Thursday, July 30, 2009

Playing with our food @ Alinea

1723 North Halsted

A meal at Alinea is surprising and funny. Nothing is what you expect, but when the dishes are revealed, they are thought-provoking and delightful.

This was my second visit, and I enjoyed all the little things that impressed me the first time. The plain storefront that you might easily pass by if not for the smiling valet who opens the door. The tunnel-like foyer that seems to close around you as you walk forward, searching for the entrance, and the unexpected sliding door that opens automatically, silently at your left. The plenitude of sharp-dressed staff who greet you with impeccable yet informal courtesy.

B & I opted for the full tour, 22 courses. This sounds like a stupendous amount of food, but most dishes consist of just few intriguing bites or sips.

The unusual serving pieces pictured above conveyed Alinea's version of bacon and sweet potato pie. The strip of bacon was flavored with butterscotch, apple and thyme. The "pie," in its whisk-like cradle, arrived with a smoldering cinnamon stick as an accent to the flavors of bourbon and brown sugar.

Here are more of my favorite plates from the evening.

Pork belly was served in a delicate cup formed from pressed iceberg lettuce and cucumber. A "Thai distillation" was a non-alcoholic shot that somehow gave a whirlwind tour of a Bangkok kitchen in a single swallow: lemongrass, chili peppers without the heat, fish sauce. It reminded me of Willy Wonka's chewing-gum meal, without the unpleasant side effects. (See "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," by Roald Dahl.)

Our server seemed to enjoy describing this "edible utensil." The dish began with yuba, also called tofu skin or bean skim, a thin sheet that forms when soy milk is boiled. The yuba was rolled into a stick and deep-fried, then wrapped in shrimp with miso and togarashi, a peppery Japanese condiment.

Here we have steak and potatoes, Alinea style. We were encouraged to dip bites of Wagyu beef into the sprinkle of powdered A-1 sauce on the plate.

This sweet dish of rhubarb, goat milk, and onion was accompanied by "lavender air." The plate rested on a cloth pillow, which emitted the scent of lavender blossoms as it gradually deflated.

Another sweet course was this arrangement of pound cake, strawberry, lemon and vanilla bean.

The penultimate dish was literally all over the table. Servers removed everything from the table, then spread a new covering of velvety silicone. Chef Grant Achatz arranged our dessert directly on the silicone, applying dollops and swirls of blueberries and sauce, whipped cream, and gel bubbles filled with essences of maple and tobacco.

Just in time, a server brought an odd frosty chunk, which the chef placed in the center of his creation and cracked into smaller pieces. It was chocolate mousse that had been frozen with liquid nitrogen. The final touch was more blueberry, dried into translucent sheets and stuck upright like sails. The frozen mousse softened quickly, and it was fun to scoop up spoonfuls of the sweet fruity rubble.

I asked Chef Achatz why he chose to compose the dessert this way. He talked about how he wanted to remove the restrictions imposed by a plate or serving platter. Later, I found an article by Achatz describing how this "plating" evolved in his kitchen. The essay is on the Web site of The Atlantic.

Have a look at Alinea's Web site for beautiful photographs of the food and the restaurant itself.

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