Sometimes I’m lucky, like really lucky. When I found out I was going to Chicago, I immediately gave Alinea a call. Known for pushing the limits of progressive molecular gastronomy, Alinea was recognized in 2010 and received 3 Michelin stars. For the 2012 list, Alinea stood alone in the 3 star category for Chicago restaurants.
A month in advance, I thought I’d be a shoe in for a Wednesday night reservation. I stood corrected. After some correspondence back and forth with Ashlan, Alinea’s Reservation Coordinator, I was put on the waitlist. I kind of forgot about Alinea until I got a call from Ashlan on Tuesday, the day prior to our departure date. She informed me there was a cancellation for the Wednesday night I had requested. I squealed, literally squealed, into the phone. Of course I’ll take it.
Where the magic happens…
I’ve been following Grant Achatz’s career since 2007. I was touched by an article about a young chef who was diagnosed with stage four tongue cancer. His aggressive radiation and chemotherapy treatments had rendered his taste buds useless, but his lack of taste did not stop his passion. Sounds like a modern day culinary Beethoven no? In 2008, Grant received James Beard’s top honor, Outstanding Chef. Who’s going to let a little case of life threatening cancer stop you?
Mr. E and I arrived Wednesday night dressed to the nines and with full bellies — we made a grave error by eating a “small” but really rather large snack at Longman & Eagle when we checked in. Reception wasn’t particularly warm, but when you see this place in all its stark grey and intimidating glory, you can probably understand why. Without even mentioning my observation, Mr. E said something reminded him of vampires.
We were seated in a small room with perhaps 6 tables. The space was filled with bright purple light. We ordered a wonderful mocktail, which as is the case most times garnered us a nice quizzical look. Missing only one beat, our waiter put in our drink order. The food began parading out of the kitchen at a nice leisurely pace.
Steelhead roe, coconut, carrot, curry, & yuzu
Look what the seaweed dragged in (all pictured individually below)
King Crab, passionfruit, heart of palm, allspice
Top neck clam, shiso, soy, daikon
Dashi a brewin’
Wooly pig, fennel, orange, squid
Dashi’s final destination – scallop acting like agedashi tofu
Otoro, thai banana, sea salt, kaffir lime
Burn morels, ramps, fiddlehead fern, miner’s lettuce
Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter
Black truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan set on the antiplate
Squab inspired by Miro
Anjou pear, onion, brie, smoking cinnamon stick
Ginger five other flavors
Blueberry, buttermilk, sorrel, macadamia, abundance of dry ice
Balloon, helium, green apple
White chocolate, strawberry, english pea, lemon
This takes the cake for being the most memorable and thought provoking meal I’ve ever eaten in my whole life. I mean for God’s sake, you see the balloon up there right? Yeah, this girl ate that, but not before sucking in all of the helium and laughing hysterically 5 octaves higher than my normal pitch.
One thing that really struck me aside from the sheer overwhelming creativity of the food was the thoughtfulness of the serving vessels. Let’s just start with the dashi. It was boiled right in front of you in something that looked like it came from an MIT laboratory. Though I’m positive I’ve seen things like this used for brewing coffee, I would have never imagined getting flavorful dashi in a handful of minutes. It was served over the most succulent scallop I’ve ever eaten. Disguised as agedashi tofu, which happens to be a favorite of mine, and boom — you’ve got yourself a winner in my book.
The blueberry and sorrel dessert was served in something that reminded me of a hollowed out cake platter. The solids of the dessert were carefully arranged on the top tier and the magical and oh so delicious sorrel juice was housed in the bottom with a theatrical dash of dry ice. And how you might ask do you get to the liquids? Why, with a thick glass straw.
Two Alinea staples were the hot potato cold potato and the black truffle explosion. The hot potato cold potato dish were not unfamiliar flavors, but the battling temperature of the dish’s elements added some intrigue as did the eater’s participation in finalizing the dish. I had to pull the needle from the wax dish to drop the solids in the cool broth. The truffle explosion came served on a silver spoon and plated on an “antiplate” — that black bottom pictured above is actually the table. The round simply holds up the spoon. As impressive as that may have been, the taste of the truffle explosion is out of this world amazing. If you’re even remotely interested in truffles, this is for you. Mark my words, I will baptize my first child in this stuff.
The highlight of course was when Chef prepared our final dessert table side. The man is an artist. He gracefully decorated our table with the deconstructed dessert ingredients before giving the white chocolate orb a nice crack on our table. He definitely gives off the strong and silent type vibes. He’s also pretty tall. I mean, if I didn’t know him walking down the street, I’d probably give him some respect.
My only gripe this whole meal was when I informed my mussel allergy to our waiter. When the seafood platter came out, he so nicely pointed out I received an oyster leaf in the place of the mussel since “you don’t like mussels”. I really hate that. Why don’t you just serve me a mussel dude? Don’t make my bust out my epipen. That snarky comment aside, this was a perfect night.
I’m still recovering financially after my trip to Chicago, but I tell you, these once in a lifetime experiences are priceless to me. Seriously, nothing can top this except for maybe the birth of my first born… you know the one that’s going to get christened with the truffle explosion. Since that hasn’t happened yet, I’ll have to let you know in a few years.
1723 North Halsted
Chicago, Illinois 60614