What exactly can one say about Alinea? It was simply the best meal of my life. Most of the time I had no idea what I was eating exactly, but the flavors were like a harmonious symphony in my mouth. I don’t mean to sound cheesy or poetic, but the dishes were indescribable. Sure, you can read the descriptions from the menu, but most of it doesn’t sound appetizing (tobacco and maple syrup? Lilac pillows?). Believe me, they absolutely worked together, each component playing off one another.
When we decided that we would make the trip to Chicago for Josh’s coworker’s wedding, I had Josh call up Alinea first to try and get a reservation. That dictated which day we would head to Chicago, and I ended up taking a day off from work just to have this meal. We asked some of our other friends who were also attending the wedding if they wanted to join in, and one by one we added to the reservation until we hit six, the maximum table size. I was very happy with our dinner company, as they were all people who appreciated good food and good wine, and they helped make the whole experience such a wonderful time.
We took a cab into the city for dinner and hit a lot of traffic on the way. We called Alinea to make sure they knew, and they held our table without any issue. When the cab pulled up in front of a of nondescript building with no markings, I thought to myself, this is it?
Someone asked if we were going to Alinea, we said yes, and were then led into the building, down a groovy-looking hallway with bright pink lights, and finally into the main part of the restaurant.
Strange hallway leading into the restaurant
The restaurant was not what I was expecting, with multiple rooms on different levels and classically decorated. I guess I was expecting something a bit more modern, with more glass and steel and weird decorations, but nevertheless, the room that we were seated in was beautiful and comfortable.
Beautifully decorated dining room
We had opted for the shorter tasting menu (you have to let them know if you’re doing the tasting or the tour when you make the reservation), and one of our servers described a wine pairing that we couldn’t pass up. Basically, we were in their hands the whole evening, and it was a smart choice. They didn’t give us a menu before the meal, so every course was basically a surprise. There were courses that I had read about beforehand, but like I said earlier, the descriptions don’t even begin to give you an inkling of what is to come.
For most courses, there was a bread pairing and wine pairing, both of which complemented whatever dish we were having. The sommelier would explain each wine and tell us something about its origins or its history.
Aquavit and champagne cocktails to start off our evening
It was truly an experience, taking a bite of food, then taking a bite of food with the bread, and taking a bite of food with the wine. With every bite you discovered something new and a flavor you hadn’t identified before. We talked a lot in between courses, but while the food was in front of us, all I heard were noises of appreciation and all I saw were people with silly satisfied grins on their faces.
But enough of my blathering, here are pictures of all the courses.
Roes with "traditional" garnishes (i.e., bread and butter foam and caper jelly)
Pork belly with iceberg and cucumber, thai distillation (in the shot glass)
Part 1 - White asparagus soup with arugula, white pepper, and honey flakes
Part 2 - the glass containing the white asparagus soup is lifted, spilling the contents in the bowl
Lilac pillows with scallop, shellfish, and honeydew
Hot soft shell crab with carrot, five spice, and duck
Part 1 - Cold blue crab with carrot, five spice, and duck
Part 2 - digging through the layers of the cold blue crab course
Black truffle explosion with romaine and parmesan
In preparation for the next course, they poured water into a vase that contained dry ice, which released steam that smelled like rosemary and grill smoke
The aroma of the grill accompanied this dish, wagyu beef with powdered A-1, potato, and chips
Close up of the powdered A-1, potato, and beef
Bacon on a swing with butterscotch, apple, and thyme
Yogurt ball with pomegranate and cassia
Bubble gum in a tube with long pepper, hibiscus, and creme fraiche
Lavender air pillows for the next dessert
Rhubarb with goat milk and onion on top of the lavender air pillows (so that the scent released while you ate the dish)
Frozen chocolate mousse with blueberry, tobacco, and maple
Sweet potato with bourbon and brown sugar on a smoldering cinnamon stick
Overall the meal was absolutely incredible. I did like some courses more than others, but it was a complete experience. The service was extremely attentive, but not overbearing. It was kind of amusing at times though. For example, they obviously clean up the bathroom every time someone goes in, as every time I went the toilet paper was folded into a triangle point, and there was no trash or used cloth hand towels in the waste baskets. Everything was clean and precise, just like the food.
Our main waiter was fabulous and very informative. One member of our party, Kevin, who has a blog about his experiments with sous vide, asked many technical questions, such as the temperature of the water for some meat components, and the waiter was able to answer easily, or would go to the kitchen and find out the answer for us. He could see that we were truly interested in the process behind the food that we were eating, and I think it was because of our appreciation that they gave us an extra course, the truffle explosion, which is not normally on the tasting menu. He also recommended that if we were to come back, we should go during the fall as the menu is seasonal, and the fall always has the best ingredients, in his opinion.
At the end of the meal, they presented us each with a copy of our menu for the evening, including the wine pairings. On the menu, the size and shade of the bubbles, as well as their orientation left and right, mean different things. The size of the bubble refers to the size of the portion (small bubble = small tasting portion, etc.). The shade of the bubble refers to the intensity of flavor for the dish (darker bubble = more intense flavor, etc.). The orientation of the bubble refers to how sweet or savory the dish is (bubble closer to the right side = sweeter dish, etc.).
As an extra special treat to cap off the wonderful evening, we were allowed to make a trip into the kitchen to watch the chefs hard at work. The kitchen was a bright, wide open space, and everything was done quietly and with precision. Chef Grant Achatz was there, presiding over it all. He not only plated a lot of the dishes himself, but he also checked every plate that left the kitchen. However, he still made time to come over to us gawking in the corner and greeted everyone with a handshake. We couldn’t do anything but gush at him in awe of the experience we just had.
Everyone hard at work in the pristine kitchen
Chef Grant Achatz concentrating on plating
Chef Achatz inspecting a plate before it goes out
This really was the meal of a lifetime, and I would happily come back, despite the expense. The wine pairing cost almost as much as the tasting menu, but was absolutely worth it. The wines each varied greatly, as did the dishes, and ordering just one or two bottles to cover all courses would not have done the meal justice. I sincerely hope that I will have the opportunity to eat at Alinea a few more times during my lifetime.
1723 North Halsted