This is the doorway to Alinea, the world renown three-star Michelin restaurant in the heart of Chicago characterized for it’s deconstructed interpretations of classics and avant garde cooking techniques. I’ve been dreaming of dining here for years and indulgently put it on my unofficial list of Things to Do Before I Die. Imagine my excitement - today was the day that I’d get to cross it off my list! Cue: Epic music intro.
One step inside and the mood quickly shifts from the gray brick exterior. It almost felt like I entered the twilight zone - not a soul in sight. At one point, I thought Storm Troopers might start marching down the hall to check on a security breach. As we trekked deeper into the red abyss, we quickly surfaced into the restaurant - slate gray and oddly reminiscent of a condominium. A dining room on the left, kitchen to the right and a staircase straight ahead. We were quickly guided upstairs to our table. There were no inquiries for our name or reservations. Just a brief moment of acknowledgement and “Your table is ready.” Psychic genius or a bit eerie? I’m still undecided.
The decor inside is very corporate zen, if such a thing exists - beige walls with staid artwork and spot lighting on the walls. Not a window in sight. Funny what you take notice of after sitting in the same chair for four hours.
The first arrival at our table was a centerpiece - a tile of slate adorned with live greenery and the soil to go with it. We were told that it would be part of a later course but to just enjoy gazing at it for the time being. Hmmm…but which one? After all, there were nineteen courses we needed to prepare for.
The first of many - Course 1: Steelhead Roe on a watermelon, fleur de sel and kaffir lime terrine wrapped in golden watermelon and a cucumber blossom in watermelon consomme. This dish was nicely understated and a smart way to start off the meal. The variety of soft textures was a nice warm-up to the night.
The roe had a really fresh flavor with the right hint of salt and sweetness to harmonize with the mellow flavors. The melon and cucumber were genius complements - a subtle and soft contrast. Each bite tasted like a refreshing springtime breeze.
Course 2: Smoked Hamachi Tempura layered with West Indies spices, pineapple and ginger on a vanilla bean skewer. There wasn’t a strong standout flavor in this bite. It was sweeter then I had anticipated and I enjoyed how crisp and airy the tempura shell was.
Doesn’t the holding device resemble a decapitated egg beater?
The boy trying to get the full experience of smelling before tasting.
The next three courses come all at once - atop a piece of driftwood wrapped in seaweed. A bit dramatic, right? There’s an interesting yin and yang to the last course and this one. How does Chef Grant Achatz decide between a custom metal gadget or presenting a dish in a more organic vessel? I’d like to think it’s a bit of trial and error - the first delivery attempt of this course resulted in a small avalanche. Luckily, the servers were quick to fix this. Had they hesitated, I think I might have tried to sneak a taste of the fallen!
Course 3: Oyster Leaf. Curious enough, this tiny leaf tasted just like a raw oyster. It tastes so much like it that you expect there to be some sort of trick or technique but we were assured that it was just simply a Migonette leaf, a plant very far removed from the sea. The plant is typically used for potpourri and batik dyes - crazy!
Course 4: Taylor Bay Scallop served with Hitachino White Ale foam, old bay and charred scallions. The fluffy dome had an acute sweetness that complemented the scallop really well. I absolutely adore Hitachino Beers. Not only does it have the cutest cartoon owl on each bottle but it never fails to be both hearty and refreshing.
Underneath the foam, the scallop was generously seasoned for balance.
Course 5: Charred Razor Clam with daikon radish salad, tapioca pearls, carrot, soy and ginger. I couldn’t help but think of worms when I saw this. Luckily, the taste was rich in umami flavor and had a nice variety of textures. With it unique straw shape, razor clams seem to be gaining steady popularity in restaurants. The meaty squid like texture is a definite hit in my book.
With seafood on the brain, the tapioca was a benevolent stand-in for roe. The flavors felt very Asian to me and I really enjoyed the caramelized layers of sweet and smoky mixed with chewy and crunchy textures.
