Alinea opened in 2005 and is Chicago’s only 3 star Michelin restaurant. This is a second visit for us, but we read about their big redo around 2015 and thought maybe things had changed, especially since Alinea means “the beginning of a new train of though.” Grant Achatz is still the chef and he is no more personable than he was before, however most of the staff were very friendly and exceptionally attentive. What I objected to before has just become even more prominent. If you’ve read many of my write ups, you know flavor is most important to my dining experience. This place is all about the theater and show of your dinner. You move around, lots of props are in play (music, smoke, ceiling art, etc.) and there is really a show of all the staff moving about servicing the tables. Flavor is too far down on their list of priorities for me, but if you’ve never been to a place with so much show and innovative cuisine, it is worth one visit. But be forewarned, you will leave with a lot less money and still hungry.
The visit started with some complimentary champagne after we were seated at the large table for 14 people. The menu for the evening is a surprise (you get a copy at the end) but they will accommodate dietary restrictions if you give them prior notice. There was an optional truffle course for a fee, but I don’t believe anybody in the room took them up on it but they did bring the truffles around the room. As we looked around the heavily decorated room, music played in the background and the place bustled with activity. The table was set with large mirrored domes at each place and an assortment of books and framed photos in the center of the table, and candlelight all incorporating lots of red possibly because it was the end of the year. After the table was filled and the sommelier had visited with each party to select drink options the staff began to distribute a series of appetizers. (An advisory note would be to arrive a little early so that you can have time to visit with the sommelier and get your wine before the meal gets underway. We arrived close to the reservation time and didn’t get wine till the fourth course). The domed glasses became clear to reveal a plate below with a tiny leek tart. On the centerpieces were beet fruit (dried) in a bow, an oyster and tapioca on bed of salt on an oyster shell, and caviar and foam. The oyster was excellent, the caviar very good but while the leek tart had a wonderful crust it was only okay. The beet was liked a “leather fruit” and quite tart.
Now it was time to move into the kitchen that was right next door. In there lots of staff were working, while Chef Achatz leaned again the counter with a contemplative look on his face, never making eye contact or letting out a smile. They fixed a special “margarita” with some tequila that was combination of some frozen material filled with liquid from a cloud producing fountain. The snack was a pizza-like thing combination of basil, fennel and tomato in pocket with pepperoni flavors. The slushee was cool but the pizza bite had too much creamy stuff in a gooey exterior. The best part here was to just look around the kitchen.
When we returned to the dining room it had been converted to individual tables with built in curved seating on one side and a chair on the other for the 2-top side of the room and regular 4-top tables on the other side. The tables were not covered and the seating was comfortable. A bowl of limes and coconut was then placed as the centerpiece. The course was “White” or monochromatic with trout roe, coconut, lychee and white pepper. The trout roe was from Michigan and the bit of cake was coconut and they were both combined with the tropical flavors and white sesame. The centerpiece was filled with another cloud producing substance to add ambiance. The roe was salty, the cake dry and there was a lot of cream but it did have some nice coconut flavor.
Kaeng, or curry, was next with scallop, mustard, chili, skin, chicken, burnt peanut, Makrut lime, glow and lemongrass. One dish was plated first, a Thai curry squash dish with fermented tomato and curry powder and scallop noodles. Then the lights were dimmed and the second part came out which was a ‘chicken stir fry’ made into a fragile, crunchy and spicy lump along with tubes of glowing liquid. The tubes were to be consumed last in one gulp after you finished the chicken. The liquid was pretty to look at not memorable in taste.
The optional truffles were presented around the room.
The next course was ‘crunch’ with rouille, nori paper, langoustine, bouillabaisse and olive oil. One set of crispy sticks was made with nori and filled with a saffron aioli. The outside was quite crispy but the filling rated an all right. A bouillabaisse was made with langoustine and red pepper and inserted with a crisp sheet of something. The broth was good and the crispy thing dissolved in it, sort of. It was mostly bland.
Again the lights were lowered and a small Le Creuset was put on a fire at the table. While this heated ‘Ink’ was served which consisted of octopus, scallion and black lime. It was a piece of octopus glazed with a Korean BBQ sauce with summer squash, scallion, black (or blackened) lime and salt. The BBQ octopus was nice and fairly tasty and the browned scallion had a different flavor. However this was one of the ugliest plates I can remember being served anywhere.
‘Tail’ was pork, matsutake, huckleberry branch, Maitake, acorn and oak. It came with ‘Tea’ that had Matsutake, lemon and thyme. The last part of the course was ‘Jowl’ that was coated with quince ketchup. The first part was presented on a lot off leaves and was crispy and had some nice mushroom crusted nuts. The broth was a tea – ok. The jowl was the best of the bunch probably because of the tasty sauce. The pot of braised pork was mixed with onions and nuts and had some nice textural contrast.
The pan with the hunk of Waygu meat was shown around the room and the title ‘Rossini’ (think Lone Ranger) referred more to the music blasted while it was served and eaten. The meat was A5 cut of sirloin and cooked to a nice rare and served with a foie gras and black truffle sauce. The meat was tougher and drier than I would have expected but still delicious. The sauce was nice but not over the top. For a course I would have looked forward to it was a let down.
The next course was prepared tableside and Chef Grant was at our table. (He can stir really fast). He cleaned the pulp from the squash which came submerged in cheesecloth in a salt bath. It was then whipped with pumpkin, salted caramel and scooped into a bowl with dried apricots, sage and nuts. The final step was a squirt from the presurized tank of triple cream made with cow’s milk. It was interesting.
‘Wood’ was another 2 part course or Hoja Santa (Mexican pepperleaf/rootbeer leaf), tamarind and chocolate. A log held 2 bowls that was a tea with macerated pineapple that was very good. The other part was the leaf covering some ice cream, ancho chile and chocolate.
‘Nostalgia’ was next with a helium filled edible balloon passed to each person. The balloon is lightly flavored with green apple and the idea is to suck out the helium as you take care not to get sticky stuff all over you. It always amuses people to have that moment of squeaky talk. Also served was a movie theater old popcorn container which was filled with what looked like Garrett’s caramel corn but the waiter said the popcorn was a prop not really part of the meal, but it might have been the most flavored thing in the house. It was topped with a liquid filled caramel with a white chocolate shell. The caramel was excellent and the balloon mostly sweet.
As you finish the staff begin to take down the art panels hanging above you and one is placed on each table. Another cloud and fire are set at the end of the room and then a stream of people come from the kitchen to cover your art Pollock style with various sweets. It is called ‘Paint’ and lists carrot, cider, cranberry and maple as the ingredients. First is a dousing of sand like stuff that is swirled around. Then come bowls of jellies, dollops of colored creams, chocolate bits and whatever. After the solids come the sauces and a throw of glitter from Grant. Last were some pink biscuit shaped things made of some stiff sugary meringue which are then smashed. It was a mess and nothing was very tasty but there was a good assortment of textures and color.