Monday, 13 May 2019

Acadia, Chicago

There is a restaurant in Chicago, where it's very difficult to secure a reservation, named a single word beginning with 'A', serving an eclectic modern American tasting menu and which has been showered with Michelin stars and countless other accolades since it opened.

You can see the joke I'm limping towards, I'm sure, so I won't labour the point. In the world of international jet-set fine dining, Grant Achatz's Alinea is Chicago, and Chicago is Alinea, and whenever I mentioned I was taking a weekend trip to the Windy City, the natural assumption was that I'd booked myself in there. I did try, of course, and put my name down on the standby list, but to be honest I wasn't completely distraught it didn't happen this time. Firstly, because thanks to an absolutely wonderful few days in this fantastic city, I knew with utter certainty I'd be back. And secondly, because the full-whack tasting menu at Alinea is $400 without tax and service, and paying over $700/head on dinner is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of spend I'd need a good few years to prepare myself for.

So hardly a budget option itself, next to that Acadia's $200/head menu looks like something approaching a bargain. And it's hard to imagine the welcome into this spacious, luxuriously-appointed dining room could be bettered anywhere else in town. Bundling in wet and shivering from the snowstorm outside (Chicago's weather is completely mad) I joined a room full of immaculately turned out front of house staff and blindingly attractive and well-dressed guests feeling like I'd somewhat underestimated the effort Chicagoans put into evening wear. These people know how to impress.

And though there was plenty to gawp at in the room, what turned up on the table gave it more than a run for its money. First, after a nice cold glass of Franciacorta, were these little corn puffs containing pickled anchovy and "ramp" pesto, which is I believe a North Americanism for wild garlic. Prettily constructed, with a nice set of contrasting textures, only a vaguely underpowered anchovy let it down - perhaps I'm spoiled with the ones Brindisa import into London. Still, not bad.

"Herbed waffle with honey butter" was really no more than the sum of its parts, and if I'm going to be completely brutal, a bit pointless. Everyone knows what waffle and butter tastes like, and to present it as a canapé in a setting like this just seemed clumsy. It wasn't even a particularly good waffle, being a bit chewy and cold.

Better - much better - was this little arrangement of real caviar and jerusalem artichoke purée (they call them sunchokes there apparently), in a sauce of "infused whey" which was almost impossible to describe but was kind of umami-rich and silky without being overwhelmingly cheesey. A set of flavours I've never had the pleasure of having together before, and a genuinely intelligent and innovative idea, this was exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to discover at Acadia.

Shima aji (mackerel) came next, fatty and fresh under its Japanese-style glaze, its rich flavour profile bolstered by a slice of foie gras and filled out by warm, fluffy rice. I've enjoyed the combination of fatty fish, foie gras and rice on a number of occasions - eel works as well - and this was another reminder that when it comes to seafood, the Japanese know a thing or two.

I absolutely adored the next course, an intensely-flavoured shrimp dumpling thing speared onto a sprig of rosemary, over a chilled mushroom and dashi broth. It was another example of how the best of Japanese fine dining can be both sophisticated and accessible, complex yet beguiling, all at once - it flatters you with technique and intricate flavours whilst still being hugely enjoyable to eat.

"Penobscot Bay lobster" (Maine, where much of the US' lobster comes from) had fairly subtle flavour and a texture just ever-so-slightly the wrong side of chewy, but still went down well enough. Part of me wishes it had come in a bowl which would have held the sauce a bit better - spread out over a flat plate it looked a bit lost, and cold - but I'm sure they knew what they were doing.

The next course turned back to France for inspiration. Chicken heart, snails and morel mushrooms were laid across a stick of fried bread, above a nice powerful chicken broth. All of it very tastefully done and hard to criticise too harshly except perhaps I'm used to the fire and flavour of grilled chicken hearts over the poached used here, and just missing that extra touch of charcoal-fired magic. Again though, it was 99% of the way there.

Cobia - a species of fish new to me but also known as 'black kingfish', 'black salmon' or 'ling' according to Google - arrived as geometric square with a lovely golden crust on top and bright white flesh inside. My menu tells me this came with kohlrabi and squid ink, although these elements clearly didn't make much of an impact - all I remember is that the fish itself was incredibly salty, strange as everything else had been seasoned immaculately. Even so, and very conscious of the fact I have been moaning about minor niggles here far more than they affected us on the night, it was still an enjoyable bit of fish.

Next dish had rather a lot going on, so I'll list the description in full - "Bonemarrow custard, peekytoe crab, veal cheek, sunflower seed". That's offal, shellfish and red meat all in one dish, and yes it did take a bit of getting used to. I'm wary of suggesting with too straight a face any way a two-Michelin-starred restaurant could improve one of their dishes, but the lack of a binding sauce meant that the individual parts fought with more than complimented each other, and a sweet brioche bun filled with some kind of truffle aioli served on the side didn't really add to the cohesiveness. Again, I didn't hate it - far from it - but it was just less than satisfying.

