Imagine if Willy Wonka’s factory wasn’t for kids.
That’s basically what dining at Alinea was like. Chef Grant Achatz has earned three Michelin Stars with this highly creative restaurant located in the Ranch Triangle neighborhood of Chicago. And if you’re going to go, go big, right? So, my family and I, along with a couple friends, flew to Chicago for the weekend to celebrate my and my Mother’s birthdays. Alinea is argued by some as one of the world’s best restaurants. The thing about rating food is that, to an extent, some level of subjectivism comes into play. Is Alinea my favorite restaurant in the world? Absolutely not. Is it one of the most unique and creative dining experiences I have ever experienced in my life? Absolutely. As such, if you make it to Chicago and dine at Alinea, forget all the rules you ever learned about food, open your mind (and your wallet), and enjoy the ride. Our dining party is pictured below, minus one Mr. John Rozycki, a good friend and former colleague who lives in Chicago. L to R, me, my vivacious mother, Brenda, my sister, Laura, dear friend, Coleen, and my nephew, Atticus. I was very proud of Atticus for trying everything and keeping his mind open during this culinary adventure. He is a purist and, well… a 9 year old.
Remember when I said go big or go home?
If you are going to fly to Chicago solely for a dining experience, then why not opt for the most exclusive seat in the house and sit at the kitchen table? If you go, I’d say it’s totally worth it to be able to observe the team of chefs doing their thing. Our meal consisted of 14 courses. I will not go into describing each course in great detail, but rather highlight my favorites. I have included photos of each course, as well as the menu, so you can live vicariously through our evening if you want.
One of the first things you notice is that the chef is intentionally playing mind tricks with the food. The snozberries taste like snozberries, but what looks like a banana and tastes like a banana, is not, in fact, a banana.
The service at Alinea was over the top. There were multiple people tending to our table at a time, all ensuring the six of us had the exact same experience at the same time. This type of timing and execution from a service perspective is often what defines a dining experience. Like my good friend and local restaurateur, Corbett Monica, says, “if people wanted to worry about doing it themselves, they would stay at home and eat.” I couldn’t agree more, and you don’t have to be a three Michelin Star restaurant to grasp a service standard. There were certainly courses at Alinea that I wasn’t blown away by, but the quality of service and attentiveness promised it all worthwhile. I will also note that they have the coolest freaking china I have ever seen in my life. Our plates were all eclectic, mostly mismatched, grandiose, and beautiful.
Step 1. Forget all the rules.
After we were seated and settled, we were greeted with a glass of Austrian Grüner Veltliner Federspiel, and a beautiful plate of herbs and flowers that are reminiscent of what a woodland troll or his whimsical fairy friends might eat on a hot, summer, Chicago day. It was described as a terrarium and had avocado, kiwi, and little clear cubes that looked like jello but were actually… pickled cucumbers… we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
They really captured my attention two courses in when we were invited into the kitchen for our “root beer” and “pizza pocket”. Remember what I said, right? Mind games with the food. That is the recurring theme and often the object of molecular gastronomy.
This gentleman below whipped up a boozy version of root beer in that super cool shaker machine where he inserted the shakers and then he spun the wheel. The shakers were all mechanically shaken rapidly, then he poured. Atticus had a virgin version of this drink, naturally. He then served us what I can only describe as a magical pepperoni pizza puff. It was light and airy, just completely melted in your mouth and tasted just like a savory bite of pepperoni pizza. Again, forget all the rules. I can walk you through the principles of a traditional handmade pizza, but I cannot accurately describe what they have done to create this dish. Something about distilling the essence of the pepperoni, incorporating mozzarella, sprinkling magic fairy dust and fennel flowers on top, and voila. I immediately decided that if I could order a late night munchie box of Alinea eats, we would definitely want a dozen of these. I actually wouldn’t mind if that chef delivered them. He was kinda cute. I like that tattooed, yet freshly bathed look. Anyway, I digress.
My next favorite course happened to be the course that followed this one. We were ushered back to our table, and seated. Our table had taken on a completely new personality while we were gone, and now boasted a beautiful bowl of oranges. It was a welcomed change since the stunning and elegant floral arrangement that was there previously was 1) so tall we couldn’t see each other across the table and 2) it had a beautiful variety of eucalyptus in it to which my mother is deathly allergic. I have a pretty serious reaction to eucalyptus as well, but my mom’s is paralyzing, so that arrangement had to go. 🙂 Little did we know, the bowl of oranges served a purpose in an upcoming course. There were surprises around every corner at Alinea. It kept your senses and your imagination both running wild and on its toes.
