The Windy City Part 6: Alinea
Dining at Alinea has been a dream of mine for a very long time. I remember reading about it and looking at pictures of the dishes with my mom over a decade ago and commenting on the sheer artistry. I am sure we were not the only ones.
Alinea is Chicago's only, three-star Michelin restaurant. In addition to earning three Michelin stars, the restaurant and chef have won numerous awards including just about every "James Beard" designation, "Best Restaurant in America," "Best Restaurant in North America" and Alinea is regularly recognized on the list of the "Top 50 Restaurants in World," climbing as high as number six in years past. Elite Traveler named it the "Best Restaurant in the World" and many would agree.
The first thing I noticed about Alinea is that there is absolutely no signage outside of the building. I walked right past the restaurant twice. I was about to check my reservation for the address, when the valet for the neighboring restaurant asked me if I was looking for Alinea, and pointed me to the gray doors you see in the photo above.
As soon as you enter, you are taken through two more doors and then you are greeted by several, pristine, candle-lit dining rooms. Once you sit down, your journey begins.
First Course: Nacre
Osetra Caviar, Mussel, Lychee
Dining at Alinea is a tactile, as well as a gastronomic experience. It was hard to distinguish the caviar served in the first course, from the bowl that it was served in. They asked me to hold the cold, beaded, glass dish in the palm of my hand. The grooves in the bowl resembled the way that caviar might actually feel in your hand, if it were in a hardened state.
The dish was layered with mussel and lychee hiding underneath the caviar and bringing the sleeping eggs to life.
Paired with Champagne Gran Cru, France (XVIII)
Second Course: Green Almond
This was a one bite wonder. There was cucumber, almond, garlic, paprika, edible flowers and more on this tiny spoon.
The goal was to eat it all in one bite, and when I did, the flavors of white gazpacho filled my mouth.
Paired with Benjamin Leroux, Chardonnay, Auxey-Duresses Burgundy, France 2020
Third Course: Hot Potato, Cold Potato
Cold Potato, Black Truffle, Parmesan
These three, cold ingredients, plus a small chive, were skewered on a pin and floating on top of a hot vichyssoise. When I removed the pin, as they instructed me to do, the cold ingredients fell into the hot soup.
I was told to slurp all the ingredients at one time, the way you would eat an oyster. I could taste all of the delightful flavors of course, but what bent my mind, was that I could feel both the hot and cold temperatures in my mouth simultaneously, for just a moment, before they coalesced. Simply amazing!
Fourth Course: Plume
This fourth course appropriately had four elements:
1) Atlantic Black Sea Bass Smoked in Cigar Smoke and Cedar Wood Chips
2) Sauce Poured Table-Side
3) Ashed Onion Dip
4) Potato Crisps
After eating the sea bass, you ate the potato chips with onion dip. All of these flavors and textures were layered artfully together.
Paired with Off Color, "Ten Crowns" Czech-Style Dark Lager, Chicago
Fifth Course: Heads and Tails
Bun, Coriander, Chili
This was the "heads" portion of the dish. The shrimp heads were stewed together and the flavors were used to infuse this soft, pillowy, bun.
The "tails" portion of this course was a piece of shrimp cooked in 500-degree rock salt.
White Peppercorn, White Sesame, White Miso
You were to take the shrimp and drag it through this mixture of white peppercorn, white miso, and more and then ...
... enjoy, which I did very much.
Paired with Artemis Karamolegos, Assyrtiko Blend, Santorini, Greece 2020
Sixth Course: Squeaker
Do you remember this duck that was on the table since the beginning of the meal? I thought it was just a vase full of dried flowers.
Hiding in a bag, inside the duck, throughout the meal were delicious surprises.
Potpourri, Blueberry, Foie Gras, Aigre-Doux
"Aigre-doux" is the French term for combining two flavors that create a sweet and sour combination, which is exactly what the blueberry and foie gras jams did when I spread them together on the next surprise in the little, burlap bag which was ...
Honey Brushed Biscuit
... a biscuit.
Squab and Duck Leg Rillette
The squab was nestled in some charred radicchio ...
... with a pomegranate reduction poured table-side.
Paired with Turley, "Cederman" Zinfandel, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, California 2021
Seventh Course: Branches
This may have been my favorite course because I was invited to enjoy it in the kitchen. After descending the stairs, I was led to where all the magic happens.
This almost-completed dish, and an empty cocktail glass, were waiting for me in the kitchen.
One of the chefs was grilling apricots and ...
... melting cheese to add to my bowl.
Apricot, Fennel, Taralli
The result was apricot roasted on a small branch, swimming in melted cheese and Taralli cookies.
Paired with a Garden Gimlet
The bartender made the gimlet in front of me and then spritzed it with some jasmine mist before I took a sip.
Eighth Course: Clipped
This course consisted of three elements:
1) Squash Blossom with Sweet Corn
3) Gooseberry Marinated Chicken Wing
Paired with a Castello di Ama, "Montebuoni," Sangiovese Chianti Classico Riserva from Tuscany, Italy 2018
Ninth Course: Explosion
Black Truffle, Romaine, Parmesan
This was another one-bite course with robust flavors, all stuffed into a dumpling.
When you put the dumpling in your mouth, it exploded, and the flavorful, warm liquid inside, combined with the cool ingredients on top.
Tenth Course: Jacob's Ladder
White Asparagus, Jameed
Beef with Poached and Raw Rhubarb
The cheese was grated over the dish table-side and the asparagus was served on the side.
Eleventh Course: Bubblegum
Thai Long Peppercorn, Hibiscus, Crème Fraîche
This cigar was the first of three dessert courses. To enjoy it, holding it like a cigar, you put the white side in your mouth, and with your index finger, pushed the remaining ingredients through from the other end. I don't know how, but the Thai peppercorn, hibiscus and creme all combined to taste just like bubble gum -- Hubba Bubba to be specific.
Twelfth Course: Paint
This next course was true artistry. The dessert chef literally painted this course using the palette above.
Flavors of a Banana Split
Watch this video in its entirety to see how a banana split "painting" is created.
Do you remember the sparkles that the chef threw on the canvas? This is what they look like up close.
When I put a bit of several ingredients together in one bite, it really did taste like I was eating a banana split.
Thirteenth Course: Balloon
Helium, Green Apple, Taffy
This was the most playful and whimsical course of the evening. This floating balloon is entirely edible. I started by sucking out the caramel-ish flavored helium, then I ate the apple-flavored balloon and finished with the taffy rope. All in all, this dessert tasted like finishing my meal with a trip to Willy Wonka's factory for a candied apple.
Bonus: Tour of the Kitchen
There were a lot of expectations tied to my visit to Alinea such as great food, service and ambiance. What I never expected, was to get a tour of the kitchen.
The closest I had come to seeing what happens behind the scenes at a three-starred Michelin restaurant, was in Season 2, Episode 7 of FX's The Bear. After visiting the kitchen at Alinea, I can verify that the 'Forks' episode is very accurate.
Although much calmer and quieter than the way that Ever (the two-star, Chicago, Michelin restaurant portrayed in The Bear's 'Forks' episode) functioned, Alinea's kitchen was every bit as meticulous, organized and clean. Attention to detail and efficiency shined through in everything from the prep to the plating. Observing the kitchen was like watching a perfect, orchestra ensemble.
On that high note, I concluded my Chicago adventure. This will certainly be the first of many trips I take to the fabulous Windy City.