There are many ways to say the words, “I am turning 40,” and I’m sure there are many more ways to express the emotions that accompany such a birthday. But I have another word to offer. And that word is…
But before we fly halfway across the country together, let’s stop to acknowledge that a great deal has happened since the last WFIH post of 2011. For example, the New York Football Giants overcame the odds of a challenging early season to plough their way through (in order): the New York Jets, the Dallas Cowboys, the Atlanta Falcons, the Green Bay Packers, the San Francisco 49ers, and yes, once again, the New England Patriots. From Christmas Eve to the first weekend in February, Ed and I couldn’t have been happier, especially as the victory over Green Bay arrived on the very day he turned 40.
My 40th fell on Presidents’ Day and I can’t thank my parents enough for the 1971 mathematical stylings that allowed me to have a much-needed day off. The big day itself involved sleeping in, a fantastic late lunch at Worcester’s Armsby Abbey (where WFIH partner Bob & I celebrated his 42nd last summer), a cocktail at Mezcal Cantina and, finally, take out pizza from our favorite local hangout, Fresco’s in Upton.
Fast forward a week and a day and Ed and I found ourselves on an early morning United flight to the Windy City to celebrate in style. Now I realize there are some who might question the wisdom of Chicago as February vacation destination. And that’s understandable. But despite the fantastic weather we experienced while on the shores of Lake Michigan, we weren’t there for the scenery. We were there for the food.
Jumping in the way back machine to the spring of 2008, Ed and I spent a weekend in New York with my oldest friend, Courtney, and her fiancé, Phil. I took the train down a day before Ed and bought a copy of The New Yorker to read on my journey. It was in the midst of those sophisticated pages that I first learned of Chef Grant Achatz and the trials and tribulations he faced in opening his first restaurant, Alinea (the full article can be found here). I went on to read about all things New York City searching for fun ideas for the weekend, but Grant and Alinea were firmly lodged in the back of my brain.
The next month, I traveled to Chicago for a conference and decided to ring up the fine folks at 1723 North Halsted to make a reservation. I give them credit that they didn’t actually burst out laughing at my naïveté. Especially when I called them the next day. And the next. Unable to convince them that as a party of one, I didn’t actually require a table but would be perfectly happy to stand with plate in hand (hee!) in a corner, I managed to have a fabulous experience at Moto while in town, but I vowed to return and conquer this culinary beast, currently the #1 restaurant in the United States and the #6 restaurant in the world.
So in December of 2011 when my Facebook/Flickr/Twitter triple threat & virtual friend Christine Lee Zilka announced that she had secured a reservation at Alinea I became a) jealous and b) curious. If she could do it, could I? I commented on her FB post and she indicated that they seemed to have more availability than usual and that I should call. So I did. And it WORKED!
Fast forward again to our arrival in Chicago where we stayed at the dazzling W Lakeshore Drive and immediately headed to Frontera Grill for lunch. I had been there in 2008 and was thrilled when Ed gave me Authentic Mexican by Rick Bayless for Christmas that year. Best guacamole ever and if you’ve never had vanilla ice cream with cajeta (goats milk caramel), well then you’re just missing out. This time we dined on taquitos de pollo ahumado and enchiladas de pato al pasilla — both fabulous, especially when washed down with the tequilas recommended by the very friendly, talented and loyal (he waited on me in 2008) barkeep.
From there we headed to Millennium Park for our obligatory photos with the Bean (aka Cloud Gate) before we started to grow both tired and chilly. We ducked into Terzo Piano at The Art Institute for a glass of wine and some recommendations on fun things to do in town before heading to the Hancock Center for what can only be described as drinks with a view. Then back to the hotel where I took a power nap before rejoining Ed for some late night snacks in the lobby bar.
