Monday, January 30, 2012


This post is about one meal. It' s also a post about a journey through an intricate, magical, and delicious production of a cirque du cuisine. And as you travel through this post, I hope you feel at least a pinch of what I felt at this dream of a meal.

If this post ends up feeling a little too voyeuristic or too much like fan fiction for your taste, I completely understand. Because it's meant to. Because that's basically how I felt throughout this entire four-and-a-half hour out-of-body experience.

Imagine traveling to Chicago. You've braved a three-hour delay at the Seattle airport due to snow conditions, you miss your dog that you've left with your friends for the first time, and your back hurts from spending one-and-a-half hours of that three-hour delay in a grounded plane. Chicago greets you at 10:30pm with the coldest weather the city's seen this winter, with promises of a snowstorm the next day. "It's all worth it," you say to yourself as your friends pull up to the airport to pick you up. You have no idea how much more worth it the trip will feel in less than 24 hours.

It's your second day in Chicago and it's 9:15pm. Despite it being your first full day in Chicago, you and your friends have managed to cautiously restrain yourselves from eating too much at lunch, and you've all spent the day braving yet another snowstorm. Dressed in your favorite pair of fancy pants, you roll up in a cab to a nondescript entrance.

A man leads you and your friends down an alley-like ramp and slides open a door to reveal another ramp, illuminated by white walls and magenta lights. You catch a fleeting aroma of lavender and cinnamon. A hostess meets you at the bottom of the stairs, notes your reservation, and kindly asks you to wait a few minutes to get seated.

You don't believe you're at Alinea until you observe the kitchen, packed with dozens of cooks, all quietly concentrated on the single task they've been appointed for the night. Grant Achatz is just ten steps away, focused and alert. Members of the service staff briskly walk in and out, carrying objects on plates that barely look like food.

The hostess returns and escorts you into a room with four other tables. The walls are light gray and bare, with only a handful of pieces of artwork accented by well-positioned blue flood lights.

The center of the table holds an ice sculpture of sorts. Upon questioning, the server answers that it's merely a centerpiece and hands you a wine menu.

After perusing the wine list for a few minutes, you quickly decide to go with a Rioja, not only because it's light and might go well with a good number of the courses, but also because it's the second cheapest red wine on the list. You're worried about the tab starting at $210, but you still want to enjoy some wine with friends.

With delicate hands, the server brings out four cushions, serving no other purpose than to hold your utensils throughout the night. There is no food menu to order from or to refer to during the meal.

The curtain opens and out comes the first course: CHAR ROE_carrot, coconut, curry. Few things taste like what they appear to be. In fact, half the items on the plate are nearly unrecognizable. The typical, briny pop of roe is softened by deep flavorful elements of a coconut curry and brightened by a well-portioned yuzu reduction. Using your finger to scoop up the dregs seems inappropriate, but you do it anyways. This will be a never-too-frequent occurrence tonight.

As if the next four courses drifted onto the shore of a deserted island, the servers bring out a daunting piece of damp Malaysian driftwood dressed in inedible seaweed.

Feeling like the luckiest castaway of all time, you take some time to feast with your eyes before eating with your hands.

You follow the server's instructions and start with the OYSTER LEAF_mignonette. As a self-proclaimed oyster addict, you're disappointed with what looks like a stray leaf from an over-seasoned salad. You place the leaf on your tongue and take a bite. The leaf has the texture of a spinach leaf, but the flavor is undeniably like that of a freshly shucked oyster. The leaf is dressed with a light, but still punchy, shallot mignonette that further brings the oyster flavors to life. This might just be the nicotine patch to your cholesterol-laden oyster addiction.

Next, you lift the shell of KING CRAB_passionfruit, heart of palm, allspice and use your two front teeth to scrape the contents into your mouth. The pineapple, passion fruit, rum, and vanilla suggest that the island you've come upon is a tropical one. The amazingly tender king crab reminds you that this isn't a cocktail course, and the allspice, heart of palm, and textured avocado verify that this is, in fact, a beautifully light and balanced savory course.

