Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Meal of Gastronomical Proportions

Restaurant Review

Last night, as yet another mutual celebration of our 70th and 40th birthdays, my Mom and I went to Alinea, a Chicago fine-dining restaurant that is recognized as one of the best in the world by several publications, including Restaurant magazine in its annual top 50 list. It's owner and chef, Grant Achatz has also gotten considerable press, not only for such culinary excellence while only in his mid-30's, but for his battle with tongue cancer that in addition to threatening his life, in a Beethovenesque twist, threatened to rob his sense of taste.

Fortunately, his cancer is reported to be in full remission and he works at Alinea, still his only restaurant, almost every night. Except of course, last night. We were told he was in New York for some events, including a joint dinner he's preparing with Thomas Keller, a famed chef of The French Laundry in Napa Valley and NYC's Per Se.

Obviously, he left the place in good hands, because the meal was as phenomenal as advertised. There is no ordering your food at Alinea; they serve a prix fixe meal of either 12 courses (tasting) for $145 or 24 (tour) for $225. We both went with the tasting menu, and though offered a full wine accompaniment for 3/4 the food cost, my 1 glass of white wine was the only extra we got. Our total cost was $400.

Was it worth it? Who's to say. Certainly, I could eat a cherished Char-Chedder Polish, fries and Diet Coke at Poochie's for about $6, and if ever offered a last meal, would likely choose it over what I got at Alinea (although running 3 hours, the Alinea meal would keep me alive longer;). But far more than I probably even appreciate, eating at this level is about far more than flavor and getting full (though neither disappointed, I assure you). It's about creativity, artistry, originality, food science, presentation and much more.

And except for a visit to Chicago's equally famed Charlie Trotter's in 2005 -- which I recall enjoying but not quite to this extent -- of all the meals I've eaten over 14,634 days, this was easily the most unique, was completely delicious and offered flavors and textures I have tasted before. So that's gotta be worth something, and if the tab is $200, so be it.

So what did we eat? This will give you the full rundown and I'll provide some pictures and descriptions below. Beyond my pix, which are underlit because I couldn't use a flash, check out Alinea's gallery.

We started with what they call Trout Roe, but to me was just a shot glass of airy fuzzy stuff with incredible flavors underneath (I didn't take a picture). In one bite, I knew we were in for something special. Then came Califlower, though unlike any califlower I've seen or eaten. There were 3 cubes or creamy califlower with various coatings, in some kind of soup. Might not look like much, but it was great.
Next came Lobster, or what could better be described (as the waiter said) as the dish about butter. There was butter, a dish long ribbon of liquified popcorn, lobster and much else. A bit different than a cheddar Polish or piece of steak.
Then came Rabbit, a piece of rabbit meat wrapped in tempura. I could say this about several of the course, but it might have been the most tasty single thing I've ever eaten. As you can see, it was attached to a stem; you just picked it up and ate it in a bite or two.
After Rabbit, came Turbot, a piece of fish in an incredibly artful presentation with a bunch of acoutrements.

Then we got Wagyu Beef, a piece of almost raw Japanese beef that supposedly puts Kobe Beef to shame. It was great, but I recall the flavor of the mushroom it sat on to be even more incredible.

Next, we merrily had a little Lamb. The most tender cubes imaginable, accompanied by some other tasty (albeit a bit weirdly squishy) stuff.

That we learned, was the end of dinner. The rest was dessert. It was by then to get good pictures of much of it, but below is a piece of Pumpkin and a Chocolate concoction that was incredible when it all worked together. We also had a few other dessert items, including an eyeball-looking thing in a shot glass that broke apart in your mouth into a symphony of flavors and powdered Caramel that congealed in your mouth.

All in all it was truly scrumptious and perhaps surprisingly, quite filling. I don't think I could have handled the 24-course Tour, even if my bank account could. Three hours were long enough, though the chairs were incredibly comfortable.

The only thing that wasn't magnificent was the appearance and disposition of the servers and other staff we dealt with. There was nothing really wrong with the service--everything was well-explained and nothing particularly diminished our pleasure--but from a purely critical point of view, the visuals and temperments were a bit lacking for a place of this stature. I know this sounds weird, and believe me, I'm a liberal all in favor of individuality, but there were guys with weird mustaches, bad hair and a decided lack of affable elegance, such as I've encounted in the few other high-class restaurants I've visited. The place itself was beautiful, as was the hostess, and the service was nothing to downgrade the experience, it just didn't elevate it. Maybe we were just in the wrong room, and perhaps it's the economy, but there was an empty table next to us all night.

I don't know if I would've been able to talk to or get a picture with Grant Achatz even if he were there (I got one with Charlie Trotter), but a shot of the lobby and kitchen (downstairs, the dining room was upstairs) is below.

No comments: