June 14, 2014

US excursion 2014: Salty molecular Chinese in Chicago

Pin It

Tonight was always gonna be the highlight of this trip.  As soon as I found out that the conference was gonna be in Chicago, Alinea became the must-do dinner.  And as soon as the restaurant opened up their June bookings on April 15th (OK, I lied... I was drunk on the evening of April 15th, so I didn't book until the 16th) I visited the website and got myself tickets for tonight.

The main worry about tonight, though, was whether Mo' Unni and I would be fighting jet lag during dinner.  I would arrive only 1 day earlier, and Mo' Unni would be arriving only hours before.  Would either or both of us be falling asleep at the table?

We arrived at our appointed seating time of 5:30 p.m., which would be the second time I'm having dinner this early at one of the world's top restaurants this year (the other being dinner at Sukiyabashi Jiro).  I'm at least grateful that I didn't overindulge at lunch, so I had plenty of stomach space.

Anyway, after we walked through the front door and down the dark corridor, we entered the actual foyer and were led to the entrance to the kitchen.  I paused for a couple of minutes, taking a picture while observing the action within.  No Grant.  Not unless he shaved both his head and his facial hair.  Oh well...

After confirming that neither of us had dietary restrictions - and I would have bet money that Mo' Unni had to have at least a few things on her list - we sat back and waited to be hit with 16 courses over the next 4 hours.  And since Mo' Unni wasn't in any shape to do any serious drinking, I decided to try out the restaurant's wine pairing - which would consist of 10 different wines.

Osetra: traditional - osetra caviar from Bulgaria, with yolk custard, brioche foam, gelée of capers, lemon and red onions.  A very interesting, deconstructed take on the traditional caviar on blinis.

R.H. Coutier Brut - nice bubbles and mousse, very ripe, nice and full-bodied, woody and oaky.

Salsify: branch camouflage - we were presented with a wreath of kiwi vines, and asked to locate our next course.  The salsify was dehydrated and marinated in soy and shallots.  Lots of umami, but very, very salty.

Skate: brown butter, lemon, herb stems - we were asked to hold out one hand, on which this "hand plate" was placed.  The Atlantic spotted skate wing was poached in beurre noisette, and placed on top of a bed of 3 different type of ground grains, garnished with chervil and dill flower.  The skate wing was pretty good, but I couldn't get enough of that beurre noisette... especially with some lemon citrus providing a little acidity.

2011 Georg Breuer Terra Montosa Riesling - very heavy petrol in the nose, smoky, white flowers, steely and flinty, with plasticky notes which were rounder and richer than most other German Rieslings.  This was actually slightly sweet and ripe on the palate, not bone dry as Andrew the sommelier described.

Lobster: curry, earl grey, grapefruit - the lobster claw and tail were seasoned with Indian curry sauce, with a very tasty lobster bisque in the middle. On the sides were little coconut dots, spherical grapefruit pearls, Earl Grey cubes, compressed cucumber, a clump of wild rye crispies, and a custard made with cauliflower and vanilla.  Interesting, but not sure why all these diverse flavors were put together on the same plate.

2010 Domaine de l'Octavin Pamina - this Chardonnay from Arbois matched the rice crispies really well, with its very heavy toasty corn nose that was raw, pungent, and just a little overpowering.  From the looks of it this was probably not filtered nor fined.

Sweetbreads: orange, ginko nut, cinnamon chop sticks - this came in a Chinese take-out box with a plastic bag, and one picks up the contents of the box with a pair of cinnamon sticks, which had been burnt at one end to release the fragrance.

This was supposed to mimic the American Chinese dish of orange chicken (eh? I always thought it was lemon chicken or orange beef?!), except they used veal sweetbreads which had been battered and fried.  I could have sworn that there was Chinese five spice (五香) here...  There were also dehydrated spring onions, heart of palm, ginkgo nuts and pickled crosnes (寶塔菜) - which turned out to be surprisingly crunchy without cooking.   A very playful dish.

