review: retrospective… (alinea)
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.*
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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.
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:
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Luxardo bitter, Luxardo amaro, grapefruit.
Laird’s apple brandy, grenadine, thyme.
Cynar, Carpano Antica, Flor de Cana 7-year.
Golden Trout Roe
Coconut, licorice, pineapple.
Shrimp, miso, togarashi.
Sugar cane, shrimp, mint.
Root vegetables, chestnuts, autumn vapor.
Black pepper, vanilla, lemon.
Green grape, walnut, burning leaves.
Olive, red wine, blackberry.
Cold potato, black truffle, butter.
Pigeonneau a la Saint-Clair
Black Truffle Explosion
Red cabbage, mastic, rosemary aroma.
Ham, freeze-dried cherry.
Butterscotch, apple, thyme.
Lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate.
Apricot, honey, peanut.
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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.
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.
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.