Course 6: Yuba - shrimp wrapped in fried bean curd skin with miso emulsion, black and white sesame seeds, orange taffy, chives and togarashi mayo. This is one of my favorite dishes of the night. In Chinese cuisine, yuba are tofu sheets are typically found in soup and resemble crumpled wet tissues, both visually and texturally. Understanding this helps you appreciate the radical transformation here. Playful, creative and awesome.
Imagine an Asian strudel that tastes sweet and slightly briny. A thin shellac of glaze gives a nice contrast to the earthy sesame flavor.
Course 7: English Pea at different temperatures - three to be exact. Interestingly enough, I HATE PEAS. While making reservations, they asked if I had any food allergies or dislikes and I was very tempted to say green peas. Of course, I had a good chuckle when this landed on my table.
Despite my deep hatred of these mushy suckers, I worked my way though this dish. While it didn’t win me over, I appreciated the creativity and manipulation of each iteration. This layer was like a combination of raw salad and baby food. The tendrils and crispy pea shoots tasted very similar to alfalfa sprouts while the puree was served just slightly chilled, on the border of room temperature.
The second layer revealed freeze dried peas and dehydrated pea meringue complemented with flavors of green grape, chamomile gel and olive oil jam. This was more like an afternoon snack - a pea macaron with tea, deconstructed. I liked the variety of textures with the subtle wave of fruit helped highlight the typically musty flavor profile of English Peas.
The final layer comprised of frozen pea puree and whipped Parmesano Reggiano and green apple sorbet. I found the combination of apples to be mismatched but enjoyed the airy cheese concoction on it’s own accord.
An interesting routine practiced before each course - fresh utensils for each course are placed on a small pillow. Some traditional and some unique. Remember the centerpiece from the beginning of the meal? Well, it’s about to make a little more sense for the next course.
Course 8: Farm Fresh Salad - a tomato varietal on red bell pepper and goat cheese gazpacho with croutons. The kicker? Self-serve lettuce and herbs - freshly cut from our centerpiece. Our waiter dubbed it, “Soup, salad and breadsticks - all in one.” I love multi-tasking food!
Snip, snip, snip…
So this is where my meal gets a bit weird. I can laugh about it now but take a guess what the little black thing on the right edge of my plate is in the picture above. If you guessed a spider, you are correct. I can only guess that this is bound to happen when living plants and soil are placed on a dinner table. I just didn’t think it would happen to me. And I definitely did not expect it to happen at a fine dining establishment. Luckily, the servers overheard my stifled “AHHH, it’s a spider” and removed the plate and centerpiece relatively quickly. I’m unsure if it was fear or restraint that stopped me from jumping out of my seat and screaming at the top of my lungs. I won’t lie, this left me fairly uneasy.
Instead of taking another chance, this was brought back to my table - a pre-assembled plate ready for me to eat and hopefully without any creepy crawlers. I tried my best to draw my focus back on the food. Thankfully, I love tomatoes so this was a nice palate change from the triple renditions of peas. Bleh.
I loved that each tomato was individually setup and paired, sort of like sushi. The soup and salad was a nice way of bringing it all together. Refreshing and a great for summer.
And just when I was missing the company of my pet spider, they bring out another centerpiece that looks like fruit roll-ups on chopsticks. Again, we’re asked to wait and see what this will be used for.
Course 9: Spanish Mackerel from Florida marinated in sake, citrus and juniper pinwheel of jicama, terragon and mango roll, layered with bergamot flower, sake pudding, candied yuzu, heart of celery and juniper skin. Served on the tip of on an antennae with the springy action of a bobble head.
I didn’t care much for this one. It lacked a star ingredient and/or a harmonious balance. The proportion of protein and complements could be to blame.
Course 10: Wild Mushrooms with pine cream, sumac foam with pine nuts, picked onions, fried chittlings and red wine mushroom jus. This was delicious - earthy and rich with crunchy and creamy elements for balance.
