Sunday, March 23, 2014


I first heard about Alinea about 9 years ago when I was out at a volunteer event.  I happened to meet a girl who was a waitress at this new restaurant that had gotten a huge amount of preopening buzz and had just opened.   I had seen a little about it but I really wasn't familiar.  The girl said that the chef had come from a place called Trio in Evanston which I had heard of, and had heard very good things.  I had not gone there but it was on my short list.  I did eventually make it to Trio, but by the that time, there was a different chef.  It was still very good but it wasn't the chef that opened Alinea.  After talking, I decided to investigate and discovered that this was a very high end restaurant that served degustation menus featuring what became known as Molecular Gastronomy.  Coming here was going to be an event that had to be planned for.  Due to circumstances, it took me 9 years to eventually get here.  It could have been sooner but they initiated a ticketing system that made it very difficult for an odd numbered party to go (You have to buy tickets for all seats at a particular table).  I find it difficult to ask a friend to spend the amount of money necessary to go to a restaurant like this so it was difficult to make a reservation/buy tickets.  Eventually though, a friend asked me if I would be interested in going and I said of course.  The restaurant is located in a modern looking charcoal colored 2-flat in Lincoln Park.  There is no sign, but there was a guy standing outside in front of the enormous door.  He opened the door and I entered into a hallway with dim purple lighting that tapered in width as you walked into the building.  I walked back and didn't see anything so I was a little confused until an automatic sliding double door opened in one wall.  I walked through to a host's station where I was greeted.  I noticed the kitchen to my right (further into the building), a staircase in front of me, and a dining room to my right.  As I was telling them who I was, my dining partner came out of a waiting area and we were seated in the small, ground floor dining room which contained 5 two tops.  There are also three dining rooms upstairs for a total of about 60 seats.  We were seated at a corner which was great because it gave me a great view of the room and allowed me to see the action without turning my head.  I was seated against the wall at a dark banquette that had a yellow throw pillow.  Our table was dark, as were the other tables, there was a grey carpet on the floor and the walls seemed to be grey as well with several small modern art paintings for decoration.  The lighting was hidden in the walls and seemed a bit dim, but was sufficient, for the most part, for photography without a flash.  Above all of the tables was a Rhubarb Stem.  It seemed a little odd, but we assumed there was a point to it and that it would come into play later in the evening.  We started out with some water and some Rose' Champagne before our first course came out.  We were presented with a couple of what looked like a couple of goblets with the stem mostly removed.  It would roll on its base if the side was pushed.  Inside was a light, tart, and savory treat.  It consisted of Banana Puree on the bottom which was topped with some Arctic Char Roe, Ginger, and ultimately with Passionfruit Foam.  It was fresh, flavorful, and a great start.
The next course came out in large covered crocks that looked vaguely like coral and had steam coming out of them.  When the server removed the covers, we saw a lot more steam with a large scallop shell in the center of the crock.  When we opened the scallop shell, we were supposed to see that Ceviche had been prepared inside the shell.  There was so much steam in my crock though, that it was difficult to see anything until I blew it away.  The steam was from some dry ice and water under the seaweed that the scallop shell was resting on.  When I finally was able to see it though, it was an attractive visual.  There was Roe, Seaweed, Scallop, a fish of some sort, and Red Onion that I could identify.  The menu that we received at the end of the meal featured Citrus Aroma which came from the Lemon Juice in which the ceviche was prepared, and Thirteen Textures.  With the wide variety of ingredients, there were a variety of textures, but I didn't stop to count them.  I did like the intense sour flavor and the variety of ingredients used, which provided the different textures, though.
The next course visually was a relatively standard fine dining presentation although there were some surprises.  The dish featured Lobster which was fresh and perfectly cooked.  The lobster was set in Carrot Puree on opposite sides of the plate.  Around the plate, were various other accompaniments for the lobster.  At the top of the plate there was a small pile of what looked like roe but what was actually Grapefruit.  Also on the plate was Melon, Cauliflower, Earl Grey Tea, and Coconut, and in the center of the plate was a Lobster Puree.  This was very good and was a lot of fun trying the various accompaniments.
At this point, they brought out a piece of slate with some logs stacked for burning, set it in the middle of our table, and lit it.
They then brought out our next course which seemed to have nothing to do with the fire.  It was an Asian-Inspired Salad with Ebi (shrimp), Celtuce (Stem Lettuce), Sea Beans, Grapes, Wasabi, Carmalized Miso, and Yuzu.  It was a small dish, but it was very flavorful with flavors of brine, shrimp, and Wasabi, with a little sweetness from the Yuzu and Grapes.  It also had a lot of fresh crunch.
After this dish, the server came and put the fire out and removed it to a serving tray he set beside the table.  He then opened a couple of logs, which turned out to contain a slice of very marbled Wagyu Beef  and a Parsnip.  These were presented on a charred log which was used as a plate which also had a Black Trumpet Mushroom covering a Parsnip Puree, and a Kombu (Edible Kelp) Puree.  This was very savory from the beef, the mushroom, and the kelp, with the parsnip providing a moderating element.  The Wagyu was very tender and the parsnip root was very crunchy.  It was a very creative and surprising dish that was also very good.
