I started out the week being a bit aggravated with Frank Bruni. There I was, having organized my plans to dine at El Bulli, Alinea, Avenues, and Moto all within the same two-week period, and it turns out that Bruni, the restaurant critic for the New York Times, had the exact same idea. To make things worse, he writes a front page article about these restaurants in the food section of last Wednesday's paper. Has he been hacking my emails? On the other hand, if the New York Times needs to hack my emails in order to find out where the important restaurants are, I would take that as a great compliment.
Regardless of who copied whom, Alinea is the most important restaurant opening since Per Se opened in New York City about a year ago. In fact, I could look at the opening of Alinea through a narrower lens and say that this was the most important restaurant opening of all time: Alinea is the first restaurant I know of where this much money was invested in a restaurant which focused on modern or avant-garde cuisine. And if one believes, as I do, that the future of cuisine lies in the hands of chefs practicing this type of cuisine, I can’t think of a more important restaurant opening than Alinea.
The pre-opening publicity for Alinea was very different from the way other restaurants customarily treat their openings. Publicity is usually limited to opening dates and a few sentences describing what the chef is trying to accomplish in his cuisine. But Alinea’s chef/owner Grant Achatz, who had been the sous chef at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and then the chef at Trio in Evanston, Illinois, actively posted information about the restaurant on the forum discussion group eGullet. Grant discussed the dishes he was working on, and described various serving and dining implements which he claimed were invented specifically for Alinea. Arguably, the climactic moment of the pre-opening publicity came when he proclaimed that after 400 years, the dining public was tired of using forks and knives.
Not surprisingly, these types of statements were bound to raise ire in the fine-dining community, and Achutz was criticized in some circles for “hyping” the restaurant. The basic complaint, reduced down to the simplest argument, was that chefs and restaurant owners should not be prejudging their own cuisine and restaurants or declaring that certain dishes, techniques, or methods of presenting and delivering the food are good or interesting. Usurping the authority of critics and consumers on these issues made the restaurant look like it was hyping itself. This criticism wasn’t offered in vain. I know the people involved in opening Alinea felt some of the sting, and they found their online experience to be less than gratifying. The last chef to over-hype his opening was Alain Ducasse, who in advance of launching his New York location, made statements that seemed to claim that his would be the best restaurant in America. Matters were made worse when in what looked like the ultimate display of pandering, Ducasse wrote a book on the greatness of American ingredients, a subject we were all convinced he knew nothing about. Now, Alinea seemed to have made a similar mistake. Hopefully, when the restaurant opened they would be able to put all of this behind them, and the food would finally begin to speak for itself.
Alinea is in a renovated townhouse in the same Chicago neighborhood as Charlie Trotter’s restaurant. Entering through a pair of steel doors, you find yourself in a hallway that looks more like a club than a restaurant. As you proceed down the hallway, it starts to narrow; looking ahead, it gets so narrow I asked myself how the hell was I going to fit through there? But about three feet from where the hallway would have become impassable, an electric door opened and the entrance to the restaurant was directly to the left. I found it a bit disconcerting, but I understand the metaphor of surprise being analogous to the surprises you are going to find in modern cuisine. The beautiful kitchen is directly behind the entry area, as if to make sure that every guest who enters the restaurant gets a glimpse of it. Then, to the left of the reception area is a small dining room and a staircase that brings you to a second floor with two different dining rooms. They led us upstairs and we sat in the front room right near the window. The décor is modern and a bit sterile, but I thought it was attractive with cool colors. We had brought a few bottles of wine with us, and I had intended to buy Champagne and a few bottles of wines. Joe, the affable sommelier, presented a wine list stocked with goodies at reasonable prices.
The meal started with what they call a “PB & J,” a small peanut butter and jelly sandwich. A grape with a small stem attached took the place of the jelly. You lift the entire “sandwich” up by the stem and bite into it so the grape separates, leaving you holding the stem in your hand. Not bad, but it tasted like a replica of a peanut better and jelly sandwich, and there was nothing new or nuanced about it.
Next was a small disc of sour cream (which looked like a pat of butter) with smoked salmon, star anise, and sorrel. You lifted it up by the sorrel leaf which was stuck into the sour cream disk, and ate the whole thing. Simply a poor dish, poorly thought out and poorly executed. Why would anybody want to eat this?
Hearts of palm in five sections, each served on its own little pedestal, was a great presentation, but the dish wasn’t executed properly. The hearts of palm are hollowed out, and each section has a different filling: vanilla pudding, fava bean, toasted bulgur with garlic mayo, dried plum with nicoise olives, and pumpernickel with black truffle. But the thickness level was all wrong, the sections weren’t hollow enough, and it was cumbersone to eat because each bite contained too much of the vegetable. But this could be a good dish if they tinkered with it a bit.
