I didn’t plan to pair these photos at the Art Institute of Chicago and Alinea, but somehow - yet at the same time not surprisingly - everything fit together very well, especially considering I took virtually no photos (by my standards) at the gallery.
Let’s talk about the Art Institute of Chicago first because, oh boy, do I ever regret only giving myself three hours to wander around in there. All of my art gallery wanders through 2018 felt like this inadvertent mission to hunt down every single artwork I had studied through 6yrs of high school Art History and gaze upon it in the flesh. I felt like I was ticking things off at record speed in Chicago: American Gothic, Sky Above Clouds IV by Georgia O’Keefe, Nighthawks by Eric Hopper, Seurat’s La Grande Jatte (mesmerising up close), Degas’ ballerina girl and possibly my favourite Van Gogh self-portrait (the colours!). I was also fortunate to have caught a special exhibition on John Singer Sargant -- his way with technical mastery in realism while preserving the sense of texture, movement and effortless ease in his oils was incredible.
Crossing over halfway across town, to one of the most unassuming restaurant fronts I’d ever seen, I was very lucky to have been able to dine at Alinea. If I had to sum up the experience, it would revolve around theatricality, which seems built on the understanding that a dining experience is one that should utilise all the senses. From there, every course, its story, eclectic choice of plating and atmosphere (generous use of dry ice, fire, helium and the waiter preparing certain dishes for us at the table) was carefully constructed to be its own little performance with every reveal.
I’d say the theatricality helped to hype up what otherwise were less remarkable foods - all beautifully made, just not mindblowing in terms of flavours. After all, hasn’t everyone always wanted to eat a single octopus leg off a slab of marble in front of a pot of fire? The sweetness and flavour balance of some dishes was a little much for me, especially the creamy, sweet dark sauce that I tasted across multiple dishes that reminded me of XO sauce but not in the best way.
That being said, there were definitely dishes that blew me away with their sheer weirdness and side helping of ‘how do you even think of pairing these elements together’: putting kiwi in the ‘Terrarium’ amuse bouche to bring a completely unexpected dimension to what tasted like a dollop of guacamole, the explosion of flavour encased in the ‘orange’ palate cleanser that had the texture of tempered white chocolate but no flavour (so disconcerting), and the ‘Heirloom’ dessert, made of peach, begonia and nasturtium, grew on me with every weird, vegetable-y, dessert-y bite. I also instantly loved the ‘Shot’ (pineapple, aloe and shiso - but actually tasted like cumin). It was appropriate to finish with a shot of helium, encased in a sticky, edible green apple-flavoured ‘balloon’.
I said I really didn’t do much in Chicago but I think I picked quality over quantity, and these two experiences really encapsulate that, especially since I visited both on the same day. Go figure.