Surprise Birthday Trip – Dinner at Alinea 2.0 and Drinks at The Aviary

I had a grand total of one birthday party as a kid and it was a joint celebration months ahead of my actual birthday. I’m also not one to expect extravagant gestures. Having said that, it does feel nice to be spoiled once in a while. My birthday this year was all that and more, thanks to my amazing partner!

I was whisked away to Chicago, and the itinerary was a complete surprise. Once in Chicago, I guessed that one of the meals would be Grace, 42 Grams, or the legendary Alinea. Well lucky me, it was Alinea!

Alinea recently transformed their dining experience with a new menu and interior decor. I wasn’t able to visit pre-renovation, so I can’t compare, but the new “2.0” menu was ridiculously delightful. They excel at incorporating all senses, and the performance aspect was far above my other 3-Michelin star experiences. The food itself was also very good and in my top three.

We had the upstairs Salon menu, which was the shortest of the menu options. With 11 complex courses, I left thoroughly satisfied. I can only imagine what the Gallery or Kitchen Table menus must be like. A future trip for sure!

IMG_0099
Menu given at start of meal – intentionally vague

Course 1 – Ice

The experience kicked off in a bowl made of ice. The unique combination and complex flavors made this one of the more memorable courses of the night. Who would have thought banana sorbet, macadamia, coconut, and prawn tasted so good together?

#1 - Ice - Hawaii ebi, banana sorbet, coconut
#1 – Ice – Hawaii ebi, banana sorbet, coconut, macadamia

Course 2 – Crunch & Paper 

This came out as paper-like scallop sheets in a bowl. The server poured a sweet corn broth to rehydrate the scallop. The broth had an amazingly sweet, concentrated corn flavor. After a few sips though, I found this too cloying and rich to finish. On the side was an extra crunchy shio kombu/nori roll filled with scallop cream. A great umami bite.

#2 - Crunch/Paper - shio kombu, nori w/ broth of scallop sheets, corn, butter
#2 – Crunch & Paper – shio kombu, nori (back) and broth of scallop sheets, corn, butter
#2 - Crunch/Paper - crunch closeup - shio kombu, nori
#2 – Crunch & Paper – crunch closeup – shio kombu, nori, scallop puree

Course 3 – Contrast, Sparrow-Grass, Swirl

A visual and olfactory delight. The “swirl” dish released a strong yuzu-scented fog that cascaded over the bowl. The swirl itself was green apple soaked in yuzu.

“Sparrow-grass” is apparently an old name for asparagus. This dish (front left) had white asparagus, along with lychee under a foam. The lychee stood out to me, but the rest of the flavors were forgotten.

The “contrast” was my favorite of the three (front right) because of the various textures – olive oil gummies, lavender gel, tomato, watermelon, and parmesan custard. Party in my mouth!

IMG_0060
#3 – Contrast, Sparrow-Grass, Swirl – tomato, watermelon, parmesan; white asparagus, lychee, lily bulb; apple yuzu, lemon verbena

Course 4 – Fry

This featured ice fish flown in from Tsukiji fish market. These were deep-fried tempura style and served over a tangy, slightly spicy daisy mandarin sauce. Radish and flowers rounded out this flavorful bite.

#4 - Fry - icefish from Tsukiji, daisy mandarin, radish
#4 – Fry – icefish from Tsukiji, daisy mandarin, radish

Course 5 – Yellow

Yellow was served in a flexible silicon bowl which you hold in your non-dominant hand and eat with chopsticks. The salt-cured pork belly was topped with a flavor-packed curry with saffron and banana notes.

#5 - Yellow - pork belly, curry, banana
#5 – Yellow – pork belly, curry, banana

Course 6 – Glass & Petal

This was my favorite savory course of the meal. Beautiful plating, thoughtful presentation of onion within itself, and morels!

IMG_0071
#6 – Glass & Petal – morel, blueberry, lapsang souchong, onion, purple allium, black pepper

The “glass” dish had glass-like shards made from blueberry and lapsang souchong tea. Underneath were morels covered in foie gras sauce, with bits of a pickled green (ramp?). So good.

#6 - Glass/Petal -  morel, blueberry
#6 – Glass & Petal – morel, blueberry, lapsang souchong, foie gras, pickled kale

Accompanying this was a stunning purple allium bloom, which contained an onion sandwich. The sandwich had a similar glass-like outside, with an intense onion filling.

#6 - Glass Petal - creamy onion bite hidden inside a flowering onion
#6 – Glass & Petal – creamy onion sandwich hidden inside a flowering onion

Course 7 – Toast

Shaved black truffle finger sandwiches!! We are talking pumpernickel toast, layered with gruyere cream, and copious amounts of truffle. A lot of times, black truffle is dried out and lacking in flavor. This was not one of the those times. Heaven.

IMG_0075
#7 – Toast – black truffle, gruyere, pumpernickel

Course 8 – Smoke & Bonbon

We could smell this course from the other room. The crackling molcajete fire had aromatic sticks made from the palo santo tree, along with star anise.

This came with a small cup of Del Maguey single village mezcal, to be slowly sipped throughout the course.

#8 - Fire for the Smoke/Bonbon course
#8 – Fire for the Smoke & Bonbon course, palo santo sticks

After a few minutes, the waiter put out the fire and brought out the edible course. Served on volcanic stone, this was a Mexican inspired bite-sized meal in itself.

The skewered pineapple wrapped in root beer leaf (hoja santa) was the highlight – the sweetness brought me back to eating pineapple in Taiwan.

The chicken thigh (decorated like the Mexican flag with cilantro, creme  fraiche, and ancho sauce) was sadly unremarkable, despite the flavorful sauces.

