Alinea: Best Meal in America? Course-by-Course Breakdown
So I luckily scored a seat at Alinea last year around this time and had one of the most phenomenal meals of my life. I've finally finished writing up a review, and I wanted to share it with all you fellow Chowhounds. The courses are probably out of date by now, but this was still the most unique, most fun, and most interesting meal I've ever had in my life, and I think Alinea deserves all the praise it gets.
Full photos of the kitchen, restaurant, and food (over 80 of 'em) at http://www.thefoodbuster.com/alinea/
The Review (full course-by-course analysis at the bottom):
As I approached Alinea, I was surprised at how low-key it felt. While Alinea takes the modern to the maximum, the entrance is so inconspicuous that I passed it at first, only seeing a small valet parking sign with practically no storefront. Only when I noticed that I had passed Alinea on my smartphone did I return to find the restaurant concealed in a full-black exterior, with large black doors that blended almost seamlessly into the background.
Upon entering, though, I was amazed, as I entered a veritable maze of red squares, like a dimensional warp (I realize the reference sounds very nerdy, but there’s really no better way to explain it). I began to walk forward, expecting to get to the end of the tunnel, until another hidden black door on my left opened out of nowhere, revealing a very chic interior, colored in different shades of blacks and greys, with differential lighting so that each room is spotted throughout with light and shadow. It’s a very plain color scheme, but it looks a lot more vivid/colorful than it might seem because of the different kinds of lighting. Moreover, the decoration, for being so plain, is quite nice, as the walls are filled with vivid abstract paintings, typically depicting squiggled lines in different patterns. I purposely use the word “squiggled” to imply that it’s a bit childish, but I mean that in a positive way, since everything I saw in this restaurant has a slightly ridiculous, over-the-top quality that sends you back down memory lane. I’m not the biggest fan of abstract art, but I think it’s done extremely tastefully and really suits the chic, high-tech ambience of the place. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get clear photos of the décor to show you what I mean, since the restaurant has a strict no flash policy.
As for the service, it was, as expected, excellent, though on the very formal side, and it would have been nice to have more genial waiters. To be fair, the waiters were constantly working, just trying to get out all the 29 courses without hitch, so I can understand why they’d be a bit uptight.
Still, the service was impeccable. There was never a mistake, and the waiters were never too intrusive. They constantly cleaned the table, constantly changed the silverware, and even replaced my cup after a bit of time to make sure it was extra clean. Did changing my glass really matter? No—I wouldn’t get sick from myself, after all. But that attention to detail is nice nonetheless, especially when I’m paying $225.
Here’s another good example of that type of attention: I left to go to the bathroom at one point, and I returned to find a brand new napkin folded perfectly. I must have honestly changed napkins a good 3-4 times during the night.
The sheer quantity of service is even impressive. There were six waiters just attending to the “tour” room, which says a lot, since there were only seven tables in the whole room and only about five occupied at any point in the night.
That’s where I took my seat, prepared for my 29-course “tour” through the culinary world. Before proceeding with my dinner, though, I asked for a tour menu just so that I could know what I was eating before eating it. To my surprise, the waiter suggested that I hold off, because Alinea likes to “surprise you” with each course, although he still offered me the menu if I so wished. I understand that I’m a food critic, but before that, I’m a food lover, and that “surprise” feeling is about the best experience you can have as a food lover. I really love the fact that Alinea encourages patrons to hold off on the menu, so that this “tour” is really just that—a tour of different cuisines and dishes that you may not be able to readily identify, meaning you truly are exploring new flavors. It was a fantastic touch, and one that I’m sure any foodie will appreciate.
A couple things to warn you about, though. When they say “tour,” they really do mean a “tour.” That means two things. First, the focus is on an exploration of ingredients, concepts, presentation, and techniques, rather than simply on taste. You will be amazed—I guarantee you that much. Some of the tricks they pull here even verge on the ridiculous. Expect dishes served on pillows, bacon hanging off a trapeze, a double-layered egg-shaped dish with a surprise course on the bottom half, fried sticks of milk, etc. It’s shocking, beautiful, and downright experimental, so be ready for a spectacle!
