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Trip review: Avenues, Alinea, Frontera, Lou Malnati

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Hello all,

I would first like to thank all CH'ers for their valuable insight on the best of Chicago. Truly, Chicago is one of the great cities that I have visited. This review will be fairly short and I will not review every single plate that I ate as much better writers have already done so.

I arrived in Chicago on December 29 just before lunch. After checking in my wife and I walked to the original Lou's. This was my first experience with Chicago deep dish pizza and I thought it was ok. I ordered the Chicago Classic and thought that the butter crust was very good and the fillings tasty. My wife, who cannot eat gluten, ordered the crustless Lou. Instead of a wheat crust, they build a crust using sausage. I preferred her fillings to mine. Service was good although the pizza took longer to arrive than the 35 minutes our server advised. Not a big deal but after a long flight and a further than expected walk we were anxious to get moving.

Later that evening we made our way to the Peninsula hotel and Avenues restaurant. First off, what a beautiful hotel and restaurant. The restaurant was not full and we were seated at the bar by the very friendly maitre d. Chef Duffy was cooking on the line for at least the first half of our meal and it was great to watch the chefs prepare the plates. Each one was absolutely a work of art and truly imaginative. The amuses, the first four courses of the evening, and the palate cleanser before dessert were among the best I have ever eaten. In particular, I have not been able to stop thinking of the Faroe Island Salmon and the Grains dish. I would return just for those. The beef ribs, although it is probably their signature course, was very good but not great. Although the beef was very tender I found it just a bit dry. Alinea's was better. The desserts, three of them, were an interesting mix. Although I did not love them, I respect them for what I think the chef was trying to accomplish. The Ocumare Chocolate was in fact very interesting with a piping of chocolate across the plate with different elements placed along its path. At first I ate the dish in random places and found it odd. My wife discovered that if you started at one end and ate to the other the dish made more sense. Service was great throughout the evening with staff that was informative and friendly. They went out of their way to work with my wife's dietary restriction even offering her some of the best glutein free bread she has ever had. It is really too bad she could not eat the Grains dish but she was not complaining as she was served a fantastic mushroom risotto instead.

The next day was a slow day for us. We had lunch at Frontera and were very happy we made reservations. The line at noon was already very long and got longer as our meal progressed. Before continiuing I should say that Mexican cuisine is not my favorite. Unfortunately, although this meal was good, I did not gain any new appreciation for it. We started with the trio of ceviche which was ok but very sweet. For my main I had a pork mole and my wife had the quesadillas. I thought her dish was better than mine. I wish I could say more but as I am not connoisseur, I will leave a better review to others.

On NYE, in fact the real purpose of this trip, we ate at Alinea. My expectation for this meal was very high given all the hype, research, and their recently awarded stars. Making this reservation was a pleasure. The staff in their office was friendly and helpful and we were very excited for the 12 course meal. We arrived at the restaurant which was hard to see as the sign and building are very understated. The interior is stunning with a view into the kitchen as we made our way upstairs to our table. Again, I don't want to review every dish but the highlights were the truffle risotto, the truffle explosion, and the desserts with the final one being prepared tableside by Chef Achatz. My big surprise for this evening was how understated the use of molecular techniques actually was. Early videos and the chef's own book led me to believe that it would be more obvious and I was impressed that although the techniques were definitely there, for the most part they were hidden. I cannot really fault any dish except maybe the starter of Osetra caviar. I found it had a bit of a bitter aftertaste. On the other had, I also can't say that any of the dishes would make it to my all time top 5. The techniques and flavor profiles were pretty much flawless but something just felt missing. Maybe it was all the food I had already eaten on this trip, maybe I was still thinking of Avenues. Maybe I also felt let down by the service. Although they were knowledgeable and helpful, they felt detached and sometimes awkward. They did not have the concern of the staff at Avenues, the easyness of staffs at Robuchon or Le Bernardin, or the polish of those at Per Se. It was a fine evening but maybe I unjustly expected more. At midnight, the whole group of chefs paraded out of the kitchen to greet every guest. It was a nice touch and a good way to end the evening. But even so...

To summarize, Chicago's food scene definitely deserves all the attention it has been receiving. The highlight, as you probably can tell, was Avenues. Prior to making that reservation, I was actually right on the verge of booking at L2O. Something held me back though and then Chef Gras left. A fine restaurant such as L2O probably would not be affected by such a departure in the short term but I chose not to take that chance. Things ended up working out better than I could have hoped for and Avenues is truly a GREAT restaurant. It was probably the most innovative one that I have eaten at. Not every dish was perfect but each one made me think. And I mean really think. They are beyond a doubt deserving of their two Michelin stars and shold certainly obtain three.

