presentation is a truly worthwhile upgrade from a plated version.  Mise en place arrived ahead of Chef Achatz, who, with Jackson Pollack-like precision, drizzled and dotted the silicon canvas artfully, judiciously portioning out sauces and accompaniments between my friend’s side of the table and mine.*** The blowtorch came out and two mini honey custards were bruleed right there on the table.  It was a joy to watch.  The nitro-chocolate ice cream, which cast a foggy mist over the landscape, was a joy to eat, my favorite part of it all.

Service remains scripted; our attendant was like a well-programmed docent for a well-trafficked exhibit.  But given the nature of the experience, it’s a problem that I’m not sure the restaurant can cure.  How does one personalize something that is clearly not personalized?  I don’t fault the staff for insincerity, however.  This was the most pleasant service I’ve had at alinea.

11th Course: Black Truffle Explosion

Is alinea one of the most important restaurants of our time?  Undoubtedly.

Only a handful of restaurants in this country can match the level of precision, thought, and creativity that is achieved in alinea’s kitchen.  While the restaurant remains far from being my favorite (I would rather have a Velázquez than Picasso hanging on my wall), the dining experience that Achatz has created there is undeniably unique and worthy of serious consideration.  alinea is no longer simply a dinner and a show, it now offers a retrospective of fine dining: then and now.  If it isn’t already, alinea is quickly becoming iconic.

On the eve of the Michelin Guide’s debut in Chicago (the guide will be released on Wednesday, November 17, 2010), I confidently anticipate that alinea will be awarded at least two stars, and probably three.

Will I be back?  I hope so.  If for nothing else, to experience Escoffier as I’m sure Escoffier intended.  And then hopefully to discover more of what the wickedly ingenious Mr. Achatz has to offer this world.

To read about the individual dishes, consult the annotations.  To read about the other meals on this trip to Chicago, CLICK HERE.

alinea
1723 North Halsted
Chicago, Illinois 60614

* At the time, Brock was chef at the Capitol Grille at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.  I penned a review of that meal on this blog.  Since my writing was so painfully juvenile, I won’t make it easy for you to find it.

** Achatz discused his motivation for inserting a classic, French dish in the middle of his molecular gastronomy tasting menu in an article he penned for the Atlantic Monthly.

*** I was fascinated to see that the honey sauce made circles while the chocolate sauce, curiously, formed squares.

~ by ulterior epicure on November 14, 2010.

16 Responses to “review: retrospective… (alinea)”

  1. No wine? The first time I ever really “got” wine pairing was the tour + wine at Alinea…they do so absolutely spectacular work in that regard. The edible cocktails are brilliant in their own right.

  2. i like the way you framed it – and i agree. there is a foundation that is rock solid, among the best in this country for sure. no one can really argue that. so then it’s a matter of judging the approach – and this is where alinea becomes so divisive. for me, the theater (50 ingredients on a plate, food pyrotechnics & pseudo torture-device presentations) over-shadows the (very good) flavors; for others, it might very well be the reason they are there.

  3. Excellent writing – interestingly I tend to fancy early Picasso to late, and classic French to “mg.” That said, I think where Alinea and Achatz seperate themselves from other theatrical restaurants is that, as chuck mentioned, the flavors are truly memorable…as much so, or perhaps moreso than the platings. I admit a fondness for the Venison on a burning log and some of his more unique plates like the tableside dessert, but none of it would matter if it didn’t taste excellent.

    After reading your review of Avenues I do belive it will be part of my next visit to Chicago – ideally once NEXT opens. That said, if you can tolerate the reservation policy and the music I’d suggest putting Schwa on the list for future Chicago visits.

  4. I’m not sure if Alinea and Grant is just picking up this exploration of the historical as an autonomous venture, although i’d dare to point that he’s being inspired by the British jelly design duo and culinary historical experience designers – http://www.jellymongers.co.uk/about

  5. Apparently, there is now a course at Harvard where the students study the science of food (in a laboratory setting), and, as part of the curriculum, chefs present problems to be solved by class experimentation, including, how to form squares of sauce instead of the more standard circles.

  6. “I confidently anticipate that alinea will be awarded at least two stars, and probably three.” I’d have said the same even hours ago, but with Achatz’s tweet that JLN will be doing a news segment from Alinea on the morning of 11/17, I can’t imagine less than ***.

