I am ending my Chicago series on a high note with a post on the most impressive restaurant I ate at in Chicago – and maybe even ever – Alinea.
Eating at Alinea is spectacular, in the same sense as watching a Cirque du Soleil show is spectacular. There are moments where you hold you breath, others when you scream with joy, and still others when you sign in awe. It’s like dinner theater (thank you Foodie Date Night for that one) where the show in all its splendor happens at – and sometimes on – your table.
Owned and operated by chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, the same team who’s behind the newly opened restaurant Next and cocktail bar Aviary, it is safe to say that Alinea is the most cutting-edge restaurant in America. It ranks number 7 on the Top 50 Best Restaurants list and both the restaurant and chef Achatz have gathered numerous accolades since Alinea opened in 2005.
The story of Alinea is also the story of chef Achatz, whose emotional biography I recently read (if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it). It’s a story of a young chef who had a vision “of a complete aesthetic experience for Alinea diners” and who fought to get his dream restaurant built. It’s also the very human story of that very same young chef who, at the peek of his career, had to battle tongue cancer and the very real possibility of having to amputate the one organ his body would need to let go of to perhaps survive the illness but also the one organ his gourmand spirit could not live without… You really must read the book for all the fascinating details but I will give out the ending and say that it all ended well, chef Achatz recovered and is now obviously thriving, both personally and professionally.
Alinea is located in an elegant dark grey building which would be easily missed for the lack of sign except for the address. After walking down a long corridor all lit in pink, an automatic door opens on your left and almost surprises you. Inside you are greeted by the maître d’ who leads you to your table. The decor is elegant yet subdued. There are no flashy elements to attract your attention and no music to distract you from what is happening at your table.
Just like the food, the service is impeccable yet playful. The waiters and sommelier are the best you’ll ever have, polite, knowledgeable, attentive yet also casual, fun and unpretentious, which makes the whole experience even more unforgettable. But enough talking, here’s what I had for dinner…
It’s quite impressive to receive a huge piece of driftwood covered in wild, hanging seaweed. It’s placed as carefully as possible on the bare wood table in front of you. In the seaweed are nestled these 4 shells described above which you have to wrestle to untangle and then savour. Let the fun begin!
The “scallop” had the same texture as tofu but tasted like scallop. The tremendously tasty dashi broth was cooked at our table in the siphon coffee contraption pictured above. We didn’t know what was cooking until it was done and served to us. The element of surprise is of the utmost importance at Alinea, which is why they don’t hand you a menu until the end of the meal…
I loved the “bowl” this dish came in. All the dinnerware at Alinea is custom made by Martin Kastner who works closely with chef Achatz to create a complete sensory experience for every dish.
My intrepid dining companion Eve is trying to get to the bottom of the vial that’s carved directly in the block of ice and that contains a delicious beet nectar.
Isn’t it just gorgeous? The piece of wood is charred before being brought to your table so you experience the smell of burned wood as you enjoy this dish, which was one of my favourites.
The dish is made of wax so that the little metal pin doesn’t slip out. You pull on the pin, the potato falls into the soup and you must eat it immediately to experience the amazing hot and cold sensation. One of the most memorable dishes!
“You don’t have to eat it all, the point is for you to pick and chose” was what our waiter said. We ate it ALL! A most spectacular dish in which every single topping is thought out and beautifully plated. It was so much fun to try all the toppings and to guess what the flavours were!
This was, by far, my favourite bite. The “explosion” of black truffle broth when you bite into the ravioli is just unbelievable!
The filled spoons and forks are placed in a random order directly on the table and you are asked to enjoy the dish in the order that you prefer. Fun!
The picture doesn’t do this dish justice. The smoking cinnamon stick envelops you in its sweet, spicy scent while you enjoy the light-as-a-feather tempura pear.
I remember thinking: how can anything so tiny have so much flavour? The 1/4″ cubes of ginger are so concentrated in flavour and vary in taste. This would be considered the pre-dessert palate-cleansing act.
Spectacular as well! The waiter pours a hot liquid in the round recipient and that part of the dessert “cooks” while you enjoy the first part that’s plated around the rim of the dish.
Who doesn’t love an edible balloon? You are invited to inhale the flavoured helium inside the balloon and to then speak to your dining companion! Guaranteed giggles! The whole balloon is edible, all the way down to the stem.
For this spectacular end to the meal, the table is covered in a food safe silicon mat. A cook then comes and “paints” the dessert directly on your table. Paints, because let’s face it, this is art. Watch the video below to get an idea of how fun this dessert is (excuse the dim lighting conditions)
Eating at Alinea changes you. You may become a little bit spoiled and a little bit blasé and you may want to compare every other culinary experience you have to that spectacular Alinea one. I am trying not to do that otherwise enjoying any restaurant would be impossible.
If you want to reserve at Alinea, you have to do so by phone two months ahead of time.
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1723 North Halsted Street
+1 312 867 0110
Dinner, Wednesday to Saturday