Cubanat went there two years ago it seems but didn't post a review, so here's mine. For the inevitable "tl;dr" responders here are your cliff notes: Alinea: food, amusement park, laughter. For those of you who are ok with a long-winded story about one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world… continue on - but be warned; it is a long, pointless, and boring review unworthy of actually being read.
My fascination with Alinea began years ago when I stumbled upon an article in Wired about the restaurant. The article described strange utensils and serving dishes, industrial chemicals, and a mad scientist in charge of the kitchen. I was curious and considered a visit until I had severe sticker shock upon seeing the price. $150 for a tasting menu? "I'm not sure I like chemicals THAT much," I thought. That's roughly 4 tasting menus at L'Etoile. No way was it that good. It would take me nearly 3 years and several prestigious awards for the place (e.g. Best Restaurant in the Nation from Gourmet Magazine) before I could muster up the courage or money to find out.
Entering the place, we knew immediately that it was going to be quite the night. The entrance is a sort of down-the-rabbit-hole experience. We entered to a dark hallway lit with dim, purple, glowing lights. The hallway seemed to get smaller as we went through it. At the end was a moving sculpture of metal rods with purple lights on the end. Sort of like grass blowing in the wind if we were on a purple alien planet where gravity pulled things toward the front of us. We turned to the left to see what looked like a safe vault. The door opened with a loud "whoosh", and the hostess welcomed us. She had remembered me from my earlier phone call that day, but was careful not to mention the potentially sticky subject of our conversation (which was me pre-paying in the pinnacle of macho "I'm paying for this"-ism).
We were seated immediately in a small room on the first floor. "First floor" makes the place sound like some huge multi-story coliseum of food, but the place only seats roughly 60 people. It has two floors in order to break up the tables into quieter settings than you'd normally find at restaurants. Our room contained about a half-dozen tables. Impeccable decorations were the first thing I noticed. Though we faced a window, the curtain was drawn and more purple lighting gave it a kind of supernatural glow. Artwork hinted at chemistry and molecules. The place was decorated to perfection - I thought I was participating in an art exhibit of some sort. The tables were a gorgeous dark wood and the chairs were more comfortable than the furniture in my apartment (which is renowned for being quite comfortable). Against the wall where the servers loomed was a beautiful credenza full of dishes, bills, and menus for the customers in the room. Probably some wine, too - I was too busy admiring the artwork to notice. On our table: nothing but three napkins with the Alinea logo. As we would learn later in the night, the symbol in question was, they say, the precursor to the pilcrow, and was used to indicate a "new line of thought" before the pilcrow evolved to indicate a new paragraph. Thankfully, I knew that the place seemed to have an air of pretentiousness even before hearing that. My companion noted that the white napkins were lint-free - in his estimation, that was a level beyond restaurants that offer either black or white napkins to prevent lint on the lap.
As we sat and became comfortable, one of the four or so people serving our room discussed the wine options with us. He provided us with a wine list but recommended the wine pairing, which is about 8 wines (for the tasting menu). We thought that was an excellent plan. The first pairing recommended was an aquavit with caraway tones that the server claimed was stored in barrels on boats in the traditional way of the Vikings, crossing the equator at least twice. One of my companions was slightly skeptical - he had tried aquavit on a few past occasions, never liking it. We were presented the option of a wine instead. We decided to trust their judgment. The aquavit was excellent, and easily won my companion over to the merits of this (seemingly) obscure beverage.
Such was the theme for the night. Before arriving, we were skeptical that the food was going to be worth the price, or that "molecular gastronomy" was all that it was cracked up to be. As I slowly relished the first course - two types of roe with a delightful aioli and "butter brioche" foam that tasted better than most actual butter brioches - my doubts quickly faded. By the end of the meal, all skepticism was gone. The 12 courses we had at Alinea were each better than any course I'd had elsewhere for many years. I say this despite knowing that I would sell my first born for another taste of the Dungeness crab cakes at Chez Panisse. The wine, too, was a cut above the rest. Well worth the steep pairing price.
I loved how engaged we diners were in the experience. All of those "strange utensils and serving dishes" were there to heighten the emotional involvement and cut through the experience with fun and laughter. The most entertaining dish may have been the "bubble gum straw," an open-ended glass tube filled with multiple jelly-like dessert items. The technique of sucking out the jelly from the straw required holding the straw straight, though the server assured us it was just a precaution since the jelly wouldn't likely spill out either way. The server explained to us that they had trouble approximating the flavor of Bubble Yum until they decided, ultimately, to boil the gum itself in water. At times it was difficult to appreciate the painstaking work involved in crafting each dish, and this was such a time. I was too busy enjoying the caviar-like texture and the creamy deliciousness of it all. It was a little easier during the cauliflower dish – cauliflower puree squares coated in 5 different things, in an apple soup, with various garnishes and jellies. It was obvious from just looking at that dish that the prep work alone was at least as much work as I typically spend in an entire week on cooking my meals. It now occupies space in the back of my mind whenever I think about how cauliflower should taste.