Asparagus, caramelized dairy egg, and shaved bonito. This dish looked like male genitalia. It was one of the more amusing moments of the meal. When they set the dish down in front of my wife, she immediately said, “this is a very sexual dish.” As they continued to serve the rest of our table, there was a lot of murmuring going on. Finally when I was served, I said out loud, “You know, this dish looks like a penis.” We all cracked up, but the waiter didn’t quite know what to say. It wasn’t a bad dish, but really not special. And nowhere as good as the transcendent white asparagus with asparagus “stems” that I had at El Bulli two weeks ago.
Turbot, shellfish, water chestnuts, and hyacinth vapor may have been the best dish of the night. It is a technique that Grant used at Trio, where he served a small plate of lobster salad that was sitting in a larger bowl with sprigs of fresh rosemary in it. The waiter would pour boiling water over the fresh rosemary sprigs, and the aroma of rosemary would waft up your nostrils each time you leaned over to take a forkful of the lobster salad. Here the dish relied on hyacinth, and I have to say that the aroma was very subtle. In fact so subtle that I couldn’t detect any aroma at all! The turbot was good, and the dish was nice and creamy. But what's the point of aromatic flowers that you can't smell?
Eggplant with lobster, green almonds, and tamarind was one of my favorite dishes. The eggplant had strong Middle Eastern spicing which I liked, but others at the table hated it. The lobster was good, but the portion was scrawny.
Frogs’ legs, spring lettuces, paprika, and morels. There was a semblance of a good dish here, but I just didn't find that the various ingredients meshed very well. This paled in comparison to Michel Troisgros’ fabulous frogs’ leg dish that I had in January.
Beef with deconstructed A1 Sauce may have been one of the most disappointing dishes of the night for me because the grilled beef cap with date purée that Grant served at Trio was so terrific. This was virtually tasteless. Good idea, but zero execution.
Hazelnut purée, a capsule of savory granola, and curry. For the life of me, I couldn't understand this dish. It looked pretty, but what is the point of serving granola with hazelnuts? And I couldn't taste the curry either.
Proscuitto, passion fruit, zuta, and levana. Okay, we are talking about major disgusting here. Absolutely gross. The restaurant should be embarrassed to serve this dish. Blech. Double blech. It is making me cringe just writing this.
Finger limes, olive oil, and dissolving eucalyptus. I sort of liked this, but to be honest, it tasted like a modern-day Fresca full of grapefruit pulp. It also came at a weird point in the meal—it should have been served at the beginning.
Melon with jelled rosewater and horseradish was another one of those dishes where I couldn't figure out why they served it. First of all, it didn't taste like very much; secondly, why serve this at this point in the meal? Haven’t they heard of amuse at Alinea?
English peas, frozen lemon, yogurt, and shiso. Yet another dish I simply didn't get. What was the point? What made it worse was the night before at Avenues, Chef Bowles served a delicious chilled English pea soup with beets.
Foie gras with rhubarb, sweet onion, and walnut. I had high hopes for this dish because I enjoyed Grant's pushed foie gras dish at Trio. But the foie was too cold, and the liquid center didn't add very much. The burnt orange with avocado and picholine olives was served on a funny skewer where you had to lean over to eat it. The combination was a bit strange, but it wasn't awful. But again, nothing redeeming about the dish.
Broccoli stem, grapefruit, and wild steelhead roe. The infamous broccoli stem dish was absolutely disgusting. This was the dish that was most talked about during the pre-opening hype period, and a number of people who were involved with the restaurant proffered how good it was. Well, it was one of the two worst dishes of the meal, a tie between this dish and the prosciutto with passion fruit sponge as to which was worse. To think that the restaurant got all of that press from this dish is mind boggling to me. I’d rather eat a live slug and have it crawl around in my stomach.
Snapper, yuba, heavily toasted sesame, and cucumber. When they served this dish I thought it had promise. The yuba was good, but the fish was overcooked. Amateurish for this restaurant.
Bison, beets, blueberries, and smoking cinnamon was a good idea but badly executed. A small dish of burning cinnamon shards was placed in the top left-hand corner of a rectangular platter, and the bison and accoutrements were placed in the lower right-hand corner. There just wasn't enough of a cinnamon scent to make the dish work.
Desserts of pineapple, angelica branch, and Iranian pistachios; sassafras cream encapsulated in mandarin ice; strawberries, argan, and lemon verbena that you sucked out of a tube while holding your finger over the open end to create a vaccum; liquid chocolate, milk, black licorice, and banana, one of the best dishes of the night and something we actually talked about the next day as a redeeming dish; and sponge cake, tonka bean, and vanilla fragrance. The desserts were neither earth shattering nor terrible, but rather harmless in the context of the rest of the meal.