2011 Domaine du Viking Vouvray Tendre - aged in chestnut casks.  Definitely fragrant nose with an off-dry palate.

Ebi: broccoli stem, yuzu, sea grape - grilled Hawaiian sweet shrimp (甘海老) with broccoli stem and sea grapes (海葡萄) on a layer of fried kelp.

Wagyu: parsnip, black trumpet, kombu - before we started on the Chinese take-out box, this was placed on our table, and we were told to ignore its existence.  Then, before the start of the last course, this was lit on fire and left to burn for a while...

Then it was taken aside and the items removed while the fire was still kinda going.  The parsnip "charcoal" at the top was removed, and the staff fished out the piece of A5 BMS 12 wagyu from Kagoshima (鹿児島) that had been hidden in the middle.  It had been cooked sous vide, quickly seared, wrapped in konbu (昆布), and was resting at temperature for a while before being kept warm by the fire.  Both the parsnip and the beef were sliced and placed on the serving "plates"...

The beef was served with the parsnip, which had been cooked sous vide in the fat of the wagyu.  The parsnip was way, way salty.  There was a small chunk of trompette de la mort pudding and some deep-fried trompette de la mort.  Some parsnip cream was hidden below a layer of cuttlefish ink and soy gel, and this was also incredibly salty.  A ribbon of the kelp that had been wrapped around the beef was served, which had lots of umami and would have tasted rather salty normally, but which now seemed bland in comparison with the other parts of the dish.

The Kagoshima wagyu, with the highest marbling score - was indeed very marbled and fatty.

Sato no Homare Junmai Ginjoshu "Pride of the Village" (郷の誉 純米吟醸酒) - an unfiltered sake from one of my favorite breweries, with a seimaibuai (精米歩合) of 48%.  This was pretty sweet, rich in body, with fermented rice, pineapple and banana notes.

Lily bulb: rambutan, distillation of caviar lime - at this point we were convinced that previous reports of Alinea going Chinese/Asian were true...  This palate-cleanser featured raw lily bulbs that were crunchy and refreshing, sweet rambutan, caviar of finger limes as well as some beautiful petals. Curiously the kitchen decided to add some salt to the acidic lime juice...

Rhubarb: celery root, celery branch, licorice - when we arrived, we quickly noticed that a stem of rhubarb hung directly above each table.

As this course was served, the stem was removed and shavings were made on top of our bowls.  There was also a section of rhubarb stalk that had been poached in red wine, a custard of celeriac and celery stems.  The inside the bowl had been coated with a layer of licorice and molasses, which now lent their distinctive flavors to the mix.

2013 A Tribute to Grace Rose of Grenache - My Beloved Cousin would call this lolly water, and I'd have to agree with her.  Besides the obvious sweetness, my first thought was "bubblegum"... and Mo' Unni also thought it was just so Bubblicious... Also a little banana, and slightly ripe on the palate.

Wood ear: pig ear, allium, black garlic - OK, so now we came to the full realization that we were actually having Chinese... Some braised wood ear fungus (which were, as expected, pretty salty as well as smoky) were served with allium flowers, alongside some fried wood ears.  There was a strip of deep-fried pig's ear, next to some tasty black garlic sauce.  Parmesan sauce was present as well as a Parmesan cracker, and cubes of smoked Anjou pear complete the picture.

2012 Jamsheed Beechworth Shiraz - I was eager to try out this wine, which Andrew the sommelier had described as an "Australian Syrah" instead of a Shiraz.  Well, he was right.  While it had plenty of ripeness, it was cool fruit instead of the usual fruit bomb, along with lots of potpourri, pine needles and mint.  We both agreed that it reminded us of a Northern Rhône like Saint-Joseph.

Black truffle: explosion, asparagus, parmesan - a little ravioli with a liquid black truffle filling, topped with the tip of an asparagus spear and a thin slice of Parmesan.  Yeah, this was very salty, too.

Duck: foie gras, morel, dragon's breath - a dish with several parts.  First came a vase which sprouted "dragon's breath", which was the scent of garlic, (spring?) onions and ginger - basically 薑蔥 in everyday Chinese cooking.  This filled our lungs while we took in the remainder of the dish...

