Thursday, June 15, 2006

Alinea: In City That Thinks Big, Restaurant Makes No Small Plans

Chicago's long been known as a city that takes risks, that makes no small plans as favorite son Daniel Burnham exhorted. So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the city that spawned the skyscraper should also be home to perhaps the most innovative restaurant in the country, Lincoln Park’s Alinea.

While comparing fine dining to architecture might seem a bit of a stretch, their fundamentals are not dissimilar. If form and function are the bywords of evolved modern architecture, then the same hold true for Chef Grant Achatz’ cuisine. Inspired by the ingredients and food, Achatz creates evolved, progressive dishes, the likes of which most of the world has neither seen nor savored.

Though at first glance Alinea’s food might appear complicated or gimmicky, ultimately the food makes sense. If there are ten ingredients in a dish, each one makes its appearance—if even briefly—as it plays hopscotch across your palate. As with refined, modern architecture that follows the “form follows function” maxim, each ingredient on the plate has a role to play—no item is superfluous.

At first you might think a three-day fast might be in order given the 12-course tasting menu ($125)—or certainly the 24-course tour ($175)—but such precautions are unnecessary. On the day I dined there, I ran eight miles to ensure I would be good and hungry, and left the restaurant feeling plenty satisfied—but not bloated—by the petite, flavor-packed courses.

When dining at Alinea, it’s unlikely you’ll ingest any dish that you’ve had before. While you may have eaten Kobe beef, it’s unlikely you’ve encountered the tender beef layered with honeydew, cucumber, and lime rocks—to name just a few of the accompanying ingredients. Achatz and his team inject a bit of science and unconventional techniques to create powders, purées, aromas and tastes that have placed the restaurant securely on the culinary map.

Course descriptions, like the décor, favor minimalism. For every ingredient listed on the menu, another one or two are revealed when the dish is decorously placed before diners on oversized tables. A lover of aroma, Achatz has gone so far as to have tables stand higher than usual, so diners are that much closer to seeing—and smelling—the food.

Two dishes are as much about smell as taste: the first, a small, dumpling-shaped morsel of lamb, akudjura (an Australian bush tomato) and niçoise olives, lies hidden in a nest of eucalyptus leaves. While the fragrance of the warmed leaves imparts a subtle flavor to the bite-sized course, it also wafts around the table, offering a soothing dose of aromatherapy at the meal’s start.

Arguably, Achatz’ affinity for mastering aroma is best exhibited by a halibut dish that arrives announced by a large linen pillow injected with fragrant orange vapor. Serving as placemat and landing pad, the pillow slowly releases its heady contents, enveloping the table in citrus perfume. Moments later, a large, shallow bowl lands atop the pillow, releasing more orange perfume, while offering a visual feast. Scattered across the plate like a colorful, whimsical Matisse collage, an array of diminutive and colorful morsels including the tender halibut itself, garlic, artichokes, ham, orange puree, green pepper, vanilla, white anchovy and pickled carrots—among others—provide additional aroma and flavor. (Paired with a glass of Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape that served as perfect complement, this course on its own would render giddy even the most fickle foodie.)

Dishes often feature layers of flavors, one melting into the next, so that each bite and course offers a progression of tastes, textures and sensations. One of my favorites, nicknamed “the tennis ball” for its appearance, consists of a cocoa butter curry ball filled with pear sorbet floating in a shot glass-like vessel filled with celery water. I harbored doubts about the celery water, but found the juice…extract…whatever—to be refreshing, flavorful, and an inspired match for the spicy curry, mild cocoa butter and sweet pear.

Other standouts included a dish of tender chunks of crab with peas, yuzu and lavender that resembled a colorful Japanese wood block print and a finishing course of chocolate accompanied by elderflower and green tea powder. Given the multiple courses, I had a few other favorites, but with a constantly evolving, seasonal menu, these may be replaced or modified tomorrow or in two months.

