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Monday, October 11, 2010

Alinea 3: Chinky Chicken

Part of an ongoing series recapping a meal at Chicago restaurant Alinea.

At the start of the third course, our waiter put down this plate of what looked like freshly pressed napkins on the table.

Given the avant garde nature of the presentation, I wouldn't be surprised if we were told that this was edible. But then, this course is supposed to be an exploration of the cuisines of Asia, and came as a triplet of bites. Allegedly from China, is this battered bite of chicken wrapped around a cinnamon stick (disclosure, due to dietary restrictions, all of my dishes were done with chicken while my dining companions got lobster or crab - I presume the preferred ingredients).

The middle item was a tribute to Japan, and consisted of a crispy fried stick of yuba, around which was wrapped some chicken and sesame seeds, and presented with a small tub of miso mayonnaise for dipping. I didn't manage to photograph that creation, but eating it was akin to eating a savory version of this:

And finally, the final item was supposed to be a tribute to Vietnam, where a sugar cane stick is infused with various flavors evoking the streets of Saigon.

If you've never eaten a sugar cane stick before, you essentially chew it to extract the juices and flavors, and spit out the woody pulp. That's what the napkins at the start of the meal was for.

While I applaud the desire of chefs to expand the horizons of their diners, I find this trend of injecting "Asian flavors" as a point of exoticism tiring. Because what I tasted wasn't so much a nuanced celebration of the three highly disparate cultures before me so much as a touristy distillation of the stereotypes. I think the fried chicken thing was supposed to evoke the feathery crispness of fried taro, but the cinnamon was like an uncomfortable bystander. There was no fire or sweetness to the sugarcane (which I suppose is a credit to the technique of the chef) but evoked nothing of the Southeast Asian experience. The yuba dish was perhaps the most successful, mainly because it was indeed fun to eat.

And why it disappeared before I managed to photograph it.

Previously on this series:

Act 2: Green
 A symphony in 21 acts


  1. It sounds a tiny bit like your complaint is that the food you ate wasn't authentic enough (which I confess, I'm rather surprised to hear).

    But was it delicious? (sounds like the yuba dish was...)

  2. I can see why this may be interpreted that way. No, not a issue of authenticity. Bottom line: the flavors didn't quite gel, but if you are hearkening back to a heritage which has had generations to make a certain flavor profile harmonize, the incomplete mix tastes amateurish. Even though the presentation was novel.