In my recent trip to the US, I had the chance to make one of the most interesting gastronomic experiences in my life. My wife and I had a dinner at Alinea Restaurant in Chicago, the only one three Michelin Stars in town and ranked 9th in the 2014 list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. To eat at Alinea you need to reserve in advance through the pretty unique “tickets system” in the restaurant’s web site, that means you have to purchase in advance your tasting menu (wines and drinks excluded) and in case you cannot make it you can “exchange or trade” your “ticket” through the same web site. It can seem weird or unusual at best, but I found it smart and convenient.
The atmosphere is minimalist and sophisticated (there is a recommended dress code…no, it’s better not going there wearing jeans and snickers), the personnel is nice, well prepared and able to actively involve you through the entire journey…yes, because this is Alinea: an intriguing and, why not, amusing gastronomic journey made of creative dishes and amazing compositions in a perfect mixture of flavors and olfactory sensations under the magnificent guidance of Chef Grant Achatz.
Our tasting menu consisted of 17 courses, each based on a specific ingredient (Osetra, Corn, Black Truffle, …) , but this was just the start…the experience was to actually eat them…sometimes it required to solve a small trick like to spot the salsify hidden in real bush in a perfect camouflage, or realize that the small coal fire at the centre of the table is in reality smoked parnisp and roasted pork belly. But let’s proceed in order, ladies and gentlemen, our Alinea Tasting Menù!
1. Osetra – Traditional
2. Salsify – branch camouflage (spot the salsify!)
3. Skate – brown butter, lemon, herb stems (to eat holding the napkin-shaped plate)
4. Corn – Truffle, manchego, sherry (this was amazing)
5. Softshell Crab – Three condiments (Hot Sauce, Remoulade, Honey Mustard) okra and chips (this was really funny: they clean up your table, cover it with the day’s newspaper, then they bring you a fried crab with chips and okra in a skimmer and invite you to eat just using your hands …no forks nor knives…and clean them directly on the newspaper when you are done)
6. Rhubarb – Celery root,
celery branch, licorice (another super surprising presentation: when we arrived at out table we found a raw rhubarb hanging above us…
…we initially thought it was just for an unusual decoration, but when the waiter brought us this course, he just pulled it down with his right hand and using a truffle cutter (or similar tool) he sliced a little bit on our plates, fantastic!)
7. Lobster – curry, earl grey and grapefruit
8. Sweetbrads – orange, ginko nut, cinnamon chop sticks (another amusing presentation: de facto it was a simulation of a chinese take-away with the exception that the chopsticks were made of cinnamon. Brilliant!)
9. Lily Bulb – Rambutan, distillation of caviar lime (very delicate dish, when they served this one, they also brought a small coal fire …we all thought it was just a nice table decoration…what a naive we were…)
10. Pork Belly – parsnip, black trumpet, kombu (…in fact the above “coal fire” was simply our next dish”!)
11. Hot Potato – cold potato, black truffle, butter
12. Duck – Foie Gras, morel, dragon’s breath (another superb presentation)
13. Black Truffle – explosion, asparagus, parmesan (yes, it’s just a “raviolo”, but only when you have it in your mouth you understand what “explosion” does mean)
14. Watermelon – strawberry, avocado, sudachi (this starts the part of the dessert…surprises have not finished yet)
15. Blueberry – bubblegum, lilac, sorrel
16. Balloon – Helium, green apple (one of Achatz’s masterpieces, it’s a real balloon made of a sort of green apple candy paste. What you have to do is to pierce it with a needle and eat it…being careful it does not stick all around your face!)
17. Milk Chocolate – pâte sucrée, violet, hazelnut (in my opinion the most spectacular dish of the whole menu: de facto the pastry chef comes directly to your table and prepare the dessert in front of you…in your table! Then you need just to eat it just there)
Do I need to say more? Definitely so far one of the best restaurants I have visited. I thing I am not exaggerating if I say that it is almost worth a trip to Chicago per se.
The Aviary (a bit disappointing…at least not thinking to have a dinner)
Given that we learned that Achatz also owned another famous place in Chicago, The Aviary (well, in reality he owns also another restaurant, Next, but i could not visit it) , we decided also to go there and have a look. There are a lot a good reviews of this place in the web. It’s a cocktail bar and the concept is based on creating a true kitchen for the cocktails and caring them like they were a full fledge dishes (“where cocktails and service are given the same attention to detail as a four-star restaurant”).
The idea is indeed original and new, but if Alinea was simply amazing, The Aviary definitely disappointed us. We went there with the idea to drink a good cocktail but also eat something as an alternative to go to another restaurant. Probably we made the wrong decision, probably it’s more suitable for an a aperitif or an after dinner, but as a dinner choice I am not embarrassed to say it was a sort of disaster:
– we waited almost one hour to get in (we had not reserved, but the web site claims that 50-60% of the tables are always taken free for walk-in options)
– then we were informed that probably (after having been put on the waiting list for an hour) there was no chance to get in
– Finally we got in, we were asked to stay on a table in front of the cocktail kitchen…just standing, no chairs…I thought it was to start ordering whilst waiting for our table, but I realized after a minute that that was our table!
– Having waited so long, decided to stay and ordered a couple of drinks (you will see in a minute below, but i have to say they were very good and innovative) but asked, even if it was quite annoying to eat standing, for some food: they told us the could serve their “famous bites”. We opted for 4 (in total, not each): the egg, the wagyu slices, the BBQ chips and the foie gras snicker. When we saw the size immediately we realized why they are called “bites” (not sure if they are really famous)
– In the end, drinking two very good cocktails and eating a sort of sampling food … all time standing, we had the final jewel on the cake: a ridiculous bill (almost 70 USD each!)…i think this is a bit embarrassing Mr. Achatz.
In conclusion, I think innovative the concept of a cocktail bar with the care typically used in a restaurant (the place does not look a bar at all, there is not “the bar”, it looks more like a lounge/restaurant), but you cannot leave people that eat and drink standing without a bar, and above all, you cannot ask them to pay 70 USD each for a drink and a couple of “bites”.
and the “bites”…