It's difficult to review a meal at Grant Achatz's new Alinea in Chicago without using words like "transcendent", "deconstructed", or that horrible Donald Trump-ish phrase "total dining experience." I never had the pleasure of dining at Trio while Grant Achatz was executive chef there, nor have I dined at El Bulli or the French Laundry, so this was my first experience with the new way of fine dining pioneered by Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller.
The first thing you should know when planning to visit Alinea is that you should have booked already. The restaurant is at capacity through July and with the reviews coming out, it should soon be booked deep into the future.
The second thing you should know is that you're going to spend a lot of time at the restaurant. Alinea offers a choice of three menus; a short menu, a twelve course, and a 28 course tour. We were told the tour would take five hours at least. Because we began at 9:00pm, we opted for the shorter twelve course meal, but tables in the room with us were just into the 28-course tour at 9:00pm and they were not quite finished when we left three and a half hours later.
I'll get to the food a little later in this review. Yes, it was wonderful, but I'd like to discuss the atmosphere and service and highlight some of the work that obviously went into the restaurant.
Alinea sits in a small two story building. Much like Charlie Trotter's a short distance away, Alinea does not advertise its presence openly. Only the presence of valets and the street number in silver letters on the door frame betrays the presence of what may be America's best restaurant.
Upon opening the wide double doors, one finds oneself in a hallway that narrows to create a false sense of perspective. at the end of the hall is a kinetic sculture that you can hear as the wind from the door moves it. Just before reaching the sculpture a wide door on the left opens and there is the restaurant.
The lobby area is small and darkly colored, but notable for the metal staircase heading up to the second level where three of the four dining rooms are located, and the brilliantly lit kitchen behind all-glass doors to the right as you enter. Sixteen chefs hunch over counters painstakingly preparing plates for the patrons. Staff buzzes in and out of the space. I was under the impression that we diners might actually be outnumbered by the staff.
After a short wait we were ushered upstairs to a two-top table in a room with four other tables. This is the only middle room in the space. The light in the room was primarily through visually hot canister lights in the ceiling supplemented by indirect lights behind the service area and the bench seating area that backlit glass tubes of green fig branches, the figs still in place. One of the servers indicated the restaurant believes food is beautiful so it uses food as decoration. It worked very well.
As I was seated, my jacket knocked the napkin that was waiting for me to the floor. It was almost immediately replaced. When our primary server for the evening poured us glasses of water, she let one unfilled glass slip and it clattered on the table. I don't think she did it on purpose to set me at ease, but given the overall level of thoughtfulness to the service, I wouldn't be surprised if she had. After we both stopped dropping things, everyone seemed to relax a bit.
The meal opened with the now famous peanut butter and jelly. A very small disk that had been in front of us to begin the meal recieved the stand for what I can only describe as a whisk with the loops cut off and turned into tiny hooks. Held at the top of this device was a single grape, still attached to the stem, wrapped in a small bit of toasted brioche that encased what I can only assume was peanut butter. We were instructed to eat the dish "like Cleopatra feeding herself grapes." As we pulled lightly up on the stems, the tines released and the packet came free. It was exactly what had been promised - a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in miniature, only made with no jelly, just a single perfect grape.
The "dish" for this course is unique to the restaurant. Chef Achatz partnered with an architect friend to design and make unique dishware for the restuarant. Each dish is uniquely suited to the course it serves and beautiful. It will be interesting to see if the dishes are repurposed in the future when the menu changes. I suspect they may not be or only be reused in special circumstances.
I don't want to talk about each and every dish in too much detail, but here are some impressions:
A strip of juvenile coconut and cashew with bits of parsnip melted on the spoon and infiltrated my tastebuds while I crunched the parsnip.
Five tiny porcelain columns held five sections of a heart of palm each filled with a flavor bomb of sweet vanilla pudding or garlic or fresh fava bean or deep rich mushroom or plum with appropriate garnishes from black truffle to vanilla. What was to me a $1.39 a can ingredient at the Chinese market is changed in my mind to a vehicle for inventive intense flavor.
Bits of cod are matched with soybeans, homemade tofu, pea puree, an intense lemon swirl, and yubu (which is made from the scum that floats to the top of a batch of soy being made into tofu and which I will always think of as "soy scum"). Wrapping the cod in the yubu makes for a scrambled egg dish texture, but much more complex and flavored.
A broccoli stem is cooked, coated with bread, sauteed in butter, and matched with a smear of a grapefruit skin puree and bits of dehydrated grapefruit.
