Alinea (Chicago)

Location: Chicago, USA
Address: 1723 N Halsted St 
Website: http://website.alinearestaurant.com/site/
Type of Meal: Dinner



Simply put Alinea is inventive and strives to provide a unique experience for their guests. Their reservation “ticketing” system is an economist’s dream – the price varies depending on the day and time you book. This means a table at 5pm or 9pm on Tuesday would be less expensive than a table for Saturday at 7pm.

The spaces are sold online ahead of time with patrons paying for food costs up front by purchasing tickets. We were able to secure the second cheapest table (a weeknight at 5:15pm) and with the mandatory 20% gratuity and taxes it totaled $298 per person. You decide on the drinks later - we opted out of the wine pairing and instead ordered glasses of champagne and wine ($24 each) and my husband added a hefty portion of cognac to end the night ($30).


The intrigue begins the moment you walk in the door. After finding the non-descript doorway (look for some valet gentlemen) you enter a dark hallway. Slowly, as your eyes adjust fuchsia pink lights start to shine and guide you along the way. We weren’t sure where to go; luckily, someone slid open the door to the left and welcomed us into the dining room.

As we were brought to our spacious table, we immediately noted the floating rhubarb suspended above us. Having read plenty of reviews about Alinea, I know everything has a purpose. However, not having read a post about their 2014 summer menu, it was unclear what the rhubarb was for and when we’d find out. Alas readers, you must also wait until later on in this post.


We started with osetra caviar, a delicacy second to only beluga, which was simply presented with complimenting ingredients. The briny caviar was paired with a puff of foam tasting like bread with its yeasty baked properties, a tangy gelee and a smooth savoury cream. It set the mood of things to come – each plate containing lots of intricate ingredients that diners can try separately, in combinations or altogether. Through trial and error we soon realize having everything as one was the tastiest choice. 


When a big nest was placed in front of us, I assumed it would be for another dish to come. But, the waiter advised that two pieces of dehydrated salsify were hidden amongst the twigs and we had to use touch to find them. The long thin root vegetable was dried to the point it blended perfectly into the nest and could only be found by its softer texture. The nest was a dish that puts diners at ease - yes it's fine dining but playing and touching your food is not prohibited. After finding the twisted salsify we happily munched on the salty preserved vegetable jerky which reminded me of Chinese dried mustard greens (“mui choy”).


It may be hard to decipher in the picture, but the next dish was served to us in our palms; the platr resembled a napkin and was designed to be held. So, even though we were seated we felt as if we've entered a dinner party and hors d'oeuvres were being passed around. Tender pieces of skate (a fish) was paired with brown butter crumble, floral & herb stems and lemon oil. The skate was so soft it tasted like crab and contrasted well with the crunch from the brown butter and brightness of the lemon and herbs.


The fourth dish was my favourite of the night. It appeared as roasted corn on the cob sitting on a burnt piece of wood. The smoky aroma were incredible and eating by a campfire was the image that entered my mind. Except Chef Achatz wouldn’t just serve an ear of corn! His version consisted of a bottom layer of creamy manchego grits flavoured with truffles and sherry. Then on top were niblets of perfectly reconstructed corn. Anyone who has cut corn off the cob knows how messy it can get; imagine the skill Alinea’s chefs must possess to be able to do it in a way that it can be reassembled so well.


It’s hard to go wrong with truffles and sweet corn, but when there’s also creamy grits with sharp manchego … it’s just so good! This is one of those dishes I’d want to eat on my death bed – with a lobster and fries on the side.


To follow, another deconstructed mix-and-match dish of sweet barely cooked lobster. It’s paired with curry cream, coconut dots, earl grey cream, crunchy puffed rice, cucumber, lobster bisque cream and what looks like fish roe but ends up being grape fruit. I could go on forever about how everything tastes given the plethora of choices. My husband really liked this dish. Personally, I found it delicious, but a bit of a shame, as the lobster became secondary to the other ingredients.


A centre piece of logs arrived and was lit on fire. As always, there’s no mention of what it’s for and thus our brainstorming begins. 


However, before we could decide, orange “chicken” was served complete with take-out carton and plastic bag. In lieu of chopsticks a split cinnamon stick was given and lit on one end so the essence permeated the air. The meat was actually nuggets of veal sweetbreads which tasted like very tender and juicy chicken. Deep fried and placed on a thick orange sauce with plenty of vegetables on top it was a dish of varying crunchy textures. I loved the fried chive blossoms mixed in to give it a rich grassy taste. Not having had much orange chicken in my life, I would eat it more if it tasted like this.


Our detective skills prevailed when we realized our next dish was likely already in the fire. Our suspicions were confirmed when the server came with a cutting board and picked up the platter of burning “logs”. Inside the fire were hidden pieces of wagyu beef and parsnip.


Served on a charred piece of wood, the smoky essence continued throughout the course. On the side was a squid ink ravioli filed with creamy parsnip puree, some bitter tasting mousse (could be the black trumpet mushrooms) and crunchy pieces of kombu. All the sides were fine but I found really weren’t required. The lightly cooked wagyu was the highlight with its warmed through temperature and delicious marbling. Eating it alone and savouring its rich juices were enough for me.


