Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Alinea: The best meal I've ever had

In the spirit of celebrations, I had the wonderful opportunity to dine at Alinea.

I managed to get reservations 2 weeks in advance and informed the reservationist that I was an ovo-lacto vegetarian. She graciously took note, asking a few specific questions.

As I waited in anticipation, I tried not to let my expectations get out of control with all of the hype over the 7th best restaurant in the world.

Of course my expectations were out-of-this-world long before Alinea made an appearance in the top 10 restaurants in the world list. I have been dreaming about dining at Alinea ever since I read an article about Chef Grant Achatz's culinary genius entitled "The Alchemist: A Chef in Chicago wants to blow your mind" in the January 2007 issue of MIT's Technology Review.

And you, my dear readers, have heard me go on and on about Alinea's friendliness towards vegetarians, its numerous accolades, and Chef Achatz's next project.

I was afraid that I knew too much about Alinea before actually going. There is no shortage of discussion and praise about Alinea's unexpected combinations and illusions created using unusual cooking techniques and specially crafted serviceware. Or the use of no silverware needed presentations, the pillows filled with scented air, and the aromatic burning leaves.

With the first bite, I realized I knew nothing at all about Alinea. All theatrics and illusions aside, the food was the star. Each component was so well thought out and perfectly executed with impeccable attention to detail. By the end of the three hours, it became apparent that the process of innovation and refinement at Alinea was in a continuum.

The dishes appealed to the senses with variations in temperature, richness, texture, and aromas, often within the same course. The flavors were in such perfect harmony- some unexpected, some subtle, and some pronounced- the result was like a symphony slowly revealing itself in my mouth.

All I can do is wholeheartedly urge you to dine at Alinea if you are able to do so. It was worth every delectable dime, even if you are a vegetarian. And do the wine pairings.

Each wine is carefully selected to perfectly pair with the course. If you would rather have one or two glasses of wine, tell the sommelier and he will suggest three or four half glass pours that will pair with the courses. It would be a shame to choose an otherwise beautiful bottle of wine only to find that it overpowers or mellows the subtle flavors of a particular course.

For those who are interested, below is a rather long detailed description of our experience.

Giddy as ever, we arrived right on time and would've walked right past the unassuming gray building had it not been for the valet outside. We entered through dark gray doors into a funky long hallway with pink lighting, joking that we were about to enter the batcave!

I paused to take a picture, when suddenly, secret doors opened on the left leading to the restaurant.

Greeted by the hostess, we caught a glimpse of the pristine and surprisingly calm Alinea kitchen before climbing the floating stairs to the second level. Chef Achatz is in the background on the left, contemplating.

We were seated at a large, mahogany table in a sleek room with large modern art adorning the walls. Greeted by one of our many servers for the evening, the centerpiece- two flags made of chopsticks and rice paper- was brought to the table. She informed us that centerpiece was interactive and would be used in a later course.

The servers were knowledgeable and willing to discuss the specifics of a course. I was particularly impressed by the Sommelier, who shared just enough details to educate and incite excitement about a particular wine. When prompted, he enthusiastically answered questions and discussed particular pairings.

The wine service was outstanding. My only complaint is that it would have been nice to know how many courses a particular wine pairing should last. I found myself having to finish a wine a bit quicker than expected or with an empty glass a couple times.

The kitchen was transitioning from the Winter to the Spring 2010 menu, so we got to experience a few new dishes that I had not yet read about on the Alinea mosaic forum! These were interspersed with some of the famous Alinea dishes like hot potato and chocolate.

Below is a run down of each of the 12 courses and a few of the outstanding wine pairings.

ENGLISH PEA burrata, sherry, honeydew
The first course was a cup filled with creamy aerated frozen peas and blanched peas with an explosion of sherry wine, clear basil distillation, rich burrata cheese, olive oil jam, and a honeydew ball. Many ingredients were manipulated between recognition which added an element of surprise to every bite.

The sherry wine ball burst on the palate with a sweet, earthy acidity that cut through the creamy, rich, and salty peas. The honeydew added brightness and the honey granules added a lovely textural contrast to the dish.

Each bite presented a different combination of components, creating an intense and flavorful opening course. 

ARTICHOKE shallot, mustard, bay aroma
Artichokes, pickled raw shallot, and mustard encased in airy tempura batter skewered with an aromatic bay laurel, which also served as a utensil. The server instructed us to consume the tempura in a single bite after deeply inhaling the scent of the bay laurel.

The pungent and savory mustard cut the creamy texture of the artichoke, whetting the palate for the next courses. I was most impressed at how such complex flavors could be expressed by using only three ingredients.  