At the same time, that spectacle comes with a trade-off, and that’s in terms of taste. That’s not to say the food is less than amazing. But you have to remember that making a distillation of fish and Thai chili is not the simplest thing on the planet, and really those two ingredients are hard enough to match together on the same plate, let alone to be distilled together. Part of the “tour,” then, is trying flavors that you otherwise wouldn’t, and that means some dishes will fall flat on your face, or in this case, on your palate—and that partly is a matter of personal preference.
The second point to be made about the “tour” is that it is just a slight tasting of everything. 29 courses are no joke. You will be there for 3 hours, and you will be constantly eating. Yet, you might just leave without a full belly, as in my case. You’re not really supposed to leave satiated, but rather wanting more. Why else give 29 small tastes? Sure, some of it will miss, but the good will be great, and you’ll want just one more bite. Hence, why I justifiably went and had hot dogs after my meal at Alinea, with no guilt whatsoever.
That all said, the big question is, is it worth it? It may be a phenomenal meal, but $225 isn’t cheap. With Alinea, though, you need to understand what you’re getting. First is the extraordinary ambience and service, which far surpass that of most other high-end dining experiences. The service, moreover, lasts over 3 hours. Next are the 29 courses. Producing that much variety and that much quantity isn’t cheap, especially since many dishes use an astounding number of ingredients (just take a look at the New Zealand venison dish, which uses 30+ ingredients only in the sauce). Third are all the tricks—and I mean that in a positive way. These aren’t just high-quality ingredients you’re getting, but some of the techniques used here are about as tough as cooking can get, and only a master can perform them reliably. Fourth, the food isn’t all tricks, as it tastes phenomenal. Some dishes may miss, but overall, this is about as good as fine dining gets.
Finally, and most importantly, this meal is about as fun as food gets. This point is a bit more intangible than the others. From the start, my waiter told me that the staff wanted to surprise me, and they did—not just once, not just twice, but a whole 29 times. I have to judge Alinea on the basis of more than just the food, for the actual taste isn’t what I remember so much as the thrill of the experience, which surprised, excited, and even taught me in a way I’d never expect.
In that sense, Alinea’s meal may not be my first choice for the most perfect meal of my life, but it is by far the most entertaining I’ve ever had. Even with the hefty price tag, it is a must try for any true foodie.
All I can say is, thank you, Grant Achatz.
As promised, here is the full analysis of every dish at Alinea. Bon appetit!
1. Char roe, nutmeg glass, papaya yogurt
Quite the feat of molecular gastronomy! A plastic bag made of nutmeg holds within it a delicious combination of zesty greens. You break the glass open, mix it all together, and get a blast of sweet, fruity flavors from the papaya, salt from the roe, crunchy greens, and some extra veggie freshness from some tomatoes and cilantro (?). The glass bag is a nice touch and the dish is an overall great blend of fresh ingredients. 4.8/5.0 for presentation. 4.5/5.0 for taste.
2. Yuba and shrimp (Shrimp and sesame rolled around a stick of yuba milk. The yuba extract has been flash fried to form a stick. Sweet miso sauce on the bottom)
You’re literally eating fried milk, and it’s delicious. The yuba itself is just like a breadstick, except it has a deep grittiness and a flavor similar to the sesame seed (the seeds may have been infused into the batter). The shrimp is very fresh, giving some savoriness, while the miso contributes a pretty bold sweetness. The overall effect is rather nice—sweet, crunchy, meaty, gritty, and a tad oily, and yet no flavor really overpowers the others. Still, the key charm is not so much the flavor as the presentation and mastery of gastronomic techniques. 4.9 Presentation. 4.3 Taste.
3. Sugar Cane and Shrimp (Shrimp is bound around purified sugarcane)
This is really tough to eat, but very delicious. When they said sugar cane, they weren’t joking. The shrimp is actually wrapped around a whole piece, and you have to munch through that sugar cane, which really is the key component of the dish. When you do, you get an intense blast of a coconut juice-like sweetness, one that for the most part overpowers the shrimp. It’s delightful at first, but because the sugar cane is so chewy, it’s really hard to actually munch through it and grind it down. 3.5 Presentation. 4.0 Taste.
