Alinea. Need I Say More?

September 30, 2012

It must have been my lucky day a few weeks ago when I got the chance to dine at one of the world's best restaurants, Alinea. If you're not familiar with Alinea, we can't be friends, it is chef Grant Achatz's pride and joy and a Michelin three star culinary powerhouse. 

Alinea, now ranked the #7 best restaurant in the world, utilizes an online reservation system. Every few months, tickets are released to the public via this system and lucky foodies go online to snag a table. The other way to get into Alinea is by stalking their Facebook and Twitter feeds for posts about same day and next day tables. I have responded to these posts numerous times in the past, with no response or luck. However, that all changed three weeks ago after I responded to a Facebook post and promptly reserved a 4-top for a Sunday evening. I. Was. Ecstatic. And terrified. In order to secure your spot at Alinea, you're required to fork over the entire cost of the meal (minus wine pairings) before your arrival. This was a bit of a sticker shock ($300+ per person) but I kept reminding myself it would all be worth it in the end.

[As a side note, I chose not to bring my DSLR camera to dinner for three reasons, 1) I didn't want to distract other diners 2) I wanted to be able to really enjoy the experience and not worry about adjusting my camera and 3) there are already numerous photos of the food at Alinea, far better than any photos I can take! Check out the website for Alinea's book as well as Flickr.]

One by one the rest of my party showed up outside the unmarked restaurant. We chit-chatted with the host who was standing outside with a tablet holding all of the evening's reservations. He informed us that our experience began as soon as we stepped inside...

Upon entering the restaurant, we immediately stepped foot on fresh, green, grass. Not golf grass, I'm talking plush, cushy grass. We walked down a narrow "Alice in Wonderland" type hallway illuminated by neon blue lights and filled with the sounds of wind chimes. We plucked a floating glass of lemonade from an aluminum basin filled with water and proceeded down the hall. 

"Alice in Wonderland" Hallway
After sipping on our lemonade, a sliding door opened to reveal the Alinea staff who greeted us and led us to our table in the front dining room. Alinea has two floors of tables but the first floor only holds about 5 tables. I enjoyed being in this smaller room as it was more intimate and gave the impression we were sitting in a (very rich)  friend's living room. The restaurant is decked out in neutral tones, except for the colorful abstract art on the walls. Personally, I felt this aesthetic forced one to focus on the food, and acted like sort of a blank canvas.

We decided to pass on the wine pairings for the evening for two reasons. 1) the cost and 2) it was a Sunday evening and the pairings amount to 4 full glasses of wine per person. Instead, our table agreed on a French bottle of white wine, similar to a cabernet sauvignon. 

White Wine & Cork Holder
After our wine was presented and poured, we were given our first seated course, which also doubled as a centerpiece. This ice sculpture atop a bowl of pebbles held a glass tube. Inside was steelhead roe, peach and St. Germain. We were given directions on how to enjoy this course which included our permission to slurp our food. I really enjoyed the saltiness of the roe coupled with the sweet St. Germain.

Steelhead Roe
The next course came out on a giant branch covered in seaweed. It was probably not the prettiest course of the evening, but it contained one of the tastiest! From right to left we had a leaf that was salty and tasted like an oyster, a king crab claw, lobster and a razor clam filled with something like a sea urchin. I LOVED the lobster as it had an amazing passion fruit sauce with it. This was truly a decadent course.

Oyster Leaf, King Crab, Lobster, Razor Clam
Next was one of the larger and more seasonal courses of the evening, a tomato and watermelon salad served with basil and chili. The salad must have had three or four different types of tomatoes in a variety of colors and the watermelon came in the form of a chilled sorbet at the bottom of the beautiful round glass bowl.

Our next course was one of the stranger ones of the evening. It consisted of corn, three ways. One was a popcorn jelly, one was dried corn husk, and the other was silk strings of corn. All were served on top of a sour cherry sauce that was tart and nicely contrasted the sweetness of the corn. I wasn't crazy about the texture of the cream or the corn husk (think dehydrated space food), but I did enjoy the cherry sauce.

Our next course, another fish course, was otoro tuna served with thai banana, sea salt and a lime kaffir foam. Otoro is supposed to be the best part of the tuna and I can see why. It was melt-in-your-mouth tender. There was also a little bit of green curry and rice to complement the otoro.

Another beautiful course and one of my favorites of the evening was a wooden plank topped with black stones and chanterelles. These wild mushrooms were served with asparagus and smoked dates. I loved the creaminess of the sauces paired with the mushrooms and couldn't even believe I was eating so many different types of fungus!

The next course is probably the most famous course at Alinea. It has been on the menu since the restaurant opened and is a staple among the frequently-changing tasting menus. "Hot Potato Cold Potato" arrives at your table in a mini wax dish filled with cold potato soup. Situated on a pin hanging over the soup, is a hot potato ball topped with black truffle and parmesan. You eat it by removing the pin which drops the potato ball into the soup, hence the name, hot potato, cold potato. The result is a bite of creamy potato and parmesan goodness! Alinea has posted an awesome video of how they create this course that is worth checking out.

Our main course arrived next, as lamb, three ways. Lamb shank, saddle and tenderloin were covered tableside with a red sauce. Accompanying our lamb course was a glass sheet consisting of 60, yes, 60, different "toppings". We weren't told what any of them were and were encouraged to experiment with each bite of lamb. I must have tried half of them! There were different types of nuts, fruits, jellies and sauces, each pairing quite well with the tender and flavorful lamb.