DISTILLATION of thai flavors
Served in a wine glass and clear as water. It smelled of peppery heat but tasted of lemon grass, lime, and salt. Intriguing.

There was a slight hiccup with the service when a new server brought the glass and described the flavors as fish sauce, lemongrass, and lime. He commented that the distillation served as a primer for next course and walked away.

Our previous server must have noticed the look on my face because he walked over and asked if everything was OK. I explained what the server said and asked whether the distillation had fish sauce. He assured me that it may have been described as such but the kitchen was aware of my dietary restrictions and the distillation did not contain fish sauce.

Although it turned out fine, I felt a bit awkward having to ask such a question because when I made the reservation, the reservationist asked me several detailed questions, including questions about stocks and fish sauce. And when we were seated, the initial server confirmed each of our dietary restrictions. This was the only service hiccup for the night.

CAULIFLOWER curry, cucumber, lime
The server brought out a tray with a spread of ingredients: lava salt, cucumber, fried garlic, bananas with curry, lime with zest, coconut shreds, red onion, red pepper sauce with cayenne, basil seed vinagrette, marigold garnish, and cashews.

We were requested to lift the glass tray, set it in front of us, remove the metal pieces nested in the wood platter, and interlock the pieces to assemble a hammock-like stand. The server gracefully lifted the rice paper with amrit flower and marigold from the centerpiece and placed it over the hammock, topping it off with curried cauliflower. We were then told to add as many or as few of the ingredients and roll it into a spring roll.

It was fun interacting with the food and the result was deliciously flavorful, with a beautiful mix of spicy, savory, and sweet flavors and balance of textures.

LEEK potato, radish, smoke
This was one of the most impressive courses. Leek set over dollops of potato and leek puree, radish slices, and crushed celery and parsley crouton, paired with a celery ribbon, crisp potato ribbon, and red apple gel ribbon with smoke flavors. The dish was garnished with chive drops, chive balons, and celery heart leaves. The red apple gel ribbon resembled a fruit roll up while the celery ribbon had a slight crunch and the potato ribbon was the crispiest. The textural contrast of the ribbons played well against the contrast of the puree, leek pieces, and crushed croutons.

The wine pairing was perfect: a bold Spanish white, Avanthia Godello Valdeorras. I was blown away by the level of intricacy and how each component artfully contributed to the complete dish. The presentation had beautiful continuity that translated into layering of flavors and textures in the mouth. 

SUNCHOKE rhubarb, lilac, fennel
Served in an apple bowl, the course had three parts, moving from cold to hot and increasing in richness. The wine for this course, Lucien Albrecht Pinot Gris from Alsace, also transformed from light to full bodied as it opened up over the three parts. I was extremely impressed with the pairing!

The first part of the dish was cold. Lilac and buttermilk parfait garnished with fennel flower, rhubarb pieces, orange zest, and chevril leaves served over chevril juice. The parfait had a great in the mouth feel. The components worked together to create a light, floral bouquet with subtle sweetness and clean herbaceous notes. It was instantly Spring.

The second part of the dish was warm. Two pieces of sunchoke with crushed almond coated avocado set in between, topped with bean sprouts, compressed rhubarb slices, fennel fronds and slices, a square of red pepper, and mustard seeds. The subtle but fragrant combination of the fennel and mustard seeds, reminded me of spices used in Indian cooking.

Finally, the last dish in the apple bowl was hot and incredibly rich. A thick glaçage of fennel and leek topped with rhubarb, sunchoke, cipolini onion, and an orange ball of fennel and star anise, all dusted with pink peppercorn skin and preserved lemon.

This three part course was my favorite savory dish. I loved the variation in temperature, intensity, and richness over the three parts. Each part had different presentations of rhubarb, fennel, and sunchoke that emphasized different flavors and textures. 

Then an ornate wine glass replaced the simple wine glass and gorgeous antique cutlery replaced the modern pieces.  Our server informed us that Chef Achatz wanted to introduce a purely classical Escoffier dish into Alinea's modern menu, thus we were switching to classic presentation in the middle of the modern sequence. The stage was set for the next course.


MAITAKE root vegetables
The vegetarian version of the Escoffier dish was maitake mushroom over salsify with champagne sauce, accompanied by potato topped with truffle, cipolini onion topped with crisp cilantro, and carrot topped with chervil.

Each component was precisely executed with focused flavors. And the wine pairing was phenomenal- Albert Morot Beaune Teurons 1er Cru-- excellent cherry fruit and balance, with good mineral flavors.

