So how do you close out such a year?
For us, it was by going to the restaurant on the very top of my bucket list: Alinea.
Alinea hit my radar after I was looking for a new food-centered book to read and someone recommended Life, On The Line by Chef Grant Achatz. I had no idea what I was getting into when I downloaded that book, but I found myself loving every moment while reading about Chef Achatz’s adventures in food, getting jobs in food, and creating a whole new world of food… and I cried as I read about his hardship as he faced a battle that no one should have to face, let alone a CHEF, when he was diagnosed with tongue cancer. I left that book inspired… and hungry.
But Alinea is in Chicago, and while one of my very best friends lived there, it wasn’t on the home turf. So when Mike and I found ourselves with a few extra days off on our hands, and a few extra travel points, I looked at the Alinea reservation site just for fun. And low and behold, a single reservation was open for 9:15pm on Sunday, December 29. We booked our flights and made it happen.
Now Alinea is an expensive meal. Like a once-in-a-lifetime expensive meal. Luckily, we have had the fortune of eating at a few once-in-a-lifetime places and I will feel forever blessed for the experience. But this was a chef’s tasting menu that I couldn’t wait to try. You buy the ticket (which includes gratuity) in advance and pay in full and then you can add drinks or a wine pairing and extras when you get there.
We decided to split one wine pairing (after a few instances of having the end of the meal get VERY blurry when trying to have my own wine pairing) and opted OUT of the $125 supplement PER PERSON for the white truffle risotto. Though Mike wistfully said “some day” about the risotto. Some day. (While the meal itself was quite the dent in our life savings, spending $125 twice on a single plate of food just felt a bit over-indulgent) Some day.
Our first wine pairing, the somm was nice enough to each give us a glass. This was a Champagne Laherte Freres ‘Ultradition’ Brut Rose NV. I usually don’t enjoy rose, but this was a fantastic sparkly way to begin our evening.
And we were given a silverware pillow which we were requested to “keep clean throughout the meal” by putting used utensils in our bowls or on the table. A fine and lovely touch that made this meal feel just a little more special (as if it could feel more special).
First dish: “Char Roe – banana, ginger, passion fruit”
This was Arctic Char roe (fish eggs) with a froth of banana, ginger, and passion fruit. The salty fish eggs really popped (literally and figuratively) against the froth. It woke up my palate.
And then… there was a black mat.
And we watched as our smoking (is it called smoke when it’s dry ice?) dish came out.
And was placed on the mat.
And then the top was removed.
And we were then instructed to remove the top shell to reveal…
… “Scallop – citrus aroma, fourteen textures”
Yes. Yes Yes Yes. I didn’t know that this was called “fourteen textures” when I was eating it, but I remember recognizing as we ate it that the texture profile far surpassed anything I’ve tasted. The aromas and the scallop and the textures and the smoke and the presentation.
Wow. Just wow.
(This was paired with a Selbach-Oster ‘Zeltinger Sonnenuhr’ Riesling Kabinet, Mosel 2011. Excellent compliment)
And then… there was this… coals on top of slate?
And then they lit it on fire.
Until it was like our own little roaring fireplace.
And then left it there for an entire course as it smoked and filled our table with the most amazing aroma.
We let that burn while we went onto the next dish: “Dungeness Crab – squash blossom, cardamon, saffron.” (paired with Saint-Aubin ‘Les Murgers des Dents de Chines’ Hubert Lamy 2009.)
This was just absolutely beautiful in every way.
The squash blossom leaf was spread out and then… I have no idea… dried? into this transparent work of art. It was one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever eaten and it tasted as beautiful and delicate as it looked. The crab flavor with the other flavors and the textures of crunch, liquid, cotton candy, gel… gosh… it was all so beautiful.
And under the plate was a scented salt (I think) that shows that they care about every detail, even the hidden ones.
At this point they took away our amazing smelling fire center piece…
…and took it to a cart beside the table to disassemble.
