Date Visited: September 2, 2012
Price: $299 per person and $98 extra for beverages
*** 3-Star Michelin Restaurant and #7 Best Restaurant in the World 2012
The allure of dining at a 3-Star Michelin restaurant has been looking over my head for quite some time. I had a trip planned to Chicago for Labor Day weekend 2012 and heard about Alinea through some friends. After doing a bit of research, I found out that it was formerly the best restaurant in America according to several sources. I knew that I had to obtain a seat, but that did not prove to be so easy. Luckily, around the time I was planning my trip, Alinea made a bold move in August 2012 and decided to move all of its reservations to an online ticketing system rather than accepting traditional phone call requests. Tickets are sold for the Tasting menu only, varying between $210 and $265 in price, and a service charge and tax is automatically added upon checkout. All beverages are ordered and paid for when you actually show up. You can find more information, including the ticket schedule, on Alinea’s website here. So how did I obtain a seat? I had enabled text message notifications on my Twitter so whenever Alinea submitted a tweet, I would receive an instant alert. It worked perfectly for me and I was able to get the table and time I wanted with no hassles. And thus, Alinea became the first 3-Star Michelin restaurant I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
A couple of days before dinner, I received a courtesy email from Alinea. “We ask for gentlemen to wear jackets, and no casual wear like jeans or t-shirts”. Keep in mind that if you are a gentleman, there is a strict dress code. Other than that, I was more than ready and excited for my foray into the world of Alinea and reintroduction to molecular gastronomy. My journey would not only afford me an eye-opening discovery of new flavors, but also a new standard of what modern food is all about.
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So it begins. After freshening up, Grace and I arrived at Alinea 15 minutes before our reservation time of 5 PM. That is also the time of the first wave of seating, so we took a few pictures outside before they opened the doors. If you were simply walking by, you would never notice the building, and might get it confused with Boka next door (a 1-Star Michelin restaurant), at which we dined the night before. The exterior of the restaurant is nondescript and you would never guess that the plain gray-walled building is a landmark of culinary excellence. A quick tip – if you are driving, there is $11 valet parking right in front.
Little did we know, Course #1 began as soon as we entered the front doors. In front of us was a dimly-lit and blue-tinted corridor and the ground was made of actual grass. Near the end was a bucket of lemonade sorbets served in glasses floating around as a wind chime. Then all of the sudden, a mysterious door glides open. Before we knew it, we were inside Alinea and graciously welcomed.
We quickly got a glimpse of the kitchen where an army of chefs are studiously preparing the upcoming meals before we were shown upstairs to our predetermined table. Grace and I were the first guests of the night so it was strangely quiet around us. I felt very lucky that we were given a large table, which is typically reserved for parties of 4. The top right shot above is what a table for 2 looks like and ours was double the size. I was immediately intrigued by the attention to detail and cleanliness of the place. Modern paintings and floral artifacts added to the elegant vibe. A line of waiters in suits stood behind us and were ready to be at our service. Before we began, we were given a quick introduction to Alinea. He mentioned that beverages are not included and can be ordered at any time before proceeding to ask us if we had any allergies or dietary restrictions. We said no and was very excited for our upcoming experience of creative food. Each course below had very specific instructions, and the waiters explained how each one worked.
We were given a hint to the second course when a block of ice over a pile of rocks was placed in front of us (top left photo). Moments later, we were handed a straw and asked to initially hold it horizontally. If you look at the straw up close, the orange pearls were steelhead roe from a river in Northern Washington. At one end, you have a St. Germain foam; the other end is St. Germain gel. Inside of the ice, you have a peach distillation. We then turned the straw vertical and placed the gel inside of the ice and sucked the contents out. It made a funny noise when we drank it, almost like a gargling sound.
Champagne – Pierre Peters, le-mesnil-sur-Oger
We paired Course #2 and upcoming Course #3 with a cocktail champagne.