The frog legs dish that is not about the frog legs so much as it is about the morels and the deep mushroomy sauce that demands to be sopped up by tiny rolls of four varieties. Stripes of red disintegrate on contact with your tongue leaving a full smoky red pepper flavor behind.
A bowl without a bottom holds a spoon perfectly under a lip. On the spoon is a panko crusted fried artichoke heart filled with a truffle broth and supported by a small amount of intense tomato paste. This may be my favorite bite of the entire evening.
A long glass cylinder with five dents in the top holds what would have been bison, but for us was made a game fish with blueberry, beet, and herbal compositions. In the hollow of the tube (which looks like an instrument from a jazz percussion section), cinnamon sticks smolder. The dish reproduces notes in the flavors of the pinot noir served with it.
A squat hourglass shaped bowl holds pineapple sponge, foam, gel, and sauce with pistachios in every form imaginable. The bowl allows for a satisfying digging under the pinch to dig out the pineapple foams beneath. The wine served with this dish has an intense pineapple and lychee flavor to it.
A tube of crisp pastry (not exactly phyllo) brushed with a sour mix holds granola over a hazelnut puree that has a bit of curry foam on top of it. You crack the capsule and the granola falls into the puree where you can mix the flavors together. The mix of curry with sweet leads nicely into the two dessert courses.
A chocolate square holds a deeply chocolate mousse inside. The plate is dotted with banana sauce, and smeared with toffee. Amazing.
Finally, a large glass is presented with a vanilla foam and gel inside. Your utensils are gone, and the only thing you have to eat this dish is a bit of perfectly dry sponge cake cooked onto the end of a vanilla bean. When you've sopped up all you can with the bean, you drink the vanilla and are satisfied.
I've not mentioned the wines with each of the dishes which is mostly because I don't want to do them an injustice. Each dish had a beautiful wine paired with it. We sampled sherries, burgundies, pinot noir, and wines from Spain, France, New Zealand, Argentina, Austria, Hungary, and even a Semillon from France that benefitted from the famous "noble rot". I couldn't begin to remember the details of each, but take my advice and trust the sommelier to pair glasses of wine with each dish.
The meal was outstanding, the service was friendly and attentive, the space was beautiful, so what was the downside?
Halfway through the meal, my wife and I switched seats becuase of the vent blasting cool air down on her. It didn't bother me, but I did notice the cool. We did wait a longish time between courses near the beginning of the meal, which I attribute to a switch between seatings in the restaurant. The lights in the ceiling were too bright and while they lit the room well, there was no soft warm light to hold a wine glass up to examine the color, which I would have liked to do with the pinot.
Finally, we were offered a choice of still and sparkling waters at the beginning of the meal and the water we chose was a sparkling Vichy Catalán. Our glasses were constantly refilled which was nic, except that the high sodium content of that particular water started to get to us. While the flavor was great to cleanse the palate betweeen wines and courses, by the end of the evening, I was looking for a glass of Chicago tap water to quench my thirst, and my wife was watching her feet swell before her eyes. It would have been nice to have been asked if we wished to switch waters after the first bottle. You can probably file that under "Your own damn fault," but good service also consists of guiding patrons to avoid mistakes.
Other minor annoyances - Some of the smears of sauce on the plate, while beautiful, left we wishing there was a tiny bit more of the stuff to mix with the food. I'm specifically thinking of the toffee on the chocolate plate. Also, while we no doubt recieved our fair collective share of the wine, I noticed my wife's glass always had just a bit more wine than my glass. Maybe the sommelier took one look at her and one look at me and figured I needed the help to stand a chance. In any case, it was noticed.
The tab? Well it was a lot. The wine was just about 75% of the cost of the meal. This is a once-a-year experience for me at most. I'll decline to state the exact amount, so I don't shock some of my relatives, but this is not a meal, it's a total dining experience (heh).
Is Alinea better than its city rivals Charlie Trotter's and Tru? I don't know. I enjoyed the meal as much as any I had a Tru or Trotter's. The food was playful and inventive and the plentiful staff attentive. The last 2% of the polish is almost there, but will benefit from a little time. For a fourth night open, the show was very well put together.
Still, I felt some of the things done with the food was done in the interest of show and not necessarily in the interests of taste. I left sated and happy, but not as impressed as the build-up to the opening led me to belive I would be. So right now, I'd say its certainly worthy of the company of Tru and Charlie Trotter's, but my last visit to Charlie Trotter's still stands out in my mind as the best meal I ever had. I'll be interested in revisiting Alinea in a year to see if they can top that experience, and I expect they will.
1723 N. Halsted St., Chicago IL
Reservations accepted 10am - 4pm
$75-$175/person without wine