Dinner at Alinea.

alineaThe trickiest part about eating at Alinea is finding your table at Alinea.  I had saved the restaurant’s street address and telephone number to my phone; nevertheless, we would have walked right past it had Keith not spotted the matte gray building at 1723.  (Silly me, I had been in search of some sort of signage or similar.  Clearly my mind was in the wrong place.)  Still, just because we had located Alinea didn’t mean we could just enter the restaurant, oh no.  We opened the charcoal-colored doors, expecting to step into the foyer; instead, we found ourselves in a long white lacquered hallway glowing with purple light.  Only when we walked in a bit did a hidden panel in one of the walls slide open, revealing the foyer I had been looking for.

After our coats were taken, Keith and I were shown to our table in the front dining room.  To say it was intimate would be an incredible understatement; there are three dining rooms in the restaurant, and each holds only five tables.  As we took our seats, I noticed something else.

“There’s no music,” I whispered across the table.

alinea-menu2Without music, it was excruciatingly difficult not to eavesdrop on our neighbors…  which of course implies they could just as easily eavesdropped on us.  It also meant that we could hear the restaurant’s waitstaff explain each of the meal’s various courses before it was our turn, and because I chose to sit with my back to the room, Keith actually saw each course.  See, Alinea isn’t like other restaurants in more than one regard.  Sure, its cuisine is on the more nontraditional side, but unlike other establishments that offer à la carte in addition to a tasting menu, Alinea’s diners only have the tasting option.  Actually, that’s a bit of a lie— it’s more accurate to say that Alinea diners have two tasting menu options: the twelve-course for $145.00, and the “grand tour” for $225.00.  Keith and I went with the grand tour.  We don’t fool around.

You know who else doesn’t fool around?  Alinea. At Keith’s urging, I called ahead to ask about the restaurant’s picture-taking policy.

“We ask that photographers restrain from using a flash, so as not to disturb the other diners,” said the very polite woman who answered the phone, after thanking me for asking what she called a “considerate question.”

I’m mostly a rule-follower, so I left the flash off.  I’m only going to include a few photos; not all of them came out as well as I’d hoped.  Oh well.  I’m also going to break it down by course, how it was presented to us, with the best pictures of the bunch.

• • •

alinea-1HOT POTATO | cold potato, black truffle, butter
Introduced to us as our amuse, this was a cold potato soup; suspended over it was a sphere of hot potato and a shaving of black truffle.  What was interesting, flavorwise, was the cold soup and hot globe — I wrongly assumed the soup would be hot and the ball cold, and that twist was a fun surprise.

In case you were wondering, and I know you were, the soup was served in a shallow palm-sized bowl made of speckled wax.  The hot potato and other ingredients had been impaled with a pin which had been poked through the wax; together they were suspended over the broth.

alinea-2YUBA | shrimp, miso, togarashi
Next came the only dish of the night that was composed of an “edible utensil.”  In this case it was a rolled up piece of yuba, or beancurd, around which the chefs had somehow wound a prawn.  The yuba and shrimp were arranged like a quill in its inkpot, but instead of ink we had a mayonnaise dip spiced with togarashi, a Japanese chili pepper mix.  Now, even though I’m a self-professed heat baby, I can honestly say that I enjoyed this immensely.  It helped that it was all flavored with sweet orange, but still — good stuff, this.

CAULIFLOWER | five coatings, three gels, cider
“A lot of people don’t like cauliflower,” one of our many servers said as he laid our bowls in front of us, explaining that the next dish had been devised as a way to make the vegetable more user-friendly.  I happen to adore cauliflower, but I think that just let me appreciate our third course even more, as I can’t even imagine anyone feeling otherwise. This was comprised of five cubes of cauliflower purée, each of which had been encrusted with flavors like peanut and ginger; three miniature custard cubes; and a thin sheaf of dried cauliflower.  An apple broth was poured into our bowls tableside.  This was probably the most elegant bowl of comfort food I have ever consumed.  People who don’t like cauliflower don’t know what they’re missing.

