Saturday, August 19, 2006

TRU (Chicago, IL)

676 N St Clair St, Chicago, IL 60611
Sat 08/19/2006, 10:15p-02:10a

Our night at TRU did not start off well. We arrived promptly for a 10:15 seating yet did not actually sit until 10:40.

Upon entering, my dining companion was offered a jacket (I was already wearing one). TRU is only one of two restaurants that I've been to with such a strict jacket policy, and I can say without hesitation that it was justified, for the level of service here was above anything that I've experienced before.

During our wait, we were placed in a sort of lounge area, clad in a minimalist style with rather abstract wall decorations, including a CD player I confused for a light fixture (the $4000 Bang & Olufsen BeoSound 9000 if I'm not mistaken). We were offered a short list of drinks. I had a locally-brewed beer, which I found quite palatable, while my companion had a glass of sake (extremely smooth, excellent, and the most expensive on the list, as recommended by our server).

After a fair bit of waiting, we were shown our tables in the main dining room. Upon entering the room, I instantly felt a sense of grandeur and splendor. This is where power and dining converge; this is where Chicago's elite and influential dine, a room packed will smartly-suited men and designer-dressed women, awash in a monotone din interjected by clangs of sterling silverware (and Laguiole knives) and clinks of Riedel crystal. The photo below was taken when we left (they were the last table) and does absolutely no justice to the atmosphere of the place.

Now the service, oh the service! The level here was just a cut above anything else I've experienced. Napkin presentation, crumb removal, water refill, everything was over-the-top. Perhaps the most striking thing was the staff's utter synchronization. Plate removal and placement of silverware were all synchronized. And even for a table of six (as in the photo above), three servers cleared plates odd-even style in perfect harmonization. But perhaps the service was a bit too perfect, for my companion felt like "Alexander the Great if he were to come to modern times." The only peccadillo was when I requested a bottle of their house-bottled water, in a distinctive TRU vessel, to take home. I was not allowed to procure a bottle even after I had offered to pay for it, the excuse being that the bottles were in short supply.

Now to the food:

Provençal Parfait
Sort of a pre-amuse course, served in a double shot glass, and eaten with a spoon. Unfortunately, we received it before I had permission to take notes, so I really don't have much of a description. However, there was nothing particularly memorable about it.
In the foreground are unsalted and salted butters (in the darker holder); the butter was initially a bit firm, but soon softened to the perfect consistency. Breads included pumpernickel, biscuits, and sourdough.

TRU Amuse-Bouche
The actual amuse-bouche was a serving of sushi-grade hamachi in a tomato-infused water. The fish was indeed tasty enough; however I felt the flavors were quite typical, something I could get at any high-end sushi restaurant in Los Angeles, such as Katsu-ya or Nobu.

I Alois Lageder Pinot Bianco "Haberlehof" Alto Adige 2004
01 Raw Maine Diver Scallop, North Point Oyster, Italian Black Pearl Osetra Caviar, Preserved Lemon
Now finally, the real first course. The scallop here was as fresh as I've had at any sushi joint. But the real star was the caviar, quite possible the best I've ever had. The tangy saltiness of the roe played excellently with the utter rich creaminess of the raw scallop. Our wine here had a fragrant nose that belied its sharp, dry taste. The Pinot Bianco provided a nice foil for the briny flavor of the scallop/caviar combination. At the end of the course I asked to keep the shell, which arrived well-boxed and in a fine-looking TRU bag. A nice touch indeed!

II Longuicher Maximiner Herrenberg Riesling Kabinett C. Schimitt-Wagner 2004
02 Chilled Maine Lobster, Horseradish Panna Cotta, Tomato Syrup*
02 Lobster Crêpe, Tomato Confit, Lemon Confit, Basil, Lobster Jus
It was at this point where my and my dining companion's meals diverged. We ordered the Chef's Market menu, and sure enough, Chef Tramonto took great advantage of that and served up two completely different series of dishes. I was rather impressed. If we had a table or four, would we get four different dishes each course? I wonder. The dishes I ate are marked with a "*".
In any case, I had perfectly cooked morsels of chilled lobster, fresh, flavorful, with just the right texture. Unfortunately, the tomato syrup was a bit too intense, and tended to overpower the subtle flavors of the noble crustacean. This tanginess went quite well with the paired Riesling, which to me had a intoxicating apple-floral bouquet.
The other dish was a lobster crêpe, which I likened to a cannoli. The sauce was described to me as a tangier or "steroided up" version of soy sauce. Or to summarize: "What it lacks in size, it makes up for in taste."

