30 days before my trip to Chicago I got extremely excited. I had scored a reservation for two at San Pellegrino’s best restaurant in North America (#7 in the world) Alinea. A meal at Alinea is one of the few things that were truly on my bucket list. I had followed just about everything that Chef Grant Achatz had done in the past few years. From his lectures at Harvard to you tube videos to reading his (auto)biography Life on the Line. I was more than excited to experience this ground breaking restaurant for myself.
What do you say about eating at Alinea that hasn’t already been said?
Suffice to say, I had high expectations for the food, service, and experience. In fact, I had concerns that. O matter how good everything was, that it might not live up to the hype I had built up in my own head.
SPOILER: I was blown away.
My dinner “date”, Mr. Lou Bank, picked me up just before 9pm (our reservation was for 9:30… Anyone (including chef Achatz) will tell you that eating late at Alinea is less than ideal. With around 20 courses, a 9:30 start time means you’ll be finishing in the early morning hours. When you’re only in Chicago for a few days you take what reservation you can get.
We arrived at Alinea just after 9 and while our coats were checked, we had an opportunity to watch the kitchen. I had just finnished my two day stage at Graham Elliot’s restaurant, and been very impressed with how smoothly the kitchen operated. Alinea was on a whole other level…
The kitchen was made up of two long tables with people working from either side of each table. I estimate around 25 chefs all together in the kitchen, each one quietly preparing plates with tweezers, liquid nitrogen, and other fun things. You could sense the precision from a distance. The most jaw dropping thig I observed in the kitchen was that when the exposé would call in an order, “Now seating two” the entire kitchen (I mean ENTIRE kitchen, even the dishwashers) would reply in unison: “TWO!” **
**there’s no need to call what the table orders at Alinea because there is only one option, the tasting menu.
When we were sat at our table, we had some discussion about the basketball sized block of ice with two test tube sized holes drilled in it. They were filled with a dark blood colored liquid. Lou didn’t believe the block was ice until he touched its cold surface.
The meal began to come out… It was fabulous- the courses were balanced, engaging, and at times, challenging. It truly was a restaurant experience like no other…
CHAR ROE. carrot, coconut, curry.
After the amuse was Chef Achatz’s interpretation of a raw seafood platter…. four courses served on a long piece of drift wood draped in kelp.
OYSTER LEAF. Mignonette.
KING CRAB. Passion Fruit, Hearts of Palm, Allspice.
SEA URCHIN. Banana, Truffle.
RAZOR CLAM. Shiso, Soy, Dikon.
Next up a short detour to Japan.
YUBA. Shrimp, Miso, Togarashi.
Some courses forced you to build the service ware, others (that big block of ice) required you to stand up slightly at the table to consume the beet and hibiscus juice (that resembled blood). Even the simplest course was wildly engaging- a family style fish course with Italian flavors inspired by Chef Achatz’s recent R&D trip to Italy for his other restaurant NEXT.
SCALLOP. Acting like agedashi tofu.***
The dashi for this dish was brewed at the table in a vacuum coffee pot- pretty cool!
The service was impeccable- but approachable, the waiters were casual and joking but precise. But even the best make mistakes- as far as I can tell the single mistake made –across 20 courses– ***was a garnish on the scallop dish that must have slipped on its way from the kitchen to our table… At least we know the team at Alinea is at least part human;)
The next dish was served on one of Martin Kassner’s customer service pieces… the bit of food on the end of the “antennae” was difficult to photograph and eat… but fun none the less!
WOLLY PIG. Fennel, Orange, Squid.
ICE. Beet, Hibiscus, Licorice.
The next family style course was a weclome departure to the “standard” Alinea plating… interestingly it was as engaging as the rest of the meal as Lou and I passed plates around and served ourselves.
SCUP. Caponatta, Mint, Panella.
One of Lou’s favorite dishes was next:
HOT POTATO. Cold Potato, Black Truffle, Butter.
The next course uses one of Achatz’s signature moves: the plate is places on top of a pillow filled with arromatic air. The scent made Lou say, “We’re in Oregon forraging for mushrooms!” it was a stunning addition to the meal – not gimmickey at all.
WILD MUSHROOMS. Juniper, Sumac, Shallot.
This was what I call the “IKEA” course.
VENISON. Red Cabbage, Mustard, Paprika.
My favorite course!
BLACK TRUFFLE. Explosion, Romaine, Parmesan.
SQUAB. Inspired by Miro.
CHESTNUT. Veal Heart, Quince, Root Vegetables.
APPLE. Onion, Brie, Smoking Cinnamon.
Most Innovative dish of the night…
WINTER. In New Hampshire.
Albino Hot Chocolate.
LEMON GRASS. Papaya, Thai Basil, Finger Lime.
DARK CHOCOLATE. Butternut Squash. Lingonberry. Stout.
This meal exceeded every possible expectation I could have had. It will be the meal that I judge all others on… If you have the opportunity to dine at Alinea, DO! You will NOT be disappointed!