ALINEA RESTAURANT WINE PAIRINGS – Alinea Restaurant, Chicago, Illinois (5/14/2009)
Going to this restaurant had been on our “bucket list” for awhile. Alinea is a restaurant in Chicago which opened in 2005. In 2006, it was named the best restaurant in America by Gourmet in its 2006 top 50 feature. Its chef/owner, Grant Achatz, who previously worked at both the French Laundry and El Bulli, is famed for his inventive preparations and deconstructions of classic flavors, as well as his constantly changing menu. Achatz and Alinea were also the subject of a lengthy New Yorker profile last year.
As it turned out, the food was phenomenal–as inventive as expected, but also delicious and extremely well presented. The service was intuitive, brilliant and the best I’ve experienced in years. And the wine pairings were very thoughtful, stimulating and, in at least a couple of cases, for me, riveting. Two of my dining companions, Traci and Rachel, had dined at El Bulli last year. They found our dinner at Alinea equally creative, but with flavors that were much more appealing, and food that was tastier and more satisfying than El Bulli’s.
We did the “tour”–24 plates representing all that the restaurant is offering at that particular time. We also did the suggested wine pairings. I was initially reluctant to do the pairings, given my experience with some tasting menu wine pairings, especially when so many small tastes are involved, that the pairing of so many dishes and wines can get fussy, and include a lot of fairly mediocre wine, when one could do better by ordering a good bottle of Champagne to go with initial appetizer-type dishes, and then one or two good bottles that are particularly versatile, like a Riesling and a good Burgundy, to pair with the remaining dishes.
Our initial discussion with the wait staff and sommelier, however, convinced me that we were in good hands in going with the suggested wine pairings, even though the staff couldn’t give us a full list of those pairings in advance, as the exact courses might change during the course of the dinner. They did promise to print out a complete list of both our dishes and wines at the end of the meal, however. (They did, and the result was a little work of art itself, including smaller and lighter bubbles next to smaller and lighter dishes, and larger and darker bubbles next to more substantial dishes. Chef Achatz ultimately autographed and wrote inscriptions on this after-the-fact menu for us as well.) The staff also indicated that the pricing of the wine pairing would be by the ounce, making it flexible, so that those who were drinking less would be refilled less, or poured less on subsequent courses, so that their wine costs would end up less. (This was one of a few ways in which the staff impressed us with the thoughtfulness and flexibility of the service options.)
We ultimately ended up with 11 different “wine” pairings (“wine” is in quotes, because one of these was actually a Champagne cocktail, and another was a shot of sake). The headings below are for the main dishes that the 10 wines listed below were intended to accompany, recognizing that some were intended to pair with more than one particular dish.
Foie gras, with daikon, shiso and yuzu
A little plastic disc was placed on table first (it’s for the fork after you eat the foie gras). We were instructed to hold the cup and eat the foie gras off the fork prior to drinking the soup/foam. If we placed the “cup” on the table before it was empty, it would have tipped over. The foie gras was remarkably flavorful, and the Spatlese was a good match.
- 1993 Weingut Max Ferd. Richter Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese – Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
Light medium golden yellow color; nice, spicy, fresh, bright green, lime and wintergreen nose; ripe lime, green melon palate with minerals; medium finish 92+ pts. (92 pts.)
Pork belly, iceberg lettuce, cucumber and Thai “distillation”
We were told to drink the Thai distillation first, a distillation of fish sauce, lemon grass and basil. The tiny red dot on the dish was a “cayenne and red pepper pudding.” The lettuce and pork belly concoction was flavorful, evoking Thai street food. The Kerner was a stunning wine that played of the components of the pork belly and lettuce dish particularly well.
- 2007 Abbazia di Novacella (Stiftskellerei Neustift) Kerner – Italy, Trentino-Alto Adige, Alto Adige, Valle Isarco / Eisacktaler
Very light canary yellow color; spicy, witch hazel, baked peach and tart orange nose; delicious, minerally, spicy palate with scintillating acidity; medium-plus finish (93 pts.)
Lobster with popcorn, mango and curry, and a butter theme
I loved this dish, a rhapsody of butter, popcorn, corn and lobster, and the Muscadet was sensational. I’ve always loved Muscadet–it’s the perfect accompaniment to one of my favorite treats, raw oysters, but this was a profound Muscadet. I didn’t think that was possible.
This was followed by the “black truffle explosion,” a dish that Achatz created when he was chef at Trio in 2001– a delicious, rich, juicy, ravioli stuffed with truffle, romaine and parmesan, and a slice of truffle on top.
- 2002 Chéreau-Carré Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Le Clos du Chateau l’Oisiliniere – France, Loire Valley, Pays Nantais, Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine
Bright canary yellow color; lovely, light, bright green mineral, strong nose; profound, deep, tasty, tangy, tart citrus, mineral and orange palate with a touch of orange peel; medium finish (95 pts.)
Wagyu short rib with Guiness, peanut and fried broccoli
Next were three bites presented together: bacon with butterscotch, apple and thyme; sweet potato with bourbon, brown sugar and smoldering cinnamon; and a mustard, passion fruit and allspice bite.
You pull down on the bacon to remove it from the wire.
You bite the sweet potato off the smoldering cinnamon stick.
You pick up the little bite with its pin.
