Alinea‘s reputation precedes itself. Not only has the chef, Grant Achatz made a name for himself at French Laundry, but he’s won quite a few awards including James Beard Foundation and Food & Wine’s Best New Chef Awards. He also has an interesting personal story having been diagnosed with tongue cancer and recovered from it without losing the ultimate source of his livelihood. After all, what would life for a chef be like without the full use of his tongue?!? Ellenita Eats had told me about Grant Achatz and his restaurant after she went last year, and she was raving quite a bit about it. So we immediately made reservations the moment we knew we would be heading to Chicago. Thankfully, we got a slot at 5pm which ended up being a blessing in disguise considering that with 18 courses coming, we were guaranteed to be eating for almost 3 hours.
Surprisingly, we weren’t the first to arrive, but we were the first ones sitting in the upstairs dining area. The restaurant has a very clean and modern look with dark furniture everywhere and abstract paintings covering the walls. It kind of felt like a page had been taken from the Room and Board catalog. Although simple in look, it felt very formal…. like we should be speaking at a low volume and avoiding any disruptive noise for fellow diners.
I was so excited to for the meal to start, but I never imagined that I would be in such awe which started immediately with the first dish that came to the table.
The Steelhead Roe dish consisted of the familiar looking and tasting orange-colored fish eggs, but the rest of the dish brought together such new and interesting flavors. One would assume that the black balls were some type of caviar, but they were actually made from licorice. The custard-like pillows were flavored with dijon, and it all sat in a rutabaga and grapefruit soup.
The Yuba skewer was wrapped with onions, orange taffy and shrimp which were slightly coated with black and white sesame seeds. It came served with a miso togarashi dipping sauce. Togarashi is a Japanese red pepper spice often used to season ramen noodles. The shrimp had a very “fresh out of the ocean” taste which I thought was quite noticeable. The sweetness of the miso sauce served as a nice contrast to the dish, and I really enjoyed it.
The next three courses which I refer to as the “shellfish trio” came served all at one time but were intended to be eaten in a progression.
The Oyster Leaf was an ingenious edible dressed with a mignonette, white wine vinaigrette and shallots and served on an oyster shell. This little leaf somehow tasted exactly like an oyster, yet there was no oyster anywhere on the dish. In fact, the waiter specifically stated that no oyster was used in the preparation of the dish.
The Scallop was served in its shell, but it was covered with a Hitachino weizen foam. You could smell the distinct aroma of ale coming off the foam, but once I popped the whole thing in my mouth, the butteriness in the taste of the foam helped the scallop bite slide down deliciously. The scallop had a slight brininess that made it really taste like it came straight from the ocean.
The last of the trio was the Razor Clam which was prepared with a carrot ginger tapioca, soy sauce and daikon. Although it tasted fine, it didn’t have the same interesting punch of flavor as its other shellfish brethren.
I call the next course “English Pea Three Ways” which was a rather interesting journey of flavors and temperatures. Each dish went from savory to sweet and back, while simultaneously moving from hot to cold to colder.
Although it’s hard to tell, but underneath those pea shoots and pea leaves, there was a savory tasting pea puree. It was smooth, creamy and quite delicious. I really enjoyed this.
The moment that we finished with the pea puree, the waiters came over to remove the top bowl to reveal an English Pea Merengue, which in stark contrast to the puree, was kind of sweet almost like a dessert. There was a sweet custard which I think was an olive oil jam and fried pea skins that gave some crunchy texture to the dish. It didn’t taste bad, but I didn’t care too much for it really.
The final reveal of this course was an English Pea Gelee. There was some goat cheese and Granny Smith apple sorbet sitting in the middle of of the inside bottom of the bowl which was completely coated with a green colored gelee. Where the previous two dishes were savory and sweet, respectively, this dish was rather neutral in taste. It seemed more like a palate cleanser. In fact, in spite of the goat cheese and Granny Smith apple sorbet, it was strangely tasteless. The most remarkable aspect was the coldness which I wasn’t really a fond of.
Next up was a donut filled with Lobster, West Indies Spice, banana and ginger. It was an amazingly delicate ball of deep-fried dough I have ever had. The savory lobster blended nicely with the sweet and creamy mix of banana, and the fried batter managed to be the lightest ball of deep-fried goodness I have ever had, not to thick and not too oily.
The next dish was a mix of Wild Mushrooms including maitake, morel and beach mushrooms as well as pickled ramps, lettuce, and fried shallots, all sitting in a red wine reduction and topped with a pine-flavored infused whipped cream, a crumble of pine nut powder and sumac and thyme foam. There was so much intensity of flavor, never really associated with a vegetarian dish, that I really forgot there was no meat. Each bite of the mushrooms particularly the morel and maitake oozed so much flavor-infused juiciness. I really enjoyed this course much more than I would have expected considering it was all vegetables.
The Hot Potato/Cold Potato was the first of a couple “work for your food”-themed dishes. The waiter emphasized that this dish was “time and temperature sensitive” and reiterated more than once when Peter asked him to wait before he finished explaining how to eat the dish while Peter took a picture. A tiny pin holding tiny pieces of black truffle, butter, potato and parmesan cheese were essentially dropped into a small bowl of hot garlic soup. The bowl is intended to be had in one sip once all the ingredients came together. It was an amazing mix of intensely distinct flavors yet oddly contrasting temperatures. The starchiness of the potato, the earthiness of the truffle and cheesiness of the parmesan all shined through in one mouthful against the buttery garlic canvas of the hot broth. I really liked this dish.
The next dish started out with a lot of instructions from the waiter which directed us to prepare the presentation of the Short Rib dish.