4. Distillation of Thai Chili, Lemongrass, and Fish Sauce
Wow, the aroma is fantastic. This is a liquid, yet it has a garden freshness to it, like an intense cilantro flavor with some chili sweetness and a slightly salty fishiness mixed in. The taste itself is less thrilling, though it was quite good. You take it like a shot, so that you get a strong flavor explosion all at once. First, it’s a moderate saltiness from the fish, like you’re eating roe, but it’s not overpowering because almost immediately the lemongrass kicks in with a nice tanginess, and finally you’re left with a slight chili spice to add some zest on the finish. Very interesting for a dish, but I don’t know how much of a “course” I’d call it, and I’m pretty sure that using something so salty and aromatic is really not the best idea for a “palate primer,” as they called it.5.0 for creativity/presentation. 3.0 for taste/use as a primer.
5. Spring Roll
This is one of those unforgettable dishes, not so much for the taste or flavor—this is just a spring roll after all (and I could probably get a better-made one at a Chinese restaurant to be honest)—but the presentation is extraordinary, requiring numerous steps. First, they bring out a wooden plank with a glass panel on top, the panel loaded with about 10 different ingredients. You take the top off and find a wooden panel with two metal pieces in the middle, which are then taken out and fixed together into a semi-bull shape. Then, the flag placed on your table from the beginning of the evening is draped over the bull-frame. It turns out that that flag is actually a sheet of rice paper. Pork belly is loaded into the paper, which you then load with whichever ingredients you want and make your own spring roll. You really get everything you could want, too: bananas in curry sauce, fresh greens, cashews, cayenne sauce, onions, cucumbers, black salt, cilantro lime sauce, and a couple others.
As for the taste, I have to say that I was impressed with it, even though it was just a simple spring roll. The rice paper was extremely soft and moist, so it did not lose its shape or fall apart at all. All the ingredients were very fresh and delicious, with some like the bananas in curry and cayenne sauce as standouts. And the pork was absolutely perfect. It was a bit too salty, on first taste, but as I ate it, I noticed that even the salt wasn’t bad, helping to balance out a very heavy, creamy savoriness that was just popping out in every bite. I say creamy because the pork came in an almost pasty mix. The paste was extremely rich but did not interfere with the bold meat flavor of the pork. 4.8/5.0
6. Squid with fennel and peanuts, along with Greek yogurt, mint, and chickpea soap: I’m separating these two because they were such a night and day difference.
The Squid: The squid was pretty bland, especially in comparison to the other courses so far. It was a bit too salty, and there was really no coherence to the flavors. The peanuts added some nutty crunch, the fennel some zestiness, but really, all I got out of the dish was some nuts and herbs, neither of which really complemented the other, and the squid was an almost no-show. Disappointing. I’d have enjoyed this course more if the squid had been excluded. 1.0/5.0
The Greek Yogurt soup: Absolutely phenomenal. The presentation is fantastic, as it’s been whipped up into a frothy foam, with a very nice green color. It’s creamy and rich, like a heavy soup instead of a foam, with a zestiness from the mint that is extremely refreshing. Yet, because it’s a foam, it’s much lighter than a soup with this much flavor would normally be. In fact, I can’t imagine making a soup this flavorful without cream, but it seems that Alinea has accomplished it with simply some whipped Greek yogurt. This is delicious, fresh, simple, and beautiful. 4.9/5.0
7. Poppyseed foam, Lobster gelee, grapefruit, toasted pistachios, and ice cream
The foam is a nice touch—again, it adds some presentational flair. The taste is light, but it works well here, since you don’t want too much poppyseed interfering with the lobster or ice cream. The ice cream is surprisingly delightful. At first, I thought it was a bit too rich or had too much of a fish taste to it, which it really picked up from the lobster, but it has some nice complexity I just can’t find in any other ice cream I’ve tried—lobster saltiness, with a toasted flavor, and some nice crunch from the toasted pistachios on the side. The grapefruits I didn’t really taste, and when I did, I found them extraneous. The same could probably be said for the poppyseed foam, but that one contributed a more noticeable flavor at least. Finally, the gelee wasn’t that great—the texture and flavor just seemed weak compared to some of the bolder, better flavors in the mix, especially those of the ice cream. Moreover, the salt did at times dominate all the flavors. 4.8/5.0 Presentation. 3.2/5.0 Taste.
