Alinea, the Latin word for that funky little symbol (¶) indicating the need for a new paragraph, is at the forefront of the molecular gastronomy movement, which re-imagines familiar foods in stunningly innovative ways. It was founded by Grant Achatz who is widely regarded as one of the most creative chefs in the world. A man who began by washing dishes and flipping burgers in a little restaurant in Michigan went on to overcome stage four tongue cancer and ultimately to become one of the top chefs in the world. And if that short story isn't inspiring, I will tell you what is -- everything about his restaurant. As the only restaurant in Chicago to be awarded 3 stars by the 2013 Michelin Guide, this restaurant has accumulated many other accolades such as being rated number 15 on San Pellegrino's 2013 list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants and number 4 on Bon Appetit's 2013 list of the Most Important Restaurants in America.
Breath-taking and fantastical, this restaurant embodies all that any upscale restaurant should aspire to be. And with that, I'd like to take you through my magical journey to Alinea from beginning to end.
It all began with the reservation process, which is unlike any other reservation I've ever made. I was required to log on to the reservation system and purchase tickets in multiples of two up to four months in advance. I paid for the tasting menu, tax, and gratuity up front, which is nonrefundable. My two tickets for a Friday night cost nearly $600. Beverages are not included.
During the months following the ticket purchase, I began my obsession with Alinea. Watching every video I could find of Grant Achatz and the restaurant including the amazing "Intro" video, it soon became the most anticipated meal of my life.
So on the day of our reservation, Zach and I flew into Chicago with the highest of hopes. We took a cab over to the address, which revealed a subtle, unmarked brick building.
Then, as soon as they opened the doors, we were transported into the magical world that is Alinea. "Ah," I thought, "we have arrived." Passing through a fragrant array of dried flowers and vases that hung in the dark, mystical hallway on the way to restaurant, we began to experience Chef's focus on recreating memories through the sense of smell. Once we approached the end of the hallway, the automatic doors parted and opened silently, exposing the restaurant and the servers who would be hosting us throughout the night.
We were seated in the small room on the first floor across from the kitchen in the two-story restaurant. The first decision we had to make was regarding the beverages -- a bottle of wine or the pairing. We decided to go with the pairing. Next, we had to decide whether we'd go with the standard wine selection for $150 per person or the reserve for $250 per person. At this point, we figured why not go for the gold -- the reserve selection, please. As far as the menu, they assured us that they maintained the same flavor profiles in the vegan version of this menu so our experience wouldn't vary much from the other guests. And with that, the orchestrated performance began.
The 14-course meal started off with a delightful cucumber bite paired with Pierre Gimonnet Blancs des Blancs Brut 2005.
Course number two was an unusual salad made with celery root, cherry blossom, smoke, edamame, and wasabi paired with Monchhof "Urzig Wurtzgarten" Reisling Kabinett, Mosel 2011.
Course number three was really when the "wow" factor began. As they pulled the cover off the dish, smoke from liquid nitrogen spilled out all over the table creating a misty effect as they exposed an entree made of hollowed out green papaya with lemongrass, citrus aromas, and "14 textures." They never really revealed everything in any dish. But the white powdery stuff that had been frozen with nitrogen was made of kelp, coconut, and sea salt and had an amazing oceany taste. Now, we were impressed.
Next, they presented a squash blossom that had been flattened and deep fried so that it looked like a leaf served with cauliflower puffs, saffron sauce, and cotton candy. This small, yet mighty dish presented a taste explosion. The wine, Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet 2011, was a perfect complement.
Course number five was when fire was introduced as they brought out a slate of four bites inspired by Tokyo with Binchotan, Japanese charcoal, ignited on the opposite end. This was a dramatic presentation for a sumptuous dish. The four bites were bok choy, watermelon, daikon radish, and rutabaga. Everything was complex and delicious and although we weren't sure exactly what all the ingredients or flavors were, we knew we were experiencing a culinary journey of a magnitude not yet experienced by either of us. They allowed us a choice of sake or ale -- unusual pairings that went quite well with the dish.