Course #3 consisted of 4 different types of oceanic creatures and thus 4 bites in a progression. There was a specific eating order from lighter to heavier flavors for this course. The first one to eat was the Oyster Leaf, which had the texture of a leaf but flavor of a raw oyster. The next one was the Alaskan King Crab in a white shell with avocado, pineapple, and hearts of palm. You lift it up, tilt it back, and it slides out easily. The third one was another shooter, the Lobster with chamomile foam and carrot butter. The fourth and final one was the Razor Clam with carrot ginger tapioca and Chinese shiso and soy sauce. The instructions were – “Lift the lid up and tilt it back”.
This course is a hands-free course. It’s almost like bobbing for apples. Suspended at the tip of the antenna, you have orange zest, fennel, and squid that has been grilled by the staff. The instructions were – “Lean in and capture all of the taste in one bite. Just be careful not to poke yourself with the antenna”. The bright flavor of orange and fennel complimented the fatty, smokey flavor of the protein.
I must admit, Course #5 was one of the most vibrant things I have ever eaten. There were so many flavors meshed together that I could only savor one taste for a split second before being doused in another. Inside, you found watermelon, red and yellow bell peppers, coconut, red onion, garlic, chili, leaves, petals, and basil. They call it “summer in a bowl”.
At this point, Grace and I finished our champagnes. Next up was a jasmine tea with aloe vera and honey. Absolutely delicious! We opted out of the wine pairing, since neither of us are big fans of wine in general. What’s cool is that Alinea has a great list of custom-made beverages, which we thoroughly enjoyed throughout the night.
Course #6 is the epitome of gastronomy. According to Alinea, the paintings on the wall are inspired by the food and vice versa and that was what this dish accomplished. Corn and popcorn pudding with sweet corn purée, fried corn silk, huitlacoche (also known as corn truffle), and sour cherry ink. The instructions were to mix everything together and enjoy. The corn was so grinded up that it looked like pieces of chalk, but tasted exactly like sweet corn. Great workmanship!
Upon finishing our jasmine tea, we were served a glass of ginger citrus soda. This beverage was my favorite of the night. It was the fizziness that took this over the top.
The focus of this course is the ocean. Blue fin tuna, cucumber (has its own juice), and green kaffir lime bubbles. It was distilled at a cold temperature, thus forming ice. A very refreshing dish and interesting presentation as it was encased inside a glass globe.
The oakwood has been torched so you experience the smokey smell while you dine. On top of these rocks, some of the flavors that you have include 3 types of mushrooms, red oak leaves, asparagus tip, asparagus purée, quail eggs, and a Virginia ham aged for 400 days. Everything is edible except the rocks and the wood. Also, for this course, it didn’t matter the order in which we ate.
Course #9 is time sensitive. The instructions were – “Gently pick the wax bowl up, and then pull the pin down, which drops the ingredients inside the cold soup. Then tilt it back like an oyster shot immediately”. It was a pleasant contrast of temperatures and a classic course that has been served throughout the years at Alinea.
After finishing the ginger citrus soda, tung-ting tea with pinot grigio juice was brought out. This drink most resembled actual wine. Perfect for the next course.
Course #10 was definitely one of the most memorable courses of the night. I’m not a huge fan of lamb, but didn’t want to alter what had been already planned. There were 3 pieces of lamb, prepared in 3 different ways – shank, saddle, and loin. The lamb was from Jamison Farms in Pennsylvania. In the center were 60 different garnishes, made of 85 elements, that paired with the lamb. I’ve never seen so many different garnishes on display; it was beautifully plated. You could pick and choose the ones you please.
Black Truffle is the longest running course at Alinea. It was first conceived when Achatz worked at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. It is consumed in a single bite with your lips sealed. Below this dish is nothing but the table, although at first glance you may think there is broth beneath the spoon. The single raviolo exploded in my mouth like a gusher, if you will, and filled it with warm truffle broth.
