Alinea – Chicago, IL
My good college buddy Ken and I had wanted to go to Alinea since its opening in 2005. Unfortunately, our circumstances at the time posed two challenges:
1. We were attending college on the West Coast in 2005, and the prospect of flying cross-country to eat a single meal was ludicrous.
2. We couldn’t justify spending several hundred dollars to worship at the temple of Chef Achatz.
Five years later, things still haven’t changed:
1. While no longer in college, I was now working on the West Coast, and the prospect of flying cross-country to eat a single meal was ludicrous
2. I couldn’t justify spending several hundred dollars to worship at the temple of Chef Achatz.
Needless to say, for some reason– call it impulse, poor decision-making, or just plain fiscal irresponsibility, Ken and I decided to splurge and make the pilgrimage anyways. I managed to snag the last available weekend table in October, we invited two other lifelong foodies, and off we went!
I approached Alinea on a Sunday afternoon at 5PM, and remarked at how non-descript the restaurant’s facade was. An interesting contrast for what is currently rated America’s #1 restaurant. Given the length of my meal at Alinea, I’d normally be pressed to condense this post and focus on the highlights of the dinner. However, as I mentally experienced this meal one more time (and keep in mind I’m writing this 3 weeks after the meal), I couldn’t help but document this meal blow-by-blow– nearly every dish was astounding.
Upon sitting down, our server places “flags” and rosemary at our table, which apparently will be used later on in the meal. We were then shown a spread of 3 edible cocktails (L-R below; click photo for larger image). The first consisted of bitters, amaro, and grapefruit and was frozen instantly using an anti-griddle. Strangely enough, it reminded me of an edible negroni. The second had a small piece of apple with brandy, grenadine, and thyme. Edible Jack Rose maybe? The last, which was by far my favorite of the edible cocktails, consisted of cynar, carpano antica, rum, and squash. Lots of squashy, caramely and alcohol-laden goodness all in one bite.
A few moments later, our “cocktails” were whisked away and in their place stood this gorgeous dish: Steelhead Roe with Coconut, Licorice, and Pineapple.
This was incredible– reminiscent of a deconstructed piña colada. The ball is a coconut shell blasted with liquid nitrogen, and the foam and crumbles are made from pineapple. Upon cracking the coconut ball, it started to melt and turn creamy! I ate it quick and savored the contrast of the ball in its initial crispy-crunchy stage and in its melty-creamy stage. The steelhead roe provided a nice salty kick, and the pineapple added sweetness. This dish was incredible, and a great sign of the quality we’d be experiencing next…
The third course of the night consisted of dried yuba stick (yuba is tofu skin I think?) coiled with a raw sweet shrimp and dusted with all sorts of stuff (I spy togarashi! hehe). Finally the entire stick rests in a container of sweet miso dressing, which doubles as the stick holder.
WHOAH this was good! Tasted like junk food laced with crack! Doesn’t sound or look like much but the yuba was perfectly crispy just like the best potato chips. It was sweet, salty, and spicy all at once, and the soft clean-flavored shrimp provided a nice contrast to the crunchy junk food flavor overload. In a perfect world, I’d be able to buy humongous family-sized bags of these at my local Ralph’s. Until then, Salt and Vinegar Kettle Chips will have to do.
Along with the yuba stick came a small sugarcane with bits of chili, peanut, and other things on top. This was Chef Achatz’s attempt at distilling Thai flavors into one bite. We were instructed to chew then spit onto a provided napkin. In addition to the chili and peanut, I tasted lemongrass and fish sauce… but unfortunately the sweetness of the sugarcane overpowered everything.
The following dish was a strong contender for best dish of the night. Too bad my photos of it suck. Basically this was Achatz’s successful attempt at recreating fall. The edible parts of this dish are in the smaller bowl. Surrounding it are leaves, hay, and all sorts of stuff related to fall. Our server pours boiling water into the large plate and the rising steam smells just like fall! This might sound pretentious or gimmicky, but it really did remind me of my childhood days spent in Vancouver– autumn was always my favorite season with all the gorgeous maple leaves.
Inside the smaller bowl was a medley of maitake mushrooms, lentils, squash, apples, chestnuts, and other things. Everything was perfectly cooked, and it really felt like you foraging around the wilderness for food! Bits of mushroom here, bacon-infused lentils there… except this time, everything tasted ridiculously awesome.
The halibut below was another contender for best dish of the night! At this point, I was shocked at the level of quality Alinea had brought to the table thus far! According to our server, this was a study in “white’. Everything was white, so visually it was hard to figure out what was what. Upon smelling the dish, we did guess correctly that there were parsnips and vanilla in the dish. Underneath is a fillet of halibut along with some mushrooms, coffee crumbly bits, and other things. Very tasty, with sweet, bitter, and salty flavors all at once.
This dish (photo to the right) came to the table with the leaves BURNING. Yep– again the smell was meant to invoke thoughts of autumn. Trapped between the wires is pheasant stuffed with grape jelly and walnuts on the outside. Taken in one bite without any utensils, this dish reminded me of thanksgiving turkey with cranberry jelly.
