To say I was intimidated to eat at a three-starred Michelin restaurant, let alone the famous Alinea in Chicago, is an understatement. Alinea is world-renowned, sophisticated, elite, and is featured in a Netflix documentary. It’s ranked number one in the country and number 15 in the world. The executive chef, Grant Achatz, is a leader in the molecular gastronomy cuisine and winner of many James Beard Foundation Awards. What’s to be intimidated about, right? Despite the nervousness, I was also feeling extremely lucky and excited. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it wasn’t easy to get “tickets.”
I purchased tickets online about two months in advance. Included in the price of a ticket is all food, wine (if you choose the pairing option), gratuities, and tax. There are three different dining options to choose from, and we chose the category known as The Salon. The Salon offers a 10-14 course tasting menu and is their cheapest category. I also chose a less popular dining time (5:15 PM) to help cut the costs as well. Even though we had the cheapest dining option, no wine pairings, and the cheapest dining time, our total cost was still $495.06. I know what you’re thinking… a $500 dinner?!?! And you aren’t alone… Matt said the same thing! But again, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. At Alinea you aren’t paying for a $500 dinner. You’re paying for a $500 dining experience that is a meal and a show all wrapped into one.
When we arrived, I wasn’t sure we were in the right place. There was no flashy sign, no gaudy entrance, and no pretentious doorman. We began taking pictures in front of the building, and immediately a man in a suit came out of the restaurant and offered to take our bags and camera. He then proceeded to walk into the street, literally stop traffic, and take our picture in front of Alinea. He was so funny, polite, and immediately made us feel welcome and at ease. Upon entering the foyer, the staff knew my name without asking, took our coats, and asked if they could have a cab waiting for us at the end of our meal. Why were these people being so nice?? Didn’t they know they’re supposed to act aloof, exclusive, and annoyed that I’m there to enjoy a meal I’m unworthy of?
This demeanor of welcoming-old-friends-to-dinner carried on throughout our entire meal. Everyone we came into contact with was amazingly welcoming and down to earth. We had several waiters/servers (is that even the proper term at a Micheline starred restaurant?) throughout our ten course meal. Our water glasses were filled after every course, and our table was completely reset with flatware needed for the next course. Tables were wiped down between each course as well. I dripped some soup on the table at one point and apologized to the server as he wiped our table down. He looked at me like I was absurd and said, “The food is messy, not you.” THIS IS THE KIND OF SERVICE WE ARE DEALING WITH! These people are so well trained in hospitality and knowledgable about everything culinary.
I watch the Food Network, and I can cook pretty well. But I was completely blown away by this meal. Culinary terms were thrown around that I had never heard before, and I ate foods that I didn’t even know existed.
Before the meal began we were presented with a blank crossword puzzle. We had a good time searching for words that could describe the next course.
Arctic char roe on a passion fruit sorbet with a macadamia nut gel topped with a pineapple Kombu seaweed foam served in a hand carved ice bowl
I’d never had roe before and it reminded me of little balls of salt water that pop in your mouth when you bite down. This dish was a play on salty and sweet with the roe and the passion fruit sorbet. Our favorite part was the macadamia nut gel. It was clear and looked like just a plain gel, but it smelled and tasted EXACTLY like a macadamia nut. So weird! I love the attention to detail as well… these ice bowls are hand carved every single day. A man, named Angel, comes in every morning and carves 150 of these bowls!
Crunch and Paper
(1) Candied Nori seaweed braised in soy sauce filled with pureed cornbread and topped with freeze-dried corn dust
(2) Scallops are pureed, then dehydrated, and then made into something that looks like dried paper. Once the dried scallop paper is presented at the table, a sweet corn and butter broth is poured over the top, rehydrating the scallops
Our favorite part of this dish was the scallops! The corn broth was absolutely delicious and it rehydrated the dried scallop into something that was soft, chewy, edible-with-chopsticks, and noodle-like. The weird thing is that it tasted just like scallops. It’s so weird for your brain to see one thing, but taste another totally different thing!
Contrast, España, and Swirl
(1) Green apple bites filled with a citrus pudding served on a dish containing dry ice infused with citrus aromatics
(2) Pears poached in white wine and a Ramón ibérico (Portuguese ham) gel all on top of a roasted red pepper and paprika pudding topped with a Sherry foam
(3) Chilled chestnut soup with an olive oil jam
I hate to say this, but this course was our least favorite. It was heavy on fruit, and I absolutely cannot stand eating fruit. I told Matt, though, that if I was paying $500 for dinner, then I was eating every single thing that they put in front of me (including fruit!). I think overall, the dishes were complicated and had a lot going on. I’m sure it’s me who’s just not sophisticated enough to appreciate it all, but I guess out of ten courses you have to pick a least favorite. However, I did like the unique plating of each dish. And the best thing about this course was the dry ice! The chef had infused the dry ice with “citrus aromatics” which basically was just citrus smelling stuff. So when our server poured hot water over the dry ice at the table, we got to smell all of the wonderful aromatics. I appreciate that Alinea caters to every sense… not just the sense of taste.
Florida pompano poached in a clam sauce flavored with ginger, lemon grass, coconut water, and red chili flakes. Dehydrated seaweed meringue with cucumber spheres all topped with fried cilantro. Served in a coconut shell.
