- When: March 2014
- Michelin Stars: 3
- Male DINK Rating: 12/15
- Female DINK Rating: 12/15
- Total Cost: $1,300; Food Cost: $730
Alinea (or Alinea 1.0 as it’s now referred to) was the first 3 Michelin Star restaurant we dined at, so it will always have a special place on our list of restaurant experiences. We’d read the hype and reviews before going, and were beyond excited to dine at the #1 restaurant in the world at the time (according to Elite Traveler). We try to keep our expectations at a reasonable level no matter the buzz or standings, but, needless to say, expectations were high. I mean, it was the #1 restaurant in the world (a designation Alinea still retains!).
We took a taxi from our hotel in River North, planning to be early (as one should be at such an establishment) for our 9:15pm dinner reservation. While we had Alinea’s address pulled up on Google Maps, it was dark out, and we ended up instructing our taxi driver to pull over in the general vicinity. We walked at least half a block south in the wrong direction before realizing not only were we headed in the wrong direction, we were also on the wrong side of the street! After crossing the street and inspecting every building slowly, we happened upon the dark, non-descript, non-labeled temple. If we hadn’t already read that the building was unmarked, I think we would have been walking around for much longer. But, we’d found it!
After opening the outside door, we were greeted by a long, dark – very dark – hallway that led nowhere.
What are we supposed to do? Not knowing what to do, we started walking towards the dead end, when suddenly a hidden (ok, not hidden – just unknown to us) door opened on the left, and we were greeted and welcomed in by a lovely hostess. We were told that our table was not yet ready, and were ushered to a small (one small bench) receiving area that had a great view of the kitchen through floor-to-ceiling glass. We uncomfortably (out of nerves and feeling a little bit in the way due to waitstaff passing by) waited, almost in disbelief of how quiet, clean, and organized the kitchen appeared. No one was yelling (or hardly even talking), and each person had their station. Each person appeared occupied, but not busy. It was almost like a robotic assembly line.
After about ten minutes, we were escorted upstairs to a large, four-person table, which was nice because tables always seem too cramped to me. There was nothing on the table except a napkin, although something hanging above the table caught our attention. It looked like a collard green, stalk and all. Weird decoration, we thought.
There was no menu on the table, and none was provided, as we pre-purchased the menu (a “ticket”) ahead of time with the reservation. This was our first experience with the Tock Tix ticketing/reservation system (that is now much more widely used), and it was actually refreshing to just sit down and not have to pour over a menu and make a decision. I suppose that’s one of the main draws of – and why we have come to love – tasting menus. So, at Alinea, the only decision to make on the spot was drinks: They had two distinct wine pairing selections (one around $150 and the other around $250) and a non-alcoholic beverage menu. There was also a wine list that was offered to us, but we chose to indulge in the upper-tier wine pairing. With the wine selection made, the only thing left to do was to sit back, relax, and let the culinary journey begin…
The Char Roe was a nice start. The banana and passion fruit gave it a cool and calming quality. I’m not the biggest fan of bananas, so I thought the bananas were a bit overpowering.
The Green Strawberry was served on a long metal skewer, with a ball of yogurt, the peppercorn, and a small piece of dill attached. Good small bite. Next, the Scallop had a fun presentation – severed inside its own shell over a steaming (dry ice) bed of seaweed. Great taste and texture, with a nice citrus touch that was not overpowering.
Next, our waiter – with a big grin on his face – brought over what looked like a wicker basket that had seen better days. We were told that the next course – Salsify – was camouflaged and waiting for us to find it within the odd basket. We eventually found the about 4-inch salty stick. No idea what it was, but it was good enough. Very small “course” to get you ready for the main courses.
What I consider first main or strong course was the Lobster. Man, there was a lot going on, here. I began by sampling small bites of each of the different ingredients on the plate; however, within minutes, our waiter politely informed me that the course was meant to enjoyed as a whole (in other words, mix up everything on the plate). So, the plate didn’t stay pretty for long.
The actual lobster was cooked flawlessly, and the other ingredients were a fun and light addition. The next course – Ebi – kept the shellfish going. Good, but not memorable. I couldn’t tell if Chef Achatz was trying to show different preparations of similar items or if this was an oversight having such similar main ingredients in subsequent courses. I’m guessing the former.
One of my favorite courses was the Wagyu: Who doesn’t love wagyu? Unbeknownst to us, it had been cooking in a small fire located at the center of our table since the beginning of the last course. Since it looked just like a small log, we thought nothing of it, and were very surprised when the fire was put out and the waiter began cutting it table side. Great presentation, fun, and taste. Next up was the Lily Bulb. Seemed to be a palate cleanser. I’m not a big flower eater, but it was interesting enough to not be gross.
Honestly, I don’t remember the Rhubarb dish. All I remember is that the course was presented – sans rhubarb – and the waiter unhooked the rhubarb that had been hanging over the table since we sat down and shaved pieces of it onto the dish. There’s food hidden all around me!
