Alinea and Blackbird, Chicago (April 2012)

I thought my plan was foolproof: two months to the calender day as soon as 11am Eastern Time struck, I would call Alinea and presumably have no problem securing a reservation. Well, I was under a misapprehension. It ultimately took 3-5 phone calls per minute for 95 minutes before I finally made it through to a reservationist. I hated the restaurant before I had even crossed the border into Illinois.
 

During my final class of the semester, when the subject of Chicago restaurants surfaced, one of my stats professors mentioned that Alinea delivered the best meal of his life. I found myself struggling to agree with him. It’s not the best meal I’ve had, I said, nor is it the tastiest food I’ve ever had. But it doesn’t need to be because it’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a restaurant tout court.

Alinea’s impishness is on display from the moment one is seated, as the table’s centerpiece is a large block of ice gravid with beet-hibiscus-black licorice juice that becomes a palate cleanser following an aggressively seasoned purée of scallops–intended to mirror tofu, except with flavor, of course–sitting in, inter alia, dashi.

With one playful dish after another, the occasional pratfall is bound to occur. And it did, several times. Nothing fell flatter than a utensil-free course of Mangalitsa ham, squid tentacle, orange and fennel, which tasted as if the kitchen had discovered a way to transmogrify orange into a dog’s chew toy, making for one of the more unpleasant adventures of the evening. And then there was the edible helium-filled green apple taffy balloon. The balloon is temperature sensitive, and due to the moderate humidity that day, on first delivery one of the balloons shriveled into an unattractive mass, at which point a collective dejection cascaded across the dining room; based on the runner’s reaction and how quickly he absconded back to the kitchen, you would have thought he arrived with his pants down.

And lastly, there’s the final dessert, wherein a silicon mat is draped over the table before someone from the kitchen paints dessert atop it (see below for a link to the Blair Witch-style video*). The ratio of white chocolate to vanilla cream, strawberry and English peas is just too lopsided. It’s actually a testament to Alinea that I ate as much of it as I did since I generally find white chocolate thoroughly unpalatable.

Michigan-cured steelhead trout roe, carrot-curry-coconut emulsion

Oyster leaf with mignonette; Alaskan king crab; mussel with orange and chorizo; habachi charred razor clam in sweet soy

Syphon that prepared the dashi for the scallop course
Mangalitsa ham, orange, fennel and squid tentacle
Puréed scallop, carrot, cucumber, celery in dashi stock with yuzu
Palate-cleansing centerpiece of beet-hibiscus-black olive juice

Those lapses can be easily overlooked given the deep-water greatness of several items. After a few introductory courses that amount to throat-clearing exercises, the kitchen demonstrated its ability to walk on water with four courses of outright genius that detonate on your palate unlike anything you’ve experienced before. It started with a mouthful of spring: four torrid stones holding first of the season morels coated in the feathery baste of beurre monté, asparagus, maitakes, mushroom purée, fried mizuna, and a sixty-three degree quail egg.

Next, we’d be treated to an Achatz original: hot potato-cold potato, which leaves your brain trying to conduct an expeditious inventory of details–hot, black truffle-topped Yukon gold potato (check!), cold, velvety potato soup (check!)–as it reconciles two seemingly incongruous sensations.

Moving on to what would constitute the main course**, first a mirror with sixty ingredients was placed in the middle of the table, soon followed by a plate with three immaculately prepared cuts of lamb: the shank, the saddle and the loin. This almost seemed like the kitchen’s way of saying, “Hey, just in case you thought all we do is play around with gels, hydrocolloids and unconventional plating techniques, check this shit out.”


Spacing out the classics, then came the black truffle explosion, Achatz’s successful effort that lasers in on the flavor of black truffle. As if it had been read a sob story, the raviolo gushed forth its black truffle goodness. And despite instructions to seal one’s lips tightly, I managed to spray truffle stock half-way across the table. 