III Lustau "Puerto" Fino*
III Naia "Naiades" Rueda 2004
03 White Gazpacho, Peppered Red Grape & Marcona Almond Salad*
03 Tomato Gazpacho Water, Fennel Yogurt-Sherbet
The soup course. And what a soup! The gazpacho had a unique kick, something that I really cannot put into words, except to say that it was superb. It gave me a slight tingling sensation in the mouth, a bit painful actually! I was not a fan of the wine pairing, a Sherry; but the gazpacho did take a bit of the bite out of it. Definitely the most unique soup I've ever tasted.
Similarly, my friend also had a gazpacho and also experienced a slight sensation in the mouth, but in that case the tingling turned "very spicy" near the end.

IV Gewurztraminer "Altenbourg Cuvée Laurence" Domaine Weinbach 2002
04 Canadian Foie Gras Torchon, Salad of Rainier Cherries, Hazelnut & Radish, Country Toast*
04 Hudson Valley Foie Gras Panna Cota, Corn Crisp; Seared Foie Gras, Blackberry Gastrique, Corn Emulsion
The next course was foie gras. I had it prepared in a rich, creamy, luxurious torchon style with hazelnut compote and French country toast. I'm not a huge foie fan but I must say that this was the second best preparation I've ever had (the first was at Michel Richard's Citronelle in DC), perhaps since the flavor was a bit more subdued than I'm used to. The toast paired excellently as well.
The other dish actually had two preparations: panna cota and seared. Not much to say except that it was my companion's first experience with foie gras, and probably the last.
An interesting note is that Chicago has since banned foie gras. In fact, our server informed us that we'd just missed the deadline by three days. So in a sense it was quite nice to have foie in Chicago before this noble ingredient was lost to the city forever.

V Chassagne-Montrachet "La Maltroie" Michel Colin-Deléger 2003
05 Roasted Halibut, Grilled Scallions, Braised Romano Beans & Ratatouille Sauce*
05 Steamed Halibut, Enoki Mushrooms, Wilted Mizuna, Yellow Tomato-Lemongrass Sauce
Onward, to the fish course. I had a roasted spice-rubbed halibut, and I must say that it was one of the best preparations of cooked fish I've ever had (and I'm usually not a fan of cooked fish, preferring it seared or sashimi-style), with the texture, taste, and vegetable pairing all coming together effortlessly and harmoniously. Our wine pairing had an almost "meaty" aroma with fruity overtones, a bit "rubbery" if that makes sense.
For the other presentation of halibut, my friend described the halibut itself as "typical" but that the rest of the dish takes the fish to "new heights."

VI Chinon "Cuvée de la Cure" Charles Joguet 2004*
VI Alto Moncayo Garnacha Campo de Borja 2002
06 Roasted California Squab, Celery Root Puree, Strawberries, Celery Leaves & Frisée Salad*
06 Coffee-Scented California Squab, Chanterelles, Puffed Wild Rice & Farro, Chile Negro Jus
Two preparations of squab followed. Mine was a roasted bird with strawberry essence and squab jus. The tender sweetness of the strawberry provided a good foil for the savory flavor of the squab. I thought the meat here was at least as good as the bird I enjoyed at Alinea, though it lacked the former's sublime skin. As for the wine pairing, I found the Chinon to be a bit lean, a bit mineral-y for the bird.
My companion had a chili/mocha squab breast, with almonds, peanuts, cumin, and cinnamon. The meat was described as "excellent" as was the skin, with the chanterelles providing a exquisite complement. The puffed rice, however, was rather bland and was a bit of a disappointment.

With the main portion of our meal completed, we were presented with the cheese cart. This surpassed Washington DC's CityZen (headed by French Laundry expat Eric Ziebold) as my favorite presentation of cheese. The cart was arranged front to back with cow's, goat's, and sheep's milk cheese; going left to right went from mild to intense.

