By grace.g.yang · July 12, 2010
Under: Chicago,Desserts,Dinner,Michelin 2010 Guide,My Life,Prix-fixe,seafood,Thai,Travels

On May 30th, Angie, Cliff, Josh, and I experienced Alinea. Cliff and I had casually talked about going there when we were eating at the Per Se Salon a while back, but since we were on opposite sides of the country and Alinea is situated in Chicago, I thought our chances were pretty slim. However, I noticed on my itinerary from my Asia trip that I had a three hour layover in Chicago and it was Memorial Day weekend (which also happened to fall on my birthday this year). I figured I’d ask if I could extend my layover to an overnight trip, call Alinea to see if they had any openings, and ask some college friends if they wanted to go. I mentioned to Cliff that my Alinea dream might actually become a reality and asked if he could join (knowing the chances would be slim), but it turns out he had his 10 year high school anniversary that weekend in Champaign (where we grew up) and was going to spend the weekend either in Champaign or Chicago, so if I ended up getting reservations, he was definitely in! I changed my flight layover in January but Alinea only takes reservations 60 days ahead of schedule, so I marked my calendar and called first thing in the morning 60 days before the day I wanted the dinner reservation. Turns out it was really easy to get a reservation and when the person on the phone asked if we’d like to do the tasting or the tour, I made a split second decision to do the tour (the much larger and longer meal). I mean, how many times in your life are you going to eat at Alinea, right? I roped Angie and Josh into dining with us and all we had to do from the time we made our reservation was save a little money each week so we could pay for the $225 meal.

While I was in China, I was really worried that my flight was going to be delayed (I mean, we were flying into O’Hare and I’ve almost never had a good experience flying into/out of the Chicago airports). Luckily, we were on schedule and Angie picked me up at the airport to first have a Korean barbeque birthday dinner with her mom and grandmother. After dinner, we went back to Angie’s place, hung out with Brooke, and went out for drinks to casually celebrate my birthday. We ended up going home pretty early because I was jetlagged and we had a bike ride, brunch, and dinner the next day. Our bike ride was really fun, brunch was okay, and after some very quick browsing along Michigan Avenue, we were back at Angie’s getting ready for our dinner. Josh picked us up around 5:45 for our 6:30 reservation so we could take our time with parking and pictures. We luckily found a spot right across the street from the restaurant and had time to take these pictures before we went inside:


Me and Angie:


We went inside and it looked similar to what we imagined the set of Alice in Wonderland to look like; the hallway felt like it was getting narrower and shorter as we walked closer to the actual door:

alinea hallway

We were seated on the second floor and sat for a bit while we waited for our server to confirm that we were all having the tour for the evening. After we confirmed, servers came by to set the centerpiece down:


We were instructed to not touch the centerpiece because it was going to be used in a later course (which ended up being one of my favorite dishes of the evening). After the centerpieces were carefully set into place, we started with the first dish of the night – English Pea with iberico, sherry, honeydew:


The English pea was pureed and frozen with liquid nitrogen, pieces of honeydew added a light sweetness to the peas, and the little balls that look like boba were perfect balls of sherry that popped when you bit down. There was also micro-basil, which added a little freshness to the already very light dish. We all liked the dish, but I preferred the dish without the ham.

Our next dish was the shad roe: shallot mustard bay aroma:


This was probably one of the less memorable dishes of the evening, but the shad roe was carefully breaded and fried, then served on the bay leaf stem, giving it a light aroma.

Yuba with shrimp, miso, and togarashi came next:


Togarashi is the blend of Japanese spices that coated the shrimp wrapped tofu skin; miso was the dipping sauce in the small stone serving bowl. Togarashi is typically red chile pepper, roasted orange peel, yellow and black sesame seeds, Japanese pepper, seaweed, and ginger, so the combination of shrimp and tofu skin was slightly spicy and very fragrant. We all enjoyed this dish, but it wasn’t memorable (we continued to recount our favorite dishes throughout the meal and usually skipped past this one).