PEAR | olive oil, black pepper, eucalyptus
This was the first to incorporate into the meal what would eventually become a theme of sorts — air.  I know what you’re thinking (“Huh?”) so let me try to explain: Chef Grant Achatz is interested in dining with all senses, and so we were sometimes given dishes that required us to inhale as we ate, and to be aware of aromas. Our fourth course was a perfect example of this.  Placed before us were covered bowls; when the lids were removed, we breathed in the strong scent of eucalyptus wafting off of the leaves garnishing our china.  Then we slid the globe of pear suspended in eucalyptus gelatin off of the spoon and onto our tongues.  I happen to love pears, so I really appreciated them in this form, which included a salty bite at the end.  Keith, on the other hand, is a member of the Anti-Pear Party, so he didn’t fare as well as me… though some of that might be because he mistakenly ate one of the eucalyptus leaves.  When I asked him what he was doing, Keith looked at me in abject shock… especially when he learned that the plant is poisonous to humans.

“It tasted like a cough drop,” he said, reaching for his wine glass.

Along with being our first aerated dish, this course also happened to be the first of three recipes that  Carol Blymire over at Alinea at Home has tackled, well, at home, with the help of the Alinea Cookbook and Mr. Achatz himself (he sent her a care package of compounds and hydrocolloids). You can read about Carol’s case of mistaken eucalyptus identity here, as well as see a photo of her end result.

alinea-51WILD STRIPED BASS | saffron, shellfish, parsnip
What’s interesting about this — and I can’t tell how clearly you can see it in this picture here — is that while there’s obviously a great deal happening on this plate, most of it was hidden by the yellow sheet.  That yellow sheet, by the way, was made of chamomile concealed pureéd parsnips and a variety of shellfish.  I assumed the chamomile would taste apple-y and delicate like the tea or the herb itself but what I didn’t foresee the gentle gingeresque flavor underneath, which provided a nice zingy counterbalance to its sweetness.

alinea-6YOLK | soy, wasabi, yuzu
I really like the presentation of this dish.  I’ve got an affinity for things that are simple as well as things that are small, and this could have been dwarfed by a postage stamp… if postage stamps were cubed.  I also appreciate that while this little box of a course was so very tiny, it was still given as much consideration as its larger counterparts and was literally elevated on a miniature stand. And don’t be fooled by its bittiness — there was a wallop of flavor packed in this unassuming little package, which makes sense considering it’s an egg yolk suspended in a soy gelée that had been imbued with wasabi.  It was all topped with a teensy basil leaf and shaving of yuzu.  It was a ton of fun, but I’ve got to say that for some reason, it made me think — in the best possible way — of Vienna Sausages (which my parents’ dog loves, something I’m sure you wanted to know).

alinea-7CHICKEN | sesame, morel, Indian flavors
If when you look at this photograph you think of meat on a kebab stick, then you and Alinea are on the same page.  Inspired by Indian skewers, this dish featured bite-sized nibbles of chicken bits, each playing host to a series of different seasonings.  Keith thought one morsel tasted of chai, incredibly enough.

That cloud at the end, by the way, is a turmeric and saffron foam.  Of course.

BACON | butterscotch, apple, thyme
Here’s another course that Carol cooked at home.  You can see it in the picture below; it’s what looks like is hanging from an extremely scaled down Cirque du Soleil swing.  The bacon was indescribably sweet, but in the most enjoyable way.  There was nothing cloying here — just sweet, salty, candied bacon.  Fascinatingly, other diners not partaking in the grand tour received this and the next two courses as desserts, something that never would have occurred to me.

alinea-8-101SWEET POTATO | bourbon, brown sugar, smoldering cinnamon
This marked our second air-related course.  It was a foot-long cinnamon stick; one end had been set ablaze, releasing a sweet-scented charred aroma, while the other had somehow scooped up deep-fried liquefied sweet potato.  Even I, as someone who does not stand in the corner of the sweet potato, could have happily eaten more of these drumsticks, which reminded me of boardwalk fried dough.  As Keith said to me from across the table, it tasted “like a carnival.”