Overseeing this playground was our server Kevin, a hirsute redhead. I had read that service could be on the cold and condescending side, but that certainly wasn’t our experience, for everyone who made a pit stop at our table was delightful and most courteous. My one gripe is that while a meal at Alinea will leave one giddy, there’s also fatigue that comes with two-and-a-half hours of instructions that precede each course–don’t grab the burning end of the cinnamon stick, don’t bite down on the metal ball, please don’t wait too long to enjoy this dish as it is time sensitive and on it goes–such that there are points where one wonders, “Is this a restaurant, or am I in the principal’s office?” 

One final point: it seemed to me that tables were a bit too close to one another.*** This wouldn’t be such a problem if menu length varied by table, as it did several years ago (when the restaurant offered a 26-course option). However, since every table now experiences the same sequence of courses, there’s a reasonably high probability that many of the surprises can be sullied if you find yourself gazing in any direction for too long.

Notwithstanding these minor quibbles, the food is stunning. It’s the equivalent of running a red light over a dozen times and not crashing, and I cannot wait to return the next chance I get.
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Morels, maitakes, fried mizuna, quail egg, asparagus and mushroom purée
Hot potato-cold potato with parmesan, black truffle, butter and chives

Lamb shank, saddle and loin, 60 garnishes, including gingerbread, tomato caviar, huckleberries, fig, fennel gelée, blueberries, slivered almond, peanut, cilanto, saffron, carrot

Black truffle explosion, parmesan and wilted romaine

Squab with, among other things, foie gras custard and prune jam inspired by Juan Miró
The vessel into which one is asked to place each finished spoon

Brie tempura with brown sugar, pear pate de fruit and roasted onion

Tasting of week-old Hawaiian ginger and turmeric

 Frozen sorrel, citrus tea, blueberry, buttermilk and macadamia nut
Helium-infused green apple taffy balloon

White chocolate, whipped vanilla cream, sherry reduction, English peas, strawberry, mint, flowers

My brother and I went to Alinea knowing it wouldn’t constitute an ample meal, and the staff could not have been more helpful in offering post-Alinea dinner suggestions. We ended up deciding on Blackbird with the intention of ordering 2-4 savory dishes and 1-2 desserts. Once we learned that they offer their tasting menu at the bar, the decision was made for us. And how better to indulge for our second dinner of the evening. Did it end up being too much food for one night? Definitely, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. 
I’ll keep this short as my notes grew considerably less reliable over the course of the evening (and there wasn’t even alcohol to blame). I cannot say definitively if the desserts were unprepossessing, or if it was a function of the sensory pounding my palate had been taking for over four hours that rendered them indistinct. What I do remember, however, was the expanse of suckling pig–and its concomitant porcine essence, even at room temperature–hiding a bed of smoked dates and hazlenuts and just a tincture of acidity from pickled shallots to equilibrate the plate. 
And then there were the fiendishly delicious lobes of cholesterol: first, a torchon of foie gras so smooth that it almost seemed as if it was melting (the accompanying pickled parsnip, however, was far too astringent to enjoy) and then the pièce de résistance, a chicory glazed lamb belly with superfluous vegetal elements. After finishing the lamb belly, I went for a stroll and happened to walk past Chef Posey, who was overseeing the pass at the time; suspending what is my generally imprecation-free vocabulary, I said, “Chef, that lamb belly was fucking amazing.” A rakish smirk fanned across his face as he acknowledged the compliment. While the food was consistently good, to fully appreciate Blackbird, I know I’ll need to return with both a clearer mind and emptier stomach.