We also immensely enjoyed the "steak and potato" dish. At the beginning of the 3-hour event, a server had placed a "centerpiece" on our table. It was a plate with a wobbly, cold urn balanced on top that could easily have fallen off the table due to my infamous clumsiness. Several courses later, the dish where it was used finally arrived. The "steak" was a barely-cooked, 1 inch cube of imported Wagyu beef. As I was informed by NullDevice a while back, most Wagyu is grown domestically and is not actually Kobe beef. This wasn't either, perhaps, but it was from Japan and was fed beer ingredients and rubbed with sake much of its life. It was almost tender enough to eat with a fork and easily surpassed any other red meat I'd had in my life. "I wouldn't even eat this if it were anywhere else, because I don't like meat this rare," remarked my girlfriend, who adored the meat despite her best efforts. With it were another cube of creamy potato, a dash of salt and a dash of pepper for dipping, and a curious packet full of spices and powder labeled "A-1".
The server explained that they had gone back to the original recipe for A-1 back when it was "good" and drew inspiration from it. At any other restaurant, this would be a packet that they had purchased from some other vendor. Here, they assembled the mixture themselves, packed it into their custom "A-1" packets, sealed them up like a condiment packet, and served them for dipping with the rest of the dish. Killer stuff… it was so good that I lost all semblance of proper manners and began rubbing it on my finger and shoving the finger in my mouth. I even snuck a couple of finger dips off my companion's plate as they were about to remove it. I'm not proud of it, but it happened.
Just before we began eating this delightful dish, the server somehow poured a wispy, smoky gas into the urn, which then erupted like a high-school volcano science project, emitting a layer of "charcoal grill-scented" fumes along the surface of the table. It was more delicate in aroma than a real grill, though, and added hints of smoke and wood to the dish as we ate it. This wasn't the only time aroma was used to enhance flavor: one dessert dish (onion, rhubarb, and goat cheesecake in various forms) was balanced carefully atop a pillow filled with lavender vapor. The server explained cheekily that they had found a legal use for a certain device often found in Amsterdam. As we ate that dish, the wisps of lavender slowly escaped as the dish’s weight caused the pillow to deflate.
All of this probably sounds frivolous and distracting from the food. It has been hard to assure friends who ask of this experience that the food really was mind-blowing, and these effects were simply further enhancements and not made to cover-up otherwise inferior food. For example, it wasn't just the fact that they had somehow extracted all of the "hotness" out of chili peppers in order to make their "chili pepper jam," it was the fact that the stuff was exquisitely flavorful. The point was not to impress with technique, but to use technique to impress with more pure flavors. Oh, what flavors…
By the end of the 12-course tasting menu we were perfectly full. It took us a while to muster the desire to leave the serenity of this place. I asked a few choice questions about how the place operates, because the service was a cut above anything else I'd ever experienced. Constant, brief communication among the servers meant that everything was timed to perfection. If our dishes arrived while our primary server was at another table, another server filled in with all of the usual story-telling and explanations. One server, when I asked how they decide where to place the dish on which fresh silverware is placed, explained that it involves long meetings with heavy debates on placement. Reading between the lines, it became obvious that they spent even more time discussing other aspects of the meal. I have no doubt that a good hour or two was spent determining which direction to face the wobbly urn.
Despite this 50-page dissertation, it is truly hard to put into words the experience of dining at Alinea. Any doubts about the praise of this place, the price, or the taste were obliterated by the time we left. It was, quite simply, the best dining experience we'd ever had or probably ever will. It was simultaneously the best service I'd ever had, the best-tasting food I'd had, and the most entertained I’d ever been while dining. We all agreed it was a sort of unnatural combination of art exhibit, amusement park, and world-class dining rolled into one. Given that, it was expensive for a meal, but not too crazy for a night of entertainment in the Windy City. It has changed how I think about food and restaurants. I’m disappointed that I’ve been there, because nothing in Wisconsin (or possibly anywhere else) measures up. Maybe the French Laundry will if I ever make it there.
Any self-respecting foodie who lives this close to Chicago has to visit this place before they can truly understand how to evaluate restaurants and food, I guess. Now can someone tell me where to buy sodium alginate around here for the budding "Grant Achatz wannabe" in me?