Sunday, July 7, 2013

Our First Experience at Alinea!

It’s been a long road to Alinea... both literally and figuratively! I first heard about this restaurant around 7 or 8 years ago but I didn’t think too much about going there until around 3 years ago. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get us a reservation the last time we went to Chicago... previously, you had to call on a certain date a few months in advance and I missed the date. However, the booking process has since changed to an online system so it was much easier to secure a table this time around. Hurrah! You have to pay in advance for the tasting menu plus the applicable taxes and service charge. The price of the meal depends on the seating you choose and beverages are not included.

Hubs and I drove to Chicago last weekend pretty much specifically to dine at Alinea. This was our first time trying a 10+ course tasting menu and I was a little apprehensive that hubs wouldn’t like it... thankfully, despite a few hiccups (which I’ll discuss throughout the post), we enjoyed both the food and the experience! If you are planning to dine at Alinea down the road, I suggest not reading this blog post any further. The element of surprise is wonderful and while the menu changes frequently, there are a few “permanent” creations on the menu that should be discovered only once you are sitting in the restaurant. That being said, I’d like to remember the evening as best I can so this is going to be a long and detailed blog entry.

One last note before I get into it. A few of the courses are “time sensitive” – meaning that you should eat them immediately after being served due to the temperature of the food. I’ve read that Chef Grant Achatz (pronounced like “jackets” but without the J) has commented on patrons spending so much time taking photos that it compromises the integrity of the food. I find it’s often a delicate balance among enjoying the moment, being respectful with your camera, and documenting the experience.

Anyway, the meal was so expensive that I wanted to make sure I enjoyed the food as it was intended, but at the same time, I would have deeply regretted it if I hadn’t taken any photos. We got the best of both worlds by taking our photos quickly... that way, we could enjoy the food and have a visual record of what we ate. I brought my DSLR in my purse as I had planned to take some better photos, but I felt the shutter would have been disruptive to our fellow diners so we instead used our point-and-shoot cameras. In the end, I thought our photos turned out pretty well so I’m a happy (shutter) bug. All photos were taken by either my hubby (mostly) or me (a few) with no flash and no beeping. As an aside, if you use a digital camera in public frequently, I highly recommend turning off the beeping sound!

Now let’s get to the meat of the post. Warning: this is going to be a very detailed description of our meal. While we really enjoyed our evening (and are hoping to return for another visit in the future), I do feel there were some areas that could be improved so I will include in my commentary where I felt the experience fell short.


Alinea is located in a non-descript building with a grey facade at 1723 North Halsted Street. The building is numbered prominently and there is also a sign for valet parking right outside the restaurant so you can’t miss it. The cost for valet parking was $12 excluding tip as of June 2013. When you enter the restaurant, there is a short hallway that is extremely dark, especially since we had just come inside from the sunny outdoors. Entering the hall, you are immediately enveloped in some wonderful aromatherapy. This is where your experience begins! Apparently, there has on occasion been a course that you discover in the hallway, but I don’t think it was present the night we dined there... if it was, we missed it.

The hallway was lit with minimal fuchsia lighting and there were hanging bud vases on both sides of the corridor. There were fresh flowers in the vases... I believe there were also some dried flowers hanging close to the ceiling. The floor is carpeted with earth and moss but my heels did not sink into it. The “décor” in the hallway changes with the season - for example, last winter, it was lined with pine trees. There is no one to greet you in the hallway. You slowly make your way to the end and a set of stainless steel doors open automatically to reveal the modern, minimalist restaurant.

At this point, you are greeted by a host/server. If you used the valet parking, let the host know as your car will then be ready for you as you are leaving. The kitchen is immediately to your right once you exit the hallway. There are dining rooms to your left and stairs leading up to the second story directly in front of you. The restaurant is in a two story building with multiple “rooms” – we sat on the second floor and the room we were in had a table of 4, three other tables of 2, and us. The tables are spaced out nicely so you don’t feel crowded. The seating times are also spaced out – we had an early seating at 5:30pm and we were the 3rd table to be seated, but towards the middle of our meal, the room was full. I liked that there was no music being played, but it was very quiet when we first arrived. Thankfully, the room became more energetic as the night wore on.

