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.

12 thoughts on “Alinea and Blackbird, Chicago (April 2012)

  1. Shouldn't have read this in the office. Laughing out loud at work is not becoming. That's a lot of bloody food. I'm glad you didn't do wine pairings. That would have been interesting.Just how do you consume the sixty garnishes, dunk them over the lamb?

  2. I'm the ultimate lightweight when it comes to wine, so a pairing would have been disastrous. As for the lamb, I probably tasted 15-20 (so around 4-5 per cut) ingredients before I ran out of meat. According to the server, the goal isn't to try all sixty, but rather for each person at the table to have a different eating experience.

  3. I'm almost as impressed by your writing as I am of the fact that you got to visit both restaurants on the same evening. I've read tons, and tons of Alinea reviews. This was one of the most enjoyable.

  4. That's very kind of you, Rod! I would suggest reading the reviews by ulterior epicure and a life worth eating, as I found those particularly insightful. Any plans to dine at Alinea on the horizon?

  5. Theirs were among my favorites, so you should feel even more flattered :DAfraid it's only high on the wish list, I don't see myself making it to Chicago any time soon.

  6. enjoyed the alinea review. was there this past friday. i don't know what my favorites were. they were all so good. actually i didn't really like the 2nd seafood one (the one with curry ice?). but the service from everyone was so fun and personable, even the chef!would def want to visit again.didn't get a chance to try blackbird, but went to avec (i think it's owned by the same company?). didn't know chicago had such great restaurants.keep eating and keep writing!

  7. we enjoyed avec a lot. didn't get a chance to try their famed stuffed dates, but everything else we tried were awesome. we actually just walked over to avec because the wait at the girly goat was too crazy. definitely need to revisit chicago.

  8. I'll be heading to Alinea for the first time in a few weeks, so I can't judge from experience, but I was startled to read your comment that, "My brother and I went to Alinea knowing it wouldn't constitute an ample meal," as this is the first time I've ever heard someone say they left hungry. Is that truly the case?

  9. Hi Scott,Thanks for stopping by. I should be clear: on days in which I have a dinner reservation for a tasting menu, I will skip lunch. So it may very well be the case that if you have a light lunch you'll be sated by Alinea's dinner. Just for the sake of comparison, I do think among the three-star Michelin restaurants in the U.S. that I've been visited, I found Alinea to be the lightest.

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