Often lauded as the best restaurant in North America by various publications since its opening in 2005, Alinea is a world-wide culinary destination. To dine at Alinea is an all-encompassing sensory experience packaged in the form of a meal that is as much theatre as it is dinner - call it dinner-theatre. Not a single element has escaped the scrutiny of chef Grant Achatz; every component on every plate, every gesture made by the impeccably dressed front of house staff has been calculated and designed to produce an impact, a reaction, a "wow" - everything for a reason.
The accolades that Alinea and chef Achatz himself have received are far too many to enumerate, but a few noteworthy ones include being Chicago's only Michelin 3-Star restaurant and having been consistently ranked on "The World's 50 Best Restaurants" list every year since 2007 (top ten every year since 2009).
While each of the restaurants we visited in Chicago were worth the trip, Alinea was the catalyst, the destination that established our journey. Our expectations were high, leaving disappointed was never a consideration. Dressed in our best (Alinea enforces a strict dress code) we arrived by taxi from our hotel to a clandestine charcoal-grey building in a relatively unremarkable neighborhood. We exited the taxi and approached the door where we were greeted by two gentlemen who confirmed our reservation on an iPad before granting us access.
Upon entering we're plunged into a long dark hallway with a very dim blue light, to our left we find a small metal washtub on a pedestal. Floating in the washtub half-full of circulating water are stemless, round-bottomed glasses each containing no more than a sip or two of ice-cold lemonade. As we sip our lemonade, the sound of a wind chime at the end of the hallway beckons us to approach it, the hallway gets progressively narrower as we proceed. The ground beneath us is soft and the smell of freshly cut grass permeates the air, unable to resist the urge we bend down to touch the floor; sure enough, it's real grass - indoors. You only have one chance to make a first impression, Alinea does not take that opportunity lightly. We were rapidly falling down the rabbit-hole apparently becoming the "Alice" to chef Achatz's "Wonderland". We reach the end of the hallway where we're startled by a sliding door that whisks open without warning to reveal a dapper gentleman waiting to usher us to our table. Ignoring the kitchen swarming with activity to our right on the ground floor was like trying to avoid staring at an accident on the highway as you creep past in traffic but the maitre d' who greeted us insisted that we follow him up the staircase to our table. He ensured us that we would have the opportunity to take a longer look on our way out - watching too long upon entering might ruin a surprise or two in store.
We were seated on the second floor in a stark room that felt more like a museum than a dining room. All the walls are white, there is no music, even the sparse artwork on the walls is displayed on canvas without frames. You could hear a pin drop despite there being several other couples already eating, to be honest at first it felt awkward, up-tight and uncomfortable. Thankfully, our apprehension was rapidly alleviated and we began to feel more at ease when the friendly waiter and sommelier introduced themselves, their demeanor was at once formal and professional but pleasant and congenial. After confirming that we didn't have any allergies or dietary restrictions to be considered by the kitchen we were offered the choice of a wine pairing and told that a printed copy of the set, 15 course tasting menu would only be presented to us at the end of our meal so that everything remained a surprise. The perfectly paced 4½ hour meal that followed was innovative and playful, elegant and awe-inspiring all at once; to call it unforgettable would be an understatement.
Prix Fixe Menu - 210$
Steelhead Roe, Coconut, Curry, Yuzu
For the second course, four singular bites of seafood are each seasoned uniquely and served back in the shell from which they came. The shells are then nestled in amongst the seaweed that covers the soaking wet piece of driftwood it's all served on. In an instant, the scent transports you from a dining room in Chicago to an early morning at the beach in New England. Once finished, as one waiter cleans the water from the table left behind by the seaweed and driftwood, another waiter arrives with the contraption in the photos below, sets up a bunsen burner beneath it and leaves without offering an explanation.
Oyster Leaf, Mignonette
King Crab, Passion Fruit, Heart of Palm, Allspice
Lobster, Carrot, Chamomile
Clam, XO, Coriander Seed
With the mystery contraption still gurgling away in the background, our waiter returns with our next course. At Alinea, if chef Achatz considers conventional dinnerware to be less than the ideal means of presenting one of his culinary creations, an implement that he feels will enhance the dish in question is conceptualized and commissioned to be fabricated; our waiter calls this one "The Antenna". We are instructed not to use our hands, instead he asks us to lean forward and with our mouths, pluck the bite from a skewer that has been rigged in a counterbalance on the table.
