I've been interested in this restaurant since before it opens, which shows the power of community-based advertising. Grant Aschatz, whose restaurant Alinea is, charted the process of opening the restaurant on eGullet, beginning long before it opened its doors. And so, for the past two years or so, I knew that whenever I next made it back to Chicago, I would try to go. I did.
Alinea has a minimalist, tasteful, slightly warehousey feel. It offers one of my very favorite ways of eating: large numbers of thought-provoking small bites of high quality. Some delighted, some intrigued, and I'm glad I had all twenty-two dishes of that evening's adventure in food. Highlights included the Hot Potato, Cold Potato soup; the powered A-1 sauce; and the Thyme-Balsamic-Cherry soda.
[I didn't take a camera or notebook; I just enjoyed the meal, took away an abstracted version of the menu, and remembered the rest. Other people, however, have taken photos. You can see most of the dishes I ate here, currently.]
Alinea is a minimalist restaurant with a resolutely grey exterior, unmarked but for the address. There is staff for curbside greeting, though, so I was reassured that I was in the right place from before I'd even left my taxi. Grey doors open to a grey corridor, striped at intervals in neon pink lights, and then a blank wall - which, motion-triggered, opens itself to reveal the more comfortable interior. Inside it's minimalist, but comfortable, with spacious black-stained wooden tables, bare, white walls and grey ones, and more brightly colored cushions, occasionally, along the banquette. An enormous vase towers, arranged with dried curlicues of leaves. I am in one of three or four small dining rooms, each of them with its own sommelier and its own head, mapping our courses through installations of cutlery.
There are two ways to order at Alinea: the short menu and the long one. Both are meant as blind tasting selections, a large number of widely varied dishes, unannounced in advance, but tailored to each party's limitations. I went with the longer version, the better to try more dishes. Most were very small, a bite or three, and, served over several hours, I was comfortably full, not stuffed, at the end. Another party was done in by airplanes, unable to finish. In retrospect, I'm particularly glad I timed this post-jetlag.
For a change, let me tell you about the drinks before the food. I didn't want alcohol for this meal. (It's better with company. It's also even more expensive.) Happily, like many of Chicago's best restaurants, this is a chef who trained with Charlie Trotter, and thus a restaurant sensitive to the joys of paired non-alcoholic drinks. My first drink, paired with the appetizers, was a glass of Bel Normande, lightly sparkling apple juice made from Normandy cider apples, reasonably fruity, but not overly sweet. For the early post-appetizer courses, an intriguing glass of lavender-coriander-lemon soda accompanied. My favorite, easily, was for the rest of the savories, a thyme-balsamic-cherry soda, moderately rich, redolent of thyme, fun, comfortable, and entertaining. My dessert wine equivalent was a spice drop, themed on the sucking candy, low-key and pleasant. Best of all, the drinks really did complement the courses they were paired with well. They also offered tap water or, as I requested, a range of sparkling water, graded by their bubbles.
The first dish, Roes, caught my attention with its deliberate, attention-getting innovation, transforming straightforward combinations of delicate "things that go well with caviar" into unexpected forms, accompanying really elegant, lightly salted American-harvested roe. The toast foam was my favorite; there were also gels and mousses of capers and egg yolks, among others.
The Foie Gras was luscious, melting in my mouth with its shiso and yuzu sauces. The daikon garnish was a slight disappointment: I had to chew it, perhaps the only time I've objected to doing so! The texture contrast didn't quite work for me, but taste-wise, it was sublime. The foie gras arrived on a fork, with a clear lens dish to receive it. This cleared my hands for the striking Yuzu soup. Served in a round-bottomed bowl, this light green soup was savory and melon, gentle and thought-provoking.
The next dish was the most chaotic of them. The Pork Belly was served as if an oyster, in a shell of iceberg lettuce, poised on a little sea of seeds in transparent pulp. The meat itself was excellent, beautifully flavored with something like five spice, but it had a messiness and lack of unity to the dish was a whole. It came with a transparent shot, a "Thai distillation", an essence of Thai flavors, which was good, not too heavy-handed, but which I presumed - based on the pattern of the rest of the meal - was intended as a separate dish from the pork.
