Thursday, May 31, 2012


Our trip to Alinea started with a fire in a Chicago furniture store the day before our much anticipated, very difficult to get reservation.  We were going to have dinner at Goosefoot -- a coveted new BYOB.  A big portion of the brown L line we needed to get to our dinner was closed due to the fire, so our plan was to catch a cab.  But as we stepped out of our hotel, we noticed that we were walking faster than the traffic.  The only way to get to our dinner was to walk about a mile through the smoking street to get to the closest open L stop.  A helicopter would be another option, but those were all busy given the fire and all.  More than an hour later we finally made it -- sweaty, frazzled, and worried that our reservation was no more.  Fortunately, everyone was late that day, and they still had a table for us.  In our joy to be finally sitting, eating, and drinking, we didn't notice how the first bottle of wine disappeared and we decided to do what we have never done before -- open the second bottle.  How often do we get to celebrate an anniversary and not have to drive afterwards?  The plan was to just have a glass each, but somehow the second bottle was gone by the end of the night.  By 10pm, we stumbled out of Goosefoot a bit drunk, but perfectly happy.

The next morning, we tried to take a shower, but Jason didn't make it past the toilet.  Poor guy was so sick.  Since neither one of us had much experience drinking in college, we had no idea what to do.  I googled for some hangover remedies.  According to semi-reliable site, you should keep hydrated and eat a banana.  We tried that.  It didn't work.  He couldn't hold anything down, not even water.  I ran out to CVS to get some Pedialite.  At first it seemed like it was working.  But as soon as Jason tried to stand up, all the pedialite came back.

That is not the best state to be in if you have a reservation at Alinea that evening.  Oh well, I thought.   Maybe it wasn't meant to be.  I put Jason to bed, and went out on the porch to read.  At some point I got really hungry and decided to run out to find something for lunch.  "I'll come with you," said Jason.  "Why don't you try to walk around the room first." I said.  He took a few cautious steps stopping a few time as if listening to what was going on inside of him, but in spite of being very pale and slightly green, he seemed ok.   "Let's see if I can make it around the block first," Jason suggested.  We tried that and nothing terrible happened.  We went to a nearby cafe where Jason watched me eat.  By the end of the meal, he dared to take a sip of tea.  It was definitely an improvement over morning.  But it was already 2 pm, and we weren't sure if the ability to hold down water was sufficient for Alinea experience 4 hours later.  "I think I can try to eat a piece of bread," said Jason.  We went back to our hotel to eat bread and watch a movie.

Now I was starting to feel a bit nauseous.  Could hangovers be contagious or was this a stomach bug?  I tried to ignore it and focus on the movie, which was stunning -- The Unbearable Lightness of Being.   The good news was that the bread experiment worked, and Jason was even starting to get some color back in his face.  At 6pm we were at our table at Alinea praying that neither one of us would have to throw up.

"This looks like tofu, but it's not," said the waiter to the table next to us as he set their next course in front of them.  "It's a scallop turned into tofu."  I barely held myself from rolling my eyes.  Give me a break.  What's wrong with a scallop?  Does it really need to be turned into tofu?   When it was our turn to taste the dish, I couldn't hold myself back and did roll my eyes, but not from cynicism.  It was the loveliest scallop I've ever eaten.  The simplicity and balance of the dish made me forget that the delicate cube I was eating does not exist in nature.  It disappeared like an ephemeral dream.  I am not used to dishes escaping from my grasp like this.  I can reverse engineer almost everything I eat in restaurants, but not this.  Was this an homage to cubism or was I reading too much into this?  It was like a scallop in 2D instead of 3D we are used to.  The fact that it was in a shape of a cube seemed like a cute pun.

Another thought provoking dish was a trio of lamb (3 different cuts cooked different ways with the best lamb reduction I've ever tasted).  A large matrix of jells, purees, and powders was presented with it.  I didn't count, but it must have been around 40.  We were instructed to put a couple of flavors on each bite of lamb.  We tried, but I found this matrix just distracting.  It felt like putting make up on a paradigm of female beauty.  Any real woman, even the most beautiful one, could benefit from a bit of make up, but would you put it on Venus de Milo?  

The mushroom dish was another one that stopped me in my tracs.  4 stones were placed on a smoldering wood board.  They held all different forms of morels with varied accompaniments.  Each bite varied just a bit -- some savory with shallots, some herbaceous with fiddleheads, some sweet with smoked dates, but the focus was always on the mushroom.  It felt like Monet's paintings of Rouen cathedral in different light.  

At times, art was referenced directly.  Our waiter told us that the "random spoons" dish was based on Miro's painting.  But the whole meal felt like a survey in 20th century art.  I know that this culinary movement is often referred to as "scientific cooking," but I think it pays tribute to art much more than to science.

I don't want to give a course by course description of our meal in this post, and I didn't take any pictures.  I have seen pictures of most of the dishes we've had at Alinea, and have seen videos of how they are made.  They did nothing for me until I smelled and tasted the real dishes.  Taking pictures of food is like taking pictures of a musician.  Music is not an art form that can be captured visually.  Not that a picture of a musician can't be an art form, but it is on a different plain than the artist it captures.

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