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Chicago

29 Nov

Admittedly, the sole purpose of my recent trip to Chicago was to eat Alinea. It didn’t matter to me if we ate mediocre meals for the rest of the trip as long as I got to visit a Grant Achatz restaurant. We had confirmed reservations at Alinea before we left Vancouver, but I had been desperately trying to get a reservation at Next or The Aviary – unfortunately, our dates didn’t match their opening hours (they are open from Wednesday through Sunday) so we didn’t get to sample any of Chef Achatz’s other establishments. Whilst that was disappointing, it freed us up to explore the Chicago food scene before our highly anticipated meal at Alinea. In a brief summary, here is what we got up to:

 Chicago Sightseeing

Merlo was an easy introduction to Chicago. It didn’t blow my socks off but it was a nice evening at a restaurant that made an effort. For the Vancouverites reading, it reminded me of a Lupo/Cioppino’s amalgamation, but with a little less polish than Cioppino’s. The execution was a little sloppy for us (a few small bones in the peasant pasta, the expensive tenderloin with white truffles was very acidic and not worth the hefty price-tag) but overall the experience was cozy, romantic, and a nice welcome to the Windy City. We ended up back at our hotel bar, closing down the bar whilst drinking Prosecco and cocktails. This happens when you are two hours ahead of everyone else in the city (we were still on Pacific Standard Time).

Wild Tuna Carpaccio from Merlo

Pasta special with Peasant from Merlo

Beef Tenderloin with White Alba Truffles from Merlo

Dark Chocolate Molten Cake from Merlo

We struggled to find good coffee in Chicago. We went out of our way to find Intelligenstia Coffee but it really wasn’t worth it. We found our best coffee in Eataly, which if you’ve not been to the New York store, you really should visit the Chicago store when you are in town. You will find delicious coffee, snacks, pasta, pizza, cheese, and wine (amongst other things). I love this place as it is a foodie’s playground. Just try to say no to the carbs!

Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe from Eataly

 Housemade Tagliatelle with Short Rib Ragu from Eataly 

I had to try the deep pan pizza that Chicago is famous for and after some research I landed on Lou Malnati’s for an original deep pan pizza. Unfortunately, this beast (above) played havoc with my stomach. I don’t think my stomach and I are cut out for the calorie overload that was a deep pan pizza from Lou Malnati’s. I wouldn’t go back for this. The base was too buttery/oily and it was far too much heavy food for this delicate tummy (I only ate half of the “personal” pizza and found that it was too much).

I would, however, go back for Champagne at RM Champagne Salon. This beautifully decorated bar was so cute that I wanted to stay there all night and drink bottles of Champagne. The atmosphere was incredibly romantic and I’d highly recommend a visit to this place if you are in the area. It is somewhat hidden but if you know what you are looking for, it isn’t hard to find.

After our pre-dinner drink at RM Champagne Salon, we made our way around the corner to the famous Girl and The Goat. This place was jumping from the minute we got there – think: dark, loud, and busy. But the reason folks stand in line for this place is for the food – it is so good. The menu was a little peculiar but all of the dishes that we tried (five in total) were exceptional. Reservations aren’t accepted so go and put your name on the list and drink at the RM Champagne Salon whilst you wait for your table.

Steamed Cape Cod Mussels with garlic crunch from Girl and The Goat

Crisp Braised Pork Shank – so good! From Girl and The Goat.

I had a great time in Chicago even though it felt a little sleepy compared to New York, although, I have a feeling that this might have been because we were there on a long weekend. Next time I return to Chicago (I must go back to Alinea), it will be in the summer as there is more happening at that time, like baseball and outdoor summer events. The highlight for our trip was, without a doubt, Alinea.

Alinea, Chicago

11 Nov

Alinea had been on my bucket list for quite a long time – years, in fact. After recently watching a documentary called “Spinning Plates“, it shot up my list at top speed and I convinced B (without much effort, it must be said) to book a trip to Chicago with the sole purpose of eating at Alinea. Basically, I had to go, and it had to be NOW!