The morning of our Alinea dinner dawned warm and sunny as I headed for my mani/pedi at Bliss Spa Chicago. Heading back to the room and rousing Ed, we left for an afternoon of exploring at The Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium (I have since become fascinated with penguins to the point of obsession, but that is a story for another time. And probably a different forum). It seems that a complete museum experience these days can’t come without a special movie feature, and while the mummy movie at the Field was a bit cheesy, the penguin movie at the Shedd was, if nothing else, ‘interactive’. I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of 4D movie-going, but we were in a theater full of children and by the time it was over, the idea of a quiet, adults only dinner was exactly what the cruise director ordered.
So back to the hotel for a shower and shave before dashing off to the big event. I had been warned by a colleague who had been there that there are no indications outside 1723 North Halsted that indicate a restaurant within, so best to know the address when you get in the cab (i.e. “Hi, we’re going to Alinea,” simply isn’t going to cut it). And she was right. We made our way through rush hour traffic and arrived five minutes early for our 6:00 pm reservation, pulling up to the curb of a chic but otherwise unremarkable building. Leaving the cab, we opened the door to the best meal of our lives. The first challenge involved finding the front door. The door attached to the building looks more like the door to a back entrance with a large industrial lock, so we actually wandered about half a block in each direction before returning and opening what turned out to be the right door. It lead to a dimly lit hallway which ended with glowing lights on one side and a Star Wars-esque sliding steel door on the left. One ‘whoosh‘ and we were through.
Names were given, coats were taken and we were whisked up the glass staircase by a young maitre d’ who had clearly been through the process so many times as to kindly and politely ignore our gawking. We soon found ourselves ushered to a corner table in a small room with unassuming taupe walls and a few interesting light installations that I didn’t notice until halfway through the meal. A bank of tables along the wall, two rounds for six and a small service bar completed the room. And that’s where the Champagne came from.
With the arrival of the Champagne and the sommelier came the only choice we had to make that evening — did we want the expensive wine pairing or the really expensive wine pairing? You see, there’s only one menu at Alinea and that is the 19-course tasting menu (though as we were celebrating our birthdays, we each received a special 20th birthday course as well). So we opted for the merely expensive wine pairing and then we were off to the races.
First up, char roe. Delicate fish eggs balanced atop of trio of flavors including pieces of young coconut, a carrot gelée and a yuzu curry sauce. Courses two through five were served together on a piece of driftwood draped with fresh seaweed, and included one of the night’s more curious dishes — the oyster leaf. No oyster in sight, just a bright green leaf dressed with mignonette sauce that tasted exactly like the mollusk for which it was named. From there, a king crab salad, a mussel with saffron and chorizo and a razor clam with shiso and soy. I’ll admit that I had been somewhat worried about this course when I read the description on the restaurant’s website (I tend to be very picky about my seafood), but it was fresh and delicious and quickly consumed.
From there, a ‘Woolly Pig’ arrived at our table. One of the interesting things about Alinea is the unique serving pieces that have been designed by Martin Kastner, a designer/sculptor from the Czech Republic. This particular course is served at the end of a long steel pin attached to a small round base placed in front of the patron such that the food is sitting at mouth level. A tiny bite consisting of ham, fennel, orange peel and a calamari tentacle, it is designed to be plucked from the pin in one smooth motion, no hands required.
Once the driftwood was cleared but before the arrival of the pig, one of our team of waiters dropped by with a small science project of sorts. A small gas burner was ignited below an hourglass structure that contained water in the bottom half and a mixture of ingredients in the upper. Once the water came to a boil, steam was forced into the ingredients but eventually returned to lower half as a perfectly cooked broth. Following the departure of the pig, the broth was poured over what looked like a small cube of fried tofu, but was actually a scallop than had been pureed and reformed to a tofu-like texture. Scrumptious.
Seven courses in and apparently it was time for a palate cleanser, but why opt for sorbet when you can have your guests use large glass straws to slurp hibiscus-infused beet juice of the the ice sculpture that had been previously serving as a centerpiece? Slurrrrrrrrp…..