I loved this dish! The pompano fish was so flaky, and the Thai inspired sauce had just the right amount of kick. The dehydrated seaweed meringue was a little chewy, but it became easier to eat the longer it absorbed the sauce. Cucumber spheres were a little weird because they looked exactly like grapes!
Slow roasted pork belly covered in a banana pepper and yellow tomato curry sauce. Topped with curls of banana peppers, saffron, mustard, marigold petals, and pickled mango.
When the server brought us this dish, he asked us to hold out our least favorite hand. We both held out our left hand, and he placed our food straight into our hands! This dish is inspired by “street food” which is designed to be eaten standing up or walking down the street. The plate for this course was a silicone bowl specifically designed to fit perfectly into the palm of your hand. I’d never had pork belly before, and it was so tender! The curry sauce was rich and flavorful which was complimented well by the crunchy banana pepper curls on top.
Glass and Branch
(1) Vanilla cookie topped with a mushroom crumble and Concord grape jelly all resting on aromatic Juniper branches
(2) Pan roasted Maitake mushrooms with sautéed Kale and pickled pearl onions. Topped with blueberry chips and served with a blueberry sweet and sour sauce
Calling this a cookie was a little deceiving. It was vanilla flavored, but it was savory. There was nothing sweet about the cookie other than the hint of sweetness in the jelly. I’m not sure I’ve ever had vanilla as a savory flavor before so it was really interesting.
The Maitake mushrooms were fantastic! Blueberries and mushrooms? I know it sounds like a weird combination, but the sweet and sour sauce was delicious. The blueberry chips reminded me a lot of fruit roll-ups!
Gruyère cheese custard sandwiched between pumpernickel toast on the bottom and a black french truffle on top all topped with a balsamic glaze
Poor Matthew… when this dish was first presented, I made a terrible joke that it looked like a fancy Oreo. And I guess Matt didn’t fully listen to what the ingredients actually were because he bit into it expecting a sweet Oreo-like cookie and it was pretty much the opposite of that. I, however, loved this one! The Gruyère cheese custard was warm, creamy, and cheesy, and somehow the pumpernickel toast stayed perfectly crispy on the bottom. Plus, who doesn’t like truffles??
Bone and Smoke
(1) Crispy rice topped with a Wagyu beef fat and bone marrow emulsion that is then toasted tableside
(2) Beef short rib infused with a licorice smoke
The little bites were crispy on the bottom and had a buttery like texture on the top. The fat and marrow emulsion (the white part) was very rich. It reminded me of eating butter, and it did leave an oily film in my mouth, but I still loved this dish so much. I had trouble photographing the second portion of this course because it was in such a deep dish, and honestly it didn’t look that appetizing anyways. But looks can be deceiving! The short rib was so tender, and the sauce was so flavorful. The gel it was topped with had a strange texture, but that’s probably because I’m not used to eating gels!
Yellow miso cocoa butter shell filled with a 72% chocolate ganache accompanied with Matcha shortbread and a Okinawan sweet potato custard with white chocolate and cherry blossom gel
This course was so pretty! It’s rightly named the rock because it looks like something you would find on the ground in a fairy forest. The big yellow rock-looking piece was actually a thin shell that had chocolate ganache inside. The green Matcha shortbread cookie was perfectly crumbly and not overly sweet while the cherry blossom gel added the perfect amount of sour.
(1) Vanilla cake topped with a banana nectar sorbet, frozen bubblegum snow, and strawberry meringue all topped with cherry glass.
(2) Apple and banana sugar balloon filled with helium
This is one of the dishes that Alinea is known for. The whimsical dessert plays on childhood nostalgia with the bubblegum flavors. The chef makes a stock from only brand name Bubblegum and then flash freezes it to create the dish. The cherry glass on top is crunchy and crisp… it’s supposed to represent a candy wrapper! The best part of our dining experience was our balloon! Yes, it really does float! Our server instructed us not to let it touch anything or it would stick… Matt even had to take his glasses off! He also told us how to eat the balloon… give the balloon a kiss, suck the helium out, giggle in a high-pitched voice, and then eat the remaining sugar. We’ll never forget our dessert course!
Remember the crossword puzzle? The wait staff presented us with a copy of the solved crossword puzzle for us to take home.
After the meal, we were led downstairs to where the staff already had our cab waiting for us. When they gave me my coat it had been in a WARMER! It felt like it had come fresh out of the dryer. Dining at Alinea was such an incredible experience from the hospitality to the food. It’s refreshing to witness people pursuing something with such passion and determination. Not only are they succeeding, they are truly a master of their craft. The creativity, long hour, and ingenuity that goes into a plate of food is inspiring. I, of course, appreciate the planning and the insane amount of detail that goes into every aspect of their work. Now I know how Matt feels when he watches professional athletes!
Type A Tidbit:
Looking back, we loved that we booked the earliest dining time. Not only for financial reasons, but because every course for us was a surprise! People that arrived after us started their meal later, so the surprises (like the balloon or dry ice) were ruined for them when they saw our courses being brought out.
Alinea was such an unforgettable treat to be able to enjoy, and there was no need to feel nervous or out-of-place… not even these two southerners from Arkansas!