My best friend's older sister, Arti, and I, planned a foodie trip to Chicago, and the restaurant at the top of both of our lists to visit was none other than Alinea!
Alinea has earned all kinds of accolades (San Pelligrino's Best, 3-stars, James Beard), and its chef, Grant Achatz, has received all kinds of praise for his modernist cuisine.
Of course, places like this are impossible to get a reservation at. Alinea has a unique reservation system in which it sells tickets to its guests, and prices may vary based on time and date. It parallels this system to buying tickets upfront to a concert versus just making a reservation on Opentable. Arti and I both stalked Alinea's twitter feed to figure out when the tickets for September 2014 would be released. Arti even went back as far as six months stalking the Alinea feed to find out when they usually release tickets. Then one afternoon, it happened. We both texted each other at the same time, and within minutes, Arti had secured a reservation.
When we both arrived at our hotel on Thursday night, Arti handed me a magazine that featured Chef Achatz and a few other chefs (i.e. Chef Daniel Humm!!). As I flipped through the article, I excitedly declared, "I can't WAIT, this is going to be a spectacle and a performance!"
And oh, what a spectacle and performance it was! First you walk through unassuming doors on North Halstead Street, then you step through a hallway lit with pink sconces. You stop in front of a metal door that seemingly doesn't appear to open. Magically, it swooshes open and a hostess greets you and whisks you to your table. They weren't kidding when they said they hope your experience is fun, emotional, and provocative.
As with all first courses at fancy schmancy places, we were served caviar. Instead of a traditional brioche (as we saw at Jean Georges), this was of course brioche made of fancy molecular gastronomy foam, and the capers came in gelee form.
Our second course was one of my favorites of the night - uni, on vanilla cake, topped with nori.
I am at Alinea and I am foraging for twigs in a nest. No big deal. I don't know much about salsify other than it is a plant, and it was sous vided for us. It tasted like a grown up fruit roll up, but indeed looked like the twigs it was camouflaged in.
Our fourth course was also something I really enjoyed. It was king crab topped with a lardo film, served with melon topped with a nasturtium flower (we've seen those before!).
For our next course, our waiters came by and asked us to stick out our left hands. We were a bit uncertain of what would come next, but then they placed a "napkin" in our hand, with our dish below. You know when you are making graham cracker crust from scratch and you get something that is a sweet, crunchy texture? Well, the skate served with brown butter "bread crumbs" below had that same consistency.
On to our next performance...
We were brought out a slab of rock, and our waiter sprayed something onto the side (see the brown 'graffiti' like item near the top?). That graffiti was licorice flavored, and we were instructed to drag it down into our dish. So what is that grey thing on top? Ashed goat cheese. I didn't even know ashed goat cheese was a thing! Underneath the ashed goat cheese were small piles of heirloom tomatoes.
Next up was my favorite course of the night. Something simple and * basic * as corn on the cob became corn with manchego, truffle and a corn pudding.
This was like biting into normal corn but in addition to the sweet, juicy, flavor, I got truffle and cheese with every bit.
When we were seated, I noticed a piece of rhubarb hanging over us from a fishing wire. I thought "Maybe it's a fall decor theme?" Turns out it was part of our dish. Our waiter plucked the rhubarb off the line and shaved some into our next dish. This wasn't my favorite, but mostly because I'm not a huge fan of rhubarb.
We flew half way across the country for Chinese take out...
Well Chef Achatz's spin on Chinese take out, that is. We were served sweetbreads with cinnamon stick chop sticks.
We were instructed not to put the lit side of the cinnamon chop sticks into our mouth. Thanks for clarifying!
The following was my least favorite course, mushrooms with pine, huckleberry, and tapioca. Oh, yes, the mushroom was of the matsutake breed, so that was unique, but, this dish just didn't come together for me.
Our next course was a palate cleanser course - with lily bulb, rambutan, and lime. The floral notes here were a bit overwhelming for me, so this one was not a favorite.
As we were served our palate cleanser, our waiters also put before us a pile of logs on fire. I thought maybe that meant we were getting smores.
Just some logs, burning away.
Another waiter came out and removed our logs. He pushed away a few, and pulled out a few pieces and began slicing. Not s'mores, but, pork belly!
Our pork belly was served on a piece of petrified wood, accompanied with a black trumpet sauce and charred parsnip. This was definitely a favorite.
There were a few courses in the night that we were told were "time sensitive". Time sensitive food objects are an instagrammer's nightmare. My iPhone 5 camera was acting up and I was in a rush to take the photo of our next course, Hot Potato. We were instructed to pull the needle out, let the potato land in the liquid below, and drink it as a shot. This was fun!
At this point we weren't sure how many courses we had left, but we had seen other tables around us with something interesting and figured it was our turn.
We were first given a dish with duck, nothing extraordinary there.
Then, our waiters pour some kind of (non-edible) elixir into a vase, with emitted a nice dragon's breath fragrance. We were also given some foie gras shumai, but I was too busy eating to remember to take pictures of that!
And our final savory course was a nice note to end on. We were also told this dish is time sensitive, and were instructed to put the whole thing in our mouth, close our mouth, and bite. It was indeed a black truffle explosion!
Remember that bubblegum you used to eat as a kid - the kind that came in that neon pink dispenser and you ripped off? Some how, Chef Achatz recreated that same flavor in our first dessert, along with blueberries, lilac, and sorrel.
My favorite sleight of hand of the evening was our next dessert. Just scroll down.
Yes, we ate balloons for dinner. And they tasted like green apples. For a few minutes after, we giggled in high pitched, helium filled voices. How cool!
A chef came out and expertly poured various sauces and creams onto our tarp as we watched in awe.
I mean this, this is a masterpiece!
Overall: I was dazzled! Our servers were funny and entertaining, and each course was essentially a work of art. I would fly back to Chicago just to dine here again! (Okay, and sneak in a slice of deep dish pizza too!). Thanks, Alinea, for a good time!
1723 N. Halstead St.
Chicago, IL 60614
See the website for information on how to procure tickets.
In exciting news, I am turning 30 next month. I decided to celebrate this occasion with great fanfare. Spoiler alert: there will be stops in Copenhagen and Paris along the way...