 

Taken from their website (as it was actually full when we arrived)

 

Sturgeon belly, asparagus and charred onion purée
Garbanzo bean soup, house-made falafel, caramel egg yolk and celery leaves
Confit octopus with pea porridge, pickles, buttermilk and dill chips
Roasted Alaskan halibut with turnips, almond, pickled turmeric and smoked butter
Hudson Valley torchon of foie gras
Confit of suckling pig
Dry-aged prime strip with rosefinn potatoes, spring onion, miner’s lettuce and smoked bone marrow
 Lamb belly with escarole, turnip, pine nut hollandaise and preserved meyer lemon 
Grape sorbet, toasted sesame and (more) white chocolate
Pear parfait with vanilla pudding, red wine poached pear and chocolate
Espresso chiffon cake with blood orange, honey and golden turnip ice cream
Toasted peanut cake with balsamic carrots, buttermilk and lime 

Chocolate pavé and caramels

 * Note: it was my first time ever using the video function on my camera: Tableside Dessert

 ** Based on the menus we were given, this was the 11th of our 18 courses, and we would learn that the four bites of seafood ended up constituting four courses, which struck me as a bit used car salemen-y.

*** Fortunately, we were on to dessert when the Real Housewives of Chicago arrived. I’m convinced their shrill cackles and concentrated nonsense would considerably limit anyone’s enjoyment of the experience. My condolences to the two-top that occupied our table once we departed.

Tru, Chicago (April 2012)

Leaving Tru, I asked inly–before directing the same question to my brother, who dined with me–is there a better one-star Michelin restaurant in the country? If there is, I certainly haven’t found it.

From my initial email correspondence with the restaurant’s general manager to the deft handling of our table by Hanna, our server, and Aaron, our captain, every aspect of service demonstrated nonpareil attention to detail: the choice of black or white serviette, the synchronized clearing of plates, the sweeping of crumbs after every course, the ushering to the washroom (and the staff’s militant commitment to ensuring a safe return to your seat) and everything in between. And then there was the food, which is almost without fault, especially on the savory side. More on that shortly.

I made sure to get an early start to the day of my 6pm dinner, so that I’d be able to attend several panels on voting behavior before my brother arrived in the afternoon. By noon, though, mid-way through an underwhelming discussion about strategic voting in patriarchal parts of East Asian–few subjects could be further from my research interests–inanition set in due to two days of modest intake, and I was seriously wondering if I’d be able to make it until dinner on an empty stomach. Ultimately, I was glad I resisted the temptation to snack, for otherwise, I’m not sure I would have been able to manage the Niagara of plates that was about to descend upon us that evening.

We started the meal, as many restaurants do, with Comté-filled gougères (yes, I’m aware that other fine dining titans tend to use Gruyère), the ratio of which was tilted a bit more in the direction of choux pastry than I would have liked. But that’s not to suggest that their starch program isn’t on point. Indeed, Tru convinced me to end my year-long moratorium on consuming bread in restaurants. Let me explain why. Of the four breads on offer, I asked to have a round of rosemary impregnated brioche. With the gentlest squeeze, an indentation formed, leaving buttery residue on my digits. At that point I knew I would have to indulge.

Comté gougère

Brioche

As for the more substantial items, three courses in succession left me genuinely puzzled why the rouge guide would consider the restaurant inferior to the townhouse on Armitage from the previous night. First, there were the back-to-back fish courses–a roasted striped bass with a sensorily balanced combination of brown butter purée, pickled daikon, white soy powder and key lime supremes followed by tilefish anointed with an umami-laden mushroom broth, shitakes, sake, ginger and soy–beautifully cooked with each fillet teeming with moisture and flaking into bite-sized quadrilaterals. 

And then there was the anticipation that preceded the Jidori chicken. First black serviettes were placed on the table. Not a minute later the plated dish arrived on a halved piece of timber. Finishing tableside, Aaron glazed the breast with a rosemary-chicken jus. With the foie gras cream, chicken crackling, quenelle of mushroom purée and pile of honshimeji,  this was not a dish for the sodium sensitive, to wit, for me it was the jam.