Course number nine presented the final seafood offering of the evening, a whole roasted black bass served with a mint pesto and an eggplant and green olive caponata. This was unquestionably the most traditional course of the evening, though I never would have thought to add chocolate shavings to the caponata. We could have easily stuffed ourselves on this one but managed to exercise some much-needed willpower in face of all the courses yet to come.
Course ten brought us face to face with one of Alinea’s classics, Hot Potato Cold Potato. Served in small wax dishes that are crafted at the restaurant daily is a cold potato soup. Inserted through the side of the dish is a small metal pin bearing a minuscule chunk of parmesan, a tiny cube of butter, a sliver of chive and a warm potato ball that was been cooked in butter. A slice of black truffle tops the entire affair and while cupping the bowl in your left hand, you remove the pin with your right, dumping all the ingredients into the soup before consuming everything in one tasty swallow.
And continuing on a theme of ingredients culled from the ground, we moved from potatoes to mushrooms. Officially titled ‘Wild Mushrooms’ on our menu, our server explained that the goal was to give diners the experience of foraging for mushrooms in the forest. And to aid in the illusion, the dishes were served atop pillows of pine and juniper scented air such that as the weight of the plates deflated the pillows, we were surrounded by the scents of the forest.
Then to a dish that might have been inspired by the famed PF Chang’s appetizer, the lettuce wrap. This was perhaps the most interactive course from the diner’s perspective, as we were given the tools to construct a small metal cradle in which our pickled cabbage and venison wrap would be built (another of Kastner’s designs), prior to adding another seven condiments and sauces including a Jell-o-like substance made of beer. Larger than the majority of the courses and somewhat too chewy for my liking, this is the one course that I simply tried and then set aside. And apparently this is something that doesn’t happen at Alinea very often, as it sent our waiters into a frenzy of questions trying to determine exactly what I hadn’t enjoyed about it, as well as multiple offers to remake it, all of which I declined knowing that I still had eight courses to go.
Course thirteen was another Alinea classic, the black truffle explosion. Mainly, one small ravioli filled with what can only be described as black truffle essence, so much so that guests are warned to press their lips tightly together lest a dining faux pas occur. Heavenly. Course fourteen was an eight flavor dish inspired by Joan Miró’s painting Still Life with Old Shoe. Each of the eight flavors was presented in its own spoon, artfully arranged by one of our waiters. Oh, and there was also a lavender-scented silver vessel in which to place our empty spoons as we finished with each one.
Course fifteen involved melted brie stuffed with anjou pear and onion, served on the end of a burning cinnamon stick. Course sixteen was another palate cleanser of five mini preparations of ginger, each with a separate flavor and smaller than a chocolate chip. Course seventeen, titled ‘Winter in New Hampshire’ was a delightful peppermint ‘snow’ served over actual pine branches and rocks kept cold with liquid nitrogen. Course eighteen, helium-filled balloons of green apple taffy, were floated over to our table before being inhaled, consumed and commented upon with some rather silly sounding giggles. And course nineteen was our special birthday addition, Alinea’s ‘Cake and Ice Cream’ for each of us.
If there is one down side to a restaurant that has one set menu for all of its guests, it is that unless you are the first table of the evening, there aren’t as many surprises since you are able to watch other diners at all stages of the meal. Which meant that when Chef Achatz himself arrived at our table to plate the twentieth course, I had known he was coming. But that didn’t mean I was any less excited. Paying less attention to the ‘painting’ he was creating on the special silicone tablecloth that had been laid down just for this meal, I concentrated all my energy on keeping from quivering in my seat and appearing just as star struck as I actually was.
And so we finished off the remnants of our dark chocolate piñata, had an irl meeting with Christine Lee Zilka and her friend Jennifer at the bar next store and finally made our way back to our hotel with full bellies and souvenir menus. Thank you, Chef. The memories of your fabulous meal will last us a lifetime.