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Alinea -- know b4 u go or caveat emptor

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This weekend my wife and I visited Chicago (from NJ) -- a pilgrimage we make about 2-3 times a year for a long weekend of food, jazz, architecture and fun. (IMHO, Chicago, my favorite US city, is a less pretentious NYC.) Last year for our "special" meal we had a chef's table at Tru which was an amazing experience.

This year for our special meal we made reservations at Alinea (after learning Trio had shut down). (Can't say if a Trio experience would have been much different.) We did the 24 course tour with wine pairings.

We are pretty adventurous diners, having been fortunate enough to live and travel around the world; so neither of us has a squeamish or conservative palate.

We were really disappointed by the experience. Perhaps "Scientific Cusisine" where powders, emulsions and meshed pillows with orange infused air is not our bag, and if it's yours, we fully respect that. But science should be the method not the main course on each plate. (My use of "plate" is beyond generous; each course ranges from nickel-sized to silver-dollar-sized.)

But before you go, you should know that after $750 (for 2) you will be intoxicated (if you do the wine pairings) but still very hungry and, I believe, unsatisfied and disappointed.

The service while adequate, was far more pretentious than I believe is really necessary. After all, people are spending $200-$400/person and making reservations well in advance so their bona fides are pretty much established when they sit down at the table.

More importantly, the portions are so incredibly small that my wife commented she never felt she actually chewed the entire evening -- that is, of course, until we went back to the hotel, changed and went to Five Faces for Chicago Style hot dogs at 1:30am.

I write this because $750 is a lot of money for a dining experience where you're talking about what hot dog place will still be open mid-way through the meal.

Finally, my wife who is an interior designer was not very impressed with the "corporate stark" style design the owners chose.

Link: http://www.alinearestaurant.com

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  1. No question Alinea is not for everyone, but I've been there twice (12 course and the Tour) and I have been more than full on both occasions, and both of my meals were incredible. I can't even imagine leaving there and being able to eat more, and I've got more than a healthy appetite. But if you don't like it, you don't like it. Tru and Alinea are entirely different cuisines and do not necessarily suit the same tastes.

    I also received much better service than it sounds like you experienced. On both occasions, I appreciated the fact that no one at the restaurant took themselves too seriously, but were nonetheless very professional.

    As for the decor, again I'm sure that it won't suit everyone. I actually found the decor striking and fitting of the theme of the restaurant. Most important to me is the fact that they have seats that are comfortable to sit in for 4-5 hours.

    But I will agree that if you spend that kind of money, you hope that it will be to your liking, and it obviously was not.

    On your next trip, if you want high end dining you might want to try Everest, Spiaggia or Les Nomades. They're outstanding and a bit more conventional.

    1. I agree with you. I am a chef and was treated to dinner there a couple of weeks ago. I went with a party of 7. six of the party thouroughly enjoyed the meal and a couple said that it was one of their best meals of their life.

      I was very dissappointed and because I was the guest I did not want to spoil it for everyone else.

      Yes, the portions are small but I felt that the overall meal was just enough to satiate but what I found most discouraging was that the science prevailed (just as you said). I will admit to a couple of dishes that were quite impressive but most of the meal was just "way out there". Some of these were so thouroughly deconstructed that the flavors fought so much to the point of nonsense.

      There was definetly a high technical skill involved in the "cooking" with much thought but I think that most people will be baffled w/ bull$#!* and not dazzled w/ diamonds. Although I thought that service was impecable and very well coordinated I too did not like the decor but I'm told that there are some special things about the building itself that are suppose to impress (like a speaker system that can focus music so that only one person in a full dining room can hear). Speaking of music - none. One of my companions kept saying he could hear whispering noises in the dining room coming from the speakers. Huh?

      Well, I would imagine that this place will stay in business just based upon intrigue but I wouldn't go so far as to say that this may be the best restaurant in the country. (as some reviews have attested). Far from it.

      2 Replies
      1. re: JDog

        I think many people going to Alinea want to think it's the best meal they've ever had (and it ought to be based on the prices charged), and rather than admit that they were underwhelmed, they go to the other extreme and talk about how amazinglu different it is.