I don't want to unfairly generalise about the baking culture of a country of 330m people, and yes I am aware of Tartine in San Francisco and various other excellent craft bakeries dotted around the country, but by-and-large, bread in America is terrible. So it was a very nice surprise indeed to find that Acadia bake the best rosemary and potato sourdough I've had the pleasure of sampling there OR back home - with a delicate dark crust and sticky crumb, it was absolutely a match to anything served in Europe. The wholewheat sourdough was only slightly less successful, and one of the butters was quite vegetal and strange, but whoever's in charge of bread at Acadia can give themselves a pat on the back. I Will say though, that with one further savoury course to go, it was a bit of a strange point in the meal to serve it. It would have been very handy indeed for soaking up leftover sauces earlier in the evening.

So yes, one final savoury course, and it was lamb - a meat much rarer in North America than elsewhere, perhaps going some way to account for the fact it didn't have much flavour. Rather anaemic looking and desperately in need of a bit of crisp and colour from a grill, it didn't really do much for me, and I found much more to appreciate in the charred lettuce by its side.

First dessert was durian ice cream (not pictured, sorry - above was coconut ice cream pre dessert which was perfectly nice). Now, I don't know if you're aware, but durian is famously one of the most foul-smelling fruits on the planet, usually banned from hotel lobbies and other public spaces in the countries where its grown. And yet fans of the fruit, if they're to be believed (and I have my doubts) say that the flesh, if you ignore the aroma, is sweet and caramely. Well, I'm afraid this ice cream tasted like durian smells, of rotten flesh and disease, and lingered on the breath for the rest of the evening. Maybe it is possible to make a durian ice cream that doesn't make me want to hurl it to the other side of the room, but this wasn't it.

Anything from this point on was tainted by the lingering stench of durian, so do bear that in mind when assessing my reaction to it. Lychee-sakura raindrop cake was, like all raindrop cakes, utterly pointless, tasting only very marginally of lychee, nowhere near sweet enough, and with an unpleasant too-solid texture.

Guava and black sesame gateau was much more pleasant, with what looked at first glance like meringue slices actually turning out to be frozen Greek yoghurt - a lovely culinary joke - although the black sesame base itself was a bit cloying.

Finally, fig and cascara hot chocolate, just a really nice cup of hot chocolate really - I didn't taste much in the way of coffee but then I'm not a coffee drinker anyway. Over some very prettily marbled salted caramel truffles, we paid the bill - a touch over $300 each, which seemed more than fair, and before long we were struggling back to Ravenswood in the snow in an Uber.

Before I got going on the above review, I was pretty sure I was going to settle on a score of 8/10 for Acadia. Though I had niggles here and there with the savoury courses, overall I did find more to like than dislike about the food, and matched with the usual glowing North American service and in that beautiful room full of beautiful people, it all seemed to write the story of a thoroughly enjoyable fine dining experience.

But then as I thought more and more about what we'd been given, away from the cosy haze of the matching wines, particularly the desserts which were very up and down, it became clear that there was slightly too much to criticise to qualify for the Premier League, and so 7/10, objectively, feels more appropriate. And I don't know of any chef ever happy with a 7/10, especially one operating at this level, so apologies to everyone involved for being the bearer of bad news. All that said, I don't regret a single moment of the evening, or a single dollar spent, and I'm sure even far more expensive restaurants also with a name beginning with 'A' are equally likely to have off-days. And if they do, you'll read it here first.



Alex C said...

Hi Chris - Looks lovely, though a bugbear of mine is the American habit of walloping on huge service charges to everything and expecting you to pay without a murmur.

Your meal was $805 and change but you were deluded into thinking it was $300 each by the deposit you'd already paid.
Your food and drink was $609 and service and taxes were an additional 32.25%.
to be fair Chicago's combined sales tax and meals tax is 10.75%, the second highest in the US, but youstill geave them 22.5% tip or there abouts. It seems to move it from "that's a pretty generous amount to just help yourself to" over into the "now you're just taking the piss" category.

Wouldn't it be lovely to see an American trend "Classy establishments pay their staff properly"? Then move over to the French model.

End of rant.

denise barros said...

Invitation to Brazil’s Cheese World Contest


My name is Denise, I am the Public Relations Director of the Brazil’s Cheese World Contest.

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Check our website to register and know more about the event:

Best regards,
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Public Relations Director

+ 55 34 99830 1828

Dave Cheeseman said...

Can I come too?

Jazzy Fizzle said...

I mean, if we’re giving invites out, I’m free then too.☝��

Anonymous said...

Chris - Are you sure that's not beef? Does not look like lamb, and if it was, which cut?

Chris Pople said...

Anon: All I can tell you is what's on my menu here - Elysian Fields lamb, romaine, green goddess. No idea what cut but looks like some kind of fillet doesn't it