What I Didn’t Know About Alinea

Michael Nagrant / 10.04.05

With all the countless digital photos, food board testimony, blog screeds, and traditional media swoon, I entered Alinea thinking I may have already seen it all, worried that all that was left to do was taste, affirm, and move on to the virtual food movement or whatever Homaro Cantu, Alton Brown, and Bill Nye huddle up and come out with next.

I knew that I would be eating powders, drinking from test tubes, sniffing scented air from pillows, and testing the rules of no silverware.

I knew that the chef would be serving unlikely combinations using unlikely kitchen tools like the anti-hot plate and paint stripping heat guns.

I knew that the entryway of Alinea was an illusion, that the doorway popped up at your side and opened via sensor. I thought I knew it all.

Then once the sensor clicked, the doorway slid open, revealing the surgical theatre that is the Alinea kitchen at my right, and a two story floating staircase above, I walked away from everything I didn’t know.

The kitchen was was pristine, white tiles and stainless gleaming like a freshly built roman bathhouse. With no vertical dividers, or obstructions, you could see clearly across the kitchen. This was the perfectly cultivated culinary garden. There were no weeds in this kitchen, just measured balletic platings, sautéings, and considerations. A pensive Chef Achatz, hand on hip, leaned over, considered his fellow chefs and the plate before him.

My wife and I were able to consider the kitchen, because the staff was busy, the host station did not pick up on our entrance and allowed us to awkwardly peer around the lobby maybe a beat too long. Another surprise, as one would expect the staff to be as precise as the kitchen.

No matter. As we slunk down in the comfy chairs, we ordered a couple of glasses of Henry Billiot Rose Champagne from Ambonnay, France. A feast of strawberries and yeast, and maybe the last time we would not be surprised. After all fruit, yeast, and bubbles is what you expect from rose champagne.

As we ordered the 12 course menu, I could go on for weeks about every single wine pairing or course, I will only write of the highlights in the food and wine. While there were some familiar already famous dishes in our menu, such as the hearts of palm, we had arrived as the kitchen was transitioning to the new fall menu. Our evening was dotted with some of the old, and some completely new dishes, things I had not yet read about on food boards.

The first of these was trout roe with pineapple foam square, coriander cream, and cucumber gel.

Pineapple foam was understated, almost non existent, but the highlight was the salty buttery trout roe. The individual grains popped like salty butter bubbles. In this dish I recognized that while Chef Achatz was truly an original, he is paying homage to the lessons of the past. The combo of sweet, savory, creamy, and salty conjures very closely Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls, a dish Grant had no doubt created many times in his Yountville sous-chef days. The real treat here was instead of a salt cured aged Osetra or Sevruga roe, the trout roe was five days removed from the fish, five days of salty briny goodness. The importance of pure flavor and finesse was also articulated in a single coriander seed, said to have been from Achatz personal garden. One bite of this micro-seed was so spicy and floral. A chef of less confidence would have peppered the dish with these seeds.

The next course of delight: lobster with chanterelles, carrot juice essence ravioli with filling of coconut powder.

Lobster lemongrass consomme was poured over the dish. The plate was garnished with a lobster cheeto, as well as asian and traditional basils. The lobster cheeto was closer in taste to a lobster pork rind. This dish reminded me of thai cuisine deconstructed and reconstructed at the highest level.

The course was accompanied by one of our strongest wine pairings of the night, Muller Catoir Haardter Burgergarten Riesling Spatlese Trocken, Pfalz 2003. There were orange notes in the wine that seemed to pair well with carrot ravioli.

It shouldn’t be surprising that in order to achieve the sublime, one must risk failure as well. After four solid courses, I expected no mis-steps this evening, and yet, the fifth course seemed to miss the mark a bit.

Dover sole pieces were served with cauliflower cooked in what seemed like brown butter and maybe a bit of citrus. Banana spears, and caper, parsley, lemon, and banana powders filled out the plate. There was just too much powder, not a great mouth feel. This was like savory fun dip candy. I almost felt like I needed to lick a piece of sole like it was one of those hard sugar coated sticks, and dredge it in the powder. This was the only real misstep of the night.

This course was accompanied by a highlight wine though: “Veliko Bianco”, Goriska Brda. Spicy and from Slovenia! A surprise, as I had never had a Slovenian wine.

The last savory course of note was Bison with truffle, pistachio, and sweet spices

This dish featured North Dakota bison with deep fried potatoes in a Dr. Seussian tree like configuration of shoestring potato branches clutching black truffle pieces. There was also a side of braised iranian pistachios and small purple potatoes and a gelee of sweet spices.

Sweet-wise there, were many great dishes, but one of note: Matsutake with pine nuts, mastic, and rosemary.

We were served a steamed cake of matsutake mushrooms, toasted pine nuts, and mastic infused cream. I worked for an industrial supply company for many years, and mastic is used as an adhesive for rubbers and tiles and what not. I was definitely scratching my head here, but the mastic cream really lent a nice mouth feel to the whole dish, recalling almost like a matsutake tres leches cake.

Regarding the food in general, all of the new dishes showed that chef Achatz is just getting started. I thought about how upon leaving Charlie Trotters a few years ago, I figured I probably wouldn’t be back for a while. I thought there are so many other places worth trying first. I also thought that maybe only a few of the dishes were really surprising in combination.

In contrast, given an unlimited supply of money, I wanted to come back to Alinea the next night, so I wouldn’t miss a move. It feels like everyday is truly about pushing to the next development. Each night could be the night they realize the strawberry should be atomized, or the grapefruit should be deep fried and paired with frozen foie gras. You feel like you would be willing to give up the other restaurants, because at Alinea, they are in the moment every day. The potential exists for innovation in every bite.

In contrast though, the service still needs work. At the beginning of the meal, we had asked to split the wine pairing. When we received the bill, they had charged us for two wine pairings. They acknowledged the mistake and apologized. Frankly the pours were so generous, we really benefited from this mistake, but this was the second time that the service was out of step. One feels cheap and awkward asking for the bill to be corrected. We hadn’t split the pours out of parsimony, rather, so that my wife doesn’t get as tipsy as she did at the French Laundry last year.

One highlight of the service, is that the folks who took care of us really sensed our interest, and consistently engaged us on matters of food and wine. They were very knowledgeable and enthusiastic, taking opportunities to educate and deliberate on a particular wine or course throughout the night.

In addition, for a restaurant so focused on finesse and innovation and detail, there was no extension of this philosophy to the valet service. One almost wonders if this is the intention, to remind you that you have left the innovative cradle of Alinea. Our valets that night forgot if we had paid them, took a decent while to get the car, and didn’t open the door for my wife.

These missteps coupled with not being greeted when we entered the restaurant mean that Trotter and the French Laundry and others are definitely operating at a higher level. It may be that service doesn’t offer the same opportunity for innovation as the cooking. At its core, service is about repeating each movement as if it were the first time you have ever done so, even though it may be the most repetitive mundane thing you do each night. The service was by no means bad, in fact it was downright impressive, but it can improve.

Alinea is located at 1723 N. Halsted St. in Chicago. They are open 5:30-9:30 Wednesday thru Sunday. You can make a reservation by calling 312-867-0110.