Ever since reading an excellent New Yorker piece on Grant Achatz, well maybe even before, I have dreamed of trying Alinea. But travel to Chicago, reservations, and the ticket price made it just that – a dream. Now that we live in the area it has been a real possibility but we needed a proper occasion to celebrate. Lucky for me, I am celebrating a major birthday this month and G surprised me with a reservation!
You arrive to an unmarked doorway and walk down a darkened hall, just as you begin to wonder where you are going a door opens to your left and you are greeted by a host. The man in a dark suit welcomed us rather and wished me a ‘Happy Birthday!’ I was distracted watching the flurry of activity in the kitchen, which is to the right as you enter. There were about 30 people working in the pristine and sparkling glass walled area. We were seated upstairs in a space for about 12 people. The restaurant was larger than expected but nicely divided up into smaller rooms with a small army of people staffing each room and waiting on guests hand and foot!
The décor is modern, sleek, minimalist, and dark. The bare black wooden tables are paired with ivory leather chairs. The room is back lit with lighting coming from behind the black banquet seating. The artwork and decorations are similarly clean lined and minimalist.
We sat for a minute or two taking in the ambience and décor before our waiter came by to greet us. He explained that they wanted to surprise us with each dish of the 18 course tasting menu so we would only receive a list of courses at the end of the meal. He also mentioned that the offer wine pairings, a regular and reserve option, and, off course, a complete wine list. We opted to go for the regular pairings so that we didn’t have to bother making any decisions and were completely in the hands of the Alinea staff.
The sommelier came over and said we would start with champagne and asked if that would be ok with us, if it wasn’t, he joked, we might not enjoy the rest of our meal! I appreciated his comfortable, jovial tone. We started with a Pierre Paillard Grand Cru Blanc de Noirs Bouzy NV. As we sipped, our first course of osetra caviar garnished with brioche foam, egg custard, and a clear aspic of capers and onions arrived. It was such a wonderful sensory experience with the smell and taste of brioche and the creamy texture of the custard.
For the second course they placed a basket made of twigs on the table and said that we were to find our next course in it! He did offer a hint that we were looking for a jerky. It turned out that the jerky was softer than the twigs so we were able to find our pieces easily. In the surprise of having a basket of twigs placed in front of me, I failed to hear that the jerky was made out of salsify, which the waiter later explained is a root vegetable similar to carrot or parsnip. It had a slight sweetness and saltiness. Mainly it was fun to search for our food and be chomping on jerky!
With the third course the waiter asked us to put out our non-dominant hand (which I had to think about), then he placed a beautiful ‘napkin’ plate in my hand and recommended that we eat the dish holding the plate. It was a delicate combination of skate, brown butter, lemon, and herbs. The dish also included a bit of bread crumbs which added a fantastic little crunch. The brown butter and the bread crumb combination brought me back to my childhood. My mother used to make clarified butter, ghee, at home and at the bottom of the pot was the slightly browned milk solids which we used to enjoy and was exactly what this dish reminded me of! It was paired with Johannishof Charta Riesling Rheingau 2012.
The fourth course was one of my favorites. We were each brought what looked like a slab of concrete. One the concrete were three other pieces of ‘concrete’ with a little flower peeking through. The waiter explained that it was supposed to remind us of the streets of Chicago in the spring with weeds and flowers coming up through the cracks. Then he said, as he pumped air into a spray can, “What would Chicago be without some graffiti?” and he went on to spray the concrete, and most of the table, with a bright orange carrot oil. It was fantastic and hilarious! But, more importantly, the dish was delicious! The ‘concrete’ was black truffle meringue which was hiding a salad of fava beans – such an elegant combination. It was served with Hirsch ‘Renner’ Grüner Veltliner Kamptal 2013 which was a new grape to us but we enjoyed the fresh citrus flavors of this wine.
The fifth course was so elegant. It was a dish of gurnard fish with white pepper, Vietnamese coriander, and broccoli. The delicate pieces of fish were served on a slat of wood from a bourbon barrel which was then used to make bourbon maple syrup. Honestly, the highlight of this dish for me was the broccoli. I loved the way the florets were broken up to give a delicate, crumbly, texture. Then the steams were shaved thin and just blanched to provide a nice light crispness to the dish. This dish was served with Domaine Bernard Defaix “Côte de Lechet” 1er Cru Chablis 2012.
The sixth course was sunchoke with hazelnut brittle and white truffle vinegar. The earthy, nuttiness of the sunchoke paired well with the earthiness of the white truffle vinegar and the sweetness of the brittle. It was one of the more ‘simple’ dishes of the evening. It was paired with a Liquid Farm “Golden Slope” Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills 2012, which might have been my favorite wine of the evening. It had a great lemony sweetness which, surprisingly, was a nice compliment to the earthiness of the dish.
