My birthday gift from my husband was dinner at Alinea, the number one restaurant in America/number five in the world. Alinea’s owner/chef Grant Achatz’s is a culinary legend. He has been the recipient of several James Beard Awards, and his restaurant holds the highest rating of three Michelin stars. After watching Spinning Plates I had been longing to visit Alinea, and Charles thought that my birthday was the perfect reason to go.
As you may suspect, Alinea is expensive. It is the most expensive meal I have ever had. It was a very rare splurge. It was also the most beautiful executed, elaborately presented, and wildly creative meal I have ever enjoyed. It is the type of meal you never forget. I have been describing the Alinea experience as dinner and theater rolled into one. The presentation of each dish was a bit of theater. Sometimes we were even given specific instructions for how to eat a course. The 16 course meal spanned about three hours and involved fires on our tables, tumbleweeds, and edible spraypaint.
Chef Achatz is an innovator in the field of molecular gastronomy – which uses scientific techniques to prepare foods. He is known for creating foams and gels, and for deconstructed presentations of food where each element of the dish is separate. Alinea serves a set menu of 16-18 courses that is constantly changing. You don’t receive a menu when you sit down, you receive the set menu for that night. For this reason, you need to be adventurous to dine at Alinea. Everyone that I have met who has been to Alinea has had nothing but the most incredible things to say about the experience, and I have been wanting to go for a long time. This was a very special birthday gift.
Before dining at Alinea, I suggest watching the documentary Spinning Plates, which tells the story of three different restaurants, one of which is Alinea. The documentary tells the story of Chef Grant Achatz’s stage four tongue cancer diagnosis and battle against the disease, and the process of opening Next, while following the days leading up to the first announcement of Michelin star ratings for the US. The film will give you a taste of what to expect at Alinea, and will get you really excited to go.
Our first course was Osetra, caviar with a bread flavored foam and a caper gel. I loved that we were greeted with molecular gastronomy at it’s finest. The form really did taste just like bread. It was like something out of a very sophisticated Willy Wonka film. We opted for the wine pairing, which included 11 different wines. The first was R. Pouilon “Reserve” Brut Champagne NV.
Next came Salsify, which appeared to be a tumbleweed. Well, it was a tumbleweed, but within the tumbleweed was camouflaged root vegetable jerky that had a salty earthy taste. The sensory experience of finding the jerky by examining the texture was completely new to me, and really fun.
The third course was Skate with a Brown Butter, Lemon, and Herbs. This was one of my favorites. The skate was miraculously tender, and the brown butter gave a richness to the dish. This was served on a playful dish shaped like a cocktail napkin and paired with A.J. Adam “Dhroner” Riesling Mosel.
Pebble, was the fourth course and it included prawns, four different types of beans, and seaweed. The presentation reminded me the beach, the various beans mimicked pebbles. It was paired with the Domaine de l’Ecu Muscadet Sevre et Maine “Granite” 2010, which had a mineral salty taste that reminded me of the ocean.
One of my favorite presentations was Trout, which was served on a slat of wood first used in a bourbon barrel, and then used to make a bourbon maple syrup, which had a beautiful scent of both bourbon and maple. The trout wasn’t the least bit fishy, a taste I have noticed every other time I have tried trout, instead it was smooth and tender and mild in taste. Each serving included three bite sized pieces of trout served with white pepper, Vietnamese coriander, and broccoli.
In the center the trout bones, which had been morphed into a potato-chip-like consistency were piled in the center. The trout skeleton was something that I was very curious to try, and while upon the first couple of bites did have the consistency of potato chips, it got stuck in my teeth in an awkward way that didn’t make me want to eat more. This was served with Domaine Bernard Defaix “Cote de Lechet” 1er Cru Chablis 2012.
When we arrived at our table the first thing that I noticed was the bundle of root vegetables hanging over the table. The sixth course began with a kettle of hot water being brought to the table. The root vegetables were then added to the water and allowed to steep. After a few minutes, Eggplant with banana, cocoa, and curry with fried lentils were brought to the table, and the broth was poured over. The fried lentils were a delight that made me wonder why no one else seems to be frying lentils. The pairing was Schoffit “Cuvee Caroline” Gewürztraminer Alsace 2009.
Next came a palate cleanser, the Lily Bulb with rambutan and a caviar lime distillation. This was very mild tasting, but yet satisfying. The signaled the transition from cold dishes to hot dishes.
