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
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