Next we were presented with an unorthodox cheese course. The cinnamon stick, an aromatic element, was the utensil for this course (so do not eat it). Tempura was fried onto the end of it with brie, anjou pear, and brown sugar. Instructions were – “Lift it out of what we call ‘The Squid’ and slide the fried cheese right off with your mouth. Finally, place the cinnamon stick on your plate and be careful not to burn yourself”.
A ginger sampler followed the cheese course, which acted as the palate cleanser. It also served as the transition between the savory and upcoming sweet courses. We were instructed to go from right to left, or counterclockwise. “Pull each pin out and eat each tiny cube at the end.” Alinea claimed that this was therapeutic and helps with digestion.
Course #14, the first of three dessert courses. When it was first brought out to us, there was a rattling noise from the high pressure of the frozen sorrel and liquid nitrogen inside the flask, which was covered by a glass ball. Moments later, the glass ball was removed and the liquid nitrogen evaporated slowly into the air while the waiter poured in a citrus hot tea. Once the tea was mixed in with the frozen sorrel, it formed a room temperature slushee. On top of the glass tray suspended above the flask, there was an assortment of blueberries, violet petals, blueberry brownie, macadamia crumble, and buttermilk cream. The chef wanted patrons to enjoy the sweet blueberries and drink the citrus hot tea, as the citrus hot tea cut through the sweetness of the blueberry. A metal straw was used to drink the slushee and a fork for the blueberry. Precaution: don’t press too hard on the tray since it could shift and fall.
Course 15: Balloon – Helium, green apple
The most interesting course of the night. It was a green apple balloon with a shelf life ranging from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. There were 2 ways to go about this course. The first option – you put your lips to the balloon and inhale the helium out of it. The second option – there is a pin at the bottom of the apple leather string that you can use to poke the balloon. The entire thing (except the pin) was edible. After we sucked the helium out of our balloons, we sounded like chipmunks for a few brief seconds.
Video of the Edible Balloon in action
Course 16: White Chocolate – Strawberry, english pea, lemon
Course #16, the grand finale. A true masterpiece and a spectacular ending. I was asked to move to the inside seating area as a giant grey silicon mat was spread over our table. A waiter came a few minutes later and placed several objects near the end of our table (pictured top left). After a lengthy pause, a chef came to our table and quietly “painted” various ingredients into the white chocolate sphere and on the mat, starting with the jar of liquid nitrogen. Only a terse description of each component broke the silence as you can see from the brief video I shot below. Once everything was laid out in predetermined proportions, the chef picked up the white chocolate and smashed it in the middle of the table. He then turned on his heels and walked away without a word. Bravo! What a dramatic way to end the night.
Brief video of the chef painting the last course onto our table
Inside the Kitchen
After 3 hours and 15 minutes, our journey ended. Across 16 courses, Chef Grant Achatz displayed an amazing attention to detail in all aspects of the dining experience, engaging nearly all of the senses. Not only did we leave Alinea completely satisfied, but we were fully engaged throughout the evening. Delicious, playful, interactive, and mysterious are just a few adjectives I use to describe Alinea if someone asks. On our way out, we peeked inside the kitchen and saw the staff hard at work (and smiling) while we took a couple of photos.
As a parting memento, we were presented with the evening’s menu dated September 2, 2012. There’s a specific way to read the menu. First, draw an imaginary line down the T of SEPTEMBER. The circles on the left of the line mean savory and the circles on the right mean sweet. The size of the circle corresponds directly with the size of the plate. Lastly, the distance of the circle from the imaginary line correlates with the degree of sweetness or savoriness – further away means sweeter or more savory.
Grace and I will never forget our first Alinea experience. It met all the hype and our high expectations. Now every other haute dining experience will be compared to Alinea’s modern take on culinary culture. Well done, Grant Achatz! You are a true magician.
Yelp Review: http://www.yelp.com/biz/alinea-chicago
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1723 N Halsted St
Chicago, IL 60614 (map)
Tel: (312) 867-0110
Wed-Sun 5 pm – 6:30 pm
Wed-Sun 8 pm – 9:30 pm