The moment the server described the SEA URCHIN_banana, black truffle, you wanted to shovel this into your mouth. But you restrained yourself. And now, you get to indulge yourself in one of the single most delicious preparations of food you've ever had. You hold the urchin's body up to your mouth and tackle the contents with your greedy tongue. Immediately, your mouth is coated with a creamy, sweet, and briny combination that tests your ability to distinguish a banana sabayon from melting sea urchin. The generous topping of shaved black truffle makes each bite as earthy as it is briny. After examining the remnants of this course, your finger attacks what your tongue couldn't.

The final bite on the driftwood is a RAZOR CLAM_shiso, soy, daikon, encased in a halved and cleaned crab leg. The XO sauce-laced razor clam characterizes this tropical island as one in Southeast Asia. The flavors remind you of street food you've enjoyed in Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia. The chew of the razor clams against the carrot and ginger tapioca leaves you, as every other course so far has, craving more.

Before the next course, the server brings out a coffee siphon filled with a medley of ingredients. You recognize many of the ingredients, but don't have time to investigate too much before the next course comes out.

The YUBA_shrimp, miso, togarashi comes out looking like an elder wand, which is appropriate, because your first bite is magic. The dehydrated and fried yuba, or tofu skin, mimics fried chicken skin and crackles with each bite. The fried yuba is covered with vines of jumbo shrimp and orange taffy. The white and black sesame seeds, togarashi spice, and chives cling to each crunchy bite, elevated by a sweet miso emulsion dipping sauce at the base of the wand. You briefly consider recreating this amazing dish at home with shrimp crackers and miso salad dressing, but decide against it.

The water is nearly done rising to the top of the coffee siphon. The entire table waits in anticipation. The server explains that the contents include bonito, scallion, ginger, kombu, yuzu, mirin, and chili peppers. By the time the plates for the next course come out, the fresh dashi is strained and ready to pour onto the next course.

SCALLOP_acting like agedashi tofu, the waitstaff explains. The scallop has been turned into a mousseline and lightly fried to imitate the texture and appearance of agedashi tofu. One bite renders this concept a success in your book. The fry is delicate and the contents are as silky as, well, tofu. The flavor, however, is undeniably that of a scallop. Each spoonful is just a little different, depending on which garnish--cucumber, nasturtium, wasabi, carrot, chive, celery, or yuzu rind--makes it onto your spoon. The dashi brings just the right seasoning to each bite, and a sip from an accompanying small cup of dashi between each bite ensures that you appreciate the soft and subtle notes of ginger, yuzu, and bonito.

As the taste of dashi leaves your tongue, the next course, WOOLY PIG_fennel, orange, squid, comes wobbling at the end of a thin metal antenna. The waitstaff describes the dish as the bite struggles to stay in one place: Hungarian ham, hibachi-grilled squid, sherry, orange, and fennel. You're instructed to lean forward and pluck the bite off the end of the antenna with your mouth. No hands allowed, as if you were bobbing for an apple. The grilled squid and ham share a toothsome texture and deep flavors. The orange and fennel notes add some character and brightness, but only for a brief moment.

Right when you were getting used to looking at vials of bloody liquid in the ice sculpture centerpiece, the waiter explains the ICE_beet, hibiscus, licorice course and hands out four glass straws. When nothing else comes out, you think, "Oh. Okay."

You and your three friends lean forward out of your chairs and literally bash heads while giggling and attempting to suck up every last drop of the cool, cleansing juice. Sweet, earthy, and not so far from a refreshing punch. Perfect before the next course, which could have been a meal, or at least three courses, on its own. Before a gang of plates come out, the waiter pours four cool glasses of Bourgogne Blanc French Chardonnay.

Inspired by the concept of a Sicilian family meal, the SCUP_caponata, mint, panella course was the most frill-free course of the night. The only request from the server was to enjoy the course family style. Your table just happens to be experts at family style dining.

The scup has a perfect golden-brown crisp, which is a stark contrast to the fish's soft and silky meat. The fish is simple, adorned with roasted lemon slices and roasted garlic. In fact, the simplicity of this dish makes you wonder if Marcella Hazan has a similar preparation of this fish in one of her cookbooks. You make a note to check when you're back home.

The garlic-basil-mint puree makes the fish a whole new dish. You can't decide whether you like the fish better unadulterated or with some pesto-like punch. All you can do to be fair to your tongue is alternate between the two.