Then there was a duck-shaped container, whose top was removed to reveal these little dumplings... The green ones had morel mousseline wrapped with perilla (紫蘇) leaves, and the white ones were duck mousseline and foie gras.

Finally came other parts of the duck, which included duck breast, duck heart (which was salty), and a puff potato containing duck thigh confit (which seemed to be liquid).  The deep-fried shreds of garlic roots were very tasty, and the fiddlehead fern was interesting.  The white asparagus was surprisingly spicy, as was the white cylinder which was "solid dragon's breath".  A hodgepodge of flavors here, but I'm really not sure why they belong together.

2009 Marion Valpolicella Superiore - forest and potpourri notes.

Watermelon: strawberry, avocado, sudachi - compressed watermelon with a sprinkle of both strawberry snow and avocado snow.  Pretty nice.

2013 Jorge Ordonez No. 2 Victoria - definitely a lot like Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, although the lychee was a little dialed down.  Sweetness was there, but slightly pungent with perhaps some sulfur.  Still young and raw.

Blueberry: bubblegum, lilac, sorrel - blueberries done multiple ways - including crunch, powder...etc., with bubblegum noodles, lilac, yogurt, blood orange dots and sorrel leaves.

Balloon: helium, green apple - so now came the famous balloons, and we had watched other tables try to eat this but with awkward results.  Made from green apple taffy, both the balloon itself as well as the "leather string" were edible.  I was disappointed that there wasn't enough helium, since I sounded more like Donald Duck instead of Alvin the Chipmunk after inhaling...

Milk chocolate: pâte sucrée, violet, hazelnut - the original version of Uwe's various painted desserts is from here.  The centerpiece was made with pâte sucrée, armagnac butterscotch and milk chocolate pudding.  The frozen meringue on top was a little weird, and almost tasted a little salty or ammonia.  Nevermind the candied basil on top.  On the sides were sweetened crème fraîche, violet puddles, frozen hazelnuts and brown brittle.  I really enjoyed the chocolate pudding with the butterscotch...

2009 Maculan Torcolato - nutty with orange blossom, peach and blood orange notes.

Unfortunately, tonight was one of those times when very high expectations were not met.  I was not blown away, and this wasn't one of the best meals of my life.  There certainly wasn't anything wrong the the technical execution of any of the dishes, nor do I doubt Grant Achatz's creativity.  No, one of tonight's problems was that a significant portion of the dishes featured very Asian - and in particular Chinese - elements, but the chef has no fundamental background and understanding behind Chinese cuisine.  Often there were simply too many elements on a single plate, and I couldn't see how they were all meant to work together - and they often did not.  As I remarked to a friend, if I wanted to have molecular Chinese food, I'd go to Bo Innovation in Hong Kong.

The other big problem tonight was that so many dishes were simply over-seasoned and salty, and Mo' Unni had the same feeling.  Grant Achatz wasn't in the kitchen tonight, so was the seasoning coming from the chef de cuisine?!  Or was this the Alinea "house style", and we were simply not accustomed to it or we don't "get it"?!  We told our waiter several times, and his reply?  "We've told the kitchen several times already".  I guess we weren't the only ones who thought the food was salty!

Sigh.  Until Grant decides to go off his Asian/Chinese phase, I don't think there's any reason for us to return anytime soon...


Anonymous said...

Went to Aliena a few years back, and the food tasted sweet rather than salty. Think Mr.Achatz lost part of his tongue.

Anonymous said...

highly overrated restaurant. charlie trotter's was much better representation of chicago's best. alinea is unique in the midwest and thus the "premium" attached. lots of hype attached to alinea.

Derek said...

Good report. Thanks.

Alvin Leung said...

Thanks for mentioning Bo. I must invite you over for the new dishes. Alvin.

scubagolfer said...

Half way thru the excellent article & I was thinking about 'Bo Innovation' already.

Salty molecular Chinese...think I'll pass^^


Related Posts with Thumbnails

TripAdvisor Travel Map