Where to eat in Chicago: Alinea

12. October 2006 Chicago, Illinois 8

I just returned from my third trip to Chicago and I think I’ve got the city down pat. Three years ago, the Dr. and I made it to the Art Institute, the Shedd Aquarium and the MoCA. Last December, we visited the Chicago Cultural Center and ate Persian, Colombian, Japanese, Mexican and Scandinavian. We also had some awesome hotdogs at Hot Doug’s and a really memorable meal at Charlie Trotter’s.

This year, four of us from work went all out at Alinea, most recently named the number one restaurant by Gourmet magazine. Like for every other restaurant I’ve visited, I booked our table before my airline tickets. To simply say that the food was good is an understatement.

Tyler used the word “delicate” and even “fragile” to describe our experience. I need a very special dictionary to define my reaction to each dish that was served–all twelve courses–but even if I had one, I would still have a hard time picking the perfect adjectives.

They called this the hot potato-cold potato because of the two ways the potato is served. A black truffle tops the potato and cubes of parmesan decorate the stick. This was matched with H. Billot Grand Cru Brut Rosé from Ambonnay, France.

Our server had to hold the bowl for me while I took the photograph because the fork was too heavy for the bowl to stand on its own. One small mouthful of the yellowtail brought out the taste of the radish, coriander and poppyseed combined.

The next course was trout roe with cucumber, coconut and bonito matched with Bodegas Naia “Naiades” Verdejo from Rueda, Spain but unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of that.

The matsutake mushroom with mango, peanut and yuzu glass came in a glass and our servers spilled its contents on our plates. It was matched with Gerovassiliou Malagousia from Epanomi, Greece.

Next was the rabbit with cider, roasted garlic and smell of burning oak leaves–probably the coolest thing ever. I’ve had rabbit before but the Chef Grant Achatz way was served covered with a glass filled with smoke. The server lifted the glass to let the smoke escape and we were presented with a piece of rabbit with an earthy smell.

Actually, the peach with smoked paprika and carrot might have been cooler than the rabbit. It was called an explosion. It was served in a small glass and we had to drink it like a shot. The golf ball-sized shell broke oh-so-delicately in our mouths and exploded with the contents inside.

Short rib with ribboned beets, geléed cranberry and campari matched with Cabanon Bonarda “Boisee” from Oltrepò Pavese, Italy. Short rib with beets? Sure. But ribboned beets? Who thinks about stuff like that? The dish was just another example of the crazy kind of genius behind the food.

There was a reason for the rosemary sprigs on our table after all besides a weird centerpiece. Before the dishes were served, they rearranged them to face toward us. When the sizzling platforms were served with the lamb searing on top, the smoke engulfed the rosemary and created that smell we’re all familiar with. The lamb came with date and mastic and matched with Prats & Symington “Chryseia” from Douro, Portugal.

I’ve had rare squab before and once we had to return it and asked the kitchen to cook it for a few more minutes. This squab was soft, almost buttery. If it weren’t for that offal-like taste, you would have guessed it was a nice beef steak. This was squab with huckleberry, sorrel and long peppercorn. The Bilancia “Hawke’s Bay” Syrah from New Zealand was a good match. And then the desserts started to come:

Concord grape, frozen and chewy. This was cooked in PolyScience’s AntiGriddle, a patent pending “cooking” surface that freezes almost anything because of its ability to achieve temperatures below -50ºF.

Chestnut with Blis maple syrup eaten with a small metal matchstick.

Crabapple with cheddar, eucalyptus and olive oil matched with Muller-Catoir Haardter Mandelring Scheurebe Spatlese from Pfalz. I love desserts like this: tart enough to cleanse the palate and not overwhelmingly sweet.

Chocolate with bergamot, cassia and figs matched with De Bartoli “Bukkuram” Moscato Passito di Pantelleria from Italy. Alas, I’m not a big fan of chocolate overload but I appreciated this dish as much as the entire table; I just couldn’t finish it.

Caramel with meyer lemon and tempura served in what looked like one those head massagers I found in Barcelona. A burning cinnamon stick protruding on top was lit like a birthday candle.

The service was attentive yet more relaxed that at The French Laundry. While we waited for our table to be set up, we were served complimentary champagne downstairs past the doors which opened with a wave of your hand. Upstairs, the dark wood and warm lighting made us feel like we were in someone’s apartment–someone rich, someone with taste, someone we knew!

The waiters and servers in their Ermenegildo Zegna suits were so comfortable telling us about the courses even though each dish got more ridiculous (in a good way, of course). They laughed with us but also answered all our questions. Are the dishes made especially for the restaurant? (Some are retail but the more sculpture-like serviceware are created by Crucial Detail.) How do you freeze grape? (AntiGriddle.) May I go to the bathroom? (It’s best to wait because the next course is coming up and it takes about twelve minutes to burn the leaves.) We didn’t know what to expect with each course. They could have told us anything and we would have followed like obedient guests. (We will now blindfold you while you eat. Sure!)

The sommelier’s skills came through with his incredible pairings. Sure, French, Spanish and Italian wines are a given, but Greek? I would have never picked that on my own. He opened our palate to different kinds of wines which made us appreciate the style of cooking that the chef was trying to get across.

Alinea is at 1723 North Halsted in Chicago, Illinois. Call 312/867.0110 a month ahead to make reservations.

8 thoughts on “Where to eat in Chicago: Alinea”

  • 1
    jenn on October 12, 2006

    awesome photo of you!

  • 2
    valerie on October 13, 2006

    just went to alinea a couple of weeks ago (was visiting chicago from la). reading your post took me back there – it was hard for me to put the experience into words, and you captured it so well!

  • 3
    gerald on October 13, 2006

    Great write-up! I think you captured the experience really well.

  • 4
    G. on October 13, 2006

    ahhhh… i would have frequented chicago had i not left mc. next time i’m there, def going to hit alinea!

  • 5
    cia on August 11, 2007

    Update, August 2007: Chef Grant Achatz has been diagnosed with an advanced stage of squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth

  • 6
    cia on September 26, 2007

    Update, September 2007: From Ruhlman.com, “doctors report that chemo had reduced the tumor in his tongue by 75%, which is really good news.”

  • 7
    cia on December 19, 2007

    Update, December 2007: From Frank Bruni: Chef Grant Achatz is cancer-free! Welcome back, chef!

  • 8
    Restaurant Christchurch on August 3, 2009

    Wow! It looks so enticing. I hope to visit there soon.

Comments are closed.