The Green Almond was a one-bite confection, a clear rectangular jellied solid which looked like it contained an almond, but it had a liquid center of juniper, gin, and lime. I remember the unexpected texture changes of this more than than I remember its flavors.
The Lobster dish was introduced to me as "things that go well with butter". The long, undulating surface of the plate included poached and dried lobster, popped corn and popcorn purée (my new favorite popcorn savory!), a cube of jellied mango, daubs of curried sauce, and, entertainingly, a pierceable ball filled with liquid butter. I really loved the parts of this dish, but didn't come together into any kind of whole for me. It was like a mini-buffet of good things, presented all together.
Another one-bite dish was the Black Truffle. This raviolo, garnished in miniature with romaine lettuce and parmesan, contained intense liquid truffle broth, an mouthful of lovely liquid truffle.
The cutlery arrived first for my next dish (as usual). It was introduced to me as a hundred years old. Of course, I had to ask "Precisely?" and it wasn't. Indeed, when I picked up my knife and fork to eat, I paused to read the fork's visible maker's mark and date: 1846. My fork was seriously undersold to me: it was 163 years old. The point of the historic cutlery, and the Victorian plate on which the Pigeonneau à la Saint-Clair arrived, was that the dish itself was historic, from Escoffier. The squab breast, sided with potato and vegetables, was rich, satisfying, and, as a result of being so straightforward, a remarkably refreshing interval in the meal.
Three dishes next arrived together, a three-part circus of presentation. The pleasant Bacon, smoked with applewood, thyme, and butterscotch, hung from a bow-like metal high wire. The entertaining Sweet Potato was seasoned with bourbon and brown sugar, battered and deep-fried; it was served on a long, smoldering cinnamon stick, part fair food, part fire-breather, and served in an abstracted wire nest-tent. Mmm. Mustard was one of the most memorably odd dishes of the meal. A small one-bite disk, skewered on a metal toothpick for easy eating, had been frozen, its contents part passionfruit, part Dijon mustard. The tastes went their separate ways in my mouth, with my tongue tasting of mustard, and the roof of my mouth all passionfruit. I'm not convinced I liked it, but I didn't dislike it, and it was certainly memorable.
Next up was - as the server who delivered it told me - one of the chef's signature dishes. A small lenslike bowl, perhaps three inches across, served as a hand-held dish for a slurp of lovely potato soup, flavored with light-handed black truffle and butter. The task of eating it was first to pull down on a metal toothpick, pulling a small cube and sphere of hot potato into the cool liquid, then to tilt it all back at once, like an oyster. It was a dish that potatoes can proudly aspire to.
The fair theme had some influence over the next dish too, an edible stick made up of sweet dried Yuba, tofu skin, wound round with long strips of shrimp, seasoned with miso and togarashi sauce, and finished with sesame seeds. The shrimp was more decorative than edibly exciting, but the yuba stick was really intriguing. A box of them would make for a good snack.
Minor acts of visual trickery are staples of Alinea's repertoire. The White Asparagus course arrived with spoon too large for the glass in which it came. The glass was a trick - pick it up, and the contents fall out the unsealed bottom into the containing bowl. Thick, deep, sorrel soup underlay the white asparagus foam, dotted with small pieces of white asparagus and croutons. It was a pleasant, classy dish.
In contrast, Lilac was too intensely flowery for my tastes. Small "pillows" of lilac accompanied small pieces of tenderly cooked scallops, other shellfish, and a tangle of greenery, with honeydew playing some role in it all. The idea was good, but I would have preferred a mouthful or two of it, more carefully focused as a dish.
I've failed to note, so far, the series of lovely bread, baked in-house, which arrived throughout the meal. Lilac was accompanied by my favorite, a honey-coriander flaky biscuit (in the American sense). The accompanying butters were often the point of the bread for me: one was a lighter, salted cow's milk butter. The other was a more intense, delectable goat's milk one.
You know a dish is important when it arrives on its own pedestal. An Egg Yolk did just that, contained in a jellied cube of soy sauce, yuzu, and wasabi, the rich balance of sweet and satisfying.