        There is much debate on this board about fine dining, but the one thing I like about Trotter's is that the focus is on the food -- not the science. I think Alinea is too out there IMHO.

        1. re: OP

          I will agree with many comments made above concerning taste vs. science of Grant's food at Alinea. I ate there 2 weeks ago (12 course, wine pairings) with two other people and was blown away by the meal. The portions were perfect (I was not stuffed but defintely had no desire to eat again that night) and the service was surprising nice and unpretenious. With that being said, some of the courses blew me away with presentation and the "how did they do that" factor, but were underwelming on flavor (really only two courses). Overall however, it was excellent and I would not hesitate to return.
          I think restaurants like Alinea are more culinary adventures rather than dinner. Part of the fun to it should be the excitment of not understanding how they managed to make olive oil pudding or a pea puree blanket or lime rocks or beet "yolk".
          Of the all of the chef's leading the food science craze, Grant is one of the few that still puts flavor before anything else, where as the chef at El Bulli and even Moto in Chicago have mentioned in the press the desire to be innovative rather than focusing on clean flavors.

      2. Again, I just can't see how someone can do the Tour and leave Alinea hungry. They practically had to roll me out the door the one time I did it.

        Also, those who criticize Alinea like to say that the restaurant is too focused on science and not enough on taste. Yet, I haven't seen anyone back this up with any specific examples of dishes where this was the case. I've always found that flavors come first with Chef Achatz. The technique is irrelevant if the flavors aren't there. Also, bear in mind, in a menu consisting of over 20 courses, chances are pretty good that 2 or 3 might not be as good as the rest.

        So, I pose an honest question to both the OP and anyone else...what dishes do you feel failed? Where was taste sacrificed to technique?

        8 Replies
        1. re: Josh

          Backing up with examples something as subjective as taste may be an exercise in futility, but I'll try.

          Because the basis of the restaurant is scientifically prepared "flavorful" tiny dishes, it is essential to "overseason" each dish so the flavors pop in your mouth to achieve a "wow" factor. I would guess that a full sized portion of any of the dishes Alinea serve would be overwhelming to anyone's palate and most people would enjoy it.

          Recall the Pepsi Challenge of years ago where Pepsi outshone Coca Cola when SMALL tastings of each were put side by side.

          Pepsi is sweeter than Coca Cola. So when a passerby took the Pepsi Challenge, 7-10 (or more, I forget) people chose Pepsi, far more than Pepsi's marketshare then and now. It turns out this was due to the sugar "shock/attraction" the drinker's experienced with the SMALL portion they were provided. However, when blind taste tests were done on full-sized cans (portions), Coke won. People claimed that Pepsi was too sweet.

          Likewise, Alinea shocks the senses with each dish, using intense powder concentrates, reductions, etc. Salt, which helps opens the palate to other flavors, is plentiful in each dish. Texturally, I do not believe powders should make up a disproportionate amount of the flavor or take up a disproportionate amount of space on the plate. (This could be send for other concentrates as well.)

          Unquestionably, the preparation for each dish is (probably) tremendous, but that doesn't necessarily garner you a michelin star or two.

          1. re: Dave

            It's funny you mentioned the salt. When we were there last week, a neighboring table commented about it, and the waiter replied that, indeed, they "loved" salt in the kitchen.

          2. re: Josh

            Do you really want me to respond to that? I can go dish by dish if you really need me to but it will take me a while to write it all down.

            1. re: JDog

              Fire away. I'd be curious to know your thoughts.

              1. re: Josh

                [Sigh] - I've been triple dog dared.

                I will spend a few minutes later today putting my thoughts on screen. I will start by saying that I don't challenge the skill, quality of ingredients, service, or drink list. what I am saying was that the meal was a focus on laboratory function and not a kitchen (creatively putting flavors together) function. More on that later...

                to be continued....

              1. re: Elrushbo

                http://www.flickr.com/photos/ulterior...

                Holy-freakin'-mole!!!
                That is the best site ever!