Our next dish was a very simple palate cleanser.  Frequently, I have seen sorbets used as palate cleansers because they are simple and the tartness does the job.  This dish, while not a sorbet, did fall into the simple and tart category.  It was served in a clear glass dish and consisted of Lily Bulbs, Rambutan (an Asian fruit similar to Lychee), and a Distillation of Caviar Lime (Finger Lime cells distilled).  Palate cleansers aren't meant to be much abut I liked the sweetness and the tart of this and it would have been nice to have more.
 At this point, the hanging Rhubarb came into play.  We were brought out a very cool glass bowl containing a salad containing Celery Branches, Celery Root, and a coating of Licorice along one side of the dish.  The fresh Rhubarb was sliced over the salad.  It was light and refreshing with bitterness from the celery and licorice which was moderated by the tartness of the rhubarb.
 After the palate cleanser and the salad, it could be thought that we were starting our meal over again.  This course was an entree as would be expected, but it definitely looked like we were taking a step down into Chinese Takeout.  I like Chinese Takeout and think there is a time and a place for it, but this was obviously a joke.  While we were presented with a Chinese Takeout Container, and the food that was contained inside was in an Asian Style, it very definitely was not a step down.  The container held Sweetbreads, with Orange, Ginkgo Nut, Mustard, and Cilantro and we ate it with Chopsticks that were actually Cinnamon Sticks that were lit on one end to imbue the dish with a cinnamon aroma.
We kind of stayed on an Asian theme with the next dish but it also kind of had a woodsy, natural theme to it.  We were served a Wood Ear Mushroom with Allium, a strip of Pig Ear, Parmesan Cheese, and Black Garlic.  It was chewy, savory, and very good, and one of those dishes it would have been nice to have a full plate of.
 The next dish was interactive again and the most popular dish in the restaurants history.  It has been on the menu from the beginning or if it leaves the menu, it quickly returns.  It's a small dish in a small round bowl called Hot Potato, Cold Potato.  It consists of a Cold Potato soup in the dish, over which hangs a slice of Black Truffle, a Hot Potato, a Chive, a small cube of Butter, and a slice of Parmesan Cheese which are skewered by a pin that runs through a hole at the edge of the dish.  The trick is the pull the pin, causing everything to fall into the soup, and then quickly pour it into your mouth so you can quickly experience the temperature and textural differences.  It was a lot of fun to eat and it tasted very good too.
 With the next dish, we were given very little explanation as to what everything was but that was part of the surprise.  The main part of the dish was Duck which was served 5 ways: Confited, Pulled, Roasted, and Pate which were served with a Duck Gravy, and a Duck Liver Mousse on a Cracker.  In the center of the table was placed a platter with 60 accompaniments.  Our instruction was to when we took a piece of duck (slice it in two or three pieces), take an entire accompaniment to eat with it.  That way each of our experiences would be individual.  We were not told what was on the platter, it was our job to figure that out ourselves if we desired to know what it was other than whether it tasted good or not.  Some items like the Pecan, the Fried Onion, and the Olive were fairly easy to figure out visually, and some were pretty easy to figure out by taste like the Pea Puree, the Apricot, and the Plum, but it was a lot of fun picking and choosing.  I ran out of duck before I ran out of items to to taste, but that didn't stop my tasting and we did finish everything that was on the platter.
The duck was the last of our savory dishes and we then began with desserts.  We started with a Pistachio Dessert which started with Pistachio Gelato and Pistachios, and continued with a Strawberry Marshmallow, a Black Walnut Gellee, Mascarpone Cheese, and Lemon Curd.  It was bitter, sweet, sour, and tart, with a variety of textures.  It was very good and played back into the emphases of the variety of flavors and textures in each dish.
The second dessert reprised the idea of the interactivity of many of the dishes.  It was a pretty simple dish but it was also very interactive, tasty, and fun to eat.  We were each brought a balloon.  I was then told to remove my glasses because the balloons were a course that we would be eating.  We were told that the best way to eat it was to suck out the top and more or less let it collapse around your face as you are eating it.  The balloon and string were Sour Apple Taffy and were filled with helium.  The whimsical would use the helium to talk funny but that didn't happen with everyone.  I think that I commented that it would be fun trying to get it out of my moustache.  It wasn't that bad, but there was some picking.
 For the final course, they brought out a silicone mat that covered the table top.  Chef Grant Achatz, the Executive Chef and Partner at Alinea, then came out with a round frame and several bottles and dishes and built our dessert on the table which we were to eat off of the table.  The course was beautiful and contained Milk Chocolate, Caramel, Butterscotch, Meringue, Violet, Hazelnut, and Blueberry.  It also tasted very good and was fun to eat.

I am very glad that I went to Alinea.  It is very definitely a world-class restaurant.  The food was very good and was fun to eat, the space was clean and modern, and but for an irritation that was not completely there fault, the service was exemplary.  I can have a tendency to talk loudly when I get excited and I was told that I was disturbing another diner.  I did try to tone things down but I was told a second time.  This is not a church or a library it is a restaurant and a very good restaurant.  Because of this, people will get excited and might talk with an elevated volume.  I was not shouting, so telling me to tone down the volume was an irritation to me.  Other than that point, the service was fantastic, I liked my experience, and I would definitely recommend it to those people that might appreciate it.  

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