8. Lobster and eggplant salad with cilantro
Very aromatic—you can literally smell the freshness off this course, especially from the cilantro and some spice, like a curry (I couldn’t put my finger on what it was). It’s also helped by a soup right underneath it (I’ll get to that course later), which infuses it with a very herby aroma. This really is quite an inviting dish. The taste, though, again doesn’t live up to that expectation. I do like the idea of a garden-type salad, made with only the freshest herbs and just a couple ingredients. The Asian influence definitely shows, especially since you’re asked to eat this with chopsticks—that worldliness is really quite fitting for a “tour.” Unfortunately, while the lobster is well-cooked, it really doesn’t have much seasoning, and the flavors provided are very one-dimensional. To be fair, it is perfectly cooked, so that it has the proper chewiness and succulence, and the parsnip and cilantro definitely come through with a strong zesty herbiness. The goal is complexity, with the lobster and eggplant giving way to a strong herbiness, but the way this dish is executed the combination comes off as simple and dull—as though the lobster and eggplant aren’t really center stage at all, as their flavors disappear so quickly that they feel overshadowed. Still, the freshness is very nice. 3.5/5.0. Presentation: 3.5/5.0
9. Lobster Parsnip Soup/Lobster Tea
Presentation through the roof! The past dish was stacked in two parts. The top is taken off, revealing another layer filled with a lobster parsnip soup. That soup is strained in front of you to form a lobster tea, which is then presented to you in a glass. This is the “surprise” effect they were talking about, and I have to give them credit for really outdoing themselves here. As for the taste, it’s not quite as nice as the last soup I had the pleasure of tasting. The lobster has a very noticeable bitterness that I wasn’t expecting, along with a very controlled, prominent saltiness that leaves your mouth thirsting and wanting more. It’s not bad, but it’s not the best either. And for some reason the soup has the spiced taste of gingerbread (sans the sweetness) just slightly, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Overall, this soup has potential and definitely a unique flavor, but the flavors are a bit immoderate, especially in being overly bitter and far too salty (unsatisfyingly so—since it’s so creamy and rich, the salt really hits every part of your mouth). 1.7+/5.0 Taste. Presentation is beyond perfect.
10. Tempura filled with goose meat and prunes in Armagnac, skewered on juniper branches
Another fantastic concept. The bowl is heated to release the fantastic aroma of the juniper, so that it practically attacks you with a Christmas-tree like freshness. And the idea of skewering something on a tree branch is about as unique a concept as I’ve seen.
The tempura is absolutely delicious as well. The batter is perfectly light, without too much oil used, so you’re not left feeling greasy at all, especially because of that fresh aroma that’s just permeating throughout. The meat itself is extremely flavorful, with a great creaminess to it and a slight fruity sweet liquor punch that is thankfully downplayed to allow the meat to really shine through. So you get the herby and aromatic, the fatty, the oily, the crunchy, the creamy, the fruity, and to top it all off, the alcoholic all in one. The only problem: it’s over in just one bite. 4.8+/5.0. 4.6/5.0 for presentation. Bonus points for a fantastic concept and great use of aroma.
11. Hot Potato, Cold Potato
Fantastic concept and flavor all-around. This is a dish that you must eat immediately to take advantage of the full flavor. You shoot it like an oyster—something that definitely adds some character to something as boring as potatoes. Basically, there is a pin in the dish, which, when removed, releases a hot potato into a cold potato soup, and you take the whole thing all at once. It sounds a bit boring, being mostly comprised of potato, but I was actually surprised by the flavor. The contrast of hot and cold is fantastic, as is that of chunky (hot potato) vs. smooth and creamy (cold potato), and everything is topped with some flavorful seasoning. Really, this is a true display of the power of one simple ingredient, utilized to its best. The dish is very starchy, but it’s not too heavy because of the seasoning and because it comes in such a small quantity.4.4/5.0 for taste. 4.5+/5.0 for concept and presentation.
