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Image 1: What set Grant Achatz apart from his colleagues was his courage in breaking the boundary; not only his creative food concepts and his unique ways of presenting food, but even his reservation system. Shortly after my visit five years ago, he implemented a ticket system. Just like going to a concert, you prepaid the full amount and turn up before the show opens. No refund and no exchange!
Image 2: The Alinea experience began by walking through a mysterious pink-glowing corridor which reminded me of a haunted mansion in amusement parks. Instead of ghosts popping out from nowhere to freak customers out, an automatic door slid open at the end of this tunnel and appeared on the left was the reception area of a modern restaurant.
Image 3: I immediately spotted Chef Grant in action together with his kitchen team of 20+ staff. It was a big decision for me to revisit my all-time favourite because any flaw would ruin the perfect image that I had for many years. In addition, most of the surprise elements of the meal would have been gone after the first visit. However, I could be easily satisfied even if they served me the exact same menu as last time.
Image 4: After a warm welcome from the manager, I was led upstairs to a spacious dining area which was decorated with a piece of rhubarb hanging in the air above each table. The dining room slowly filled with guests shortly after, and as expected, there was no empty seat since the restaurant has been fully booked at every service for many years already.
Image 5: They have eliminated the choice of short or long menu, so everyone here was having the same surprise menu which began with Golden Caviar - a unique take on caviar with a generous amount of caviar resting on a silky custard of banana, allspice, cocoa, and ponzu jello. Sweet, bitter, fruity, spicy, but mild enough so that the caviar saltiness was still the main focus of this opening treat.
Image 6: Wow. They placed in front of me a huge block of ice about half the size of the table…
Image 7: … with a striking display of a dissected red snapper!
Image 8: Sashimi with a taste of Thai - kaffir lime, chili, fried garlic, and fish sauce! Great flavours but too strong condiments for the fish.
Image 9: My table was then blanketed with a layer of fog steaming out from this "hot" pot imparting a nice citrus fragrance to my surrounding. I was a bit surprised that Chef Grant would incorporate this kind of old school special effect into the dining experience. But back onto the food, inside the scallop shell was what the staff described to me as an experience of thirteen textures!
Image 10: A mixture of diced raw scallop, coconut, seaweed, tapioca, jello, lemongrass, kaffer lime, ginger, scallion, and sea water. Yes, more Thai! I was not sure what inspired this creation, but to me, it was just a bunch of random stuff put together on a bed of cream. The experience was like eating Thai flavoured sauce! This was probably one of my least favourite scallop course of all time and when did Alinea become a Thai restaurant?!
Image 11: Time for a game of salsify camouflaged! The objective was to find a long piece of salsify, preserved and dried, that was hiding in this huge bundle of branches. Luckily, it didn't take me too long but the person on the table next to me had to give up. The salsify had a good flavour and I also noted a taste of soy sauce. Not a bad interactive course adding some fun element to a long meal.
Image 12: Now, leaving Thailand and going all the way to India. Tiny pieces of Maine lobster, tail and claw, poached in butter accompanied with yellow curry, grapefruit pearl, pressed cucumber, vanilla cauliflower custard, coconut pudding, earl grey tea jello, sweet curry sauce, crispy rice, fried raisin, roasted pinenut and dehydrated yogurt chips. Very difficult to taste the lobster among all those ingredients! Was he complicating a dish for the sake of complexity?
Image 13: Finally, a more proper food was served. Pickled, purée, and velouté of white asparagus colourfully decorated with olive, almond, orange, and a piece of lavender jello. Despite multiple flavours going on in this creamy soup, it did capture the flavour of white asparagus well. One of the very few delicious courses of this long meal!
Image 14: Oh god, why did he do that to me?! Chinese take away! I already felt the menu wasn't well thought-out since most of the courses I had so far were very powerful on the palate. This course proved that to be the case!
Image 15: I was instructed to use the pair cinnamon sticks as chopsticks which were still burning on one end releasing a chokingly concentrated aroma as part of the "orange chicken" experience. I didn't know how to react for the next 30 seconds with all sorts of questions in my mind doubting Grant's cuisine. Did he really think this cheap Chinese take-away box could enhance a fine dining experience? Is he running out of creativity so had to replicate other cuisine?
