1723 North Halsted Avenue
Chicago, Illinois

5 Second Summary:
Price Range- 13-course Tasting menu $145,  23-course Tour menu $225 (at time of posting)
Ambiance- Sophisticated, special occasion, serious foodie
Cuisine- New American
Hits- a whole new approach to dining (you will never be the same afterward…)
Misses- Service is serious business and can be a little stuffy and intimidating
I. am. still. in. awe.
I’ve never experienced anything quite like Alinea, and there are fewer experiences I could recommend more highly.  There are just some ecstasies you must permit yourself in the short time you’re allotted on earth: for some skydiving, others having children, river rafting, Alinea.  Admittedly, I have a substantial food crush on celebrity chef Grant Achatz, a maverick and survivor, but this dinner was so much more than a dinner.  It exceeded anything I could have possibly imagined (other than, of course, a bank-breaking trip to El Bulli).
The entrance is a modest, nondescript gray brickface with no discernible name posted.  Upon entering, you travel down a dramatic, flag-strewn, pink-backlit hallway and have absolutely no idea where you’re going, when the foyer ends, and where the restaurant begins.  This cognitive dissonance merely primes you for what you’re about the see, taste, and smell.  You have no idea.  Metal doors slide open with a whoosh, and a clean, pleasant, Midwestern accent asks, “What’s the last name on your reservation?”


