Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Alinea - Chicago

It's been a long time coming... Finally a review of Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago.

We ate there 4th of July Weekend. It is now mid September. My jaw is still on the floor. My expectations were enormous. The opportunity was something I will always be thankful for. The price tag was, well, shall we say steep. The experience of eating at what is almost certainly the best restaurant in the United States was unforgettable.

I've been to various 3 starred Michelin starred establishments, so I have a sense of what one is getting into with a culinary experience at this level. These sorts of restaurants are transcendentally good. They blow your senses and they blow your mind. That said, Alinea was better. WAY better. 

Chef Achatz has a very inspiring back story. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America then having a not so great experience working for Charlie Trotter, he landed a job with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry. After working with Keller for awhile, Keller clearly saw something in him and sent him off to Spain to study under Ferran Adria at El Bulli for a little while. His food, his aesthetic, his mentality all come off as the perfect blend of two perfect chefs. He acquired Keller's deep need for utter perfection and Adria's passion for mad scientist innovation.

Chef Achatz was diagnosed with stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth in 2007, two years after opening Alinea. He was able to win the battle with cancer without what looked to be an inevitable invasive surgery to the tongue after undergoing an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. During the course of his treatments, however, he completely lost his sense of taste due to the impact of the radiation treatment on his tastebuds. He was able to train his staff to mimic his palate and to learn to visualize flavors... He continued to operate the restaurant during this period, rarely if ever missing a service, despite the heavy strain of the radiation and chemotherapy on his body. Over time, he slowly regained his sense of taste. He took a great deal from the experience.

Grant Achatz is a modernist chef. He uses science and exotic techniques throughout his menus, but not for their own sake. Rather, he uses these new techniques sparingly, where they make sense. He edits himself and his taste and aesthetic are absolutely impeccable. He only uses technology and modernist techniques when they truly fundamentally add something to a dish... never to show off. Contrast to something like WD-50 which is like a science fair... interesting, but missing the level of taste required to make it an actually good restaurant.

But back to the pure and utter genius that is Alinea.

Our meal, on July 1, 2011 consisted of a 22 course tasting with reserve wine parings:
  • STEELHEAD ROE - watermelon, kaffir lime, cucumber blossom
    sake: Ginga Shizuku 'Divine Droplets' Junmai Daiginjo-shu, Takasgo Shuzo, Hukkaido-ke
  • HAMACHI - west indies spices, banana, ginger 
  • OYSTER LEAF - mignonette
  • SCALLOP - hitachino weizen, old bay
  • RAZOR CLAM - carrot, soy, daikon
    wine: Prager 'Durnsteiner Hollerin' Resling Smaragd, Wachau 2001
  • YUBA - shrimp, miso, togarashi
  • ENGLISH PEA - olive oil, chamomile, green apple
    wine: Domaine des Baumard 'Clos du Papillon" Savennières
  • MACKEREL - mango, bergamot flower, juniper
  • WILD MUSHROOMS - pin, sumac, ramp
    wine: Domainique Mugneret 'En Orveaux' Echezeaux 2006
  • HOT POTATO - cold potato, black truffle, butter
  • SHORT RIB - olive, fermented garlic, blackberry
    wine: Trio Infernal 'No. 2/3', Priorat 2005
  • BLACK TRUFFLE - explosion, romaine, parmesan
  • AGNEAU - sauce choron, pomme de terre noisette
    wine: Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2003
  • OCTOPUS - eggplant, corriander, red wine
    wine: Vimhos Barbeito Sercia, Madeira  1978
  • SNOW - yuzu
  • STRAWBERRY - jasmine, basil, balsamic
    wine: Tokaji Aszú 2005
  • LEMONGRASS - dragonfruit, cilantro, cucumber
  • CHOCOLATE - blueberry, honey, peanut
    wine: Toro Albala 'Don PX' Gran Reserva, Montilla-Moriles, Spain 1982
I took no pictures during the meal. It seemed wildly inappropriate to even consider doing so. Each menu item was served with highly customized dishes and flatware. Many of them took the form of puzzles. Hints of dishes would be left at the table only to be slowly evolved into dishes during the course of the evening. Some dishes came with no explanation... it was up to you to interpret them in the absence of expectation. Some dishes were highly complicated (the English Pea, for example) and required in depth training sessions from the staff. The menu and the experience was designed deliberately to catch you off guard at every step. Everything was novel. Everything was unexpected. Everything was elegant. Everything tasted better than anything you've ever tasted before.

Virtually every dish was beyond perfect. When I say "beyond perfect", I mean that every dish substantially exceeded every possible expectation, those expectations having fairly recently been calibrated at the likes of the The French Laundry and Restaurant Daniel.

