A New Orleanian's Take On Alinea (Very Long Review)
Well, I've had a few days to process the Alinea experience, and I hope people will find this to be honest, accurate and objective if nothing else, so here goes...
The trippy hallway with the purple lights is certainly a very cool way to enter into a restaurant, no doubt about it. So, the automatic door opened, and I think there were 2-3 people standing there. I think I said hello first (????), and the woman who I assumed was the hostess was not smiling at all. So I mentioned my name, and then she said "Yes, of course...".
She did ask me right away if I took a taxi there (in order to fetch me one at the end of the evening), so that was certainly considerate of her. Maybe it's just different in my part of the country, but I think it's very important that the first person you make contact with at least SMILE...especially when this particular restaurant is the current James Beard winner for best service in all of America. To me, that's kind of screwing up one of the basics. Hopefully Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas feel the same way.
I was then turned over to another woman who took me upstairs, and she was certainly a sweetheart - she smiled, asked if I was having a good day, etc. Totally different vibe, thank heaven.
It's a beautiful place, no doubt about it. And I really appreciated the low noise. Usually, you always get one jackass at another table no matter what, but I was really lucky not to experience this. And no one in my room ever took pictures of anything during the entire evening, so I was very fortunate in that aspect.
The first person who came over to me was perhaps a bit socially awkward...or something else, maybe. He double checked on food restrictions, etc., and then (of course), asked if I would be interested in the wine pairing. He didn't smile either.
So I told him that I'm not much of an alcohol drinker, but I wanted to simply have one beer served with one of the meat dishes - whenever it was convenient for them. And I then mentioned being very interested in all of the house-made sodas.
He didn't say anything to me. So I had to say, "I think you guys do offer some house-made sodas?"
Then he finally responded. But I was a little embarrassed by his silence. I didn't know if I'd perhaps insulted him or committed some sort of faux pas. He then asked if I wanted to start with some sparkling water, and I said that Chicago tap would be just fine. I don't think he even said "Very well" or anything at all! That may have irked him a little, who knows?
I'd say there were 5-6 different people who were attending to me throughout the evening. Most were very nice, and they pretty much didn't miss a beat. I was extremely impressed watching these people work.
On to the food!
Edible Cocktails - To me, it's a little disingenuous that this is 3 courses out of the 20. It really should be one. Each cocktail is the size of a quarter. My favorite was the chewy frozen lemon one, but all were excellent.
Golden Trout Roe (with coconut, licorice, pineapple) - absolutely striking, and I was pleasantly surprised that I liked the taste of caviar, which is a huge rarity for me.
Yuba (with shrimp, miso, togarashi) - super delicious, and I'll admit it - I dipped my finger in the yuba mayonnaise when they weren't looking!
Chao Tom (sugar cane, shrimp, mint) - this was one of the few misses. It was super-small, and I really didn't taste of much of anything noteworthy.
Halibut (with black pepper, vanilla, lemon) - an all-white creation, and it contained some of the best bites of any fish I've ever had. I just wish there would have been more...
Apple (horseradish, celery) - for the life of me, I don't know how someone would find this combination appealing. It wasn't gross or anything, but I just didn't get it. I was really impressed that I could distinctly taste the three different elements while drinking the frozen slushy shot, though.
At this point, I should mention the house-made sodas. The first one was ginger & citrus, which was excellent. A little later, they gave me the pumpkin spice. I was so surprised by this one - it was knock it out the park, grand slam home run good! If you think about it, the sodas are (I believe) the only drinks that Alinea make themselves. All the wine, beer and coffee come from somewhere else. So it's a nice way to experience more of the restaurant's creativity and deliciousness.
Rabbit (with parfait, rillette, consomme) - this was a "3-level puzzle" kind of thing where you ate one bowl first, whilst not peeking at the others. The first was a great rabbit mousse with some extra trimmings. The second level was the rillette with some of the most fantastic black mushrooms I've ever tasted. Absolutely marvelous. God, I wanted more of this sooooo much. The final level was mostly a rabbit broth, which you could smell throughout eating the whole thing. Terrific everything in this one.
Pheasant - this was just one piece of tempura (size of a tater tot), served with the singed burning leaves to hold it up. Awfully good.
At this point, I'd noticed that the beer they brought up for me had been sitting on the little bar in the room (where various wines, glasses are, etc.) for a good solid 30 minutes. Hmm...
Next course was the Short Rib, where you get all the fixings on a glass plate and put it into the red tomato pasta "flag". Out of this world good.
They served me the beer with this course - a French ale called Gavroche ($10 a bottle!), and it was a great dish to have it with. But I've got to wonder why it sat there, because it was not very cold when I drank it. Of course the head sommellier knows much more about beer than I do, so hopefully there was a method to this.
Hot Potato/Cold Potato - it's really tough not to damage that little wax bowl it sits in. This was probably the richest "liquid" I've ever tasted. Really cool.
For the next course, they mentioned that it automatically comes with a small tasting of wine, but they certainly could substitute a non-alcoholic wine or soda. I just don't like wine, so I felt like it was best to stick with the soda.
Pigeonneau (a la Saint Clair) - it was cooked sous vide and wonderfully presented on the antique silverware. The brown onion sauce was dynamite as well. Amazingly, they served a different house soda just for this dish! It was purple something (can't remember) and had pomegranate.
Black Truffle Explosion - this must be the 45-second food equivalent of having great sex with 10 women simultaneously while they give you cocaine. Yes, really. I made a joke with the person who cleared the table after this about what I could do for another one...about 5 minutes later, the head somellier came up to me and said "Deja vu". Thank you, Craig!
Pineapple, Bacon, Caramel Popcorn Liquefied - this was 3 courses all served at the same time. The bacon was as good as any piece I've ever had. The pineapple fruit roll up thing is not any big deal taste-wise, but it's certainly a work of art. The caramel popcorn shot was much more intense that I imagined it would be.
Earl Grey (lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate) - probably the biggest surprise of the night. The scent-filled pillow does indeed add to the course, but I was knocked out by how tasty this combination was. Wow...just wow.
Bubble Gum - they encouraged me to make a loud slurping sound as I consumed it from the tube, and it's the definitely the right thing to do. That one was really fun.
Chocolate (blueberry, honey, peanut) - sublime taste and textures.
But they didn't make the dessert on the table. Why???!!!! It was just served on a plate.
Maybe G.A. and a bunch of the other staff being out of town was the reason for this, but with a meal like this, I certainly would have to think that Alinea would want the final step to be a very grand finale. This was a little disappointing.
Coffee was a pot of Kenyan french press, and probably as good as anything I've ever had. Then again, for $8, it ought to be.
The whole experience lasted just about 2 hours and 45 minutes, counting a really short look at the kitchen. It's an amazingly different contrast to the serenity of the restaurant. Everything is at a furious pace in that room.
Overall, the service was terrific throughout the evening. And it probably was the best meal of my life. I certainly will probably never experience food that's so creative and beautifully presented. Some courses will be forgotten, but some of those dishes will stay with me for the rest of my life.
So, if you've been considering Alinea, by all means, it should definitely be something you do at least once in your life. It was truly spectacular.
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
We went in early October. Many of the patrons we saw who were ahead of us on the menu did get the silicone tablecloth dessert. By the time it was our turn, they were no longer using the tablecloth. The servers explained that they were having some technical difficulties with it and the chef decided to plate in the kitchen where they had complete control over the environment. I was pretty bummed at the time, especially since we had seen Chef Achatz himself plate tableside for one group, but we got over it since it was delicious.
Sounds like they haven't solved the problem...