Restaurant Adventure: Alinea
Everyone writes about Alinea in Chicago, IL. Alinea is the type of restaurant experience that practically forces you to take pretty pictures and relate your food adventure to the whole world. As one of ten restaurants with 3 Michelin stars in the US, it is often named one of the best restaurants in the world. Owned and operated by Grant Achatz, its style is avant garde and hell-bent on deconstructing common flavors and creating new and interesting twists on things. Very fitting, for a restaurant whose name was inspired by the alinea (pilcrow) and means "off the line".
Alinea is modern, chic, dark and romantic.
To start, the outside of Alinea isn't much to see. It's a nondescript grey building which is only recognizable by the valet sign, which touts the name. It reminded me of O Ya in Boston, with a blank exterior and an unmarked door which made me think, "Am I even in the right place?"
The mystery doesn't solve itself once you're inside the door, either. Behind the blank door is a dark, magenta-lit hallway with grass for a floor. It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust, and by the time they do, you've traversed the hallway to an automatic sliding door which opens into a more normal restaurant with a hostess's stand.
Although we were fifteen minutes early for our reservation, we were seated immediately. Alinea has an odd layout. Upon stepping into the restaurant, the kitchen in to your right -- it is open, huge, and impossibly clean. A set of stairs is directly in front of you, which leads to the upper seating area which I assume is larger than the lower seating area. Immediately to your left is a small, intimate room with five tables. This is where we sat. We were the first table of the room to arrive, which turned out to be a huge boon for us as it meant we were the point people for our room and got to see all the courses as a surprise. The room was dimly lit and sparsely decorated, very clean and chic. The tables were large and dark and the chairs were plush and comfortable with arms.
The waitstaff was incredible. I had read that they were stuffy, but I didn't get that feeling even in the slightest. Sure, they were formal, polite, and efficient, but I'd expect that when paying $225 for a tasting menu. We had three main waiters for the room. Immediately, we were asked if we were here for a special event. We replied that it was my birthday. The waiters took every opportunity all night to wish me a happy birthday or joke that I should get what I want because I'm the birthday girl. They were very nice and grounded with us, and joked with us on and off.
As noted above, Alinea was a birthday treat for me from my dinner partner (whom we shall call Oji), and one of about five "bucket list" restaurants I want to visit. Special thanks to Oji!
I took lots of photos, although some were under duress as many courses needed to be eaten quickly or in a very specific way and I only got one shot. What I'm saying is, please excuse some of them for being sub-par or blurry. The lighting was also atrocious to work with. If you don't want the experience of Alinea to be spoiled completely, you can skip my long descriptions and just admire the pretty pictures in my full album.
When asked, we opted out of the $175 wine pairing and instead asked for something non-alcoholic. The waiter poured us sparkling cider -- some of the best I've ever had, very crisp and light and (I believe he said) from Normandy. We had a few minutes before the first course arrived which meant we had time to study the centerpiece of the table: a glass jar with tomatoes and basil in it set in a bed of grass. I guessed this would eventually be part of the meal and I was (eventually) correct.
Alinea is speedy. Our meal was 14 courses and took about 2.5 hours, but they were very attentive to the pacing and didn't leave any long stretches of time between bites. Before anyone else was even seated in the room, we got our first course: trout roe with mushroom and apple. Personally, I thought this was the least stand-out of my 14 courses.
Course two was by far the most visually interesting. As I mentioned, we were the point people for our room, which meant that we got to see the second course in all its foggy wonder before anyone else. The food itself was a scallop ceviche, but it was the presentation that was heart-stealing. Set on a bed of seaweed was a large clam shell with the ceviche inside, the seaweed was set in a low, shallow bowl brimming with dry ice mist. The mist flowed over everything, covering the table and us in a citrus-y aroma that went perfectly with the ceviche.
After the ceviche, we finally got to understand the meaning of the tomato-basil table centerpiece. The waiter used the tomatoes inside the jar to finish our plates, which already had a cucumber foam and a cantaloupe mousse on them. The dish was light and airy, but none of the components could be eaten on their own without it being weird. They really needed one another to make a tasty bite.
After the tomato, we got a very deconstructed plate of dungeness crab, with a cube of squash and a rather odd jelly on top. It was visually one of the prettiest dishes and also one of the larger courses of the night. The coolest part was the saffron cotton candy, which was sweet and then left a very savory saffron taste behind.
Following the crab dish was a presentation to rival the dry ice from earlier. The waiter brought out two stone tablets which had sushi perched at one end and real, honest-to-goodness fire at the other end. The waiter asked us not to touch the fire, which led me to ask, "Do you have many people who touch the fire?" His response was, "You'd be surprised. They think it's some sort of fancy magic. It's not, it's actual fire." I should put "sushi" in quotes, because it was less "sushi" than merely sushi-like food. There was a piece of wagyu beef, some pork, some tuna, and a shrimp head that had been stuffed with... something. Regardless, it was all delicious.