The service at Alinea is incredibly fast and efficient. There are multiple people serving courses, removing dishes, replacing cutlery, filling water, etc., and while I loved the efficiency, I found the pacing of the meal a bit too fast. Some of the servers were very warm and friendly, while others were less so but still polite. The main downside to having multiple servers was that the descriptions of each course varied in the amount of detail – I learned a lot about some courses hearing servers describe them to adjacent tables and wish that there was more consistency in that area.

Since my hubby was driving, he had some non-alcoholic apple cider – it was fancy cider from Normandy and tasted delicious! I elected not to do a wine pairing as I had read mixed reviews about it. I believe the standard wine pairing is $150 per person and the reserve wine pairing (when available) is $250 per person. I read that you can share the wine pairing between 2 people and each receive half pours. There is no wine list but the sommelier will recommend wines depending on the course and your preferences. He showed me the bottles of the wines he served me but I can’t remember any of them.

Alinea does not show you the menu in advance but someone from the restaurant e-mailed me a few days before our reservation to ask about any dietary restrictions or allergies. I replied that we had none, but I did have a preference for no coriander or cilantro. They were respectful of this. We received a menu at the end of our meal as a keepsake; however, since it is not very detailed, this blog post is just going to contain a brief summary of each course along with any tidbits I can remember.

Course 1 of 14 // Osetra – classical
This was a little caviar amuse bouche and our server described it to us as simply “caviar” – later, I heard another table receive a very long description of this course with all the ingredients and how they work together. That made me feel a little slighted that we didn’t receive the same level of detail. The server has this block thing-a-ma-jig with the handle of spoons tucked inside and you are supposed to pull out your spoon yourself. Sure enough, I could not for the life of me get my spoon out. Eventually, I got it... without spilling anything I might add! This was a very delicious start to our meal.

Course 2 of 14 // Rabbit – cherry blossom, smoke, wasabi
We received a much more detailed description of this course, which was nice... but somehow I did not hear, or the server did not say, that this was a rabbit dish. I thought this was a beautiful (vegetarian) salad until I came to the bit of meat at the end. I ate it and asked my hubby if he knew what it was, but he did not. Later, we heard another server describe this course as rabbit. Oopsie, having a pet bunny, I am now suffering from a bit of a guilty conscience.

Course 3 of 14 // Scallop – citrus aroma, fourteen textures
This course was really neat because it was served in a bowl containing a giant frozen clam shell. The dry ice used in the presentation resulted in vapours spilling out from the bowl onto the table. I loved this dish! It’s a little interactive because you are guided to open the clam shell yourself to reveal the scallop inside. The fourteen textures (I guess it was thirteen for me since I didn’t want the coriander) were assembled beautifully like a work of art. This dish smelled like lemongrass and tasted divine – the flavours worked perfectly together and did not compete or overwhelm one another.

Course 4 of 14 // Dungeness Crab – squash blossom, cardamom, saffron
This is a relatively new course and had only been on the menu for a few weeks so we felt very lucky to be able to try it! I love crab and this preparation was wonderful. Again, there were a lot of flavours, but they all worked in tandem. I loved the shaved celery and the huge squash blossom. Everything on the plate was edible and of course I ate it all. After reviewing our photos, I noticed the top plate was resting on what I assume is a bed of salt and herbs and spices. I didn’t notice this detail in the restaurant so I’m glad we have our photos. Also, oddly enough, while I loved this dish, I had no memory of it after the meal... so again, I’m glad we have our photos. :)

Course 5 of 14 // Binchotan – Tokyo inspiration
This course was inspired by the Chef’s visit to Tokyo. Binchotan is a type of Japanese white charcoal that is supposed to be chemical free and relatively smoke free. The fire on the plate was just for show with the edible portion of this dish being 4 “bites” to be eaten in the order they were described to us.