HOT POTATO cold potato, black truffle, butter
I had heard quite a bit about this dish before dining at Alinea. The dish was a play on temperature. A slice of truffle sprinkled with salt sat atop a hot potato speared with a needle holding a cube of butter, parmesan cheese, and a piece of chive. Everything delicately hung over a cold potato soup with truffle and butter, which added dimensionality to the dish.

We were told to pull the needle away from the bowl in order to let the items fall into the bowl, pinch the paraffin wax bowl slightly, and tip the dish into our mouths.

The contrast of different temperatures for the same ingredients was mind blowing and resulted in a rich, flavorful tasting. Because the dish was time sensitive, I quickly snapped picture which unfortunately came out blurry!

As you can see, the size and richness of each course varied, which I preferred to a strictly linear progression of courses from light to rich.

MOREL asparagus, orange, chamomile
This gentle dish highlighted ingredients that are sought after because of their brief availability, signifying the transition from Winter to Spring. White asparagus and morels set in a bath of chamomile foam, sherry broth, orange zest, and honey cubes.

Given my obsession with morels and my love for asparagus, I was instantly transported to a happy place. The dish was light, sweet, and savory.

EARL GREY lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate
This dish was a play on tea and cookies. Lemon custard, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate with rose, pine nut brittle, fennel jam, rose pate de fruit, and earl gray crumbles with vanilla notes. The dish was served over a pillow containing earl grey aroma, and as we ate the perfumed tea aroma was released.

The dish had creamy, jammy, and crunchy textures. Rose pate de fruit was shattered and scattered throughout the early gray mix. The anise and rose notes were subtle and complemented the tea. The lemon added bright acidity, cutting through the rich white chocolate and custard. The sweetness of the white chocolate complemented the bitterness of the tea.

This was my favorite dessert. I can still taste the citrus, anise, and rose notes of the early gray.

CHOCOLATE coconut, menthol, hyssop
Reminiscent of a York peppermint patty, the dish had variation in temperature, texture, and consistency. Chewy coconut and frozen coconut mousse. Freeze dried chocolate mousse and warm chocolate mousse made from Valrhona chocolate. All accompanied by fluffy clouds of menthol cream, menthol chips, cocoa nibs, and anise hyssop.

It was crunchy, chewy, rich, light, hot, and cold, all of which contrasted with the minty, medicinal cool of menthol. Heavenly with the Ramos-Pinto 20 year Tawny Port.

BUBBLE GUM long pepper, hibiscus, crème fraîche
The final course was presented in a tube and our server told us to take it one long go. It was whimsical and fun, but I must admit that I felt a bit ridiculous because consumption resulted in an audible slurping noise! I suppose Chef Achatz wants to show that fine dining can have a fun side too.

Honestly, the only flavor that I could identify was bubble gum with a tapioca like texture. It felt like an American take on bubble tea. The server informed us that the other components were crème fraîche, and hibiscus.

We were each given personalized menus listing the courses (including the vegetarian substitutions) and wine pairings. The layout of the menu is worth mentioning: the bigger the circle, the bigger the meal. And circles further to the left are more savory dishes, those to the right are more sweet.

Because we were there to celebrate a special occasion, our menus said Congratulations on top! It was a thoughtful touch to a most memorable meal. (After our meal at Cyrus, we were also given personalized menus with substitutions, wines, and our names written inside).

The three hour long tasting left us in awe and in complete reverence to Chef Achatz's culinary genius and creative vision. I felt similar emotions to those I have experienced in the Monet room at the Art Institute of Chicago.

I am inspired by the relentless dedication to achieve perfection in execution, constantly innovate, and push the limits to transform the familiar into a masterpiece.

1723 N. Halsted
Chicago, IL 60614


  1. Wow! What an evening. Thank you for sharing this experience with me (since I live in Colorado and am too poor to eat at such a lovely restaurant...hopefully that will change soon!). I so admire the carefully thought out presentations and flavor combos...just delightful!

  2. Wow! Just wow! You are certainly fortunate to be living in such a Foodie capital. Chicago seems to be more and more an "it" spot.

  3. I'm so jealous! We always meant to get to Alinea and Moto before we moved away from Chicago but it just never happened. Fun to read about your dinner! Have you been to Moto too? Would love to hear how you compare the two.

  4. OH lucky you!! I wish I could try it out someday, everything looks incredible. You are one lucky girl!

  5. What a great place...Someday I hope:) Loved the post!

  6. Your review of Alinea was excellent. I was there for my birthday a few years ago. Thanks for including the link to the World's Top Restaurants, looks like we might have to go to Denmark soon!

    After reading several of your posts sounds like we have a lot in common. And have enjoyed many of the same restaurants! I'll be in Chicago in August, looking forward to dining at Stephanie Izard's new place.


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