I have patiently waited 3 years to check Alinea off my bucket list. Each time the fates have plotted against me and reservations have just slipped out of my hands.
Tyler and I used to compare restaurant notes as self defined foodies while waiting for meeting rooms to open up at work. Station 1 per his suggestion, which sadly is closed now, was one of the finest meals I’ve ever had at the time. Shortly after that he recommended Steam, which I really liked with their made to order fresh dim sum for dinner. I know it’s not the value to have expensive dim sum, but sometimes I just want breakfast foods for dinner, and for that it does satisfy.
Then three years ago before one of our meetings began Tyler mentions how he just tried Alinea in Chicago. It was the best meal he’s ever had in his lifetime. Looking into this recommendation more, I found Alinea to be a three Michelin star restaurant run by Grant Achatz, former sous chef at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, who battled cancer and temporarily lost his tastebuds due to chemo. I’m often compelled by stories of adversity and triumph, and then this immediately went on my “must visit” list.
Now began the homework. The key to dining at Alinea is ordering tickets on their reservation system. Yup they have a ticketing system like most coveted restaurants do. Ticketing prevents overbooking, and flaking via commitments to allotted time slots, and allows for consistency in food quality and customer service.
Getting a tip from another coworker, I discovered that via their Twitter account is how they notify prospective patrons when they are releasing tickets, normally 3 months in advance. For me this instantly meant setting up a push notification on Twitter to alert me whenever Alinea tweeted. Second part was finding someone to be free, want to spend 300+ per person on dinner and fly to Chicago at a couple month’s notice. Otherwise they also list their cancelations on Twitter, but after a failed attempt at getting a cancelation when I happened to already be in Chicago, I decided the ticket route might be a better option.
Every time I tried to get a reservation I would log on, set a time and try to see who was free, but by the time people had agreed to go and refresh my window all the tickets would be gone.
Tickets for the month of December are now on sale! Please note that we will be closed for the holidays December… http://t.co/aZfwRSFjuq
— Alinea Restaurant (@Alinea) October 15, 2015
Finally in early October last year the stars aligned, a friend immediately texted back that they would be available and already in Chicago for December, and when I looked back the tickets were still there. Huzzah!
— Jessica Cheung (@jessicacheung) October 15, 2015
When you arrive at Alinea it appears nondescript like a modern storefront next to a brownstone and fits in with the neighborhood without any audacious signage. You’re almost not sure that you’ve arrived at the right place without GPS. Once inside you walk down a long dark corridor that opens up into a short foyer where a hostess takes your coats and seats you immediately.
There’s no bar at Alinea, instead it’s intimate and serene without crowding. The dining rooms feel cosy and comfortable with high back plush dining chairs that hug you.
Once seated in the upstairs dining room, our service staff explains the silverware pillow. Oh yes, the silverware sits on a soft and luxurious mini pillow, and is only for clean items. For each course they will set out new silverware.
Next we’re treated to a selection of wine. Instead of doing the pairing we both settle on a 2010 Two Blondes Vineyard Red, which scores at about a 91-92 on most wine enthusiast ratings scales.
Shortly after we’re told about the special, which we both have to order to be able to get it. Truffle risotto. At the sound of this my jaw drops and I look hopefully at my dinner companion. Nope. Too full from our 3pm snack. Alas… another time.
Nevertheless our meal begins with a drink made from what we thought to be dinner table decor.
The our first course came. Satsuma flavoring in a ball with star anise, saffron, and murray river salt.
Immediately I was frustrated. While dining at all restaurants I try to deconstruct the flavors for each dish in my mind to try to recreate at home, but for a deconstructionist’s molecular gastronomic dinner this would impossible without more expertise in food science, or their step by step their cookbook.
Next up was a trio of familiar flavors in different formats. One was supposed to represent a ham sandwich, the next olive and anchovies, and finally a take on potato chips. It was like eating nostalgia.
Then it was time for perfectly cooked Arctic Char with uchiki kuri squash, thai banana and blis.
Following the fish was a graffiti on concrete inspired dish. As our waitstaff was explaining this dish, he flubbed and I joked that he could just say, “blah blah blah” and I would understand as he laughed. I moved apart the delicious gray chips on the top to reveal chanterelle mushrooms below for the photo, as when it’s served it isn’t very colorful without the color of the mushrooms peaking out from below the rubble. This dish was well balanced and flavorful.
Onaga came after that, which was my favorite dish of the night by far. This was Alinea’s take on ceviche. An amaebi bathed in Tiger’s Milk, coconut and served from within a bowl where dry ice citrus vapor ebbed and flowed from the bowl outside the container. This dish was cool and refreshing and the baby shrimp was perfection. If my whole meal was just this, I would have been ok with the night.
When the Onaga was being served, another dish of fire and coal was placed in front of us, while we thought this was decor again, it turned out to be a main dish again. Out from the embers emerging like the dark phoenix were logs of Japanese Waygu and potato wrapped in seaweed that were being cooked in our presence, then sliced and placed next to the tastiest romaine leaves I think I’ve ever had. They were maybe partially flash frozen?
While we were being served courses I was intently watching the table next to us as each course unfolded ahead of ours. Right as we were midway through our meal they received the truffle risotto. It came in a light blue laced bowl on a matching plate, covered by a glass cloche bell jar. The presentation was stunning, and the risotto didn’t steam up the jar at all. The wait staff then proceeded to remove the jars and reveal a giant truffle for which he began shaving onto both their dishes. He paused and asked them if they had ample truffle on their dishes, to which the gentleman dinner replied, we could always use additional truffle. A gorgeous mound of truffle shavings sat atop their risotto, as this lovely latin married couple smiled lovingly at each other. Meanwhile, I was dying in my chair. Unlimited truffle, you will not be mine tonight.
The next dish I wasn’t a complete fan over. The duck served two ways was uber tasty, as was the foie gras, but the cooled bourbon soup flavoring was too strong a flavor with everything else.
Finally rounding out our lineup was a cold potato and truffle bite (delicious), olive cake (great) and lamb souvlaki like item (alright), and this parsnip dish (okay).
Nearing this point I was getting pretty full, but we were near the end of the meal and I was prepping for the piece de la resistance. The helium balloon. Yes…
The signature dessert of Alinea is a balloon made of taffy, in this case apple flavored taffy that was filled with helium. From where I was sitting, I could see where a previous guest had carelessly let their balloon fly, as a bit of taffy residue resided on the top of ceiling. We were given a tutorial on how to enjoy the balloon, as many a patron has had mishaps with it. You’re supposed to pop the balloon with your lips, inhale the helium and then speak to your dinner date/s and then eat the balloon. This part was the most fun of the night.
Next came the finishing blow. The serving staff removed everything from the table and unrolled a silicon mat. The main server remarked how this mat was made from dolphin skin, to which my dinner companion remarked, “Well that’s a great use of a dolphin then.” And our server was so flabbergasted that he had no words, and could only laugh.
What next unfolded on the “dolphin skin” was artwork, as dessert was being painted on our table, in chocolate and delicious fruit flavors, with the final steps being lychee fairy dust being tossed across the table, and the ball of dry ice frozen coconut topped with chocolate smashed at the end of the presentation.Alinea. Grant Achatz. 3 years and worth the wait. It was artistic, detailed, mysterious and tasty. I loved that the staff would explain every dish and it’s intent, it made the meal seem less like an ordinary dining experience and more like getting a peak into the mind of a genius.