Alinea Restaurant was named as one of the best restaurants in America by Gourmet Magazine in 2006. Grant Achatz, the chef and the owner of Alinea, spent four years at French Laundry until he was promoted to a position as sous chef before he moved to Chicago area and worked as an Executive Chef at Trio Restaurant, Evanston, Chicago. According to the Alinea book, a gentleman who admired Grant Anchatz’s creations (while he was at Trio Restaurant) offered a partnership to Anchatz for opening a new restaurant. And in 2005, Anchatz accepted the offer and opened Alinea Restaurant, located at Lincoln Park neighborhood, Chicago.
In mid 2007, Anchatz was diagnosed with an advanced stage of squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth. This fact indeed made many foodies worry about his ability to taste food. He was continuously receiving an aggressive radiotherapy and chemotherapy during period 2007. And at the end of 2007, he announced that he was cancer free.
As soon as I knew that A had a plan to go to Chicago in early April, I immediately made a reservation to get a table in Alinea. Initially, I preferred having a nice dinner over there on either Friday or Saturday, but the only reservation left was on Thursday. I was unsure if we could go there on Thursday, since A had to prepare his talk scheduled on Friday. So, I asked A, “Do you mind going to Alinea on Thursday?” He thought about it for a while and then told me, “It should be okay.” Yay! Alinea, here we come. I was so happy and excited afterward.
The restaurant location was hard to be found because there was no apparent sign at the building. We finally found it from the building number after passing by the street for the third time. Once entering the front door, we walked down a hallway highlighted with red and purple light. A couple steps away from the front door, there was a pair of hidden automatic double doors leading to the first-level dining area and the kitchen. The dining area was nicely decorated with minimalist design. The ambiance was relaxing. It is a perfect place for celebrating a special occasion.
The restaurant has three dining areas; one is on the first level and the other two are on the second floor. We were seated on the first level on which the kitchen is also located. We asked the server if we could take pictures of our dining experience, and she said “Absolutely, but with no flash.” With the restaurant’s dimmed lighting, we did our best to capture each food served without a flash.
We took the twelve-course tasting menu with the wine pairing which, I think, is very worthwhile. The server set down two vast squares with some other elements such as a vase, a spoon and a fork. Then the dinner began.
First, two kinds of fish roe was served with dill, egg, butter and thyme. For the wine, they gave us two options: very strong ‘linie’ aquavit which was potato based (originally from Norway) or champagne for something lighter. We opted for the first one, and it was indeed very strong. Good for starter. *wink*
Second, five cubes of cauliflower custard were coated with different kinds of flavor like peanut, chocolate and cheese. The meal came with three gels and apple cider soup. The server poured the soup into our plate before we could start eating. Actually, I don’t like cauliflower. But believe me, this one is the best cauliflower I’ve ever eaten. It was paired with a 2004 Austrian white wine from Emmerich Knoll vineyard.
Third, wild striped bass was served with chamomile tea and shell fish gel with celery. The wild striped bass was hidden below a yellow clear sheet made from chamomile tea. Interesting, isn’t it? The celery tasted very fresh and crunchy. It was well paired with French Michel Chapoutier white wine.
Fourth, we had an egg yolk covered with soy, wasabi and yuzu. This dish was inspired by the chef’s recent trip to Japan. The outside appearance looks like a little brown cube of soy gel topped with basil leaves and shaved yuzu. The egg yolk should be consumed entirely in one bite. Very well executed by the chef!
Fifth was lobster with liquidized popcorn, mango, cheese and curry served with a ball of butter. Using the fork, poke the membrane of butter and let the liquid butter flow to the lobster meat. What a taste of incredible edible art! The wine was a 2003 French Chereau-Carre Muscadet from the Loire Valley. Muscadet is a type of a sur lie wine, bottled directly from the lees without a process for filtering the wine. It gives an added freshness and a unique flavor of the wine.
Sixth, pork belly with iceberg was served with English cucumber processed with Thai distillation way. The pork belly was laced with lemongrass and fish sauce. The experience of consuming the distilled English cucumber with green chili was beyond my expectation. I could smell the flavor of the green chili, but when I ate it, there was no hot or burning tasting at all. The server indicated that the distillation process was used to capture only the essence of the green chili, creating a complex combination flavor in the cucumber. One bite, and a world of complexity. The wine pairing was Abbazia di Novacella Kerner 2007.
Seventh, cold potato and black truffle soup were placed in a tiny wax bowl and served with a pin of hot potato, a piece of black truffle and butter. The server told us to eat the potato immediately to savor a distinctly hot and cold element together in our mouth in the same time. Keeping two temperatures separate until right before eating is challenging. First pull the pin until all three ingredients drop to the soup then quickly begin to eat. I could still taste the three distinct flavors of the ingredients, although they’re already blended together in the earthy cold potato soup. It’s fantastic.
Eighth, Wagyu beef was served with A-1 powder and potato. At the beginning of our dinner, our server placed a black vase on our table which we thought that it’s simply used as a decoration. We finally knew the purpose of the vase. The server poured a scent into the black vase already filled with dried ice, thus creating clouds of pleasure and a fragrant smell around our table. The chef found the ingredient of A-1 sauce and turned those into powder. For wine, we had a 2004 Syrah from Barrett Vineyard, Napa Valley. This was the only red wine we had during our tasting menu.
Ninth, Bacon was presented swinging from a wire with butterscotch, apple and thyme. I occasionally read this website, dedicated only for Alinea cooking at home.
Tenth, we had yogurt, pomegranate and cassia served in a small glass with one bite of grape soda wrapped in edible plastic. The server told us to sip the glass and to savor the entire ball in one bite to get a popping sensation in our mouth. The grape soda looked like a candy form similar to what I liked when I was still a little girl.
Eleventh, we had bubble gum, long pepper, hibiscus and crème fraiche in a glass tube. This was my most favorite dessert among all. We’re told to suck everything out to get all the flavors in our mouth.
Twelfth was rhubarb with goat milk and onion, all placed above a pillow puffed with lavender perfumed vapor that deflated under the plate. The lavender aroma associated with the food but in fact, not from the food in front of us but from the inflated perfumed pillow. Obviously a fine idea! It came with a dessert wine, 2008 Elio Perrone from Piedmont, Italy which was my favorite dessert wine.
Thirteenth, Varlhona Chocolate was served with prune, olive and pine. The dessert wine was a 2004 Olivares Duice Monastrell from Jumilla, Spain.
Fourteenth, a bite of ice sorbet consisted of mustard, passion fruit, allspice and soy. Simply a beautiful presentation!
Fifteenth, sweet potato was prepared with bourbon and brown sugar, served with smoldering cinnamon. It was like a mini-deconstruction of candied yam. The cinnamon added the scent intensity, like a vaporous condiment on the table.
Throughout the dinner, the chef constantly surprised me with his brilliant ideas. No doubt that Anchatz is a genius chef. Dining at Alinea is a participatory theater. Anchatz asks us to think. He entertains with his creations and serves pieces that force you to interact with the food and the person serving the meal. You won’t come to Alinea to satisfy your hunger. When you eat at Alinea, you are ready to be removed from your daily life and surrender yourself to an experience that is managed down to the smallest detail. It’s like a theater that you can eat. Every dish is remarkable, creative and complex. The presentation itself is a pleasure of eating a beautiful food made from the finest ingredients. No words can suitably describe my unforgettable dinner at Alinea. You have to come and experience it yourself when you get a chance to visit Chicago.