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Alinea

Someone told me that Alinea was booked for the whole month, but I had to try anyway. At first, the best I could get was a tasting on Thursday night. I tried the next day and was offered The Tour at 9:30 PM. For a meal that would last 3.5 to 4 hours, I realized this was pretty late. They asked me what time I’d like to dine at. I didn’t understand, didn’t we just make a reservation at 9:30? Yes, but what time would I normally like to eat at? I said six or seven. She said she’d see what she could do. I told her that this reservation was the reason I was flying to Chicago. She didn’t seem phased by it at all. Throughout the week leading up to the actual date, I received at least three more calls confirming food allergies, physical ability (to walk up stairs), dress code (men must wear jackets) and the availability of an 8 PM spot. Perfect.

In 2003, Chef Grant Achatz won The James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef award. Prior to that he was a sous chef for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. He’s was also the chef at Trio in Illinois. After a series of meetings with entrepreneur Nick Kokonos, a friendship and partnership was formed and the vision for Alinea was laid out. On the forefront of molecular gastronomy, Achatz is a serious innovator and uses science in his cooking. However, taste and flavors are first and foremost in his dishes and I think this is what sets him apart from other science chefs. It’s not science for the sake of science. Chef Achatz works closely with Crucial Detail in San Diego, CA to create serving utensils and platters for his food. The meal is an experience and the way the food is served and consumed has an immediate and long-lasting effect on the diner. In 2006, Alinea was named the best restaurant in America by Gourmet Magazine. It is also one of 16 American restaurants to be awarded 5 stars from Mobil.

In July of last year, Achatz announced he had mouth cancer which is probably one of the worst things that could happen to a chef. At that time, the most likely cure would be amputation of part of his tongue, which would have surely ended his career. However, the doctors in Chicago were able to treat him using aggressive chemotherapy and radiation and miraculously he fully recovered. I am sure the community breathed a collective sigh of relief at the good news.

We arrived about 20 minutes early, at 7:40 PM. When we got out of the cab, we had a valet open the door for us. He asked us if we were dining here which sort of insulted me because it’s not a random place that people would get dropped off at. We said we were and walked toward the nondescript door. The doorman said welcome and swung open the door. I told Ted that the experience starts right when we walk in, and I was right. The corridor is lit with purple lights and it’s narrow and empty. I walked to the end, thinking a secret door would open. I turned around when I heard Ted tell me that the door was on the left. Oops.


Alinea entrance. Sorry for the terrible picture

When the door opened, it was like we entered a whole different world. It was bustling with noise, but it was not noisy. It was exciting but calm and serene at the same time. We were immediately greeted and shown or table. We were in a room with 5 tables. You’ll notice in the photos that three of the tables were along a wall bench/sofa. They even had pillows for guests to rest their arms on. Like I’ve mentioned before in my other posts, most fine dining restaurants have teams of staff that wait on you, not just a single waitperson. Alinea was no different. A staff member suggested a sparkling wine and I agreed but when the sommelier (who looked like Malcolm Gladwell) came, I ordered a glass of Riesling. It was the best I’ve ever had. Ted and I both ordered The Tour. We got a sneak preview of each course because there was a couple next to us that had just started perhaps 20 minutes prior.


STEELHEAD ROE; coconut, lime, vanilla fragrance

The first course set the tone for the rest of the meal. Yes, that’s an entire vanilla bean they are using as a serving tool. Of course it smelled extremely fragrant. The row was wrapped in a thin flexible sheet. The dish was sweet and of course salty. Great.


YUBA; shrimp, miso, togarashi

Yuba is the skin that is formed on top of a pot when you boil tofu. They deep fried it to make a serving utensil out of it. The shrimp is wrapped around it. And it sits in a miso and togarashi (Japanese 7 spice) sauce. Very good. During the meal, we spoke regularly with the couple next to us. It turns out Kyle and Claire were both from New York and recently at Jean Georges. Claire is also a UCSB alumni!


CRAB; passionfruit, avocado, heart of palm

Another one bite morsel. This was delicious since I am a huge fan of crab. I think this was dungeness.


Bacon donut dusted with sugar

The only restaurant I have been to that does bread pairings. This tasted like a beignet. We were given two butters – house churned cow’s milk butter with Hawaiian black sea salt and a goat’s milk butter. Check my set on Flickr to see the other types of bread we got.