The next course was brought in little covered pots, which when opened in front of us (all at the same time of course), smoke escaped and carried your olfactory senses on an earthy, smoky journey, only to reveal delicate sunflower petals meticulously placed into a paste made of sunflower seeds beneath, and in place of real sunflower seeds on the face of this “sunflower” was Osetra, which is caviar of sturgeon. Osetra is one of the most prized types of caviar, Beluga being the most exclusive. This dish ended up being my favorite. The delicate flavors of lemon and onion lingered in ways that are difficult to describe. It was beautiful and mysterious. This dish was paired with a Samuel Billard Premier Cru Chablis Burgundy, 2015.
The next course, which was Ranina Ranina, or Spanner Crab which is found in tropical waters, was accentuated with coconut, and curry glow. This was where the bowl of oranges came into play. To our surprise, the oranges had been resting on a block of dried ice. Just before serving the crab course, our server, Bradley (who Atticus affectionately dubbed Sir Bradley The Third) came in and gently poured hot water into the bowl, causing a citrusy aroma to slowly drift around the room and flirt with our senses. It was super cool. If there was anyone at our table who wasn’t impressed by this point, that definitely changed.
The next big highlight was the palate cleanser that came with the crab course. Notice the glowing blue bowls with little mini oranges? We were instructed to eat these at the end of the course, and “once you put it in your mouth and bite, keep your mouth closed…” Hmmm… At this point, Atticus’ guard was slightly up with this whole food adventure, and when he learned he had to commit to the little orange ball by putting the whole thing in his mouth, he grew a little skeptical. I assured him that if he tasted it and couldn’t handle it, he could politely remove it from his mouth into his napkin. The important thing was that he tried it. I wish I had taken a picture of his face when he bit into that orange ball. It wasn’t in fact an orange at all. It was a fragile little white chocolate shell, filled with freshly squeezed, slightly spiced, orange juice. It was pretty impressive how they were able to craft that–seemingly impossible. It really gushed in your mouth once you bit it, and I think that surprised him because he quickly held his mouth over his bowl like he was going to spit it out, then he paused, and slowly chewed and swallowed. He looked up at us with a grin and asked, “can I have a whole bowl of those?” 🙂 Lesson learned. Always try it, you just might like it. I know a few adults who could take this advice… hehe. These oranges were absolutely rad, and we decided to add them to our wishlist box of late night munchie Alinea eats.
The next course was started with a fire. That’s right. Bradley brought in a bowl of salt and lit it on fire, then came back with a plate of black river stones which had ‘olived’ artichokes placed on top that blended in with the rocks. How does one olive an artichoke, you may ask? It’s just magic. I missed the instructions on these coming back from the restroom and Coleen simply advised me, “Don’t eat the rocks.” Never overlook such sage advice, friends. See if you can tell which two below are actually not rocks.
This course also was accompanied with barbecued octopus brushed with Korean barbecue sauce, and Bradley then expressed black lime on it. At this point, Atticus had realized that he had already eaten fish eggs and in a voice of slight concern he asked Bradley if the octopus was covered in “fish saliva”. Haha! Quite the imagination that child has. My sister called this the Beetlejuice course. Nailed it. Bradley agreed. Fire, slimy tentacle-like arms, and black rocks. It was served with one of the finest Zinfandels I have ever had. My Mom, the Nationally Certified Wine Judge, agreed. It was a Grgich Hills “Estate” Zinfandel, Napa Valley, 2013.
Cue the Banana Boat song.
The fire slowly burned on.
And the dinner continued. Our food took a turn to calmer waters with a langoustine broth. I forgot to eat the crunchy paper so I totally screwed up the juxtaposition of silky broth and crunchy texture, but I wasn’t too bummed. This dish was not one of my favs.
After this course, a female chef brought a beautiful bundle of dried lavender and placed it on the fire. It smoldered a bit and the scent of lavender wafted around the room. So relaxing. They then brought out these little baby scallop dumplings, which sat on top. Just gorgeous, and succulent, too. Ugh. So bummed so many of these pics are blurry.
Alinea really threw us for a loop after they cleared this course.
Ol’ Brad came in and carefully situated what appeared to be items needed for an old fashioned shave in a barber shop, with some onions and bacon to boot. Also, some homemade oyster crackers.
I think our surprise at what happened next is best described on Coleen’s face in the photos below.