VII Failla Syrah "Phoenix Ranch" Napa Valley 2004*
VII Porto Rocha 20-Year Tawny
07 TRU Collection of Cow, Goat and Sheeps' Milk Cheeses
There were about fifteen cheeses in total; I was able to select six of them upon our server's recommendation, two from each animal, with a wide range of intensities. Unfortunately I cannot recall the names of the cheese I had that night. We were also given the choice of the usual accoutrements, crackers, nuts, fruit, etc., which I declined. As for wine, we were asked if we preferred a sweeter or a drier wine, I went with the drier Syrah while my companion went with a Port. Both paired well.

Yuzu Cream, Blackberries, Raspberries and White Chocolate Shard
A dessert amuse, in fact my first experience with such a course. Tasty, but nothing special really, basically berries and cream.

VIII Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos Château Pajzos 1999
08 Gale's Dessert Collection
Originally I was planning to have Chef Gand's 5-course dessert tasting in addition to our normal meal. However we dined far too late into the night and Gale had already left by the time we finished our dinner. This abbreviated tasting would have to suffice. I had a vanilla-chocolate cake (think ice cream cake) and a bread pudding with ice cream and apple (the pudding itself was a bit pedestrian). On the other plate was a crème brûlée (very good) and a German chocolate cake (reminiscent of the chocolate cake from Claim Jumper interestingly enough). The wine pairing was the venerable Tokaji, one of my favorite dessert wines. However, the choice was a bit obvious and I would've preferred a more unexpected choice, such as a California late harvest or a Moscato.

Mignardises & Lollipops
Finally, we were presented with the mignardises and lollipop cart (my first experience with such a thing). From this cart I had a vanilla bean marshmallow, a chocolate truffle, and a serving of biscotti. I also requested lollipops to go, which were wrapped and presented nicely. Afterwards, we were also shown a chocolate plate (which I did not get a photo of unfortunately), from which I had a mojito chocolate (overly minty and didn't really taste like the mojito I had earlier that day) and a pink peppercorn chocolate (intense, just like the real thing, brilliant!).

After the meal, we were given a tour of the kitchen area. In the first photo, we can see where the restaurant keeps their most valuable drinkware. Those small colorful cups are by Versace, and the large Bordeaux glasses to their left are handblown Riedel Sommeliers (about $70 per stem, and arguably the best in the world). I imagine those were reserved for the parties that order up the $8000 magnums of Pétrus; us mere mortals were served using Riedel Vinums. The second photo is the main kitchen area.

Here we have the Chef's table ($150 per person), located immediately adjacent to the kitchen.

The bathroom was rather plain except for the sink, which I can say without reservation is the most impressive sink I've ever seen; water flows onto a glass plate and then is collected by a trough, pure genius!

A note on the menus: One nice touch was that the menu I received at the end of the meal was customized to bear my name. Surprisingly, we were provided only one copy of the menu despite being a table of two, though we did not ask for another copy. As with Alinea, I requested that the menu be signed by the chef. Unfortunately, it was already 2:00 in the morning at that time and Chef Tramonto had already left for the night. Our server took down my mailing address and stated that he would have the chef sign a menu and mail it to me. As of this writing I have not yet received the menu. [Update: I received the menu on 9/20]

A fine dining newbie, my companion summarized TRU as "definitely not worth it but I definitely do not regret it." I can certainly understand how it may be difficult to justify spending hundreds on dollars on a single meal. But we must remember that dining at a restaurant of this caliber is not only a mere meal, it is an experience. And one is not presented with merely food, one is presented with edible art. To use a very Donald Trump-ish phrase, it is the total dining experience. With that, I can say without reservation that TRU is probably the "classiest" restaurant I've had the pleasure of dining at. As I've mentioned above, the service here was just a cut above anywhere else. The food was, obviously, not as cutting-edge as what I consumed at Alinea, but almost every dish had a unique strength, something that stood out, something that I would look forward to having again. In fact several items were very near the best I've ever had. It is no wonder then that TRU has been among the very top restaurants in Chicago for seven years running. My hats off to you, Rick; now just send me my menu.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Alinea (Chicago, IL)

1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
Thu 08/17/2006, 07:15p-12:30a

If you were to view Alinea from across Halstead Street, you would have no idea of the culinary endeavors taking place within its walls. The restaurant sits within a rather nondescript gray stone building. There is no signage; and the large, argent "1723" numerals are your only hint as to Alinea's location. Presumably, I imagine, this modus operandi incognito is to keep out the riffraff and rabble that roam Chicago's streets. If anything, it makes you feel as though you're somehow "in the know."