The eggplant caponata is hands down the best you've ever had. Tender eggplant, raisins, capers, olives, pine nuts, parsley, and celery make the Sicilian rusticity of this dish undeniable. Sweet, savory, and so, so good. You want to keep the dish all to yourself, and a quick scan of your dining companions' eyes suggests they're all thinking the same.

The accompanying basket of airy panella chickpea crackers add a light, crisp to each bite of the caponata. They would make a perfect low-carb snack on their own.

After demolishing each plate, you dive in for a fish eye out of habit. Crisp, chewy, and satisfying like a piece of jerky. This is the only time you've had fish eyes that weren't flavorless and chalky.

As you finish up the course, you can't help but think the course served at least one of two purposes: (1) to give you an intermission from the show and to remind you that food doesn't need to be molecularly altered to be delicious, or (2) to show that Grant Achatz isn't just about the whimsy, but cares immensely about the taste. No surprise there. And really, the proof was unnecessary.

Once the family meal is cleared, four red flags set up camp at the center of your table without explanation, reminding you that you're at Alinea. Another "normal" course is unlikely.

A wax bowl of liquid adorned with a mini-antenna of treats signals the next course: HOT POTATO_cold potato, black truffle, butter. You're instructed to lift the wax bowl with one hand, pull the pin with the other, and consume the bowl's contents after the hot ball of Yukon gold potato, cubes of butter and parmesan, sliver of chive, and slice of black truffle plummet into a cold potato truffle soup. The temperature of the cool soup is, at first, alarming, but the warm potato and rich truffle flavors contrast so beautifully that you don't mind the initial shock. Finishing the course in one shot, as recommended by the waiter, is impossible. You knew the second you put the bowl to your lips that this course would require at least several attempts to lick the bowl clean.

The taste of creamy truffles and potatoes linger on the base of your mouth when the WILD MUSHROOMS_juniper, sumac, shallot course arrives.

Perched on a pillow filled with the scent of Hollywood Juniper, the plate showcases a forest of white beech, maitake, and chanterelle mushrooms. Every attempt to spear the food causes the plate to wobble. Maybe it's the subtle yet definite smell of the woods, or maybe it's because you just finished reading The Hunger Games, but you suddenly feel more like a hunter, or at least a forager, with each bite. Sprinkled around the trunk of the plate are bits of pickled and fried crispy shallot rings, pine-infused cream, and miner's lettuce. Supporting the trunk is an aged balsamic vinaigrette, and perched on top is a cloud of thyme foam. Each successful forkful is an edible forest, packed with an earthy richness of flavor.

You scrape away at the muddy floor of the plate until the pillow reaches near-complete deflation, signaling the end of the hunt.

Though they would have been nice for a short mid-meal nap, the pillows are replaced with a plate of components for the VENISON_red cabbage, mustard, paprika course.

The plate transforms into a vessel to hold the red cabbage that had just recently been a centerpiece for the table.

The waiter pours a generous portion of venison into everybody's red cabbage leaf and you're instructed to put the accompanying bits of oven-dried tomato, pickled garlic, bell pepper, pearl onion, and mustard on your left, and a cube of potato custard topped with paprika and dollop of creamified beer on your right, onto the venison. All this is topped with a drizzle of bacon vinaigrette.

The end product is very much like a Korean ssam, or a comparable lettuce wrap. The wrap takes about three bites to eat. Each bite showcases the bacon vinaigrette, bright red cabbage, and the melt-in-your-mouth cubes of venison, but each bite is also very different. The first bite introduces you to some red pepper and beer; the second is unmistakably the pearl onion and pickled garlic; the third builds on the first two rounds of flavors and delivers a cohesive, delicious last note to the course.

"Get ready for your life to change," the server says confidently. Next up, the BLACK TRUFFLE_explosion, romaine, parmesan. Set up on a spoon balanced on a bottomless bowl, the raviolo is topped with parmagiano, wilted romaine, and minced black truffle. "Seal your lips tight and bite down." Lips sealed, you bite down on the raviolo to release a jet of liquid black truffle. The flavors are simple and the raviolo is perfectly al dente. With the amount of black truffle in your mouth, you're surprised you don't find it overbearing. In fact, this might be one of your favorites of the night. But really, which course hasn't been a favorite of the night?

