Sunday, December 18, 2016

Deep Pockets: Chicago

Last weekend I joined Brittany, Faith, and Cante to celebrate Faith's birthday in Chicago, and it was a cozy time filled with exactly what you would expect with this group: great food and wine, bocce, and lot of laughs.  Faith had been surprised with the trip the week before, and sobbed for five minutes straight when she found out she would be traveling to Chicago to eat at Alinea, Chef Grant Achatz's three-Michelin star restaurant.  And I got to tag along for the ride!

The first day was supposed to be the best weather (a toasty 22 degrees but no snow), so we took the opportunity to walk through Millennium Park, enjoying dusk at the Bean and marveling at the talented mid-western ice skaters. 

That night we managed to fit in pizza, improv at Second City, shuffle board, and most notably, a game of Do You Want To Buy a Duck? which lent more laughs than perhaps anything else that weekend.

Saturday morning we awoke and decided it would be the best day of our lives.  Fearing we wouldn't get tickets for the San Francisco tour, Brittany and I bought tickets to Chicago's Hamilton, and got ready for the matinee show by eating brunch at Grange Hall.

I was just a little bit excited to be seeing Hamilton, the most highly renowned musical maybe ever, and one I already knew all the words to.

Through every melody, every chorus, I leaned forward, on the edge of my seat, taking in the voices, choreography, and set production, marveling at the genius of the creator, Lin Manuel, and trying to soak up every moment to replay later as I would continue to listen to the soundtrack on repeat.  I didn't think it was possible, but the show somehow managed to exceed my already vaulted expectations.

Afterwards, as we prepared to leave the theater, night had fallen and it was snowing.  The first snow of the season, it swirled about magically and laid a pristine blanket on the ground, so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes.  We frolicked through the streets and made our way to the German Christmas market, where we drank hot tea and ate sugar-coated nuts as we window-shopped the handmade ornaments and took in the festive scene. 

On our walk home from the market, I noticed Brittany didn't have her souvenir mug in hand.  When I asked her where she put it, she said, "Good thing I have deep pockets!" and I laughed because after buying tickets to Hamilton and Alinea in the same day, our pockets were left anything but deep. 

Our snowy scenic route home continued the presidential theme set by Hamilton, as we walked by statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  It was a truly magical stroll!

After a short rest at the hotel, we prepped for the weekend's main event: Alinea!

I don't want to give away too much about the experience, but I do recommend you watch the premiere of season two of Chef's Table on Netflix, which features Alinea's Chef Achatz.  More than for his unique take on molecular gastronomy, he's famous for creating an unexpected dining experience that plays on the senses.

We enjoyed no less than 17 courses that featured innumerable delicacies including truffles, caviar, and Wagyu beef.  No ingredient was left in its pure state-everything was pickled, gelled, moussed, or freeze-dried: you name it, they did it.  While the food was experimental, interesting, and usually delicious, I can tell you the cuisine itself registers only number three on my list of the evening's most memorable, notable elements.  In second, the unpretentious service, with wait staff diffusing the potential stiffness of a venerated restaurant by keeping it real, making jokes that poked fun at the elevated cuisine, and making us feel at ease.  Coming in first, the experience itself, and the ways the chef managed to surprise me, evoking feelings ranging from nostalgia to glee to intrigue, and spotlighting one sense over another depending on the course.  I felt genuinely wowed, a sensation rare to come by as an adult these days. 

Ice boat filled with goodies

We started at a communal table, where we attempted to settle our giddy tendencies and get acquainted with a handful of the dozen people that would be sharing our dining experience that night.  Near us were two couples who couldn't have been more different: a dispassionate married couple from LA and an overexcited newly-engaged couple from the Midwest.  Watching the two interact was fascinating, but we were pleased to escape to the kitchen for our next course, where we spotted The Chef himself!

Putting aside his culinary achievements, part of what makes Chef Achatz so impressive is his experience with and recovery from tongue cancer.  The radiation he received took away his sense of taste (a most unfortunately ironic situation for him to find himself in), and he had to find a way to continue innovating a three-Michelin star restaurant as a head chef who could not even taste the food he was creating. 

Fortunately, his sense began to return to him, and he had to slowly learn how to taste as a child would, only with the benefit of his existing culinary education.  As you can imagine, this only heightened his creativity and focus on engaging all the senses during the experiences he invents.

Back in the Alinea kitchen, we were enjoying the fruits of his labor and ingenuity.  That green contraption below is an antique cocktail shaker, where they made us delicious old fashions paired with dreamy cheesy doughnuts.  It needs to be said that I will not accurately name or describe anything we ate, as all courses had titles like "Yellow", "Smoke", and "Glass", and I didn't catch or understand more than half the ingredients, techniques, or states of food that were presented to me!  But hey, confusion leaves room for surprise, right?

So excited to be in the kitchen!
If only Chef had photobombed us.
(Instead he ignored us all and focused on the food!)

My favorite effect of the evening was when the waiter came and poured water into our still life bowl of citrus, revealing the hidden dry ice beneath as white smoke began to permeate the surface of the table, swirling around our hands and next course. 

Seriously, these waiters were fun.
Also, I never want to push my own chair in again.

 This was one of my favorite dishes, 
with sprouted coconut and shellfish.

I asked the waiter if this was an Oreo. 
It was gruyere and black truffle on pumpernickel,
but he came back and asked if it was the best double stuffed I'd ever had.

The restaurant's most course? experience? is the sugar helium balloon.  We were thrilled when they put one in each of our hands, and more thrilled still at the pure joy and hilarity of listening to 16 adults speak in chipmunk voices in such an elegant setting.

But no, that wasn't even the finale!  After our "Nostalgia" course, it was time for "Paint".  One of the waiters brought in a stepladder, and ascended it to detach the square paintings from the ceiling, delivering one to each table.  These would become the pallets for our next course. 

As they were setting it up and building suspense, I started to pick up a faint beat.  The music continued to build, and just as we noticed Chef descending the staircase behind us, suddenly they cut the lights.  Chef approached a table, bowl and brush in hand, and began to paint his own edible art on that pallet before moving on to the next.  More sweet soldiers appeared, each with their own flavor in hand, waltzing from table to table to sweep, swirl, and stain our surfaces with deliciousness.  Shrouded in darkness, we listened to the percussion of the drums and tried to take in the mystifying yet calculated scene around us.  Finally, they stacked two bricks of frozen chocolate in the center of the work, and simultaneously smashed them to pieces and re-illuminated the room, revealing their crackling creation to us.  

By the end, we were so incredibly full yet satisfied.  I have never and will never again experience this kind of dinner and a show!

On Sunday, our last full day, we bundled up and headed to the Chicago Athletic Association for brunch at Cindy's (with awesome balcony views of the city), a bit of relaxation in their incredible lobby, and of course, bocce in the impressive game room.  

We want to see this place again in the summer!

Later that evening, we met up with Andrew and Akila for dinner and a catch-up session.  By the end of the meal, we were also good friends with our well-natured and quippy waitress Anna, who Andrew was trying to set up with one of his friends, as he often does!

Chicago never fails to bring its A-game.  Between Alinea, Hamilton, the snow, and all the friends I got to spend time with, it was an unforgettable weekend.  Thanks, Faith and Co., for including me!

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