June 11th, 2017
3 stars Michelin Guide
No. 21 at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants
“Alinea is not a restaurant, at least in the conventional sense” is the line that describe the best to the restaurant created in 2005 by Chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas in Chicago where they have been pushing themselves and their patrons to rethink what a restaurant can be.
A Revelation From The Past
The first time I dined at Alinea was in 2011 and it truly changed the way I thought about restaurants. A group of friends and I met in Chicago for a two day culinary trip (the first of many to come). After a phenomenal meal at Charlie Trotters, the last stop was Alinea, the restaurant that at that time (and surely now too) was reinventing the way American fine dining operates.
We were blown away by every aspect of the meal, the design of the restaurant, the temperature of the water glasses, the napkins in the restrooms, the now gone dessert plated on the table, and how much fun everyone was having, not only us, but them. They truly enjoy and have fun at it. It was something new, something better, I wanted that.
You Have To Change To Stay The Same
Last year, the restaurant that have won every award that you may think of, decided to changed it all. Alinea closed for several months while they traveled the world doing pop ups in Madrid and Miami. They changed it all, got rid of everything, new design, new tables, new tricks.
Alinea 2.0 was born with 3 new experiences. The Kitchen Table which is a more private experience with the view of all the action in the kitchen. The Gallery, an interactive communal experience on the first floor with two seatings a night . And The Salon, located on the three dining rooms on the second floor with a shorter version of what you can see on the first floor.
You arrive to a large communal table where 16 guests are sat around a white floating cloud. You look up and floating planters signals that spring has begun. The set up is something that I have not seen. We are really excited, happy, and we have not had a bite of food yet.
Sparkling is poured and an abundance of snacks start to arrive at the table. The floating plants are watered to release that spring aroma. The multi sensory experience has begun. The last snacks is passed. One of the best bites of the night, banana pancake with caviar.
Time for a tour, the whole dining room gets invited into the kitchen where a snack is awaiting for us while we witness chefs making a cocktail using one of only 30 in the world Crawley’s Imperial shaker machines. It is truly a performance.
Same Dining Room, or not?
As we are invited back into the dining room there is a little confusion as our communal table is gone. Five tables take the space now, faces of relief can be seen around as everyone realizes that is not a communal experience all night long…. or it is?
The first dish after our kitchen tour starts to play with your perceptions. A crispy shit of paper turns into a noodle after a delicious bouillabaisse is poured over. At the center of the table, deep friend rouille and nori adds a perfect crunch to the dish.
Next up is a balanced duo of squid and scallops. The center table showcases rocks which we are instructed to eat finding a soft artichoke purée with ink skin. We laugh knowing that they have our complete trust.
A play on textures awaits for us when they place a plate with solid cold powder on the table. A dish that is completed tableside with a warm parmesan cream. The star of of this part is the thinly sliced layers of apple that was meant to cut through the richness of the dish. The technique in this little.
Setting The Mood – Who Said There Has To Be Light?
Every restaurant has lights. Some brighter, some are dimmer. But why not just dined with no light at all, better yet, around a fire. And that is how the lights go off in the middle of the meal to introduce a fire center-piece. It is a warm feeling. Feels back in camping days with friends and family.
Thai flavors materialized into a soup served on a bowl of hot salt. This dish definitely fights for the most delicious dish of the night. Chicken skewers are shared at the center of the table around the fire. (soru for quality of pics as it was very dark)
A dish that is meant to be hold in your hands bring you back to Thailand. Standing on the dark streets, bowl in one hand, chopsticks in the other. Pork belly with mango is sweet and sublime. Corn silk with uni cream is a new dish they are tasting out tonight and it is definitely a win. The extremely thin corn silk which is usually thrown away gets transformed into a noodle texture. As grant achatz once said: manipulation is a good thing.
Lights up again and our host brings a large bunch of greens and placed them on top of the fire. Aromas of rosemary permiates the room while Hamachi skewers get smoked right on top of the rosemary while we enjoye the blueberry and maitake mushroom dish which is actually served on one of the largest plates I have ever seen (in restaurants). Here every move is intentional.
It Is Never Just Food Being Sent To A Table
Just when you believe dinner is going to take a normal course, by this I mean just food coming to you table (thanks god alinea is never like this) one more surprise (yeap, how do you top eating in the dark?). Mise en place is set on our table while chef comes in and starts digging into our now gone fireplace to pick a…. potato. Carefully cleaning it from the salt and mixing it with the best butter and cream they are able to find to make the most amazing mashed potatoes. As he mentioned: not a lot of things grow here around Chicago so we had to make the best of what earth give us and that is potatoes! Some shaving of black truffles goes along way.
Slow cook short ribs with vanilla, cocoa and cassis flavors represents the main course. Tender and soft and extremely aromatic. The alinea team is kind enough to leave a jar with the vanilla to smell as we eat the main course (aroma pairing) only to realized that the vanilla bean is actually a tenderloin which has been disguised in all the aromas of the beautiful orchid. Once more, they tricked us and we loved it.
Flavor As An Emotion
Cheese course arrives in one quick and powerful bite. Another plate of rocks in placed in front of us and we dig-in with no questions, sweet potato, chocolate and miso makes perfect combination.
Invisible food seems to appear as our host ask us to start eating from the plate in front of us. Looks like an empty candy bar inside a plate but once you look closer (nothing is what it seems here), it is thin distilled gel with flavors of childhood.
As we all are laughing and wondering how this is possible one more impossible dish arrives. The ultra-famous balloon. Kiss it and sign. we are all laughing, having a good time. Can’t get better than this.
The ‘Grant’ Finale
The meal definitely builds up and they kept most impactful performance for the very end. We knew the desert plated on the table was gone but that did not stop Alinea to keep re-inventing themselves and discover new ways of plating food.
Colorful art hanging on the ceiling gets taken down and placed on the tables. The lights goes down and the music goes up. LCD Soundsystem – ‘Dance Yrself Clean’ sets the mood while chefs go around the room placing ingredient by ingredient in an artistic form into the once hanging art. I thought I have seen it all, but Alinea always finds their way to surprise me more.
Alinea is a performance. An extremely delicious performance. It is definitely not for everyone. But if you are willing to open your mind a little bit, the rewards are many.
How many other restaurant have you been that are more than food on a plate and become performance?