Thanks again for all the great help. If not for CH, I probably would not have "discovered" Chicago!

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Alinea
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

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  1. Wow, your experience of Alinea is the first I've ever read that even remotely matched ours. In May of 09 my wife and I went for the "Tour" menu (back when there was such a thing). Although it was all quite good, we felt that nothing was up with our all time favorites. Besides the hot/cold potato and the truffle explosion, we can't even remember most of the dishes. We also had a major service breakdown toward the end of the meal. We had a very long time period where we received absolutely nothing: no drinks, no courses, no explanation, and no attention from any of the servers. Multiple times I tried to get the attention of any of the servers to find out what was going on but none of them payed any attention to us. After 40 minutes, a beet course appeared in front of us with the only explanation, "There was a kitchen malfunction."

    There was never any apology of any type nor any adjustment to the bill. I suspect that this experience was most likely an anomaly, but when you're paying $1,100 for dinner you expect perfection. Alinea fell far short and we will never be back. There's just too many other great places out there.

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    Alinea
    1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

    1. Thanks for posting your report. Feedback is always useful!

      >> After checking in my wife and I walked to the original Lou's.

      Are you referring to the original Lou Malnati's location in north suburban Lincolnwood, or one of the locations near downtown (on Wells in River North, or at 8th and State in the South Loop), or another location?

      >> Service was good although the pizza took longer to arrive than the 35 minutes our server advised. Not a big deal but after a long flight and a further than expected walk we were anxious to get moving.

      Next time you're in town, keep in mind that you can avoid the wait by phoning ahead with your pizza order to have it hot out of the oven at whatever time you like.

      As for your comments, of course everyone's experience is different, and so are opinions. My experience at Alinea has been very different from yours, and even more different from gmcurology's. I've loved every dish; in fact, that's what surprised me the most about it (and distinguishes it from other high-end restaurants), that the food is not only creative and interesting, but it tastes so darn good! As for the service at Alinea, I have always found it exemplary and highly polished, albeit slightly understated. In service I'd consider them right up there with the other high-end restaurants you mention (I have eaten at three of the four, and the fourth is Per Se, but I have eaten at "Keller's other restaurant" < wink > ). As for the pacing problem mentioned by gmcurology, it was indeed an anomaly; I have found that the pacing at Alinea seems to be the most choreographed (but unobtrusively so) of any restaurant I've seen, such that there was only a comfortable pause (i.e. not an extended, awkward lull) after every course.

      Please come visit again!

      1 Reply
      1. re: nsxtasy

        I was at the downtown location on Wells. For some reason that I don't recall I thought that was the original.

        Of course you are right about everyone having a different experience and I would confidently guess that most people had a positive one at Alinea. And don't misunderstand, mine was not necessarily negative as was gmcurology's. But for the expense I paid, I just wish it could have been more. For example, the menu never offered anything not described on the menu. One of the great pleasures I believe of fine dining is surprise. In fact, the reservationist even mentioned that although 12 courses would be served, there MAY be extras. Of course I got excited, I guess too excited, about the MAY part. But in fact there were none. No surprise amuses, no palette cleanser, mignardaises, or little parting gift. They are not obliged to offer any of these things but I think most would agree that they can make a huge difference in the overall experience.

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        Alinea
        1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

      2. nextguy, Did you really get only 12 courses at Alinea? It's been 21 for a while now...at least when I went about 2 months ago, it was still 21. Did you get a lower price on the meal at least?

        I dunno, I can think of probably a dozen things that were extremely memorable - black truffle explosion, the halibut, the yuba, squab, short rib thingie, the pumpkin spice soda, the 3-level rabbit dish, the earl grey dessert, the chocolate dessert, etc. I thought all of those were absolutely spectacular.

        But I do totally agree that there should be some kind of amuse at some point...especially since they also don't do bread for whatever reason.

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        Alinea
        1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

        5 Replies
        1. re: Combination

          >> nextguy, Did you really get only 12 courses at Alinea? It's been 21 for a while now...at least when I went about 2 months ago, it was still 21. Did you get a lower price on the meal at least?

          I hope nextguy will reply.

          My understanding is the same as yours, Combination; I thought they were serving a lot more than 12 courses, at least for the past five months. Up until this past August, there were two menus available, a 12-course "tasting" menu ($150) and a 23-course "tour" menu ($225). Last summer they changed it to a single menu selection; I haven't been there since then but my impression was that it was generally supposed to be closer to 23 than 12 courses. Their website currently shows a 20-course menu for $195.

          1. re: nsxtasy

            Nsxtasy, I actually tend to think of what I had in November as much more like 16 courses, even though it is technically 21 different things.

