Alinea: The Gastronomic Experience That Changed My Perspective
We all have moments in our lives that can be considering defining or fundamentally changing, shaping us into the amazing humans we are today. Perhaps it’s getting your degree, persevering and finishing that first marathon, meeting the love of your life or taking your first trip abroad, each changes your perspective and outlook on life. The evening that I opened the door to Alinea was pivotal as my outlook on life and food was forever changed.
Even though it was 2011, I remember it like it was yesterday. I was planning our annual mother-daughter trip to Chicago. Scouring the internet and food blogs for restaurant advice (yes, I’ve always done this, even when I wasn’t a food blogger), I came across an intriguing article on Chef Grant Achatz and Alinea. If you’ve watched Chef’s Table, you are familiar with his story (cliff notes version: world-renown chef diagnosed with tongue cancer, likely never tasting his food again) and it is one that moved me beyond words. Given that this was pre-Tock and pre-tickets, I picked up the phone and gave the restaurant a call. As expected, Alinea was fully committed, but my name was placed on a wait-list. Defeated and a little disheartened, I didn’t give it much more thought. After all, how many people cancel their reservations at one of the world’s best restaurants?
24 hours before we were scheduled to fly out, I received a fortuitous call that someone had canceled their reservations and we were in. Insert obnoxious squealing and clapping here. Seriously, what are the chances?
I’ve been fortunate enough to experience Alinea since 2011, but I was especially looking forward to my visit this year. In 2016, co-owners Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz closed the restaurant for an extensive remodel and a total menu overhaul. Alinea is one of the few restaurants in Chicago that has consistently maintained their three Michelin star status while receiving multiple other accolades from the James Beard Foundation and San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants. While I was anxious to get a sneak peek, I tried to refrain from reading too much as I didn’t want to ruin the surprise.
Alinea 2.0 now offers a variety of dining experiences. Guests can choose from the intimate and exclusive Kitchen Table which seats six people, the Gallery that offers a multi-sensory 16-to-18 course menu or the Salon which offers a 10-14 course tasting menu that is both innovative and satiating. Given that our trip was a bit last minute, we were fortunate enough to snag the last reservation of the evening which happened to be in the Salon.
Gone are the days of the crimson optical illusion that guests would make their way down to enter the restaurant. We entered the door a few minutes before our reservation and admittedly I was a little sad to see that this was no longer. Guests are now greeted by a lovely individual at the host stand and escorted to their table or stage as I like to think of it. Very reminiscent of Next Restaurant.
Expect the unexpected. As we approached the table, I noticed a lovely arrangement of limes on the table and my curiosity was immediately piqued. Would we be eating one of those limes in the dish or did it serve as pure decoration only? I took pause as I didn’t want to ruin the surprise. After all, dinner at Alinea isn’t really dinner. Yes, you leave with a satiated appetite but it is so much more than that. Chef Achatz’s avant-guard approach to cuisine makes the meal much more like a theatrical performance and you leave with a renewed sense of creativity and passion to make the ordinary extraordinary.
With most blog posts, I tend to go into the details of the flavors and the wine pairings. I share my favorites as well as those that you must steer clear of. This is a different post. Every dish that was presented was exquisite. Even when Chef Achatz pushes my boundaries and serves something totally questionable, I end up enjoying it. The purpose of this post is to highlight my experience at Alinea 2.0 and share it with those who live across the world and may not have the opportunity to travel to Chicago and experience this gourmand experience.
Let’s begin, shall we?
Any good meal starts with a salad and this was no exception. Presented was Terrarium | Iceberg + Avocado + Herbs.
A meal at Alinea would not be complete without Osetra Caviar. Our next course was a play on the Sunflower. Below you will find Smoke | Osetra + Sunflower + Onion + Lemon.
This dish was by far one of the standouts of the evening. The lacy topper, which was made from scallops, matched the lovely serving piece. By chance, I think not. This dish reminded me of a warm curry dish that I would gravitate towards during the cold weather months. Below you have Kaeng | Scallop + Mustard + Chili.
