Our last meal (in Chicago) – Alinea

Dinner at Alinea Restaurant July 2011 9in

After interrupting my Chicago write-ups to relate the magical tale of my El Bulli experience, we return to our Midwest eating adventure with the main course – Alinea. Currently ranked the top restaurant in the United States by Restaurant Magazine, Alinea had some high expectations to live up to. Did it? Yes and No.

In ‘preparation’ for our trip to Chicago, I read “Life, on the Line” by Alinea’s Chef Grant Achatz and his business partner Nick Kokonas. A recommended read that grabs your interest, maintains it throughout and concomitantly creates great expectations about eating at Alinea.

With this history, I entered Alinea, ready to be awed. Well, the food and creativity of the dishes matched the hype, unfortunately the service and ambiance crashed and burned. It was a sweltering hot summer day and the room where we were seated was quite warm even though air conditioning is generally available in Chicago. Because men are required to wear a suit jacket, my friend was sweating throughout the entire meal. His jacket served as a portable sauna in Alinea.

You might ask – well, why didn’t he just take it off? He would have loved to, but when he inquired about removing it, he was told that Alinea preferred he leave it on. They like hot customers apparently.  A couple of the servers were actively condescending, leaving one with the feeling that we were a nuisance to them. Only one Alinea employee possessed the enthusiasm for food and attentive service we so enjoyed at Grant Achatz’s Next Restaurant and The Aviary Cocktail Bar.

On a more positive note, there was the food. Good photos eluded me owing to the interior lighting, so I will paint a word picture of the visually delectable English Peas trifecta. A three level serving plate launched with a warm preparation of peas, transitioning to a room temperature meringue with a cold sorbet and apples as the finale. The variance in texture, flavor and temperature garnered it the award for most memorable dish and the one I continue to yearn for.

The artistic creativity of the food lingers in one’s mind as a continuing reminder of the artist’s touch. My first experience with scissors as a utensil, and cutting the greens for my own garden salad was novel, fun and exciting.

Garden Salad at Alinea Chicago

Later in the meal we used pasta (or rice paper) flags to create our own short rib ravioli.

Make your own ravioli at Alinea Restaurant 9 in

One dish made our eyes and mouth dance a jig of joy as its richness and decadence generated visual and sensory fireworks. “Hot Potato, Cold Potato” was its name – just imagine pure deliciousness served with black truffle and butter.

Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter Alinea Restaurant Chicago Gluten-Free (6)

The first iteration of Next Restaurant focused on Paris, 1906. While we didn’t get to experience that menu, they served a course from the cookbook that inspired the menu at Next. A small piece of lamb with asparagus, potato (and a piece of gluten-free toast for me), certainly made early 20th century cuisine appealing.

Paris 1906 agneau sauce choron, pomme de terre noisette Alinea Restaurant Chicago Gluten-Free (8)

We were transported to the turn of the century and it wasn’t even midnight, though we were hardly dressed for the occasion. (Apologies to fans of Midnight in Paris)

The black truffle explosion, one of the most famous and long standing courses on the constantly changing menu, truly was a bite of remarkable flavor.

Black truffle explosion, romaine and parmesan Alinea Restaurant Chicago Gluten-Free (9)

Wild mushrooms with pine, sumac and ramps – yes, please. But I was even more impressed with this course a week after eating it when I started processing the photos. Look at how similar it looks to our chocolate dessert course.

Savory and Sweet at Alinea

Our palate cleanser was a “Yuzu Snow Cone.” We were warned to only use our spoon, as a brush against our tongue could result in something reminiscent of A Christmas Story. (though of course we had to try it…)

Yuzu snow at Alinea Restaurant Chicago Gluten-Free (13)

Our sweet courses started with a strawberry, jasmine, basil, balsamic, burrata, and almond marshmallow dessert. That was just for starters!

Strawberry, jasmine, basil, balsamic, burrata and almond marshmallow dessert

The second sweet course was the fanciest and most scrumptious jello ever to cross my lips. Lemongrass, dragonfruit, cilantro and cucumber were all suspended in a test tube like container adding to the sense of experiment .

lemongrass, dragonfruit, cilantro and cucumber Alinea Restaurant Chicago Gluten-Free (17)

The final course was the chocolate plate which included pickled blueberry, honey, peanuts and crème brulee! Ahh, sweet memories.

Chocolate, pickled blueberry, honey, peanut and creme brulee Alinea Restaurant Chicago Gluten-Free (18)

Chicago proved to be a city of culinary wonder and it certainly is on our list for future explorations.

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