We have been fortunate to dine at the Alinea Restaurant twice. It was recently voted the Best Occasion Restaurant in Illinois.
The menu at Alinea can sometimes sound deceptively simple ("scallop with citrus aroma," "woolly pig, fennel, orange, squid," and suchlike), but what shows up on the plate is absolutely original and almost always dazzlingly good. Chef/owner Grant Achatz consistently turns out some of the most imaginative and delicious contemporary (or modernist, if you will) cuisine in the country, and it's better than ever after closing down a couple years ago for an extensive five month renovation. At Alinea, you never quite know what you’re going to be served, but a paradigm-shifting experience is all but guaranteed [excerpt from The Daily Meal: Dan Myers].
Also last week the AAA released its exclusive five-diamond list of restaurants. Three restaurants in Illinois made the cut, and to no one's surprise, Alinea, is one of the three. Alinea has also been ranked three times as the best restaurant in the U.S. and at times has been ranked 7th in the World.
Nothing prepares you for the event. You don’t choose what you want to eat, you are given what they have prepared as their vision of the perfect meal. Their website states that it is not only about the food, but also about the experience - kind of like theatre. They do not exaggerate. It is molecular gastronomy or progressive cuisine at its best.
It is in a very unassuming building in Lincoln Park. We were led into the first floor where there was a long table awaiting us. The theme was Salvador Dali and it was very dramatically set with mirrored domes in front of each place setting along with velvet roses and beautiful crystal etc. The ceiling had large square paintings hung from chains. When it came time for the appetizers, the servers took the velvet roses, which had magnets hidden on the bottom of them, and placed them on top of the domes, which then magically lit up and an appetizer was revealed on each plate. They removed the dome, and also added a few other delicate treats. I can only describe each taste and texture as something that you have never experienced before.
Next we were asked to come into the kitchen where the great man himself, Chef Grant Achatz was hard at work perfecting each detail of the plating. Just being in the presence of someone that talented was thrilling. And to think that the world might have lost his genius when he got cancer of the mouth. He choose aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, and fully recovered from that illness. The world is a better place because of that.
In the kitchen there was an apparatus for grinding a huge chunk of flavored ice and using that along with other special ingredients to create both alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails. This was served along with another delicious appetizer,
When we arrived back into the dining room, it has been transformed into individual tables with a modern flair. Then came the main event. Each course was more outrageous than the next. You think that the portions are tiny and that you will be hungry when you leave, but trust me, your taste buds are so satisfied with the flavorful and imaginative items that you are stuffed when you leave and swear that you won't eat for days.
One selection was where the waiter grated a small black lime onto what I can only describe as a large black gummy bear looking item. The lime had been left to dry out in both salt and then the sun. You can’t believe how that concentrated the lime flavor. The food actually consisted of octopus and other insanely good ingredients, and although that type of texture is not one I normally like, it was too delicious not to finish.
Another item was a seafood broth that had a flaky wedge poking out. It turned out that this was made of seafood that had been cooked and dehydrated, turned into a thin cracker and you then dissolved this into the broth. Yes, I know how weird this sounds, but trust me it was magical.
The staff is very professional, however, they are also very friendly, and love to answer your questions because they want you to have a fabulous evening. They are very attentive, but they do not overdo.
Since this is not only an eating experience but a visual and feeling one as well, things like mini hibachis with juniper branches would be on the table for one course, another course would have lemongrass and limes and who knows what else in a container that had dry ice hidden under it so when hot water was poured on it, a delicious scent arose at each table. Almost every serving dish, bowl, etc. that they use has been specially crafted for them. Not one item was served in the same manner.
And least I forget, myself and one other of our group had cocktail, wine and liquor pairings with the meal. I could only get through a small portion of the drinks since they kept coming. One, for example, was from a small producer who grows a special type of pear and distills it. Then more pears are added to the distilled version and distilled again and so forth. This produces a liquor with more pear flavor than the best pear that you have ever tasted. The variety and amount of what they served was shocking.
There are too many other details that you just must experience for yourself, but I have to at least tell you about dessert or should I say desserts – four of them! I’ll talk about two. First of all, we had a totally edible helium balloon where even the string, made out of dehydrated apples I think, could be eaten. Then a ladder was brought in and a server climbed to the top and started removing the art from the ceiling. It turned out that they were constructed of plexiglass. He then placed one on each table. Chef Achatz arrived with a huge bowl that looked like it contained sparkly snow and proceeded to throw it onto the art. Another Chef then drew on it with melted chocolate, another with tiny bits of peanut butter candy, another with dehydrated cranberry fluff, and at least another 6 or 7 items were placed on it all the while that a machine was blowing fog with various delicious scents into the room. The restaurant erupted with clapping and hooting as you can imagine.
This type of meal is for a truly special occasion. It is expensive, but I would rather have one fabulous meal like that, than many mediocre dinners that are easily forgotten. You must experience it at least once in your life.
We are so grateful to Lauren for coming up with the idea of this unique restaurant as her choice for the L+L HOME Holiday Party!
For those of you who like to know even more about Chef Achatz and you have Netflix, watch The Chef's Table - Season 2, Episode 1.
You can find more information about Alinea here.