He started slicing into what had just a moment before looked like a cindered piece of wood.
To reveal a white inside.
And then a beautiful piece of meat.
This was “Wagyu – parsnip, black trumpet, kombu” (paired with Sato Ho Homare ‘Pride of the Village’ Junmai Gingjo-shu, Sodu Honke Shuzo, Ibaraki-ken).
The parsnip was perfectly cooked and the light char on the outside was delicious.
That wagyu was the most buttery, delicious piece of meat I’ve ever had. I’ve had wagyu before, but for some reason never saw the appeal (or rationale for the crazy price), but this changed my mind. Good wagyu is incredibly good.
And I loved that they served it on a charred slab of tree with a few different textures of mushrooms to go with it.
At this point, our waiter excitedly came up to us and said he had a surprise, but asked that we sit tight and not get up to go to the bathroom just for the next few minutes because they were bringing us something special.
Whatever could it be?
Never in my wildest dreams did I possibly imagine what came next…
What are those lumps of weird looking things on rice in a box?
Those… are WHITE TRUFFLES. Like… THE white truffles.
As our waiter opened the box for us to smell it, I assumed he was probably just showing us how amazing these truffles smelled. All the other wait staff came over and took a sniff while we did. It was intoxicating. Orgasm inducing even. I love truffles, but I have never seen (nor smelled) truffles like this. White truffles are especially rare (and expensive).
So maybe we were going to get a shaving of white truffle on a small amuse bouche?
Oh no. No. No. No.
We were being GIVEN the white truffle risotto. THAT white truffle risotto which they originally offered to us for $125 per person and we dreamed of the “some day” we could let ourselves indulge that much more.
I think I nearly leapt out of my seat!
They brought over a sauce that they poured over table-side.
And then they came and shaved the fresh white truffles on top.
It was as if someone handed me a bag of diamonds.
This little flake of truffle was a thing of beauty.
Oh. My. God.
How on earth did we get so lucky? (I STILL have no idea why they decided to bestow such a gift upon us, but I will forever be grateful to the Alinea food gods)
This was the most decadent, delicious, exciting thing I have ever eaten in my life. And the best dish I have ever had and probably will ever have.
How do you recover from that? I think they gave us a few minutes to float around in euphoria before the next dish came out.
The next dish: “Veal cheeks- lapsang souchong, pine, blackberry” (paired with Faugeres Domaine Leon Barral 2010).
This dish was served over pine needles which added a lovely smell to the dish. It was a good thing this was the dish that came after the truffle risotto, because had we not had the risotto, this would probably have been my favorite dish of the evening (or perhaps I was still coming down off the high?)
I don’t know if I can explain this dish well enough to do it any justice. Tons of textures and flavors and sweet and rich. It was just fantastic.
Next dish: “Hot potato- cold potato, black truffle, butter”
It was served in this interesting setup on an almost needle-like apparatus sticking out of a finger bowl-like dish. It was kind of like a bumped up, deconstructed potato salad (maybe just because the potato was cold). Not my favorite dish, but a nice segue bite.
And then… a piece of artwork came to our table. On the menu we received at the end, this is quite literally called “Duck ……..????………….!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (yes… seriously)
These were 60 different nibbles to be combined with 5 different preparations of duck. This is nearly impossible to explain (and they made it a point to not explain too much).
There was egg, and horse radish, and fruit leather, and fruit, and almonds, and turkish delight, and pistachio, and… and… and… and… I was overwhelmed by beauty and flavor and general awesomeness.
The duck five ways included rillette, confit,breast, foie gras, and a torchon. Maybe in that order? I don’t remember… but each was the best version of the preparation that I can remember having. (This was paired with Bandol, Chateau Pardeaux 2007… which I do not remember after all of those amazing duck and things!)