Boasting one of the city’s acclaimed sommeliers, Joseph Catterson, Alinea offers a well-balanced, extensive wine list, including reasonably-priced options. Justifiably proud of their rare and diverse collection, staff speak knowledgeably and effusively about their wines. Pairings can be customized and run approximately two-thirds the cost of either of the two menus. Rare and ultra-premium bottles are also available.

Having enjoyed Catterson’s inspired picks during his stint at Trio, I again deferred to his expertise. Though my endurance flagged during the last dessert pairing of a syrupy, potent Toro Albalá “Don PX” 1971 Gran Reserva, I managed to enjoy eleven flavorful wines. Some of my favorites included a full-bodied Wieninger Nussberg “Alte Reben” 2003, Albert Mann Pinot Auxerrois 2004, Dal Fari Schioppettino, Colli Orientali Del Friuli 2004, and a Dry Creek Valley Dashe Late Harvest Zinfandel 2005.

Achatz and his team carry their philosophy of freshness and minimalism into the kitchen. Perhaps the most stunning modernist kitchen in America, the Alinea workroom is a piece of art itself, but boasts one solitary refrigerator, since nearly everything served at the restaurant is delivered daily.

Due to its popularity, tables on weekend nights at the restaurant can be hard to come by (there are some poor fools who cancel, so it never hurts to check last minute). Whatever night of the week you visit, reservations are required.

Knowledgeable, efficient staff provide helpful insights into how to approach the food that is served on custom-made tableware which is sometimes unusual and often as original as the food. The three sedate, minimalist dining rooms seem a world away from the hurly burly of the city just outside on Halsted Street.

If this is all sounding a bit stuffy, you can rest assured that all types visit the restaurant’s three dining salons. That said, Alinea is for diners looking to enjoy a novel culinary experience, not for diners looking for traditional upscale restaurant meals consisting of an appetizer, entrée and dessert.

Achatz describes food as “evolving through the generations and taking natural steps forward.” Undoubtedly, as acclaimed by press and foodies around the world, the Chicagoan’s cuisine has further elevated the experience of dining. In the same way that architects Sullivan, Wright and van der Rohe transformed architecture, so has Achatz redefined our approach to fine dining.

If ardor for food and extreme attention to detail sound a little off-putting, Alinea may not be your cup, er plate, of green tea powder. However, if the thought of a dining experience unlike any other featuring dishes that often smack of genius makes your heart beat a little faster (as it did mine), then Alinea is unlikely to disappoint.

1723 North Halsted, Chicago

Monday, May 1, 2006

The ABC’s of Wine Collecting

It’s no secret that Chicago area residents consume a great quantity of wine, as if Lake Michigan were some North American version of the Mediterranean (albeit with blizzards instead of balmy winter days). With wine super stores and myriad smaller shops sprinkled throughout the area, Chicagoans seem to consume wine as if we’d grown up in Sicily or Provence.

But perhaps there’s something else going on here. Maybe Chicagoans—ever mindful of the joys of food and beverage—are simply discovering the manifold pleasures of the diverse and infinitely pleasure-inducing world of wine.

With Americans on pace to exceed the French as the number one quaffers of vino, Chicagoans are riding the crest of a rising tide of wine drinkers in the U.S. One by one, we’ve discovered the seemingly endless offerings of the world’s unique and arcane offerings, from prosecco and ice wine, to pinot noir and barolo. So perhaps it’s not surprising that we’re pursuing with equal zeal the storied and rewarding pastime of wine collecting.

According to Kevin Mohally of Northbrook’s Knightsbridge Wine Shoppe, wine collecting has nearly doubled in the past few years. More interesting is the diversity of recent collectors. “Quite a few kids coming out of college are now interested in collecting,” Mohally observes. And according to Robert Canales of Mainstreet Wine Shop in Countryside, an established corp of collectors regularly visits his store in Countryside, seeking traditional collecting wines, as well as über-rare selections in which the shop specializes.

According to Mohally and Canales, the reasons for collecting are limitless. A collector sits on an ever-evolving selection of wines which, if diverse, mature at different times. And holders of even smaller wine collections can ceremoniously march out special bottles to commemorate significant occasions (for maximum effect, I recommend blowing some dust off the bottle—a safe distance from the table, of course.)