My childhood best friend, Caroline, and I were then escorted to a table, one of five in a room that was church-quiet and solemn, sleek, modern, and -in contrast to the wild pink foyer- starkly black and white.  In a word, impressive.
We ordered champagne cocktails with chartreuse and cointreau (very subtle) and instructed on the use of silverware.  Before each course, the appropriate implements were placed on pillows, and we were to leave our used forks, spoons, or knives in the dish being removed.  I’m not going to lie.  The etiquette instructions were a little intimidating.
Our first course was arctic char roe with “traditional garnishes”: a brioche foam, lemon gelee, caper, dill, and creme fraiche.  Salty caviar with its pop-in-your-mouth texture (a prelude to Alinea’s many things that pop or explode), citrus, foam, cream… What more could one ask? The dish was artfully designed but not my favorite.
We were then served a lime cilantro bread with two butter options: the standard, yellow Wisconsin cow variety or Santa Barbara goat butter sprinkled with Hawaiian lava salt.
Our second course was based on a Thai flavor profile.  To prime the palate, we had a warmish shot of distilled, distinctly Thai flavors: lemongrass, basil, and chili.  Moving to midplate, a tender iceberg lettuce cup cradled alternate cubes of tender pork belly and sweet fat, spheres of young cucumber that lent a playful textural element, and bright yellow cucumber flower.  The lettuce cradle rested atop a vinaigrette of seemingly perfectly-spaced sesame seeds with a bold red daub of chili paste for the adventurous palate.  Resonant with avocado, sugar, and lime, the dish had a very floral bouquet and flavor.
Next, a soft, sweet buttermilk bread flavored with coriander and honey followed by our third course.  Each course was progressively better.  This “flavors of the sea” dish was Pacific fluke (for me, since I’m allergic to shellfish, while Caroline’s was a similar scallop-based dish), honeydew foam, celery, and lilac-infused “perinal” custard.  [Here’s where I admit my absolute cluelessness.  I have no idea what perinal is.  I googled it with five or six various spellings, and the only information my research yielded was (1) the French cinematographer (2) a lidocaine/hydocortisone-based spray used to relieve anal itching.  I know Chef Grant Achatz is pretty modern, but I don’t think he’s that modern.  I’m going to have to do more research, but if you have any ideas, please email me.]  This dish had a strong celery scent, and the flavor developed from the cream of the custard to celery then honeydew, an overall progression that can only be described as round.  The fluke was moist and tender, and the concept was very creamy overall.
Course four was called Hot Potato Cold Potato, and it came with instructions and a waiter with a sense of humor.  Encased in a small, quasi-conical paraffin wax bowl (made daily and painstakingly by the canape chef) was a cold potato soup pierced on its edge with a pin.  Perched precariously on the pin: a hot ball of Yukon gold potato topped with a black truffle then two diced cubes of parmesan-dusted Danish lurpak butter, known for its subtle lactic taste and its fresh cream base.  We were given a quick demo on how to toss back the soup then remove the pin, all of which had to be done with regard for the time-sensitive nature of this dish.  The juxtaposition of hot and cold rested on the eater.  Since Caroline doesn’t love truffles, I ate mine and hers.  Dictated by the placement of the pin, the progression was smooth truffle, followed by creamy potato, followed by sharp salt.  It was honestly so beautiful that I could’ve cried.
We got a classic dinner roll, tied in a knot, soft, warm, doughy, and buttery before moving on to course five.  When we first sat, the waiter placed this mystery vessel on our table, a black vaporizer-looking-thing with an egg-shaped bottom, and the bottom of it crusted over to a dull grey-white.
As he placed course five (waygu beef with powdered A1 sauce, potato custard, and chips) in from of us, he poured hot water into the Darth-Vader-thing.  It was filled with dry ice and began to smoke across the table, as our waiter informed us, “like a fourth grade science experiment” (or like mist on the English moors, by my estimation), adding the aroma of onion, garlic, and rendered beef to Achatz’s clever reconfiguration (what he calls a “profile replication”) of the traditional steak sauce.  The A1 powder was the product of his own inquiry into just what composed this common American tableside condiment.  His breakdown yielded a powder heavy on sweet and tangy flavors: tamarind, raisin, anchovy, and clove.  The original purpose of this volcano vaporizer, was to facilitate smokeless marijuana inhalation, but the chef repurposed it to add an olfactory dimension to his powdered A1 sauce.  The herbs were delivered via a delicious, white smoke that was actually not smoky at all.
(I have video of this amazing phenomenon and just have to figure out how to post it.)
The flavor progressed from sweet, almost tomato-y tamarind to buttery meat.  The potato custard square (on the left in the photo) went from the creamy potato to the soft bite of vinegar to chive to the crunchy texture of the crumb coating.
Next came the black truffle explosion, a dish in which Achatz plays with states of matter and good old exothermic and endothermic reactions.  This dish was conceptualized while Achatz still worked in Napa’s prestigious French Laundry and perfected after extensive experimentation with ravioli dough.  I understand that he was hesitant to carry this dish over to Alinea, never one to rest on his laurels, but is now periodically reintroduced in Achatz’s ever-constant battle to push the limits yet share his best with guests.  It is no less than a perfect pasta form with a warm, liquid truffle center that explodes in your mouth topped by a shaved black truffle, a shred of parmesan cheese, and a lovely shred of hot, wilted romaine.  Served as an amuse bouche on a spoon perched atop a bottomless round dish, the black table creates the optical illusion of a black liquid at the bottom of a bowl.  First, you taste the truffle, then the cheese, then the very subtle romaine.
An aroma course of torn basil, soil, and hot rocks followed to accompany a complex and fascinating dish.
On the plate was essentially a deconstructed salad: heirloom tomatoes coated in shards of a soft fig and nicoise olive “sauce” and a yellow heirloom tomato topped with olive oil ice (incredible!) that looked like parmesan cheese.  There were also figs that were smoky with basil in a caramelized crust and a garnish of creamy and lemony mastic dots.  A dollop of seeded fig paste and twenty-year-old Double Solera sherry vinegar let you make your own vinaigrette.  A “crouton” of compressed pine nut hulls, nicoise olive, and pumpernickel formed a small tower atop a wheel of rich pine nut cheese.  At the bottom left corner, a lone dark garlic crescent sulks.  Incredibly complex, this was one of my favorite courses.
We also had a smoky bread made with rendered bacon that we wanted to put in our respective purses for later.  Bacon.  In Bread.  Siiiiiiiigh.
Then things started to transition.  We moved to a three-part dish that melded savory and sweet.  The first part was a single strip of Winconsin, Neuske Farm, applewood-smoked bacon thinly coated in a barely-there layer of butterscotch and suspended from a wire like a dangling trapeze artist.  An apple leather thread wiggles its way across the bacon, and I tasted apple, followed by butterscotch, followed by the salt and smoke of the bacon.
The second part was a tube with three layers: a dark pink hibiscus gel, a white vanilla creme fraiche, and a baby-pink tapioca cooked in bubble gum stock.  This tube was a textural delight: gel, cream, then the pearly tapioca spheres.  It was one of my favorite progressions all night.  The bubble gum brought me right back to age five.
The third part of the course was a shot weighted at the bottom to appear heavy and filled with clear liquid.  In fact, only a meniscus of green nasturtium liquid enters the mouth, followed by a white ball made of cocoa butter.  There is a brief, waxy white chocolate taste, and then the sphere pops to deliver its melony liquid inside.  The shot is festooned with a red nasturtium flower and has an overal grassy, floral flavor.
We moved definitively into dessert with a complicated rhubarb and onion course plated on top of a lavender pillow.  The weight of the dish gradually deflated the pillow, emitting the lavender scent.  Rhubarb came in the form of ice cream, a fragrant rhubarb film inspired by the popular breath-mint-strips, and a dehydrated rhubarb sponge, a meringue-like crisp fashioned with soy lecithin rather than egg whites.  The rhubarb was accompanied by goat milk cheesecake and sweet onion cotton candy, another of my favorites during this meal.  Brief dots of lavender gelee accompanied the lavender air, and the rhubarb really worked with the onion.  The presentation was finished with what looked like two strands of chive.
The highlight of the night, however, was went the chef performed an “experiment” at our table.  Always looking to perfect dishes, he had been searching for a porous, cleanable, reusable material for four years before happening upon a silicone used only in dominatrix costumes.
The silicone was spread across our table and strategically laid upon with milk chocolate mousse frozen with liquid nitrogen, pickled blueberries, bubbles of maple syrup consomme, blueberry port, yogurt with fresh thyme, a freeze dried blueberry chip, candied walnut, walnut shortbread crumble, and tobacco whipped cream.  The chef’s perfectionism and perpetual search for new borders was evident in his irritation that the silicone didn’t expand the full length of the table, leaving a half inch island of black table visible beneath the gray sheet.  The course was a myriad of textures and traditional forms challenged.  The tobacco cream had a strong bite that I didn’t care for, but I respected its innovative use and overall blend with the dish.