MUSTARD | passion fruit, allspice, soy
The teensy butter-colored column in the corner of this photo is actually a layered disc of sweet and zesty sorbet.  I don’t know if you can make it out in the picture or not, but it started to melt in the short amount of time it took me to bring my camera out from under my napkin.  Our server had to admonish me to eat up before it turned into a multi-hued puddle.

FOIE GRAS | turnip, shiso, sudachi
Immediately before a member from Alinea’s battalion of servers approached with our portions of this next dish cupped in his two hands, another attendant placed eyeglass lenses on the table in front of Keith and me.  Seriously, it was like we were at Pearle Vision, picking out new glasses.  We were then given bowls that were the texture, shape and size of an overlarge egg — which meant we had to hold the containers in our hands while eating.  Only when we were finished would we be able to put them down on the lenses, so as to not scratch the table’s glossy surface.  Balanced on the bowl’s lip was a fork, the tines of which fit precisely into little slots notched into the bowl, and on that fork was a pristine wedge of foie.  After depositing it onto my tongue, I then tilted the bowl’s contents — a turnip soup laced with citrus — into my mouth.

alinea-12LOBSTER | popcorn, butter, curry
“This next course,” a server said to us, “is about butter, and the things that complement it.”

But isn’t that everything? I hadn’t realized I had said this aloud until she laughed, even though I wasn’t being intentionally flippant.  With what exactly does butter not pair well? Still, my pondering wasn’t going to distract me from my butter-poached lobster, toast, or mango, let alone the buttered-popcorn sauce that glided over it all.  And yes, you read that correctly.  Buttered-popcorn sauce.  It was stunning, in every possible definition of the word.

PORK BELLY | iceberg, cucumber, Thai distillation
Before he allowed us to eat our next course, one of our servers handed us each a spoonful of gelée.

“Taste this first,” he said, “and tell me what you think it is.”

I absolutely hate these sorts of games, when I’m playing them.  The intense amount of pressure to get it right stresses me out; still, I tasted and guessed, “Cucumber?” — only to be told it was instead the “essence of Thai flavors.”  Truly, does anyone get that one right?

When we were finally able to turn our attention to our dishes, we found a belly of pork laced with lemongrass, ginger and peanut — all very classic Thai ingredients.  What was most intriguing was a bright dot  speckling the edge of the plate — the color of hot pepper, it had none of its numbing heat.  In fact, I overheard a server telling another diner that a method had been devised to capture the pepper’s essence without any of the burn, leaving behind a complex, savory drop.

BLACK TRUFFLE | explosion, romaine, parmesan
Like the yuzu/wasabi egg yolk before it, this was more of a “taste” than a dish — though I’ve got to say the taste was anything but small.  I loved this one, and not only for its flavor.  I loved the drama of it, particularly when a server described it to us: “Here we have black truffle explosion.”  I mean, I’m basically the kind of girl who even though she knows the entire Shu Uemura product line by heart and enjoys cute animals, also likes zombie literature and action flicks.  Of course I’m going to be into something called “black truffle explosion.”  The fact that it was superb didn’t hurt either.  Visually it looked like a single tortellini underneath a shaving of black truffle, except inside was a liquefied distillation of the fungi that, well, exploded into your mouth the moment you took a bite.

I should probably mention that the tortellini is best put in your mouth whole.  Otherwise you end up with a black truffle explosion… down your front.

alinea-15WAGYU BEEF | powdered A1, potato, chips
I was a little hesitant when I heard this course included A1, as its something I’ve never really liked.  Of course, I should have known better.  Apparently the chef learned what the sauce’s ingredients were, turned each one into a powder and slid a sampling of it into little cellophane packets.  We were instructed to spill its contents into the sprinkling of salt and pepper on our plates before dragging pieces of Wagyu through it all.  Suffice it to say I’m now an A1 convert — but only if the A1 comes from the Alinea kitchen.

