Alinea is one of those glorious, legendary, almost mythological restaurants. In 2010 it was voted the Number One restaurant in the United States and seventh in the world. In other words: not too shabby a joint. Every card-carrying foodie waxes poetic for celebrity food god, Grant Achatz, the master of molecular gastronomy. I’d been fantasizing about an Alinea meal for years; it was finally time to make the dream a reality. What better place than this to celebrate my 34th birthday!
Reservations are slightly tricky here. If you’re looking for a reservation sometime during the month of October (for example) you must call on the morning of the first of August, when all reservations for October will open at the same time. There’s a bit of luck involved in getting through, waiting on hold and praying for the exact day you want to become available. It helps to be flexible. Back in March, we scored a reservation for the Saturday night after my birthday in May. Once we were in, we celebrated, booked flights and a hotel.
There are two meal options at Alinea: the tasting and the tour. The tasting features 12 courses, the tour offers 26. That’s twenty-six bite-sized courses of some of the most spectacular, original, dishes ever to be plated (and at Alinea, “plated” could mean anything from strung on a wire to stuffed in a tube). Alinea is more than dining. It is a multi-sensory gastronomic experience that borders on High Art. When you walk inside, through a hidden doorway, all time and place is suspended. You are no longer in your everyday reality. There are no rules here, just an edible journey down the yellow brick road of strange and fantastic cuisine.
Food photography is slightly frowned upon here, mostly because each dish is served for immediate consumption. There is sometimes such a delicate balance of taste and temperature that a plate can lose its perfection within mere seconds. Also, if every patron whipped out their cameras for each of the 26 courses, it could stretch a four-hour plus meal into five or six hours. Timing is everything at Alinea. Because of this I only took a few photos (for the blog, naturally!) and will share them below with some thoughts.
I feel like going into detail about each course I consumed would somehow cheapen the magic of the evening. Instead, I will post my menu, as written and presented by Alinea. For the record, the menu is only viewed after dinner. The element of surprise is a big part of the meal presentation. The capitalized items are the main flavor of the dish, augmented by other ingredients listed. The menu itself doesn’t give away the thrill of the presentation. There are many incredible photos of similar plates here on the official Alinea website. Check out the menu from my amazing meal below:
Tour May 8, 2010
ENGLISH PEA iberico, sherry, honeydew
SHAD ROE shallot, mustard, bay aroma
YUBA shrimp, miso, togarashi
CHAO TOM sugar cane, shrimp, mint
DISTILLATION of thai flavors
PORK BELLY curry, cucumber, lime
KING CRAB rhubarb, lilac, fennel
OCTOPUS red wine, lavender, fava bean
DUCK morels, asparagus, chamomile
BLACK TRUFFLE explosion, romaine, parmesan
BACON butterscotch, apple, thyme
KUMQUAT rye, peychaud’s, demerara
NUTELLA bread, banana, chocolate
FOIE GRAS pear, white wine, allspice
GREEN ALMOND yuzu, wasabi, rice milk
STURGEON potato, leek, smoke
SARDINE horseradish, arugula flower, tomato
FILET DE BOEUF godard
HOT POTATO cold potato, black truffle, butter
SQUAB charred strawberries, lettuce, birch log
BUBBLE GUM long pepper, hibiscus, crème fraiche
TRANSPARENCY of raspberry yogurt
EARL GREY lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate
CHOCOLATE coconut, menthol, hyssop
Some photos and thoughts about the meal:
The photo above was taken in the cab, on the way to Alinea. Please note that I’m beyond thrilled and for the most part speechless, with a permanent, ridiculous grin plastered to my face.
This is the Yuba dish, shrimp gracefully spiraling down a skewer into a tiny pot of togarashi (mixed chili pepper) sauce. Double dipping was enthusiastically encouraged. On the right, the Chao Tom, where sugar cane and shrimp are speared with a tiny metal pin. The sugar cane is to be chewed briefly for a burst of sweet flavor, but not swallowed.
The Pork Belly was a dish that involved much anticipation. Upon arrival to our table, two little flags of flower-pressed rice paper were set down with instructions not to touch and just to admire them for now. Finally, they brought out these tiny chair-like wooden contraptions and delicately laid the rice paper over them. Warm pork belly was scooped into the center of the rice paper, and then it was up to us to garnish our own dish and create a type of spring roll. No silverware was used, only fingers, which made the dish even more fun to assemble. The plate of garnishes included black volcanic salt, cucumber, dehydrated garlic flakes, lime gelee, coconut, red onion, basil seeds, cashews and hot sauce. Incredible.
A bacon trapeze, baked onto a wire and seasoned with butterscotch, apple and thyme. It was a particularily magical dish, evoking romantic imagery of Philippe Petit perched above the world. That is, if Phillippe Petite were deliciously sweet, crisp bacon…
Foie Gras (frozen and grated) is served with pear, white wine and allspice.
Sardine with horseradish, arugula flower and tomato, served on a flexible, bouncing wire skewer. The dish was hands-free, using only one’s mouth to essentially go bobbing for sardine.
This is an antique dish, straight out of a 1903 French cookbook, Auguste Escoffier’s “Le Guide Culinaire.” Though the ingredients were known, preparation and presentation involved a large amount of guesswork. The filet du boef (here, a rare wagyu medallion) is served in the center of the clockface-like presentation of garnishes and various quenelles. You have black truffles, mushroom caps, sweetbreads, beef mousse and cockscomb. Yes, cockscomb. And it was absolutely delicious.
Squab on a heated birch log, I couldn’t help but think of Twin Peaks. The dish was marvelous. I’ve always had a thing for little birds.
Thought I’m not a dessert person, I was highly entertained when the table was clothed in a rubber sheet for the final course of the evening. Chocolate, mint, coconut and menthol (dry-ice frozen, steaming) is spread onto the table in graceful swirls and deliberate dots. There are no rules on how to consume these flavors. Here, I was inspired to create a self-portrait of the absolute joy and contentment I experienced through the evening. My permanent, ridiculous grin was now plastered to the table itself…
Alinea is located at 1723 North Halsted, Chicago, IL
For reservations call two months prior, on the first day of the month (312) 867-0110
Visit the website:www.alinea-restaurant.com
2010 Mileage Total 32049