- 2005 Cordero di Montezemolo Barbera d’Alba Superiore Funtanì – Italy, Piedmont, Alba, Barbera d’Alba Superiore
Dark garnet red color with clarity; nice tart red fruit, faintly smoky, dried berry nose; delicious, poised, dried berry, light-footed, black fruit, mineral, delicate but flavorful palate; medium-plus finish 93+ pts. (93 pts.)
Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle and butter
This was a tiny, cleverly constructed dish, with a pin holding the hot potato and truffle slice above the cold potato soup. You pull the pin out from the bottom of the tiny bowl as you pop the whole thing in your mouth all at once. Yummy.
This was followed by a very tasty “yuba” stick, consisting of shrimp, miso and togarashi. This was an edible utensil you use like a quill, dipping the yuba in the well of sauce and eating. Both dishes went well with the Rosé Champagne.
- N.V. Bruno Paillard Champagne Rosé Brut Première Cuvée – France, Champagne
Light medium peachy pink color; oxidative, nutty nose; delicate, tart blood orange, medium register, slightly oxidated palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
White asparagus, sorrel, white pepper and honey
Another light, tasty dish. This was served with a tapioca coriander biscuit (one of several small breads, served as a “bread tasting,” alongside our dishes and wines). The soup arrived layered in a glass cylinder. The servers lifted the bottomless cylinder to dispense the soup into the bowl beneath.
- N.V. Takasago Shuzo Junmai Daiginjo Ginga Shizuku (Divine Droplets) – Japan, Hokkaido
Unusual, big, mineral, lemon cream, almost Vouvray-like nose; soft, dry peach, tart melon, mineral, refined palate; medium-plus finish (93 pts.)
Lilac, yuzu, scallop, shellfish and honeydew
This was a creamy and delicate dish, that went deliciously with the flavorful and ethereal Auxerrois, which was another one of the stunning wine discoveries for me of this meal.
This was followed by a bite: a creamy egg yolk floating in a soy sauce cube garnished with wasabi.
- 2006 Albert Mann Pinot Auxerrois Vieilles Vignes – France, Alsace, Wettolsheim, Alsace AOC
Light golden yellow color; lovely, ethereal, distilled, complex but harmonious, dried and baked peach nose with light baked cherry and creamy, delicate green fruit nose; light-medium bodied, light footed yet creamy soft green apple, mineral, rounded but delicate, light green flavors, green melon, ethereal and mysterious on the palate–you don’t know where it’s going exactly with each sip; medium finish (95 pts.)
Pigeonneau a la Saint-Clair
This was an unexpected dish and presentation–an Escoffier-inspired tartlet of foie gras quennelles, chocolate mushrooms and truffle duck reduction–served on antique china, with our Bordeaux served in a turn-of-the-century engraved crystal goblet. The servers informed us that the dish was an “hommage and juxtaposition,” punctuating the end of our savory courses. My one nit is that the ’04 Lascombes was much too young and tight to truly compliment this dish, which called for a mature Bordeaux, at least a ’95, or a 2nd growth ’90. Actually, even better given the relatively subtle flavors of this dish would have been a mature Burgundy, IMHO.
- 2004 Château Lascombes – France, Bordeaux, Médoc, Margaux
Opaque dark red violet color; deep cassis, with a touch of roasted fruit and nice touch of herbs on nose; tight, drying tannins, tart cassis and mineral palate with a touch of iron; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
Sweets round 1
Eight sweet bites and dishes completed our tour. The first was a one-bite edible “cellophane” wrapped essence of lemon soda.
Next was a bite of yogurt, pomegranate and cassia–the yogurt sphere exploding in the mouth–served alongside a long tube containing essences of bubble gum, long pepper, hibiscus and creme fraiche, that we were to squeeze into our mouths and swallow in one bite.
There was also a stiff dried cloud to the left that was identified as “rocking raspberry and roses.” (In the menu we received at the end, this was listed as “transparency of raspberry and yogurt”).
- 2008 Elio Perrone Bigaro – Italy, Piedmont, Piemonte DOC
Bright, vivid, dark pink color; orange blossom, dried cherry, hibiscus and herbal nose; sweet cherry, hibiscus, orange and ripe lime palate with orange acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ pts. (92 pts.)
Sweets round 2
We were then presented with large puffy, light pillows, scented with lavender. On the pillows were placed a dish consisting of light, airy concoctions that included dehydrated rhubarb mousse, goat’s milk cheese cake, onion and lavender.
The next small shot glass was not identified at first. We were told to guess. We guessed the beet and buttermilk components, but not the kola nut and licorice.
Next was a complex and very tasty dessert composed of chocolate, blueberry in multiple forms, maple tree consomme and whipped tobacco. The Port worked particularly well with this dish.
Our last bite was dry caramel and salt: dehydrated and powdered caramel that reconstitutes in the mouth into a chewy caramel.
- 1994 Smith Woodhouse Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Deep port, ripe plum nose; young but very nice, deep, berry, mulberry, licorice and chocolate palate; medium-plus chocolate finish (94 pts.)
At the end of our meal, shortly after midnight, we were escorted to the kitchen to watch for a few minutes. The dinner service was over, but the many chefs were engaged in a great deal of activity finishing and cleaning their stations. Chef Grant, on the left hand side of the picture, who looked much younger than expected, was deeply engaged in creating a new dish, that looked something like a small palm tree rising above a tiny island.
This is a very exciting dining destination. Amazing food, fabulous service, with very thoughtful, at least complimentary and occasionally highly inspired, wine pairings. I look forward to returning to Alinea.