12. Duck assortment—Foie gras, duck breast, duck heart, duck gizzard, and duck leg with honey gelee, served in an orange and sherry foam
The foam is great. Because of the strength of sherry and oranges as ingredients, you really taste them, even though the foam is so light. The foam mixes well with the natural juice of the duck, which is extremely savory and has a nice saltiness that leaves you wanting more but which doesn’t overpower you. The leg is delicious—chewy, fatty, not oversalted. The foie gras was enhanced by the salty duck broth, which helped to give it an added flavor, and it was crisped on the top so that it had a great chewy crunchy. The gizzard and heart added a kind of denser, grittier, beefier taste to the dish, adding some complexity with a sort of mushy, dark meat flavor. I can’t say they were my favorites, but they add a nice contrast and go with the concept of presenting a whole duck. The honey gelee, though, seemed extraneous—it had some fruity sweetness, but it was just overshadowed by all the other ingredients. Still, this dish gave a veritable tasting of a whole duck, with every single piece of duck cooked perfectly in a very flavorful broth. Delightful and simple. 4.6/5.0
13. 3-part Course: Frozen Thai Banana, Apple with smoked bacon and caramelized wrap, Kumquat
Frozen Thai Banana: Zesty, flavorful, and complex. The texture is almost gel-like. It’s very soft and oddly enjoyable. It’s also chilled, going with the idea of the frozen banana, which is nice. As for the taste, it’s complex as can be: first, an herbiness hits you, followed by a slight spice, followed by the fruity banana, and finally by a contest in your mouth between the spicy and the fruity flavors. It’s a really nice effect and a very interesting dish, even if it’s not something I’d personally order. And the presentation—on a little glass that looks like it’s chilled ice—is a plus. 4.2/5.0 Presentation. 4.0/5.0 for Taste.
Apple with smoked bacon: Now, this dish, if nothing else, speaks to my childish side straight off the bat, as the bacon looks like it’s hanging off a trapeze. What the point of it is, or whether it makes anysense at all, I really don’t know, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s an extremely fun dish and one whose appearance really takes you back a few years. Plus, it’s a fantastic take on an American classic, keeping the simplicity of nice crispy bacon but infusing it with just a ton of flavor. The caramel adds a great, gooey viscosity to the crunchiness of the bacon as well as a nice contrasting sweetness for the bacon’s oily savoriness. The dish is a bit salty, but very good nonetheless. 4.3/5.0 Taste. 4.8/5.0 for presentation.
Kumquat: I really wanted to like this dish, but I find it both boring and overpoweringly bitter. The dish is presented nicely, though. The kumquat has a soft semi-liquid interior and a slightly firmer jello-like exterior, so that you can pick it up with your hands and eat it like you would a small candied fruit or chocolate. It’s a great idea, but the taste is off. The kumquat does come through, giving a great orange-like zest, but that’s quickly and forcefully overpowered by a heavy alcohol bitterness and dryness that are really not that enjoyable. 1.0/5.0. Taste. 2.5/5.0 for presentation.
14. Pear Mousse with foie gras and dehydrated pears
The dehydrated pear is just delightful. It is sliced paper-thin such that it’s practically transparent yet has so much flavor that you get a great dried fruit-like sweet tanginess, one which is so powerful that I find it hard to believe that it comes just from those paper-thin slices. Moreover, the combo of the mousse with the foie is fantastic. I really didn’t think this combo would work—the foie would be too fatty, salty, and overpowering. Yet that savoriness blends really well with the creamy, light, fruity, and slightly sour-sweet mousse. It’s just a bit too salty at some point in the middle of tasting it, but that saltiness balances very quickly, and what you’re left with is a memory of a constantly changing flavor that successfully combines practically two polar opposites: meat and fruit. Finally, the crunch of the dehydrated pear, with all of its tanginess, really is the perfect finish. 4.8+/5.0 Taste. 4.3/5.0 Presentation.
15. Roasted potato, leek, chive, smoke (pure smoke served as a gel!), cold-smoked apples, and house-cured sturgeon (cured overnight)
A few things to explain about this dish, because it is just so interesting how Alinea made it. First, there is a layer of pink gel, which is made by cold-smoking apples, the pink being the color that the skin of the apples gives off. Second—and this is the big draw for someone who loves to experiment with food—is that the chefs actually utilized pure smoke and transformed it into a gel, which they place in small dollops on the plate. You might be wondering how that’s possible. Well, the chefs freeze the smoke into ice cubes, which they then melt down to get a pure essence of smoke. They then use that essence to form the gel.
