Alinea | Chicago | Feb ’14 | “pack in the plebs”

1 Mar
  • Address: 1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
  • Phone:(312) 867-0110
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $340
  • Courses: (13 main/13 total) 10 savory / 3 dessert
  • Price/Main Course: $31
  • Rating: 16.5/20
  • Value: 1/5
  • Dining Time: 138 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 10.5 minutes
  • Chef: Mike Bagale
  • Style: molecular
  • Michelin Stars: 3
  • Notable: Widely considered the best restaurant in America from around 2007-2011

2014-02-28 23.25.21

I had waited for two years to dine at Alinea. In 2012 I was denied the opportunity when Alinea suspended taking reservations for two months while they got their new ticketing system set up. In 2013, I had set-up a virtual assistant to watch over Alinea cancellations for the one Wednesday I was back in Chicago (I did my math, about 75% of the time, a Wednesday 2-top or 4-top would be released), but it didn’t happen.

But for my birthday, I managed to snag a 2-top for Friday way in advance. But perhaps I shouldn’t have bothered. What a disappointment. Firstly, the legendary meals lasting 4 hours, with 23 course extravaganzas are long over. Alinea’s hey-day, it seems from browsing food posts on Chowhound and blogs, was 2005-2011. Alinea has streamlined down to 13 courses. (14 if you count the birthday surprise). But a by-product is that meals last about 2 hours, maybe 2.5 hours tops. Considering that I had been royally entertained at Schwa for 3.5 hours the night before at half the cost of Alinea’s top-of-the-line price ($340 per pax), I felt I was just one more diner in a conveyor belt fine-dining experience. You come, and for two hours, are mildly entertained by a parade of Harry Potter dishes. Then you leave and another couple comes take your place. Encapsulating what I felt was the scene before me. A couple from Pittsburgh (Alinea neophytes, like me) had flown in, and taken the wine pairing (probably at 530pm). They were out by 730pm making gushing noises, and at 8pm another identical couple (Alinea neophytes, once again), had flown in, and taken their place at the same table. Quelle horreur! The thought occurred to me: what if this table was turned over three times a night, with 3 identikit mid-30s couples taking their seats again and again? Was this the theatre of the absurd, the Myth of Sisyphus incarnate? Certainly our servers, in serving the same tricks to the four occupied tables on the first floor, seemed to be afflicted by a peculiar type of whimsy without fun.

Secondly, the tables are too close together, strengthening the nagging suspicion that Alinea is now in the pack-in-the-plebs stage of its existence. It doesn’t matter when there’s loud music like Schwa, but in a hushed gastronomic temple vibe like Alinea, the tables can be too uncomfortably close for conversation. (It reminded me of another bad offender, Restaurant Andre in Singapore.) It didn’t afflict our table, but that’s because we were fairly experienced diners – but Alinea has a duty to its neophyte diners too. The two tables to my left were clearly special occasion tables, and they were uncomfortable with the table distance for their whole two hours, and spoke in hushed whispers. I felt for them – more personal space should have been given.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the flavours were too safe. Peruvian food is fine, but if I wanted to eat straight up Peruvian I would go to a Peruvian restaurant. Duck with 60 pairings? I once made the terrible mistake in Prague of seasoning my own steak tartare, which came out a tasteless mingy meat-mash, instead of being a delicious glob of myoglobin. From that fiasco, I learnt that the genius of the chef is in his proportioning the dish just right. So proportioning the seasonings to my own duck came across to me as a gimmick. A orange-sweetbread in the style of Panda Express was simply awful. Deconstructed Indian food remained deconstructed and never came together. The highs were a rambutan and finger-lime (what is it with finger-limes and Chicago? I’ve had them twice in a row, and nowhere else) jelly dish, and the signature hot potato cold potato. But they were few and far between. I came to Alinea because I heard that Grant Achatz was that rarest of chefs, someone who combined the molecular wizardry of Harry Potter food, with a sensitive understanding of flavor combinations. But rare glimpses aside (the rambutan dish), the tastes were big and one-dimensional, rarely emphasising interplay of two or god-forbid, three ingredients. In short, it felt like I was served merely Harry Potter food.

If Alinea continues turning out meals of this quality, it is hard to see how it can maintain three Michelin stars on merit for much longer.