Not everything was as stunning as the first twelve or so savory items, however; a coconut milk snowball palate cleanser that formally transitioned us into the dessert portion of the meal had the texture of poorly made ice cream: gritty, icy and the mango-passion fruit purée in which it was sitting was cloyingly sweet. And then there was the penultimate dessert course–a half inch plane of dark, dense Valrhona chocolate–which proved to be tantamount to the experience of driving with a flat tire: one may be able to make a little progress, but eventually it becomes clear that one has no choice but to stop. There was just too much chocolate and nothing the timid pear sorbet could do to cut down on the dish’s richness. However, with the unrelenting fusillade of friandise that included, inter alia, root beer floats, canalés, mango pate de fruits and exploding chocolate truffles, neither minor lapse had the slightest wobble in my affinity for Tru.

Olive tapenade-stuffed lemon vanilla mousse with fennel purée

White sturgeon “caviar,” avocado mousse and hazelnut toast points

Salmon mousse stuffed river salmon, salmon roe, breakfast radish, parsley and pumpernickle crisps
Dashi flan, actual California sturgeon caviar, edamame in yuzu broth
Butternut squash soup, ginger marshmallows, compressed granny smith apple and peppercrest
Bacon-wrapped duroc pork belly, sweet potato purée, plum purée, spinach, brioche crumb-topped potato dumpling and black truffle
Roasted striped bass
Roasted tilefish (I already started mowing through it before I snapped a shot)

Jidori chicken

72-hour braised Wagyu beef short rib, apple-parsnip-jalapeno purée, parsnip chips and herb oil-filled apple

Selection of cheeses with clover honey, fruit compote and fruit-nut bread

Coconut milk snowball

Rhubarb planks, strawberry gelée, goat yogurt sorbet and vanilla oil
 Acacia-honey parfait, black currant sorbet, moscato gelée and bitter almond tuile
Orange-ginger sorbet, orange-ginger gelée, orange supremes and candied ginger

Honeycrisp apple beignet and vanilla bean ice cream (again, I ate the donut hole before snapping a photo)

Red pear sorbet on a Valrhona plane and a pear chip


Campfire s’mores with marshmallow ice cream, rose petals and chocolate twigs

Root beer float with vanilla bean ice cream
 Mignardises
Exploding chocolate truffle with gold leaf
Almond financier with strawberry marmalade

Charlie Trotter’s, Chicago (April 2012)

“On our worst day,” Chef Charlie Trotter has been wont to say, “we’re still in the top three restaurants in America.” Well, while I certainly appreciate his confidence, I’m afraid I’m going to have to gainsay that declaration, as I enjoyed dinners in four Chicago restaurants over three days, and Trotter’s wasn’t able to crack the top three in a considerably smaller set of competitors.

Starting my Chicago restaurant blitz with Charlie Trotter’s proved to be a prudent decision. It had been nearly three-and-a-half months since my last dinner in a Michelin-starred restaurant, so my threshold for being impressed would be unusually low.

 A pair of unsolicited breads that went untouched

 
As an undergrad in the Bay Area, I worked for several Trotter alumni. And even though most of their stories centered on what a draconian boss Trotter could be, it was also clear that working in his restaurant profoundly affected them in terms of their respect for ingredients as well as in their belief that the customer or diner isn’t always right (before David Chang made it chic).

This was in 2010, and even then they expressed skepticism that the restaurant could last much longer due to financial strain. In the spring of that year, as I was mulling graduate programs, I considered making the trip out for the admit weekend at the University of Chicago as a roundabout way to dine at his eponymous restaurant but eventually suppressed the impulse.

Fast forward two years. Trotter had announced he’d be closing his flagship to go to graduate school in philosophy, and I would be traveling to Chicago for a conference, so in February I decided to book a reservation for what would be my first and only meal at the restaurant. My expectations weren’t high; indeed, they were probably epsilon away from zero.

Upon completing the near four-hour meal, I found that the food was generally quite good (save for a bland rabbit dish and forgettable desserts), at times even excellent, but it was the discommodious front of house, which discussion boards and yelp reviewers seem to extol, that left a lot to be desired.*

After being promptly seated in the dining room closest to the entrance, a captain named Julio came by, presented the menu and said, “The only choice you have this evening is whether to go with the menu on the left or the right [referring to either the grand menu or the vegetable menu],” and I would have to hear this routine recited verbatim a half-dozen more times before the evening was over.