The eighth dish, Hamachi, had one of my favorite presentations. The hamachi was skewered beside a shishito pepper with a pine branch. Then a small fire was lit on the table and we were invited to prepare the hamachi to our desired level of being cooked. This was served with Chiyonosono “Shared Promise” Junmai Kumamoto sake.
The ninth dish, Matsutake, was served alongside the eighth. Matsutake mushrooms were served with tapioca and it was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The mushrooms were lightly torched, and the tapioca had a creamy consistency. It was a pairing of two things that magically worked together.
Just when we thought that the embers of course eight were left on our table for a bit too long, the tenth course was pulled from the embers. The discovery of Pork Belly from within the embers was a wow moment. A lightly charred parsnip (this is really the trendiest vegetable in Chicago right now), black trumpet mushrooms, and kombu were served with the succulent pork belly. The wine pairing was Domaine de la Reserve D’O “BilBo” St. Saturnin 2012.
While the menu at Alinea is constantly evolving, there are some dishes that are Alinea classics. Hot Potato, Cold Potato was written up in The New Yorker in 2008, and was one of the courses that I loved during my visit. This dish is served in a wax bowl, and a round ball of warm potato topped with a slice of black truffle is suspended on a thin needle over a cold potato soup. Our server instructed us to remove the needle releasing the warm potato into the soup so that we could eat it like a shooter. I could have eaten a dozen of these soup shooters.
Squab with beet and orange came next. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed squab, which I believe was sous-vide since it was perfectly cooked and bursting with flavor. This seemed the most similar to something you would see at another restaurant due to its meat and vegetable elements, and the fact that nothing was set on fire at our table. The beet was rich and tender and it complimented the squab beautifully. The wine pairing was Tomasso Bussola Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2009.
Then we moved on to the dessert courses. The first was Graffiti, with hazelnut and perigord that was sprayed with balsamic. An edible cement was paired with an ice cream and garnished with hazelnuts. Then a balsamic reduction was spray painted over the dish, giving it the name Graffiti. Vergano Chinato Moscato “Luli” NV (Moscato is the next big wine trend) was the wine pairing.
The next to courses showed the playful side of Alinea. Blueberry consisted of bubblegum (bubble yum to be exact) flavored noodles that melted in your mouth served with lilac and sorrel. This felt like something straight out of Willy Wonka, and in the best of ways. I thought this dish, and the one that followed, showed that being the best restaurant doesn’t mean you have to be stuffy.
Course fifteen, the Balloon, was the most playful. A green apple taffy balloon was filled with helium. We were encouraged inhale the helium and to say funny things to each other as we ate the balloon the sweet and sour.
The memorable meal concluded with another Alinea classic, a deconstructed Tropical Fruit with run, vanilla, kaffir lime, caramelized banana, and frozen coconut. A silicon tablecloth is placed over the table first, and then Chef Achatz arranges the dish directly on the tablecloth – it’s complete combination of art and food. Frozen coconut was placed in the center of the table, and then fruit and sauces were arranged and painted onto the table. Then the coconut was hit so that it broke apart on the table. It looked more like modern art than dessert, but it proved to be a fitting end to the meal. The presentation invites diners to try different combinations of the fruits and sauces, and has all the elements someone would expect from Alinea – creative presentation, bold tastes, and a bit of table-side theatrics. Ferrandes Passito Pantelleria 2006 was the wine pairing.
Once you decide to dine at Alinea, you need to decide if you want to spring for the wine pairing. We both got the wine pairing because we thought that is what you do the first time you dine at Alinea. The thing to understand is that the last three wines were dessert wines, so if you don’t like sweet wines, you may want to opt for a bottle of wine instead. Even though I didn’t love every wine, I liked the opportunity to try each pairing.
At Alinea you receive the menu at the end of the meal. We has asked if Chef Achatz would sign the menu (I’m building a collection) and he obliged. He signed it “Toward Creativity” which I just love because it says so much about the food at Alinea, but also the way in which I aspire to live my life. The menu is arranged in the order of courses served, with circles representing the size of the dish, the boldness of flavor, and the sweetness.
Alinea uses a ticketing system. You make a reservation online by buying a ticket and prepaying for your dinner. We made our reservation two months in advance. Dining at Alinea is a truly unique and extraordinary experience that I very highly recommend for the adventurous foodies.