____________

2014-02-28 21.12.20

CHAR ROE: banana, ginger, passion fruit (3.5/5)

Banana cream and passionfruit foam, with roe of char (similar to “ikura”, except ikura is roe of salmon). This was okay, primarily distinguished for the rocking bowl it was served in that thwarted a good picture of it for about 15 seconds.

2014-02-28 21.17.37 2014-02-28 21.17.44 2014-02-28 21.19.05

SCALLOP: citrus aroma, thirteen textures (3.5/5)

Yuzu, lemon grass and lemon verbena formed the hazy citrus aroma. A very pretty pot and clam shell hid a carbonated ceviche sauce, with Maine diver scallop, and some onions. It was all told, simply Peruvian ceviche with Maine scallop. Not unpleasant, but unspectacular in substance. Maine scallop was more to be applauded for its bare fact of existence on our plates (this year’s Maine scallop catch has been low and some areas have prematurely ended their season by imposing moratoriums) than its taste, which lacked the sweetness of scallops I had recently in Momofuku Ko and Peru’s Maido and tasted more meaty than anything.
2014-02-28 21.26.40

LOBSTER: curry, earl grey, grapefruit (3.5/5)

From Peru to India. A cumin and puffed rice ball; dehydrated yoghurt; curry and carrot puree sauces; grapefruit “caviar”. I, who sang the praises of Schwa the night before in tripling-up lobster, citrus and earl grey, am puzzled by the appearance of earl grey on the menu. I did not taste any earl grey anywhere. Anyway, the deconstructed Indian food dish never came together. I dislike deconstructed dishes which do not in some way proportion the food. Was I meant to mix it all up? But it was too big and there were so many ingredients. Was I to bite each ingredient individually? But where is the harmony?…

2014-02-28 21.26.09

A precursor to a future dish was also set down in front of us.

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EBI: celtuce, caramelized miso, yuzu (3.75/5)

Most memorable for the clean taste of celtuce cubes (something like braised kai-lan, for Southeast Asian readers). Again, pleasant without being mindblowing. The precursor to the next dish was set on fire.

2014-02-28 21.39.11 2014-02-28 21.39.52 2014-02-28 21.40.02 2014-02-28 21.40.10 2014-02-28 21.40.20

2014-02-28 21.41.57

WAGYU: parsnip, black trumpet, kombu (4.25/5)

A5 wagyu is the highest grade of wagyu obtainable in the United States, it was precooked and for visual efffect roasted in a fire, along with roasted parsnip (tastes like carrot with the texture of ginseng) and a black trumpet puree, with a strip of (mushroom?) leather and (parsnip?) cream. This was not bad. The beef was a bit lukewarm, but I can’t complain given the long period where it was sitting in the fire, pretending to cook while actually cooling down.

2014-02-28 21.52.54

LILY BULB: rambutan, distillation of caviar lime (4.75/5)

The first dish which I enjoyed for its sake alone, this was a palate cleansing dish after the rich wagyu. Slivers of lily bulb (bai he, an occasional ingredient in Cantonese cooking usually used for shrimp or vegetables), with shaved rambutan, and squeezed-out sacs (vesicles) of finger lime, and finger lime jelly, with a distilled syrup of finger lime and ginger. One advantage of using finger-lime, as I understand it, is that its vesicles or “citrus caviar” is easily squeezed out. This dish was vaguely Southeast Asian in provenance, combining the rambutan and lily bulb with the Australian finger lime. Very refreshing.

2014-02-28 22.02.07

SWEETBREADS: orange, ginko nut, mustard (2/5)

“Done in the style of Panda Express” said my server. I would not consider that a compliment. Sweetbreads, fried in the style of Sino-American “orange chicken” (cornstarch, flour, egg), is sat in an orange sauce, with a gingko nut and carrot sauce around the plate. This was uncannily similar to Chinese take-out food. Perhaps this was the intention, but I came to Alinea specifically to eat something unique, not take-out Chinese, and I couldn’t help feeling that a course had been wasted on providing verisimilitude to something I normally take pains to avoid eating. I mean, sure, Alinea can probably make the greatest donner kebab in the world, complete with day-old spit grease, but that doesn’t mean I want to eat a donner kebab at Alinea…

2014-02-28 22.10.07

WOOD EAR: pig ear, allium, black garlic (4/5)