Next to this was deep fried chicken liver rolled in huitlacoche masa and resembling volcanic stone. I’m not a fan of chicken liver, but this was mild enough to eat.

On a separate stone were two dark chocolate truffles. A sweet note to end the mini meal.

IMG_0081
#8 – Smoke & Bonbon – chicken, palo santo, pineapple, mezcal, mango, almond, cinnamon

Course 9 – Cloche & Bone

The final savory course did not disappoint. “Cloche” was actually veal cheek hidden under a romaine lettuce leaf. The tender cheek was covered in a wonderful green (papaya?) chili sauce. Accompanying this was a very sweet galia melon with delicate chamomile flavor.

#9 - Cloche/Bone - veal cheek, chamomile, galia melon
#9 – Cloche & Bone – veal cheek, chamomile, galia melon

Next was the “bone” on which sat a bite resembling nigiri. The puffed rice base (held together by bone marrow and soy powder), was topped with waygu, pickled yoga ginger, and brown sugar glaze. The perfect amount of sweet and savory.

#9 - Cloche/Bone cont. - waygu, rice, myoga ginger
#9 – Cloche & Bone – waygu, rice, myoga ginger

Course 10 – Nostalgia

I was excited to see the iconic helium balloons had stayed on from the previous menu, though now in strawberry taffy flavor. The table next to us actually lost a balloon to the ceiling. I wish I got a snap of the waiter standing on a chair and poking at the balloon!

I didn’t inhale the helium balloon enough to get the high voice (I know, fail!) but it was a fun experience nonetheless.

The plated part of the course was a dark chocolate square with caramelized fennel ice cream inside, served on an amazing lemon white chocolate cookie and sabayon sauce!

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#10 – Nostalgia – fennel ice cream, dark chocolate, lemon white chocolate cookie, Pernod sabayon, served with strawberry taffy balloon (not shown)

Course 11 – Paint

The final course was like a pre-plated version of their table top paint show. Under the glass plate is an actual painting from an artist collaboration. This dish wasn’t just for show though – I was pleasantly surprised at how amazing every element tasted. Cherry, white chocolate, orange bourbon, coffee, and pistachio flavors (I’m forgetting some) made for an insane flavor explosion. Truly one of the the best desserts I’ve ever had. My sweet tooth can die happy now.

#11 - Paint - cherry, white chocolate, bourbon, coffee, pistacho
#11 – Paint – cherry, white chocolate, orange, bourbon, coffee, pistachio

After the meal, we were presented with another menu which had major ingredients overlayed on the original menu. I initially asked a waiter if we were getting a more detailed menu and she said no, so I was surprised when we were presented with one after all. You mean I didn’t have to take notes this whole time? 😀

Salon Menu 8/13/16
Salon Menu

Final Thoughts

Alinea was a remarkable dining experience. Since it was a surprise, I came in with zero knowledge of the new menu, which truly enhanced the whimsical journey. I left feeling giddy and satisfied, but not overly full.

Other than a few forgettable dishes, the food was remarkable in its own right. The creativity was evident in every course. Flavor combinations consistently surprised me.

The service was on point, but laid-back at the same time. This was finesse without the stuffiness. Timing was a little off, and we did have moments where we sat for more than a few minutes over an empty table. Total dining time was just under three hours.

I was a bit surprised at the lack of any extra courses, bread, or mignardises with the check. Perhaps that’s only for the longer meal options. Not a big deal though. This was in my top three dining experiences, and I wouldn’t hesitate to go back.

After Dinner Drinks – The Aviary

After dinner, Mr. A asked if I would be okay with grabbing a drink (we kept it low-key at dinner with a bottle of dry German riesling). To my delight I found myself at the dimly lit, impressive lounge that is The Aviary.

I knew that The Aviary was one of the best cocktail bars in the world, but little did I know just how elaborate their drinks were. They even had a cocktail and food pairing menu…if only we weren’t full from Alinea!

It took a while for us to be greeted after seating, but we were brought our water preferences from Alinea. They hadn’t asked, just anticipated, so that was a nice touch.

Though we came for a drink, we couldn’t help but zone in on the food offerings. They had the Black Truffle Explosion from the original Alinea! Of course, Mr. A ordered two immediately as he reminisced earlier about that dish. This was basically a truffle butter filled ravioli. Very good, but very decadent. A little too much for me.

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Black Truffle Explosion – truffle butter filled ravioli, shaved black truffle, romaine, parmesan

A server walked around with small bites, dim sum style. We spotted the bacon strips and tried them. These were also from the original Alinea menu. They were sweet with butterscotch –  pretty good but not amazing.

Bacon on Trapeze, butterscotch
Bacon on Trapeze, butterscotch, apple, thyme

The main attraction was truly the drinks. Loaded to the Gunwalls came out as a ship in a bottle. This sat illuminated via candlelight for a while. Then a waiter appeared with a clay cup, sprayed it with mace, and poured the drink from the ship bottle into the cup. The mace spice was distinct and contrasted nicely with sweetness of the pineapple.

Loaded to the Gunwalls - mace, pineapple, hazelnut, batavia arrack
Loaded to the Gunwalls – mace, pineapple, hazelnut, batavia arrack

Mr. A ordered the O’Doyle Rules, and he and the waiter shared a Billy Madison moment, which I was hopelessly clueless about (like most movie references).

I liked this better than my drink. The banana curry notes were surprisingly good in cocktail form, and the fried banana bites accompanied the drink perfectly.

O'Doyle Rules - Fried banana, clarified banana, curry, rum, cognac
O’Doyle Rules – Fried banana, clarified banana, curry, rum, cognac

As much as I wanted to try more of the menu, I was full from Alinea so we called it a night. A very Happy Birthday indeed!

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