Our next dish: “Black truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan”
In the picture below the black you see is actually the table, so this was like a donut shaped spoon rest with a single dumpling inside. This was certainly accurately described when called an “explosion.” It was like a soup dumpling with a mushroom bang. So good.
Our next dish was so incredibly delicate: “Ginger – five other flavors” (paired with The Rare Wine Co. ‘Boston Bual – Special Reserve’ Madeira, great with the gingers) which was a whole bunch of teeny tiny nibbles of ginger with different flavors on the ends of very long needles.
Each nibble was roughly the size of a pencil eraser and it was a great palate cleanser that was also creative and fun.
And the holder was so specially made to serve such a dish.
And then another mystery on the table.
Into this little dish (the center copper piece was about the size of a half dollar), they sat a holder that had spider like legs and then into that holder they sat “Pumpkin – smoldering cinnamon, maple, pumpkin seed.”
The cinnamon stick was, quite literally, smoldering and smelled great. You grabbed the stick (without burning yourself) and ate the pumpkin fritter. This had incredible flavors and was a really great texture with a crispy outside and soft inside. It was a very nice middle ground between sweet and savory to bring us from the meal into the dessert courses.
At this point, our utensil pillows were moved to the center of the table as if to signal we were entering into a new part of this epic adventure.
And they poured us a Chateau Tirecul la Fravier ‘Les Pins’ Monbazillac 2009. I had no idea what on earth a Monbazillac is or could be, but this was awesome. A dessert wine that wasn’t very sweet. But very very good.
Our first dessert: “Corn – white chocolate, honey,mango.”
This tasted like corn. Corn corn. Why don’t more people put corn flavors into things? Especially dessert? This proved that if you do it right, it can be magical. Everything about this was a work of art.
And next… some fun: “Balloon – helium, green apple”
Sure enough, this balloon was filled with helium so that as you eat it, your voice gets that great squeak while you inhale an apple flavored balloon on a fruit leather string. Clever and tasty and fun and unlike anything I have ever seen or tasted. Super cool!
And then they rolled out a tablecloth that felt like silicon and started adding dishes of all kinds filled with unknown things of all kinds to our table.
And poured us a Maculan ‘Torcolato’ Breganze 2009 which was, again, a great dessert wine that wasn’t too sweet.
A chef came by and placed a metal ring on the table.
Then filled it with a whole bunch of things including a crumb bottom…
A liquid nitrogen something…
And then a liquid chocolate…
And then topped it with some meringue.
And then they turned our table into artwork, spreading a vanilla sauce…
…and violet candy across our table.
And then dropped on little pieces of hazelnut (I think) nuggets.
Some glittery violet dust and candied basil.
And then removed the ring!
The chocolate had (mostly) become a mousse/pudding-like consistency.
They call this “Milk chocolate – pate sucree, violet, vanilla” and invited us to pick up our spoons and dig in.
But not before we took a picture behind this beautiful creation.
It was so delicious and so fun to eat. And not too overwhelming at the end of a fourteen course meal.
And then they folded it up… and just like that… the best meal I have ever had (yes… you heard me say it) was carted away.
But not before they dropped off a menu trying to explain (as if it could be explained) the adventure we had just been on.
And on our way out, as we waited for a cab, we peaked into the impeccable kitchen downstairs.
Overall… Wow. Just wow.
This meal was the most impressive, fun, delicious, exciting food I have ever had. It was surprise after surprise and fun after fun and taste after taste and just… wow. It actually opened my eyes as to why I was ever so slightly underwhelmed by The French Laundry. The French Laundry was perfect. And that’s just it… it was too perfect.
It wasn’t all that fun. It wasn’t whimsical.
I’m sure some people would argue that food isn’t supposed to be fun nor whimsical. But when you can make food both of those things, plus taste like the best thing you have ever eaten, you have just created a world outside of food. It’s fine culinary entertainment at its absolute greatest. An experience.
It was an amazing journey.
Happy New Year!
Total Nom Points: 10 out of 10