Wood ear, or “mu er” in Chinese is a black fungus that has the texture of jellyfish – very similar to the European fungus jew’s ear. Here it was set with a deep fried pig’s ear (delicious, but can we have more than a single sliver?), and black garlic and onion sauces made savory with parmesan. What was interesting to this Chinese palate was the pig’s ear, which was really expertly fried. At this point of the meal, I sensed a disconnect – perhaps this sort of “world cuisine” could have been mindblowing to someone who had not been eating wood ear and pig’s ear since childhood. Perhaps the novelty of the rambutan dish would have been starker if I wasn’t intimately familiar with all ingredients. The ceviche dish I might have considered top class, if I hadn’t been to Peru the month before, and tried ceviche ten different ways. To this Southeast Asian Chinese diner, Alinea’s Chinese-inspired dishes were solid but not mindblowing. Similarly to a Peruvian traveller, that Peruvian dish would be merely solid.

2014-02-28 22.17.32

HOT POTATO: cold potato, black truffle, butter (4.75/5)

This Alinea signature was luxuriantly rich, a hot sphere of Yukon potato topped with a slice of black truffle and butter and Parmesan cheese, into a cold truffle soup. A pin preserves the temperature of the individual ingredients, before being dropped into the soup. Time-sensitive, and every bit as good as people claim it to be.

2014-02-28 22.24.03 2014-02-28 22.24.34 2014-02-28 22.24.56

2014-02-28 22.25.26

DUCK: ……..?????…………!!!!!!!!!!!!! (4/5)

60 different garnishes for 5 different preparations of duck. I think there was roast, confit, foie gras with a graham cracker base. “Choose your own adventure” with the toppings, the servers advised. As I said above, the genius of the chef is in his proportioning the dish just right. So proportioning the seasonings to my own duck came across to me as a gimmick. All parts were well prepared, but this dish was clearly an effect dish, rather than a tribute to the vision and taste of a single chef.

2014-02-28 22.43.23

PISTACHIO: marscapone, strawberry, black walnut (4.25/5)

A pleasant dish of pistachio gelato, marscapone, lemon gel sphere, Missouri-black-walnut chocolate cake, and dehydrated strawberry marshmallow. Good, solid.

2014-02-28 22.50.02 2014-02-28 22.51.38 2014-02-28 22.52.43

BALLOON: helium, green apple (5/5)

Hehehe. Finally, an effect dish that is so one-of-a-kind it makes the experience of dining at Alinea worth it! Another Alinea signature – the green apple balloon is filled with Helium and brought to diners anchored to a pin. Diners bring their mouths to the balloon, and gently… kiss it, sucking out the helium and making funny noises. It’s a riot. Also very messy.

Making of Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGMCmbLq2qs

2014-02-28 22.57.18 2014-02-28 22.57.30

Birthday Course: Chocolate Ball with Creme Anglaise

Happy birthday A+K!

2014-02-28 23.04.59 2014-02-28 23.07.20

MILK CHOCOLATE: pâte sucrée, violet, hazelnut (3.25/5)

Another Alinea signature technique: a dessert is plated on a whole table, covered with a silicon mat. A chef plates it in two minutes. The milk chocolate and frozen milk had a bit of a sour tinge that didn’t appeal to me, though the pate sucrees (very similar to kueh bangkit or Bengawan Solo’s nut pastries, for Southeast Asian readers) was the best part of the dish. Notes on visual effects: The squares come from micro-protrusions in the silicon tablecloth, which the violet syrup would settle into a square if it’s the right viscosity. The colour change of certain squares to blue uses a natural pH indicator, the squares of which are added citric acid, I think.

2014-02-28 23.22.25

____________

After I returned, I logged onto Chowhound, and through the mass of reviews, I noticed a trend among the sentiments of repeat Alinea diners in the last year: they too concurred that Alinea had been losing a bit of its sparkle:

Sadly you might have noticed a trend there. My first four Alinea dinners remain among my several meals ever but recently I had a fairly disappointing experience. My meal lasted barely over two hours (prior meals were nearly four), service not as attentive or friendly as with prior visits. Also some amateur mistakes were made, such as we were twice asked if we needed a cab, both times said “no” and as we were leaving were informed our cab was waiting (not something you expect from a three Michelin star venue regarded as one of the world’s best). While some of the courses were memorable and phenomenal (loved the scallop course and the corn dessert) and a couple other quite good, a majority of the menu was no different (or only tweaked) from my last visit nearly a year back (and a few unchanged from my first meal there – including a rather boring, uninspired ginger course that is fine once but weak as a repeat and ridiculous the fifth time).