The Michigan Smelt was next up, and we were quite taken aback when our waiter handed us a newspaper and instructed us to cover the table with it. Then, after the fried smelt dish and fast-food style chips and condiments arrived, we were more taken aback when our waiter informed us that this was an interactive course: AKA – eat with your hands! The fish was good, but the course itself felt a little out of place at such a nice restaurant. I guess that was the point.
Again playing on fast-food, the Sweetbreads were ingeniously served in take out boxes, complete with take out plastic bags around them. In this dish, Chef Achatz clearly – and successfully – flexed his Asian muscles. Another favorite dish.
Next up was the famous Hot Potato / Cold Potato, which has to be eaten quickly as one bite. It lived up to the hype. This was a great calming small bite that was well-timed in the menu since, at this point, we were getting quite full.
The Wood Ear (pig’s ear) followed, and it was delicious. Just when you think you can’t eat more – and are eagerly awaiting dessert – you can. After the smooth Hot Potato dish, I felt like I needed something stronger before heading into the dessert courses. He read my mind.
First dessert – the Pistachio – was excellent. Again, calming and smooth textures and flavors. Then came the famous balloon. This was such a staple item, it’s the only menu item remaining after the Alinea 2.0 reboot (read below for review). It’s a fun item, even if it isn’t the most culinary experience. Ours was green apple flavor, and we were encouraged by the waiter to “kiss” the balloon and suck the helium out. We followed instructions and giggled at our high-pitched voices. Good job of keeping us happy at the end of the meal.
For the final course, Milk Chocolate, we were asked to move to the same side/back side of the (4-person) table, which we happily did. We were asked if we wanted an after-dinner drink or coffee/espresso, which we declined. Several minutes later, a chef came to our table with a small cart full of ingredients and prepared the entire table with what I’m hoping was a sanitized rubber placemat.
He then proceeded to “create” the Milk Chocolate dish on the table, spooning out designs of melted chocolate, carefully placing hazelnuts, and finishing off by placing a large piece of chocolate and snacks in the center. We joked, as he was preparing the dish, that we were not going to be able to eat it all, and he jovially informed us that few do. We didn’t.
The final course tasted great (it was mainly chocolate and sugar), with the presentation being a nice final touch to a wonderful meal and first 3-Michelin-star experience. We were presented with our check (for the wine) and copies of the menu and asked if we needed a cab, which we did. After paying, we were escorted downstairs to our awaiting taxi.
Overall, Alinea 1.0 was a great experience, even if we weren’t entirely prepared for the food and preparation quite yet. I believe it’s still the most we’ve ever spent on a dinner, clocking in at around $1,300. We didn’t know much about Michelin stars at the time, but if creativity and wow factor were any gauge as to stars, we’d give it three. But, we would return…
- When: August 2016
- Michelin Stars: 3
- Male DINK Rating: 13/15
- Female DINK Rating: 13/15
- Total Cost: $600; Food Cost: $550
Our next visit to Alinea, now referred to as Alinea 2.0, was two and a half years later, in August 2016. My co-worker and his wife were going to Chicago for the weekend, and they were gracious enough to let us tag along (we never pass up Chicago!). During the trip planning, the idea of going to Alinea came up. I had discussed our previous experience at Alinea with my co-worker right after we dined there, and I don’t think I painted the best picture. I probably said that it was a crazy experience, but that there are better ways to spend $1,300. But, alas, Alinea 2.0 had implemented more than one menu option, making the prospect a bit more manageable.
Also, I think Female DINK and I were curious to see what had changed at Alinea since the space had been taken down to the studs and the menu almost completely revamped.
We were able to get a reservation for four on Saturday night at 9:15pm (that must be our Alinea dining time!), and, without giving away the rest of the story, I’m glad that we went back.
When our Uber Black dropped us off, Female DINK and I knew which building to head towards this time. Newbies no more! The outside looked the same. The inside: Totally different. What happened to my borderline creepy, yet intriguing, hallway? The outside door now opens to a small receiving area and hostess desk. We were cordially welcomed and waited only minutes before being escorted upstairs to our table (where The Salon menu is served). The main event on the walk upstairs is a beautiful chandelier comprised of upside-down wine glass stems.
The decor was similar to Alinea 1.0 in that it is simple and unobtrusive.
There’s enough to look at – like the statute on the service table in the center of the oval room – but not too much to really draw attention or, more importantly, detract from the food. In addition to the napkins, a “menu” was on the table. Since you select your menu when booking your table online, your dining experience (food-wise) is set. I say “menu” because it’s essentially a word or two from each course – just to provide a little roadmap of what’s to come:
As before, the only thing to decide is beverages – to wine or not to wine; that is the question. There were three different wine pairing options to choose from this time, ranging in price from $115 to $315 per person. Or, you can order wine from the wine list, with several selections by the bottle and a few by the glass. Or…you can do what we normally do (and did) and give the sommelier a few guidelines on what your wine preferences are and let her choose a few glasses for you. The sommelier was very knowledgeable, helpful, and personable, and she did not seem to mind doing a little extra work in making such recommendations.