But in my email and phone exchanges with the restaurant I had made it clear–and was told that it had been noted in my reservation–that I was interested in doing the kitchen table menu in the dining room. Notwithstanding Julio’s failure to take a look at my reservation before approaching my table, once I brought it to his attention he quickly consulted with Chef Trotter and confirmed that that was in fact what would be prepared.

That was merely the first of many front of house peccadilloes–on multiple occasions my empty water glass went unfilled for upwards of 15 minutes, stentorian servers seemed unable to learn the art of discreteness, tables were marked with silverware seconds after a course had arrived–though Julio wouldn’t be the culprit as he was largely AWOL after introductory niceties, and I would be seeing a lot more of Roberto, a runner, as well as a cavalcade of other staff.

As for the aforementioned bright spots regarding the food, much like Spago it was the early part of the meal that outshone later courses. The amuse, for example, presented in a large wooden box contained a ridiculously good melange of cuttlefish, slightly warmed uni with uni ice cream, clam with English pea purée, compressed eggplant with fava beans, crawfish with lotus root and togarashi, and a Kusshi oyster with a ginger granita. One after another, the punchy flavors jolted my palate, awakening it from its months-long hibernation.

And there were other resplendent compositions: a soft shell crab garlanded with grapefruit purée, potato strings and more togarashi; a nearly raw scallop atop sultana raisin purée and an amalgam of roasted nuts **; and one of the tastiest vegetable courses in memory composed of intenerated cardoon with a bacon-celeriac purée, an amaranth crisp, red wine-braised celery and crunchy black quinoa. 

But more than a few dishes disappointed: watery stinging nettle-mint soup with a cippolini onion risotto that simply lacked the richness with which it is generally prepared; a rabbit loin inching dangerously close to going cold that was marked by an unpleasantly elastic texture, further encumbered by a muted ramp purée and woefully underseasoned–if seasoned at all–Burgundy snails; and just about all of the exotic and expensive meats, except for the goat shoulder, were overwhelmed by their accoutrements, thereby masking the proteins’ flavors.

Am I glad that I went? Yes, and I imagine avid gurgitators might pay the restaurant a visit in its remaining months to put a proverbial feather in the cap. But I think the more important question is, would I go back? And to that I would have to say, no, probably not.
 

Amuse
Soft-shell crab

Fennel custard, cauliflower, puy lentils and five spice 

Fried globe artichoke, cippolini onion risotto, white anchovy vinaigrette, stinging nettle-mint soup.

Scallop
 Rabbit loin, ramp purée and Burgundy snails
Evidence of what an underachieving dipsomaniac I am

Braised cardoon

 

  Lamb loin, with miso tortellini, grain mustard and braised red cabbage 

Antelope loin, parsley risotto, trumpet mushroom, braised goat shoulder
Triple-seared Wagyu, fermented black garlic purée, wilted green onion, black mustard seeds and ponzu gelée

Dutch cow’s milk cheese (tantamount to Gouda in this writer’s opinion) with basil seeds, melon and crostini

Ginger-braised Bosc pear with St. Germaine sorbet, chamomile cotton candy and chamomile broth
Duo of toffee glazed banana financier with candied hazelnuts and the flavors of creme brulee with marinated and grilled peaches. 

 

* Honestly, Chef Trotter was actually the most charming part of service, with his sotto voce vivisections of academics each time he peregrinated past my table, especially as the number of political science-based confabs begin pullulating through the dining room over the course of the evening. And his wry humor only became more endearing during the kitchen tour.

** I’ve seen plenty of chefs strolling through the dining room fishing for compliments, but in this case on his way back to the kitchen, Chef Trotter noticed my plate languishing and approached the table and engaged me in conversation for a minute before clearing my plate.