The dish itself is fantastic in almost every way. It’s beautifully presented, with ribbons of gels, dollops of creams, fried shells, gritty piles of herbs, and all done lengthwise with a sense of order and unity that you really can’t understand without seeing it. Moreover, the concept is as unique as it gets—transforming smoke into a gel! Now that deserves some praise, even if it weren’t to taste great. 4.9/5.0 for presentation and concept.
Fortunately, though, the dish tastes nearly flawless. No flavor pops out as too dominant, yet you constantly feel as though the flavor is changing in your mouth. The herby chives, the crunchy fried shell, the fruitiness of the apple, the pure smoke, the slightly gamy sturgeon, the freshness and lightness of the whole combination (especially light because everything is made into an airy gel). It’s a mix of everything, with an almost perfect balance. 4.8/5.0 for taste.
16. Premier Cru Wine as a palate change for the next course: Just as a side note, this really wasn’t a great selection, but I wasn’t here to drink anyway.
17. Filet de Boeuf (Japanese Wagyu Beef Tenderloin in center, with seven accompaniments, including sweetbreads, button mushrooms, etc.)
This is an assortment of meats and savory flavors that is, for the most part, a success, though it can sometimes miss the mark slightly. The sweetbreads are phenomenal—crisped perfectly, with a great crunch. The button mushroom is succulent and has a slight herby tang that is very enjoyable. The (beef?) rillette is a bit much—oversalted and quite unsatisfyingly mushy. The centerpiece, the Wagyu, is succulent and properly cooked, such that it literally melts in your mouth and oozes out its savory juices in every bite. The sauce adds a fantastic savory sweetness (I think it’s made of veal). Of the remaining accompaniments, there is a jello-like blog, which has very little flavor at all. Also, there is a rilette/soft sausage-like puree, which does have some nice herbiness but doesn’t really astound. Finally, there is another puree, this one with avery gritty texture, like that of seeds or hardened beans. It at least has some crunch and a heavy starchiness to help balance the proteins, but it is again unimpressive. 4.3/5.0. The good parts of the dish are extremely good, but some accompaniments are just bland. Too much is going on in the plate to really be able to do it all masterfully.
18. Raviol with black truffle broth, topped with black truffle and parmesan
As the waiter put this plate down, he recommended I take it all up in one bite for an “explosion of flavor”—and boy was he right! The raviol is soft and tender, nicely cooked so that it has the proper texture and doesn’t interfere with the flavors. Moreover, the dish is so intense that the truffle infusion practically comes out your nose. The black truffle broth is steamy and aromatic, while the black truffle on top adds a bolder, fresher zest. There’s very little to say other than that you’re mouth is exuding black truffle for the next couple minutes, in one of the best aftertastes you can imagine. The one problem would, ironically, be an over-explosion of flavor, which can be offsetting for the faint of heart. The funny part is that the dish looks so unassuming—it’s just a small ravioli in a plate with a missing bottom (it’s quite nice when you actually see it). 4.7/5.0 Taste. 3.5/5.0 Presentation.
19. Venison from New Zealand with cranberry gelee and a black sauce made of pumpernickel bread, black garlic, raisin, licorice, and about 20 other “black” ingredients. All served on a plank of white birch (for aroma)
This is, hands down, the nicest presentation so far, and you unfortunately can’t even see it because everything is black (and I couldn’t use flash for my photos). It’s a huge plank on top of a bed of salt and a huge white plate. The birch is pitch black, as is the sauce that’s drizzled all over. That sauce, too, is made of only “black” ingredients (listed above), which really strikes me as an interesting concept, even if the taste isn’t perfect. Moreover, the birch, while ridiculously large, is the perfect choice to add aroma, making the whole dish exude an unbelievable smokiness. This is about as nice as it gets.
Even better, this is the one dish, of any, that really lives up to that astounding presentation. The black sauce is not only one of the most unique concepts I can imagine, it actually tastes great, and it’s provided in two forms: a crunchy powder and an actual sauce. Thus you get a great contrasting texture. Flavor-wise, it tastes like an intense, smoky, pumpernickel flavor, which actually helps to tame the gamy, savory boldness of the venison very nicely. That venison is, as expected, cooked perfectly, so it practically melts in the mouth. Best of all, it has an intense, bbq-like, coal-fire smokiness like I’ve never tasted before, and combined with the very powerful meatiness of the venison, that gives me a true sensation of eating something profoundly American and, dare I say, masculine. Topping it all off is that tangy, sweet cranberry stuffing-like flavor on the bottom.
