Oct 7 2012

Alinea

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Alinea is the only 3 Michelin star restaurant in Chicago and when I went there it was ranked the 7th best restaurant in the world by the St Pellegrino restaurant awards (now Alinea has dropped to number 15). I went to Alinea a few months after I had been to Noma (1st best restaurant in the world at the time), and whilst the food that both restaurants served was excellent, the two restaurants are very different. The main chef at Alinea is Grant Achatz and people say he serves “food of the future” and is known for his preparations and deconstructions of classic flavours. The restaurant is located in Chicago in the Lincoln Park neighborhood and opened on May 4, 2005.

My boyfriend was running the Chicago marathon in October, and when I mentioned that to one of my friends he told me I have to go to Alinea but book early as it is a very sought after restaurant. I went on to their website and enquired about their reservations and they told me they were in the middle of changing their reservation system to “ticket buying” and that I had to check when this new system would be up and running, which is when I could book the restaurant. I asked them when that would be and they just told me to keep checking their webpage or follow them on facebook and they would not even give me an approximate date when I could try to book this restaurant. As I followed them on facebook one day when I was on holiday in Stockholm in August, they sent me an email saying they had released their new reservation system and I could now “buy a ticket” for the meal. What this means is you go on their website and “buy a ticket” for the meal, so you pay in advance and there are different prices according to how many of you are there and which day and time you want your reservation for, so you can have cheaper and more expensive prices. My poor boyfriend was logging into their website that was constantly crashing on a small boat on the south side of Gothenburg and how we got a reservation with so little wifi is a miracle. 

When we finally arrived to Chicago, I had booked Alinea for Sunday at 5.30 to celebrate my boyfriend finishing the Chicago marathon (he finished the marathon on the same day in the morning). When we arrived to Alinea, which is located in the wealthiest part of Chicago, you could feel the pretentious vibe continuing as the restaurant is located in a modest gray brick building which bears no sign of Alinea, just a street number, so you need to know the address and just walk in, as otherwise you won’t find it. Inside the restaurant is has no bar, no lobby and seats 64 guests both upstairs and downstairs. We were seated downstairs in a room that had 5 tables (we later saw the upstairs as well where there are more than one room there and so you can seat more people). The room was quite dark, and the service overall was very pretentious and not welcoming at all, a stark contrast to Noma, where everyone had been so nice. The waiters were constantly hanging around in the same room and it almost felt like they were trying to listen to your conversations. At one point one of the waiters even said he thought he was “the worst waiter at the world’s best restaurant” which summarizes the vibe at Alinea as they think they are the best and number 1, and even though the food was amazing, the whole vibe was not like it should be in the best restaurant in the world, and I am in a way a bit happy they have slid down in their rankings this year, as the waiters won’t be able to pretend they are the best now.

There is no a la carte menu at Alinea, just a tasting menu, and you don’t see it until the end. Our tasting menu consisted of 17 items (but some people have had more), but note some of these things were grouped together in one dish, so we only had 13 separate courses. The first dish that we were presented with was “butternut with musovado, finger lime and West Indies” (it was done with West Indies flavours), but it is the presentation, which was the best part of this dish. At first the waiters brought us these large ice cubes with a whole in the middle, situated on some little pebbles and then afterwards they brought us a straw with liquid and various other things in it, and you had to sip it through the straw which was placed into the ice block, it was super cool and a great opening dish and tasted lovely. We were given directions on how to enjoy this course (very typical Alinea style) and told we could slurp our food.

The second course was equally impressive and we were presented with this giant branch covered in seaweed and it had 4 different things on top of the seaweed, “oyster lead with mignonette”, which was quite savoury and as I am allergic to oysters and don’t really therefore like oyster leaves I only tried a bit, “sea urchin, white chocolate, yuzu and wasabi”, which was quite sweet and absolutely lovely and so cool presented in the actual sea urchin shell, “lobster with trinity, sherry and chervil”, once again presented in a lobster casing and “razor clam, shiso, soy and daikon”, once again presented in the natural clam shell. I thought this was one of the best dishes I have seen, visually it was just fantastic, and also all the different pieces of seafood were incredibly delicious, each seasoned uniquely, and it had such an amazing and lovely smell of the sea.

Next came another wonderful fish course, “Otoro, Thai Banana, Sea Salt, Kaffir Lime” and Otoro is the most tender part of the tuna, and it was presented in a round dish, and the tuna was wonderful.

The forth dish was “corn, three ways”, and it included silk strings of corn, huitiacoche, which is a corn fungus (edible) and popcorn jelly, and the dish was officially called “corn, huitiacoche, sour cherry, silk”, and all of this was served on top of a sour cherry sauce, and I very much loved once again the presentation and the taste, and Alinea’s imagination of what you could do with corn.
 
Next one of the waiters set up a Bunsen burner (the flames were from bourbon lit on fire), and then on top of it brought a piece of wood with a piece of Brook trout (or speckled trout as it is called in other places). The smell of the trout was incredible, it was this smoky smell that lingered on (I still remember it many months after having the meal) and the trout had been slow cooked and smoked. The name of this dish was “Brook trout, sage, bourbon, nasturtium”.
 
The funny thing is that according to the menu we were given at the end of the meal, we were now supposed to have a dish called “hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter”, and I have looked at other blogs, and I know for sure we never got it, so Alinea actually forgot to serve us one course, and the most annoying thing is that apparently this is one of the signature dishes and has been on the menu since the restaurant opened. No other restaurant where I have had a tasting menu has forgotten to give me food, so this is quite incredible.
 
