Living in San Francisco and deciding to travel to the midwest for New Years was a very frigid and snowy idea. It didn’t help that I was recovering from a cold, either. Nonetheless, wind, snow, bitter cold, and sickness couldn’t stop me from making our reservations at Alinea. I had it on good foodie friend authority that this placed well-deserved its 3 Michelin stars (“Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”). I spent most of the time in the hotel resting up to feel well enough to enjoy dinner, and then off we went to enjoy a truly fun and inventive molecularly gastronomic dinner.
A short cab ride away from downtown, it’s hard to tell by the unmarked and small building front where to enter. Once you find the door, you’ll be greeted by a Willy Wonka style play-on-perspective purple/pink shrinking hallway. Step off to the left and you’ll enter the actual restaurant. Simply decorated with both main and 2nd floor dining areas, everything had a bit of a purple/pinkish glow. We were seated on the main floor.
The evening started with a mostly empty table once we took our napkins only graced by our centerpiece, a carafe with fresh rosemary, mint, and orange peel. Before the meal started, they poured in some cava and swirled it around to degas it. Then they let it sit to infuse while they brought out and let us enjoy the eye-opener, Satsuma – star anise, saffron, murray river salt.
Clearly this wasn’t actually the satsuma mandarin but instead an Alinea (de/re)construction using spherification. The server advised us to eat it in one bite and close our mouths since it contained liquid. Good thing, too, since it definitely would have made a mess otherwise – think bursting cherry tomato. The shell was quite thin and seemed to contain white chocolate. While the completely liquid filling was definitely a sweet, there was a surprisingly strong yet delicate savory aspect, likely attributed to the saffron and star anise in addition to the salt which was most notable as a few grains on top. The micro mint leaf also packed a surprising amount of flavor and went great with the savory-sweet orange / white chocolate mix. I could only call this course the eye-opener, since it was quite effective in that respect for me.
Once we were done with the eye-opener, they placed in front of us 3 pictures of small dishes and told us that the next course was inspired by the food in the images. They would leave us guessing as to what exactly each was until after we were done with them. While we waited for the next course to come out, they finally mixed our cocktail using the infused cava centerpiece and pouring it into our eye-opener glasses which contained liquid nitrogen-frozen Pacharán and Brandy ice – Avinyó Cava Reserva Penedés, Atxa Pacharán, Rhine Hall Apple Brandy.
I correctly guessed 2 of the tapas but was a little thrown off by the rounded shape of the potatoes and glossy appearance and consistency of the sauce in the picture – looked almost like fried cheese with a raspberry sauce to me. This clearly deconstructed trio resembled nothing of the inspirations. Still no flatware, so we picked up and ate the bites directly off the monocles.
The Gilda – guindilla de ibarra, anchovy, olive – was a geleé that tasted exactly how I’d expect (pickly, fishy, olivey). The Bocadillo – bread, jamón ibérico, manchego – was more like a liver/ham mousse with crunchy ham/bread crumb dust. The Patatas bravas – paprika, chile, garlic – tasted almost like cheese with a potato chip crust that had a peppery kick.
The arctic char – uchiki kuri squash, thai banana, blis – was served with our first wine pairing, the Rainier Sauer “Escherndorfer Lump” Silvaner Franken 2014, which came in a very unique bottle. This was a dry riesling-like silvaner which had tropical fruit and mineral notes which nicely complemented the arctic char. I think “blis” refers to the salmon roe.
The orange dots were the squash puree, the cream colored dots were the thai banana, and I don’t remember what the red dots were except that they were sweet/fruity.
Next came a concrete paver topped with crumbled concrete fragments, which was sprayed table-side with a bright green parsley graffiti earthy (Graffiti – chanterelle, sherry, parsley). This was nicely paired with the earthy and subtle Château Simone, Palette, Provence, France 2010.
Back to Germany – this course came with the stone-fruit and bright acidity of the Weingut Knoll, “Ried Schütt,” Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria 2009. While we sipped our wine, the staff first brought out a bowl filled with charred coal blocks and proceeded to light it on fire. This was followed by a misty, bubbling basin of dry-ice, containing a bowl with the food component of our pairing, the Onaga – tiger’s milk, coconut, citrus vapor.
The (crackling/hot) fire and (bubbling/cold, dry) ice and were a lovely juxtaposition for this course. Some of the best ceviche I’ve had, too. The pickled onions and radishes were lovely with the citrus vapor / powder, and another type of roe added to the fresh fishy flavor.
The next glasses were poured from a bottle of La Cerbaiola, “Salvioni,” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy 2008. This sangiovese was a pleasant pairing for the next surprise. After clearing the ceviche bowls, out of the fire they pulled 2 charred logs, which turned out to be a well-disguised potato and seaweed-wrapped Wagyu – romaine, potato, nori!
The potato strangely stood out as being the most flavorful potato I can recall ever having, complemented nicely with the nori. The wagyu was of course delicious. Also on the plate with the romaine veins, sesame leaf, nori dust, and pickled onion. I don’t recall the puree.
Our next course consisted of multiple renditions of duck, paired with the Quilceda Creek, “Palengat” Columbia Valley, Washington 2012, a red blend of 59% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Petit Verdot.
