It was a significant birthday milestone for one of the BarFlys – special enough that we decided to do a double vacation with a trip to Chicago to celebrate with a few friends, immediately followed by a vacation from the vacation in Maui. Our next several posts will feature some of the amazing eats and drinks from both locales, and then we’ll return to posting about our favorite city, San Francisco.
We have said before that Alinea is our best meal experience ever (sadly we never did make it to El Bulli). We have eaten at a few other Michelin-starred places since first dining there six years ago, so it was a natural choice to return for the special occasion and see how it compares to our favorites. We are happy to say that it remains our top dinner destination, even as the experience has changed from six years ago.
When we first went to Alinea in 2007, we managed to make same-day reservations due to a cancellation; this warranted a shopping trip to Banana Republic since jackets are required. Back then, they offered a choice of a tasting menu or a grand tour menu comprised of 26 courses. We opted for the full experience of the grand tour with wine pairing, and our amazing dinner lasted just about five hours, well past midnight. This time around, they have moved to a ticketing reservation system and offer only a single menu of 14 courses. The highly orchestrated experience is a more manageable three hours, yet the meal was no less grandiose than our initial encounter. Owner-Chef Grant Achatz ensures a memorable evening with plenty of science and interactivity, accompanied by a bit of tableside theatrics.
To give some perspective, below is the 26 course grand tour menu from our dinner in 2007 (click to enlarge). The circle size represent the relative size of the course, darker circles represent stronger flavors, and the left-to-right position indicates savory-to-sweet. Most of the courses were bite-sized, but many plates were accompanied by extra-sensory components. For example, the Rhubarb course was served on a slowly deflating lavender air pillow:
The first course kicked off the dinner on a great note with a spoonful of Osetra caviar served with solidified clarified butter. The bite was deliciously rich and decadent:
Although we had pre-purchased two tickets for dinner that include all service charges and taxes, any drinks were to be purchased at the dinner itself. We decided to pass on the wine pairing this time around. We hadn’t seen the menu at this point, but the sommelier confirmed that a bottle of white for earlier courses and a bottle of red wine for the later courses would pair well. For the white wine, we selected the food-friendly Von Buhl 2010 Forster Pechstein Dry Riesling Grosses Gewachs (GG). We started drinking Rieslings a few years ago after a trip to Alsace showed us what this grape offers when it is made properly dry: crisp acidity and minerality that drinks well with fish and white meats.
The next course arrived billowing with fog created by liquid nitrogen:
We were instructed to lift the scallop shell and rest it toward the back of the bowl. The bottom shell held their version of a Peruvian ceviche made with scallops and shrimp, where the “fog” seductively emitted a lemongrass ginger aroma. Visually appealing, the dish looks just like it had just risen from the morning sea:
Our table contained a centerpiece lantern set amidst grass in a box:
The contents of the lantern turned out to be Wisconsin heirloom tomato marinated in a basil- and garlic-infused olive oil. The slices were pulled out of the jar tableside and set atop a sweet onion cup holding crema made with Cana de Cabra, a Boucheron-like soft goat cheese. We quickly concluded that this was the best goat cheese preparation we have ever tasted. Completing the dish were cucumber and cantaloupe, each given a molecular treatment:
The next dish was their ode to the squash: cauliflower purée accompanied by summer squash custard and dungeness crab draped by a saffron gelée. In keeping with the squash theme, a dehydrated flattened squash blossom adorned the plate with a cardamom scented cotton candy:
Next, this Tokyo-inspired plate was literally on fire. Single bites of a dehydrated fried shrimp head, seared Ahi tuna, Mangalitsa pork and Wagyu beef were all very tasty. The proteins had the lightly charred flavor of having been grilled Japanese-style over Binchotan charcoal, with each bite accompanied by an appropriate micro garnish. We were told by the server that the fire was purely decorative, so we enjoyed the show:
Continuing the tour through Asian-styled plates brought the Chinese course of barbequed veal cheeks and sesame chips enveloped by white sesame foam. The chunks of beef were accompanied by lapsang tea-smoked beets and mushrooms. The overall dish was themed with smoke in both flavor and aroma, with the claypot sitting atop smoked pine needles:
