This was my fifth visit to Alinea, and although the food ranked squarely in the middle of the 5 tours, the overall enjoyment of the meal was probably the best. That’s not to say the food was average; it was still outstanding. I think the enjoyment had a lot to do with my mindset going into the meal. I had no expectations as I didn’t look at the menu beforehand. Thanks to the revelatory meal at Schwa, I didn’t take myself too seriously either despite the formal setting. My main goal was to have great time with the company I was with and I did. It was the most fun I’ve had at Alinea thus far.
Things started out differently this time. The entrance carpet was replaced with grass and a fan blew a breeze through the narrow hallway, making wind chimes dance and sing. At the front of the hallway was a metal tub filled with water. Floating round and round in the water were glasses filled with the first taste of the night: lemonade. It had an intense lemon flavor, but it was a bit too sweet for me. Still, an unexpected and fun start to the night.
STEELHEAD ROE – peach, St. Germain, kinome
Four blocks of ice were placed on the table when we arrived. From my past meals at Alinea, I figured these would be the table centerpieces and eventually be incorporated into a course near the middle of the meal.
To my surprise, the blocks of ice were used for the very first course. The glass boba straws were handed to us and we were instructed to place it in the ice and slurp away. Within the ice was a peach distillation, and within the glass boba straw were the roe and garnishes. This dish reminded me of the Fruit Loops roe course at Schwa. Both were fruity, briny, and salty.
I was familiar with the template of the shellfish progression from my last visit, but the presentation this time was more ambitious. The shellfish sat on top of a piece of driftwood covered in fresh kelp. The oyster leaf with mignonette and razor clam with shiso, soy, and daikon seemed to taste the same as last time. This wasn’t necessarily a good thing, though, as the razor clam again was tough, chewy, and a little too salty. However, the king crab with passion fruit, heart of palm, and allspice was stellar, as was the lobster with carrot and chamomile .
WOOLLY PIG – fennel, orange, squid
I didn’t get much pork flavor, but the combination of fennel, orange, and squid worked really well. I’ll be using this combination in my everyday cooking.
TOMATO – watermelon, chili, basil
My hatred of raw tomatoes is well known. The last time I had a tomato dish at Alinea, I had trouble getting it down. This tomato dish was one of my favorites of the night and went down quickly and easily. There wasn’t much of that grassy, vegetal finish to the tomatoes that tomatoes can sometimes have. Raw celery has a similar, but stronger, finish and it’s the main reason I have a tough time with both. The tomatoes were very sweet, perhaps even sweeter than the watermelon. The chili and basil heightened the brightness of the dish.
On the bottom of the dish was tomato ice. One of my dining companions astutely pointed that it was very much like the tomato ice served at Next: elBulli. This was when I started to think about the potential crosspollination of techniques and ideas between Alinea, Next, and The Aviary. Another link between this dish and the tomato ice dish served at Next was that they were both paired with sake. The pairing was really well done as the muskmelon notes from the sake played really well with the tomato and watermelon. Perhaps they were also testing sakes for Next: Kyoto.
CORN – huitlacoche, sour cherry, silk
This was corn in many different forms. The silk was fried. The husk was charred, combined with fat, and mixed with tapioca maltodextrin to form a “rock.” The kernels and kernel fungus, aka huitlacoche, were pureed. Plating was inspired by the artwork found throughout the restaurant. Although this was a very tasty dish and one of my favorites of the night (I ended up licking the plate), I wish there were actual corn kernels or something to give the dish that satisfying crunch and pop when you chomp down on an ear of corn.
OTORO – thai banana, sea salt, kaffir lime
It took me a minute or 2 to realize they were serving fish in a fish bowl. The tuna was supposedly some sort of sustainable tuna. I’m not sure if the provenance of the fish was the main factor, but I’ve had tastier otoro before. When everything was eaten together, though, it didn’t matter much because it was a really great dish. I found myself awkwardly tilting the bowl every which way in order to savor every last drop of the kaffir lime sauce. I don’t know why I didn’t just lift the bowl up and drink the sauce.
CHANTERELLE – ramps, asparagus, smoked date
This dish tasted a lot like the autumn scene dish at Next: Childhood as pointed by my astute dinning companion. Even the presentation of the food on a plank of charred wood was similar to the autumn scene dish. The earthy darkness of the mushrooms was deepened by the smoked date and perfectly cut by the sourness of pickled ramps and astringency and bitterness of asparagus. A standout composition of flavors and one of my favorites of the night.