In a few moments, a contraption is placed in front of us, and we are instructed to build this X-shaped metal structure. Looks like some sort of modern torture device to me! We then lay those flags they gave us at the beginning of the meal on the X, and our server places some braised beef inside. Turns out the flags were made of tomato and roasted garlic! Finally, we are given a tray of condiments upon which we can feel free to build our own “burrito”. I ended up dumping all the condiments into my wrap, but of particular note was the blackberry, smoked maldon sea salt, roasted onions, and charred garlic.
Surprisingly, the resulting “wrap” was very tasty! The smoked sea salt added fantastic flavor and texture (really crunchy!) and even the blackberry added a nice sweetness. I told one of my dining companions that I felt a false sense of accomplishment from assembling such a tasty dish, and she just looked at me and gave me the “you are such a loser” head shake haha.
The photo below is AFTER I ate one of Alinea’s signature dishes, Hot Potato Cold Potato. Due to the inherent temperature differences in the dish, my server explicitly told me not to take a picture of this dish and eat it right away!
Essentially this dish starts with a wax bowl that is pierced with a pin on which a truffle topped potato and parmesan cheese hover over the hot potato soup. To eat, one pulls the pin through the wax releasing the truffle, potato and cheese into the hot soup completing the dish and perfectly intertwining the hot soup and cold portions. The truffle flavor was intense here, and along with the potato and cheese made for a very comforting luxurious bite. This is the dish looks like before getting eaten.
Another contender for dish of the night! This dish was an ode to Auguste Escoffier, one of the most celebrated granddaddy French chefs of all time. This dish was an exact recreation of one of his recipes. It was stupendous!
This dish had an impossibly flaky buttery crust, juicy pigeon breast, quenelles of pigeon forcemeat, and a paste that tasted like liquid caramelized onions.
This was served with silverware, plates, and glasses from that era as well. It was an interesting contrast to have such a traditional dish served in the midst of so many modern avant-garde dishes. Along with the traditional silverware, I believe Chef Achatz is illustrating the passage of time and its effect on both the food and even how we consume it. This dish requires one to eat it with a knife and fork whereas both the preceding and succeeding dishes require neither.
Black Truffle Explosion– this was the dish I was looking forward to the most. Housemade black truffle juice encapsulated in a ravioli topped with parmesan cheese and wilted romaine lettuce. Pop it in your mouth and the whole thing explodes with truffle liquidy goodness. Achatz’s version of Xiao Long Bao!
Note the side view to show just how much truffle juice was encapsulated!
Another one of Alinea’s signature dishes: bacon, butterscotch, thyme, apple ribbons. A friend once called this dish bacon on a sex swing! In any case despite whatever images are conjured in its presentation, it was a nice dish but nothing to write home about. A good transition from the savory dishes to dessert I suppose. Bacon with butterscotch and apple ribbons; accompanied with liquid caramel popcorn (the white stuff in the glass) and pineapple-cherry “glass”. Everything tastes just like it sounds.
Unfortunately, I’m totally blanking out on this dish. I suppose we can assume it was one of the few misses at Alinea. This was also succeeded by a trio of lamb, which I forgot to take pictures of– it was another uninteresting dish, and this is coming from a devout lamb lover!
The savories had come to an end– we were now presented with a strange looking tube. Our server mentioned it was a glass tube filled with hibiscus, vanilla, and tapioca cooked in bubbleyum stock! Instructions: suck it up all in one go!
This was surprisingly yummy– the vanilla and hibiscus went very well together, and the bubblegum flavor at the end – not overly sweet at all- did a good job of rounding everything out. Interesting, the bubblegum flavor left a nostalgic aftertaste… and reminded me of elementary school and chomping on as much bazooka bubblegum as I could :)
The final dessert of the evening was composed of nitro chocolate ice cream, chocolate mousse, bits of honey pannacotta, dried apricots, and peanuts.
We took a sneak peek into the kitchen– that’s Chef Achatz over there plating a dish.
As I finished up my meal at Alinea, I can’t help but admire what Chef Grant Achatz has accomplished. Alinea is certainly one of the most important restaurants of our time. Not merely progressive and avant-garde but important.
While other restaurants can go head-to-head with Alinea in terms of technical prowess, creativity, and molecular gastronomy (WD-50), only a handful of restaurants in the world can harness those skills and use it to elevate the food and the entire dining experience. Early critics of Alinea mentioned it was simply a “dinner and show”, with the meal relying on theatrics to entertain and the food ultimately a mediocre afterthought.
While this is just my first time to Alinea (and hopefully not my last!), it is evident the restaurant has progressed so far from that. The food is clearly paramount; the flavors were truly memorable, and some of the dishes (the halibut for example) would not feel out of place at a more traditional fine dining establishment like The French Laundry.
And that’s exactly why I believe Alinea is one of the most important restaurants of our time: it breaks the faulty preconceptions of molecular gastronomy and proves that it isn’t some novelty whiz-bang crutch needed to entertain jaded diners. Given Alinea’s proven foundation in making truly delicious food, the whimsical presentation and food pyrotechnics actually enhance the overall experience and remind the diner to have fun!
1723 N Halsted St
Chicago, Illinois 60614