The seventh course involved what we thought was decoration. When we were seated a bundle of herbs and vegetables was hanging above the table. Little did we know they were going to be part of our meal! A kettle of broth was brought to our table and the bundle was added. While it was steeping, we were served a Cantine Tramin ‘Nussbaumer’ Gewürztraminer 2013. The infused broth was then poured into a dish with eggplant, banana, cocoa, and curry with fried lentils. The dish had a lot of South Asian flavors with mustard seeds and curry.
The eighth course was a trio of small bites inspired by Thai dishes. We were asked to eat them in the order they were presented. The first as crab, rice, green curry and cilantro. Mind you, while it has all those flavors it didn’t have any of the typical textures, it was a creamy, smooth bite. The second was tamarind, young coconut, nam prik num. This too was a flavorful smooth bite. My favorite of the three was the Siam Sunray which is inspired by a Thai drink and included lemongrass, chili, and soda. It was a little effervescent burst of flavor. It made me smile as it tickled my mouth!
The ninth and tenth courses were presented together. We were presented a pile of coal which was lit on fire and next to the flame was a pine branch skewer of hamachi and shishito pepper. We were told that it could be eaten raw or grilled on the flames. We opted for raw. The hamachi was simply perfect and melted in my mouth. But, I was surprised by something in the bite that had some spice. I am not sure if it was the shishito pepper or something else that was added. We were also given a small cup of maitake, lobster, dashi, and shiso. This was such an elegantly balanced little dish. Both of these bites were paired with Perennial Artisan Ales “Saison de Lis” Belgian Style Ale with Chamomile. It was a nice departure from the wines and was a perfect match for these dishes.
As the waiter came to take away the coals, he began to ‘unwrap’ a couple of pieces and plate those as our eleventh course! It was so fun to watch the drama unfold. The two pieces that came out of the flames were a charred parsnip and pork belly which were cut and plated with black trumpet mushrooms and kombu. The dish itself was comparatively straightforward (of course delicious!). This was paired with La Clarine Farm “Sumu Kaw Vineyard” Syrah Sierra Foothills 2012.
The twelfth course was hot potato, cold potato, black truffle butter. It is apparently a classic dish which has been on the menu for some time and it is clear why. You are given a small bowl with a cold potato soup. A small pin is driven into the side of the bowl to which a piece of hot potato which has been sautéed in butter, a slice of black truffle, and chive a skewered. You are instructed to quickly pull the pin out allowing the ingredients to drop into the cold soup and gulp it all down in one bite. It is a sensational experience! The contrast of hot and cold temperatures emphasizes the rich, buttery, silky textures.
The thirteenth course was the last of the savory courses and was rabbit with morel, ramp, mastic. It was a beautiful forest of flavors, with a perfectly prepared rabbit confit. Unfortunately, I was getting so full at this stage of the menu that I was only really able to try a small taste of this dish. It was paired with a Marchesi Biscardi Amarone della Valpolicella 2009.
The first of the sweet courses was a palate cleanser, a frozen distillation of dark chocolate. The waiter placed a bowl of ice with a white sorbet on top and said it was dark chocolate. It was difficult to believe that the clean white sorbet would taste of chocolate, but it did! It was a fantastically refreshing and yet rich and chocolaty.
The fifteenth course of the night was quince, almond, grapefruit, and oxalis. The dry ice kept the luscious creamy quince cream at the perfect temperature. The accompanying almond and grapefruit cubes added a great texture and tartness to the sweet cream. It was lovely! It was served with a Château Pajzos Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2006.
The next course the waiter brought us each a helium balloon and told us we could eat it. In fact, if we were to do it correctly we would even be able to inhale the helium. Off course, I was too busy laughing to do anything but G did manage to get a few high pitched words in. Such fun! The balloon itself was green apple flavored taffy.
The final course of the evening was tropical fruit with rum, vanilla, and kaffir lime. The wait staff helped us clear the table and covered it with a silicone table cloth. While we sipped on the final wine of the evening, Dandelion Vineyards “Legacy of the Barossa” Pedro Ximénex NV, several small dishes were placed on our table. Next thing we know one of the chefs from the kitchen is artistically placing the contents of these small dishes all over the table, including dark chocolate and mango sauces, passion fruit, cherry and watermelon fruit pieces, among others. Finally, a white sphere of dehydrated coconut smashed in the middle of the table. It was a carnival of tropical fruit! The texture of the coconut sphere was incredible as each bite delicately melted in your mouth.
The entire evening was a dining adventure. Each dish was an exploration of textures and flavors. It was what I had hoped for and expected when I dreamed of dining at Alinea. But, what really made it a fantastic experience was how purely fun it was! I laughed throughout the meal as I was surprised and awed by the way the food manipulated my senses and expectations. It truly was unlike any other meal I have had!
1723 N Halsted St.
Chicago, IL 60614