Yes friends, I finally went to Alinea. And it was everything I dreamed it would be.
The custom-made playground of chef-prodigy Grant Achatz, Alinea has shot to international superstardom since it's opening in 2006, and put Chicago firmly on the map as once of the country's most exciting and progressive dining destinations. Achatz's style has been termed "molecular gastronomy", for the way he uses chemical reactions to create unique flavors and textures from standard ingredients. Achatz has reinvented the fine dining experience, playing to all of the guest's five senses, and delivering truly inspired dishes that are as visually pleasing as they are delicious. And despite what some diet-coke-sipping skeptics say, this thing is no fad. It's a revolution. And with Achatz leading the charge, it's here to stay.
Since I moved into my current apartment a year ago, I've walked past Alinea's unassuming homestead at 1723 Halsted almost every day on my way to work. It's been a kind of sweet torture - knowing I was thisclose to being able to walk through those doors... yet feeling like I was never going to get there. At that point, I was missing two criticial things: the money to fund the meal, and the people to share it with. Even if I could come up with the cash, it wasn't something I was going to do on my own. It wasn't the first time I've been so close to an Achatz-helmed restaurant - I lived just blocks from Trio while a student at Northwestern - but it's the first time I'd felt it. Day after day I'd walk past, briefly stopping to gaze at the signless, blue brick exterior, wondering what lay behind the white curtains that always obscured the windows. When I got out of work late, the windows would be ablaze with a soft, rainbow glow reminiscent of the northern lights. And still I wondered what magic lay behind them.
I thought I might lose my chance to find out when I heard last year that Grant was battling stage IV mouth cancer. It's the kind of thing that's almost biblical in it's tragic irony: one of the world's most promising up-and-coming chefs diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. But luckily, Grant fought it, and kept his tongue intact along the way, even after several doctors recommended amputation (I imagine that doctor selection process might have gone something like this). He's now back to health and back in the kitchen, crafting his next edible adventure.
And all of this brings us up to a few weeks ago, when, after several hypothetical discussions, one of my college friends put her foot down and said "let's do it". Our friend Ben was getting back from a long work stint in Africa, I had a sweet tax refund coming my way, and suddenly there was no time like the present to make the dream come true. Finally, all of the pieces fell into place. The reservation was made and it was fully on.
The day of the meal - and indeed the whole experience - was pretty surreal to me. As I got ready to go I found myself unexpectedly nervous and giddy. Like, butterflies-in-your-stomach, before-a-first-date giddy. I met up with my three brave friends, Amanda, Heather, and Ben, and they were equally wired. The anticipation was palpable. After taking a few pictures of ourselves outside, it was down the rabbit hole.
Through the front door of Alinea is a short, disorienting hallway lit with those aurora borealis colors. Toward the end we were met with stainless steel doors that startlingly opened when we drew near - like we had just been through a time warp and were exiting a spaceship to another world. Of course, we were.
After being greeted by kind hosts, we were ushered to our table on the upper level. A smoky aroma hit me immediately on the walk up, and we wondered at what it could be. (We'd find out later that it was a combination of smoldering cinnamon and "fake" grill smoke.) From that moment and through the whole meal, I was wholeheartedly impressed with the unpretentious candor of the staff. Everyone who serviced us seemed like they loved their jobs and were enjoying every minute of it. And there was not an ounce of condescension the whole meal - even though we were obviously young, giggly, and very camera happy. I was totally comfortable being there and it definitely enhanced the experience.
Once we were seated, it was time for the show to begin. We all ordered the "tour" menu - 24 courses deep. The girls stuck kept it simple with water, but Ben went for the wine pairings which he thoroughly enjoyed. Going without the wine helps you keep the price down and lets you focus solely on the flavors of the food, but from what I'm told the wine definitely adds another dimension to the meal if that's what you're looking for.
Our first course was two roes (arctic char roe and Michigan steelhead roe) with traditional garnishes. Roe is something I've come to appreciate more as of late - it still freaks me out a little bit. But this stuff was so fresh it was sublime - it didn't have any of that "fishy" or "pickled" taste that you often get with caviar. And the garnishes it made a truly delightful first taste.
