It only seems fitting that my first “experience” post is tied to one of the greatest dining experiences I have ever had. Alinea is a one of the very few restaurants in the world (let alone the USA) to achieve a 3 Michelin Star rating. Reservations can be difficult to come by for good reason. I had dreamed of eating at Alinea from the days I first started becoming interested in complicated cuisine but never could get a reservation to align with my travel to Chicago.
In early 2019, my friend Al was able to secure a reservation for a party of 4 at Alinea to take place on August 6. When the time came, Al actually flew up to my hometown and picked me up in his beautiful Cirrus SR-22T airplane. It was a short flight to Chicago and as a licensed pilot, Al actually allowed me to do most of the flying!
I’ve got to say that from the exterior, Alinea was not at all what I expected. It was very nondescript and if it weren’t for a small sign on the sidewalk, I never would’ve known we had arrived at our destination.
Alinea has very specific seating times and we were about 10 minutes early. We waited in small lobby area until we were allowed to enter the restaurant. Wow! It was not at all what I was envisioning. Our reservation was for the Gallery which I’d deem to be the main dining room. The kitchen was attached to the backside of the Gallery, and a separate dining area known as the Salon was up a flight of steps. This main dining area was covered in red lights. There was pounding music that I could only liken to some sort of Soviet era power band. Rather than all of the diners having their own tables, we were sat at a giant communal table with some of the oddest looking decorations I have seen in a restaurant. The center point of which were giant, mirrored plate covers.
Nobody was talking as the volume and pounding of the music carried on and it seemed to continue forever. It was clear that this experience was going to go well beyond just eating great food. This was going to be three hours of all our human senses being activated, played with, and intertwined. Then in an instant, the music stopped and the lighting in the room softened. The mirrored covers became translucent and the first course was revealed. It was a beautiful creation formed from Oyster, Beet, Salsify, and Snail.
Upon finishing our first course we were led into the kitchen. What an impressive site. You can imagine the amount of pride and work that goes into having a kitchen pump out 20 complicated courses over the span of 3 hours, while at the same time keeping it clean and organized enough to showcase it to your guests. Lined down one of the stainless worktops were small balls formed from Tinga, Chili, and Avocado, dangling on a wire.
While we waited to be given permission to eat the second course, we watch one of the chefs juice what I believe was a sweet potato and craft a drink out of a smoking fountain. All the sense were going now.
The drinks were served as a paired 3rd course to the second course and we quickly consumed it all. For those wondering, the drink contained Tequila, Sweet Potato, and Bell Pepper.
Upon exiting the kitchen and returning to our table, another surprise was in store (by now I’m feeling as excited as Charlie in the Chocolate Factory). The dining room wasn’t even recognizable. There was no communal table anymore. There was no red lighting or loud Russian music. It was somehow transformed in mere minutes to a very modern scene. Each party had their own stainless steel table. The lighting was clear and there was no music. Course #4 was quickly delivered and it looked like an odd egg.
A quick poke with the fork and the shell did indeed crack open like you’d expect that of an egg. We haven’t actually seen a menu at this point and nobody is telling us what we are eating. We are left to use our senses to figure it out which only adds to the excitement. Each first bite is eagerly anticipated with no preconceived notion of what it may taste like.
The fifth course arrives and contains Asparagus, Jamon, and Basil
The sixth, seventh, eight, ninth, tenth, and eleventh course all arrive at the same time. They include key ingredients such as Raw Coconut, Rambutan, Horseradish, Lobster, Allspice, Carrot, Prawn, Chicken, Peanut, Makrut Lime, Octopus, Culantro, Mango, and Chili.
Possibly the most intriguing part of this round of food was the sea shell that we drank from. The thing about drinking from a seashell is that you can’t even see the color or texture of the liquid before it hits your tongue.
The table is cleared again and suddenly the lights in the room go dark. A moment later, a fire is stricken up in the center of the table by one of the servers.
The lights come up a bit and we are presented course twelve while the mysterious bowl of fire continues to burn. It consists of Morel, Oxtail, and Goat Butter.
Before we can dig into the plate, the purpose of the fire is finally revealed as giant Rosemary sprigs with Maitake and Acorn are placed over it as course #13. The fire is quickly extinguished by the lack of oxygen, but not before the Rosemary is delightfully smoked into the mushrooms.
It’s at this point in the meal that I take note of the odd placard of letters sitting on the table (either I was completely oblivious to it this whole time, or someone snuck it onto the table while we were distracted). I quickly recognize the word “Heirloom” and realize that this must be the menu. Sure enough, upon scouring it over we are able to find other words that match up with parts of the meal. The word “Rabbit” reveals a course that must be yet to arrive.
Courses thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen are served together. The first being a combination of Rabbit, Beans, and Sassafras served on an actual tree stump! Also included in this round (not pictured) is Celery Root, Sumac, Chervil, Rabbit Liver, Pine Nut, Wojapi, Mushrooms, Honey, and Barbecue Sauce.
The seventeenth course will be our final prior to the desert round. And WOW was it something special. One of the finest Wagyu roasts I have seen coupled with Foie Gras, Wood Ear, and Truffle. The Wagyu was paraded from table to table so that everyone could see it firsthand.
After everyone has seen the roast, a chef cuts it into individual portions for all to see.
The Wagyu is then served with the rest of the course. What an amazing collection of rich and deep flavors there are to be had here. Wagyu, Truffle, and Foie Gras are three of my favorite indulgences and to have all of them on the plate at one time was amazing.
The eighteenth course represents the first of the dessert courses. It reminds me slightly of the “egg” we had earlier in the meal, but it’s definitely much sweeter. It consists of Hoja Santa, Tamarind, and White Chocolate.
Now things take a turn for the weird again as the servers jump onto chairs and remove the lighting shades from the ceiling.
The “shade” is placed on our table and we realize this is going to be the plate upon which our next course is served. The lighting suddenly changes again. Smoke pours out of the kitchen and the room is filled with the sound of what I can only describe as angry electronic music. A procession of waiters enter and go table to table. There are deliberate, expressionless, and act in a aggressively coordinated manner. Each adds their ingredient to the “plate” which is quickly transformed into a piece of modern artwork. If this meal were an opera, this course would be the crescendo. Everything tonight was leading to this point and the amount of energy in the room is unprecedented.
The 20th and final course is the one Alinea is perhaps best known for. The edible balloon. The mood has turned to relaxation. As we finish taking turns inhaling our balloons (you press your lips to it and the sugar shell quickly forms to your mouth as you inhale the helium), you can hear the servers and chefs in the kitchen celebrating the successful finish of another great performance. We make some fun sounds ourselves as we take turns speaking like a bunch of cartoon chipmunks.
The great thing about restaurants like Alinea is that they are constantly changing up the menu and dining experience. You could go back every few months (wouldn’t that be the life???) and get a different experience each time. What really sets Alinea apart from some of the other great Michelin restaurants that I’ve experienced is that it is about so much more than the food. Yes, the food is artful and very good. But it is the experience that you will remember most. The surprises, the presentation, the way every single one of your senses is involved in forming memories that you’ll never forget.