The superest supergroup ever: members of Smashing Pumpkins, Fountains of Wayne, Cheap Trick and Hanson have recorded an album under the name Tinted Windows and will be playing for the first time at SxSW next month.
The Lovely Wife and I went to Alinea on Saturday night to celebrate her birthday. The meal, and the entire experience, was beyond amazing; it’s pretty rare to have spent as much money as we did (and we only did the tasting menu, not the tour) and walk away feeling like it was worth it, but in this case it definitely was. Everything, from the atmosphere to the service to (of course) the food was fantastic, and if you’re trying to decide whether it’s worth it to save up and have a meal here, the answer is yes, it certainly is.
TLW wrote up her thoughts about the meal — here they are, with a few interjections of my own.
the experience starts walking in the door. the building is nondescript, almost unmarked. really easy to miss. you walk in a hallway that is a little disorienting with low purple lights in walls which are at different angles. you come to a door and it slides open like in some sci-fi movie and you are immediately welcomed to the restaurant. there are multiple small dining rooms with 5-6 tables in each room.
We saw the kitchen briefly as we were waiting for our table. Unfortunately we didn’t get a tour at the end of the meal but, seeing as it was after midnight when we finished, I wasn’t surprised. Also, Grant was not there that night; if he had been I would have liked to (re)introduce myself but as it was we got a brief look at the kitchen, bustling with activity.
some more about the restaurant - it is beautifully thought out. the bathroom has unscented lotion and soap. nothing to get in the way of the scent experience of the meal. toilet paper is nicely folded into points, cloth hand towels and a bin to put them in, but the bin was empty. obviously someone comes to tidy up the bathroom all the time. a little tin has tampons and pads.
the service is fun without being too chummy. the idea is to not take anything too seriously, don’t overthink it we were told.
The service was great. There were four or five servers in our dining room, plus a sommelier, but we never felt like anyone was hovering over us at any point. They were happy to share as much or as little information about each course, and each wine, as you wanted. Also, if your napkin so much as brushed the floor, someone was at your elbow with a new one.
we seated with champagne to start us off. the first course was char roe (collected by a friend of the chef. i should have such friends!) parsnip cream and licorice foam. there was ginger in there somewhere. it was a great start.
We ate this first course without knowing what it was — there was a bit of confusion when the server set down the plate and I think he thought we wanted to guess the components of each dish. That was good for the first course but after that we asked him to tell us beforehand — we would rather enjoy the flavors than spend too much time trying to figure out what they were.
a server brought out a black rounded bottom vase type thing. he said it is ok to touch with but please don’t turn it over. we soon discovered it had dry ice in it with some kind of scent.
cauliflower - little creamy cubes coated in five different things - caramelized onions, almond…i can’t remember them all. there were gels of clove and cider and little crispy cauliflower florets. the cubes were the essence of cauliflower and had a wonderful mouthfeel.
the server brought out a nice thick slice of iberico ham, dipped in liquid nitrogen, hanging from some crazy specialized rack. a pair of them, they looked like at-at walkers from star wars. we were instructed not to touch it.
a tiny cup of pear hollowed out with olive oil and black pepper, it was served in a covered bowl on a bed of eucalyptus. the smell was wonderful and i ate the warm single bite of sweet and savory, oil and crisp together.
This was the first big win of the night for me — a perfect example of combining flavors, textures and aromas in unconventional ways. The big hit of eucalyptus as the cover was removed set the stage for the cool crispness of the pear and the smooth richness of the oil.
wild striped bass with ribbon of celery, shellfish (i believe mussels) and chamomile. the bass was poached in butter and wonderfully unctuous. the celery cut through the butter of the fish and richness of the shellfish.
I have almost no memory of this dish. I’m sure it was great, but it was overshadowed by the next five courses, which make up probably the best single hour of eating in my entire life.
then comes the butter dish. lobster beautifully cooked with a globe that we are told is clarified butter. it is to be punctured and it oozes all over the lobster. underneath is popcorn (not popped — cooked like regular corn) done with curry. there is a mango gel and beautiful thin circles of onion perched vertically on top. across the plate is a ribbon of liquid popcorn that looks like butter. this really felt like “game on.”
with all of these dishes we start off tasting each thing individually and then smooshing it all together for a lovely little symphony of flavors.
the server comes out with plate of little tubes of caramelized salsify, the chef’s favorite vegetable over a pillowy cream of hazelnut. the server takes the ham that has been defrosting and lays it over the salsify and cream and pours a vinaigrette of pimenton. then with chopsticks he gently places a single micro florette of oregano on the top. i mean, like the size of a semi-colon. don’t take this too seriously indeed. it was very funny.
It was great. The server told a story about learning how to become ambidextrous with the chopsticks so as never to “backhand” a customer. Might have been true, might have been bull, but was very funny. Also, the dish was incredible. Salty, earthy, amazing.
my favorite dish and the first dish that made chef achatz known - a spoon with a dumpling called “black truffle explosion” it is a soup dumpling, made of the most perfect pasta filled with truffle broth with parmesan and a little romaine. it is a one biter and the most perfect, hot, rich mushroomy broth explodes in your mouth and you have to make pleasure noises while you chew.