This dish is perfect, if for nothing else than for the execution of something that just isn’t meant to work according to nature’s designs. To be fair, though, one reason I love this dish so much is because it takes me back to my childhood. Armenians have a very developed bbq culture. The aroma and flavor of the smoke on this really remind me of some of those old-fashioned BBQ’s, in the best way possible. I know others may not enjoy it so much or may find it even salty (as my guest next to me did). 5.0 for presentation and taste. Perfect in every way.
20. Lemon Soda (Packet of lemon soda powder)
This is simple, fun, and extremely flavorful. What’s really unique is that it looks like a packet, but in reality the packet is completely edible and just dissolves in your mouth with no problem. When you eat this, you get a strong candy-lemon taste, kind of like pop rocks without the pop. The powder is, oddly enough, very interesting in the mouth, as it’s gritty but it almost immediately takes on a heaviness as it soaks up saliva. It’s a truly lemony flavor, with tons of citrus and that soda-like sweetness that we used to love when we were kids. 4.6/5.0 all-around.
21. Bubble-gum Straw (Straw of glass-like material, with three layers: strawberry, hibiscus, bubble gum. You suck on the straw, and as you do so, the flavors all mix with each other)
SUPERB! This is not only the most creative dish I’ve ever had in my life, but it is flawless to a tee. The glass straw with three different layers gives you the idea that the flavors are not meant to be eaten together, but rather come in a progression. When you start sucking on the glass straw, though, everything immediately and rapidly is vacuumed into your mouth in a blazing whirl. The phenomenon can’t be described in words—it happens that quickly. It’s a blast of perfect flavor in the mouth. The strawberry fruitiness, the hibiscus zest, and finally a true but not overwhelming bubble-gum like sweetness all mix to create a gooey, slightly chewy, enjoyably smooth and creamy mixture of sweet, fruity, and herby. 5.0/5.0. Perfect in all regards, presentation included.
22. Strawberry Foil
I feel bad for this dish, because after the last one, it’s bound to be considered a failure in comparison. The presentation is again quite nice, as it’s served on a unicycle wheel—a throwback to the carnival, as is the actual treat itself, a fruit roll-up-like strawberry foil. It’s just a crispy sheet of sweet fruit that you tear off and bite piece by piece. It’s an interesting concept, but I find the taste to be a bit dull. It’s just too sweet, having somewhat of a cloying candy-like, artificial fruitiness which really distracts from the excellence of the gastronomical feat. Dusting it with tons of sugar doesn’t help. Still, the foil has a great lightness and crispiness, with extreme flavor for something just so light. 2.3/5.0. 4.5/5.0 for concept and presentation.
23. Earl Grey Plate (Dish of various ingredients that play on Earl Grey, served on top of a pillow with steaming Earl Grey inside. The ingredients include lemon curds and white chocolate strands that look like golden noodles)
Another home run for the dessert section. This time around, the presentation is too over-the-top even for me. You might be wondering why the plate is served on the pillow—so was I (and I still am). The explanation was that the pillow houses Earl Grey tea, with all of its steam inside. As the plate sits on the pillow, the pressure deflates the pillow, releasing the steam, creating a very gradual aromatic experience of Earl Grey that then permeates the whole dish, complementing the flavors. The aroma is nice, although the method used to arrive at it is absurd.
As for the taste, this is another one of those dishes that will make your mouth go crazy. The white chocolate strands are excellent—not too sweet and a bit on the gritty, thick side, which is nice. They are soft as can be, but firm enough to give a nice slight munch. The lemon flavor is also great and comes through very well, complementing the sweetness of the white chocolate with a great citrus zest. To top it all off, there are some small cake bits that add a smooth, buttery, doughy component to soak up some of the flavors, especially the liquid lemon. The one complaint I have is mostly in terms of balance. The lemon is placed in isolated glops, and it’s very concentrated, so when you do take it up, it can be very overpowering. But typically it’s not a problem. 4.5/5.0 for taste. 4.3/5.0 for presentation. Bonus points for the ridiculous concept (pillow, aroma, etc.)