The morels and hon shimeji had a nice fluffy texture, both different and lovely. The presentation reminded me of live coral and I imagined the flavors swaying back and forth like a tide on my taste buds. The sauce really pulled this dish together.
As I was thoroughly enjoying the last few bites, I bit into something very hard and gravel-like. It was like chewing on broken glass. Concerned about what was put on my plate and into my mouth, I mentioned it to the server. He returned with something that resembled a small coral rock and explained that I had a piece of dehydrated mushroom used to flavor the tapioca powder on my plate. While I appreciated the feedback, it felt incredibly awkward for me to get this information. Yes, I just had a spider crawl out of my food but this just felt wrong on so many more levels. I can’t fathom why any restaurant would intentionally plate something that wasn’t meant to be eaten and then snub a guest. I was hoping for a better attitude from a reputable, respected and highly regarded restaurant. I think I started to feel more like a prisoner then a guest at this point. What a bummer.
Course 11: Hot Potato, Cold Potato arrived in a small wax bowl of creamy potato and truffle soup. Suspended at a 45 degree angle is a needle of black truffle, potato, chive, cube of butter and Parmesan. By removing the skewer, all the elements fall into the soup.
Next, we are instructed to enjoy the dish by “tossing it back like an oyster on a half shell,” so down the hatch it goes. Rich and creamy like a baked potato on crack. I was surprised how the “solid” ingredients went down so easily. They almost seemed to melt in your mouth.
The contrast of temperature didn’t really dawn on me. What I liked most about this it seemed like a salute to good old American comfort food.
And next, we are surprised with super fancy plate settings! Another dramatic juxtaposition. Did I mention the red wine? Oooh-la-la.
Course 12: Agneau from the 1903 edition of the Escoffiers Cookbook, a geek culinary guide for old school foodies from the turn of the century. The stacked columns are lamb loin from Pensylvania on a French crouton with artichoke heart, sauce choron and asparagus spears.
These little spheres, also known as Pomme de Terre Noisette, are seasoned Yukon Gold Potatoes tossed in lamb reduction jus. While only the size of peas, they were packed with loads of flavor.
Delightfully delicious and coin-sized to keep things light. The choron sauce, which is a Bearnaise sauce finished with tomato paste, made all the elements shine - just a bit sweet and salty. Yum.
The gamut of textures made this dish a highlight - crispy, tender and snappy. I’m really curious how close this is to the original recipe. The idea that someone was eating and enjoying this same dish over a hundred years ago is mind blowing when I think about how different kitchen technology and energy resources were back then.
Course 13: Black Truffle Explosion topped with romaine, truffle and a curl of Parmigiano Reggiano. Inside, the ravioli is filled with an intense black truffle broth. It’s very similar to a Xiao Long Bao where refrigerated cubes of soup stock are actually incorporated into the meat filling. We were warned to eat this with a closed mouth, that is unless you wanted to wear it. It’s sort of like biting into a cherry tomato.
The consistency of the pasta was perfect and the black truffle intensity was on point. I think what I liked most about this dish is that it was simple and fun.
Finally, it’s time to consume the next centerpiece! But what is it? The server tell us it’s a sheet of pasta made from tomato and black garlic. Of course, it’s never that simple…
On top of the glass from the top row, left to right: smoked salt, blackberry, roasted pearl onion, fermented black garlic paste, cubes of turnip, Nicoise olives and cherry. Second row: tomato seed vinaigrette, salsify with parsley and spoon with distillation gel of tobacco. Next comes the cool Transformers part. First, the server asks us to lift and put aside the glass.
Underneath are metal brackets housed on a wooden tabletop.
We are asked to interlocked the two pieces and viola!
It’s not just a trivet but a stand for the pasta flag. But wait, there’s still more…
Course 14: Beef Short Ribs braised for four hours and dressed in red wine reduction, served straight from pot to pasta. Tender and flavorful.
Yum! Can’t forget to throw in all the ingredients that we started with.
I think the hardest part is getting your hands dirty.