Lamb Accompaniments
After doing a little lamb experimentation, we moved onto another one-bite course, the black truffle explosion. This was a single ravioli filled with black truffle and parmesan and topped with shaved truffle, and parmesan. We were instructed to close our lips upon biting into the ravioli as the reason this is called an explosion is because the ravioli literally explodes in your mouth. This was undoubtedly the richest course of the evening (and the most decadent), all in one huge bite! I especially loved the way the truffle was presented on a spoon situated on top of a bottomless bowl. It was truly amazing to see all of the serviceware for each course, each perfectly matching the style and flavors of the food.

Black Truffle
At this point of the evening, we had arrived at what Alinea calls the cheese course. A lit cinnamon stick arrived in some type of wire contraption with a ball of brie, onion and anjou pear. As if that didn't sound delicious enough, the entire thing was dipped in tempura batter. I could have eaten twenty of these alone, it was that delicious. I loved the nutty scent of the cinnamon combined with the sweet taste of the anjou pear.

Anjou Pear
In order to cleanse our  palates, we were presented with what I like to call a "wire claw" holding five pieces of ginger. I like ginger for the most part, but this was a little too much for me to handle. Some of the varieties were very spicy but I was still happy to try it.

After cleansing our palates, we were ready to take on the first of three desserts courses, my favorite part of the meal! First up was a glass plate and bowl filled with a green tea concoction. The tea, made from sorrel leaves, was poured tableside, with dry ice, creating sort of a "potion" effect. We drank the tea through a glass straw. Atop the glass plate was a mixture of fresh blueberries and crumbles of buttermilk cake. There was also some very rich cream to accompany those sweet blueberries. I wasn't crazy about the drink but I did enjoy the freshness of the berries and was pleased with the size of the course, considering there were three dessert courses in total.

The show stopper of the evening was most definitely the apple balloon course. Yes, you read that correctly, balloon. The servers brought out a balloon filled with helium made of apple candy and dusted with sugar. The entire thing was edible, even the string which was an apple "leather" similar to a candy straw.

As with most of the courses, we were given directions on how to best enjoy the balloon. I was informed to take off my glasses, pull my hair back and inhale the helium from the balloon. I immediately started talking in a high-pitched voice, due to the helium, and the giggles ensued! The balloon itself was extremely sticky but deliciously tart. I even left with some of the balloon stuck to my watch!

Last, but not least, was the final dessert course. Our table was covered in a grey silicone mat and we were instructed to sit in opposite corners of the table. Two chefs arrived and immediately got to work. They looked like mad scientists as they tossed spoonfuls of freeze dried peas and strawberries all over the table and painted with spoonfuls of cream. It truly looked with a Jackson Pollock painting and matched the abstract art on the walls of the restaurant.

White Chocolate
White Chocolate
White Chocolate
In the center of table were two domes comprised of white chocolate and filled with cotton candy and some sort of dumpling. After the chefs were done "painting" our table, they lifted the domes and gently dropped them, causing them to break off into random pieces, revealing the goodies inside. When the domes were dropped, they ended up splattering on my friend's white dress, causing horror on the face of one of our servers. They were quick to offer to pay her dry cleaning bill but luckily she was cool as a cucumber. I'm curious if that has happened at the restaurant before!

White Chocolate
White Chocolate
We grabbed our spoons and proceeded to eat the dessert directly from the table. This was by far the largest course of the evening which I appreciated as a lover of all things sweet. I have to admit, it was really fun eating off the table in such a fancy restaurant!

White Chocolate
At the conclusion of our meal, we were each presented with a menu customized with the date and the exact courses we had. Alinea is fantastic about accommodating patrons with dietary restrictions. One person in our group was a vegetarian so they replaced all of her meat items, and one person did not like seafood, so they replaced all of those items. It was a nice touch to walk away with such a customized account of our experience that evening.

Customized Menu
Since it couldn't hurt to ask, I inquired about walking into the kitchen to watch the chefs at work. They kindly allowed us to enter the kitchen and see the hard work and coordination that goes into one night of service at Alinea. We huddle in a corner of the beautiful (and clean!) kitchen, watching the chefs buzz about like little worker bees. Each section of the kitchen was set up to build a particular course and the chefs appeared to be amazingly calm.

Inside the Alinea Kitchen

Inside the Alinea Kitchen
After spending four hours at Alinea, our experience had come to an end. I left feeling like I was on, what I like to call, an "Alinea high" that lasted well into the next week. I've never had a culinary "experience" like Alinea before. Prior to dining at Alinea, I had heard it was more than just a meal, and I couldn't agree more. No detail was overlooked, from the sliding entryway, to the inventive presentations, to the customized menus, to name a few. I had the opportunity to try so many flavors and foods I've never had before and I was happy I was adventurous enough to try everything on the menu. The service at Alinea is the best service I've had at any restaurant and frankly, will be very hard to beat. Even when we got up to use the restroom, we had someone escort us and ensure our chairs were tucked in when we returned to the table.

It's no surprise Alinea gets a well-deserved 5 stars for its ability to provide a culinary experience that is truly one-of-a-kind and maybe (for me!) once-in-a-lifetime. I encourage you to try your luck at grabbing tickets and if you get the chance, you better take it!

1723 North Halsted
Chicago Illinois 60614
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  1. Wonderful review. Did they not have problems with you photographing your meal? I've heard that they are starting to become much more strict about cameras in the dining room to the point of asking guests to stop taking photos.

  2. Thank you! Prior to dining at Alinea, I did read about others who said they are strict about photography, however, they were actually very accommodating and had no issues with us taking photos. I did not use flash, though.


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