One of the most unique and creative dishes of the night was our palate cleanser, Glow | Lemongrass. Mimicking an adult jello shot, we were instructed to firmly place our mouth on the red portion and give it a strong suck. Once I did that, this amazing lemongrass tea flooded my mouth. It was seriously something magical.
Our next dish was an interesting presentation of Octopus: Ink | Octopus + Scallion + Black Lime. I really enjoyed the citrus and scallion notes in the dish. Plus, I’ve never seen octopus look so pretty!
These little “Nori Rolls” accompanied the octopus. Featured Crunch | Rouille + Nori. I thoroughly enjoyed the juxtaposition of the textures of each dish.
The next dish was by far one of the most interesting of the evening. Below you will find Paper | Langoustine + Bouillabaisse + Olive Oil. The paper was made of Langoustine and we were instructed to use our chopsticks to break up the “paper” and stir it around is this comforting broth which just screams cozy comfort food.
As I mentioned earlier, expect the unexpected. Based on my previous dining experiences at Alinea, I knew there was much more to this dish that two coals roasting on a bed of salt. Any guesses?
We used the fire to roast the next course, Perfume | Crab + XO + Lavender. The aromatics were out of this world.
As we wrapped our next course, the staff escorted us downstairs to the kitchen for intermission. Confession: I was so in the moment that I completely forgot to write down the details of this next course but I can assure it was an amazing Gin cocktail paired with what I like to call a pizza bite.
This contraption is literally one of thirty in the world and it took the folks at Alinea over three years to procure it.
As intermission came to a close, we were escorted back upstairs to see the second act of our dinner performance.
As I alluded to earlier, I knew there was something much more to our "table campfire” than meets the eye. Once we arrived back at our table, the flames were extinguished and one of the staff was extracting a potato out of the salty fire. The potato was sous vide in butter for over thirty hours, to say the flavors were incredible is a bit of an understatement. Our host for the evening took the potato and turned it into this magical clam chowder that was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Below you will find The Cape | Clam + Potato + Bacon. If all clam chowder was this good, I’d eat it on repeat.
I never thought that I would have the opportunity to enjoy “beef jerky” at a three Michelin star restaurant, but I could have revisited this dish often!
Finishing our savory courses for the evening was Coal | Squab + Forbidden Rice + Binchotan. The coals that were used earlier in the fire were repurposed and used to sear the squab breast plated. Such an interesting presentation and decadent dish.
Even though our next course utilized simple ingredients, the flavor profiles were powerful and unique. Heirloom | Peach + Begonia + Nasturtium served as our cheese course and left this girl longing for more.
As we said farewell to the savory courses, we welcomed the confectionary delights of the evening. Our first dessert was paired with the most intriguing mezcal from Oaxaca. While it might seem a little farfetched to pair a dessert with mezcal, the pairing was absolutely on point. Below you find Wood | Hojo Santa + Tamarind + Chocolate. Not only was the dessert phenomenal, but what about this serving ware? These pieces were handmade in Barcelona especially for Alinea. Swoon!
Our Mezcal flight on a Palo Santo log. Every detail accounted for.
We were fortunate enough to conclude our meal with two of Alinea’s classic desserts: Corn and Balloon.
While each dish was unique and enjoyable, my favorite was the renowned Green Apple Taffy Balloon. It wouldn’t be dinner at Alinea without it.
Why was this meal a pivotal moment in my life? I learned that food can be so much more that what meets the eye. Chef Grant Achatz philosophy is unconventional as he continues to refine and redefine cuisine as we know it. I left this meal feeling inspired and my creativity ignited.
I’m often asked if Alinea is worth it, after all, it’s quite an extravagant experience. Unequivocally yes. From the unique ingredients, the choreographed cuisine and the showmanship and talent of all involved, I cannot recommend Alinea enough. Not only do I have a glimpse into the mind of Chef Grant Achatz, but it’s literally the meal/performance of a lifetime.
Tariff: Tickets range from $190.00-$390.00/person depending on which reservation is selected. Guests have the opportunity to select one of three wine pairings: Standard, Reserve or Alinea. Each varies in pricing, however, we chose the Reserve option with our meal and with service fee is was approximately $325.00/person.
Reservations/Tickets can be purchased here.
Until Next Time!