The highlight of my trip to Chicago was Alinea, one of the first restaurants on my “dream” list – I first heard about this restaurant on a podcast that interviewed Grant Achatz, and how he lost his sense of taste when he was diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer – and how his ability to taste slowly came back after his cancer went into remission. I was really moved and amazed by the story, which prompted me to learn more about his cooking. I was instantly drawn to Alinea’s creativity and put it on my wish list for “someday.” Well, “someday” came true on a late Saturday evening last fall… and it was definitely an experience to remember.
There are three dining experiences at Alinea: the “Kitchen Table”, which is for parties of 6 only; the “Gallery”, which is their full tasting menu; and the “Salon”, which is a smaller tasting menu. We chose the “Gallery” – the website description is a “multi-sensory 16 to 18 course menu that combines fine dining with experimental moments.” When we first arrived, there was a large table for about 12 guests – I was surprised that it was a communal dining table, but we were quickly assured by our waiter that this was only part of the experience. We were also asked if we wanted a wine or juice pairing – J chose to have the juice pairing, which we ended up sharing.
Be forewarned that this is going to be a really, really long post – we had a lot of food!
Course 1: Communal
This display of five shot glasses sitting in a block of ice was already at our table when we arrived, but we weren’t supposed to start eating until everyone was ready. From left to right, these were:
Pâté with black truffle; poached king crab; fresh herbs & onions; Osetra caviar; and egg yolk panna cotta.
We were served several slices of toasted sourdough and told that we could mix and match these elements in any fashion that appealed to us. Right off the bat, it was clear that the dining experience here would be fun – there was no “right way” to eat a dish, and we were all encouraged to be creative and share our experiences with each other. That was the point of the communal table.
I enjoyed all of the elements of this course, but my favorite had to be the pâté, sprinkled with a bit of the fresh herbs to cut the richness. I was very cautious with the king crab since I have a mild allergy, but turns out I didn’t have a reaction at all – hooray!
Verjus Blanc & Lychee
(I’m not a fan of lychee, so I didn’t have much of the first juice pairing.)
Course 2: Shaker | Roll
The green contraption that you see in the photo above is an old-school style cocktail shaking device – there are apparently only a handful of these ever made, and Alinea is the proud owner of one. For the second course, we all stepped into the kitchen from the dining room and watched as the chefs prepared us each a gin, chartreuse, and green tomato cocktail. It was served alongside a refreshing roll of cucumber, feta cheese, and caper leaf.
After we had all eaten our “rolls”, we were ushered back into the dining area where – lo and behold! – the communal table had been transformed into individual dining tables for each party with a beautiful bowl of citrus at the center of each table.
Course 3: Crunch | Paper
“Crunch”: Shio kombu; nori; scallop mousse
“Paper”: Scallop “noodles”, butter, corn broth
We began to notice that the courses were arriving in “pairs”, which proved to be interesting both in flavor and texture. The “Crunch” element was a seaweed roll filled with a scallop mousse, which was a ridiculously savory bite. The “Paper” was made from dehydrated scallops pressed into a super thin and delicate sheet. The servers poured a buttery corn broth onto the paper, rehydrating (and thus destroying all the work that went into the dehydration) and giving them a noodle-like texture. Another crazy burst of umami here. The corn juice pairing was on point, with the sweetness balancing out the umami from both dishes perfectly. This was certainly a drink that didn’t “make sense” until we had it with the food, which speaks volumes (in my opinion) on the quality of the pairing.
As the next course was being served, our server poured something (liquid nitrogen? dry ice?) into our centerpiece that suddenly filled the room with the lovely aroma of citrus fruits. We would be experiencing our next course while our senses are filled with this fresh scent.
Course 4: Contrast | Sangre | Swirl
“Contrast”: Confit cherry tomato; dehydrated watermelon; parmesan “ice”
“Sangre”: Pluot; green peanut foam; Iberico ham
“Swirl”: Apple; yuzu; lemon verbena
This course comprised of three elements, all of which were meant to be plays on the senses with a strong fruit component. My favorite of the three was the “Sangre” – I really loved the flavor of the peanut foam.
Golden Honeydew & White Sesame
With such a strong fruit component in each dish, it made perfect sense that the juice pairing would feature a hearty combination of honeydew and sesame. I felt that the juice paired the best with “Sangre,” which is probably why that was my favorite.
Course 5: Spectrum
Sanma (Pacific saury); aji amarillo; avocado; katsuobushi
“Beer & Malt Vinegar”
This course was inspired by Japanese-Peruvian cuisine, featuring grilled Pacific saury fish with sauce and accompaniments inspired by traditional Peruvian cuisine. Aji amarillo is a Peruvian chile pepper, from which the beautiful tri-colored sauce was made. The accompanying components were avocado wedge sprinkled with herbs, a fried shishito pepper wrapped with katsuobushi (dried bonito), and thinly shaved radish and beets. The juice pairing was a malt vinegar drink inspired by beer – and I would even say that it’s even more flavorful than beer, and with acidity instead of bitterness. It worked quite nicely with the bold flavors of the fish.