Finally, we received a half-dollar-sized charger plate, to which was later added a wire cup filled with the most delicious thing I put in my mouth all night.  A soft pillow of sweet potato, bourbon, and brown sugar was tempura-battered and fried.  Served warm on a smoldering cinnamon stick, you get sweet potato, crisp breading, sugar, bourbon, smoke, and then cinnamon.  I’ve used the word “food-gasm” before, and I’ll use it again now.
During his brief presence at our table, I couldn’t contain my admiration for the chef. Grant Achatz is only three years older than me.  He has worked at French Laundry and El Bulli; won numerous accolades from the James Beard Foundation, Gourmet Magazine, and Food and Wine; and carved out a niche for himself here at Alinea.  Here is a man whom I can only describe as brilliant, a genius… and he has already put behind him a career and life-threatening battle with stage 4 carcinoma of the mouth.  Jealously guarding his tongue, his livelihood, he underwent experimental treatment in 2007.  Could this man be any more impressive?!?
I have never seen anyone so carefully think out and craft balance, texture, temperature, visual appeal, smell, and taste.  There are so many dimensions to his dishes.  There are flavor progressions and a defiance of traditional forms.  Liquids become powders and solids become gases.  The standard state of things is never to be taken for granted and always redefined.  This is truly postmodern cooking, and I have yet to experience anything like it.  It is not mere eating.
Other Chicago restauranteurs in the know gave us some inside scoop, namely that Grant Achatz crafts detailed drawings that look like photographs of each dish.  Looking back at previous menus, I see that he constantly pushes himself to create new things.  His menu is a dynamic entity, constantly pioneering.  Yet, he is this soft-spoken man.  Caroline and I were completely struck by the difference between our meal at Graham Elliot’s and our meal at Alinea.  The personality of both chefs could not be more evident in their food.  Graham Elliot is bold, brash, and unapologetic; his flavors slap you and scream, “This is good!”  Grant Achatz is quite, clever, and subtle; his dishes challenge you, test you, and make you think.
Not only is he intelligent and obsessed with perfection, but he’s nice. Chef Achatz requested our names, invited us for a kitchen tour, and provided signed copies of Alinea as we exited to the taxi that had been called for us.  In my copy?

To Jennifer:
It’s always gratifying to know our work is appreciated, thank you.
Toward creativity!

3 Responses to “Alinea”

  1. AMAZING!!!

  2. I loved reading this post, you captured every moment of deliciousness. I think I really have been ruined for all other dining experiences.

  3. I cannot go a day without my my cbd salve!

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