Our next tasting was probably the least favorite of the night – chao tom sugar cane, shrimp, mint:


We were instructed to chew the shrimp and mint flavored sugar cane and then spit it out. It was really fibrous and shrimp-like…Josh kept chewing his expecting it to eventually break down so he could swallow it because he didn’t hear the server telling us to spit it out. I’ve never had the Vietnamese dish before so I’m not sure how much shrimp paste is supposed to be infused into the sugar cane, but I didn’t like the overpowering taste of shrimp paste with the mint and sugarcane.

Our next course was a prequel to the centerpiece dish – a distillation of Thai flavors:


We had no idea what was in the drink but thought it was really strange; it had all of the flavors of our next dish and we were slightly worried about what was coming next because this drink did not taste good at all.

Our next dish, thankfully, was one of my favorite dishes of the night – pork belly with curry, cucumber, and lime:


The server brought out the wooden serving plates that were underneath the glass with different toppings. We were instructed to remove the glass and put together the metal prongs so they criss-crossed and became a holder for our centerpieces. Four servers came over to remove the centerpieces which were held together by chopsticks that became serving utensils. The server delicately placed the centerpieces on our metal prongs and another server came over to add pork belly to our centerpiece. The centerpiece was actually two egg roll-like wrappers that were steamed and placed together with flowers and herbs in between; we used them for the pork belly burrito that we filled with red pepper reduction, red onions, coconut shreds, cucumbers, mangoes dipped in chili, black sesame, basil seeds, and cashews:

center piece

The pork belly was cooked down with different spices that complemented the other fillings that were on the plate – the dish was light and savory – and we all agreed that it was our favorite course so far.

Next came the King Crab with rhubarb, lilac, and fennel:

crab 3 ways 1

The server told us not to peek because there were multiple layers of the king crab. The first layer was panna cotta-like – it was very light and cool on the tongue.

After we cleared our plates, servers came by to remove the first layer to reveal the second layer:

crab 3 ways 2

This layer had a big piece of king crab that was prepared with three ways (within the three way preparation…how meta!)

The third layer, my personal favorite, almost tasted like crab au gratin:

crab 3 ways 3

The third dish was hot and the most savory of the bunch.

Our next dish was presented on a fork that was keeping the bowl balanced – octopus – red wine, lavender, fava bean:


The octopus was one bite and then you drank the puree underneath – we all thought the presentation was really funny, especially the fork holder that looked like a giant contact lens:


The next dish was very savory (you can tell how large or savory a dish is from the menu by looking at the circles; larger, more filled in circles are more savory) – the lamb was a reflection of elysian fields farm:


Grant became good friends with the farmers at Elysian Fields (the same lamb distributor for The French Laundry and per se). There was a slide of buttery polenta and the lamb was prepared in various ways; some was placed on a rosemary skewer, the skin was lightly fried, and there was also a cube of fat that was breaded and fried. The biggest complaint I had about this dish was that it was really heavily salted. The lamb also tasted too gamey and although I like the tribute, I wasn’t a fan of the meat.

Luckily, the next dish was another favorites of the evening – HOT POTATO cold potato, black truffle, butter:


The dish has to be eaten very quickly because there are two temperatures that you need to feel in your mouth (hence the semi-blurry picture). The custom made paraffin wax bowl is pierced with a pin that holds the hot potato, butter, cheese, and black truffle. The pin is pulled through the bowl and the hot potato plops into the cold potato soup. The cold potato soup is a complete contrast to the hot potato so they hit your mouth, your senses are happily confused. The soup was very rich and creamy as was the truffled hot potato with butter and Parmesan cheese.

The next three courses were served at the same time – first I ate the Malt – English toffee, bourbon county stout, blueberry:


Next came the bacon – butterscotch, apple, thyme:


Sweetly dangling for its life on a thin strip of wire, the bacon was crunchy, sweet, and very fragile.