Course 6: Yellow
Pork belly; curry; banana
Sweet Potato & Golden Beet
Now we’re moving on from Japanese-Peruvian to the flavors of Southeast Asia. A perfectly braised slice of pork belly was smothered in a curry flavored with bananas, topped with glass noodles. The juice pairing added a lovely earthy element – this was yet another juice that was not spectacular on its own but totally worked with the dish. I noted this to our server, and he said that he actually preferred the juice pairing to the wine, not only because they make all of these juices in-house, but they can truly tailor each juice to each dish, experimenting with different components until it tasted “right” – something they can’t do with wine.
Course 7: Toast
Gruyere, black truffle, pumpernickel
This bite was one of my favorite courses of the night. A slice of pumpernickel bread, topped with warmed-almost-melty Gruyere cheese and a generous piece of black truffle – so much richness in just one bite. Our server described this as a mini, ultra-rich grilled cheese sandwich… which definitely made me laugh. Best damn grilled cheese sandwich ever.
The juice pairing for this course carried over from the last – again, the earthiness of the sweet potato and beets worked well here, and the sweetness definitely balanced out the rich and savory bite.
Course 8: Petal | Glass
“Petal”: Purple allium; black pepper; onion
“Glass”: Lapsang souchong; blueberry; maitake
Rhubarb & Black Garlic
After several “single” courses, we had another dual-elements course. The “Petal” dish was yet another mini sandwich – the thin, glassy pieces of “bread” are actually dehydrated caramelized onions, and the filling was onion jam. Served atop purple allium flowers, this was a true onion-lovers’ delight. The “Glass” dish featured blueberry “glass”, encasing maitake mushrooms with a sauce made with lapsang souchong, a smoke-dried tea from Fujian.
The juice pairing here was also the “weirdest” one so far – rhubarb and… black garlic?! It tasted more like soup than juice. However, the black garlic did complement the onion-filled “Petal” dish perfectly… It just wasn’t meant to be consumed on its own, I decided.
Course 9: Bone
Wagyu; rice; myoga
This was another indulgent bite, with a slice of Miyazaki A5 wagyu beef on top of a cube of crispy rice, and topped with a thin shaving of myoga, Japanese ginger. Another one of my favorite bites of the evening, this was rich, flavorful, and ultra savory. It was also the perfect amount, as any more would have been just too rich for the palate.
Course 10: Cloche
Short rib; cinnamon; grape
Smoked Pinot Noir
This was the last savory course, and a wonderful one at that. The braised short rib was perfectly tender atop a bed of lentils, flavored with cinnamon. When the top of the cloche was opened, the room filled with the wonderful aroma of this dish. Paired with a juice made from smoked Pinot Noir grapes, this actually made me understand a bit of why red wine and meat are often paired together.
Course 11: Nostalgia
Bubble gum; cake; banana
Sweet & Tart Cherry with Date
The first dessert course, “Nostalgia”, was a play on the flavors of childhood – but with a twist in preparation and presentation. I’m not sure how this was made, but they’re supposed to resemble candies, I believe – complete with a plastic “wrapper” that’s edible. While those aren’t the flavors of my childhood, I still enjoyed the creativity and thought that went into this dish.
Along with this plate, we also received two helium “balloons” – flavored with banana. This is one of Alinea’s iconic dishes, and I was so sad that I didn’t get a better photo of it with my camera. The servers warned us not to let the balloons touch anything because they’re extremely sticky, and I got too nervous trying to juggle my camera and the balloon at the same time. So, here‘s what it looks like – this was one of the most fun parts of the meal, as everyone in the dining room was inhaling the helium and speaking with the high-pitched voices.
As our tables were being cleared for the next course, we saw the waitstaff climbing on stepladders to take off the paintings hanging on the ceilings…
…and before I could wonder what they were possibly going to do, imagine my surprise when the painting was set on our table to become our “plate” for the next course!
The room went dark, and upbeat, lively music began to play. The cooks wandered in and out of the kitchen, splattering and cracking various things onto our painting. Finally, the music stopped and the lights turned back on – this is what we saw:
Course 12: Paint
White chocolate; cherry; bourbon
There were pieces of flash-frozen chocolate “ice cream”, pistachio and cherry nougat, cherry-bourbon sauce… it was messy, but it was also beautiful, in a chaotic sort of way. Everyone’s canvas was different, making this a truly unique dish for each table. Again, while the flavors of this dessert weren’t my particular favorites, I absolutely loved the concept and presentation.
Our final juice pairing also featured sweet cherry quite heavily, which worked quite nicely with the flavors of both desserts. Overall, we enjoyed all of the juices and felt that there was definitely so much thought put into them to balance out each course perfectly.
Lastly, our meal closed out with a few pieces of white sesame, browned butter, and feuilletine candy. We eagerly ate them before realizing that I forgot to take a photo… oops.
We truly had an amazing experience here at Alinea – the food was creative and delicious, and I loved that the atmosphere of the restaurant was light and fun. I had high expectations coming in, and the dinner here exceeded them for sure. This was my first dinner experience at a Michelin 3-star restaurant/ top 20 restaurant in the world, and it is definitely a meal that I won’t forget. Many thanks to J for being my dining companion, and thanks to all of you for getting through this very long and very wordy post :)
1723 N. Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614