            The three edible cocktails (and they are pretty darn tiny, like the size of a quarter) are brought out at the same time. They do the same with the freeze dried ham thing, the piece of bacon, and the caramel cracker jack drink.

            So, it's actually sixteen different times you have new stuff on the table (if that makes sense).

            The only two things I thought were very "meh" was the apple/horseradish/celery drink, and the chao tom. I would have happily traded for two yubas instead. :)

            1. re: nsxtasy

              The menu was 12 courses (I am looking at it now). I really can't say if they have eliminated the tour but on this evening only 12 courses were served (the three level rabbit was one course btw). Given that this was a NYE dinner, the price was $325 which is of course not inexpensive! Food cost I am sure were quite high given the amount of truffle they used on the risotto course. But again, I was expecting some surprises given the description by the reservationist but there were none. I don't blame her as she was a sweetheart, or anyone for that matter. Maybe I have just eaten at too many fine restaurants and shouldn't be comparing Alinea, progressive American cuisine, to Robuchon's classic French cuisine AND service. I would be curious if any other CH'ers were there that night and have any thoughts to share.

              Alinea was a disappointment only because of my extremely high expectations. This year they were awarded 3 Michelin stars and were ranked 7th (the highest in NA) on the World's 50 Best list. Someday I would consider returning but probably not for a while. The real story of my trip, and the one I will be sharing with anyone that asks, is instead the revelation that is Avenues.

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              Alinea
              1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

              1. re: nextguy

                What a shame to hear it was $325! But I believe the risotto with the truffles is sort of a "off the menu' thing, and it's an additional $75. So that would leave the rest of the meal at $250. Hmm...

                My only quibble service-wise was that one of the staff people was a bit socially awkward - he was a little shocked that I didn't drink wine and simply wanted a single beer with one of the meat dishes (whenever it was convenienent for them to give it to me). I then told him I was very interested in trying out the housemade sodas (so glad I did this, 'cause they were awesome).

                There was nothing but silence...I then had to say, "I think you guys do offer a few housemade sodas, if I remember right?" Then he confirmed after that...but I felt a little embarrassed - like I'd sort of ticked him off for not wanting any wine. Who knows...but other than that, they were all great. I even sent a thank you note to one of the ladies because she was so nice to me the entire evening.

                Just a quick little story - when one of the staff was giving the wine pairing pitch at another table, I heard one of the guests say, "Do you have Bud Light?" :) I have a feeling they don't get that question too often!

                1. re: nextguy

                  >> Maybe I have just eaten at too many fine restaurants and shouldn't be comparing Alinea, progressive American cuisine, to Robuchon's classic French cuisine AND service.

                  I have been to both (as well as other highly-rated American restaurants including Charlie Trotter's, Everest, French Laundry, Le Bernardin, Jean-Georges, etc). The style of cuisine varies from place to place, from Alinea's unusual molecular gastronomy to the French Laundry's contemporary American to Everest's contemporary riff on French cuisine, but the quality is outstanding at all of them. I have experienced the ultimate in customer service from all of these restaurants, and Alinea's is equal to the standards of the others. Overall, Alinea is among the three best dinners in my life; so is Robuchon.

                  I have also experienced many restaurants whose food and service are not up to their usual standards on New Year's Eve. While it is not excusable from a restaurant of this caliber, it can and does happen. It is clearly the reason for your objections to the menu and may also explain anything other than the fine service which is typical there. I recommend going back on a night other than New Year's Eve, and not over-judging a place on its performance on the one night of the year when they are doing something out of the ordinary.

            2. I just noticed your Alinea meal was on New Years Eve which may explain the 12 course menu. Many restaurants offer special menus on major holidays and truth be told they can often be disappointing compared to what is regularly offered. I have found they are more often simplified to meet the high demand of a very busy holiday service. Certainly a shame considering the usual high price but true. Just a thought.

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              Alinea
              1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

              3 Replies
              1. re: oysterspearls

                The 12 courses are items I believe that are on their typical menu so it is not as if they were not ready to prepare them. Also, there were only 2 seatings the entire night so I would guess that this was not a night busier than others given that the restaurant is always fully booked. A restaurant of that calibre should not be simplifying their menu which I don't believe they were. I just wish that the food blew me away...

                Lastly, in my opinion the evening was also let down by the service which was not as smooth and polished as at a place like Per Se. And given your name, I would think you agree :)

                1. re: nextguy

                  Yes, I do agree.

                  1. re: nextguy

                    "And given your name, I would think you agree. :)"

                    But your name is nextguy...you sure you're not an investor in Mr. Achatz's latest venture? :)