One of your friends doesn't seal her lips tightly enough, causing a bit of juice to travel across the table. The table has a good laugh and the waitstaff cleans up the course with an accompanying smile.

There is no plate for the next course: SQUAB_inspired by Miro. Instead, the waitstaff brings out two large containers of warm lavender salt, which immediately fills the table with a comforting and calming aroma. Each server is armed with nine utensils, each adorned with its own little bite. Like one of Miro's kinetic canvases, the servers place the spoons and forks down in a seemingly random order, some balancing on each other's handles, and others acting like wallflowers. You are only told what you're about to eat after you follow instructions to eat the bites as if you were reading a "Pick Your Own Adventure!" novel.

At one point you taste what could have easily been described as foie gras acting like agedashi tofu. For a moment, this reminds you of how delicious the scallop course was and you can't believe that you're still enjoying that same meal. You don't think too long before turning to the next page in your adventure.

You finish your nine bites with a beautiful, meaty, morsel of squab. As you enjoy your last bite of the course, all the other flavors catch up to your tongue: olive, lavender, pomegranate, prune jelly, pumpernickel with celeriac, fresh plum with pansy, and duck fat with thyme and aged sherry vinegar. Like a mesmerizing square dance, each lingering flavor takes turns pairing up with another to dance down your tongue in quick succession.

And just like that, it's like the dance never happened. All you're left with is the container of lavender salt, attempting to calm your excitement over how crazy delicious that last course was.

You can't believe you're still not eating dessert when the next course comes out. Thankfully, the CHESTNUT_veal heart, quince, root vegetables course is the last meat course of the night. A brunoise of crunchy root vegetables, tender confit veal heart, and poached quince sit on a fork, hovering over a warm chestnut soup with Thai long pepper foam. The bite is fatty, and the soup is sweet, but the vegetables help to bring some earthiness to the dish, while the foam adds the lightest amount of spice to the course.

The meal slowly begins to shift towards dessert with the APPLE_onion, brie, smoking cinnamon course. Buoyant metal wires hold up an egg-shaped bite, pierced by a torched cinnamon stick. The cinnamon incense fills your nostrils as you lift the stick and place the tempura-fried, creamy brie, caramelized onion, and tart Granny Smith apple in your mouth. You close your eyes and meditate on your indulgence before the next course.

As if to ensure your tongue is alive and well for the dessert courses, the GINGER_five other flavors course revives any lame part of your tongue with a spunky ginger tasting. The first cube is galangal, or blue ginger, and tastes like what you would taste in most Asian foods: mild and clean. The next bite, a blue-ringed ginger, hangs on to the galangal's flavors and introduces some spiciness. Next is a tumeric ginger, which adds some smokiness to your tongue. The fourth bite, a yellow ginger, coats your tongue with the flavor of anise. The fifth, white ginger, reduces any intensity in flavor with its sweetness, reminding you that this course tees up dessert.

You imagine this is, in some small way, what Grant Achatz might have experienced after he lost and slowly regained his ability to taste, one isolated flavor at a time.

The fan of metal antennae is replaced with a large plate that holds snow-covered fir branches and cold river rocks. Appropriately, this course is called CHRISTMAS_in New Hampshire. The table immediately smells like Christmas, which is pretty much what this entire meal has felt like anyways.

Perched on a miniature log at the corner of the plate is a cup of clear, warm liquid. Apparently, it's distilled hot chocolate. Like a cleaner, but not any less guilty, hot chocolate, the distillation runs like water and tastes of pure, rich chocolate.

The river rocks are topped with a light, refreshing, and tongue-numbingly cool peppermint snow, along with four bites of persimmon, honey gel, cherry pudding, and gingerbread marshmallow. Unfortunately, the bites get a little bit stiff as they sit in the snow, but the snow is so good you continue to take spoonfuls of the stuff to your mouth for the next fifteen minutes. It's as if Grant Achatz knew about the peppermint patty addiction you had in high school.