It was at this point that I asked what the football-like cheers were coming from the other room. We were told that was actually the kitchen and the sounds we heard were exercises to boost energy. As soon as a guest arrives, the chefs shout the number of guests in the party as well as the number one to indicate the first dish and any dietary preferences. So, for us, they said something like "2, vegan," then began on dish number one and so on. This keeps them all on the same page. That was pretty cool to hear.
Course number six had many flavors. There were chanterelle mushrooms in lapsang souchong, a tea whose leaves are dried over smoky pine fire. On the other side of the bowl was a hazelnut crumble with a white cracker and across from that was a white sesame foam with radish. As an added touch, there were pine needles under the bowl to help express the aroma of pine that we experienced while enjoying the dish, again going back to Chef's emphasis on aromas.
Course number seven was called "Hot Potato, Cold Potato." This one arrived suspended and required us to pull the little metal prong, which allowed the cold potato to fall into the hot black truffle soup and become a hot potato. On top was a sliver of black truffle and a sliver of chive. So amazing. The pairing was Priorat, Clos Figueres 2004.
Course number eight was pretty astonishing and was merely marked as "Fennel...?????.....!!!!!!!!" on the menu. This is because there is not enough room to describe this dish. First, we were presented with a plate of five vegetable-based items: salsify, beet, fennel, leek, and parsnip. Then, we were presented with 60 garnishes of which we were advised not to consume them all. We had to randomly choose garnishes to eat with our five main veggies. Wow! This was the most beautiful, astonishing exhibit of food as artwork that I had ever seen. From the cherries and green olives to the blueberries and pecans, each one was a unique taste explosion. This course was a lot of fun.
Course number nine was a chiffonade of romaine lettuce served with black truffle. I think I sunk into heaven at this point.
I should take a moment to mention how exquisite the service was at Alinea. From the servers to the many sommeliers, they were as attentive and as knowledgeable as they could be. The service truly was top-notch.
Next up, ginger with five other flavors. Seriously, this is how it is described on the menu. The five flavors were ginger, galangal, blue ginger, turmeric, white ginger, and yellow ginger. These tiny bites were suspended on one of the Crucial Detail pieces made exclusively for this restaurant. It's all in the details. We loved the Madeira paired with this dish.
Course number eleven was the one I had been waiting for all night -- the BALLOON. Yes, my friends, they make an edible balloon. It is vegan and it's spectacular. Made of green apple taffy, it is filled with helium and finished off with a cord made also of green apple taffy. A-m-a-z-i-n-g. You put your face up to it, suck a hole in the balloon, and suck the helium out all while laughing with a crazy helium-toned laugh. It was so fun!
Now the sweet courses. Course number twelve was inventive, beautiful, and delicious. It was made with strawberries frozen with liquid nitrogen, sassafras, pine nuts, and sorrel leaves. The pairing of Disznoko "5 Puttonyos" Tokaji-Aszu 2005 was perfect.
Course number thirteen was a drink made of rasberry that we drank through glass tubes that had rose gel and lemon balm inside them. This was so rich.
Lastly, yet another anticipated course, was the final encore, which I had heard about in reviews. They put a special tablecloth down and covered it with all of the components of the dessert - no dishes needed. The end result was an artistic culinary masterpiece of pate sucree, filled with chocolate and topped with hazelnut dust, violet, and dehydrated basil. Incredibly rich and perfect in every way. The final pairing was a Maculan "Torcolato" Breganze, Italy 2009.
And with that, the most amazing meal of my life came to an end. We were then finally handed the menu as the element of surprise would not be present had we seen this beforehand. For each course, there was a circle -- the closer to the left of the menu, the more savory the course, and to the right, the sweeter. The darker the circle, the more intense the flavor. And the size of the circle showed the size of the dish. Details...it is all in the details. From the menu to the custom clothing by Ermenegildo Zegna to the custom dinnerware by Crucial Detail, no detail is ever overlooked at Alinea.
Participatory theater is what they call it. This is the stuff that foodie dreams are made of. Chef Achatz believes you can tell people who you are through your cooking. In that respect, he must be one of the most intriguing and interesting people on the planet. With a final bill exceeding $1,200, this may not be a meal we have every year, but for now, it will forever be an incredible memory emblazoned in our minds. For this is truly the most incredible meal we have ever experienced and one by which all meals of this caliber will forever be measured.
1723 North Halsted
Chicago, IL 60614