24. Chocolate Course emphasizing three ingredients—Chocolate, Coconut, and Menthol (Chocolate Menthol Crumbs, Chocolate Menthol Cream, Coconut Mousse, Chewy Coconut, Coconut Milk, Hyssop, Dark Chocolate Mousse Frozen with Liquid Hydrogen, Warm Choc Pudding)
Hands down, the coolest dish I’ve ever eaten. Part of me just wants to give it an automatic 5.0 for not only integrating a slew of amazing chocolate products, but also integrating the whole table into the dish, as the chef himself covers the table with a special mat and then draws a design with the ingredients right across the table. It’s incredibly unique and very well-done: just look at the photos to see how so much attention is given the design and the variety of ingredients.
Unfortunately, I have to be objective and judge the taste according to how much I actually liked the dish. As I said, the sheer variety of ingredients is nice, allowing you to eat this dish in numerous ways—with more or less fruitiness, sweetness, mint, etc. However, the chocolate isn’t the greatest. The chocolate mousse, in particular, is a bit bland. Freezing it really doesn’t do much for the flavor, although it does give the mousse a nice crunchiness. Freezing does, however, allow you to experiment with a mousse of different textures—as it defrosts, it becomes softer and softer, so you can wait for a certain “sweet spot” if you’d like. The chocolate mousse itself, though, is a bit on the bland side, with the emphasis on a heavy, fresh dark chocolate roasted flavor. To be fair, it’s hard enough freezing chocolate mousse with liquid nitrogen, let alone freezing something with the perfect flavor. Moreover, when it defrosts, it really does pick up a lot of the more subtle chocolate nuances that are suppressed by the freezing.
The warm chocolate pudding, though, was less forgivable. It was much blander, with a taste somewhere between milk and dark chocolate but somewhat confused.
Finally, the other flavors can be good, but seem a bit tacked on and hard-to-incorporate in the right quantities. None of the flavors except for the menthol really stand out against the strong chocolate mousse, yet the menthol can be overpowering.
Still, deep down this is the dish that every chocolate lover fantasizes about eating. A true pleasure, if for nothing else because I got to eat off the whole table. 3.5/5.0 for Taste. 5.0/5.0 For Presentation/Concept.
25. Tea Course (and I mean an actual tea, thank goodness)
Presentation (and Concept/Innovation): 5.0/5.0. Pushing the envelope like no other.
Taste: 4.3/5.0. Bonus points for consistent excellence.
Verdict: 4.8/5.0. While the numbers themselves might not suggest such a high score, you can’t capture the sensation or excitement of the experience with the typical scoring method. Alinea is an unforgettable experience, plain and simple.
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
A lot of people have commented on the formal nature of the service; neither of my two visits led me to this conclusion. I found the servers affable and approachable. Both times, multiple wait staff joked around with us. All in all I found that the service actually helped reduced the formality of the experience so that it was more comfortable. At places like The French Laundry, on the other hand, there was nothing to cut the air there and as such it is a totally different experience. You don't feel like you are experiencing something creative and interactive at TFL... you feel like you are being pampered like a king for a day.
That's odd - I had the opposite experience. At Keller's other big restaurant, Per Se, I thought I had the best service I've ever had in my life - impeccable, yet with so much geniality that I actually wanted to talk to the waiters. They even gave me a tour of the back. None of that at Alinea.
I guess it really depends on luck. Glad you had a better experience with Alinea than I did.
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
I actually agree. No flash means no flash, and you shouldn't waste time going for picture-perfect photos to document everything. Hence, why I typically take a couple quick shots with my camera phone and move on.
And if I could, I wouldn't take any photos myself. It slows down my meal and becomes a hassle. I actually hate to see people busting out the big cameras and taking a million photos myself.
Unfortunately, in the blogging business, ALL people want now is photos. Very few people sit down to read a full review, instead just quickly skipping to the photos and looking at nothing else. With as much competition as there is, you have to give them what they want or else you're not going to get much readership.
So it's really a balancing act. On the positive side, at a place like Alinea, you're there for 3.5 hrs, even as a single person. Taking 80 photos takes about 15 minutes of that time at the most.
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614