One of the nice things about going to the Restaurant Show is that it’s in Chicago, which is arguably the best eating city in the United States. One of the drawbacks is that during the Show a lot of restaurateurs are in town and want to check out all the cool restaurants, making it hard to get a reservation. One of the nice things about being a food writer is that if you express an interest in eating at a restaurant, its owners will likely find a way to accommodate you. One of the drawbacks of being a food writer for Nation’s Restarant News during the Show is that you have many work-related obligations and rarely a free meal during which to explore.
However, I managed to weasel my way out of going to the annual Gold and Silver Plate banquet on Monday and instead went to Alinea.
I had actually planned to weasel out of the banquet weeks in advance and had reserved a table for one at Grant Achatz’s restaurant.
Yes, that's right, a table for one. Alinea’s a place of experimental, experiential, whimsical and arguably bizarre food and I wasn’t interested in finding someone to dine with just so I could spend the night explaining the food to them, worrying that they found it too weird or trying to keep them patient for the four hours or so it would take to work our way through the 24-course meal. Dining experiences like that aren’t for everyone, and they require the right companion. Although I have a couple of friends in New York whom I’d trust unequivocally to sit through it with me (actually, one: Andy Battaglia) finding the right person in Chicago and then trying to find a time when we were both free for dinner during the Show was a task up to which I simply wasn’t.
I made the right decision, because there were times during the meal when I had to close my eyes to focus my attention on my senses of taste and smell to properly appreciate what was going on. I couple of times I involuntarily clenched my left fist as unexpected flavor combinations rushed across my tongue, or as my mouth and sinus passages filled with molecule clusters they had never experienced. The crispy monkfish not only made me grin, but affected parts of my body that food shouldn’t.
I had my notebook with me, but I was delighted when one of the many servers who visited my table told me they’d give me a list of everything I ate and drank. I still jotted a few notes, but I was then free just to let the meal wash over me, and sometimes that’s just what you should do.
Alinea’s printed menu is terse, and doesn’t really describe the food in the way it deserves, but then again, food like this really can’t be described usefully without being able to plug into someone else’s tastebuds and olfactory receptors.
The menu for the meal I passed up, on the other hand, the one served during the Gold and Silver Plate gala, is always an extravaganza of purple prose and ornate description.
So, here’s what I didn’t eat:
Tempting Asiago cheese cones form perfect pockets for smokey salmon mousse with tobiko caviar, fresher-than-fresh ahi poke and antipasti with sun-dried tomato.
These enticing cornucopias surround a mini caprese with balsamic reduction and fresh basil.
Sweets & Savories
A sweet chili-roasted lady apple cradling a bouquet of baby field greens partners with a savory blue cheese cake and balsamic vinaigrette.
Wake up your senses with the refreshingly sublime taste of blood orange sorbet elegantly showcased in a frosted martini glass and garnished with frangrant orange twists.
Revel in two of nature’s most divine creations. Succulent vanilla-butter poached South African lobster tail and luscious white truffle-infused beef tenderloin blanket tender pillows of rosemary and sun-dried tomato gnocchi, accompanied by crisp haricot verts.
Feed your inner devil. A sinfully rich crème de cacao tower topped with chocolate ganache joins a brandy tulip with citrus curd and fresh mixed berries. This tantalizing twosome is embellished with a raspberry/chocolate spear and fruit coulis.
And, what I did eat and drink (if you feel like counting, you’ll notice that I, in fact, had 26 courses as the kitchen sent out a couple of extras; welcome to my world):
CROQUETTE smoked steelhead roe, several garnishes
L.Aubry Brut Champagned with Pineau des Charentes
OCTOPUS shiso, papaya, toasted soy
CHANTERELLE carrot, curry ham
Vercezi del Castellazo Pinot Nero Bianco “Gugiarolo”, Oltrepo Pavese 2005
APPLE horseradish, celery
MONKFISH banana, onion, lime
Vincent Dancer Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru “Tête de Clos” 2004
KUROGE WAGYU yuzu, seaweed smoke, sea grapes
Joseph Voillot Volnay 1er Cru “Les Fremiets”, Côte de Beaune 2002
DUCK mango, yogurt, pillow of lavender air
Rudi Pichler Gruner Veltliner Smaragd “Kollmutz”, Wachau, Austria 2000
BLACK TRUFFLE explosion, romaine, parmesan
SHORT RIB Guinness, peanut, fried broccoli
Paolo Bea Montefalco Rosso Riserva “Pipparello”, Umbria 2001
CHEESE in crackerr
HONEYDEW Bliss sherry vinegar, mint
RHUBARB goat milk, beet, long pepper
Müller-Catoir Harrdter Mandelring Scheurebe Spätlese, Pfalz 2005
STRAWBERRY frozen and chewy, with wasabi
STURGEON candied and dried
SKATE caper, lemon, and brown butter powders
Ogier “Viognier de Rosine”, VdP des Colllines Rhodaniennes 2004
WHITE ASPARAGUS chorizo, egg, red pepper
Philippe Portier Quincy, Loire 2005
PINEAPPLE bacon powder, black pepper
LAMB peas, consommé, morels
Hereus Ribas “Ribas de Cabrera” Vi de Taula de Balears, Spain 2000
HOT POTATO cold potato, black truffle, butter
BISON encased in savory granola
Azelia Barolo “Bricco Fiasco”, Castiglione Falletto 1998
[YOU’LL JUST HAVE TO GUESS BECAUSE THE CHICAGO CITY COUNCIL IS STUPID AND I'M NO SNITCH] spicy cinnamon, apple pâte de fruit
GUAVA avocado, brie, key lime juice
Hans Tschida Traminer TBA, Burgenland, Austria 1998
COCONUT saffron, kiwi, corrnmeal
LICORICE CAKE muscovado sugar, orange, anise
CHOCOLATE passionfruit, lemongrass, soy
Abbazia di Novacella Moscato Rosa “Praepositus”, Alto Adige 2004
CARAMEL meyer lemon, cinnamon perfume