Grant Achatz’s Alinea
The individualist Grant Achatz, a leader in molecular gastronomy is known for his preparation and deconstruction of classic flavors. He started a promising career working with masterminds such as Charlie Trotter, Ferran Adria & Thomas Keller and eventually opened his own restaurant in 2005 – Alinea. By 2010, Alinea was awarded three michelin stars making Chicago a hot new foodie destination. For years it has ranked as one of the world’s best restaurant and is also every Chicagoan’ s pride.
As soon as I moved to the United States 3 years ago, Alinea, was automatically added to my foodie bucket list. For our 3-year wedding anniversary we decided to take the plunge and experience the culinary phenomena that everyone was raving about.
Like its sister restaurant Next, Alinea sells tickets (approximately $310 per person) rather than offering phone reservations making it convenient for people around the world to pick the date and time they want to go. Tickets are bought online and they require upfront payment. We went this winter- the coldest winter in Chicago since 1872! – so it was relatively easy to find tickets though that might not always be the case.
The restaurant has a very modest appearance on the outside, so much that we drove past it and had to turn back. Once you enter, there is a dimly lit narrow hallway that leads to where the magic happens. On the right hand side you see the kitchen, full of those talented chefs that are going to blow your mind and you are trying very hard (but discretely) to catch a glimpse of Chef Achatz but alas your hostess directs you to your table.
The setting is intimate and the atmosphere slightly stiff. There are a couple of servers assigned per table. The servers of our table could have been new (or just unhappy about the freezing weather outside) as we had a tough time understanding them as they whispered and recited a lot of the courses. So we put all our efforts to overhear servers of other tables that were more engaging with their diners enhancing their overall experience.
Our sommelier on the other hand was very knowledgeable and his suggestions worked beautifully with our meal. We chose not to take the wine pairing and order a few drinks instead. If you don’t wish to choose the wine pairing, feel free to discuss your options with the sommelier as they are always willing to accommodate to you offering bottles, half bottles, pours and even half pours! This enabled us to have a more personalized tasting based on his recommendations.
Experience + Food
Our 4-hour experience at Alinea was like a concoct of a Shakespeare play, illustrating an explosion of color, flavor and of course a dramatic final act working your 5 senses as you savor through the 13-course meal.
Each course is compelling whether it is the flavor, the presentation or the experience. The menu and ingredients can slightly change so I’d recommend finding out the current menu before you make a reservation. What’s fascinating is that every diner has a personalized unique experience with every single course. So here are just a few of the dishes that really stood out for me.
The Scallop in shell was presented in a large pot filled with seaweed automatically transporting me to the serene waters of the ocean. It had a very balanced flavor profile with the icy cold scallop, the citrus aroma and a touch of spice making it one of my favorite dishes of the night.
The Tuna was exhilarating and ingenious. There was a board with burning binchotan (traditional white charcoal of Japan) brought to the centre of the table. I thought they might eventually come and cook something on it. Little did I know that while we were admiring the ‘center piece’ our scrumptious tuna had been cooking right there hidden in between the white charcoal. Originally this dish calls for wagyu beef but Alinea was gracious enough to replace that with Tuna for me. The server came and rescued a charred lump from the fire that opened to be my delicious smoky flavored tuna. My husband had the wagyu beef and couldn’t stop raving about it either!
The Duck was the most interactive and memorable dish. We were presented with duck cooked in 5 different ways accompanied by various different spices and accoutrements. We were left to discover the various flavors by simply using our instincts and senses, as we had to select the accompaniments and spread them on top of the tasty duck. There is one particular accoutrement that we detested that left us with a bad taste for a while – it was green so beware of that one!
We got instructions on how to eat the earthy Black Truffle; specifically ‘in one bite and chew with the mouth closed.’ Silly me I couldn’t follow simple instructions! More than embarrassed I was upset that half of my truffle-flavored broth ended up on the table.
The Corn was the tastiest dessert of the night. Who would have thought ingredients such as corn, white chocolate, honey and mango could go so well together but they did and left us all quiet for 5 minutes as we enjoyed each and every bite of that dish.
The green apple helium Balloon was a showstopper. The ‘dish’ certainly lightened the heavy atmosphere of the restaurant as it instantly brought out laughter at every table. I won’t elaborate any more on that, as some things are best left as a surprise!
Milk Chocolate was the final act of the play. Two chefs came out and created a ‘Miro’ on our table in literally 10 minutes with a milk chocolate tart and violet and hazelnut flavors spread across the table. Unfortunately no one at our table could appreciate the flavors of this piece of art. It was sweet milky chocolate with no other ingredient cutting that sweetness even though we desperately tried dipping our spoon in ever dot and swirl of sauce that we could find.
Alinea offers an experiential 13-course menu that makes diners work their 5 senses throughout the meal as they enjoy every course and eagerly await the next one. Each dish goes above and beyond on flavor, clever presentation and technique. I therefore recommend you to go with an open mind and an empty stomach to an experience of a lifetime at Alinea. For more information check out www.alinearestaurant.com.