Crazy good. Like a Chinese soup dumpling filled with truffle broth and crack.
the people sitting next to us watched us happily as we ate it - they were doing the 24 course menu and hadn’t gotten to it. the woman clapped her hands happily when it arrived at our table she was so excited for us. they’d tried making it at home from the cookbook, but with mushroom broth, not truffle. this killed me. dead. mmm.
wagyu beef and potato. jesus. piece of heaven.
the beef was warm but not cooked. perfectly marbled and lovely. the mouthfeel of that piece of meat was extraordinary, beefy and like butter. the potato was a cube of thick cream (i keep on saying cream, but that doesn’t really convey the various textures. this was dense and smooth. i lack the vocabulary to describe) with a savory coating. the potato almost overshadowed the most perfect piece of meat i’ve ever had, it was that good. also, the server pours some liquid into the black vase full of dry ice and this wonderful spicy aroma comes pouring out with the fog. i thought i was smelling cumin, christian got hits of fenugreek, definitely some clove. it was amazing.
This is the second time I’ve had the opportunity to eat Wagyu beef (this particular cow was apparently from the island of Miyazaki) — the first time was during our first visit to Morimoto in Philadelphia — and this preparation was totally different but equally amazing. And I can’t say enough about the potato cube, which really was the Platonic ideal of potato-ness, breaded and fried.
it all came with a little packet of a-1 — dry items that go into the sauce. a powder of anchovy, raisin — i could have done lines and snorted it, it was so good. i had bites of the meat alone, the potato alone, meat with a-1, with potato. all combinations rocked my world.
another one of the best hits - hot potato, cold potato. little cubes of parmesan, butter and a ball of hot potato and chive on a needle like skewer poked thru the sized of a little paraffin bowl. the hot potato is draped in a slab of black truffle. below is a cold soup of potato. you pull the skewer through the wax bowl and everything drops into the bowl and you toss it back in one shot. the hot and cold mix, the different textures mix, salt, umami like crazy, the sweet of the potato. mmm.
I was so glad that we got these interstitials of Grant’s greatest hits. It was weird, sitting and talking to the couple next to us about how we hoped we’d get to eat Hot Potato Cold Potato, or Black Truffle Explosion — it was like going to a Pixies concert and getting excited that they might play “Bone Machine” and it was one of the few moments when I realized how truly unusual this dining experience really was (the other was when I realized I was disappointed that Grant wasn’t there, even though I knew the food would be no different). Lots of people talk about how celebrity chefs are the new rock stars but it really felt like it that night.
chocolate, but very dark chocolate, it was a thin layer. how to describe? it looked like chocolate fruit leather, a pliable ganache. that sounds awful but it was very tasty. the other flavors were chestnut and quince (foams? gels? i don’t remember!) with baked potato ice cream. the potato flavor was almost a little overpowering on its own.
a trio arrived:
* dried crisp strip of bacon hanging from a wire (wire suspended over a rocking horseshoe shaped contraption) with a stripe of butterscotch piped on the bacon, ribbons of apple leather like a cloud around it and a sprig of thyme.
* a tube with three colors — a broth made of bubble yum bubble gum with hibiscus caviar balls, creme fraiche and long pepper custard. you suck it all out of the tube and it makes a silly slurping noise while you do it. it tastes like creamy bubble gum and floral chewy bits! we all laughed as we did this (by this time the couple sitting next to us were really part of our fun). they should make everyone start the meal this way because you just can’t be pretentious sucking bubble gum out of a glass pipe.
* a ball of yogurt cassia and pomegranate in a shot glass making it look like a giant orb. down in one shot. another one that you had to bite in your mouth otherwise it would squirt everyone around you.
the only clunker of the evening. i had hit a wall and this was so heavy and a little harsh: spice cake with a rum ball that you smooshed open and it drizzled everywhere. a teeny tiny carrot and persimmon gelee. this would have benefited by being a single bite instead of a big plate of the food.
I agree, it was a bit too much. Probably the only time that the unusual flavor combinations didn’t pay off
then out came the pillows: linen pillows filled with scented air. the plate is placed on the pillow, slowly pressing out the air. there was a chocolate square, prune, olive and an ice cream of pine that really brought the whole dish together. so very fragrant and again the mix of savory and sweet. the pillow sounds really silly and maybe it is, but it makes for a dreamy relaxing experience.
here i got a little ball of chocolate with god knows what in it with a hot sauce poured over it melting a hole to allow the center to spill out. this was my birthday cake. i shared with christian.
finally: smoldering stick of cinnamon (very long stick) with a confection of spun sweet potato, bourbon and brown sugar on the end. pop it in your mouth and pull off of the stick.
the wines were really nicely paired with sherry to go along with the iberico ham being the winner and the olvares dulce monastrell was like a lovely port, but wasn’t (not fortified).
at the end they had little packets of a-1 powder waiting for me since they saw me trying to save mine. i am sorry that i don’t have a better vocabulary to describe this food. it is so unusual that it is hard to think about it and enjoy it at the same time. i’ll leave it to others to provide more faithful reporting. but the entire experience was so well thought out, great staff.
they were even so nice to sit us next to a lovely fun italian couple visiting from the bay area. how thoughtful is that?
Bonus Alinea reading:
* Mark McClusky’s profile of chef Grant Achatz in Wired
* NPR’s Todd Kliman characterizes Alinea as “the reductio ad absurdum of the food world.” Co-owner Nick Kokonas responds in the comments.
* Thanks to Mark, I got the opportunity to meet Grant and see his presentation at Wired NextFest a few months ago. Here’s a brief writeup as well as some nice photos and videos about Grant and his cooking process.
Saw it on “No Reservations” this week and as a Chicagoan born and raised I was embarrassed that I’d never been there. Daryl meanwhile was practically drooling at the prospect of freshly-smoked fish and shrimp.
We’ll be making the nearly one-hour trek to the Indiana border sooner rather than later, that’s for sure.