As you shovel snow into your mouth, you imagine that every Christmas, the Achatz family sits down around a fire with a few cups of distilled hot chocolate in a room scented with a Christmas tree and torched cinnamon sticks. Outside sits an edible peppermint snowman. According to the next couple courses, they also probably enjoy a "cigar" and decorate their tree with edible, exploding ornaments. Best Christmases ever.

The penultimate course is a cigar of LEMONGRASS_mango, thai basil, finger lime. Each glass straw at the table contains a lemongrass liquid with bits of mint, cilantro, Thai basil, cucumber, and amaranth, capped at the ends with a finger lime gel and a meaty piece of mango. "Lift the straw to your mouth, and suck." You're worried, because you've learned that simple instructions at Alinea can produce the most alarming results. You exhale and suck. Like the first time you had bubble tea, gelatinous objects and liquid shoot to the back of your throat. Luckily, your bubble tea instincts kick in and you're able to enjoy the refreshing Thai-inspired of flavors swirling around in your mouth. Simply amazing.

The evening comes to a close with the biggest act of the night. The grand finale: DARK CHOCOLATE_butternut squash, lingonberry, stout. The waitstaff positions your party of four to two corners of the table. They spread a cloth across the table and set up several utensils, sauces, a pitcher, and a large brown bowl at the other two corners.

Without any hesitation, two chefs approach the table, move the brown bowls to the middle of the table, and pour liquid nitrogen into them. A cold cloud coats the table for a brief, magical moment.

Without acknowledging the "Ooooohs," and "Ahhhs" at the table, the chefs become genuine artists, painting expressive strokes and placing well-meaning blots on the table with a mere spoon and a trio of sauces.

They take a second to sprinkle the table with marigold petals before they hold up the brown globes again and throw it down with a crash. Like a piñata, a mountain of treats scatter across the table. The waiter gives us several minutes to delve into the contents like little kids on Christmas morning. You can pinpoint several of the flavors, but you're more caught up in the fun of it all to be too discerning. All you know is that you're eating directly off of the table, and collectively, the course tastes like a carnival in your mouth.

The waiter returns to explain to our chocolate-smeared faces what we've just inhaled. Obviously, there's the dark chocolate shell. There are three sauces: tart lingonberry, sweet Bourbon County stout, and citrus sweet potato. There is a mountain of frozen brittle that looks like popcorn crumbs, but tastes like butternut squash cheesecake. At the base of the mountain sits a pile of graham cracker crust. At the top of the mountain is a pair of cotton candy clouds. Sprinkled throughout are bits of oatmeal granola, thick French toast, decadent lingonberry cream cheese, beer pinwheels, walnut-covered caramels, crispy lingonberry chips, and dehydrated butternut squash. The determined table spends the next half hour making an impossible attempt at finishing everything on the table. But with completely satisfied and saturated stomachs, the table raises the white flag.

At the end of the night, after you've already established a friendly and joke-ridden relationship with the service staff, you ask what Alinea's logo means: "The logo is actually an 'alinea,' which is an older form of what we currently see as a paragraph symbol. In other words, an alinea marks the beginning of a new idea or thought." "Ohhhhhhhh," everyone says in unison. Genius restaurant name.

It's 1:45am. The servers hand you a copy of the menu, printed on beautiful translucent paper and tucked into a class black manila envelope. A quick skim confirms that you just had a 21-course meal.

You thank them for the meal, share a few more laughs, and leave.

Somehow you get home. Somehow you stick a toothbrush in your mouth. And somehow you collapse into your bed after sifting through your ninety-some pictures from the night and giggling like a baby dolphin.

Your eyes open again at 10:00am and feel like you've just woken up from a dream. Tastes, moments, and experiences from this dream haunt you, as if they never happened. The only thing that confirms that last night actually happened is a slight rawness at the tip of your tongue. "Peppermint snow," you think. Reassured and still in a haze of disbelief, you look at the ceiling and say to yourself, "Ho. Lee. Crap."

Only after a long, deep sigh do you sift through your pictures again, giggle like a baby dolphin, and try to get on with your life knowing you just experienced a meal that will undoubtedly follow you forever.

1723 N Halsted St
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 867-0110
GET: Your savings together and for the love of all that is holy, eat here. Reservations open two months prior for the entire month (e.g., on January 1, reservations open for the entirety of March).
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