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Somewhat dissapointed with Alinea

I was excited for months about Alinea, expecting most incredible meal of my life. I was sure my hard earned 300 dollars would be more than worth the experience. Perhaps these expectations were too high.

The most disappointing aspect of the meal was the service. I normally do not make a fuss about service, even when it is sub-par, but when I pay 300 dollars for a meal I at least expect it to be pretty good, and for most of our meal the service was good, but there were a few things that just seemed unprofessional. Granted, my dining partner and I were only 18 years of age, but I do not feel we were treated properly, especially considering the price of a meal and the reputation of the restaurant. One specific instance in which I experienced less than ideal service was when the "Garden" centerpiece for the salad course was brought to us. The gentleman explained that this was a garden made of local lettuces, that we should admire it and it would later play a role in one of the courses. He then went on to say that we "shouldn't play with it" as it "could make a mess" and that that "wouldn't be fun for anyone." I found this somewhat condescending at the time, and tried to forget about it in order to enjoy the meal.
Another aspect of the service I found to be unprofessional for a restaurant of this caliber was the way some of the waitstaff acted in front of the guests. I noticed the waiters looking over at the tables(including ours) while whispering to each other, and occasionally laughing. While I do not know whether or not they were simply trying to be attentive to the guests while joking with each other, or if they were actually making jokes about the guests, this behavior seemed unprofessional regardless.

Now to the food

Most of the food we had tasted very good, and some of the courses(Hot Potato Cold Potato and the Wild mushrooms with pine mousse) were some of the best Ive eaten, but some of the courses were not as good as I was expecting. The Hamachi( hamachi with ginger, pineapple and west indies spices, battered, fried and served on a vanilla bean skewer) tasted more like a funnel cake than it did hamachi. The yuzu snow was underwhelming as well: an very small amount of something that resembled sleet more than it did snow. The Agneau(Lamb with choron and little browned potatoes) tasted pretty good, but the way it was portioned and plated, it was very hard to eat using the provided silverware. The yuba stick with shrimp and miso sauce tasted like a good bar snack you might get at an Asian inspired Gastropub but was a complete mess to eat; I got sesame seeds everywhere. It seemed some of the courses(Yuba, Lemongrass straw, Hamachi) emphasized novelty over superior taste. Some may say that's the norm with the type of cuisine Alinea does, yet I've had at least one meal (Town House in Chilhowie, VA) where both novelty and originality did not eclipse incredible flavor in the dishes. Let me say no dish tasted bad, or even ok; all of them were good. I just wish more of it tasted incredible.

Perhaps I had created unrealistic expectations about the food, but the service was clearly disappointing for a restaurant with three Michelin stars. I do not regret spending my money for the meal there, as I had some incredible dishes and learned more about my own philosophy of food, but I can't say I can't wait to go back.

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Alinea
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

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  1. "shouldn't play with it" as it "could make a mess" and that that "wouldn't be fun for anyone."
    Unforgivably rude.
    I would suggest you email your comments to the resto. No one, no matter what age, should be made to feel the way you did.
    Moreover, service is not the time for waiters to chat among themselves.
    I hope your future is filled with wonderful meals and excellent service!

    1. I really do think you should write to Grant Achatz. He was a food-obsessed 18-year-old, too, and I imagine he'd be furious to know that you were treated disrespectfully by people he employs.

      1. Holy crap, what a great review! Informative, well written, but not pretentious. When I was 18 i was busy deciding who had the best fuzzy navels and honey-mustard dip for chicken fingers in town.

        I, too, am thrilled that I got to experience Alinea, it was truly worth the cash and effort, but I haven't hurried back.

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        Alinea
        1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

        1 Reply
        1. re: danna

          Yea, you know, overall I enjoyed our service - especially the recs to go to Violet Hour and The Publican and the wine service was great too. They even went out of their way to make a very special accomodation for my type 1 diabetes - Beran was working on a dish to add to the menu (the morels and pine foam that the OP mentioned) and he wanted to try it out on me. He actually came out and created the dish tableside like they do for the last course. It was mindblowing!