                I can't stop looking at
                all those incredible dishes.

                Just...wow!

                1. re: SCUBAchef

                  The Detroit Free Press recently did a spread about Ulterior Epicure, who has many of the best food pics on that site. Amazing how many food pics there are on flickr, isn't it!

                  http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/ar...

            2. We were there on 5/24 and did the Tour with wine. They said the wine would only equal 2-3 glasses total, but we received much more. We were pretty buzzed when we left. I had just enough food by the end, neither hungry nor over-stuffed. I would have liked more of a couple of dishes like the lamb, it was extraordinary but only a dice-sized cube, and the crab. I thought the service was relaxed, casual, even self-effacing. The sommelier may have been slightly pretentious (are there any that aren't?), but never condescending. They volunteered a souvenir menu after dinner and a tour of the kitchen, which I appreciated. I assume they do that for everyone. The dining room is stark, but chairs are comfy. In comparison, I definitely preferred (and was fuller after) a tasting dinner I had at The French Laundry last year, but I did not have any recriminations about paying Alinea's hefty bill.

              Link: http://www.runninggags.blogspot.com

              1. I agree that I was underwhelmed by Alinea (5/17 - 12 course tasting, husband did wine pairing, but I did not). It wasn't so much the science that bugged me, it was the focus on texture above taste.

                I felt that several dishes just had 2-3 too many ingredients on the plate and that often the flavors did not meld together well. Why the need for green tea powder on the chocolate dessert plus the elderberry gelee, the elderberry sorbet, plus other ingredients I don't remember?

                I loved the idea of the orange scented air-filled pillow, but it didn't complement the fish in the dish on top of the pillow (again, this dish had too many ingredients that I can't remember--I think there were green olives and artichokes?).

                I felt the sweet potato puff on the cinnamon stick to be the most successful dish---I could identify three flavors (sweet potato, brown sugar/whiskey, and tempura batter) and the presentation was fantastic. If this had been the only dish, I would have really been wowed. But out of the 12 courses, I was really only wowed once or twice by the taste of a dish (I really enjoyed the crab/sweet pea/lavender course).

                All of the dishes we had are summarized very nicely on Lance's blog.

                While I was not hungry after 12 courses, I was a bit unsatiated--sometimes the tasting portions were so small as to not be able to really savor the flavors enough. And that feeling of wanting a bit more when a $400 check arrives wasn't so happy (although my husband was satisfied and felt it was money well spent--maybe after a couple of glasses of wine I would have felt the same?).

                10 Replies
                1. re: Leslie

                  Food is supposed to TASTE GOOD. It is a RESTAURANT, not an art museum! Why certain chefs don't get that is beyond me. From what I have heard(and will sample at the Chef's Bar in 2 weeks), Graham Elliott Bowles at Avenues does a better job of being creative with the food and presentation while keeping in mind taste is the priority.

                  1. re: Elrushbo

                    Have you been to Alinea? Did you not enjoy your experience?

                    1. re: BR

                      I would rather try Alinea with a group of foodies than to take family members...might go by myself if I can't get a group together in Sept, will be driving that way.

                      Nick Kokonas(sp) on egullet says Alinea will eventually have one menu of 16-20 courses, they have had a few problems of people wanting the Tour with the table held for others later, making the Tour unavailable.

                      1. re: Elrushbo
                        n
                        nick kokonas

                        Actually, I said that it would be an ideal for Alinea to have but one menu.

                        We have had exactly ONE problem recently with a table that showed up nearly 40 minutes late on a fully booked evening. They were then exceptionally voicifurous in their complaints that the Tour was unavailable. All in all, I am comfortable with the way that the problem was handled... ultimately, if it seems that we cannot please a customer at Alinea (or they are already soured on their experience before they begin), we offer to rebook them elsewhere. This may seem pretentious, but the intimate nature of the restaurant means that one unhappy table can sour an entire room.... and that is particularly unfair to the other diners.

                    2. re: Elrushbo

                      So, is this your opinion of two restaurants...neither of which you have actually eaten at?