FAVA BEANS; lavender, banana, pecorino

What you don’t see in this picture is how the dish was delivered. Everything was layered in an bottomless glass and the waiter pulled the glass away, dropping the contents. This was very creamy, sweet. Refreshing believe it or not.


SPRING GARLIC; parsley, lemon, chicken

This was handed to us by the waiter and we were asked to hold it, instead of it being placed down on the table. The fork holds three gelee’s. I think at this point I started asking on the techniques and what hydrocolloids are used. What’s interesting about the service is they have to memorize a large amount of information so when they deliver it, it sounds like a speech. Each time you ask a question, they stumble and get confused. I used the term “hydrocolloid” and the waiter did not know what I meant. Interestingly, he ended up being the most friendly and helpful. The other waiters would never volunteer information even though I clearly was an educated diner. Only when I hit on key terms, would they confirm or deny the ingredient.

Anyway, I liked the garlic soup a lot. The gelee’s were interesting in concept but I am not sure they added anything to the dish. Well, I take that back. They did their job of adding the three flavors to the soup.


SHORT RIB; Guinness, peanut, fried broccoli

You may be wondering where the Guinness is. It’s that huge sheet on top. It’s a sheet of Guinness gel. Amazing. They use this technique a lot at Alinea, it seems. I was told they pout it on a sheetpan (or acetate) and bend it back and forth to flatten it. The fried broccoli was salted and added contrast to the dish in terms of flavor and texture. Parts of the dish reminded me of Thai cooking. The short ribs were incredibly tender but it’s the accompaniments that made it work.

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HOT POTATO; cold potato, black truffle, butter

Their infamous hot potato / cold potato dish. The bowl is made out of wax and formed twice daily. There is a pin that is stuck through the dish holding the ingredients. You are supposed to pull the pin, dropping the ingredients into the soup below. The truffles are from France (I asked). Excellent contrast in temperatures. Great flavors.


PORK BELLY; smoked paprika, polenta, picked vegetables

Interesting dish. You can’t see the pork belly because there’s a sheet that’s wrapped around it. To be honest, I don’t remember much about this dish.


CHICKEN SKIN; truffle, corn, thyme

I am very picky when it comes to poultry skin. I love it when it’s crispy and not gummy. This had a texture like really large bread crumbs. I am not sure if they used tapioca maltodextrin here but it’s how I’d imagine it’d feel like.


MANGO; soy, foie gras

They made a capsule out of mango. It tasted exactly like a fruit rollup but firmer. Inside they put foie gras creamed with (I believe) creme fraice. Amazing. The best part is after you are done with it, it sticks to your teeth so you get to taste sweet mango for a few minutes.


CARAMEL CORN; “liquefied”

One of the biggest hits of the night. They take butter popcorn and steep it in heavy cream, blend it, then strain it. There’s a caramel foam on top made with soy lecithin. Incredible and something I definitely want to recreate.


CRANBERRY; frozen and chewy, bitter orange, chervil

If I recall correctly, this was done on the anti-griddle. They used Ultra Tex which gives it a very attractive chewy/gummy texture. The stainless steel pin is used as an eating utensil. During the entire meal, there was a pillow in front of each of us that held utensils for the next course. We were instructed to put used utensils down on each dish as we were finished with them. The staff was very good at removing and placing new silverware, oftentimes without us even noticing.


WAGYU BEEF; black truffle, potato, Blix Elixir

Excellent presentation and execution for this dish. About half an hour before we actually ate this dish, they bought out to pairs of chopsticks holding these pale pink sheets. We quickly gathered from the tables next to us that it was Wagyu beef frozen in liquid nitrogen. Finally, they brought out a hot potato wrapped in black truffle. They put the beef on top and the heat melted it. They also put a vinaigrette on top with aged Sherry vinegar and fat rendered from the beef. This was heaven!


ICE FISH; shellfish, horseradish, parsley

It was explained to us that ice fish come from the Antarctic and they are the only animals without hobgoblin. The dish looked whimsically like an undersea scene. There were all sorts of mysterious shellfish. I thought some of the pieces were geoduck but they were actually scallops. There were nice pieces of fried horseradish which I greatly preferred over the liquid one. I thought the liquid horseradish was very overpowering and I actually struggled to finish the dish.