Immediately upon entering, you can tell that you will be in for quite an experience. You stand at the end of a rather peculiar-looking hallway; a panel of gently swaying fiber-optic lights at the end of the hall draws you nearer. But as you approach, a sliding doorway opens to your left. You turn to look, and are a bit startled, as the hostess is perfectly positioned, almost too perfectly positioned, to greet you (I imagine that they must have some sort of sensor or camera system set up to allow for this feat).

I had a 7:15PM Thursday reservation for a party of three and we were seated immediately upon arrival. Shortly thereafter, a young couple arrived: seemingly a man out to impressive his rather décolletéd date. After that, two older couples sit immediately to our right. Our server greets us. We discount the abbreviated Tasting menu right away; no, we are here for the Tour, a 24-course marathon of a meal that would allow us the full breath of Chef Achatz's brilliance. I am then given the wine list, a rather impressive one at that. But one or two bottles would not do a meal of this scope justice; instead, I let the sommelier pair 14 tastings (tastings are approximately 2.5oz a pour, any more and you would likely not remember the latter third of the meal!). One note about the wine pairings: the standard pairing is $115; however I requested the "upgraded" pairing, which provided five alternates to the standard pairings, adding $50 to the cost. These are marked with a "*".

Alinea was well into its summer menu by the time we had our meal. Naturally this meant that in addition to the menu changing, the centerpiece would change as well. Alinea opened with their infamous ginger piece, then moved into honeycomb, and finally arrived at rosemary that night. These three twigs cast an alluring scent around the table, and would later become an interactive portion of the meal (see course 17).

Service was, as you might expect from a restaurant of this caliber, top-notch. Zegna-clad servers glided around the room effortlessly, unnoticed, and unobtrusively. Our water glasses never went past half empty; and the way the sommelier delved into the minutiae of our wine pairings was well-appreciated by this diner. The staff was very accommodating when it came to my photographing and note-taking for every course. In fact one staff member mentioned that they get about five people a week doing the same. That did not surprise me.

Now, let us get on to the food:

Here we see the butter presentation: a white goat's butter and a yellow cow's butter. Both were splendid, with perfect consistency and softness, and just the right amount of saltiness. We were also presented with a selection of breads; I had the pumpernickel, which was very pleasant, and the ciabatta bread, which is definitely a cut above what you get at Jack-in-the-Box!

I Lhéraud "Vieux Pineau", Pineau des Charentes
01 CORN coconut, cayenne, lime
Our first course, a one-bite wonder which paired nicely with the Lhéraud, was served on a stainless steel tab perched atop a Lucite block. It possessed an ice cream-like consistency, a sweet and spicy concoction, the subtle fire of the cayenne and tartness of the lime contrasting with the coconut's smooth, mild creaminess. In fact, for me, the coconut made the dish very reminiscent of a Thai curry, refreshing if not a bit biting, a nice way to start the evening.

02 YUBA prawn, miso, orange
Looking like a demented straw of sorts, this was fried yuba with prawn. The idea was to use this "stick" to dip the miso emulsion at the bottom of the glass. The soft texture of the prawn paired nicely with the yuba's distinctive crunch; however, I felt that the flavors were not quite complete and lacked a certain intensity that I expected. It seemed rather bland compared to the other courses.

II Naiades Verdejo, Rueda, Spain 2004
03 TOMATO several complementary flavors
Paired with the Verdejo, which was one of my favorite wines of the evening, the tomato course was one of my dining companion's favorite of the night. What we had was a heirloom tomato cut into a thick strip, paired with five complementary tastes. The server called it an "organic" presentation as each one was presented slightly differently. Starting from the left of my presentation, we had "cucumber salad" (replete with a cucumber flower which had a fantastic, intense cucumber-y taste), curry pudding (rather ordinary), Israeli couscous (a bit nondescript, with a slightly chewy texture), seasoned crumrock (akin to eating heavily peppered sand), and a mozzarella ball (with a taste reminiscent of supermarket string cheese, I thought this would have a filling of some sort but soon discovered nothing but air inside; the ball gave a violent, surprising, and immensely satisfying explosion in the mouth, the first of many explosions that night).