Chef Achatz has been spending less time in house (turning a lot of the creative and executive duties to Chef Bagale), they lost some wonderful front of house staff and Achatz/Kokonas seem as though they have placed expansion of their brand and maximizing profits ahead of customer satisfaction and trying to continue having Alinea evolve and improve. To an extent they seem to be coasting on their reputation and past success (which can only carry you for so long). While I hope this is just a hiccup in Alinea’s lifespan and Achatz and company rise to the challenge and opt to make another push towards Alinea becoming the world’s best restaurant (they certainly have the talent), unfortunately Alinea may be past her prime and Grace very well could become widely regarded as Chicago’s top venue in the not too distant future.

I found my last dining experience at Alinea to be a very poor value – especially if you have dined there within eighteen months and are expecting a significantly different menu rather than a watered down version of what you previously consumed with a handful of new courses interspersed. Several fine dining venues just in Chicago now have better service (Grace and Boka really shine in this area), most undergo significant menu changes seasonally (Grace, Moto, Boka, El Ideas, Sixteen, Elizabeth for example) and Grace and Goosefoot have IMHO better tasting food (with others such as Moto, El Ideas, Schwa, L2O, Boka and Elizabeth serving nearly as good cuisine). All of these venues are less money (some considerably so) and aside from Elizabeth do not require the hassle of non-refundable tickets (and Elizabeth does have some flexibility with regards to tickets sales if a conflict arises).

Alinea is certainly no longer the United States’ best restaurant and unless improvements are made it is no longer head and shoulders above other top tier venues in Chicago. – user Gonzo70 at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/928306#8525639

I hope that this ultimately disappointing visit to Alinea is a hiccup, and the Alinea that stood head-over-shoulders over all other restaurants in Chicago will return. Until then, it is doubtful I will revisit any time soon.

Memory: Lily Bulb with Rambutan, Hot Potato Cold Potato, Green Apple Balloon

Other Notable Links: 

3 Responses to “Alinea | Chicago | Feb ’14 | “pack in the plebs””

  1. ellenost June 30, 2014 at 10:44 am #

    Agree 100% with you about Alinea. I planned my trip to Chicago around securing a reservation at Alinea, and my dinner also lasted a bit longer than 2 hours. Alinea was my most disappointing dinner in 2012. I found the servers took the dinner too seriously. There was no joy to the meal. I remember only being told what to do/not to do. They definitely need to take a lesson from the service at Eleven Madison Park.

    • kentiong June 30, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

      Sorry you had a similar experience, given that the entire team was exposed to EMP practices during the “21st Century” Swap. Only speaks to the degree of corporatisation Alinea the restaurant has gone through.

      For example, I ate at Grace the next day. Even though Grace turns tables as well, they did it with such *grace* that I felt I could linger on for at least another 30-60 minutes with a coffee, and if I was still there I could have sat pleasantly in their lounge. At Alinea, once the curtain fell on our meal, it was as if the servers shut off our table, and the “theatrical” spotlight then fell on other tables who were receiving the show. we felt uncomfortable lingering on, and thus didn’t.

      Another minor gripe. Would it kill the kitchen to serve mignardises and petit-fours? (Maybe it kills the bottom line, because these encourage lingering and taking your time…) It smells of corporate “maximal advertisement” to have 13 courses on your menu (small, all timed to have a maximum of 5-10 minutes to eat) and serve exactly 13 courses.

      Between the:
      (A) table-turning,
      (B) having Alinea offering you nothing either side of the main 13 courses (timed at ~2 hours) long,
      (C) feeling as though the service staff had moved on to the newer tables,

      Alinea just felt like a commodity molecular-gastronomy experience, like a molecular McDonald’s meal. The dining experience felt optimised to hell by some narrow business metrics, and what comes to mind is actually a strong front-of-house resemblance to the chain restaurant L’Atelier Robuchon.

      (in fact, the discomfiture of lingering is straight out of the actual McDonald’s playbook against teen lingering)

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