Luckily, moist towelettes are already on stand-by. Now all we needed to do was pick an approach oh how to eat it. I went with a sushi approach and rolled it up. My dinner companion opted for a taco method. Either way, it was delicious.
All the flavors played so well together. This was the my favorite interactive course. For the first time in this meal I felt like I was allowed to have fun! I think part of my difficulty with Alinea might be the very instructive style in which you’re told to eat. In my mind, food should be exploratory and creative. Here, they push the agenda that there is only one way to correctly enjoy each dish. With those feelings aside, this dish was really tasty. It was many flavors at once - fruity, smoky, savory, meaty and rich. Totally drool worthy.
Course 15: Octopus braised in red wine with a cube of eggplant puree, lime, chili and coriander suspended above a bowl of Vidalia onion soup and wasabi foam. The bite alone was earthy. The chewy texture of the tentacle and the musty cube had a nice contrast but didn’t really wow me.
I believe the genius is in the soup. The refreshing acid and heat just stole the show.
Once the fork is removed, you have no choice but to “shoot” the bowl of soup to keep the balance of things.
Course 16: Yuzu Snow. If you’re not familiar, yuzu is a citrus fruit in the mandarin orange family. It has the tartness of lemon and lime balanced with tangerine notes - subtly sweet and fruity. To achieve the frosty texture, the inner ice flower is soaked in liquid nitrogen and dipped. An ideal palate cleanser and very refreshing.
Course 17: Cubes! While very cool to look at, I found this dish to be more interesting then it was good. The highlighted flavors were peaches (red-orange), basil (green) and jasmine tea (clear gel) - a play on caprese salad our server tells us.
Taste-testing each cube individually was fun. Here is balsamic vinegar (black-brown) and eucalyptus (green gel). Ironically, I craved more instruction on how to eat this dish as I was really struggling with finding at least one good combination.
The abundant white cubes were random placements of almond cake, burrata cheese and crème fraiche. I found some of the lumpy texture to be really off-putting.
Sadly, I didn’t finish every last bite of this. I just couldn’t find my footing or understand the direction of this dish. Oh well…
Course 18: Liquid Herbal Shot - lemon grass distilled into liquid with thai basil, dragon fruit and herbs inside a glass straw sealed with an edible lime gel.
I had to count to myself before taking this on. Deep breath and chug! Surprisingly, everything, including leafs, seeds and fruit chunks go down a lot smoother then I expected. The intense flavor is incredibly fresh, like an herbal jello shot.
Dessert just wouldn’t be the same without coffee. Prepping for the final course with some French Press action.
Course 19: Chocolate - a ribbon of cilantro, red pepper and bitter orange with frozen dark chocolate mousse and banana rum custard crème brûlée. This was another dish that just didn’t work for me. I’m pretty hard to please, especially when it comes to desserts. The amount of chocolate seemed to overwhelm the plate while the savory combinations kept competing for dessert’s grossest flavor - peppery, spicy or bitter. The one saving grace was the custard but it was quickly enveloped by the melting chocolate.
A peek inside the kitchen. You can see Achatz just left of center in deep focus.
As a foodie, I’m hard-pressed to admit that my experience at Alinea was just okay. It didn’t live up to the ground-breaking innovation and taste that I was hoping for. Being regarded as one of the best restaurants in the world, I was hoping for a transcending dining experience, or at least a pleasurable one.
While there were a number of standout dishes that I thoroughly enjoyed, I think I learned more about my food expectations and personal dining style. First, that food is just as susceptible to trends and time. What is modern today, may be old fashioned tomorrow. Maybe had I visited Alinea in 2008, I would think differently. I also think that Alinea just wasn’t a good fit for me, personally. Despite my best efforts, I just never felt comfortable. Fortunately for me, Chicago has plenty other food adventures to fulfill this my appetite. It’s definitely going to take more then a spider, spills and a snub to stop me, so stay tuned!
1723 N Halsted St
(between Concord Pl & Willow St)
Chicago, IL 60614
T: (312) 867-0110