The next course that I actually got was called “matsutake, pork, huckleberry, pine”. The dish was once again presented impeccably, and the waiter brought us a chunk of wood log and on top of it were some stones and some pines and then some Asian mushrooms, or matsutake with the rest of the ingredients. Extremely flavoursome and nice.
 
The eight course was called “black truffle, explosion, romaine, parmesan” and in reality this was a super super tasty ravioli served on a spoon and filled with black truffle and parmesan that you just had to put in your mouth and eat in one go. At first glance you think that the black beneath the spoon is a truffle sauce, but it's actually the table! The dish has no bottom. Once again we were told how to eat this, and instructed to close our lips upon biting into the ravioli, as the ravioli explodes in your mouth (hence the name). After this meal, all the other dishes progressively got sweeter and culminated in the last desert.
 
Next came our main course, and the last properly savoury dish, the lamb, three ways - lamb shank, a pinwheel of lamb belly and blushing pink lamb tenderloin and all of these were covered with sauce. But the thing that came with the lamb was the most impressive part, it was a glass sheet containing 60 different accompanying sides that you could eat the lamb with. These accompanying elements were different vegetables, garnishes, nuts, jellies, sauces and many other things. You were not told what they area (for most you could guess) and you were just told to experiment and take them and experiment with different flavours and textures and advised to eat 2/3 different things with each bite of the lamb. This was so cool and my boyfriend and I were so amazed by this and more interested in these accompaniments than the lamb (which was excellent as well) and trying to taste as many as we could. Another brilliant presentation of a dish.
 
The tenth course was “woodcock, lingonberry, shallot, oak leaves”, and the woodcock was attached to the bottom of an oak branch, and the whole presentation was once again very intriguing. It tasted good, like everything in Alinea (this time like chicken), but it was not the most memorable dish.
 
The next dish was the in-between dish between the savoury and the sweet courses, called “ginger – five other flavours” and the waiters brought you 4 wires attached at the same point to a round metal thing and each wire had a certain type of ginger (all differently prepared) attached at the end. I love ginger and loved the various pieces, some more spicy than others. But once again Alinea seems to have been forgetful and even though it was called 5 other flavours, we only got 4 pieces of various ginger, and when I have looked at other food blogs, other people seem to have got 5 different things.
 
The first desert was “carrot, coconut, white sesame, caramelized honey”. We were presented with a glass bowl and on top of it a glass plate and the bowl had citrus infused tea and we were told to drink the tea through the straw and then eat the different elements on the plate, carrot sorbet, coconut powder, white sesame paste and a dollop of caramelized honey. A very southing type of dish.
 
The next desert was my boyfriend’s favourite and probably one his most memorable deserts ever. It was called “Balloon, helium, green apple” and the waiter brought us 2 helium balloons made out of apple candy, and the balloons (which were edible) were attached with an edible string to a nail that prevented them from floating away. We were told to suck the air out of the balloon first, and when you did that you started to speak in a funny and high pitched voice due to the helium, which my boyfriend found hilarious, and which lasted for a few seconds. The balloon itself was sticky but very tasty.
 
The last desert and the final course of the tasting menu was “dark chocolate, chestnut, rye, birch syrup”, and the waiters cleared everything from the table, including our water glasses, and the waiters rolled out a rubber like grayish tablecloth that perfectly covered the table. Then one of the chefs from the kitchen (first and last time we saw a chef) came out with a dark chocolate round orb and he poured liquid nitrogen inside of it and the smoke began to come out of the orb. Then the chef began to create various designs on the tablecloth with various sauces that had different bright colours (it was so beautiful to watch him draw different designs, it was like watching an artist), and once done he lifted the orb and crushed it on the table, and inside the orb, which felt into small and bigger pieces of chocolate, was cotton candy like dessert and nitrogen-ized ice cream. It was all extremely delicious and so funky to eat the chocolate, candy and the various syrups from the table, and there was so much of it, we could not finish it.
 
At the end of the meal, as I said, we were presented with our tasting menu, customized with the date and the courses we had (it even had the potato course which we never got to see and which Alinea forgot to bring). There were bubbles next to each course that showed the size of the course (the larger the bubble the larger the course) and taste (the more left the bubble is the more savoury the course is, the more right it is, the sweeter it is), and you could see how Alinea’s last 7 courses slowly moved from savoury to sweet by one step, culminating with the sweetest chocolate course.
 
Despite us already spending $500 on the tickets, we paid another $200 for the wine (we did not have the wine pairing, but were just drinking wine by the glass through the meal), service charge and the tea. The waiters did not allow me to use flash when I was in Alinea, but I still have sneaked in some pictures with flash (I was told off so many times). The meal at Alinea is extremely memorable, and definitely one of the ones my boyfriend and I will speak about for the rest of our lives, especially as I think the presentation and the show behind each dish is the best I have ever seen in any restaurant in the world. For the food and presentation, this place would get 5Ms, and for me be one of the top 3 restaurants in the world. However the reason why I am giving it 4.5Ms, is because: 1) I found the system of buying tickets annoying and pretentious; 2) I found the waiters and the service too pretentious; 3) they did not give me the signature “hot potato, cold potato” dish
 
Date: 07/10/12
Location: Chicago

Alinea on Urbanspoon

Maija rated: 

4.50

Location: 

Alinea
1723 N Halsted St, IL 60614,
Chicago
United States
US
Alinea Reviewed by Hungry Bee Maija on . Rating: 4.5