Above is the current menu at Alinea, which my wife and I sampled last week in Chicago. While the restaurant has offered a choice of two menus in the past, now there’s just the one and, as I wrote in the previous post, it’s 185 smackeroos.
The menu actually holds more information than the terse descriptions would suggest. Those circles are coded. The darker they are, the more intense the flavors of that course. The bigger they are, the more substantial the portion. The further to the right on the page, the sweeter the food will be.
We decided not to go with the full roster of wine pairings on the advice of others who’ve eaten here. (Not only is it expensive, but we thought too much alcohol would get in the way.) Instead, the sommelier proposed a limited pairing — glasses and half glasses of wine as needed to carry us through. The wines were all Old World and esoteric varietals. They were also fairly priced. Our total bill with two $185 menus, wine, endless refills of Badoit water, a fantastic French press pot of coffee, tax and a 21% tip came to $580. (Gulp.)
I won’t go through the blow by blow and subject you to 20 poorly lit cellphone photos, but I’ll point out a few interesting courses.
The meal began with this lineup of edible cocktails, which include a couple not detailed in the online version of the menu. The passion fruit shell at the bottom holds the fleshy pips mixed with three kinds of rum (a “Hurricane”). Working up, there’s a frozen and chewy pisco sour, a cucumber cube hollowed and filled with rosewater and gin (a takeoff on the locally famous Juliet and Romeo from the Violet Hour cocktail bar), a froth-capped cherry Manhattan and a piece of kumquat with rye and Peychaud bitters that is not your grandfather’s Sazerac. Maybe Don Draper would find a hostess to hit on if faced with these cocktails, but I thought they were loads of fun. Plus, they cumulatively packed the alcoholic punch of an actual pre-dinner drink. You feel loosened, happy, suddenly famished for dinner. You also guess that realization was placed in your head with “Inception”-like precision. It is your first clue that you should pay attention to the subtext of this food.
This English pea course was a kind of frozen mash set on the inside of a glass. Some of the peas seemed to be freeze dried; others just melted into creamy bliss in your mouth as you ate. There were all kinds of garnishes: spherified orbs of sherry, melon-balled honeydew, a wiggly gel of Iberico ham, fresh herbs. The waitress suggested we try the peas with one garnish, then the next and see how the flavors combined. It was up to us to make sense of this intriguing disorder.
This dish also foreshadowed the interactive nature of the food here. When you eat, you take an active role in choosing how the flavors go together or stay separate. Do you eat your peas and mashed potatoes together or keep them apart? This is the same thing.
All kinds of gorgeously skinned and seeded summer tomatoes arrived in of Alinea’s trademark presentations. Though you can’t tell from this picture, the plate is sitting on top of a pillow filled with the “vaporized aroma” of freshly mowed grass that slowly deflates as you eat. Does it feel like being at a picnic? No, but the smell is true and kind of delightful. Again, this plate is very interactive — with all kind of frozen bits of complementary tomato flavors. Fennel, parmesan, mozzarella, caramelized onion, balsamic vinegar (a chewy ring of taffy) and whatnot. I have to say I don’t love the texture of little bitty things that were frozen with liquid nitrogen and have begun to melt in a gluey mass.
Time to eat our edible centerpiece! In the beginning of the meal a waiter set up little flags of diaphanous rice paper holding edible flowers and herbs between two stuck-together sheets. Mid-meal, we received these thin slabs topped with all kinds of precise garnish. A coconut curl here, a cashew there. Under supervision, we lifted up the top plates to reveal a carved wooden base holding two interlocking “puzzle pieces” that we could set up to make a stand for the rice paper. We each got a spoonful of warm pork belly confit and dressed it with all the garnishes. Then we had to put the whole contraption back together before we could use the provided warm towels to wash our hands.
The constant surprise of the whole thing was really fun in that first hour of “Avatar” way. Our bundles were sloppy but thrummed with lingering flavor – all that sharp crunch of garnish popping against the warm, rich, soft confit.
But the more I thought about this dish the next day, the less I liked it. Two-ply rice paper is less of a welcome innovation than two-ply toilet tissue. The pleasure in eating rice paper is in its sheer, stretchy tension and self adhesion — the way it holds both rich meat and rabbit-food herbs and lettuces in taut packages.
This tournedo à la persane is a dish straight from Auguste Escoffier’s “Le Guide Culinaire” — the 19th Century bible of French gastronomy. This medallion of Australian wagyu beef came on a porcelain plate with filegreed silver cutlery and a glass of red wine served in a cut crystal goblet. I half expected my waiter to change into a French magistrate’s powdered wig to serve it.
This dish, of course, was all about its sauce — a sticky demiglace reduction — and it asked the question, “Is this the basis of building flavor on the plate? Have we moved away from this? Do we miss it?” I felt that the preparation of this stunningly reduced sauce, which stuck to the plate like liquid cement, was meant as both an homage and a critique.
(The smarty-pants question I wish I had asked: Was the beef cooked sous vide or seared and roasted?)
The grand finale was this spectacular assemblage of chocolate served with menthol crisps, fresh hyssop and various coconut dribbles, chewies and thingies.
It begins with the waiter spreading a silicone sheet over the table and placing several dishes of garnish on bowls on top. Then a chef comes from the kitchen and spends a good 10 minutes creating patterns of kaleidoscope beauty that shift and change. That coconut milk forms perfect round-edged squares as it spreads on the silicone weave. That disc of chocolate in for foreground begins as hot liquid poured into a glass cylinder and sets before your eyes. Those crumbles of honeycomb chocolate come out as a smoke-pluming brick of liquid nitrogen frozen mousse that the chef crumbles. (Here, the texture is just right — it melts in your mouth, not on the table.)
Food is a process. Flavor is a process. How you choose to interact with it says everything about how you taste it.