After such a strong dish, Alinea presented a palate cleanser of lily bulb, flowers, rambutan and tart caviar lime segments. This certainly was a stunning looking dish. The floral and crunchy lily bulb segments were good but became too much after several spoonful. Undeniably, my tastebuds felt amazingly clean afterwards and my breath smelt great. Word to the wise, don't have wine immediately afterwards as it ends up tasting like vinegar.


At last the rhubarb was removed from the ceiling and shaved into the next course. The crunchy tart slices were paired with braised rhubarb, celery root and a celery ribbon (?) flavoured with a creamy mousse on the bottom. A nice lighter dish after all the heavy ones. 


The following two courses became heavier again. First, a crispy fried pig ear accompanied by Asian pear, black garlic puree and black fungus (?).  The condiments, other than the pear, were a bit salty for my taste. But, the pig ear had a delightful chewy texture to it. At other restaurants it often gets fried so long that it’s dried out and resembles pork rind more than anything. 


Our server brought out a vase and added nitrogen so that smoke started billowing out. All this just to add a stir fry aroma while we ate the next dish! The duck sculpture, once opened, contained small steamed foie gras dumplings. They were tender and smooth but due to their richness compounded my already full feeling.


I love duck and this didn't disappoint as the wok contained a thick cube of breast with crispy skin. Again, another dish that could have been toned down a bit in terms of salt but had so many nuggets of delicious elements including a fried croquette. Indeed, this was a very heavy course and personally would have liked the duck to be served earlier so I could enjoy it even more.  


My husband and I were happy to see fruit presented next as by this point we felt we couldn’t eat another bite. Little did we know that this was only the first of four desserts! Luckily, Alinea began with a refreshing pressed watermelon marinated with strawberries so the melon actually tasted of strawberries as you bit into it. Accompanied with strawberry and avocado powder, the avocado added a touch of savouriness - a great transition.


The blueberry dish was whimsical and played on a variety of tastes and textures. Honestly, I found it a bit disjointed and not something I’d want to eat again. The bubble gum flavoured nest in the middle was unique as it was cold and melted in your mouth. But, it had to be eaten quickly as it started turning into a sticky gel otherwise. The violet meringue pieces were also nice on its own but I found didn’t go as well with the other ingredients.


Alinea’s signature dish is their edible balloon. Handed to us by the server, we were advised everything was edible except for the metal pin weighing it down. We followed instructions and pressed our lips against the balloon until the sugar melted and we could suck out the helium. After laughing in a chipmunk voice I ate the sticky green apple balloon and munched on the delicious fruit string.


By this point, we thought our night was over and were pleased with the experience. But, once everything was whisked away our server came back with a rubber mat and covered the table top. Then, various small dishes were brought over and left at the far end of the table. The ingredients were just a jumble of powders and liquids so we had no idea what was going on … when all the sudden Chef Achatz himself walks up to our table!


Immediately, he pulls out a ring and places it in the middle. One by one he announces the ingredients and makes the base. Then adds nitrogen infused liquid chocolate on top so that it bubbles away and solidifies.

 

It was such a treat to see something being made in front of us and was like watching an artist paint. Except, instead of paint, Chef Achatz used cold ice cream crystals, brown butter brittle, hazelnut meringue clusters, crème fraiche and finished everything off with a sprinkling of fairy dust (a.k.a. shimmering sugar). By the end, it looked almost too beautiful to eat.


We were truly marveled by how he got the violet syrup to form perfect squares without using a cookie cutter!


The milk chocolate cake was really good – this is coming from someone who normally stays away from chocolaty desserts. A cross between an ice cream cake, mud pie and brownie it was warm and cold all at once. This last dish truly pushed our experience to a whole other level and left us in awe.

  
Alinea is not for everyone. If you prefer simply prepared ingredients left in their natural essence this isn’t the place for you. The flavours are intense with some elements being very sour, sweet, salty or bitter. Indeed, almost every dish had a mixture of textures and some ingredients meticulously prepared to change its normal structure. Certainly, if you’re not up for “playing” with your food and creating your own combinations from the deconstructed dishes you may leave frustrated.

But if you want to eat with all five senses and be entertained with every course along the way than go to Alinea. Their website describes it beautifully, “It’s not a restaurant … at least, not in the conventional sense”. It’s a dinner theatre with the servers, Chef Achatz and the dishes themselves being the actors. It’s an art gallery with each dish painstakingly crafted to please the eyes before the palate. And finally, it’s an experience that forces patrons to pay attention and talk about what’s happening in front of them. In an age where children play with electronic devices and adults are watching mounted tv screens while eating, perhaps it’s this togetherness and being in the present that makes Alinea truly special.

If you want to find out more about Chef Achatz amazing story, read his book 'Life, On the Line'. To try your hand at recreating some of these dishes (or just to look at the pictures), pick up the Alinea cookbook.


Overall mark - 9 out of 10

Follow me on twitter to chat, be notified about new posts and more - https://twitter.com/GastroWorldBlog

____________________________
Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!

Alinea on Urbanspoon