Canales’ customers routinely purchase wines they intend to uncork on some future date when they celebrate an anniversary, a child’s graduation, retirement, or the birth of a child or grandchild. For hundreds of years, wine drinkers have purchased barrels or cases of Madeira, port or wine which is then presented to children on auspicious birthdays or on their weddings. While this practice continues, today’s collectors are more likely to purchase wine for their own use or to help celebrate some future occasion.

Wine enthusiasts wax ecstatic about their collections, patiently awaiting the uncorking of what will likely be superb bottles of, brunellos, white and red burgundies, riojas, California cabernets, ports, madeiras, rieslings, sauternes and bordeaux—all ideal wines for aging. To figure out which wines to acquire, would-be collectors should assess their tastes, sampling wines and talking to knowledgeable wine staff. Both Canales and Mohally stress that pleasure from wine collecting can only be derived by purchasing what you like—not whatever receives the highest points from Wine Spectator.

But once you begin collecting, how do you know when to drink the wines you’ve assembled? The probable date for maturation can be determined by finding out how long a particular wine typically ages, following advice from cognoscenti at your local wine store, reading wine newsletters and magazines or at If you’ve bought a case or more, another approach is to sample a bottle each year beginning with the first year the wine might be aged to perfection. This provides the advantage of allowing a collector to taste the wine as its profile develops and matures. And aren’t we all looking for a good excuse to drink a bottle of wine, anyway?

Oak Park resident Stacy Lunardini, 41, started collecting a few years ago when she and husband Marc traded their condominium for a bungalow. Their new house has plenty of storage space, including a cool, dark basement which is currently being renovated to include a basic wine cellar. The couple collects bottles on their travels to Europe and California, but before settling them down for a long nap, Stacy scribbles drinking notes as well as the expected date of maturation on small wire tabs which are then attached to each bottle’s neck.

As with pets, certain wines demand specific care, though the requirements fall infinitely short of those required for say, dogs. When collecting and aging wines, a few guidelines should be considered. Optimally, wines should be stored in a cool, dark area with a temperature range from 58 to 65 degrees and no more than a two-degree fluctuation in a day. An acceptable temperature would range from 65 to 75 degrees, with no more than a four-degree fluctuation in any given day. Subject the wine to a 90 degree day or more than a ten degree temperature difference in a day and the bottle’s contents might at best be slightly compromised and at worst be better suited for cooking.

While wines hardly require one of those labyrinthine, cobweb-draped cellars seen in Masterpiece Theater episodes, they accomplish their best aging when it’s cool, dark and just slightly damp. If some range in temperature is permissible, setting bottles upright is strictly verboten. Rapid oxidization of wine can do considerable damage and by storing bottles on their sides, corks remain in contact with the wine and don’t pull away from the glass, thus admitting just the right amount of oxygen.

For apartment or condo dwellers, a retrofitted cellar might be impossible to pursue—and even if you could, all those wines aging in a shared storage room, perfuming the air with tempting, heady scents, might be asking for trouble.

If you start collecting and find yourself so impassioned with your new-found hobby that you run out of space, most areas offer wine storage facilities—check with your local wine store. For smaller caches, a climate-controlled wine storage chest can be had from specialty food, wine and appliance stores.

If John Stuart Blackie’s assertion that “Wine is the drink of the gods” is true, then collecting wines assures that you’ve always got something on hand to serve even the most exalted of visitors. And if a deity doesn’t arrive, then you can ceremoniously blow the dust off a bottle and serve it to family or friends—or better yet, enjoy it yourself.
I love everything that's old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wines.
Oliver Goldsmith
Wine is bottled poetry. Robert Louis Stevenson

Wine is the most civilized thing in the world. Ernest Hemingway

When it comes to wine, I tell people to throw away the vintage charts and invest in a corkscrew. The best way to learn about wine is the drinking. Alexis Lichine
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