Image 16: Fine, it was actually sweetbread, deep fried and coated in orange sauce garnished with slices of heart of palm, ginkgo nut, pickled ginger, and scallion. Don't get me wrong, I loved my fine Chinese cuisine but also had cravings for Chinese take-away once in a while. Unfortunately, this was the worst Chinese take-away dish I experienced. Every item was completely smothered with an intense vinaigrette sauce. I tried, but two bites were more than enough!
Image 17: Well, with the terrible food so far, I could see why gimmicks were needed! The staff delivered a big piece of wooden log for me to suck out the chilled nasturtium velouté using the metal straw. A very refreshing soup with a hint of spiciness. The portion was quite big that I was more than half full.
Image 18: And on the top was fried frog leg served on nasturtium leaf topped with nasturtium flower. Warm and crunchy surface with a lovely garlic flavour. Joining the previous dish of white asparagus velouté, this one was the only few truly delicious items of the meal.
Image 19: Onto Japan now. I was glad that they still source top quality ingredients and it was evidenced by this raw ebi from Hawaii - delicate, creamy, and very fresh! Sadly, they paired it with a strong caramelized miso sauce at the bottom and an overly salty and spicy celtuce crisp on top! And that wasn't it, inside this shot glass was salt, sugar, rice wine vinegar, wasabi gel, miso pudding, yuzu zest, yuzu paste, kombu chips, garlic flower, and sea grapes! It was clear they didn't know how to respect such a beautiful ingredient! Shocking!
Image 20: During the previous course, they ignited a "camp fire" next to my table.
Image 21: After a while, he came back and removed the pile of charcoal. The fire was there just for show, hidden underneath was some precious meat - A5 Wagyu from Miyazaki prefecture! This cow began her life by being fed on grass and later fed on barley. She was often pampered with beer, hand massage, and even had chance to enjoy music! The idea was to relax the cow in order to improve the marbling.
Image 22: The meat was already cooked in the kitchen in open fire wrapped in kombu. It was then served on a piece of parsnip that was cooked sous-vide for 14 hours in Wagyu fat, along with black trumpet that was fried then purée, and a thin sheet of pressed nori. The beef itself was disappointing, though soft but dry and bland! The smoked parsnip purée was far more enjoyable! Yes, that meal wasn't going well at all.
Image 23: A palate cleanser before continuing with the second half of the meal. A stylish glass bowl with Sakura and lily bulb floating on a distillation of lime, lemon, ginger, rebutan, caviar lime (aka finger lime). Very refreshing and well balanced flavours!
Image 24: The staff then removed the rhubarb that was hanging from the ceiling!
Image 25: It was actually used as garnish for the rhubarb course…
Image 26: … in order to contrast with the pickled rhubarb. Inside the bowl was a quenelle of soft celery root meringue, pressed celery root, red wine braised rhubarb, and bits of raw celery. The idea was to mix up everything or otherwise the rhubarb would be way too sharp to eat by itself.
Image 27: I was then given a pile of newspaper and told to cover up my table for a Chicago street food experience - Fried Michigan smelts with three packaged homemade condiments. Bizarre... maybe I didn't know what those street side version are like, but I didn't sense any innovative twist to the fried smelts! I mean, why would anyone want to experience an ordinary street food in a Michelin 3-star restaurant?!
Image 28: Well, at least the Yukon potato crisps were nice and the whole fish was edible including the tail and fin. The three condiments were honey mustard, hot sauce and remoulade.
Image 29: A pair of chopsticks and a spoon were placed for the next course.
Image 30: Oh no, more Chinese cuisine! I didn't know Chef Grant got inspired by Chinese cuisine that much in recent years.
Image 31: Five-spice duck breast with Szechuan noodle and morel. The meat was very tender completely coated in a sweet, fruity, and spicy sauce. Very intense, but the flavours were in harmony.
Image 32: A couple of cute dumplings of foie gras and minced duck meat on the side.