The last course in this set was the Nutella – bread, banana, chocolate:


The nutella was strangely crumbly and very dry, making it my least favorite from the bunch. While the bacon was interesting to look at, it wasn’t my favorite – the malt was the best of the bunch, but I thought all three were kind of mediocre compared to the rest of the night’s dishes.

Our next course included alcohol – Kumquat with rye, peychaud’s, demerara:


The kumquat was a strong and sweet shot of rye that really surprised all of us; I don’t think we expected the small fruit to pack such a punch!

SURF CLAM with celery, tabasco, oyster cracker was the chef’s play on clam chowder:

clam chowder

There was a strong clam flavor and the little orange circles are actually Tabasco in jelly form that popped in your mouth like the popping sherry in our first dish. There are also saltine-like crackers in the deconstructed clam chowder.

The next bite was literally a bite – green almond with yuzu, wasabi, rice milk:

LEMON SODA one bite

The textures are what I remember from this bite; the green almond was crunchy and mixed with an interesting pudding from the rice milk.

Our next course was eaten by hand (we were given hot towels first) – salad with ranch dressing, soup, powdered:

ranch with veggies

The veggies were sprinkled with powdered ranch dressing and underneath was buttermilk with ranch seasoning:


I don’t think anyone at the table was really a huge fan of the dish; the turnips and lettuces that were sprinkled with powdered ranch dressing tasted like vegetables dipped in Hidden Valley ranch dressing mix pre-sour cream.

We were very curious when the meal was actually going to switch to sweets; we hadn’t seen a menu the entire meal and were starting to get full, but I knew there were going to be a couple more savory dishes since we just had one larger savory dish (the lamb). Next came the sardine – horseradish, arugula flower, tomato:


The sardine was presented on a wire that was pointed at you similar to a microphone; we were instructed to not use our hands and just eat it in one bite. It was slightly difficult to eat and I wasn’t a huge fan of the actual dish, but the presentation was really cool.

Next came the squab with charred strawberries, lettuce, birch log:


The squab was infused with the smell of the birch log and it was probably my favorite protein of the evening, but the charred strawberries didn’t pair well with the squab (well, I really do dislike the combination of fruits that are heated up and served with meat). The birch log added a woodsy scent to the rare squab.

My favorite favorite favorite course of the night came next – the black truffle explosion, romaine, Parmesan:


The pasta is very thin and served with wilted romaine, lots of truffles, and a little shaving of Parmesan. The server told us to put the entire ravioli in our mouths and close before we bit down – good thing we followed his instructions because when I bit down, it felt like a huge gush of truffle juice that filled my entire mouth! It was so good that I really did want to ask for another, but I knew I had to soldier on because we still had more savory dishes AND desserts.

Before we had our last savory dish, the servers brought us a hibiscus drink to enjoy:


Josh described it as what he “imagined a fancy hotel to taste like” because it tasted very floral-like and sweet. Did you notice that the glass used for this drink had a design – completely different than any of the other plates we’ve had throughout the tour. It was a precursor to our last savory dish, the Tournedo à la persane:

TOURNEDO à la persane

The plate is a lot more intricately designed than the other plates because this dish was actually a tribute to Auguste Escoffier, who popularized French cooking. The plate was purchased while antique shopping and we were also treated to antique silverware, completely different from the other utensils we’d been using up to this point. The beef was over-seasoned and served over a fried banana and tomato (both tasted so savory I almost forgot it was a banana!) I would’ve enjoyed the beef a lot more if mine hadn’t been so salty; even the others complained about it.

After the beef dish, we moved onto sweets – first, the server placed a lemon soda strip on our tongue (similar to a Listerine strip!) It tasted like lemons and was slightly fizzy – almost like taking a powdered Emergen-C without water.

Next, possibly the funniest dessert to eat, was bubble gum with long pepper, hibiscus, crème fraîche:

Bubble Gum

So the server instructed us to suck out the contents of the test tube-like holder…Josh went first and ended up making a really funny slurping noise that made all of us laugh really loudly. The test tube is actually hollow on both ends and the contents of the bubble gum course are held in the tube by jelly on the tail end. The bubble gum flavoring comes from the tapioca balls on the bottom – Alinea makes the tapioca with bubble gum stock! The bubble gum tasted like the original Bubblicious, something I’m sure everyone used to chew when they were kids.