          Most of the folks were comfortable to interact with, although they were a bit standoff-ish (until Beran decided to come out - then they were excited and a bit more animated). I much preferred the service at Per Se. I think that maybe they take themselves a little too seriously at times. Having just finished reading his book, Life on the Line..., he does come off as awfully serious. That said, I loved the dinner, the experience and I have immense respect for him and the Alinea staff.

        2. First, I am sorry that it was not a good experience.

          That said, maybe the perspective was different? What I meant is that, Alinea's staff is well known for being professional but non-pretentious. They occasionally throw out some jokes here and there. This is unlike many other 3-star restos where no joke is allowed, and conversations with the guests must be kept at minimum. Are you sure that their comment on the centerpiece was not one of those tongue in cheek moment? Of course, whether or not it was serious, making the guest feels offended is not-acceptable.

          Like you, I am also young, and in many restaurants, the majority of diners is nearly twice my age. At first, I was quite self conscious with that fact, but that truly takes some toll out of the experience. Maybe this also applies to your case?

          2 Replies
          1. re: theskinnyduck

            The way it was said did not make it seem like a joke. We heard the same man present the garden to other tables around us and he said nothing about it being delicate or potentially messy.

            The garden incident coupled with the talking and laughing in front of guests was hardly professional. I understand the aim of the service is to be unpretentious and somewhat laid back, but that is not an excuse for a lack of professionalism.

            If anything my young age and slight apprehension with the setting(along with sympathy garnered by working my past two years in restaurant kitchens) prevented me from complaining outside of this review.

            1. re: comereslindo

              Comer:
              With all due respect to skinnyduck, you were there so you know how you were treated and how it made you feel.
              Your age should not be an issue. The fact that you work in a restaurant makes your perspective particularly valuable.
              If you owned the resto wouldn't you want to know if a customer was unhappy with an element of your investment?
              Whether or not you decide to bring management's attention to this matter is certainly your choice, but I don't think your age, the possibly intimidating setting or your restaurant background should prevent you from voicing your complaint. You paid for a nice evening, not to be the butt of some snarky waiters' derision.

          2. I'm sorry you had an experience at Alinea that didn't meet your expectations.

            I wasn't there so I don't know what happened. I do know that we human beings tend to see and hear things through personal filters. The waiter may well have said what you said he did. And I can understand why it occurred for you as condescending. I am one of those people twice your age and if you had heard him say that to me, do you think your interpretation of what it meant would have been the same? I don't know. But with no disrespect whatsoever, maybe, just maybe, it didn't mean what you made it mean.

            And the same with the wait staff who were "looking over at the tables(including ours) while whispering to each other, and occasionally laughing." I know how it felt to you and I'm sorry that that spoiled aspects of the meal. But neither of us have any idea what they were saying or why they were laughing (if they were).

            Akitz runs a pretty tight ship. I can't imagine that he would allow his staff to stand around gossiping and laughing about the customers. But then that's my filter; my interpretation.

            At court trials sometimes well-meaning witnesses have diametrically opposed recollections and interpretations of what happened at the very same moment and in the very same place. It's fair to say that if 40 people were at your table, there would be 40 interpretations of what the wait staff said or did and what it meant.

            Try not to let the whole thing impact you negatively and spoil what was otherwise an extraordinary meal.

            1 Reply
            1. re: chicgail

              Perahps the waiters at Alinea are just so accustomed to instructing people how to eat there...since it's so out of the norm...they get carried away with it? I recall being reprimanded for drinking my sparkling water at the wrong time. I can't remember why I may have thought they poured me a glass of water...but i drank it...and then was told it was the "pairing" for my next course, and they poured me another. I felt corrected, whether they meant it that way or not. Perfect service would have re-filled the glass when the course came, without pointing out to me that I was in the wrong.

            2. You are a wise person for your young age. You are learning a lesson that many adults never learn: it is the rare restaurant that can deliver a meal that matches the expectations of phenomenally high prices. The worst value in dining I have had, for example, was at Tru. Everything looked beautiful, but the execution was weak and the kitchen staff that night appeared to be second-string (per the pretentious tour).

              Instead of wasting money on more "food as performance art," and convincing yourself that an OK meal was worth a ton of money, try exploring Chicago's neighborhoods for authentic ethnic cuisine made with love. Eat your way through Chinatown, Pilsen, Lincoln Square, etc., and you will expand your food horizons and have lots of cash left over at the end of the day.