Monday, September 27, 2010


I don't know where to start. How do you describe the most amazing meal of your life? We went to Alinea last night for our anniversary, and I can confidently say it was the best dining experience I've ever had. Sure, it's the best restaurant in Chicago. The best in the U.S., and the 7th best in the world according to this year's ranking's by Restaurant Magazine. Obviously it's going to be an unbelievable culinary experience. But it was also FUN. The staff was as professional and accommodating as you would imagine at a place of this caliber, but they were also laid back and made our experience so enjoyable.

I told myself going into this that I was only going to take 2 or 3 pictures, just to document a couple of my favorite courses, but it didn't work out that way. I couldn't help but take more, but I was using my phone so the quality isn't great. You can find really beautiful photos of a meal at Alinea on ulterior epicure's Flickr page. The photos were taken in 2006 so the menu was totally different, but you can still get a sense of the precision that goes into each course.

Here's the stats:
  • 3 1/2 hours
  • 21 courses
  • 10 wines
  • 7 servers (maybe a couple more, I lost track)

First of all, they don't give you a menu until the end of the meal. You don't have a choice anyway (unless you have food allergies), so I think they want to keep up the element of surprise and show. Let's look at some pictures! First up: edible cocktails. The one in the front was a Pisco sour, the middle was cucumber, gin and mint, and the last one was cherry with bourbon. I'm simplifying the descriptions they gave us.

The Pisco sour reminded me of a frozen, wet meringue. It was very cold and a little chewy but still light. The second one was a cube of cucumber infused with gin and rosewater and topped with tiny mint leaves. Really refreshing. Bourbon isn't my favorite, but I liked the combination with cherry in the last one.

Skipping over a couple courses, here's the "tomatoes" course. Heirloom tomatoes with freeze dried powders of different ingredients you would find in a caprese salad, and a few extra. Parmesan, mozzarella, balsamic, onion, red pepper, onion, pine nuts, and bread crumbs. And croutons infused with thyme.

This was one of my favorites. The very first thing they brought when we sat down were two pairs of chopsticks propped up at a 45 degree angle by a little metal clip. Pinched in each set of chopsticks was a sheet of rice paper, hanging down like a flag, with colorful bits of vegetables trapped in the rice paper. We were told they were decoration for the table, until a later course when we would be eating them. So here's that course: build-your-own spring roll with the rice paper, curried pork belly, and garnishes which you can see on the glass plate. Black salt, cucumber, crispy garlic, curried mango, lime segments, daikon, onion, hot sauce on the spoon, then a couple cashews, greens, and a dressing with sesame seeds. I wish I could go even more into detail here but I honestly can't remember every little thing.

This course was so incredible that I have to share a picture, but it's very dark so I apologize. It's pheasant breast, green grape, and walnut lightly fried in a tempura batter and skewered with an oak twig. The leaves on the oak twig were briefly lit on fire then blown out but still smoking to give the aroma. The whole thing is propped up in a little metal holder. Amazing.

The "hot potato" course was the only course I expected going into the night. It's been on the menu for awhile and all the reviews I read raved about it. It's a lot smaller than it looks in the photo. The dish that the soup is in is just a couple inches wide. The little bowl contains hot potato soup and you lift the bowl up, then pull the pin on the side out to release the cold potato, black truffle, butter, and parmesan into the hot soup and take it all down in one gulp. The biggest item on the pin is the black truffle draped over a piece of potato, but obviously the picture isn't great. Here's a much clearer photo taken by ulterior epicure.

This was the second to last course - one of the desserts. Earl grey was the predominant flavor. Earl grey cookies, the curly things are caramelized white chocolate, and the other flavors were lemon and pine nut. Oh and that pillow the dish is resting on? It's an inflatable pillow filled with earl grey cream tea scented air, so when the dish is placed on the pillow it releases the scent. I think I'll try to make this one at home. Ha!

Last course. Flavors: chocolate, apricot, honey, peanut. So the server asked us to lift our water glasses off the table, and he spread a grey silicone (I think) sheet over the table. Then this appeared at the edge of the table:

We knew something was going on, we just weren't sure what. A few minutes later one of the chefs appeared at our table and got to work. First he placed the two tubes towards the middle of the table. They are actually open on both sides, but he poured about a half inch white liquid in each so the liquid was directly on the table. He then spread dried apricots, an apricot puree, milk chocolate, honey infused milk, peanut nougat, and chocolate and peanut crumb around the table. I use the word "spread" but he was really creating an incredible masterpiece of a dessert in front of us. I don't remember which happened first but the last two parts were removing the clear tubes and somehow the liquid had hardened into a custard and stayed put. He sprinkled sugar over the top and torched it to make creme brulee. And the last element was freeze dried chocolate mousse (all the dark pieces in the middle) which arrived at the table smoking like dry ice.

See how the milk chocolate spots are square, and the milk/honey spots are round? I was completely mystified by this because I was watching the guy like a hawk the entire time and he poured both the exact same way. I asked him and he kind of shrugged it off as though it was a secret. But when the table next to us had the same course I heard him say they change the elasticity of the liquid so it spreads into different shapes. Ohhhh, ok. I do stuff like that at home all the time.

And was over. Starting with peeking into the kitchen upon walking into the restaurant (it's very open and right by the entrance) and ending with a work of art for dessert spread across our table...three and a half hours of amazing tastes and flavors. Every dish tasted good. That sounds like a silly thing to say, but I genuinely loved every course. Flavors that you think wouldn't be good together all worked in perfect harmony, for example one of the earlier courses with steelhead roe, coconut, licorice, and pineapple. You think - how could those flavors possible work together? But they more than work together, they were perfect.

At the very end they bring you the menu (which they let you keep) so you can look back over everything you've just enjoyed. It's too small to read here but if you click on the picture it should be big enough to see everything. The bigger circles indicate a bigger course, and the smaller circles were small bites or just a taste of something. The lighter print under some of the courses are the wine pairings. We did the wine pairings...I didn't even mention them, there was so much else to talk about. We were really on the fence but I'm glad we did the pairings.

The whole night was truly amazing. A once in a lifetime kind of meal. Alinea is definitely classified as molecular gastronomy, but I didn't feel like the whole thing was a crazy science project. Everything was unbelievably creative both visually and in taste. And one of the craziest things - Chef Grant Achatz was diagnosed with Stage 4 tongue cancer just a few years ago. Can you imagine...a chef of that caliber not being able to taste his food? Miraculously he had treatments that allowed him to keep his tongue and he's since regained his sense of taste. You can read more about his story here.

1723 North Halsted St., Chicago IL 60614


  1. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Whoa, whoa. Whoa. Sounds like you are a prime candidate for El Bulli in BarCHElona!!

  2. Your Grandfather and I just read this...Your writing makes us feel we were there...He says "just give me a dish of spaghetti"