Wooly Pig, Fennel, Orange, Squid
Scallop Acting Like Agedashi Tofu
Otoro, Thai Banana, Sea Salt, Kaffir Lime
Burn Morels, Ramps, Fiddlehead Fern
In this dish, titled "Hot Potato Cold Potato" soup is served in a small wax dish with a needle poking through it. As you remove the needle pulling it downwards, the butter, potato, truffle and chive fall into the soup and you shoot it back in one swig. The play on hot and cold in this dish has a spectacular effect adding to the sumptuousness of the truffle and the buttery soup. Our waiter advised us that this dish was extremely time sensitive, so we skipped the picture. Luckily our friend Mayssam who writes the blog Will Travel For Food graciously allowed us to use this photo that she took during her own visit to Alinea.
Hot Potato, Cold Potato, Black Truffle, Butter
Braised lamb shank, a pinwheel of lamb belly and blushing pink lamb tenderloin were served along side a glass plate with 60 different mystery condiments. The endless possibilities of pairing each bite of lamb with any combination of the provided condiments ensures that each diner experiences this course in their own unique way. Serving only a single bite of each accompaniment also becomes a game, whatever you choose is no longer available for your dining companion. This dish was as playful and engaging as it was delicious.
The truffle explosion is a single raviolo served directly on a spoon. At first glance you think that the black beneath the spoon is a truffle sauce, but it's actually the table! The dish has no bottom, they call it the "anti-plate" - pretty clever. Your waiter instructs you to eat this dish with your lips sealed much like the directions some Montrealers would recognize from the cromesquis de foie gras at Au Pied de Cochon. When the stuffed pasta bursts, your mouth is flooded with an intensely truffle-flavored liquid. Nothing short of the word luxurious would accurately describe this dish, we felt it was without question one of our favorites, if not the favorite course of the meal.
Black Truffle Explosion
Squab Inspired by Miro
What we interpreted to be the cheese course was brie and anjou pear deep fried in a light and crispy batter. The dish was served in another custom-made implement called "The Squid". A smoldering cinnamon stick was inserted into the fried ball so that it could be eaten like a lollipop. While we loved the flavor and texture of this dish, we couldn't help but feel that due to one element, it was the only course that lacked the same attention to detail exemplified by the rest of the meal. Earlier in our meal when the couple beside us reached this course, the smell of the burning cinnamon that spread to our table was a bit of a hinderance to the dish we were eating, we couldn't help but feel that this might be the case for others as we reached this course of our own meal.
Anjou Pear, Onion, Brie, Smoking Cinnamon
The ginger course was the only dish we can frankly say we felt was unimpressive. Five brunoise sized cubes of various forms of ginger were served skewered on needles that were individually removable from the base they were secured in. It looked impressive but that was about it, the powerful flavor of the ginger left a lingering flavor when we gather that its intended purpose was to be the palate cleansing course. The concept works well with pickled ginger when eating sushi, but unfortunately a little less so here.
Blueberry, Buttermilk, Sorrel, Macadamia
Without questions the most entertaining course of the night was the green apple balloons. Our waiter arrived holding two floating balloons with tweezers, each balloon was tied to a nail that prevented it from floating away when they were set on the table. We were told to lean forward and kiss the balloons, when we did they popped and stuck to our lips. Everything was edible including the string, it tasted like green apple with a sticky texture similar to a super thin fruit roll-up.
Balloon, Helium, Green Apple
For the grand finale, a silicon table cloth was rolled out and the mise en place required to prepare dessert was left on the edge of the table. As luck would have it, chef Achatz himself stood by our table-side and created dessert directly on the silicon table cloth. It begins with a white chocolate egg full of goodies that are instantly frozen as he pours liquid nitrogen over them all, the frozen cubes of melon were absolutely incredible. Watch the video of the dessert being prepared below.
Stay tuned for post 3 in our 6 part series spotlighting the restaurants we visited while in Chicago, Next up: Topolobampo. Or view our previous Chicago post: The Publican
1723 North Halsted