Image 33: Great to see his classic - Potato Hot and Cold, a very time sensitive dish. Pinned onto a needle was a hot Yukon potato ball covered in a slice of black truffle with a tiny cube of Danish butter and parmesan. The idea was to pull the needle from the bottom and let everything fall onto the tiny bowl of chilled creamy soup of potato and black truffle, and quickly sip the whole thing for a temperature contrast sensation. This was as good as five years ago!
Image 34: On no, the meal continued with another Chinese oriented dish! Braised and fried Wood ear mushroom, crispy pig's ear, purple allium flower, black garlic and drizzled with parmesan sauce. A fun mix of textures but the saltiness of the pig's ear was the dominating flavour and oddly combined with the mild cheesy parmesan. Didn't work for me at all!
Image 35: I was glad to see another classic of Chef Grant which was on his menu every service since he was cooking at Tru. An explosion of black truffle! A superb treat but more salty than the one I had five years ago! At that point, my mind have run out of excuse and I had to unwillingly accept the fact that it was a bad decision to revisit this restaurant!
Image 36: The final savoury course of the evening was tastes of Southern States: A creative version of BBQ rib but using skate wing and dusted with peanut, black eyed peas purée with a sauce of the cocktail "dark and stormy", and deep fried corn and okra with mayo and thyme. I thought Chef Grant did recover most of his taste buds after radiotherapy on his tongue but why was everything all so salty?!
Image 37: On the side was a small melt-in-the-mouth packet of reduced southern sweet tea. It was lovely for a splash of sweetness on my palate after rounds of salty food.
Image 38: I knew they had to do more shows to entertain customers. So, a demonstration of snow making. The chef first poured liquid nitrogen into a bowl before he manually drilled into the pineapple creating pineapple snow which was used as garnish…
Image 39: … for the cheese course with buttermilk. A thin wedge of Maytag blue cheese wrapped entirely in gold leaf!
Image 40: To kick off the dessert section of the menu, pistachio gelato was served, accompanied with lemon curd, mascarpone, strawberry marshmallow and compressed black walnut cake.
Image 41: This serviceware was one of the Alinea's original and I still found it cool after so many years. Hanging at the end of the antenna was pecan and kumquat topped with eucalyptus and mace. It really did remind me of the previous meal. I wished they served me the same menu that I had five years ago!
Image 42: Now this was something unique. A floating edible balloon made with green apple flavoured sugar injected with helium. Incredible! I was instructed to take off my glasses, pull it down slowly and simply bite onto the balloon. Although it was a bit messy since the sugar was likely to stick onto your face when it collapsed, it was fun and the sugar was actually very tasty.
Image 43: And as expected for the grand finale and just like last time, they covered my table with a silicon cloth…
Image 44: … and the dessert was made literally on the table! Even to this day, I still think this was a superb idea! What's better than the chef himself coming out to deliver the final course of a long meal.
Image 45: It was way too big a dessert for one person.
Image 46: After 26 courses, I won't even attempt to finish this tart which was enough for four! Surrounding the milk chocolate pâte sucrée tart were violet sauce, Armagnac butterscotch, milk curd, crystallised hazelnut…
Image 47: … and on top were chocolate nougat, frozen milk meringue, crispy brown butter and basil crisp. This concluded my Alinea revisit.
Image 48: Like last time, a copy of the menu was provided with the genius idea of using bubbles to providing more info for each course! Darkness indicating intensity, size indicating the size and the position (left to right) indicate the savoury/sweet of the course! Seemed that all the aspects that I liked about this meal were the ones that they retained from 2009. I have no idea what happened but Alinea definitely took a wrong turn since then!
Image 49: I came here to re-experience Grant Achatz's world innovating cuisine, but got fed with Thai sauce, Indian curry, poorly executed Chinese take away, and an illustration of how to waste good ingredients. A young chef who once led the world with ingenious culinary ideas is now churning out gimmicky commercialised menus by replicating ethnic cuisines from around the world. Maybe this is what the local diner expects in a world class restaurant? I hope Grant Achatz will come across my both reviews and have a rethink about Alinea.