I don't want to start commenting on every dish, as they were all glorious and amazing. I could probably write paragraph after paragraph on each and every plate. 

I will comment on the last dish, the dessert. It was complex. It involved freeze dried chocolate, numerous high tech sauces, liquid nitrogen, hot/cold contrast, some sort of peanut styrofoam like creation. At the end of the dinner, our team of waitstaff came out and replaced our tablecloth with a silicon mat. Soon after, Chef Achatz and his sous chef came out with a cart, brushes, ladles, etc. They basically spent about 5-10 minutes laboriously construction an edible abstract expressionist painting involving the above ingredients on our table, ultimately creating an intricate edible composition steaming with various sauces, freeze dried dessert powders, ice creams liquid nitrogen, etc. Pretty much insane.

I can very comfortable say, without flinching and without second guessing myself that Alinea is the best restaurant in the United States and that Grant Achatz is the best chef in the US. I think he'd hold up in the top 3-5 in the world, though I have a hard time fathoming how it could be done any better. That said, I haven't been to either Spain or Tokyo.

In conclusion, I give Alinea, Chicago a whole hearted 5* review. Perfect. Flawless. Michelin should really consider a 4th star for restaurants at this level.

In another post, I will tell you about our incredible adventures at Chef Achatz's side project cocktail bar, Aviary. You guessed it: The Alinea of cocktail bars. We spent not one but two nights there. Given the pedigree it was all that we hoped. They have a dedicated ice chef. Their cocktails are absurdly good. Like Alinea was the best restaurant I've eaten at, hands down... this place was the best cocktail bar. I will share more later, including the secret protocol to get in. 

One parting note. After this trip to Chicago, I am in love with the city. Millennium Park is a sight to behold. The culture (art museums, sports, theater, music, etc.) are all second to none. It is feasible to get around. The food everywhere is off the hook. Publican was also very very good. Random hotel restaurants we stopped in often could have qualified to be one of the top 10 restaurants in Austin. It's a city that understands food, art, and life. After spending a fair amount of time on foodie focused trips in New York, San Francisco, and LA, I've got to say that I think that Chicago is arguably the best food city in the country... that's saying a whole lot.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Seafood Paella

Two of our close friends are in Spain for the week. Spain, and its wonderful cuisine, were therefore on my mind when I was thinking about what to cook for dinner on Sunday.

I have never made paella before. I decided to give it a shot.

Seafood Paella with Chorizo
Gulf shrimp. PEI mussels. Squid. Chorizo. Bomba paella rice. Tomato. Onion. Lemon. Sweet paprika. Saffron. Homemade chicken stock. White wine.
Seafood Paella-3

Vegetables with Tomato and Hard Boiled Egg Vinaigrette
(from Claudia Roden's The Food of Spain)

Leeks. Asparagus. New potatoes. White wine vinegar vinaigrette with tomatoes, boiled egg, and parsley.
Seafood Paella-1

Roasted Red Peppers and Eggplant
Roasted red pepper. Roasted eggplant. Salt. Olive oil.
Seafood Paella-2

The flavors of the paella were excellent and the seafood was cooked perfectly. However, there were some issues with the uniformity of the rice. It was perfectly cooked in some spots, but a little al-dente and/or toasted in other spots. Paella is definitely a little tricky. In many ways, it is like a risotto. Unlike risotto, though, you don't get to stir the rice continuously as it cooks to ensure uniformity. Unlike normal rice, you cook uncovered. This means that you must systematically move your pan around to maintain even heat (paella pans are huge... way bigger than my burner) and that you must maintain the correct level of moisture by adding stock to the rice throughout cooking. You want it to stay just barely moist so that the rice cooks, and get a tiny bit of toasted on it at the end. Temperature, pan position, and liquid levels are all important. There is a definite art to this process. For my first attempt, it came out quite nicely. That being said, I have a lot to learn to perfect my technique.

The salad was delicious, though I overcooked the asparagus a bit. I'd never before considered of the concept of a hard boiled egg vinaigrette. Basically, you just make a plain old vinaigrette and stir in peeled seeded chopped tomatoes and chopped hard boiled egg. So simple, yet such an amazing flavor. 

The roasted peppers and eggplants also came out quite nicely. I've always had a strong aversion to eggplant seeds, and the approach of slow roasting, then peeling and shredding the eggplant makes it surprisingly easy to separate out the seeds from the flesh of the eggplant.

All in all a nice meal. I will definitely be trying my hand at other paellas. Hopefully, like my friends, I will be travelling to Spain in the not to distant future as well.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Toys I Want

Chamber Vac:



Combi Oven:

Liquid Nitrogen:

Robot Coupe:

Update.... and how could I forget.The anti-griddle: