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Alinea - I'm a believer

Alinea - I'm a believer
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  • Post #451 - July 13th, 2017, 4:10 pm
    Post #451 - July 13th, 2017, 4:10 pm Post #451 - July 13th, 2017, 4:10 pm
    I live in the Chicago area but have never been to Alinea. A friend is visiting from California and we are planning to get tickets for September. I have heard that the Salon is amazing and more than enough, but my friend is worried we won't get the "full Alinea experience" unless we do the Gallery. I didn't see anything on this site about Alinea since just after it was revamped last year. Any recent thoughts on whether the Gallery is worth the extra $$? We're willing to do it if it is, but I thought you all might be able to provide some valuable input.
  • Post #452 - December 13th, 2017, 5:51 pm
    Post #452 - December 13th, 2017, 5:51 pm Post #452 - December 13th, 2017, 5:51 pm
    Golly. No response to the last post. Surely there are plenty of folks who have been. I would swear I'd even seen a post or two. But I can't find anything now. Either my search skills have deteriorated (likely) or there's nothing here. Anyone?
    Gypsy Boy

    "I am not a glutton--I am an explorer of food." (Erma Bombeck)
  • Post #453 - December 13th, 2017, 6:14 pm
    Post #453 - December 13th, 2017, 6:14 pm Post #453 - December 13th, 2017, 6:14 pm
    I haven't done both so I can't really compare with what they're offering in the Gallery, but I had dinner in the Salon since the revamp and it was absolutely stellar in every respect, worthy of Alinea's reputation as among the world's best restaurants and most exciting culinary experiences.

    I think Royal Lichter's post, which preceded the above question by three days, also provides an answer to the question being asked.
  • Post #454 - December 13th, 2017, 7:30 pm
    Post #454 - December 13th, 2017, 7:30 pm Post #454 - December 13th, 2017, 7:30 pm
    I'm too embarrassed to admit that I missed his review this time around since the search function took me to the end of the thread and I didn't have the common sense to go back a page. :oops:

    His was the review I recalled seeing before. Thanks for pointing out what any 7-year-old would have thought to do. However, the question stands--any other thoughts on the subject? Or even thoughts on one or the other from recent visits?
    Gypsy Boy

    "I am not a glutton--I am an explorer of food." (Erma Bombeck)
  • Post #455 - February 8th, 2018, 9:03 am
    Post #455 - February 8th, 2018, 9:03 am Post #455 - February 8th, 2018, 9:03 am
    We’ve been to Alinea several times but not for a couple years and not since the re-concepting. We were very much looking forward to our return. In a nutshell, both the Lovely Dining Companion agreed that we were unexpectedly and unhappily disappointed. Service ranged from excellent to sycophantic to nervous; food ranged from delicious to embarrassing. One server was top-notch: he knew the food, he knew the wines, he was easy to talk with, and he was comfortable. The server who welcomed us was a caricature. He recited the script properly (if stiffly) but he was clearly uncomfortable and managed to put us on edge every time he appeared. Service varied accordingly. There were some odd gaffes: the Lovely Dining Companion doesn’t drink alcohol and, to their credit, they offered her a selection of non-alcoholic drinks at the outset. She chose one, drank it over the course of the meal, and no one ever offered to refresh or refill—or even remove—the glass. It was just ignored throughout the course of the evening. Another example: at one point, there was an inexplicably long delay between courses. Mostly the timing was fine (though the LDC insists that she felt rushed on occasion), but this gap was extraordinarily lengthy and when service resumed, there was no mention, no explanation, no comment. The food itself also ranged from excellent to simply unfortunate and just not good. For where Alinea has always been and hopes to remain, the evening was just not acceptable.

    (Worth noting: one of us was quite sick a few days before our reservation and, although the process was a little impersonal, Tock/Nick/Alinea has loosened up some. After a few e-mails, they offered to switch us to another date, exactly one week later (same day, same time) so that we weren’t forced to sell our tickets. That said, it used to be the practice call and ask the standard questions about food allergies, celebratory occasions, etc. Not anymore; now it’s e-mail. And none of the e-mails I received ever bore a human being’s name; just “Alinea.” Talk about impersonal and distancing.)

    The Lovely Dining Companion observed that she missed the old entrance, the surprise that you get when you first walk in. It sets the stage for everything. The new interior feels too slick and not quirky. I didn’t miss the old one but at 4:50 on a Thursday evening, there wasn’t enough room for the people arriving, checking in, and checking coats. It’s just too narrow a space.

    The meal.

    asian pear, trout roe, shiso

    romaine, avocado, tosaka

    The Asian pear snow portion of the course was very good: a nice contrast of textures and flavors, and a nice opener. The romaine spear accompaniment (at least, I think it was intended as a complement) was a rib without much leaf and had correspondingly little (to no) flavor. The avocado and tosaka (seaweed) were simply too delicate to add much.

    the table, as it was set on arrival

    Having finished the first course, our attention is drawn back to the table. Think orange. See orange. Smell orange. The table was decorated with a bowl filled with oranges (and related orange-colored fruits and leaves). A halved orange gave off the slightest of scents. Then, the curtain rises as a server ostentatiously pours “boiling” water into the bowl and the dry ice (surprise!) generates a steady, long-lasting fog and, more important, releases more scent.

    raising scent[/i]

    [b]spanner crab, coconut, curry

    With the table now set, the server brings an excellent dish combining unexpected things in a way that the sum exceeded the total of the parts. Crab and orange? The crab was a smallish portion but astonishingly rich and the coconut and curry combined for a terrific course.

    spiced orange

    Think black truffle explosion. With orange. Extremely photogenic, very clever, very well done. And good too.

    squid, black garlic, chrysanthemum

    The squid, we were told, was flown in from Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. More the pity that it was just a bit overdone. Not quite too enough to be chewy but definitely too well done to be melt-in-your-mouth. A real pity since the preparation was otherwise delicious. The black slug-like garlic reduction (I have no idea how to properly or adequately describe it) was excellent (and I actually hadn’t noticed its resemblance to a garden creature until I looked at the pictures afterward).

    olive, artichoke

    The squid was complemented by this olive/roasted artichoke “side.” I presume the rocks are intended to recall the seashore. Texture and consistency, think clotted cream. And, just like such a heavy cream, enormously rich, deep flavors. Another winner.

    At this point, everyone in the room was asked to get up and visit the kitchen. One entire long prep table (of two) had been cleared, and each diner had a place set with a small bowl of food and ready for a drink that was to be made in our presence. The young woman who did the preparation was slick, she knew her lines and her work. The drinks were made with the assistance of an intriguing piece of machinery about which I shall say nothing, the better to leave the experience a surprise for whoever chooses to go. The drink was made, mixed, and poured. We ate the accompaniment in the kitchen (sadly, neither of us recalls the details and there is no mention of course or drink on the souvenir menu) and we were all escorted back through the Gallery and back upstairs to our seats. Chef Achatz was there and, as is his wont, busy supervising the plating; he did not come over or even look up to acknowledge the visitors.

    One thought that occurred to me was that if I had sprung for the extra bucks for a Gallery table, I would most definitely not be happy to have a dozen or more people troop through the room on their way to the kitchen and then troop back through again ten minutes later to return upstairs. Three separate times (because the upstairs remains divided into three smaller rooms). Last observation on the kitchen visit: it was nice to get up, stretch our legs, and to go to the kitchen but it felt gimmick-y to us and put us in mind of a very similar experience at Eleven Madison Park.



    Back upstairs and settled back in to our seats, it was time for the next course.

    langoustine cracker, bouillabaisse, olive oil

    rouille, nori

    Langoustine dehydrated and crackerized. Bouillabaisse in the bottom. We were instructed to break the cracker up and let it rehydrate in the liquid. I guess this is cute, though I’m accustomed to having bouillabaisse loaded with seafood and fish, not just a broth (admittedly a very rich one). The cracker rehydrates pretty much as expected, turning the bouillabaisse into an uptown version of noodle soup. Sadly, the nori “roll” lost its crunch from being wrapped around a “wet” filling and the rouille was so toned down it couldn’t serve the traditional function of rouille, to cut through the richness of the bouillabaisse. Good taste loses out to clever. The beginning, sadly, of a trend for the rest of the evening.

    There was a fire in the middle of our table. A bowl filled with salt was lit on fire and we thought the presentation decorative enough, though of course we had no idea what was going on. Eventually the fire died down and a large spray of juniper was placed atop…wisps of smoke ensue…but the heat alone was enough to scent the air. While the juniper lay warming, we were presented with a venison blood sausage “beignet” with huckleberry jam. I remember little about it except that I was surprised at how much the filling had shrunk relative to the size of the beignet, an error I would not expect from a kitchen of this level. More than that, I can’t really say—which I suppose says something in itself. There is no picture of this course but if you blinked you missed it.

    “venison, juniper, huckleberry”

    Next, a server brought the chowder mise en place (below) to the table. The tongs were used to fish out a potato buried deep within the salt and the old-fashioned shaving brush was on hand to dust said tuber. The potato was then smashed up in our bowls at which point the chowder was served, er, squirted.

    chowder mise en place

    potato being dusted

    chowder being ‘served’

    clam, potato, bacon

    It tasted pretty much like it looked. We were more than a little surprised to be served something looking like this: who in the kitchen could possibly have thought this an attractive presentation, no matter how much whiz-bang went into it? Even adorned with the solitary oyster cracker and sprinkled with the house-made hot sauce (served in a repurposed Tabasco bottle labelled “Hot Sauce”) this was not a remotely attractive presentation. Worse still, it was gooey, gluey, and not good. If I hadn’t known it was clam chowder, I doubt I would have guessed on the first two or three tries. Clever? I suppose so. Mostly just depressing.

    blueberry, lapsang souchong, maitake


    Not a particularly enjoyable course to my taste. The combination (blueberry and kale and mushroom) simply didn’t work for me and though I liked the presentation, I found that my disenchantment continued.

    squab, black rice

    Just no. The squab was blackened on top because it had been cooked with a chunk of binchotan (Japanese white charcoal) atop it. The course is distinctly unappetizing to look at: gloppy looking, black food. It didn’t taste much better. The squab was good, but a tiny portion, and the rest is better left unsaid.

    beet, mustard, chili

    Good. A nice accompaniment but the main dish itself was too far gone for this to rescue it in any way. We were a little surprised that this was it for heavier “main” courses: a bite of venison and the tiny piece of squab. No beef, no lamb, no anything else. Did we miss it? Honestly, yes. Was it a major disappointment? No. But we were surprised when dessert was the next course.

    sweet potato, chocolate, miso


    pumpkin pie

    Desserts were good, though it seems that “Childhood” has now been repackaged and appears as “Nostalgia.” Nothing wrong that or with any of the components except the sense of earlier successes being trotted out for another bow.

    Two things we both missed: bread service and the tableside dessert preparation. The role of bread service appears to be shifting significantly. It has gotten much fancier in many places and also (proportionally?) less generous. Although I’m happy to have artisanal breads made and served, I’d also be quite content to have a really simple, top quality baguette (or some such thing). But either way, I would really like something there. There has been discussion elsewhere on LTH about charging for (great) bread, but frankly, we really miss having no bread whatsoever. I just checked my reviews of earlier visits and at least in 2007, they offered it (as well as multiple butters) but not in 2011. The Progression had bread as well. It seems neither unrealistic nor unreasonable to expect something. Anything. And indeed there were a couple of times during the evening when for various reasons, I paused and had to stop myself from reaching for something that wasn’t there. It’s nice to be able to give your palate a rest from the onslaught of flavors and to better enjoy the wine. Not at Alinea. Nothing whatsoever.

    Tableside dessert preparation is, oops, was the chance to have one of the world's best and most creative chefs create something just for you. And a chance to chat with him, if you could find a way. Chef Achatz is famously shy and unforthcoming and we have seen him spend a silent several minutes at plenty of tables exchanging neither a word nor a glance with the customers. We’re lucky, I guess. We had always managed to have wonderful conversations and, indeed, on our last visit but one, he spent more than 15 minutes at our table, just talking (and recreating the entire dessert since the first one had completely melted). (It was clearly creating concerns for the staff but it was a real treat for us.)

    As Mike Gebert has observed elsewhere, there’s too much sleight-of-hand. To what end? At one point, you’re presented a glass bottle with what looks for all the world like a couple vanilla beans. So the vanilla bean in a jar is really vanilla-infused beef jerky. And? Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. It wasn't even very good beef jerky, truth be told, and it certainly didn’t complement the course in any way.

    Chef Achatz’s fascination with smell continues and is a fine thing. It offers plenty of opportunities but, at least as we’ve experienced over the years, there’s a limit to what one can do with it. And while it has the ability to remake an experience of a particular dish, it has become more of a crutch, it seems, and a too-predictable gimmick that simply doesn’t add the way it did when we first experienced it. We found ourselves in complete agreement with one of Gebert’s conclusions: “By some mid-meal point I’m longing for a thing that is just itself, treated beautifully, again. The tricks have to be delicious as well as culinarily ingenious, and enough times they aren’t, breaking the magic spell of the start of the meal.”

    The dishes we both liked came early on; things just declined after that. Except, perhaps, for the crab dish, nothing blew us away. We don’t expect perfection and don’t expect to love everything that comes out of the kitchen. But our disappointment was greater than just being unhappy with a couple courses. Nothing surprised or astounded us the way things did the first time (or even two or three) that we went. As I have written elsewhere, the Progression had some wonderful moments like the opportunity to drink shots with the chefs in the kitchen and hear Mike Bagale talk about how he put a particular dish together. That's obviously not possible at Alinea with so many people, but since they are fully capable of coming up with creative moments, this meal was that much more disappointing. We understand the technology allows amazing things. But ultimately, dining at Alinea is not about the bells and whistles. And when the theater and the whiz-bang surpasses the taste regularly in the course of an evening, we know we’re in trouble.

    I don’t know how to adequately summarize or reduce all this to a simple conclusion. The thought that keeps recurring, though, is that when the number of dishes that leave us cold—dishes that do not contribute in the least to any desire to return—convincingly outnumber the dishes that wow us, that make us eager to come back, it is a very disappointing evening. And so it was.
    Last edited by Gypsy Boy on February 13th, 2018, 6:07 pm, edited 1 time in total.
    Gypsy Boy

    "I am not a glutton--I am an explorer of food." (Erma Bombeck)
  • Post #456 - February 8th, 2018, 9:17 am
    Post #456 - February 8th, 2018, 9:17 am Post #456 - February 8th, 2018, 9:17 am
    I have yet to go to Alinea, but a post like this has me wanting to rush back to Elizabeth, where the service has always been very homey and warm, and while not every dish has amazed me, the misses have been few and at least the combinations more organic (what's with that blueberry and mushroom at Alinea? That's just weird).

    One item of contrast: The bread service at Elizabeth is often the most substantial course, offering thick slabs of Chef Regan's wonderful bread, a garnished/infused or otherwise enhanced butter, and sometimes other wonderful things such as foie (I goggle over the tables that leave their bread uneaten -- high end dining is when you leave your paleo/low-carb at home).
    What is patriotism, but the love of good things we ate in our childhood?
    -- Lin Yutang
  • Post #457 - February 8th, 2018, 5:31 pm
    Post #457 - February 8th, 2018, 5:31 pm Post #457 - February 8th, 2018, 5:31 pm
    JoelF wrote:I have yet to go to Alinea, but a post like this has me wanting to rush back to Elizabeth, where the service has always been very homey and warm, and while not every dish has amazed me, the misses have been few and at least the combinations more organic

    I've actually been to Alinea 2.0 (a year ago, most recently) as well as Elizabeth (a bit before that). I'd say that the dishes at Alinea were roughly 75 percent amazingly delicious (and amazingly creative), 15-20 percent pretty good (and mostly creative), and 5-10 percent unpleasant or weird. Whereas the ones at Elizabeth were more evenly split - one third amazingly delicious, one third pretty good, and one third unpleasant or weird (which, overall, is still pretty good, except by the comparison here). I've also found that the service at both has been knowledgeable and helpful, although warmer and more friendly at Alinea (borderline impersonal and cold at Elizabeth), without any of the gaffes mentioned above at either. And of course, the price at Alinea was considerably higher, although we thought the wine pairings at Elizabeth were only so-so and a poor value.

    I'm not disputing Gypsy Boy's experience or opinion, only noting that my most recent experience there was not at all similar to his.
    Last edited by nsxtasy on February 9th, 2018, 9:36 pm, edited 2 times in total.
  • Post #458 - February 8th, 2018, 5:56 pm
    Post #458 - February 8th, 2018, 5:56 pm Post #458 - February 8th, 2018, 5:56 pm
    Honestly, having eaten at (old) Alinea and Elizabeth, most of all I miss One Sister, though Oriole successfully scratched that itch for me.