It was a special dinner, and we feel that the acidity of Barolo pairs perfectly with food, so we ordered the 2004 Azelia di Luigi Scavino Voghera Brea Riserva Barolo. The noble nebbiolo grape has been a big part of our dining adventures, both here and in Italy, so it seemed an obvious choice for our special occasion:
The Hot Potato, Cold Potato course was something we fondly remember from the 2007 menu. Actually, they have been serving this bite since opening in 2005, and they risk a revolt if they ever take it off the menu. Smaller than it appears (the base dish is about two inches across), the miracle of this bite is how much work goes into setting the metal toothpick in place with small cubes of parmesan cheese, butter, chive and a dime-sized ball of hot potato topped with a black truffle shaving. The trick is to pull the pick out from the bottom, dropping all of the elements into the cold potato mash and then pour it all into your mouth, where all of the flavors, textures and temperatures mesh together into one perfect bite:
The Duck course was truly amazing in itself. A tray containing five different duck preparations, comprised of thigh, foie gras, seared breast, neck confit and heart, was placed in front of an amazing platter containing 60 different garnishes of herbs, fruit, gels, cheese, vegetables, mustards, etc. We were instructed that we would need to race each other for the condiment that we wanted (no sharing allowed!) and that we couldn’t possibly finish all of them. It was a totally fun and interactive dish, and we did end up sharing a condiment or two since they were pretty amazing. We didn’t eat all of the garnishes, but did a pretty good job having left behind only about five of 60:
Another holdover from the original menu is the Black Truffle “Explosion”, which is another one of Chef Achatz’s signature dishes since 2001. A ravioli containing truffle jus is meant to be eaten all in one bite, similar to the concept of the Shanghai soup dumpling, Shao Long Bao:
An intermezzo-type course featured five different variations of ginger, including galangal and candied versions:
The course that followed the ginger set us up for the dessert courses. The Green Apple Balloon was impossible to photograph since the servers handed each of us a completely edible floating helium balloon. We did our best to bite into the ballon to inhale the helium and do our best munchkin impersonation. Unfortunately, we were not able to completely succeed as the balloon started to stick to other parts of our faces and hair. Once imploded, the entire balloon including the string was edible — very reminiscent of a mash up of a Jolly Rancher green apple flavored Charleston Chew. It was a totally fun and interesting course that brought out the inner child of all the diners.
The minimally frozen Strawberry course was slightly savory, studded with pine nuts. The berries was set on sassafras root flavored cream and the plate was wiped with vanilla oil:
Sometime during the middle of the meal a table decoration containing two test tubes was provided. With the arrival of the next dessert course, it became apparent that the tubes smeared with a rose bergamot gel served as straws for a strawberry soda pop:
As we drank our berry pop, they covered the table with a food-grade grey silicon cloth and brought over some ingredients as preparation for the final pièce de résistance:
A chef comes out from the kitchen and proceeds to finish the dessert tableside. A round circular form was placed in the middle of the table; here a tart was created with a pate sucree crust and hot milk chocolate lightly cooled with liquid nitrogen. Violet, caramel and cream sauces are artfully arranged by the chef around the tart:
The finished dessert is eaten straight off the table using a spoon to swipe as much or as little of the sauces as desired. Notice how some of the sauce drops magically form squares on the silicon mat:
Owner-Chef Grant Achatz is well known for his extensive career under Thomas Keller at the French Laundry. He moved to Chicago in 2001 and turned the now-defunct Trio into a dining destination before he breaking out on his own with Alinea in 2005, where he has earned three Michelin stars year after year. He and his staff continue to evolve the dining experience by making it more interactive and exploring new food boundaries. Alinea uses a lot of modernist techniques, but unlike some restaurants they are not gimmicks that becomes the main focus.
We have said in the past that Alinea is our top dining experience. Although this visit was very different, this post should give an idea of how memorable an experience it is.