04 MACKEREL tumeric, bee balm, poppyseed
The fish was served atop a fork atop a rounded bowl. The bowl bottom was shaped in a manner that required it to be held by hand (that's the server holding up the dish in the photo). The fish's flavor was delicate, subtle, completely unlike the slight fishiness that I normally encounter when consuming mackerel. However, the fish was a bit firm for my tastes. At the bottom of the bowl was a bee balm chaser. I usually think of chasers as a pleasant tasting liquid drunk after consuming a fouler tasting substance. However, in this case the roles were reversed, as I thought drinking the balm was rather like drinking a bizarre concoction of liquefied toothpaste, deodorant, and hair spray. Suffice to say I've never tasted anything quite like it.

III F.X. Pichler "Loibner Berg" Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria 2003*
05 HAMACHI buttermilk, blackberry, green peanuts
Next up was hamachi, or yellowtail, a sushi bar favorite of mine; this may have been the first time I've consumed the fish fully cooked. And wow, what a difference! The fish was super creamy, full-flavored, and luxurious, infused with a subtle peanut flavor, reinforced with the immaculately positioned peanuts, cassis vinaigrette drops, and blackberry pods surrounding the filet. The utter richness of this Seriola quinqueradiata proved the perfect complement for the fattiness of the Riesling it was paired with.

06 BACON butterscotch, apple, thyme
As yes, the infamous bacon, a "single piece of limp bacon in butterscotch, apple and thyme and hung on a tiny silver clothesline," according to Esquire's John Mariani. If any dish were to be named "signature," this would be it. Though my piece was not limp, it was not exactly crisp from the frying pan either. Instead, it was rigid, yet flexible, a fine balance of texture going along with a fine balance of sweet and savory, an amalgam of smoky sweet flavor that goes together surprisingly well. The dish was a favorite of one of my dining companions.

IV Abadia Retuerta "Cuvée Palomar", Sardon de Duero, Spain 2000
07 KOBE BEEF watermelon, cocoa, red wine
Our wine pairing with the Kobe, one of the standout dishes for me, was a superb mix of tempranillo and cabernet. Served with a fennel salad and an intense cocoa foam, the beef was tender even by Kobe standards. I mean look at that deep, concentrated purple hue! Pepper seared on the outside and super rare, super tender, creamy, dreamy on the inside. And I cannot discount the watermelon; Kobe and watermelon may not seem like a feasible pairing, but I guarantee you've never had watermelon like this before. An outside covered in pepper provides the perfect foil for the subtle sweetness of the melon's firm, almost meaty flesh.

08 BLACK TRUFFLE explosion, romaine, parmesan
A signature dish at Achatz's former digs at the now defunct Trio, served in the signature "anti-plate," the explosion continues to impress. Basically we have a ravioli filled with truffle stock, and topped with a generous portion of sliced black truffle, romaine, and parmesan. Another one-bite course, we are instructed to close our mouths when chewing. Sage advice, as an explosion of truffle essence occurs instantly upon mastication. The second explosion of the night and clearly one of the best courses of the night for me.

V Hermitage "Cuvée Emilie", Domaine des Remizières, Rhône 2002*
09 SQUAB strawberry, sorrel, long peppercorn
Alinea was actually my first experience with squab. Do you know what squab is? Despite the fancy name, it is merely a young pigeon. But oh how they've nobilized the common bird! We each received a breast, tenderloin, and leg, replete with crispy skin, strawberry, and a confit of sorrel, all atop a pepper custard. All three portions of meat each had their own subtly distinctive taste and texture, which went well with the paired French Syrah (an upgrade vs. a Kiwi variety). But the real star here was the skin, crispy, succulent, intense, reminiscent of Peking duck; I cannot remember having a better skin. Unfortunately the custard was rather bland, the only blemish on this otherwise perfect dish.

10 MENTHOL pineapple, lemon
Another "hands-free" dish, and arguably the one with the most interesting presentation (we were supposed to bite it off pole!). Attached to a thin metallic pole was a cube of menthol mousse wrapped in lemon leather and lemon zest, with a dollop of pineapple confit on the bottom. This was definitely a refreshing course, and functioned as a sort of "dessert amuse" for the first dessert section.