HOT POTATO – cold potato, black truffle, butter
A classic. Knowing how legitimately time sensitive this dish is, I refrained from taking a picture. It was noteworthy that I spilled a bunch of the cold potato soup while pulling the pin, making myself look like a slob in addition to an uncivilized oaf who licks plates.
LAMB – ……..?????……………!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Sixty different garnishes were presented for the table to pick and chose. With a recommendation of 3-4 garnishes per cut of lamb (shank, saddle, loin), you had yourself a “choose your own adventure” dish filled with surprise and intrigue. That being said, I enjoyed the concept of this dish more than the flavor. Although I had fun trying more than the recommended 3-4 garnishes per cut of lamb and identifying them, the garnishes boiled down to a handful of disparate flavor profiles: sweet with anise, tart and fruity, herbaceous, bitter and astringent, and nutty. I found the sweet with anise garnishes to be my favorite. I thought it worked really well and it was something I’d never had before. It’ll be something I try with lamb at home.
Again I saw a hint of the crosspollination between restaurants. Another astute dining companion pointed out one of the garnishes was finely diced mirepoix. This reminded me of the solid aromatic herb sauce at Next: elBulli.
BLACK TRUFFLE – explosion, romaine, parmesan
Another classic. Sadly, one of the explosions didn’t really have much of an explosion.
ANJOU PEAR – onion, brie, smoking cinnamon
Like the hot potato / cold potato and black truffle explosion, I’ll never get tired of the tempura on burning stick dish. I could have eaten about 10 more of these as the flavors were so well balanced.
GINGER – five other flavors
From right to left, the flavors progressed from savory to sweet. The pins were removable. I wish they actually told us what each of the five bites were composed of, but I guess it’s my own fault for not asking. I do have a feeling that one of the bites was galangal and not ginger because it packed a lot of heat. The spiciness carried over into the start of the next dish.
BLUEBERRY – buttermilk, sorrel, macadamia
The implement for this course was really cool. On top was a flat surface, in the middle was a hole, and on the bottom was a bowl filled with liquid nitrogen. The hole was sealed with a glass stopper, causing the dish to rattle from the liquid nitrogen’s steam. We lifted the stoppers and the servers poured in a sorrel drink, or what I like to call “adult Ecto Cooler.” Slimer would’ve given his stamp of approval. I could’ve chugged that stuff all night. As the juice mixed with the liquid nitrogen, steam billowed out from the hole in the plate.
I would've been completely happy if the food didn’t live up to the adult Ecto Cooler, but it surpassed the tastiness of the green witches’ brew. The yellow cake in the middle was actually cheese in some form, and when paired with the different preparations of high quality blueberries reminded me of blueberry cheesecake. This was my favorite dish of the night.
BALLOON – helium, green apple
Building on the theatrics of liquid nitrogen steam, edible balloons were brought to the table. The string was a very tasty green apple leather. The flavor of the balloon was like a green apple flavor h-bomb, where in this case the h stands for helium. It may have surpassed green apple Jolly Ranchers as my favorite green apple sweet. Making a mess eating the balloon was unavoidable because texture of the balloon was a lot stickier than I imagined. When I went to bite into the balloon, it popped in my face and got all over my hands, nose, cheeks, and mouth. Thankfully the server strongly advised me to take off my glasses before going at it. Sucking in the helium while struggling with sticky apple balloon all over my face and hands was a lot of fun.
WHITE CHOCOLATE – strawberry, english pea, lemon
The mat dessert changed a bit since the last time I was at Alinea. This time, white chocolate spheres filled with goodies sat on the table. Then, garnishes and sauces are sprinkled and smeared onto the mat. The finale comes when liquid nitrogen is poured into the spheres, making them very brittle. The spheres are then picked up and dropped onto the table, shattering into shards and revealing the goodies. It was like a fine dining pinata. The spheres were so brittle, that one of them cracked when lifted. For a moment I was afraid it would crumble in the chef’s hands.
I don’t enjoy ending a meal on chocolate, so I loved the fact that this rendition was all about fruit. The quality and intensity of the strawberries was the star here. I also learned another flavor combination to tuck away in my back pocket. I can foresee a strawberry, pea, and white chocolate cookie on the horizon. Overall, it was a great time and a great meal.