When they brought out the array, I had to ask how they got bowls like the one for the foie gras – did they find or custom order them? They said that, surprisingly, the bowls were found, but the wire stand was a custom design to hold fried foods in such a way as to prevent them from getting soggy. The Foie – duck, quince, begonia was lovely. The boat was edible and contained a layer of foie gras with the layer of quince on top. The metal tube you can see on top of the napkin in the upper right was used to drink the rich and creamy foie broth, which was delicious with a hint of wintery spices. It was basically like a savory egg nog. This complemented the smoldering cinnamon stick skewer used to serve the tempura-fried duck leg rillette (Leg – duck, persimmon, smoldering cinnamon). I’ve always enjoyed duck prepared as a rillette. Finally, the duck Breast – duck, bourbon, cassia – had thin, perfectly crispy seared skin and was gone too quickly in 2 delicious bites.
Not pictured was the next course, which was gone in a flash – the Hot potato – cold potato, black truffle, butter. This consisted of a small wax watch-glass-like dish with a skewer running through the edge, holding a steaming piece of potato over a small pool of truffle butter. They had us pull out the skewer through the wax dish to drop in the potato and then throw it back like a shooter. Delicious and packed with truffly, buttery goodness, but unfortunately time-sensitive, so I couldn’t grab a picture.
The next course came with another centerpiece of greenery. This time the centerpiece served as a server for the Olive cake – extra virgin olive oil, black pepper. We were told to use this sponge cake to soak up the juices from our Lamb – caper leaf, grapes, olives, which was paired with the Giuseppe Quintarelli, “Rosso Ca’ del Merlo,” Veneto IGT, Italy 2006, a blend of 55% Corvina and Corvinone, 30% Rondinella, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Croatina, Sangiovese.
The lamb was nice with the grapes and olives, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the caper leaves. The suggestion to use the olive bread for the juices was well taken, though.
Next came Domaine Foreau, Vouvray Moelleux, Loire Valley, France 1999, which had notes of citrus and honey without being sweet. This was the pairing for the Parsnip – burgundy truffle, vanilla, orange.
There was definitely truffle in the powder/crumbles of orange and vanilla. The parsnip also had a lovely glaze. I don’t think I’m a huge fan of thick black truffle shavings though – they always have a bit of a leathery mouth feel for me. The flavors were excellent though.
Next was the signature taffy Balloon – helium, green apple. Our dining room had a lot of fun inhaling the helium. Hilarity ensued.
Finally came the Villa Calcinaia Vin Santo del Chianti Classico Tuscany 2007 as the pairing for the final course. The staff proceeded to clear our table and rolled out a thin rubber mat. This was followed by an artistic creation of the last course, Tropical Fruit – rum, vanilla, kaffir lime – to be eaten directly off the table.
There was definitely watermelon, pineapple, dragonfruit, passion fruit, mango puree, chocolate/vanilla/rum sauces, and kaffir lime candy. The center piece came as a globe of solid coconut foam, which they tapped with a spoon to shatter into the formation shown. I can’t remember what the glitter/snow was. Everything was edible (including the candy wrapper) except the passion fruit skin. There was definitely an experience to be had being involved in both the creation and destruction of this lovely work of art.
- Satsuma – star anise, saffron, murray river salt
- Avinyó Cava Reserva Penedés, Atxa Pacharán, Rhine Hall Apple Brandy
- Bocadillo – bread, jamón ibérico, manchego
- Gilda – guindilla de ibarra, anchovy, olive
- Patatas bravas – paprika, chile, garlic
- Rainier Sauer “Escherndorfer Lump” Silvaner Franken 2014
- Arctic char – uchiki kuri squash, thai banana, blis
- Château Simone, Palette, Provence, France 2010
- Graffiti – chanterelle, sherry, parsley
- Weingut Knoll, “Ried Schütt,” Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria 2009
- Onaga – tiger’s milk, coconut, citrus vapor
- La Cerbaiola, “Salvioni,” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy 2008
- Wagyu – romaine, potato, nori
- Quilceda Creek, “Palengat” Columbia Valley, Washington 2012
- Foie – duck, quince, begonia
- Leg – duck, persimmon, smoldering cinnamon
- Breast – duck, bourbon, cassia
- Hot potato – cold potato, black truffle, butter
- Olive cake – extra virgin olive oil, black pepper
- Giuseppe Quintarelli, “Rosso Ca’ del Merlo,” Veneto IGT, Italy 2006
- Lamb – caper leaf, grapes, olives
- Domaine Foreau, Vouvray Moelleux, Loire Valley, France 1999
- Parsnip – burgundy truffle, vanilla, orange
- Balloon – helium, green apple
- Villa Calcinaia Vin Santo del Chianti Classico Tuscany 2007
- Tropical Fruit – rum, vanilla, kaffir lime
Compared to other 3 Michelin star restaurants we have been to, this was on the lower end for cost even with the “reserve” wine pairings, coming in slightly lower than Joël Robuchon and significantly lower than Saison (French Laundry cost depends on wine as there are no set pairings). Given that Saison was our least favorite, I think if you’re in the market for a 3 Michelin star journey, this is definitely one I would strongly recommend for the value and experience proposition. To me, this is what a classier/pricier version of Travail would be if they had significantly more resources/equipment.