APPLE CIDER; walnut milk, cinnamon, vegetable ash

If I recall correctly, they way they made this was drop frozen cider into liquid butter. The butter formed around the cider and when it melted, it stayed liquid in the now solid butter. We were told to take it in one shot and to be careful because the orb is larger than it looks. I think both Ted and I thought it was interesting but not stellar. I love butter but this is like eating a chunk of it with a sip of cider.


LOBSTER; peas, ramps, mint vapor

One of my favorite dishes of the night. They brought out a dish full of spearmint and mint and poured hot water over it to release vapors. I know it seems gimmicky and you’ve seen it a thousand times on Iron Chef, but guess what? It works! Very intense lobster flavors.


The Stick

Wait, what’s this? A meal interruption? 🙂 The waiter brought out what they call “The Stick.” I asked him it was heavy and he soon realized I was trying to take a picture. We took a cracker and put it into our soup. What did it taste like? Exactly like the prawn crackers you get in Chinese supermarkets, but way more refined. Delicious.


LAMB; mushroom, red wine, diverse embellishments

This was just a crazy amount of flavors and textures. The two bumps on top of the lamb were mushrooms. Actually, the mushrooms are hiding under some sheets. There are some sodium alginate spheres in there too. I thought this dish was good but I wonder how good the pairings were. I mean it’s easy to say chocolate and bananas go well together. But if I threw in a walnuts, would that change anything? Nobody would certainly say it was a bad match since walnuts are not that strong of a flavor. But I am not sure you’d say it was a perfect match.


BLACK TRUFFLE; explosion, romaine, Parmesan

I loved the plating of this dish. If you notice, it’s a bottomless bowl. The “explosion” part is the liquid inside the ravioli. The way it’s made is the stock is set (with gelatin or agar agar) and then scooped into the ravioli. Then the pasta is cooked and the heat melts the liquid. When you bite into it, it bursts in your mouth.


TRANSPARENCY; of raspberry, rose petal, yogurt

Very neat presentation and flavors. What you can’t see is the powdered sugar on the other side. The way it was presented, I could see the white specs on Ted’s and he could see mine. You eat it by picking it up and pinching below the circle which releases it. Delicious.


BACON; butterscotch, apple, thyme

The bacon rocked back and forth. To eat it, you hold one end of the wire and pull down on the bacon. Very good classic sweet and salty flavor.


PERSIMMON; carrot, red curry, spice strip

This dish was just ok for me. I liked the powder they made and I liked the flavor strip in the upper right. The chef wanted for the spices to be in your mouth while you ate the dis


LICORICE CAKE; muscovado sugar, orange, hyssop

We got distracted takign pictures and talking to our new friends. When he got a chance, the waitperson advised us to eat this quickly because it was going to melt. You can tell they want to be sure you get the proper experience. The white stuff is spun sugar and it kind of pricks your mouth when you eat it. You are supposed to eat it with no hands. They said imagine you are making a speech and you want to eat the microphone. LOL.


CHOCOLATE; egg, pomelo, smoke

Egg yolk cooked in an immersion circulator sat inside one of the chocolate orbs. There is a very strong smoke flavor in one of the spheres. We were advised to mix everythign together because some of the elements were too strong by themselves.


Intelligentsia coffee

French press coffee. They had a large selection of teas (mostly Asian), including Pur’eh. I cringed at the very very expensive prices.


SWEET POTATO; bourbon, tempura, cinnamon incense

One of my favorite desserts. A large burning cinnamon stick used as an eating utensil. Great flavors. It tasted sort of like a sugar donut.  This was the 24th and final course in an epic meal that spanned four and a half hours.

Alinea matched all my expectations. I am extremely happy and feel fortunate I was able to make it out to Chicago to dine here. If I had to rank it, it would either be number one or two on my list of restaurants I’ve dined at. Like I said, the science does not compromise the flavor. I did not see excessive use of science. In fact, I think most diners would not question or recognize any strangeness to the meal unless someone pointed it out to them. I think the flavors were, mostly, on point. There were a few dishes that did not seem well thought out or were overbearing. I think the service is as legendary as they say, though I thought it was a little too rehearsed and acted out. I would have appreciated it if they gave me more credit and explained things better. I have to hand it to one of the waiters, though. He was extremely humble and friendly. I feel it was fairly priced, though I still wish more restaurants used The French Laundry’s model of a flat fee with service included. I also liked the fact that the reservation staff kept in constant communication and completely accommodated my schedule.

Total for two: $608

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