After the "sushi" was another bigger, heavier course of veal cheeks. The most interesting part of this dish was that under the bowl was a pile of burning pine needles, which gave off an excellent aroma. The veal itself was somewhat sweet because of an underlying blackberry sauce. I don't have a good picture of this one, sorry, only blurriness.
Trailing the veal was hot-potato-cold-potato. This dish was one of the stars of the night. It was a single-bite dish, and I didn't get a good picture because the waiter told us we had something like 45 seconds to get the consumption right, so I snapped off a blurry photo and listened to his instructions. The instructions involved very carefully removing a pin from the tiny dish, so that the hot potato perched at the end of it would fall into the cold soup below. Once that was done, you had to very quick take the dish in a single gulp like a shot. It sounds rushed, but it was actually quite fun and the taste was superb.The soup was mild, but the potato was heavily done in butter and truffle and there was a wonderful progression of flavors.
After our little potato bite, we were served the "longest" course of the night. This course slowed us down and we got to have a little fun with our food. The waiters brought us each a plate with five preparations of duck. In addition to the duck, they placed a square glass dish on our table which had probably 50-60 tiny little dollops of... stuff. Each dollop was some sort of seasoning. We were told that all the dollops were specifically picked to go well with duck and with one another. We were told that we could make up any combinations we wanted to go with our duck, and that picking 2-3 seasonings per bite was probably a good idea.
It was a fun adventure to try things and try to guess what they were, and also to see that Alinea was really quite correct: you could pair almost anything together and come out with a good result. Some of the flavors were fruiting, some were alcohol, some were herbal. It was a complete mystery and I felt like a kid, dipping my fingers into things to taste them.
After the duck, which was the course we spent the most time on and by far the largest course, we got another single-bite course. This was a black truffle explosion and, once again, we needed very specific instructions from the waiter to eat it. It was a single raviolo served on a spoon. We were told to eat it in one bite with our lips sealed. And, oh man, was that ever a good idea. When I bit into it, it was a complete buttery explosion of truffle and savory goodness in my mouth. Yes, I did just say that.
A palate cleanser came next to prepare us for the dessert courses. The cleanser was five tiny little bites of ginger at the end of kabobs. The ginger got spicier and spicier as you went along the row. It was fun and pretty. And an absolute pain to photograph.
The first dessert course was pure whimsy. I had read about it before and seen it and was hoping we'd get it. All the other tables watched in interest as two helium balloons were brought to the table. These were deceiving little balloons, though, because they weren't really balloons. They were apple taffy, blown up with helium and attached to a taffy string. The whole thing was edible!
Once again, the waiter gave us specific instructions for eating. We were to "kiss" the balloon, make a seal on it, pop it, and then we were to inhale the helium. As we inhaled the helium, the balloon collapsed on itself and we could eat the taffy. I let William try this first while I took pictures. I was hoping to learn from his sticky mistakes. I didn't. This course was extremely messy, but really fun. Another throwback to childhood, getting to sound funny while talking and laughing and licking taffy off your fingers.
After the balloons, and the cleanup of the balloons, I got a special course. The waiter brought me a little chocolate bon bon with ice cream inside for my birthday. It was a simple and sweet gesture.
The second-to-last course was a sweet take on a savory food: corn. It was a very pretty, sculpted corn-based dessert with white chocolate and honey. Really, just a well executed dessert.
The final course was a milk chocolate tart with a twist. The twist was that it was created at our table and "painted" onto it. The first step was that the waiter brought a silicone mat to cover our entire table. From there, he laid out a bunch of ingredients. When he was done, one of the chefs came out of the kitchen and began throwing things all over the mat. Although he made polite conversation while he did this, he was sort of intimidating.
A little of this, a little of that and suddenly there was a graham cracker crust inside of a pastry ring. From there, he poured liquid chocolate into the ring. To top that off, he added chunks of frozen milk. The milk was super cold, having been frozen in liquid nitrogen, and acted to cool and set the chocolate. While that set, he painted some pretty patterns on the table in cream and violet water. Finally, he topped it with some hazelnut praline and removed the ring. Ta-da! Tart. This went really well with the coffee we had ordered with dessert.
Overall, the experience was amazing. It was fun, funny, pretty, and -- above all -- extremely tasty. On the way out, we got a glimpse into the kitchen, which was huge and spotless. Obviously, the price and the distance prohibits me from many visits to Alinea, but maybe someday I'll get to go back. I would certainly recommend it to anyone else who loves adventurous tasting menus. And hey, they didn't even serve me any internal organs! Take that, Craigie on Main.
As noted above in the post, you can see my complete photo album here.