Next on the dessert list was transparency of raspberry, yogurt:


I didn’t think it had enough flavor, it broke all over the table, and didn’t really do it for me. It reminded me of thin layers of pureed fruit I used to dehydrate when I was a kid.

The Earl Grey pillow that was placed before each person before servers placed dessert with lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate was pretty amazing:

white chocolate pillow

Servers placed the Earl Grey pillow in front of us before placing the dessert on the pillow. Why?…because the pillow had tiny holes that released the scent of Earl Grey while we ate the Earl Grey shortbread, lemon curd, and white chocolate dessert. The dessert ended up being too sweet by the end, but I really could not get enough of the lemon curd and shortbread combination (even though my teeth were starting to hurt from the sugar). We all took turns placing our heads on the pillows (I wonder how many people actually do that). By the time we finished the Earl Grey dessert, five and a half hours of our lives had passed! Can you believe we actually sat down for that long?! We were all exhausted – I think the jetlag finally started to affect me and I literally wanted to put my head down on the Earl Grey pillow and have them spoon-feed me.

After the Earl Grey dessert was removed, the server came by and requested that we move our seats closer together. They cleared off our table completely and placed Silicone-like mats over the entire table for our finale dessert. After two sheets of grey silicone covered our table, a server came by to start setting up. This was on both sides of the table:

dessert set up

We patiently waited for the final dessert – I noticed Grant Achatz doing the plating of the dessert at a nearby table, but wasn’t sure if he was going around to every table that evening or if he had done theirs because it was a special occasion. Well, he did do ours (so did another chef since it was for four people) – the finale, chocolate with coconut, menthol, hyssop, in video form:

And some pictures of the final dessert:

dessert set up 2

dessert set up 3

The dessert presentation is pretty amazing, don’t you think? Not only is it really beautiful to look at, it was also absolutely amazing to eat! There were a lot of different textures, flavors, and temperatures; I tried to place everything in one bite so the coconut balls were chewy, the chocolate pudding added a warm and sweet touch, the menthol was a refreshing change and lightened up the chocolate flavors, and the liquid nitrogen ice cream was probably the coolest thing to look at. We really tried eating the entire presentation, but it was just way too much sweetness for us to finish. I asked how often people actually do finish the dessert and the server said that a lot of people do manage to squeeze everything in.

After the liquid nitrogen chocolate dessert was removed and our table was cleared, we paid for our check, looked at the kitchen, and headed home. Six hour later, we had finished our Alinea experience.

So, was dinner at Alinea really fun? Yes, definitely. We weren’t huge fans of the head server (she was a tad short with us when we first arrived and we didn’t appreciate her tone), but we did have a really fun time with each other. Cliff took the majority of the photos in this post (he practiced with his digital SLR beforehand with no flash because Alinea has a strict no flash policy). A huge thank you to Josh, Angie, and Cliff for coming to dinner with me; I had such a wonderful time at Alinea and can’t wait to go back for their fall tour! 😉

Reader Comments

Amazing food report as always, Grace! I can still taste the truffle explosion! It was a legendary meal….we’ll have to see when Achatz opens his new jet-set restaurant!

Written By Cliff on July 12th, 2010 @ 11:20 am

Great post! Really enjoyed all of the pictures and descriptions of all of the courses. Makes me want to take a molecular gastronomic tour of Chicago (Alinea, Moto, Schwa), especially after the closing of El Buli! Glad to hear the meal was so great.

Written By TheDegustationAsian on July 12th, 2010 @ 9:58 pm

Amazing post. It makes me appreciate all the creativity went into creating all these visually pleasing dishes. You did an excellent job reporting and I am glad you enjoyed the meal. What an experience!

Written By Ruby on July 23rd, 2010 @ 5:33 am

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