(All pictures courtesy of Ben Woo and his superior camera.)
The second course was a heavenly bite of foie gras with daikon, sudachi (a lime-like fruit native to Japan), and shiso garnishes and soup. The foie was really wonderful - butter-soft and surprisingly light. The garnishes gave it an interesting twist, and the "shot" of soup made for a tangy finish. With this course, as with many bites to follow - we did a sort of "cheers" and took it all at the same time. This was usually followed by a moment of silence as we savored and pondered the bite... and then often erupted into euphoric giggles. It's really hard to contain yourself when you're eating food this astonishing. Here's a good article that sums up that part of the experience very nicely.
The pork belly was up next - a warm pork belly confit layered between pieces of English-cucumber-soaked iceberg lettuce, banana seeds, and a spoonful of distilled thai chili & lemongrass "gel" that can be best described by this Gachatz twitter post: "distilled thai chilies at 50 C full vac. All flavor-no heat. Pretty interesting sensation. Your mind keeps waiting for the fire. Never comes" Wow do I love the taste of black pepper on fruit. The fourth course was a teeny little bite of poached pear encapsulated in olive oil with a little mint leaf and dash of black pepper on top. The eucalyptus in the bowl exuded a calming aroma. We kept on sticking our faces in our bowls to get more of it. The pear's grainy texture and the silky olive oil added a nice tactile element to the bite as well. Next up was the lilac and shellfish course. This was the first of a few dishes that utilized a strong floral element as a key flavor note. It's definitely different than anything I've ever tasted, and sometimes it's a little overwhelming (when you hit one of the lilac "pillows"). But paired with the honeydew, it works to add an unexpected but welcome twist to what might have been a pretty standard shellfish dish. Now this next course was a highlight - inspired by Grant's recent trip to Japan. The "soy egg" is a popular part of asian cuisine, and the flavor combination simply doesn't exist in western food. It's a pure shot of umami, basically. Grant's version of the "soy egg" was a small yolk encapsulated in a soy gelatin, garnished with wasabi and yuzu. It was potent and salty, with a long lingering aftertaste. Course #7 was a long line of indian-inspired chicken bites, interspersed with morel and eggplant bites. On the right is a lemon foam, and running under all the bites is a ribbon of sesame tahini puree. I love indian flavors and really loved the way they were addressed on this dish. The chicken liver bite was a bit of a kick in the mouth for me though - just a little too rich! My favorite service of the night came next: a trio of bacon, sweet potato, and mustard sorbet. The mustard sorbet is the little coin you see on the right, and had passionfruit, allspice, and soy garnishes. It was a really unusual and fantastic bite blending cold savory and sweet flavors. To the left we have the sweet potato - a little nest of fried deliciousness on the end of a smoldering cinnamon stick, lollipop style. When you suck the nest off the end of the stick, you're first met with the sweet fried potato and brown sugar, and then a surprise shot of bourbon that explodes in your mouth, leaving you with a refreshing alcoholic finish. We had surprise (and sometimes not surprise) explosions happen at a couple of different times in the meal... it never gets old. Finally came the bacon - a simple thyme-smoked strip wrapped in butterscotch and apple leather. Fantastically sweet, salty, and savory all at once. Another famous dish was up next: Hot Potato / Cold Potato. The ball of "hot potato", with a giant truffle shaving on top, is suspended above a little shot of creamy cold potato soup. You slowly pull out the pin - think grenade - and BAM take it all at once. Really wonderful flavors, tempatures, and textures all in one bite. We have taken to calling the next dish "the umami tsunami". Grant did use a lot of umami flavors throughout the meal, but it was perhaps this one and the soy egg that packed the most punch. This was essentially a "quill" of fried soymilk protein wrapped in shrimp and orange taffy. The dipping sauce complimented the taffy and soy flavors with another sweet note. As this was the only true "finger food" of the evening, they gave us warm towels to clean off our greasy little fingers. Nice.
A lovely white asparagus soup with sorrel puree, white pepper, honey marzipan, and fruity tapioca was next.
