Wednesday, January 23, 2013
When the missus and I sat down to plan out our farewell tour of Chicagoland eateries, there was little question which place would be atop our wish list - Alinea, of course, North America's finest. Luckily for us, the restaurant released some tickets to dine right after New Year's, so we snapped up a pair for a Saturday night in early January (only 2 days after our stellar visit to SideBern's in Tampa, making it quite a week for us food-wise) when most places are hitting a post-holiday lull. I'd only had the privilege of dining here once before about 4 years ago (pre-blog, I might add - no writeup of that experience) and, as you might imagine, I was pretty excited to be finally going back.
Off of Halsted Street, we passed through the front door and entered the infamous hallway where Chef Achatz and Co. like to disorient patrons such that they feel they're entering a portal to another dimension. On this occasion, the dim space was filled with pine trees (I always wondered what happened to those Xmas spruces that didn't get sold off the lot), giving one the impression of wandering in a moonlit wintry forest. Through the branches and inside, we were each handed a toasty glass of wonderful hot chocolate (made from Valhrona's "Abinao" 85% cocoa and enhanced with spruce essence/smoke) and led to the kitchen threshold, where we watched the culinary staff performing their nightly duties while waiting for our table.
Fortified with warmth, we sat down and were given our first course (see photo above), a curious, wide glass straw filled with a mixture of butternut squash puree, muscovado (a dark brown sugar), finger lime juice, and spices from the West Indies. The straw was placed in a hollowed-out ice block for dramatic effect (and, um, to keep it cold, I guess). We needed some lung power to siphon out all of the ingredients, but it was worth the effort.
Subsequently, a pile of seaweed and driftwood arrived at the table (see photo above). Clearly evoking Noma (Rene Redzepi's mecca of foraging cuisine in Copenhagen), each pile was adorned with a shell containing an oyster leaf dressed with mignonette, another shell of king crab with passionfruit, allspice, and hearts of palm, a third containing a chunk of lobster with sherry, chervil, and trinity (in the absence of further knowledge, I'm guessing here that "trinity" is the Cajun base ingredient of bell pepper, celery, and onion), and a razor clam with shiso, soy, and daikon. All four of these creations were a sweet/briny/acidic marvel, making me long for an oyster shack and a cold beer somewhere near the Gulf of Mexico (hey...wait a sec!).
Up next came a visual study of white and green (see photo above), an amazing slice of otoro (the most coveted portion of the tuna belly) paired with Thai banana, sea salt, and kaffir lime, frothing as if alive and packed with flavor.
The following plate provided a conceptual bridge between sea and earth (see photo above). Even though it featured a piece of halibut (prepared escabeche-style, marinated in vinegar/citrus juice for an extended time), the dish's appearance made one imagine something freshly pulled from the garden, achieved by adding avocado, bone marrow, and a combo of dark mole sauce with the corn fungus known in Mexico as huitlacoche, both dried to a powder that was black and grainy as dirt. Further deepening the earth connection, the next course was a bowl of maitake mushroom pieces suspended in a rich sauce of pumpernickel, black garlic, and Blis elixir (a bourbon barrel and Tahitian vanilla-infused maple syrup). Although I have issues with mushrooms (as many of you know), I still managed to finish most of the plate with the exception of one or two larger, obnoxious slabs.
The only photo I have of the next dish is the aftermath (see above). On the little skewer were pieces of hot potato, cold potato, and black truffle that we were instructed to slide into a waiting shot glass containing butter. Once inside, the whole shot went down the hatch. Simple, tasty, and gone.
I'd gotten wind of the subsequent course from a recent article somewhere that focused on new conceptual dishes at the restaurant. In this case, a three-way preparation of lamb (the loin, belly, and shoulder meat) was drizzled with jus and placed on a plate, accompanied by an extraordinarily-elegant looking glass tray on which sat 60 different garnishes (see photo above), each separately composed, a total of 86 ingredients used (hence the course name "Lamb 86"). You can find much better photos of this online, as well as videos showing the painstaking process in the kitchen of plating the 60 garnishes (better them than me). Anyway, Mrs. Hackknife and I proceeded to try every garnish, making our best guess at the flavors each time. Our server gave us a cheat sheet when we were finished - I was surprised at the number of times that our palates led us astray (who could have identified sorrel?).
Still reeling from the lamb course, another basic bite was greatly appreciated as a spoonful of black truffle ravioli topped with romaine lettuce and parmesan cheese appeared at the table (see photo above). This was the infamous "truffle explosion" (developed way back in Chef Achatz's Trio days), required to be eaten in one closed-mouth biteful unless you wanted a trip to the dry cleaners. My jaw held true.
One last meat preparation followed, a wonderful plate of pork garnished with pain d'epices (a sort of French gingerbread), turnip, and orange sauce (see photo above). This preceded a palate cleanser course of sorts, a cleverly-designed metal disc from which protruded five skewers, each holding a cube of ginger in a different preparation (one of which was candied, the rest I can't recall - what I do remember is that they were all delicious).
What you see above is a bit of a peculiar serving piece. In the bowl was an herbal tea that diners were instructed to drink with a separate glass straw, but not before eating the dessert preparation of carrot, coconut, white sesame seeds, and caramelized honey guarding the tea from above. I loved the dessert, but wasn't wild about the tea, which I found to be awfully robust. Fortunately, the next dessert helped erase away the flavor, a whimsical balloon ingeniously made of edible green apple leather (the string, too) and filled with helium for your temporary speaking pleasure. I made the mistake of touching the balloon with my fingers - be forewarned that it's pretty sticky.
The final course of the evening was also the most spectacular, in my mind. Mrs. Hackknife got to experience this on her last visit to Alinea with some co-workers, during which Chef Achatz himself came out to prepare it (no such luck this time - no offense, other-chef-in-charge-that-evening). Our server rolled a plastic tablecloth onto our table, which was then quickly covered in patterns and designs of various colored syrups by the chef (see photo above) around a large dark chocolate bowl. Once finished, the chef dramatically smashed the bowl to shards into the middle of the table, revealing crunchy and fluffy ingredients based on chestnuts and rye (see photo below).
When all mixed together, these individual elements produced an incredible amalgam of sweet tastes and textures, like eating up the contents of a Hershey's plant following a tornado. Mrs. Hackknife eventually reached her limit, but I was happy to keep going until each and every bite was gone. I have since left several messages for the Alinea staff asking how we can hire out this course to be presented at our next party.
Although expensive, I'm really pleased that we managed to dine at Alinea before leaving town for good. I'm hopeful that we can find a way to get here once every few years or so - for now, it's good to know that Chicago is still home to the pinnacle of innovative dining in America...