1. The shrimp head was filled with some sort of deliciousness... sorry, this course was described to us very well but I can’t remember! The entire head is edible like a crispy chip and is meant to be eaten with your fingers.
2. The small morsel of tuna was perfectly seared – fresh and tasty.
3. The pork belly was a surprising favourite for me as I don’t typically like pork belly. This was done so well and it was the perfect bite-size portion.
4. The Wagyu beef melts in your mouth and could almost rival the Wagyu and Kobe beef we had in Kobe in 2010. This was hubby’s favourite of the 4 bites... he probably could have eaten 100 more pieces.

Course 6 of 14 // Veal Cheeks – spring bounty
This was a sizeable course and I immediately noticed the unique plating. Alinea has some of its dishes custom made for specific courses and this was one of them. Again, there were a lot of different flavours included in this dish, but they did not overwhelm the palate. Besides veal cheeks, there were sweetbreads included as an additional protein. This was my first time trying sweetbreads as I’m normally not a fan of offal. It was pretty tasty, but I also did not mind that it was a small piece.

Course 7 of 14 // Hot Potato – cold potato, black truffle, butter
This is one of those time sensitive courses I mentioned at the beginning of my blog post. It was also one of my favourites. The little dish (fits in the palm of your hand) is made of paraffin wax (I think I heard a server describe the bowl this way to another table) and contains a small portion of cold potato soup. On the pin inserted in the side of the dish, there are a bunch of ingredients with the round sphere at the end being a piece of hot potato. There is a delectable shaving of black truffle on top. This being another interactive dish, you carefully pull out the pin releasing the ingredients into the soup and slurp the contents like an oyster. I snapped this photo while the server was explaining the dish to ensure that my hot potato-cold potato did not become "warm potato-warm potato".

Course 8 of 14 // Duck – …….?????........!!!!!!!!!!!!
As you can see, I was very intrigued by this next course… and it was not only beautiful but also fun! This was probably one of my favourites as well.

We each received 5 preparations of duck – from right to left in the below photo: fois gras, some kind of rillettes, breast, neck, and confit (leg). In the middle of the table, the server placed a huge platter with 60 different garnishes. Each garnish is supposed to pair well with duck but is intended to be enough for only one person... so my hubby and I would each experience a different flavour profile. The server purposely does not tell you what each of the garnishes is, although some of course are obvious. He just told us to pair 1-2 garnishes for each piece (or bite) of duck. I found the five preparations of duck were large enough that I was able to cut each of them into 5-8 pieces. My hubby did the same so we ended up trying most of the garnishes!

Course 9 of 14 // Black Truffle – explosion, romaine, parmesan
Another amazing course! This dish is shaped like a little donut – the black you see in the bottom of the dish is actually the table underneath. The black truffle ravioli is resting on top of the spoon and is intended to be eaten in one bite, with your mouth firmly closed. There is a good reason for this – as you bite into the ravioli, it quite literally explodes and the black truffle "tea" is immediately released into your month. This was another favourite of mine - it was bursting with flavour hehe. With the exception of the duck experience, I think I generally preferred the one bite (or close to one bite) courses.

Course 10 of 14 // Ginger – five other flavors
This was a palate cleanser before the dessert so I’m not sure if this was counted as a course – likely not because one of our servers described the meal as 13 courses when we were initially seated. Besides 5 different flavours, I believe the thin skewers featured 5 different types of ginger. I didn’t recognize any other the other flavours. The 2nd and 4th pieces were both very spicy – I love ginger and those were my favourite. To eat this course, you pull out each needle from the silver base. Once you’re done, you place each needle in a dish in the middle of the table.