And then there was the BLACK TRUFFLE EXPLOSION (MOTHERF***ER)! This little ravioli has more black truffle packed in it than I've probably ever had in my whole life -- including the huge chunk that was on the hot potato. The broth literally explodes in your mouth when you bite down. Probably the most fantastic single bite of the evening. Gah, do I love truffle.
The next course was also a winner, if you can't guess by the name: "Butter and its Best Friends". A beautiful plate of buttered popcorn puree, lobster, popcorn, normal corn, mango, and curry. Oh, and a sac of "clarified" melted butter that oozes out when you pierce it the right way and squirts if you don't! To bring the "dinner" portion of the meal to a dramatic close, we were presented with a small but scrumptious cut of Wagyu Beef - the highest grade available of arguably the best beef in the world. It was served with powdered (deconstructed) A-1 sauce, salt and pepper on the side, as well as a really heavy salt-and-vinegar-chip-encrusted potato custard. The fun of this dish came from trying different elements on the plate together. The potato was a bit much for me on its own, but tasted great with the beef. And to evoke that "grilled" essence, the waiter set off a "volcano" of fake grill smoke in the middle of our table. Very nice touch. After the dust had settled from the deluge of dinner courses, it was time for dessert. First up we had a little edible "packet" of powdered grape soda, which tasted like especially spritely grape "fun dip" (remember that stuff? pure sugar). Then came a trio of sweets. A shot of pomegranate and cassia with a yogurt "ball" (hard on the outside, liquid on the inside) that - guess what? - exploded in my mouth. A "transparency" of raspberry, yogurt, and rose flavors. And a "bubble gum" tube of vanilla creme fraiche, long pepper, hibicus and tapioca that tasted like a bubblegum milkshake. You had to suck it through the tube, which made a really funny slurping noise and set us off laughing so hard that I almost couldn't finish it. We were far enough along in the meal at that point we were pretty delirious anyway, it didn't take much to send us over the edge! Next were two more interesting dessert courses. A dish with rhubarb in several forms, goat milk cheesecake (fantastic!), onion cotton candy, and lavender "air". The onion element gave it an interesting sharpness and I wasn't a huge fan of the lavender... but the rhubarb and cheesecake were great! The Kola Nut "parfait" was not a hit at our table overall - the kola, licorice, beet and buttermilk flavors seemed a bit redundant and didn't really add up for us. A thoughtful statement nonetheless! A chocolate course was next... it was dark, sweet and rich, with prunes, chocolate crumbs, and pine ice cream. It wasn't anything too far off the map, but I liked the pine twist. I'm interested to see what other more imaginitive kind of stuff Grant could do with chocolate, though...
Before we knew it, the end was upon us. Even though we were full almost to the brim, we weren't ready for it to end. But all good things must. Knowing this, Grant capped it with one of his greatest creations: the dry caramel. Essentially, a shot of powdered salted caramel that turns to ooey gooey sweetness when it reacts with the wetness in your mouth. A memorable and lingering final goodnight "kiss".
A truly inspired, memorable, and fun culinary experience overall. I was enormously impressed by the personalbe and professional service, the aesthetic of the room and table design, and the comfort of the seats (you sit in them for a long time!). Food-wise, I loved the way that sweet & savory flavor mashups played a major role in the evening, as did big bold umami flavors, truffles, and explosions.
After letting it all sink in for a few minutes at the table, we were invited to go in the kitchen to get a look at the action. We crammed ourselves in a corner, trying our best to be out of the way, rooted to the floor in awe and wonder as the chef-scientists bustled about, constructing their art. We watched, rapt, as a quiet and contemplative Grant set two cinnamon sticks alight with what looked like an industrial-strength cooking blowtorch. When we had stayed just long enough that it was probably starting to get awkward, we said thanks to our host and unwillingly made our feet walk toward the door. Then out through the steel doors it was, back into the time-warp hallway and back out into the real world. Unable to contain ourselves any longer, we burst out in hysterical laughter at that point, ecstatic from what just happened. We took a couple pictures of ourselves literally jumping for joy. And then we walked home slowly and deliberately, with huge smiles on our faces that we couldn't wipe off minutes or even hours later.
Mine's still on. :)