Another thing about this one: it was our third course to include air.  At the beginning of our meal, a wobbly sort of vase was placed on our table; a server explained that the Alinea philosophy was that nothing useless would rest on the tabletop.

“Just consider this object,” she said, giving it a spin.  “Play with it, think about it… it will come into play later on.”

As time passed, Keith and I both noticed frost forming on the bottle of the vase (here’s a one that’s similar, to give a better sense of it).  Later, when it was time for this course, the same server poured something into the vase… which rapidly began to release a fog that spilled over our table and smelled vaguely of chive.

GRAPE SODA | one bite
The first of our dessert courses started with more powder.  This time it was “served” in an edible packet that was maybe a one-inch square, and tasted intensely of grape soda, right down to the fizz.  In all truthfulness, I’ve never liked grape soda (or grape jelly, or grape juice, or grape anything that wasn’t just a plain old grape) but this was really interesting and fun.

YOGURT | pomegranate, cassia
We were warned that the globe floating in this shot glass was bigger than it appeared, and so we should take the entire bubble in one bite.  Before I say anything else, allow me this: I felt like a blowfish with this in my mouth.

Conceptually, this yogurt sphere is very similar to the liquid olive made by Fabio in the fifth season of Top Chef.  There was a thin membrane around the yogurt, allowing the dollop to retain its shape in the shot glass, where it lay in a shallow pool of pomegranate.  The yogurt was released only when I applied pressure with my tongue.

alinea-16-18BUBBLE GUM | long pepper, hibiscus, crème fraîche
This just might have been Keith’s favorite of all of the courses we had that night.  We were given glass straws and told to suck on them… without being informed as to what was inside.  I’m not a squeamish eater, so it doesn’t bother me, not knowing exactly what it is I’m about to consume, but in this instance I was a bit peeved — especially since we were clued in after we were finished.  When I learned what was in the straw, I wanted seconds; I felt as though I missed the chance to really think about precisely what I was chewing…  which were tapioca pearls cooked in Bubble-Yum stock.  See what I mean?  How miraculous is that?!  And how irritating to be told afterwards.  I understood (and understand) the desire to add mystery, but yet I feel it would be possible to tell diners halfway into the straw so that they might contemplate the completely wonderful lunacy that is Bubble-Yum stock.

TRANSPARENCY | of raspberry, yogurt
Again, I’m not sure how clear it is in the picture; above the bubble gum straw is what looks like a silver disc holding a magenta flake.  That flake was a thin, crisp and crystalline sheet that tasted of a perfectly tart raspberry.  Embarrassingly, our server accidentally knocked mine over, and while I tried to tell her it was okay, she insisted on bringing me a new one.  For the record, when a slender raspberry pane hits a hard surface like a tabletop, it shatters.

alinea-19RHUBARB | goat milk, onion, lavender air
This marked our final airy dish.

Oversize square pillows were laid before us; we didn’t even have a chance to wonder what they might be doing there when our servers set our plates directly on top of them.  The dishes’ weight caused them to slowly sink into the pillows, which had been inflated with lavender-scented air.  It wasn’t just the compression of the plates that released almost-invisible wisps of mist into the space between us; it was also the force of our forks, as we scooped up a cloud of cotton candy and cheesecake.

CHOCOLATE | prune, olive, pine
I don’t want to admit this, I really don’t.  Here I go anyway: I did not like this dish.  I feel badly about it, but when you consider that I only have issues with one out of more than twenty, that’s a very respectable ratio.  (The grape soda doesn’t count; I said it was fun and interesting.)  Here, the team in the kitchen prepared a gauzy sheet of chocolate that was quite similar to the chamomile sheet: thin, creamy and hiding something.  The “something” here was prune, which I found too sweet.  It was all meant to be mixed with a liquid white chocolate before being eaten, and while it did taste less cloying with the addition of the white chocolate, I still found this to be a bit on the disappointing side.  I still finished it though.

