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Oct 19, 2009 04:42 PM

Alinea - good, very good, but disappointing

In town for the Neuroscience conference, and I was determined to take advantage of the opportunity to go to Alinea - it's been a really ludicrously good year for me foodwise, with trips to Manresa and per se the high points, and I wanted to see whether I could exceed those. A couple of reviews from folks I have high opinions of (including Chowhound's uhockey) suggested that I might.

Top line/summary: the staff are the best I've ever met, some of the food is sublime. None of the food is other than very good. But there were dishes that didn't excel, and - sadly - the wine pairings REALLY missed the mark, with some of the individual wines not even being good alone, and that really hurt given the price. So I have to say I probably wouldn't return, I certainly wouldn't get the wine if I did, and it ranks well below Manresa. To be fair, some of the individual dishes *are* **utterly** fabulous. Tough to review.


OK, my comparison points are ludicrously high. But that's where Achatz is aiming, right? My companion was new to this level of food, and I think she would tell you that she was in wonderland: the burnt oak leaves, the chocolate moon rock, the sizzling rosemary, all in addition to the food. And I agree that the staging excels - even things I expected, such as the pillows, were delightful and worthwhile [ok, maybe the silicone is not needed; but getting folk out of their normal zone has a value in itself there, I think]. Still, the decor didn't do anything for us really and the atmosphere was surprisingly busy - very unlike other top-end places. The staff really deserve kudos. All of them were able to go from solemn and uber-professional to friendly as soon as they were prompted, and all were very knowledgeable, impressively so. They got an excellent tip (and this despite the fact that one of the servers twice messed up with regard to my shellfish allergy, the first time such that I trusted her and swallowed enough of the shrimp to have me turning pink, send my heart racing and my blood pressure high enough to turn me red, and have me checking whether there was an epi pen to hand - NOT good. {They knew about the restriction, and had prepared a sub dish, but mixed them up and misinformed us*}). Colleen, our primary server, clearly is delighted to work there and was a joy to have around.

Low point first: the wine. Craig Sindelar, our sommelier, was a great guy, we really enjoyed his company and commentary, and he clearly has a passion, but several of the wines (especially the whites) just missed both alone and as pairings - the Henriot Brut champagne cocktail we started with especially had us looking at the osetra caviar and agreeing that they actually detracted markedly from each other. The couple of reds were more reliable but still not great, and at $170 each for the wine pairings, we were pretty unhappy. If I had a criticism of the *service* per se, it would be that there seemed to be an assumption that in the event of negative customer feedback, the customer was probably wrong: we both mentioned to Craig the feedback on the champagne cocktail, but got the impression that he just thought we were lacking in taste - echoes of the shellfish reaction, I suppose. Even wines of types I absolutely love - the port, the Klein Constantia (how do you not have that be great?), a Genium Priorat - just did not seem to be well-matched in general. When the highpoint of the wine is the Tiffany crystal glass one of them is served in - and it was fabulous! - then there's a problem.

I am not going to review every dish here - the black truffle explosion *is* as good as all the reviews say; the brook trout monseigneur is a testament to ingredients and the most classical of technique and is easily one of the best fish preps I have ever had; the use of roasted banana in the pork belly was a masterful combination. Other courses - pear, concord grape, hot potato - would be outstanding in any restaurant in the world. A day or two later, there are items on the menu that I don't remember, which is genuinely sad (and not the fault of my memory!); but the food really is worth the praise it gets. The dissatisfaction then is a product of the standards aimed for: the otoro was tough (!) in places, the fennel innocuous, and other slips. One thing worth noting is that the food requires attention, and I liked that: early on especially, the flavours are *subtle* - nothing is jumping up and smacking you, which is a clear style choice and one that appealed.

I have typed enough, and hope that I have given a sense. This really was a very good meal; the chef's air of honestly caring about our enjoyment was palpable, and having him doodle on the table is a fabulous component of the menu and meal; there were moments (and several, not just one or two) where the food forced me to close my eyes, grin, focus, and enjoy. I am glad to have gone. I think I take back my comment above: I *would* go back, and the food is probably justifiable in price. The wine just left a sour taste both literally and figuratively, I suppose, and we left feeling a little taken advantage of (not giving a wine price up front, but just saying 'we'll charge you for what we pour' didn't help there, either). And hence my difficulty in really reviewing here: it's just odd to get such ethereally spectacular pieces so close to such disappointment. In the end I conclude that taken in the context it aims for, Alinea probably failed - certainly I don't think they would be happy with the experience we took away. The 5-hour meal did not drag at all, but honestly the sum is not close to the meals at per se or - especially - Manresa, where the wine pairings all just *sang* and the food was equally spectacular but somehow cleaner.

*Actually, I am surprised not to have received more of an apology on this, I suppose, but a couple of the servers did check that I was OK. Not a big deal, and Craig caught the server in the act of serving me lobster immediately afterward while describing it as fennel :-).

1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

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  1. I think this comes across *slightly* too unhappy: sorry. A couple of the early courses would have maybe been better highlights (and created a better overall impression) if they'd been toward the end: both the pear and the hot/cold potato were dishes where we would have been (very) happy to just sit and eat ten or so of them, and my companion just *loved* the pork belly. So ... still confused over exactly what rating to give, I guess :-).

    1. Edit is not working - sorry! - but a further note: no bread! Not just us, all tables; but this seemed odd given previous review comments on good bread, and another spot of just 'odd - hmm' in the overall experience.

      4 Replies
      1. re: ewanm

        For a neuroscientist, this has to qualify as the most schizoid review ever. Did didn't did didn't like. Make a decision.

        1. re: hoppy2468

          The OP seems to have liked Alinea, but felt it didn't measure up to Per Se or Manresa. I'd say that's a pretty reasonable position given the detailed review.

          1. re: hcbk0702

            I guess that would be the one sentence summary :). Thanks!

        2. re: ewanm

          That is really weird, especially considering Alinea has the best and most thorough bread service I think I have ever had!

          1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

        3. While forgetting about an allergy is certainly disappointing, I feel like you had way too many expectations walking in the door and it tainted your experience. No bread?! Heaven forbid. If that made your experience more "hmm", you clearly had too many expectations of what it would be from the start.

          1 Reply
          1. re: shaneb

            While I agree going to a restaurant with unrealistically high expectations isn't a good thing, no bread sounds like a bizarre omission. Did Alinea stop their bread service altogether? They definitely had bread a couple years ago.

          2. The original comment has been removed
            1. For me Alinea is the best food I have ever eaten, but not necesarilly the best meal i have had - it's really quite exhausting.

              I will add a +1 for dissapointment over the wine. As someone who is extremely into wine, i was dissapointed with their quality and matchability. That said I have seen other people post their wines and been very impressed, so think i probably just got a bad night. Next time i go i will still get the wine pairings - for me it's just the best way to go with degustation menus.

            2. Perhaps the wine pairings at a restaurant that serves roasted banana with pork belly are going to be a bit cutting-edge. I must admit that I can't stand bananas, and would've avoided that dish at all costs.

              Am I the only one who thinks that the more complicated and up-to-the-minute a restaurant's offerings are, the harder it is to successfully pair wines with them?