In general the service was good, although there were a few snags that one would expect from a restaurant that had been open for only ten days. But the biggest problem was that the staff was tired. By the twentieth course, the trio of servers who took care of our table looked physically exhausted. The wine service was very good. They were on top of our wines all evening, had them opened and decanted in anticipation of the right course, and always had the right stemware out. We drank pretty well.
Vilmart Blanc de Blancs Champagne N.V. – Good as an aperitif and with the amuse.
2002 Huet Vouvray Haut Lieu demi-sec – Lovely wine with surprisingly good viscosity and a touch of sweetness.
1970 Lopez de Heredia Vina Bosconia – Really lovely with good depth. Lighter in style than Tondonia which I have had from the same vintage on a number of occasions. Nice and meaty with both charm and length.
1991 Rousseau Chambertin – Great wine but very tight and it never really opened up.
1970 Jaboulet Chateauneuf-du-Pape – Still kicking although it had lost a lot of fruit as well as typicity.
I don’t think you could have found a more disappointed group of diners than the six people at our table. We had all come a long way—New York City, Los Angeles, Columbus, Ohio, and Evansville, Indiana—spent thousands of dollars just to experience this meal, and it was a complete and total bust. It was about the eight or ninth course that we realized that something was wrong, and with each new course, we looked up at each other with that “uh-oh” look in our eyes, while Mrs. P was giving me that “can you believe this?” look from across the table. The meal was nowhere as good as what Achatz was serving at Trio in the fall of 2002, when I said that with a few improvements, Trio could be the best restaurant in the U.S. But of the three important Chicago restaurants I ate in last week (Moto and Avenues being the other two), Alinea was by far the worst meal.
Putting aside the fact that my meal may have been atypical for some reason, I think Achatz has made a strategic error in the way he has formulated the cuisine for Alinea. Rather than importing his best dishes from Trio and adding a handful of new dishes that are special, he has created an entirely new set of dishes that are more serious in style. But what seems to have happened in the process is that his cuisine has lost its soul and humor. The current state of modern cuisine relies heavily on a combination of new and interesting culinary techniques that are intended to be thought provoking, and which often contain elements of humor and whimsy. And while Achatz’s cuisine at Trio had all of those elements (like his “truffle surprise” or his pushed foie gras and pear purée dessert), at Alinea they are either missing or suppressed to the extent that they have little or no impact on the meal.
An example of where Achatz missed the mark was his bison dish accompanied with burning cinnamon shards. This past January at Jacque Decoret’s restaurant in Vichy, he served a chestnut cappuccino with a small pile of burning chestnut shells on the side. When you leaned over the dish to take a spoonful of what was really a sweet chestnut soup, you were inundated with the flavor and aroma of chestnuts. Not only was it delicious, but it was humorous as well. In Achatz’s bison dish, the cinnamon hardly made any impact, a death knell for a dish where you are trying to combine flavor and aroma into one experience. The turbot, served with hyacinth flowers which were doused in hot water in an attempt to create an aroma, suffered from the same problem. Not only was it difficult to smell the hyacinth, who even knows what hyacinth smells like to begin with? It’s making me laugh because when they poured the water into the bowl and someone at our table claimed they could smell hyacinth, I was saying to myself, where is it, where is it, how come I can’t smell it, thinking there was something wrong with my nose! I’m now convinced that the dish was created for those expert perfume smellers that you read about, but never meet, and not for mere mortals.
These two dishes are a metaphor for what I found wrong with Alinea. Everything about the meal simply missed its mark. The next morning when I was driving Mrs. P to O’Hare for an early flight, she said that there are usually one or two stand-out dishes at every meal, and they are so good that you want to talk about them the next day. But this time there wasn’t a single dish worth mentioning, save for a small discussion about the chocolate dessert. Hard to imagine it was possible; Grant should have been able to wow us at least once during the 28 courses we were served. By way of comparison, after my meal at Trio I highlighted eight different courses that I wanted to try again. How can it possibly be that out of 28 courses served in this meal, not a single dish rose to that level? It’s astounding just thinking about it.
I’ve now had three nights to sleep on this, and it still isn’t making any sense to me. After all, Achatz is a great chef, and his cuisine at Trio was superb, even if it wasn’t completely focused. But trying to think this through, I can only imagine that this is a function of his having had too much time to open the restaurant, as well as not really having independent third parties sample the cuisine before it went on the menu. Otherwise, I simply can’t fathom how this happened. If anyone has any ideas or suggestions about it, please feel free to post a comment here. C