                      1. re: Josh

                        Based at this point on the reviews of people who have been to both and whose opinions I trust...I'll likely try Alinea in Sept, then judge for myself.

                        1. re: Elrushbo

                          I think it's very unfair to a restaurant and its staff to criticize a restaurant that you have not been to, and this is what you've done with your post. People read these posts and decide whether or not to go to a restaurant based upon other people's experiences. You're suggesting to people to go to Avenues over Alinea, that the food and presentation is better, and yet you have not eaten at either restaurant. You even imply that Chef Achatz's food does not taste good, and that he puts art ahead of taste.

                          I respect anyone's opinion on food -- everyone has different likes, dislikes, tastes, etc. And although I love Alinea, Avenues and Moto, I know they have their detractors. But when you slam a restaurant that you have not visited, like you've done (and like I see you previously did with Sweets & Savories) you're not really contributing to healthy debate.

                          Moreover, you've now ranked Avenues ahead of Alinea based solely upon perceptions, and not upon a visit to either restaurant. Of course, Chef Bowles has used Altoids mints and Pop Rocks in his dishes and I'm sure many would be quick to criticize him for this without having tried his food. So before you suggest to people that Avenues is better than Alinea, and that Alinea's food is not good, you should probably try both and then tell us what you think.

                          1. re: BR

                            I wouldn't say it if it didn't come from someone I trust who has more restaurant experience than anyone here-besides, it's a commonly echoed sentiment!

                            As for Sweets and Savories, their website still lists items as ala carte, so either they changed back to ala carte or have yet to update their site. Restaurants like that should go out of their way to accomodate their guests, saying "no" like that was not the right thing to do, sets a negative tone. The food may be great and I am glad you have had good experienes, but it's just a restaurant, for crissakes! I am entitled to my opinion-note I said nothing about the food. To take something like that and harbor anger for months is kinda weird.

                            For instance, if I get to Avenues two weeks from tomorrow and find that the menu suddenly costs $250, I'll be pretty upset!

                            1. re: Elrushbo

                              Actually, you implied in your post that you personally did not like the food at Alinea. You indicated that the food is supposed to taste good, and implied that Chef Achatz does not understand this. You never indicated that you had never eaten at Alinea and that you were relying on only one single person's review, which you now indicate.

                              Also, your views on Alinea don't seem to be as "commonly echoed" as you suggest, as you probably know from the following post:

                              http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic....

                              You then say that I should not be critical of your review (even though you never ate at the restaurant) because "it's just a restaurant." Well, it's actually a pretty complicated business enterprise for a lot of people.

                              In the future, just indicate that "I heard from a friend." You are indeed entitled to your opinion on your experiences at a restaurant, but passing someone else's opinion as your own is not right and really, you're suffering by not allowing yourself the opportunity to form your own opinion.

                              p.s. - S&S offers a la carte every day. But again, you haven't dined there so you don't know that.

                              1. re: Elrushbo

                                Elrushbo - Gotta agree with BR here. Hard to give credibility to someone bashing restaurants they've never been to! Agree or disagree based on experience but hearsay?

                                Interesting that lots of Alinea naysayers coming out of the closet here.

                                So. In defense of Alinea, I must say I was thrilled my dining experience. It was unique, unpretentious and just darn cool. I found the design of the place very chic, intriguing and sleek. The floral arrangements are fabulous too.

                                Not to bash the OP, but an interior designer who doesn't appreciate the architectural design of the unique entryway is probably still recommending sponge painted walls. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!!) ;)

                                Back to Alinea. I found the sommelier unpretentious (ever been to Trotters?!?) and I loved the way each course had me guessing as to smell, texture or preparation. i.e. "What do you smell?" "Lavender." (this was the pillow course when we went). Some were fantastic, others were less so. And the presentation was always cool. It was experimental but not out of this world weird. It was about the entire experience. I enjoyed it and would encourage foodies to check it out if you've got the budget. We had the 12 course and couldn't have come close to finishing the tour. (OK, maybe if you twisted my arm.) I will say that my husband was less joyous as he dealt with the tab and would be more reluctant than I to go back. Me, I would.