Our final course also happens to be the last of those that Carol replicated at home (at least to this date, anyway).  It’s funny — when I first read Carol’s post in November, I remember emailing the link to Keith and my friend Joann, and writing how simple it sounded.  “We can do this,” I typed, adding several exclamation points.  You know what, though?  I’m glad we never did, since it would have taken away the special-ness of having it for the first time in Alinea’s dining room.  Imagine: would it have been passé, “sipping” powdered caramel from a small-scale version of a glass, and feeling it turn to liquid from the heat of our own mouths?  How terrible that would have been.

• • •

Then, our meal was over.  We lingered over dessert wine and coffee, we chatted, a taxi was called.  It was late, and we had been eating for more than three hours.  What was left to do aside from pay the bill, shrug into our coats and step out into the cold?

Dining at Alinea isn’t mind-altering, nor is it life-changing.  Neither is it cheap; once wine was added onto our check and when we calculated gratuity…  Well, let’s just say it cost more than our airfare.  What Alinea is, on the other hand, is an exercise in highly refined, exceptionally stylized play.  There’s a sense of humor here.  Don’t misunderstand — there’s an intense level of seriousness too, but it’s clear that everyone is having fun.

A few more things to consider:

  • At the end of dinner, patrons are given print-outs of the evening’s menu like the one at the top of this post.  Each course is listed, along with a concise-yet-cryptic description and a dot.  The dots’ sizes may seem random, but they’re not.  The smaller the dot, the smaller the course.  The larger the dot, the more substantial.  In our meal, the Wagyu was the largest portion, and the grape soda was the smallest.
  • Alinea offers a wine pairing to both the tasting menu and the tour; the tour’s total quantity of wine is equivalent to three glass-worths.  If you don’t want to go all out with the pairing but still would like a bit of wine, the restaurant’s beverages are priced by the ounce, and the sommelier can suggest as many — or as few — varietals as you request.  What he might not do, even with a significant amount of prompting, is tell you the cost of those beverages.  Which is how Keith ended up drinking a dessert wine valued at $20.00 an ounce.  It was delicious though.
  • Obviously, dining at Alinea is a singular experience, but something else that the restaurant does to set itself apart is provide a bread service — meaning all of the larger savory courses came with an accompanying bread that had been baked specifically to pair with that dish.  For example, we had a fenugreek-thyme roll alongside the cauliflower-apple soup, and a pink peppercorn-and-picholine brioche with the chamomile and shellfish.  (One bread in particular had been flavored with coffee seed and saffron, and a single bite of it utterly transported me back to when I was a child, to a time when we frequently visited my grandmother in the Philippines.  This piece of bread tasted exactly like pandesal, Filipino bread, and I wanted to ask for a shipment to take home.)  We also had two different butters: goat’s milk, and cow’s milk sprinkled with black lava salt.
  • Regardless of whether which menu you would like to try, when you call to make a reservation you will be asked the standard sorts of questions you normally would expect when booking a “tasting” meal: food allergies, dietary restrictions, etc.  Keith and I said no to each inquiry, but the next day, over another typical Chicago meal, we wondered, What would a vegetarian eat at Alinea?  Clearly the pork belly would be out, as would the Wagyu, the foie, the bacon, the chamomile, the lobster, the chicken, perhaps even the yolk.  Curious, I phoned the restaurant and asked.  “We welcome vegetarians at Alinea,” responded the friendly voice on the other end of the line.
  • Alinea is open for dinner service only, five days a week: Wednesday through Sunday.  Even in these uncertain times, the restaurant was booked solid for more than one month out.

1723 North Halsted Street
Chicago, Illinois 60614

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Update:  Since I wrote this post, Carol Blymire has also prepared “SWEET POTATO | bourbon, brown sugar, smoldering cinnamon”at home, which you can read about here.