It almost seems trite to post about an experience as holistically fulfilling and comprehensive as dining at Alinea. The more I thought about the meal, however, the more I wanted to tell the world – hopefully this helps articulate at least some of the joy we were fortunate enough to experience this past weekend in Chicago.
Upon arrival, you are transported into a different world – and the party has yet to begin. Three hosts meet you in a remarkable, yet narrow, waiting area, where you are whisked to your seat in the Gallery. Aptly named, the unique art pieces and structural build-outs are befitting of a museum, or a distinctly upscale home.
The atmosphere feels ethereal, as if there is a fog or distant haze enveloping the room. Then you stop and realize – I’m at a dinner party? Twelve guests are seated around a communal table, replete with centerpieces and attentive servers, and a formal tablecloth, and, well – didn’t I pay a month’s mortgage for the opportunity to dine with my beau in relative privacy? Right as the suppressed anger seems ready to manifest, your first dish is brought – and yes, it’s amazing and delicious, but I’m still at this damn communal table. More wine, please? Not yet – you are whisked into the kitchen, single file, where you’ll find what appears to be a Totino’s pizza roll in placed in front of each guest while the bustle of the kitchen buzzes in its choreographed chaos around you. A presentation by one of the chefs, in which a cocktail is created 1830’s style (“one of only three machines left in use in the United States”) provides great theatre, and as the cocktail is poured and the final accoutrements are added to your ‘pizza roll,’ you enjoy the show and relax a little bit more, knowing you are in for more than an insanely memorable meal – this will be true performance.
You return from the kitchen to find the communal table removed. You are directed to your new, private table. It’s a beautiful, custom glass/acrylic piece that looks like it may or may not have actually been part of the larger table, as everybody in the gallery shares a uniquely sized piece of the same material. Before you have time to intellectualize the geometry of the seating arrangement, you notice this bountiful bowl of citrus – navel oranges, tangerines, mandarins, now constitute your personal table centerpiece, and the citrus smell wafting from the bowl is refreshing, tempting, and perfectly mood-setting. You notice the alinea-embroidered napkins as your next pour of wine from the pairing arrives with your next course, which is actually two courses. Then, the next act of this tour de force occurs – the server pours what is essentially a canister of fog over the oranges, at which point the steam escapes and settles over the entirety of the table and your dishes. As the lights have dimmed, the server brings over a bottom-lit bowl of what may be ice, with two translucent pear-spheres provided as the third element of this fantastic course.
At this point, a card reminiscent of a crossword puzzle appears on the table and will remain until the meal finishes, adding an additional intellectual element to the meal. As you guess whether this is a word search, a quiz, or maybe an edible card, a bowl of fire is brought to your table. You look closer, and there are two briquettes of charcoal on a bed of enflamed salt. The grain alcohol in the salt will keep this bowl burning while a rectangular plate of black stones is placed adjacent. Two of those shapes are circular, however, and while equally black, appear to be textured differently – sure enough, those are the food elements of this course, squid ink enhanced.
As you scarf down those delicious morsels, a swatch of pine branches is placed atop the bowl of fire, along with a wonderful broth in another custom ramekin, brought out to replace the stones. You notice two “donuts” on the pine, and sure enough – these savory venison/pork donuts are warm and luscious, and complement the broth with aplomb. It is also worth noting that the chopsticks provided are the highest-quality pieces of wood you’ve held in your hands, but that is almost an afterthought to the journey. By now the smoke is wisping through the branches, and though the atmosphere is now one of outdoor whimsy, you wonder – “why the salt fire? why the trees?”
You should be wondering, “what is in the salt,” however – as the servers come and remove a potato that has been cooked for 12 hours in butter and salt, and now will form the base of a clam chowder, prepared tableside with Alinea hot sauce and a cracker that harkens back to your earlier pizza roll. You notice the custom, leather Alinea coaster, and the wine that is heightening all of your senses, and you are given a reprieve to mentally digest everything you’ve experienced thus far.
The next dish to come out is perhaps the most typical – if anything served at a restaurant of this caliber can be described with that term – a seasonally appropriate dish of pureed ramps, fried morel mushrooms, reconstituted parmesan cheese. This was personally my favorite dish, flavorwise, the entire night – beautiful, clean, fresh, vibrant. And, of course, gorgeous.
Then suddenly, a reprieve is granted – time to mentally digest and appreciate the sensory masterpiece that was playing out in this Gallery. Then, a simple and gorgeous Deejo knife is placed on a tiny marble slab. Then, a canister with a single vanilla bean – or is it? – a slate stone, tongs, a long kelp-inspired plate, then the entree. This is the apogee: your squab, black forbidden rice, binchotan spiral, served with beet, mustard, and chili as well as foie gras with shio kombu and mushroom. It is stunning, definitely a show stopper. Delicious doesn’t begin to describe the truest umami of the night – and then you wonder about that vanilla bean canister, so you look a little closer – that’s not vanilla. In fact, it’s prime beef tenderloin ‘jerky’ tinged with paprika, shallot, chili flakes, star anise, and madagascar vanilla fashioned to look like a vanilla bean. A perfect, fragrant, sweet addition to the course.
At this point, the dessert portion of your meal begins. But first, more wine – a wonderful pairing poured with a deft enough touch to sustain and enhance your curiosity and energy. You’ll need it to wade through four desserts.
A goat cheese/mánuka shot with pineapple, aloe & shiso is an absolute mind-blowing approach to eating. Served in what is essentially a test tube and on a marshmallow ‘brick,’ the trick is to knock back the test tube in one shot while eating the ‘air.’
From there, you have a banana split, which was fashioned to appear as a banana, but was in fact a candy shell you crack open with your spoon to expose the ice cream. This is served with a cherry distillation that adds to the overall parlour effect.
The famous Alinea sugar balloon is then served to each patron, and though you’ve likely seen this ‘dish,’ it’s still a wonder how they create a green apple flavored candy that actually floats on a string and is still delectable.
Lastly is the first chaos of the night – the soundtrack in the Gallery changes to the spine-tingling post-apocalyptic sound of the El-P produced Cannibal Ox track, “Scream Phoenix,” which portends the ‘destruction’ of the Gallery ceiling. The staff comes in with step ladders and begins removing what you now realize are large, ‘painted’ serving platters from the ceiling, placing these large, oblong discs on the respective tables. The choreography ensues as the flavors are painted onto your plate, one server at a time – white chocolate, raspberry, key lime, various textures from ice cream to syrup to crunchy, layer by layer as the crescendo builds on the track, leaving you to marvel in the Pollockian scene on your plate, wondering if you should eat it or, well, hang it in the Gallery. Luckily you choose the later as the chaotic explosion of sugared elements settles onto your tongue, thanking yourself for making those reservations 90 days prior.
Think you’re done? You’re not. A “Chrystal” is brought out to your table on gorgeous mint stems, a perfect cube of mint, eucalyptus, and black lime upon which to end your meal.
But this was no meal – this is an experience you will be ruminating about for the rest of your culinary life. Thank you, Alinea.