Wagyu Beef was, quite literally, the centerpiece of the meal. At the beginning of the meal, a rounded vase-like object in jet black arrived at my table: "This is your centerpiece for the evening." ("Hello, centerpiece.") Its lower reaches turned white and crystalline over the course of the meal. Once my meat was served, a pot of liquid was poured into the vase and the light-handed scent of grilling poured over my black wood table in waves of liquid nitrogen-like smoke. It was magical, attention-grabbing, and added extra panache and scent to the dish. The dish itself? It was introduced to me as Americana, but the concept was punctured by the toasted salt-and-vinegar encrusting the utterly smooth, soft cube of potato. The beef was excellent, but the highlight of the course - other than the centerpiece! - was the powered A-1 sauce. Based on whatever the original A-1 recipe is, this little packet, used for seasoning alongside a little pile of sea salt and another of coarsely-ground pepper, contained anchovies, raisins, tamarind, and cloves. So very good! Another confection I would buy regularly if I could.
That was the end of the savories and the end of the bread. (A classic dinner roll came with the beef, appropriately, tied in a tidy little knot.) From then on, the sweets.
The first of these was a one-bite trick, an edible, sealed packet which dissolved into the taste and fizz of Lemon Soda in my mouth.
The next three arrived together, and posed a puzzle inadvertently more complex than intended for me. In the Transparency of Raspberry, an entertainingly transparent and exceedingly fragile and thin piece of yogurt-balanced fruit, I recognized Fruit Rollups. In the long glass tube filled with layers of crème fraiche, long pepper, hibiscus, and bubble gum-coated tapioca balls, designed to be slurped up all together, I recognized - obviously - Bubble Gum. What, then, was the excellent, tasty cocoa-touched ball of firm cassia with its liquid Greek Yogurt center, all suspended in a light pomegranate syrup? The one I'd love to have more of? The server didn't think it pointed to anything further; the intellectual elegance of the moment was spoiled.
I had thought there could be nothing better could be done with cotton candy than to make it piña colada flavored. I was wrong. In Rhubarb, two aspects of rhubarb - sweet, candied, and crunchy; sour in goat's milk ice cream - were matched with sweet onion cotton candy and it worked beautifully, the onion dissolving into the contrasting flavors.
The next dish was the only one from which my mind wandered while eating it. I remember the foam of the buttermilk, the hint of liquorice, the soft shredded part - the Kola Nut? - and, apparently, bits of beet. The buttermilk is the only real part of it which stays with me though. At the end of the dish, I had to ask the server what I'd just eaten, since I'd half-forgotten by then.
Milk Chocolate came as chunks of frozen mousse, melting into fluff, with blueberries, balls of liquid blueberry, crunch maple sugar, and a liquid-filled ball flavored with tobacco. Again, good as it was, it didn't have the coherence of so many other dishes.
The final bite, alas, didn't quite work for me either. Dry Caramel arrived as a dry, powdery ball, to be held in the mouth for a little while until it melted into sea salt caramel. I have too many better models of the core flavor to have been won over by this one, but it was an ingenious idea.
Before they found me a taxi and I was whisked away into the evening, I had a brief kitchen tour. The staff at a restaurant like this is enormous. Each small dining room, with 3-7 tables, has two dedicated staff members for cutlery and drinks. A huge number of additional servers juggle the courses in and out of the rooms. At least a dozen people helped me one way or another over the course of my meal. The kitchen is open plan, long lines of stainless steel countertops with a minimum of obvious machinery, and storage galore - including fridges and freezers - under the countertops. Devices are brought out when needed. The dishwashers work there too, their work on the very specialized devices used for each course, integral to the overall operation.
Even if every course didn't work for me, I was seriously impressed with Alinea. This is thought-provoking, high-quality food in what I found to be a soothing environment. It had innovation, it had whimsy, and it had intelligence. Most of it was vivid and memorable. The service was exemplary. Given the expense, I don't know if I'll ever go again; but I will treasure the memory of this meal for a very long time.
* Another person who recently ate there, with many - but not all - of the same dishes, reviews their meal.