Friday, April 6, 2012

sepia (2) - chicago, il

www.sepiachicago.com
123 north jefferson street
chicago, il 60661

in a city like chicago with so many fantastic dining options, planning a three day eating itinerary can be a daunting task. making things slightly more difficult on this trip was the fact that not only did i have to think about pleasing both myself and carrie, but i wanted to impress my parents and show them why we visit the windy city for dining with such frequency. with that sentiment in mind, i decided that instead of taking a risk and trying someplace carrie and i had never been before (ideas included henri, cafe des architectes, bistronomic, and the gage), the four of us would close out the trip with lunch at sepia. while we weren't blown away by our first meal there, everything was very solid, and i left feeling like had a few different choices been made that the meal could have been more successful.
after dealing with the headache of checking out of the hyatt regency on wacker (waaay too big and confusing), we opted to make the twenty five minute walk to the restaurant as the weather was quite pleasant. upon arriving at the former print shop, we were seated at a four top near the back of the dining room. the space was a beautiful as i remembered, being a great mix of vintage chic and modern flair. the lunch menu at sepia is small and focused, with a few starters to chose from along with three sandwiches and a handful of entrees. the bar program at sepia is fairly stout, with a well culled selection of craft beers and a nice list of specialty cocktails.
prior to confirming our lunch selections, bread arrived in the form of a crisp bagguette. decent, but nothing to write home about, although the butter was excellent.
as we are prone to doing, carrie and i began with a pair of cocktails. for me the choice was difficult as there were a number of whiskey/bourbon based drinks, but i ultimately settled on a drink titled, "hello, holy rollers". made with old granddad bonded bourbon, dubonnet rouge, dry white port, lemon, angostura bitters, and burnt cinnamon, this was a good choice with the pronounced notes of cinnamon on the finish being most enjoyable . carrie's selection was the "french 75", featuring hendrick's gin, fresh lemon sour, orange bitters, and demi-sec sparkling rose.
for my starter, i had the house made tagliatelle with wild mushrooms and grana padano. after the excellent pastas i enjoyed the day before at coco pazzo, the bar was set pretty high. however upon first bite there was no disappointment to be found. the wide noodles were well cooked and the flavors of the mushrooms and strong grainy cheese were excellent.
carrie opted to begin with the daily soup, which she reports was tasty, yet is unsure of the ingredients at this time...
following a lengthy break after the completion of our starters, my main course, the sepia burger with red dragon cheddar, bacon, and crispy onions, arrived. cooked to a juicy medium per my request, the burger was incredible. served with duck fat fried potatoes which were also stellar, the burger had everything i look for, solid bun, bold cheese, texture contrast of some sort, and well cooked/seasoned beef. i can easily say that the sepia burger ranks in my top three burgers of all time, a list that includes the led zeppelin at kuma's corner and the notorious offering at five bistro in st. louis.
as my cocktail was long gone when our main courses were served, i asked our server to bring me a beer that would pair well with my burger. after a few moments, he produced the smuttynose porter, whose chocolate and coffee flavors definitely stood up to the bold flavor of the burger.
served with the same duck fat fried potatoes as my burger, carrie selected the grilled flat iron steak with bacon-thyme butter. i was allowed a couple bites, and was impressed with how tender and flavorful the beef was.
moving on to dessert, i had very little trouble making my selection, opting for the malted milk chocolate mousse on peanut butter crunch with pretzel 'bark'. as a lover of both chocolate and peanut butter, this was a huge success for me with the creaminess of the mousse contrasting nicely with the crunch of both the pretzels and the peanut bottom.
for carrie, coconut tapioca pirouettes, oven roasted pineapple, spicy cashews, and pineapple rum. i did not taste this save for a few of the excellent spicy cashews, but carrie definitely liked it.

going into the meal at sepia, i figured we were in for a good albeit not overly exciting meal in one of the cities most attractive dining rooms.. i am pleased to note that my expectations were met and exceeded, as this trip to the michelin stared restaurant was better than our first on all accounts, and was a good send off after an incredible three days of eating. returning to sepia at some point for dinner would certainly be nice as i am sure the entrees really shine, but with a slew of mid tier places both new and old in my "must try" queue (the publican, the bristol, nellcote, yusho, balena, ect) , i doubt such a thing will occur for some time. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