That entire time the fire had been burning, a Yukon Gold potato had been cooking in the salt. Bradley, you little devil. Bradley then proceeds to make a table side clam chowder, the clams were moussed out of a handheld nitrous pressurized whipped cream pump. Was it the best clam chowder I ever had in my life? Hell no. I’m from Carteret County, remember? Was it the most surprised I have ever been to realize that I was about to eat clam chowder? 100%. It was paired with a Gaston Chiquet “Special Club” Brut, Aÿ, Champagne, France 2009. “Special Club” is an elitist group of Champagne makers who formed in 1971 to craft the finest Champagnes on Earth. God bless them. This is the first time I have had a “Special Club” wine in my life. It may have been the finest champagne to have ever graced my palate. It was the highlight of this course from a flavor profile perspective, in my opinion. The bubbles were so delicate and perfect. It was just exquisite. I wish I could afford a case. I’d bring it to the barn for me and my friends to drink at our barn picnics. Here’s a snippet on the “Special Club”
I know what you’re thinking. Is the meal almost done? Nope, but we are just passed the halfway mark. Then came the mushroom tea. Yeahhhhh… If I said this tea didn’t make us all as giggly as a bunch of prepubescent girls at a sleepover, I’d be lying. We laughed at something my Mom said until most of us had tears in our eyes. This tea was served with a morel mushroom dish with ramp and parmesan. The morel mushroom was AMAZING. Bradley explained that these mushrooms were just foraged in Oregon, and the day prior was the final day they could be found, so we got the last of the season. After every course, they encouraged us to ” as always, have fun”. Noted.
We are nearing an end, friends. They busted out the Syrah and served us…squab. That’s right. Some young, unfledged, Sonoma County pigeon. I was personally hoping for wagyu or something more decadent as our final savory course. I will say that I had never eaten squab prior to August 4, 2018, so I guess I can check that off my list… It was presented with the burning coal on top, which they removed table-side. It was a little anticlimactic but I did rather enjoy the little beet roll with mustard at the finish. That was most excellent, and a brilliant palate cleanser. Oh yeah, they also served us homemade beef tenderloin jerky with this course. Hands down the best beef jerky, ever. Ingredient list on the jar below.
Time for dessert!
To kick off our dessert courses, they brought us an heirloom peach and begonia sorbet thingy. It tasted kind of like a wheatgrass shot. Not sweet at all–we were eased into sweet flavor profiles. It did come with a shot of pineapple, aloe, and shiso that blasted Atticus to another planet, though. We learned on this trip to Chicago that pineapple gets him jacked like nothing else… I think his expression below says it all. I mean, seriously, he had sat through 3.5 hours of dining at this point. He deserved to blast off.
This is just after the pineapple hit the bloodstream.
Then came my favorite dessert course. The Still Life cherry distillation. It was essentially cherries in a glass. Freaking AMAZING. Banana is my favorite fruit to be featured in a dessert, and the cherry distillation came with a single baby banana. Psych. Remember? To quote one of our server staff, “What looks like a banana and tastes like a banana, is not, in fact, a banana.” It was basically nutella-ish banana ice cream inside of this little chocolate banana shell. Totally wild and delicious. I could eat this course over and over. Add it to the late night munchie list.
After the banana, came the course that Atticus had been looking forward to the most all night. He had been watching the staff carry these balloons out of the kitchen. They were balloons made out of sugar, filled with helium, and tied to a string made of green apple “taffy”. These were a lot of fun, and we were instructed to puncture the balloons with our tongues, inhale some helium, and talk like the Chipmunks. Bradley threw a caution to the wind that he has seen children get overzealous with the helium and pass out, so he urged Atticus to be careful. Atticus was so careful that he never achieved Chipmunk pitch. He was a little bummed, so he asked for an apple juice as a consolation since his helium huffing session was a bust. They didn’t have apple juice, so they whipped him up the best chocolate milk in the world.
What happened next was without question the best part of our time at Alinea (says the thrill seeker). They removed this large disc from the ceiling that was decor before this, and laid it on the table. Then they turned off the lights, and this happened. Be sure to watch in full screen mode.
This crazy pile of delicious fun was the finished product. The stuff that looks like cocaine was freeze dried cake batter or something totally insane. It was so good!!! I wish we could have taken it with us so we could have eaten it later as a midnight snack. There are macarons, baby flan squares, gelato, cotton candy, and some other magical stuff. They brought my Mom and I glasses of champagne with distilled Betty Crocker cake batter added in for our birthdays. Could you ever imagine? Betty Crocker cake batter in a glass. Not too sweet, but perfectly captured that essence. Only at Alinea.
To finish, golden nuggets of chocolate, of course.
This concludes the Willy Wonka adventure for adults (and adventurous kids). We knew we wouldn’t get a box of pizza rolls and orange balls, but thankfully, the night before, Coleen and I tore up the town and totally ordered a Chicago deep dish pizza at 2am to our hotel room. Since it was my first Chicago deep dish pizza, I thought it deserved a place in the blog. 🙂 Life is short, friends. Live it up.