The first course – Ice – started much like Alinea 1.0, with a cool and smooth start. In fact, the dish was even served in a hand carved ice bowl. The Onaga had a great taste, and the flavors went together perfectly. Again, a great start. The next dish, however, was solidly the dish of the night.
The “Crunch Paper” was actually comprised of dried scallops in the form of paper-thin strips, carefully placed in a small bowl of corn broth, with the majority of the strips protruding from the bowl. Yes, I said corn broth. The otherwise odd scallop paper was delicious and actually tasted exactly like scallops! The corn broth accompanied the scallops well, and it was so good that it could have been its own dish. I wanted more.
“Contrast” was served in a small, wobbly, clear bowl. The flavors of the tomato were great, but I felt like the dish was overpowered by the parmesan at the bottom. This dish was served alongside “Sangre” and “Swirl.” The iberico in Sangre stood out, but the rest of the dish didn’t do it for me. Swirl seemed to be a bit of a palate cleanser, but its tartness with Contrast and Sangre didn’t add much to this trio.
The “Yellow” course consisted of wonderfully prepared pork belly and banana in a strong, but not overpowering, curry sauce, accompanied by chopsticks. This was served in an odd, pliable, silicone-like bowl that we were encouraged to hold in our non-dominant hand as we ate. Our friends loved this dish. Next, “Ice” moved onto fish, with breaded and fried Icefish served with radishes in a tangy mandarin syrup. Even though the acidity cut through the fried fish well, we all thought it was a bit too tangy.
A little bit of the familiar hunt-for-your-food was still alive in the “Glass/Petal” dish. A crispy piece of onion was carefully suspended in a large flower. The glass portion of the dish was a crystallized blueberry reduction served with foie gras sauce and morel mushrooms. The mushrooms were the standout. Being foie gras lovers, we could have used a bit more of that taste. Luckily, we were subsequently awarded a treat of black truffles and gruyere on top of pumpernickel toast.
This three-to-four bite snack, while delicious, was almost too rich to handle.
The next dish was a bit of a surprise for a 3-star restaurant: Chicken! This was a Mexican-inspired plate, with the chicken being presented in what appeared to be an enchilada form. Three sauces accompanied the chicken, along with a crunchy ball of chicken liver and a small “dia de los muertos” skewer of pineapple gelatin. On the side were two bonbons filled with what we were told were the remnants of the mezcal-making process. This dish was also served with a small pour of mezcal.
Next, the wagyu (“Bone”) was served atop a rice crispy square and presented on a bone. Good, but not as great as the wagyu we had at Alinea 1.0. Moving on, the “Cloche” course consisted of a large piece of lettuce that was covering a chicken curry, along with a slice of melon that had been soaked in chamomile tea. Again, the curry was strong without being overpowering. The standout flavor-wise was the melon. I think we were all just a bit bored by this dish.
The first desert dish, “Nostalgia,” was strange. The flavors didn’t seem to go together – the dark chocolate was great by itself (it’s chocolate!), but the fennel, strawberry, and lemon didn’t jive. No worries, though, because the famous helium-filled taffy balloon arrived! Such a great, fun course – no wonder they kept it.
Almost finished, we were offered coffee, which we all accepted. The coffees were served out of a personal french press, while the espressos were top-notch. The last course was again an abstract-art desert. This “Paint” felt like it was a bit more involved flavor-wise than the final dish at Alinea 1.0. White chocolate was the standout flavor. With the bill for beverages, we were provided the actual menu, consisting of a translucent page that fit over the menu on the table:
All of the food was good; some of it was great. The most memorable dish/item for both of us was the dried scallop “Paper” and corn broth – it was absolutely delicious. There were other items and dishes that stood out as creative, good, and interesting, but nothing else really wowed either of us. Not that we are by any means Michelin inspectors or professional food critics, but under our unwritten rating system, we look for dishes that truly wow us. I believe we both needed one more wow dish and – dare I say it – some more performance. Now, I know many will be quick to point out that we partook in The Salon menu, which is less involved and appropriately priced less than The Gallery menu.
I’ll just say, at least in our opinion, we were left wanting just a bit more.
Overall, our Alinea 2.0 experience was better than our 1.0. I think most of this is due to the fact that we have travelled a lot and been to numerous other fine-dining and Michelin-starred restaurants in the interim. Perhaps our palettes were more worldly or refined for the second go-round? I’m certain having good friends sharing the experience with us didn’t hurt, either.
We feel a bit sad and nostalgic now, though, pondering and discussing how we’d rate our first Alinea experience if we were to re-live it today. I know we’d be more open and know what to expect. I think it would be great. We always want what we can’t have. Alinea 1.0 reunion tour, anyone?
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