alinea (2) - chicago, il

www.alinea-restaurant.com
1723 north halsted
chicago, il 60614

immediately following my first meal at alinea back in february of 2011, i knew an eventual return to the restaurant was inevitable. what we were served on that night was so unique, so fun, and so absolutely delicious that going back for another iteration of their always changing tasting menu required no thought whatsoever. in my blog post regarding that first meal, i prognosticated that summer of 2012 would be a likely time to again walk down the fuchsia colored hallway into chef grant achatz's temple of culinary mastery. well, a variety of factors including my parents desire to dine at alinea put carrie and myself back at the world's 6th best restaurant (according to the s. pellegrino list) sooner than i had anticipated. although i knew we were in for an incredible night, what came as a very pleasant surprise to both carrie and i is how much better our overall experience was this time around.
with our reservations for april 5th secured on the first day of february, we arrived a few minutes shy of our 7pm reservation. following our walk down the famous hallway (an experience in itself), we made the left turn and crossed through the sliding doors into the restaurant. after spotting chef achatz himself working amongst his team, we were led to our table adorned with an ice sculpture located on the first floor. being that we were seated upstairs on our last visit, i was excited to get to see the rest of the restaurant. i would later realize that sitting on the first floor is better as you get an awesome view of the kitchen each time you use the restroom. after being welcomed by our captain and getting a run down of what was to come, we were to decide on the nights only option, wine. carrie and i along with my parents opted to split a wine pairing, which like last time proved to be a perfect amount of wine over the course of the meal, enhancing the food without ever compromising our sobriety.
steelhead roe - carrot, coconut, curry
cocktail of gimonnet brut with st. germaine and esterhazy beerenausiese

to kick things off, we were presented with what the server called "a simple presentation" of steelhead roe with flavors of carrot, coconut and curry. upon sampling the dish, i stated that it only took one bite to trump anything we had at trotter's the night before. this was a phenomenal dish, with the bursts of salinity from the fish eggs playing beautifully with the sweet carrot and coconut flavors.
oysterleaf - mignonette
king crab - passionfruit, heart of palm, allspice
mussel - saffon, chorizo, oregano
razor clam - shiso, soy, daikon 
barth 'charta' riesling, rheingau 2010

served on a kelp covered piece of driftwood and paired with a dry riesling, the second presentation of the meal consisted of four seafood themed bites. with instructions to eat the items in a specific order, we began with the oysterleaf. grown locally but typically found along the coast of scottland, an oysterleaf naturally tastes of oyster (it did!), and as such was paired with mignonette. next up was king crab with passion fruit, heart of palm and allspice followed by a mussel with saffron, chorizo, and oregano. lastly, razor clam with shiso, soy, and daikon. all four bites were packed with flavor, with my favorite being the razor clam.
with both carrie and i along with my parents floored after just two courses, the above contraption was brought to the table. filled with a variety of spices, the device was lit and we were told not to touch it as it would come into play later.
woolly pig - fennel, orange, squid

arriving on crucial detail's antenna, our next course was a single bite of aged woolly pig with fennel, orange, and squid. the base of the antenna is quite heavy, and we were instructed to lean forward and simply pluck the bite off using just our mouths. this was an interesting offering for sure, with the salty pig tempered by the orange while the squid was present in texture only.
scallop - acting like agedashi tofu
vina godeval, valdeorras 2010

with the siphon-esque device really starting to bubble, our next dish arrived, and we were told that it was a dashi broth being prepared in the vessel. our captain proceeded to explain the dish stating that often times places try to make tofu taste like something it is not. as he poured the dashi broth over our plates, he went on to say that alinea is taking this idea and running with it, instead making a scallop that has the texture of tofu. intrigued by the concept but with reservations about how it would actually turn out, i quickly dug in and was sold on the first bite. with an almost mousse like consistency, the scallop still possessed all the flavors one would expect, but in a completely different form.

ice - beet, hibiscus, licorice

finally, it was time to see what the deal was with the ice block centerpiece. with glass "straws" arriving on pillows, we were told that a palate cleanser of beet juice flavored with hibiscus and licorice was inside. with instructions to slide the block around the table and that standing may be the way to go to get the best angle, the four of us passed the ice around and extracted the juice with varying degrees of success. while the flavors here did not wow me, this was a great deal of fun.
wild mushrooms - pine, sumac, shallot
lignier-michelot morey-saint-denis 'les chenevery' 2007

after the ice block was cleared away, another show stopper was served. first, a large pillow was placed before each of us followed by the actual dish which was set directly on top. for the food, we have a variety of different mushrooms, foams, and sauces. so what's the deal with the pillow? it is actually filled with a pine scent that is slowly released into the air as the diner consumes the course, making this course and extra sensory experience. while some may think this is a gimmick, i found it extremely effective and consider this to be one of the best dishes i have ever had.
hot potato - cold potato, black truffle, butter