With our reservation made and flights booked, I prepared for our trip by reading Chef Grant Achatz’s bio “Life, on the Line“. It was a fascinating read about a man with incredible drive, focus, a passion for perfection, and a desire for innovation. Reading his book only fuelled my excitement so when we walked through the inconspicuous doors to Alinea on Sunday evening and I saw him standing in the kitchen, I was starstruck! There he was! Working in the kitchen and creating tabletop desserts for some lucky diners (not us). I was thrilled! It was a great start to an evening that would end up being this foodie’s dream come true!

Geeking out! Chef Achatz in the kitchen!

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Dish 1: Caviar, brioche (foam), capers and onions (gel), egg (custard).

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Dish 2: A bit of fun…find the edible branch!

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A bit blurry…but this is the edible branch. Salsify (a root vegetable) that has been sous-vide for 13 hours and marinated in soy. Delicious!

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Dish 3: One of the most memorable flavours of the night – skate with brown butter sauce and toasted bread. The plate is meant to resemble a paper napkin.

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Dish 4: Our server called this “A Day at The Beach” – pebbles of sous-vide beans, ebi, ogo, clam shells.

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Dish 5: Beautifully presented trout with broccoli, prepared different ways.

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Dish 6: All night we had been sitting under a bouquet of lemongrass, chilli, ginger, and coriander suspended on an almost-invisible wire. We didn’t know its purpose until this dish arrived: the bouquet was used to flavour the curry broth that was poured into the eggplant and cocoa nibs.

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Dish 7: Lily bulb, rambutan, distillation of caviar lime (also known as finger limes). The bursts from the lime provided an interesting texture.

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Dish 8: Tabletop campfire! Hamachi with shishito, bean, cooked with pine branches.

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Dish 9: Matsutake (mushroom) with pine, abalone, and tapioca. Flamed at the table.
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Dish 10: Pork belly with charred parsnip, black trumpet, kombu. Unbeknownst to us, these sneaky guys (the parsnip and the pork) had been cooking inside the fire. For this dish, they were removed from the fire and sliced tableside. The pork was incredibly delicate and fell apart under the fork.

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Dish 11: Not enough time to photograph the signature dish of hot potato cold potato. You pull the pin to release hot potato with black truffle shavings into a cold potato soup, and then you shoot it all. Incredible!

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Dish 12: Squab, squab liver “truffle”, beet, orange.

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Dish13: “Graffiti”: hazelnut, perigord, balsamic “spraypaint”.

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Dish 14: Blueberry with bubblegum, lilac, sorrel. This was the only dish that I didn’t enjoy all that much as it was too sweet for me. B thought I was crazy.

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Dish 15: Edible balloon with green apple. We even had some fun with the helium. This was sticky and messy and I loved it!

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Dish 16: Tropical Fruit with rum, vanilla, kaffir lime. This dish was created by one of the chefs at the table and my photos don’t do it justice – it was beautiful. Every bite popped with tropical flavours, including the candy (complete with edible wrapping).

I’m finding it difficult to convey the experience and the level of detail in the dishes, therefore, I am hoping that the photos can help illustrate the words that I am struggling to find. I had high expectations of Alinea – it has had a lot of hype and I had certainly built up high expectations. When I walked out of Alinea on Sunday night, all of my expectations had been surpassed. I had been expecting that the food would be an experience – that I was sure of – but I had doubts about the taste of the food. I knew the food would look like pieces of art and I knew they would be impressive and innovative, but I had thought that it would come at the cost of the taste. I was wrong. Grant Achatz is a genius. Let the haters hate on molecular gastronomy – Alinea should be left to those who want something else from food than just sustenance. I am grateful to have had the experience of dining at Alinea and hope that I get the chance to return.

*I must make a special note about Alinea’s booking system because it was, by far, the easiest booking experience that I’ve had at a restaurant of this calibre. Their website is very user-friendly and the process was very straight forward.*