After setting everything up, the waiter laid out a square piece of tomato and fermented black garlic pasta. It was thicker than a wonton skin yet more delicate than a ravioli wrapping and sturdy enough to hold 2 succulent pieces of short rib (which was cooked down in red wine) and a whole series of individual ingredients that came laid out on a glass platter. I’m not sure if I can remember everything, but there was some charred pearl onions, Nicoise olives, fermented garlic, white asparagus, sour dried cherry, fresh blackberries, tobacco pudding, and tomato vinaigrette, all of which was intended to be mixed with the short ribs. It was a little too big to eat in one bite, but nevertheless, it was a rich mix of intense flavors that amazingly worked well in spite of the myriad of different ingredients that were added.
The Black Truffle explosion literally was an “explosion” of flavor in my mouth. Pdho appropriately called it a Truffle Shao Long Bao as it essentially was a tiny ravioli filled with some rich yet subtle earthy truffle-infused broth. It was fantastic!
This Agneau dish was supposedly a nod to Chef Escoffier (circa 1903). It was two bites, each consisting of a round crouton topped with a piece of lamb loin, artichoke hearts, asparagus tips and sauce choron. The sauce choron was a tomato basil flavored hollandaise sauce which was outstanding. It was rich, buttery and added so much flavor. Although very tiny, I really appreciated the miniature pomme de terre noisettes which were supposedly Yukon potatoes. They were quite tasty and added just enough starch to balance out this meaty dish.
The next dish was probably my least favorite not because the Venison wasn’t well-cooked. In fact, it was a very well-seasoned tender piece of meat, but at this point, every course that came before it brought some new and interesting flavors or presentations that this one just couldn’t live up to such a high bar. It was remarkable for its presentation, where a metal skewer with the piece of venison was covered by a canopy made from Eucalyptus leaves. I really didn’t like the smell, but it thankfully didn’t affect the flavor of the venison at all.
The Octopus dish came with a fork and rounded bottom bowl called a palm bowl. The fork held a red wine-braised octopus and eggplant puree topped with Fresno chili, mint leaf, coriander flower and lime zest. The octopus was tender and tasty, but what I really liked about this course was the green garlic soup in the palm bowl. There was a wasabi foam which was quite subtle in taste, but the soup was so rich and buttery. I absolutely loved it.
Yuzu Ice was quite refreshing. It was nice and lemony. It was a nice palate cleanser which represented the start of the dessert series to come.
There was a whole story with the wood plate upon which this dessert was served, but it was unimportant compared to the actual mix of ingredients on top. There was a sweet potato custard which I wasn’t expecting to like as much as I did. It was not at all sweet but had an indescribable savoriness, almost like a rich mix of butter and nuts, and served as the basis of each bite of the dessert. There were gels of distilled cinnamon, cotton candy, cayenne, cinnamon streusel and candied walnuts. The little orange balls had the same look and consistency of large egg roe, but when I bit into them, a burst of bourbon was released. It sounds like such a strange mix of ingredients, but it was amazing how well everything went together. Each bite, no matter what I put in it tasted great.
The next dessert was essentially a liquid in a test tube. It was a distillation of lemongrass with Thai basil, mint and cilantro that was held in on one end by a piece of dragon fruit and on the other end by a finger lime gel. You basically have to suck up the gel stopper on one end to release the liquid mixture from the test tube. It was probably more interesting in concept than in taste, but I still found the liquid very refreshing and light…. much like a tropical drink.
The next sequence of pictures shows the presentation of what is the most interesting looking and probably one of the best tasting dessert I’ve ever had.
Mesmerizing is the only way to describe what was happening before my eyes. I seriously had no idea what was going on, but one ingredient after the next was carefully spread out and strewn across the table. What seemed to look like a big mess started to look like something really special with each concerted effort that was made to pour and place everything just right.
As the chef poured out the caramel sauce, Pdho couldn’t help but be amazed by how perfectly square-shaped each one was. I had to agree. All he had was a spoon. It was so cool.
This was easily one of the most expensive meals I’ve ever had. With 18 courses, the prix fixe price was $195 and that was just the food. If we had decided on adding the wine pairing, it would have added another 2/3 or 3/4 of the food price to the bill. Price aside, I definitely think this meal is the most memorable meal I’ve ever had and easily one of the best tasting menus of all time. There was so much thought and creativity in the execution and presentation of the dishes. Many of the dishes were like works of art, at least in my humble yet admittedly non-artistic opinion. The flavor profiles of the various dishes were complex and interesting. I was impressed by how distinct the individual ingredients were presented and yet how well it all melted together in many of the deconstructed dishes. The intensity of the flavors was equally amazing especially when you consider how small and compact some of the dishes were.
This also represents the most difficult entry that I’ve ever had to write for this blog. First of all, there were 18 courses to remember and a pretty useless menu that basically looks like a forest plot. As it is already, if I don’t immediately write about the meal within 48 hours, my memory and thoughts on the food slowly dissipate. So considering how special and unique this meal was going to be, I wanted to make sure I captured every moment, so for the first time, I recorded the waiters as they came out and presented our meals and also took notes and wrote on my iPhone throughout the entire meal so I could capture my thoughts and feelings about the food.
Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this meal, and I”m so happy I got the chance to go. Although it’s not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, it’s definitely worth saving up for and experiencing at least once in their lifetime. It’s one meal you will never ever forget.
1723 N Halsted St
Chicago, Il 60614
PAFO Ratings for Alinea:
Ambiance 4 stars
Food 4½ stars
Overall rating 4½ stars