with things moving along at a very favorable pace, our seventh course of the meal was one of achatz's ever present signature's. here we have the famous hot potato/cold potato dish, which is a small wax bowl filled with a cold potato soup along with a skewer with butter and a hot piece of potato topped with black truffle. like last time, we were told the course was time sensitive, and the server humorously went on to explain how to eat it by saying, "take your picture, then pull the pin out from the bottom allowing all the contents to fall into the dish, then shoot the entire thing like an oyster." it's hot, it's cold, it's truly amazing, and i think i enjoyed this even more this time around than on my first visit.
lamb - .......?????.....!!!!!!!!!!
chateau ollieux romanis 'atal sia', corbieres 2008

as the four of us sat in amazement after the potato course, a plate of lamb done three way was served. although topped table side with a rich broth, this offering seemed amazingly simple until the next component arrived. as pictured above, we were given a glass tray of sixty different food items (vegetables, spices, gels, sauces, ect.)to go with the meat. we were told that all sixty items are things that traditionally pair well with lamb, but it was up to us to taste them to figure out what they were. like most courses at alinea, eating this was a great deal of fun, and even after we had finished our lamb, we all still picked at the different components wanting to taste and identify all of them. upon completion of the course, we were given a key to identify anything we may have been wondering about.
black truffle - explosion, romaine, parmesan

served as always on the famous "antiplate", next up was the restaurant's other signature dish. here we have a single raviolo filled with black truffle stock and topped with romaine lettuce, parmesan, and a slice of black truffle. with instructions to eat the raviolo in a single bite with firmly sealed lips, we were all treated a literal explosion of earthy truffle flavor. with a burst more forceful than i remember form our previous trip,
squab - inspired by miro
valpolicella classico superiore 'tb' bussola, veneto 2006

for the meals final savory course, nine spoons and forks were arrange in front of us in a random order. we were not told what was on the utensils as it was to be a surprise, and were instructed to eat them in any order we pleased, as they were all flavors that complimented and built upon each other. some of the items present were squab breast, foie gras custard, picholine olive, and prune jam. inspiration from this dish was drawn from spanish artist joan miro.
anjou pear - onion, brie, smoking cinnamon
the rare wine co. 'boston bual' madeira


for the "cheese course" tempura battered pear with brie cheese and onion was presented in a service piece called the squid. again playing with our sense of smell, the morsel was skewered on a smoldering cinnamon stick. instructed as with many of achatz's creations to eat this in a single bite, the light tempura batter easily gave way to an interesting sweet and savory interplay within. stunning.
ginger - five other flavors

announced as a palate cleanser, here we have five bites of fresh hawaiian ginger and tumeric.
blueberry - buttermilk, violet, macadamia
saracco moscato d'asti, piedmont 2011

our first proper dessert was a dish we were all very curious about after seeing and hearing it being delivered to the other tables in the room. dubbed the "tinkering plate" by myself earlier in the meal, this course is quite noisy as it arrives at the table with the glass ball in the first picture rattling around atop the interesting service piece. we were first instructed to remove the glass ball, then after some liquid nitrogen theatrics, we had a "slushy" to drink through the hole in the plate along with what i likened to a deconstructed blueberry cobbler. paired with this course was an unusually light and crisp moscato that was most delicious.  
balloon - helium, green apple

as a final bit of fun before alinea's big grand finale, edible helium balloons were served. we were instructed to hold the balloons as i am doing above and pop them with our mouths, inhaling the helium. i am fairly certain this is the first time i have ever actually played with helium, and hearing my own squeaky voice along with those of my parents was hilarious. once popped, the balloon was a sticky edible mess in my hands, and tasted of green apple very similar to the sour punch candy straws i loved growing up. hot towels were provided immediately after for cleanup, and we were told the chef has been working on this offering for several years.
white chocolate - strawberry, english pea, lemon
boroli barolo chinato

as with every meal at alinea over the past few years, the evening concluded with a seasonal chocolate themed dessert prepared right on the table (video). on our first visit, chef achatz himself did the honors of constructing our dessert, but on this night it prepared by sous chef matt chasseur and another young chef. featuring white chocolate, freeze dried english peas, chantilly cream, strawberry powder, cotton candy, and some sort of cake, this creation trumped our first table side dessert at alinea, and was simply a blast to eat.

prior to our first meal at alinea, i was a newcomer to the fine dining scene, with tastings at l2o and moto being my most notable restaurant experiences. since that first meal, i have racked up 29 michelin stars, giving me a much greater perspective entering my second visit to alinea. without hesitation, i can say that this meal was the best of my life, easily surpassing both my first alinea trip and the incredible meal carrie and i had at per se back in january. compared with our first meal, carrie and i both found the staff to be much friendlier and more engaging (particularly our curly haired captain and sommelier craig sindelar), while the food was at another level in terms of flavor, creativity, and overall fun. having my parents along for the ride made the meal that much more special, and i think i speak for my entire family when i say that with regards to another visit to alinea, the question is not if, but when.