  7. @KD: No, no wine. This was a late reservation and I had to get up four the next morning for a butt-crack flight out of Chicago. PLUS, the last time I was at alinea, my friend got the full pairing for the Tour and for the last half of the meal, I was left talking to myself. :)

    As for stars, I would confidently say that alinea is getting three stars. BUT, I was also very confident in hedging that Eleven Madison Park would get their second star this year and that Manresa would get their third. So no more confident three-star guesses from this corner of the world.

  8. @uhockey: My thought is: if the food is truly delicious on its own, then why the extra gadgetry that does nothing to enhance the food? I don’t presume to speak for chuckeats, but I think this is what he is pointing at. I can get very delicious food at a number of places, so why does alinea stand taller than the rest? If only for its “gimmickry” (I’m not saying this is the case), then it truly is not any better than those other restaurants.

  9. @James: Right, right. I don’t presume or know the true impetus for the “experimental” Escoffier dish. I only address how that dish, interjected into the meal, affected me.

  10. Alleged leak of the Michelin star-list:

    http://312diningdiva.blogspot.com/2010/11/chicago-michelin-stars-leaked-by.html

  11. @Rich: Yes, three stars for alinea was inevitable. I’m happy for them.

  12. I see what you’re saying about the theatrics, but I think it doesn’t hurt. If there’s the great food to back it up, the “gimmicks” are just extras that make the experience more interesting. There are many things that are not “necessary,” ex. the giant bread-tank at JR in Vegas, the 50 items of petite fours at the end of a FL or Per Se meal, Christofle flatware… etc; but they’re nice to have, especially if you’re paying a lot of money. I guess this is very subjective. But I appreciate the entertainment – at least it’s not a one-trick pony like Fat Duck or a case of theatrics overwhelming the flavors, like Moto… just sayin.

    I do agree that the service at Alinea, while extremely timely and well-thought-out, can be less scripted though, and the seating hostess can use some smile =)

  13. After taste and smell, presumably, our other senses and cognitions must be ranked in order of importance to consumption, and certainly those rankings must differ between individuals.

    Perhaps you find the “gimmicks” off-putting because of how highly you rank eating with your eyes (photo, much?). The “gimmicks” sit squarely between you and seeing/appreciating the food, beautiful food.

    Personally, I tend to eat with my mind well before my eyes. Some “gimmicks” thus enhance the process of imagination, sometimes confusion, that drives my enjoyment. The thing I’m most likely to order when presented with a menu is that which I cannot conceive of how it might taste.

    Certainly, a topic for further research…

  14. On the issue of service, I’ve found that the staff can lighten up when prodded to do so. On one memorable occasion, we were the last table in the front dining room upstairs and with the tour & full wine pairings had entered a pretty jovial mood. As servers approached bearing the swine on a swing, one presented, “the bacon of the gods!” A quick reply of, “Yeah, all of ‘em except Jehovah,” sent one particularly stoic young lady who had been serving us all night without cracking a smile into a hearty belly-laugh.

  15. Just got back from a meal at Alinea, and I have to say that the presentation of the food didn’t distract from a very, very memorable meal. The only exception for me was the monochrome fish dish (Bass, in my case, rather than halibut) with lemon, coffee and all the rest – I found only one combination that actually worked rather than just being interesting. What did distract was the wine service; I hate pairing wines, but Alinea’s method seemed very old. We were told about the pairing option, including the bizarre warning that the cost may be more or less than that of the food. Rather than order blind, we had a fabulous bottle from the list (very reasonable) and thought that was that. We moved on to a couple of glasses of red, only to have the wine pairings pushed again, and the same when we went to dessert wines. I thought a good sommelier was supposed to guide a customer given their preferences – this felt more like an encounter with a salesman. Others who had chosen the pairings were also struggling – the people on the table next to us kept asking whether they were supposed to make a wine last for two courses or hang on to it. Minor quibbles from an amazing night, but the food was in danger of being overshadowed not by the presentation, but by the wine.

  16. I absolutely loved your introduction that compared Picasso to Chef Grant Achatz, a Picasso masterpiece to the “Pigeonneau a la Saint-Clair” course–very poetic and beautiful. What a fitting and interesting way to introduce him! Thanks for the lovely read of a review. I, too, visited Alinea this past fall, and I really enjoyed it!

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