Course 11 of 14 // Balloon – helium, green apple
This was my favourite course of the entire evening. It was so much fun and so different from anything I have seen... or could even imagine! The server brings you a helium filled balloon on a piece of “string” – both the balloon and the string are edible. The only portion you cannot eat is a little silver pin tied to the end of the string. You basically put your lips up to the balloon and suck in all the helium. The balloon itself is incredibly sticky and will cling to anything. Hubs got it all over his nose and I got it in my hair. Ah well, it was fun! The string is made of green apple taffy. YUM!! We only said a few words to each other during this course but I noticed our voices were slightly more chipmunk-like. Hubs didn't notice any difference so maybe I always sound somewhat like a chipmunk to him.

Course 12 of 14 // Strawberry – sorrel, sassafras, pine nut
I’m sure this is reading terribly repetitive but this course was so tasty!! If it wasn’t for the balloon (and perhaps the next course), this would have been my favourite dessert course. The strawberries were sweet and fresh – I think they were being held together by some meringue. My hubby loves strawberries so he really enjoyed this dish too.

Course 13 of 14 // Raspberry – infused with rose
This was another interesting and delicious course. The glass bottle contains a thick raspberry soda (almost like a smoothie but slightly fizzy). You drink it through a glass straw, which contains a rose scented substance. Super tasty and refreshing.

Course 14 of 14 // Milk Chocolate – pâte sucrée, violet, hazelnut
I really liked this course because someone from the kitchen comes out to assemble this on your table. First, your table is covered with a thin latex sheet. Then some of the ingredients are placed on the edge of the table. Then a cook/chef comes to the table and starts putting together a dessert that ends up looking like a work of art. Temperature sensitive ingredients magically appear when he is ready for them, like the big pot of decadent melted milk chocolate. Hubs and I didn’t even notice it come out but later saw it appear in the corner of our video just in time to be poured. This dessert was the grand finale. It was very delicious, but it was also a huge portion and incredibly rich. I was a little worried that my hubby wouldn’t be full after this meal... let’s just say that fear was unfounded. He was full and I was bursting at the seams.

We had a coffee (hubs) and a decaf espresso (me) with our final course. After our meal, we settled the bill for our drinks and were escorted out of the restaurant to our car waiting directly outside the door. That completed our first Alinea experience! Overall, we thought the food was amazing. I found a few of the courses quite salty, but it wasn’t a big deal... in fact, I don’t even remember which ones they were. My hubby has a high tolerance for salt so he didn’t have the same impression.

While we really enjoyed our meal, I do think there are a couple of areas in terms of service that could be improved. As I mentioned above, I wish there had been more consistency with the detail included in the description of each course. The other thing I noticed is when my hubby finished his drink, he was not asked if he would like something else... the glass was simply taken away. This happened to me as well – I was offered another drink after my first but not after my second. While this might not bother a lot of people, I do like to be asked. It makes me feel “well taken care of” and it also makes sense from a business perspective since it's a good opportunity for the restaurant to upsell. Lastly, I found the pacing a little too fast as I would have liked to have some more time between courses. I found the pacing slowed down towards the middle of the meal but the first few courses made my head spin. Overall, we were at Alinea for around 2.5 hours from start to finish.

I loved that we received the menu (“certificate of completion”) at the end of our meal as a little souvenir. It was at this time we learned we had eaten rabbit. The server who presented us with the menu was very nice (probably my favourite server), but he did not tell us about the little bubbles on the menu... apparently, the size of the bubble corresponds to the size of the course. We learned this when I overheard the menu being presented to an adjacent table. Sigh.

Despite the little hiccups, hubs and I both enjoyed our meal tremendously. It was not only delicious - it was also fun and interactive. The dishes were highly inventive and well thought out. I thought I would find the experience a little gimmicky but it ended up being very interesting. The variety in flavour and presentation was incredible. We hope to make a repeat visit one day.

Here is my Chicago vlog - if you are interested in seeing some of the courses in action, our Alinea experience starts at the 12:43 mark. :)

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