Thursday, September 11, 2008

Chicago 5: Alinea

Alinea is the main reason I wanted to go to Chicago. Since I've been following restaurant ratings on The S. Pelligrino site, Alinea has been soaring up the list. As it's in the same city as long famous Charlie Trotters and new fish restaurant phenom L2O, when the opportunity came up to spend a few days with my cousin E and all this food, I was on my way.
When we arrived at Alinea for our 8:30 seating, an Alinean named Phil ushered us into the kitchen to watch the wizardry. Turns out he was familiar with Vancouver eateries, even having eaten at West, though unfortunately not trying one of E's brother's great cocktails.

We were first served a cocktail of Jane Ventura Cava with aloe pulp juice, Sauternes and vermouth to sip with the first amusey dish. The cocktail tasted like flowers, reminiscent of one of David's West cocktails. Alas, it did not cancel out the roe. The server gave us an elaborate description of this dish. There's some lemon foam and there's some Steelhead roe hand-harvested by Mr. Steelhead himself. Celery, grape, smoked salmon. Pictorially impressive. First taste: this is hideous. Then I had the foam without the roe and it grudgingly entered into the realm of the edible. The bits of smoked salmon are, at my politist, unsuccessfull. I'm afraid E and I drifted rather far from politeness in our descriptions of our disapointments. We'd had an excellent smoked salmon pizette back at the hotel in the afternoon, its unfishy salmoness far superior to what passed for poisson in our first dish. A vertiginous fall from last night's heights Chef Trotter had brought us to. Ok, this is only the first of many. The cava sure tastes good. The flowers bloom on.

There's an oyster in there somewhere. I hope it don't kill me. Also yuzu. Always loved yuzu. Yuzu vs Oyster, move over Godzilla. Which titanic taste will prevail?

Starts with peanut butter from distant childhood. Then, the yuzu of my early adulthood in the land of wondrous flavours. There's seaweed in there, but it doesnt taste so much like seaweed as it tastes like a freshly invented vegetable. Extraordinary. Oystermonster has been banished from my perception. A triumph. NO ONE has ever done that, served me oyster I didn't immediately want to regurgitate. Your body's chemical tolerances do not lie, no matter the genius of the chef.

Tomato: basil, mossarella, olive oil.
A bunch of frozen foam of some nature. A yellow tomato cube that tasted heirloomy. There's an intense basil which I love. But mostly, I'm being filled up with air. I think I'm basically gonna stop eating this.

Cant drink the cava cuz the basil will cancel its florality and the water isn't washing the basil imperium away and the appropriate wine has already been used up with its appropriate tomato cubisms. The wines kinda work but not what you'd expect at a restaurant like this. As a last resort, I consider the basil quenching properties of Alinea's fine bread. E insists I have some of its equally exquisite butter. She is right. I try and avoid restaurant bread like the plague but this works. In Tiny quantities. (no bread pic here. use your imagination)
Rouget: artichoke, garilc, bottarga. I looked up Rouget and it said sweet fish. I wish.
Fish is subtly explosive, if there is such a thing. There's kind of a cheesy aftertaste, which you don't expect from a piece of fish. Oh yeah, there's parmesan or whatever it is. It sticks to my teeth. Still, a much more satisfying experience than that eucalyptus I'd just been given, and I love eucalyptus, but as I told the guy, tastes like a cough drop.

The red thing didn't taste like artichoke to me but it tasted suggestively good and I do love artichokes. I had another bite of the fish and it was frighteningly bad. Without the artichoke and cheese, I wish it were not in my mouth.

Cobia: tobacco, radish, cedarwood.
I ask the guy, is this sugi? He doesn't know. It's sugiesque. One of the best smells in the world. Japanese bars, Japanese boxes, and many other things are full of this aromatic wood. This dish trys much more successfully than in other courses using scent, to use the aroma of this wondrous wood to enhance the flavour of whatever it is I'm supposed to be eating. A radish? A good idea.

I am suddenly in a party. A Japanese party. Appreciable things are appropriately appreciated.

The shiny think is a cellophane made out of chamomille. The rest isn't as memorable.

Nasturtium. abalone ginger eggplant. Considerable manual dexterity.

Abalone expands in pleasure the more you chew. The soup neither increases nor decreases the quality of the food.

E demonstrates the Hot Potato dish, full of tools and processes but no better tasting than a potato you would cook at home, though E enjoyed hers.
In the Sept. 2008 edition of Vancouver magazine, local chef Angus An, whose food I so enjoyed at Gastropod, spoke of his time at the molecular gastronomy epicentre, The Fat Duck in the UK. He describes "chefs using ostentatious techniques just to show they could, with no respect for ingredients." Kinda reminded me of this dish, and Alinea in general. We had the impression Charlie really cared about his ingredients, and the servers went on at great length about how and where the got them. Doesn't seem to be the operational philosophy here.
Transparency of raspberry, rose petal, yogurt. Fondness of modern sculpture.
It really did taste like raspberries. Just giving me a raspberry would have worked just as well.

Puke in a tube.

Lobster: popcorn, butter, baby corn. I love lobster and this really worked for me. The wine pairing however, magnified the corn, perhaps not the the ingredient I would have chosen to magnify. The mango cube is exquisite. Molecular gastronomy done right. I'm so full after this meal I have difficulty contemplating more food.

Black truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan. This was the dish I was waiting for, the chef's signature dish from his previous restaurant. I ate it. It was Ok. I'm no longer waiting.

Yuba (a soy product): shrimp, miso, tagarashi.
Slowly the orange floats to the surface, like a very ill jelly fish. Aside from the orange, there's nothing. E convinces me to persevere and I do find the shrimp, but it's no great find. An aftertaste of fried nothingness.

The vanilla bean thing E is demonstrating here was great when it was in my mouth but the paired cup of tea didn't dissolve it sufficiently so my mouth is full of sticky bits. Gross.
Not shown, the short rib, Guinness, peanut and fried broccoli that flashed me back to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches of my childhood, not the sort of memory I expect or even care for with beef. The wine pairing wasn't so much as pairing as it was a glass of wine next to me and some food. A nefarious coincidence.
A refreshing watermelon palate cleanser with green coriander, tamari and bonito. Also something called Oxalis Pot (sweet, hot, sour, salty, instantly foregetable). Epoisses: fig, coffee, tarragon and Rhubarb with ginger and basil. E deduced we were supposed to eat these small things all at the same time, instead of individually. To appreciate them at their peak would mean forgoing photography, conversation or contemplation, just cramming oddities in your mouth.
Lamb, potato, sunflower foam, sweet spice. The foam was fantastic, a good reason to come here for. The wine didn't make it any worse, but neither did it make the dish any better.
Some of the last courses were so stunningly bad, I seemed to be entering new territory in the opposite direction from Charlie's last night. We eventually left without finishing the whole Tour.
As we left Charlies (and headed over to the bar on the 96th floor of the Hancock building for some Very scenic cocktails), we were so stuffed we wondered if we could get stomach transplants. As we were filling up at Alinea, there was no thought of getting new stomachs for more great food, just a kind of soddeness. I wondered if I was out of my league in terms of fine dining, not prepared for the subtleties I'd just encountered. Maybe traveling around to great restaurants isn't such a good idea after all. Maybe I was just depressed from this particular dining experience. The experiments I think are a good thing. Why have food only cooked in familiar ways, if there are new ways that can expand our pleasure from the suddenly available interplay of ingredients and techniques? But like all experiments, failure is the sea and success only the miraculously rare fish.


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