VI Dashe Late Harvest Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley 2005
11 VERJUS lemon thyme, beet
It was here that we had our only California wine of the evening, a delightful late harvest with an intense, florid bouquet and tastes of raisin and apple. This rather peculiar looking dish is a verjus granité topped with a lemon thyme foam, all piled atop an orb of beet juice. The foam was rather unremarkable, but the granité was mildly evocative of Chinese grass jelly. Unfortunately I missed out on a potential explosion (can you tell I love them?) when I popped the beet orb with my fork. An inky purple immediately spread and tinted the remaining foam and verjus, suddenly giving flavor to the otherwise mild dish.

12 YOGURT juniper, mango
My favorite dessert course was also the third explosion of the night. What we had was yogurt contained in a dehydrated yogurt skin, a skin spiked with mango and juniper essence. Upon putting the contraption in my mouth, the skin dissolved, giving way to a cool dollop of mango-scented yogurt.

VII Raventós i Blanc "Perfum de Vi Blanc", Penedès, Spain 2004
13 SHELLFISH gooseberries, horseradish, celery ice
A amalgamation of clam, mussel, and a biting celery ice. The shellfish stood reasonably well on their own, but the celery taste was far too intense for me, though it was mitigated in part by the Cava. Probably my least favorite dish of the night.

VIII Paolo Scavino "Sorriso", Langhe, Italy 2003
14 LANGOUSTINE vacherin, litchi, vanilla fragrance
Using the same tableware as the infamous "PB&J," the langoustine came wrapped in cheese vacherin with lychee and ginger. The entire contraption was fried tempura-style. That's a real vanilla bean sticking out from the top, serving both as a handle and as a source of scent (Achatz loves to pair scent with taste). Everything worked reasonably well together, but the flavors seemed rather muddled.

IX Lucien Albrecht Pinot Gris "Clos de Récollets", Alsace 2001*
15 PORCINI cherry, ham, toasted garlic
A bottomless glass cylinder filled with porcini mushroom puree, dehydrated ham, champagne foam, and almond ice cream. When the server removed the cylinder, the entire mishmash fell into a rather unattractive mess. The ice cream taken alone was quite superb, but the whole dish seemed to me a hodgepodge of disparate flavors that didn't mesh well with each other, with certain flavors such as the porcini dominating. Overall a rather disappointing dish that I felt didn't pair particularly well with the mineral-y taste of the Pinot Gris.

16 PEACH smoked paprika, orange
A paprika pepper shell filled with carrot juice, followed by a lemon balm chaser. The shell explodes upon hitting the palate, the fourth such explosion of the night (can you sense a trend here?). The peach/carrot flavor interplay was interesting, but ultimately didn't do much for me.

X Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, S. Rhône 2000*
17 LAMB summer vegetable jam, mastic, rosemary aroma
After a string of rather lackluster dishes, the lamb comes as a favorite dish of mine, perhaps the best lamb I've ever had. Three perfectly poached morsels of lamb arrive on a sizzling hot plinth. The server inserts the centerpiece into a hole at the head of the plate, the heat activating an invigorating rosemary aroma. The pieces are topped with a mastic-infused cream (imagine a taste not unlike what I would expect if I were to eat a pine needle), apricots (a bit more subtle than I'd like, but effective), and a summer vegetable jam (my favorite). At the end of this course I requested to keep my rosemary centerpiece. Not only did my server allow me to do so, he vacuum sealed the specimen for prefect preservation. Now that's service!

18 HOT POTATO cold potato, black truffle, butter
One of the few courses to carry over from the winter menu (along with the bacon), this is another challenger for the title of "signature dish." We have a skewer of potato, topped with a generous slice of black truffle. The basic idea was to drop the contents of the skewer into the chilled potato soup, and shoot the resultant concoction. A great idea in theory, but in practice I was rather let down, as the potato soup seemed to overpower the hints of hot potato and truffle.

XI Bodega Mustiguillo "Finca Terrerazo", El Terrerazo, Spain 2003
19 PORK gruyère, pumpernickel, ramps
I usually don't particularly care for pork, but I liked this. A pork cheek prepared with raisins and leeks, covered in a mound of shredded pumpernickel and cheese, with a dust of caraway seed on the side. The pork itself was tender, succulent, and flavorful; however, I'm not so sure about the cover, which I found a bit dry and uninteresting. The wine was an interesting blend of 60% bobal, 20% cabernet, and 20% tempranillo, a Vino de la Tierra from Valencia (they were going pretty heavy with the Spanish wines that night).

