The Germans have a word (vorfreude, vor-FROY-dah) in their language and its meaning is described as: “the joyful, intense anticipation that comes from imagining future pleasures.” Having spoken with executive chefs at different food shows around the country, watching the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” repeatedly, and working toward visiting all the 3-Star Michelin restaurants in the United States, the vorfreude surrounding my latest trip to Chicago to eat at Alinea did not disappoint.
Before I left for Chicago, anyone that asked me what I was doing in late September heard my normal laundry list of activities surrounding my job but I always managed to add the interpolation, ‘I am going to Alinea for dinner.’ I told everyone I came in contact with ranging from friends, family, networking contacts, gas station attendants, other people walking their dogs, children and anyone who would listen. My greatest joy came from all those people who replied, “where?”, because it gave me the opportunity to describe the magic, prestige, and forward thinking that is, Alinea.
If you are unfamiliar with Alinea, allow me to explain briefly. You are probably more familiar with the alinea symbol in writing, from your grammar school days, than anything else. An alinea is the, ¶, symbol indicating a new paragraph or a new idea. The restaurant takes that meaning to a whole new level under the direction of Chef Grant Achatz; he is constantly moving forward with new ideas for tastes, presentations, and sensory effects. This incredible restaurant has three options for a guest to dine on Chef Grant’s amazing ideas; The Kitchen Table is the most intimate and cutting edge, it’s completely private tasting for 6 guests only and you get to witness everything going in the kitchen for $385/pp; the Gallery provides a multi-sensory 16-18 course menu combined with experimental moments, $285-$355/pp; and the Salon offers 10-14 course tasting menu at $175-$255/pp (https://alinea.tocktix.com/).
As I said, my anticipation for this restaurant was overwhelming; so much so, I arrived fifteen minute early! Arrival at the restaurant is quite intimidating. It appears to be a small, narrow, dark, building with no signage as you approach from the street. Having eaten at all of the 3-Star Michelin restaurants in NYC, this was quite different. It is all part of the ‘illusion’ that is Alinea. We arrived right on time for our 6pm reservation and were escorted upstairs. What appeared to be a small, dark building from the outside opened up to a well lit, incredibly decorated, airy interior. Upon arriving into the cozy, modern, and intimate salon room on the second floor, my date and I sat next to each other on a sofa seat rather than across from one another; for me, it added to the intimate theme of the night.
I noticed immediately, there were six tables in the room and everyone was on various stages of their meal, taking pictures, staring in awe and deeply engaged in the experience. The room seated 20 people and was serviced by three, handsomely dressed gentlemen whose attention to detail was nothing short of Sherlock Holmes. In the center of the table was a stainless-steel fruit bowl filled with fresh oranges and clementines. There was also a large index card with cryptic lettering made to resemble a cross word puzzle next to the bowl. We were then presented with two limes with the top part cut out and a spear leaf carefully placed on top of it. As we looked at the wine list, the waiter told us we could start with this dish whenever we were ready. It was an explosion of unique flavors including lime, avocado, and coriander, and the tastiest garden greens you could ever imagine.
When the waiter came back we tried to order cocktails, but were told wine and select beers were the only options available. We ended up selecting a beautiful, vintage Sancerre whose crisp taste accentuated each dish that emerged from the kitchen.
Every dish was so unexplainably interesting, a true combination of molecular gastronomy along with a sense of bewilderment and complete sensory overload. Our menu for the evening included: Osetra caviar on a banana pancake with allium; crunchy rouille nori; langoustine paper in a bouillabaisse with olice oil; peeled tomatoes with nuts, orange and sherry; bocadillo with a manchego cheese baguette and onions; black bass with shellfish and kuzu; kaffir lime and tropical fruit; maitake mushroom with bluberry and lapsang souchong tea; potato with truffle and Midwest dairy; turbot with crunchy black rice, pinapple and hearts of palm; salsify root with spices; sweet potato, chocolate and miso dessert; bubblegum, cake and strawberry dessert; and the famous, grape flavored helium balloon.
Listing the dish above is like trying to describe the Sistine Chapel to someone; the description may be correct but the words do no justice to the artistic presentation that comes forward. Some of my most memorable savory dishes included the peeled tomato with the gazpacho and liquid nitrogen crumble, the kuzu soup, the mashed potato, and the Manchego cheese baguettes.
Just like the exterior of the building and the entrance, there is always something more, a new idea about to emerge from everything on the table. Remember the stainless steel bowl of oranges: as they placed our gazpacho dishes down, they poured a teapot filled with Sosa essential oils into the bowl of oranges and beautiful orange aromas danced around us and infused our taste buds.
Another favorite was the arrival of the black bass and shellfish kuzu soup. It reminded me of my trip to Thailand and their amazing flavors in each dish. The soup was placed on the table along with a large bucket of salt that was lit on fire and burned a beautiful charcoal smell while we were eating. After the fire went out, the waiter revealed a potato that has been cooking under the salt, inside the fire the whole time. He then mashed the potato, added some beautiful truffles to it and chives on top. It was the most amazing potato I ever tasted.
Our last savory dish was described as the introduction to sweet and combined both of the two in the most unique way. A piece of turbot was smoked and came with crunchy black rice on top. Also, included on the dish were various sweets on the side including pineapple and hearts of palm. An amazing transition from savory to sweet. I was most impressed with the “vanilla bean” delivered to the table in a jar. The appearance was “vanilla bean” but the taste, as described by the waiter, was “think slim jim”. As someone who does not eat meat, I honestly thought it was beef by the texture and taste. I was assured it was not, it was amazing.
The sweet dishes were the epitome of gastronomy. The first dish was a ‘rock’ filled with chocolate ganache alongside sweet potato ice cream, and matcha. The texture and combination of flavors was outstanding. The following dish was described to us as “nostalgia”, it was a combination of childhood flavors including bubble gum, cake, and strawberry with banana ice cream and cherry flavored glass. Each piece of ‘bubble gum’ was frozen with nitrogen oxide and each bite released a strong bubble gum flavor that was reminiscent of youth.
As we were finishing this dish they came over with their famous edible balloons. We were instructed to place our mouths on the balloons and lightly suck in the air in and then eat the string afterwards. After watching other people get the sticky sugar on their glasses, hair, and face, we were careful to eat the balloon.
I have eaten at a number of restaurants that include tasting menus. Sometimes the dinner can feel like an eternity but this meal lasted a little less than 3 hours, but seemed to go by rather quickly. We never waited more than 15 minutes between each course.
I was able to engage the incredibly attentive staff a few times and while they were friendly and cordial, it was obvious they were there to do things in a systematic way and were on a timely schedule. Those three men moved around that dining room with ease as if they were part of a choreographed dance. Nothing ever seemed out of place.
I was told by a few people who ate at Alinea before their 2016 renovation that the dining room was incredibly quiet and the atmosphere was stoic. That was not the case during this visit. It was lively and comfortable and the conversation was enjoyable but not overwhelming.
The vorfreude I had before arriving to Alinea was fulfilled by the actual experience. This is an amazing restaurant filled with surprised. The food was incredible, the atmosphere was comfortable and the overall experience was worth the wait.
I asked if Chef Grant was in the kitchen and was told he was at the restaurant for the past two weeks, but was gone again to open the Aviary at the Mandarin Oriental in New York City (http://www.aviarynyc.com/). I was fortunate enough to finish dinner at Alinea and go to the Aviary in Chicago for a flight of three amazing cocktails. Not to overshadow this meal, the review of the Aviary will follow.
#Alinea #Gastronomy #GrantAchatz #Worlds50best #MolecularGastronomy #Chefstable