Ate at Alinea the other night for the first time. Many posts on this board already. I can only add that we did the full tour and had an absolutely marvelous experience.
The one thing that struck me halfway through the meal was the cost. The full tour is $175, and has 23 courses. Dividing the number of courses into the cost of the meal, it turns out that each course costs an average of $7.60. To me, this is phenomenal. While some of the courses are, of course, rather small, still - if many of these dishes were in a very upscale tapas-style restuarant in NYC (where I live), they could easily be double that on a per course basis. It seems absurdly inexpensive to me to pay an average of $7.60 per course for these types of plates requiring this type of expertise in a setting this lovely with service this polished.
While some have complained in past threads about the exorbinant cost of Alinea, I would counter with an argument precisely the opposite - this is one of the best meal deals in Chicago based on price criteria!
You've made a very interesting and cogent point - I'd never looked at it like that (I always felt Alinea was worth every penny spent, but it's novel to think of it as a bargain!). If you include the amuse (which is about the same size as some of the courses), the per-course price drops to $7.30. As you say, for this level of expertise and service, that's incredible. Plus, did you see the number of employees they have? Not only is the ratio of servers to customers high, but it's duplicated in the kitchen.
Applying your logic to the wine pairings was a little different, though - there the 20 pours of the extended wine pairing come out to $8.75 per 2 oz. pour - not quite as good a deal (confirming what we thought when we ate there). At that rate, if the serving was a typical 6 oz., each glass would be $26.25 - and we didn't have any wine there that night that we would have paid that much for, especially since most of the wines were the same as on the regular wine pairing (which I believe costs $135), meaning that they really cost $6.75 a pour. Whew! Now I feel like an accountant! I realize that four or five wines were different on the extended pairing, so you really have to say that 15 were priced at $6.75 and 5 were priced at ... $14.75, or $44.25 for a 6 oz. glass. Ouch! Now my brain hurts.
Both of your accountings seem spot on, and show the reality of restaurant dining. The margins are WAAAY higher on liquor served, as a rule. If the customers are drinkers, a restaurant can do fine with prix fixe deals, 2-for-1 entrees, etc. With 2-3 $8-$10 glasses of wine per diner, the profits come right back.
As we are not serious wine drinkers, we only had water. So the math of about $7.50/dish (+ or -) works out pretty well in our case.
I've also found that in the course of a large 20+ course meal that two things can happen when one drinks anything other than water. First, in the case of many paired alcoholic beverages, one tends to become more or less drunk, and this greatly diminishes the taste of the food. In the case of anything other than water (alcoholic or not), all the beverage calories consumed in addition to the food can really induce an unpleasant feeling of caloric overload, almost a food coma, that can be quite distressing.
I find that in the course of a meal this long and large that water not only adds no additional calories, but small sips between each course greatly aids digestion and is the only palate cleanser that one requires. It allows me to enjoy the food to the fullest degree.
If we had the smaller 12 course tasting, I would not feel this way and would certainly indulge in some wonderful pairings of one type or another.
Water is a fine palate cleanser and I too took small sips of water in between courses at times, but to have missed the pairings of wine with the food would have been a great shame. The point of the pairings is to create 1+1=3, rather than 2. Plus it was very interesting to taste the wine before and during the food to experience the change in flavors. Foie gras or a blue cheese is fantastic alone, but paired with a sauterne, it blows you away. Thus the pairings. If you become easily drunk, you can just take a small sip of two of each pairing and leave the rest.
I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I just really don't enjoy wine. I certainly understand your point for those who do, though.
On the other hand, it does seem like a shame to pay for pour after pour at an average cost of $8 - $10 (or far more!) each, and then only take a small sip or two - it would be like taking only a tiny nibble of each plate put before you. I'm guessing that most people who pay for many multiple pours at that price point really want to enjoy the wine and end up drinking the majority of it - which brings me back to the two points I raised in my earlier post.
Dining has scene has been relatively quiet in the past several years at the US. Alinea was possibly one of the few places that made a loud arrival with positive impacts since per se. I’m not a big fan of molecular gastronomy, but I thought Grant Achatz’ avant-garde cooking did a fantastic job of constructing dishes out of the unexpected and taking the form and food’s presentation to new levels
Food (and wine) - 94/100
Nearly everybody that I knew recommending to have a “Tour” at Alinea and that’s what I had for my dinner back in late spring 2009. There were about 24 courses in total, ranging from small dishes to only bites/refreshers. It’s normal that you would have some high and a few misses.
My favorite dishes are actually more on the traditional style surprisingly: Achatz’ “re-produced” Escoffier’s recipe of pigeon a la Saint-Clair with a perfectly cooked squab and good side dishes such as mash of caramelized onions. Another outstanding dish was the tender and buttery wagyu beef, interestingly served with A-1 in powder form. For the “advance dishes” that I like were: the classic black truffle explosion of pasta shell and a well-integrated yuba (dried tofu skin). The dessert was also good – for me the chocolate served with blueberry and maple is the best. There were also dishes showing in contrast of texture and temperature by using similar ingredients (a pair of crab items served hot and cold). Some dishes that I was not too keen were – pork belly (too soft) and white asparagus with arugula.
The wine pairing here was supposedly good too – many said nearly as good as L’Astrance’s wine pairing. I only had 5 glasses of tasting size. The Bruno Paillard brut rose was rather disappointing (paired with yuba and hot/cold potato); whereas the ’03 Andrew Will Syrah (matched well with the beef) and ’08 Elio Perrone Piedmont (dessert wine) were nice. The food here, in general, is good though not really hitting a high mark – just very consistent (94/100 – 2 ½*).
Service (and ambiance) - 92/10
The service is more on the formal side but excellent (more genial waiters will be preferable). However, there are really lots of dishes needed to be delivered, so they constantly changed the silverwares as well as cleaned the table. Hence, it’s understandable if they were unable to interact more often with the guests. The restaurant design’s is chic, minimalist and a bit futuristic. Diners walked into the entrance until the end of the tunnel; there’s a black door on your left. Black, grey and some white are the most dominant color. The ambiance is comfortable with shoulder-high chairs and relatively spacious table.
I left the place not really feeling full, but well-pleased. Additionally, I was filled with curiosity on what other dishes they will make in the future. I suppose it will be some kind of “El Bulli” in which the menu constantly evolves – the only certain thing is that the menu will keep changing. I gave this place 93.5 (2 ½*) for the overall experience – among top 3 or 5 as the best restaurants in the States. I don’t really opposing Michelin for giving its highest honor here, after all Jean-Luc Naret said that they had to ‘sell’ the books too by giving at least 1 3-star restaurant in nearly each city they’re reviewing
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614