20 SASSAFRAS Blis aged sherry vinegar
This odd looking dish was a lozenge of sassafras (a type of tree by the way), topped with cracked black pepper. This was an fascinating combination but I felt the pepper overpowered the subtlety of the rest of the flavors. Overall not especially impressive.

XII Forteto della Luja Brachetto "Pian dei Sogni", Piedmonte 2002
21 RASPBERRY goat milk, red pepper taffy, pistachio
The second dessert flight started with a raspberry puree served with red pepper taffy and goat milk gelée. The most outstanding part of the dish was the taffy, with a consistency not unlike Laffy Taffy (and it stuck to the teeth much like Laffy Taffy). It was nice to see the chef having some fun here with some of his dishes. The paired wine was a still, partially fermented Brachetto with a clean, effervescent taste.

XIII De Bartoli "Bukkuram", Moscato Passito di Pantelleria 1999*
22 CHOCOLATE bergamot, cassia, figs
Ah finally, some chocolate! Our served mentioned it was served at 94 degrees though it seemed nowhere near that temperature. The sheet of chocolate was topped with cassia buds, and lay on top of ice cream and stewed figs. The chocolate itself was semisweet, with an interesting, grainy texture. Excellent.

XIV Toro Albala "Don PX" 1971 Gran Reserva, Montilla-Moriles
23 COFFEE mint, buckwheat, passionfruit
A coffee ice cylinder filled with caramel laced with Bailey's Irish cream liqueur (to prevent freezing). The cylinder was paired with buckwheat ice cream and a mint/passionfruit gelée. Break the cylinder to spill the caramel. Nice.

The final course of the meal was perhaps the most fascinating. A lump of dry caramel sits atop a white pedestal. This caramel will reconstitute upon hitting your palate. Once that happens, it is really like eating a spoonful of caramel, chewy, sweet, sticky, and a remarkable transformation in your mouth. Pure genius!

At the conclusion of the meal, we were all presented with copies of the night's menu. Not only did the menu list all the courses, it listed each wine pairing, and varied depending on whether any pairings were upgraded. I also requested the menu be signed by the chef, a request which was promptly honored.

Afterwards, we had a chance to walk around and explore the restaurant in more detail. The restaurant is fairly small, with three intimate rooms, one downstairs (where we were seated), and two upstairs. As we can see, the style is modern, clean, yet possesses a certain comforting warmth, the dark-grained tables contrasting nicely with the cream-colored armchairs. One interesting thing to note is that the windows were covered by some sort of light sculpture. This gave an illusion of a ever-present twilight outside the restaurant, and was a bit disconcerting to see at midnight (Chicago is not the land of the midnight sun).

Hidden behind a nondescript black door, the restroom was chic yet functional.

We were also able to view the kitchen, awash in stainless steel and white tile, with approximately a dozen or so chefs working within. At the end of the meal, I estimate that the staff outnumbered the patrons 2:1.

I was also able to snap a photo with Chef Achatz; arms firmly folded and tightly tucked, he reminds me of a young Gordon Ramsey. Like Ramsey, Achatz will certainly garner his first Michelin star or two, when the vaunted guide arrives in Chicago (as I'm sure it will, as it has already starred New York and will venture over to San Francisco this fall).

Overall, I must say that Alinea was the most unique dining experience I've ever experienced. Never have I experience cuisine so inventive, so insolent of establish norms, so playful, so avant-garde. Yes, this was a five-hour meal; but it did not feel long at all. Through his cooking, Achatz has somehow managed to make his diners completely lose track of time, and should be applauded for such. Some have criticized Achatz for misinterpreting Ferran Adrià's concepts of molecular gastronomy. I posit, however, that Achatz has taken El Bulli's influences and added his own magic, with wildly successful results. To the uninitiated, Achatz's cuisine may seem new, strange, or just plain weird; but really it is all about expanding your ideas of what can constitute food. Alinea manages to shock, amaze, provoke, and delight the diner. Grant, your stars beckon.